The second part of Adam Curtis’ documentary was another sensory attack. Britten, Bartok, ecosystems, a hole in the side of a bison. Some commentators see it as a work of art rather than a straight documentary and you could see their point. Here are some quick thoughts.
Put very simply, Curtis described how in the 1960s, influenced by ideas of nature as a self-regulating system and the growth of cybernetics, counter-cultures emerged which rejected political structures. But this was futile – research showed that nature could not be modelled as a self-regulating system, and the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine showed that non-hieararchical networks break down.
It was uneven and unencumbered by hard evidence. On Georgia and Ukraine he was simply wrong – the internet may have spread the word at the time of revolution, but the causes are much more complex and owe far more to geopolitics than Curtis allowed. Again, the fatal flaw was to look at the machines, not the motives behind the people using and manipulating them.
At the heart of this is a crucial and important idea – one that Curtis here, as in his first film, hinted at but never quite nailed. This is that the non-political is a myth. Power is present, and drives the creation of networks and, through the ownership of internet service providers and social networking systems, the means of delivery. The illusion of the non-political and the atomisation of society into individuals is the tool of hegemony – in this case allowing power and wealth to remain in the hands of those who already wield it. Based on such an assumption, a counter-culture as described by Curtis that claims to be non-political is inevitably doomed, because it can never challenge power.
The idea of self-regulating networks of course massively predates computers – it is at the centre of seventeenth century cosmology. And we find it at the heart of neo-liberal economics, in which individuals are consumers or factors of production, in a model in which solidarity is absent. It is at the heart of arguments for markets and privatisation, which tell us that somehow, through the miracle of the freely-operating network, and outcome that is beneficial to all will be achieved.
But we know it’s nonsense – history tells us that. I don’t know what Curtis will argue in his final film, but it seems that whatever one thinks about the coherence of his thesis, the comparison with market economics is inevitable.