Curtis over-simplifies in episode two of AWOBMOLG

Alasdair Thompson reviews episode two of Adam Curtis' 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace' and argues that Curtis over-reaches in his conclusions

Image: CC-AT-NC Flickr: IsraelMFA

An unrealistic view of nature as a self-regulating system, constantly in balance and which always returns swiftly to equilibrium after any disturbance has distracted us from a real examination of the structures of power in our society. Or so, at least, says Adam Curtis in part two of All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.

Tracing a history that begins with the botanist Arthur Tansley and field marshal, prime minister of South Africa and designer of the League of Nations Jan Smuts, in the aftermath of World War 1, Curtis describes how we came to see nature as a system, an ecosystem, of energy flows and feedback loops that would maintain itself at a static equilibrium, where every part had its own place. A fantasy version of nature which could be drawn out, and even built, as circuit diagrams of feedback which we could measure and determine when to intervene to maintain balance.

Curtis shows how these ideas influenced and informed politics through the twentieth century; on the one hand it inspired a generation of lifestyle anarchists to believe in a self-organsing anti-politics, where they could cooperate as autonomous individuals, free from traditional forms of hierarchy, while on the other it provided an apparently scientific basis for power elites to maintain the status quo.

Smuts' holism saw every person as having their own place in society, as every animal and plant had their part in the ecosystem. Jay Forrester, a professor at MIT and founder of System Dynamics, thought he could map these systems of feedback loops and in the '70s, with the think-tank the Club of Rome, created a computer model that predicted imminent ecological collapse and led to the Club's neo-Malthusian Limits to Growth report.

But Forrester's work left out any space for politics. There were no feedback loops for changing the economic system. The system itself was taken as static, all we could do was alter the flows slightly within it, to intervene to restore balance. The environmental movement at the time said exactly that, and though Curtis notes this fact, he never investigates further what they proposed by way of alternative. It's a frustrating element of his work that he seems at times to pick an choose which movements and individuals to examine precisely in order to support his narrative.

He tells us that self-organised networks are incapable of dealing with power, but the only political examples he recounts are these which are avowedly apolitical. The hippy communes where politics was banned and no forms of collective organising were allowed, or the technocratic utopianism of Fuller or distopianism Forrester. If Curtis really wants to make the case that self-organised non-hierarchical organisation is unsuitable to take on power elites, he needs to engage with its political interpretations.

Towards the end of the programme he looks at the colour revolutions in Eastern Europe and criticises them for having no ideology beyond individual autonomy. Without an ideological underpinning there was nothing to support the revolutions and though the self-organising model was successful at overthrowing the old order, it had nothing to replace it with and was quickly replaced itself. Yanukovych is back in power in Ukraine and Georgia is less free now, in press terms at least, than it was before the revolution. In lacking an analysis of power the revolutions could not organise collectively to protect their newly won freedom.

Curtis ends by saying "[i]f we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organising things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas on what comes next."

But that seems too simple a dismissal. Curtis is quite correct to say that without an ideological underpinning sustained change cannot happen, and that the lifestyle individualist anarchist idea of dropping out and building your own system independent of any power structure is impossible. But by failing to differentiate that there do exist non-hierarchical forms of organisation that recognise power and the need for collective organisation Curtis implies, by mistake or deliberate omission, that these forms are all equally useless for social change.

There's long been a tension in libertarian and anarchist thinking between a individualist autonomy and collectivist social freedom, but he ignores the history from Kropotkin, to the CNT-FAI to Bookchin and on to focus on individualism as the only outcome of non-hierarchy, and hence to reject the whole idea.

If all Curtis wants to say is that politics is important, that we don't live in a post-ideological age but that we are governed by very definite power structures and that we can only change them if we recognise their existence and organise collectively, then he should say that. By trying to tie in the organisational structure within which we challenge that power he undermines the more important point, and has earnt himself a lot of potentially unnecessary criticism.


A longer version of this article can be found on Bright Green from June 2nd

Alasdair Thompson is a PhD student at Edinburgh University. You can follow him at @agthompson

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Comments (1)

  1. MK:
    Jun 08, 2011 at 04:23 PM

    Anyone criticizing Mr Curtis should immediately sit down and make something better and more informative. It might not be perfect but for now he showed to be far above stuck-up, impotent, establishment serving "intellectual" circles. Yet he is not all contra. He desperately tries to give distanced, integrative, authentic, spin-free view of events and impacts on human condition. His work is not sacred cow but endangered specie.

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By Alasdair Thompson on Jun 01, 2011

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