Daniel Eran Dilger
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The Trap

200810062341

Google Video is hosting Adam Curtis’ “The Trap,” a powerful BBC documentary examining the idea of freedom and how societies frequently away freedom in their attempts to further it. Part one looks at the cynical, paranoid view of game theory developed by John Nash at RAND to calculate how to keep nuclear war in a stalemate during the Cold War. Nash’s ideas fueled the emerging concepts that government public interest must be an inherently hypocritical idea, because it theorized that everyone only ever acted in their own selfish interest. Efforts by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to minimize government and transfer all power to the rational free market were based on Nash’s ideas, who himself was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

The Trap – 1 – F*k You Buddy

Part two considers the effects of market driven efforts to improve society by examining the behavior of individuals and comparing it to checklists of normalcy, which resulted in an explosion in the diagnosis of mental health problems, and the cure of these through drugs such as Prozac in efforts to make everyone conform to a definition of correct mental health. The same numbers-driven efforts to quantify productivity in government have resulted in efforts to game the system rather than actually being reformed. While all these efforts to quantify progress were being attempted, the gap between classes grew and social mobility shrank.

The Trap – 2 – The Lonely Robot

The third segment culminates in an examination of the ideas of positive and negative liberty formulated by Isaiah Berlin in the 1950s to explain why attempts to deliver “positive” utopian freedoms in the French Revolution and in Russia had resulted in horrific suffering at the hands of totalitarians. It also examines the intent of Reagan to spread “negative liberty” or freedom from external control, an effort which itself relied upon violent oppression through terrorism in Central America. It also resulted in a nominal form of corporate-friendly democracy in Chile and the Philippines, where dictators were replaced with elected officials but nothing else changed to equalize society or create a functional middle class.

This neocon effort to deliver a version of democracy that provides freedom for corporations rather than for people was also applied to help rebuild Russia under Clinton, but resulted in a direct transfer of the socialist power held by the failing state to a privatized but corrupt elite oligarchy. The same failure has been perpetuated in Iraq, by the tearing down of a dictator and the installation in its place of an unelected government with ostensibly utopian free market on top. Three fascinating segments you should watch.

The Trap – 3 – We Will Force U 2 Be Free

  • dobbie

    “Efforts by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to minimize government and transfer all power to the rational free market were based on Nash’s ideas, who himself was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.”

    You, sir, are the definition of an excellent, although vulgar, propagandist. Take it as a compliment if you like.

    As for Nash being the ideological basis of Reagan and Thatcher, that is plastering way too much sophistication over what was essentially a backlash against decades of diversion of power towards the state.

    Part two: The rambling about how Reaganism caused mental illness is lower grade though. Sounds too much like the scientologists.

    Part three is perhaps the least silly – although I would stop at noting that meddling in severely disfunctional nations in the hope of building them up is rarely worth the effort.

  • dobbie

    A less flippant comment on the Prozac thing: Anti-depressants certainly seem to have helped reduce suicide deaths around the world. Dismissing them as some sort of late-capitalist decadence, although fashionable in some quarters really isn’t helpful.

    Also, I notice a standard-stupid jab at Dawkins was included in this one. That can usually serve as something of a litmus test.

  • de-villiers

    Thatcher did not transfer all power to the “free market”. Market liberals do not necessarily believe in the “free market” and “laissez faire”. They consider that government regulation is necessary to promote competition within markets. Even as far back as Adam Smith, those who desired markets recognised the need for laws to promote competition and guard against monopoly and collusion.

    The intellectual ammunition for Thatcher in the UK and others was the Institute for Economic Affairs and men such as Friedrich Hayek, Anthony Fisher, Lord Harris, Professor Robbins. All of these men recognised the necessity of government but called for the promotion of competition, markets, private enterprise and individual liberty.

  • Lee

    You have to wonder how crazy these people were (not Nash, the people who believed him). We’ve known about collective action problems since Plato. Hobbes makes them the basis of his political philosophy. The solution has always been the same – make the state the enforcer of trust. You can’t even have a market if you don’t do this (otherwise people won’t pay their debts). All that is required are checks and balances on the state: in other words elections and term limits and balances and so on. Hayek was a lunatic (and incapable of listening to criticism), and his model completely ignores the propensity of human beings to co-operate once the issue of trust is solved. The road does not necessarily lead to serfdom.

    The idea that you could get a reasonable society by relying for the most part on selfishness has to go down as the craziest idea in history.

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    Just got to love Adam Curtis! His shows are always the thickest intrigue on television every few years when a new series runs on BBC.

    He reminds me of Daniel in that be has no time for conventional “balance”. Instead his own narrative rules every word. Not always a good thing, but in both cases that narrative is fascinating and at times masterful.

    I agree that the Iraq as a new Yeltsin’s Russia idea was the best part of The Trap. The tired explanations of “oil” and “Halliburton” just don’t fulfil the same scope of credibility for that lunatic war as does a starry eyed ideology gone wrong.

    I have a vision of Curtis busy at his video editing room, hard at work on the next documentary. We all know that Daniel is already busy at his MacBook Pro working on his!

  • dobbie

    “You have to wonder how crazy these people were (not Nash, the people who believed him). ”

    Not to be rude or anything, but seriously – do you know the first thing about Nash or his work? Because you make him sound like some sort of political figure. He was a mathematician. The people who “believe” him include pretty much everyone working in fields related to game theory – left, right and center.

    Second, to claim that Nashism should be interpreted as “the idea that you could get a reasonable society by relying for the most part on selfishness has to go down as the craziest idea in history*” is just weird. It is also weird to imply that, say Reaganism was about removing trust enforcement from the domain of the state.

    *The problem is that you don’t “rely” on selfishness – you attempt to tame it to work for the social good as best you can.

    [The political thinkers on the US extreme right have a lot in common with the thinkers who supplied the national socialists with an ideology that caused rampant destruction in 1930s Germany. Nash developed the ideas at RAND that built Cold War policy: calculated, machine-like strategies for solving the worlds problems through military force and population control.

    The only real difference between the Nazis and the Neocons is that the Nazis took advantage of a destroyed state and ramped up power in the vacuum by scapegoating the Jews and other minorities, while the Neocons have been forced to destroy the US themselves (financially, economically, and socially) in order to create conditions that would allow them to seize power, usher in a police state, suspend the rule of law, and grant themselves unlimited powers inside of a democracy…. by scapegoating Middle Easterners in general. ]

  • dobbie

    “I agree that the Iraq as a new Yeltsin’s Russia idea was the best part of The Trap. The tired explanations of “oil” and “Halliburton” just don’t fulfil the same scope of credibility for that lunatic war as does a starry eyed ideology gone wrong.”

    Even though everyone seems to have forgotten it by now, the Iraq war was likely caused by roughly what Bush said it was caused by: 9/11-induced WMD paranoia, combined with CIA incompetence for good measure. The whole “democracy” schtick was icing at first, and was then promoted to main rationale after the whole WMD thing turned out to be the largest public screwup of the century. And the notion that Iraqi corruption (or even Jeltsin-style corruption) is caused by some grand neocon design, as opposed to arrogance about the power of the west to “steer nations on the proper path, etc.” is just silly.

  • LuisDias

    …the Iraq war was likely caused by roughly what Bush said it was caused by: 9/11-induced WMD paranoia, combined with CIA incompetence for good measure

    You really believe that? I mean, take off the republican glasses for a second and look at what you’ve just wrote. You really believe that the US invaded an oil-rich country because they were paranoid of its WMDs? Even Greenspan doesn’t understand how is it taboo to recognize the war for what it was for. And even today, 2008, there are people that somehow decide to shut down their brain when it comes to Iraq.

  • Lee

    @ dobbie

    You didn’t watch the documentary, did you? That’s exactly the point of the first episode – that allowing people to fall into a collective action problem (in this case the Cold War arms race) does not lead to complete chaos, but to a stable situation. This then was held to provide analytical backing for Hayek’s idea of “spontaneous order” such that, if you allowed a whole society to act like this, the result would not be complete chaos.

    This argument is used to overturn the traditional social contract theory, which is that one must turn over the monopoly of force to the state to make it the enforcer of trust – and avoid falling into a collective action problem, which would leave everyone worse off. Hayek’s position is roughly that this always leads to tyranny, such that it is not worth trying to solve the CAP. His innovation (if you could call it that) was to argue that avoiding the traditional state would not lead to a Hobbesian war of all against all. Sure it would be better if we could avoid the CAP, but this would cause a Stalinist tyranny.

    But Hayek’s view is mistaken. You don’t need to do that much to enforce trust, because people are not the selfish automatons assumed by theory. You need only enforce trust in a limited sense and human nature will do the rest (in other words, people are likely to play ball when they see others doing so). The trick is to set up democracy such that it appeals to people’s instincts for fairness and co-operation and not their more selfish instincts. Most democracies had managed to do this more or less well until the neoliberal lunatics crashed the party and tried to straitjacket everything into the assumption that people were selfish.

    That’s the whole point of the first two episodes.

    So there’s no need to patronise me when you either evidently did not watch the documentary or did not understand it.

    “Second, to claim that Nashism should be interpreted as “the idea that you could get a reasonable society by relying for the most part on selfishness has to go down as the craziest idea in history*” is just weird. It is also weird to imply that, say Reaganism was about removing trust enforcement from the domain of the state.”

    This is exactly the case the documentary is attempting to make. Why not watch it?

  • http://johnsessays.blogspot.com John Muir

    @dobbie

    I certainly do believe in incompetence. But invading Iraq with 1/4 the troops required to restore order – and then doing nothing on the ground whatsoever for nation building – really was just like the 1990s experiment in Russia. Not merely incompetent, but staggeringly misguided.

    Think of Hitler invading Russia instead of consolidating Nazi victories in Western Europe. It was that BIG and that IDEOLOGICAL a mistake. Hitler signed his death sentense right there. Even Stalin was horrified.

    Iraq was made into Al Qaidastan with Bush’s respective decision. Crazy. Ideologically blinded.

  • even

    You people with your confused nonsense. Ideology, politics, ha!

    Dan, you know better than this when thinking about the computer business. Step back and things become simpler. Look at what has been happening the last few centuries.

    The richest are high on Power, they’ve been madly scheming to gain more and more. These people control Money. They have the means to start wars and profit from them, so that’s what they do.

  • Etreiyu

    @even:
    clearly, *you* don’t ‘do’ nuance, either.

    Stepping back gives one a better sense of the bigger picture, the broader scope of things: but the fruits thereof is an appreciation of the inherent complexity. If you think it makes things “simpler”, I suggest you look closer: there are multiple layers of intentional deception; I suspect you’re seeing one of those layers, not the whole picture.

  • even

    @Etreiyu:
    Possibly, but can you cite one that changes the picture in any significant way?