The third film of Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was as astonishing as the first two – visually arresting, compelling, throwing ideas at the viewer, sometimes brilliant, sometimes just plain wrong. Television is a tabloid medium and the ideas could not be developed in this framework, but the questions were asked, to be considered at leisure. The final bleak conclusion – that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are lumps of failing hardware destined to perpetuate a software of genetic code, in order to excuse our failures – was compelling, the more so for being intoned against a backdrop of commuters on a tube escalator.
The debates could – and will – go on for a long time. But for me there was one dog that didn’t bark. There is one essential area in which we are prepared to abjure responsibility and rely on a model of a self-stabilising system in which the best outcomes are deemed to emerge if the workings of that system are left alone – the dominant myth of the age, individualistic free market economics. The ruling ideology of our time is the belief that free markets will allow the setting of an intelligent price which will allocate scarce resources in the best possible way. In the neo-classical economics that mysterious power is anthropormorphised in the person of the Walrasian Auctioneer, the mythic being used by the economist Leon Walras to explain the beneficent power of the market to move into a mutually satisfying equilibrium.
And, in many ways, the market follows Curtis’ formulation – it provides an illusion that masks a reality about power and the way in which the wealthy and powerful hold on to it. As market ideology and neoliberalism have become entrenched in the last thirty years the economic outcomes for all but the rich minority have worsened, growth has slowed, inequalities have widened, wages have fallen consistently as a proportion of total income. Yet the myth remains potent and – in Britain at least – is being perpetuated by the ruling coalition with disastrous vigour.
However valid the often extraordinary links and conclusions drawn by Curtis, it seems to me that the economics of the market could have provided a powerful and cogent illustration of his argument that to trust to mythical, self-regulating systems, abdicating the political, leads to disaster and failure.