The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom - review

BBC 2’s ‘The Trap’ documentaries can’t see beyond the false dreams of freedom they expose, argues Tom Jennings

Paradise Mislaid

Pitched to unsettle received wisdom about democracy and liberty, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom screened in March to complete Adam Curtis’ documentary trilogy exploring the modern history and contemporary significance of conceptions of the individual self. First The Century of the Self (2002) excavated the deployment of psychoanalytic theory in the development of seductive advertising and public relations techniques for manipulating unconscious desires, enticing citizens into governable thralldom to consumerism. The Power of Nightmares (reviewed in Freedom, 13th November 2004) then interpreted the subsequent moral and social bankruptcy of Westerm liberalism as facilitating the complementary political backlashes of neo-conservatism and Muslim fundamentalism. Both series charted specific professional elites persuading wider sectors of society of the ‘truth’ of their discourses by pandering to their sundry agendas – whereas, more ambitiously, The Trap purports to uncover the underlying philosophical paradoxes of the pursuit of individual freedom now apparently ending in utter subjugation.

‘Freedom of choice’ these days is, to Curtis, strangely vacuous compared to the claims of state and capitalist institutions. Voting for Tweedledum or Tweedledee or buying this or that brand scarcely justifies global poverty, environmental destruction and war, yet the scientific measurement of such superficial and ephemeral details of behaviour and attitudes supposedly reveals our essence – therefore being the best guide to what policy should tackle. Such truncated empirical visions of human nature, and the liberties appropriate to it, date from the 1950s when the mathematical predictability of poker players was generalised to the nuclear standoff. The robustness of US Cold War strategy then ensured the currency of assumptions that people are purely rationally self-seeking sociopaths. Congenial maverick theories in evolutionary genetics, anthropology, psychology and economics suddenly echoed the zeitgeist once attention turned to the costs of welfare, exploiting popular disillusionment with the unaccountability, corruption, malevolence, or plain wrong-headedness of bureaucracies and traditional organisations. The hugely profitable model of society as a collection of isolated paranoid narcissists has since become political common sense as the better managerialism of capitalism.

The Trap’s audacious thematic sweep is matched by its visual style – with a rhetorical collage mirroring the way ideology jumbles theoretical principles, via real-world practical techniques derived from them, into more or less rigid systems of belief and action. The dizzying montage of archive news footage, cult cinema and sixties TV, overlain with equally eclectic and dissonant soundtrack and voiceover, stitches together a progression of concepts and assertions with both emotional and (arguably) rational logic – entirely appropriate to contemporary society where so much information is taken on board with simultaneous multimediating glitter and subliminal gloss. Uniquely in mainstream media, Curtis explicitly demonstrates how politics disciplines us in the age of Spectacle. Instead of brute force (held discreetly in reserve), a far more subtle, multilayered cunning of reason persuades us that its complex, sophisticated – but extremely partial – sets of suggestions are coherent, established facts brooking no argument or alternative.

The predictably tiresome criticisms of the programme’s intellectual accuracy – that it misunderstands and misrepresents game theory, sociobiology, anti-psychiatry, liberal philosophy, neoliberal economics, etc – thus miss the point, as do charges of pessimism, paranoia or conspiracy-mongering. The influence of ideas in general practice may often be achieved deliberately and cynically, but by no means necessarily so – though certainly irrespective of their ‘purity’ or ‘correct’ usage. Then, when crystallising into powerful discourses of management and control, they acquire an implacable material force of their own – both from the effort that powerful groups exert in moulding them to maximally serve their interests, and in dealing with widespread and energetic resistance to resulting powerplays on the part of those made subject. So, in order for political opposition to exploit the inherent weaknesses of ruling ideas (rather than reacting blindly against them), it is sensible first to grasp their mechanisms of operation.

Curtis certainly captures the irony that, in ‘properly’ implementing Thatcher and John Major’s hamfisted market reforms, New Labour’s farcical systems of targets, incentives and sanctions are comprehensively wrecking public services and intensifying inequality, just as the crusades for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan conclusively pre-empt its possibility. What is missed, in neglecting the central organising role of economic power in the disposition of resources, is that appealing to the disinterested selfishness of individuals and then punishing them for their collective inability to comply is a tremendously productive (if schizophrenic) mode of social engineering. Apparently also justifying privatised intiatives to meet the shortfall, it legitimises the mobilisation of ever-more penetrating, microscopic, authoritarian methods of monitoring and regimentation – thereby more deeply entrenching newly-ascendant sectors of capital (e.g. information and media technology and management), and rendering genuine solutions around local autonomy and grass-roots control increasingly out of reach and out of sight. The question, then, is who will be capable of seeing through the fantasies of a better life as the regulated performances of programmable robots – their architects, planners, functionaries and shareholders; or us billions of postmodern rats eternally terrified, tempted and tortured round their mazes?

The Trap’s narrow focus further ignores earlier crossovers of science and statecraft, nourishing waves of colonialisms and technological revolutions with similarly ridiculous and limited notions of humanity and civilisation to validate the forms of suffering imperial domination favoured at the time. Retrospective appreciation of the appalling damage done by the transparently fallacious fits and starts of the history of ideas – long before being nailed and superseded by later generations of research – proves the continuing rational necessity to distrust scientific certainty just as much as the miracle cures spun in party politics. The conceptual frameworks within which truth claims are made, assumptions required for practical application, and likely ramifications of and potential recovery from these collapsing or failing (not to mention the types and distribution of possible benefits accruing or precluded), only receive adequate attention when powerful interests are threatened – otherwise being trampled over in the haste to cash in. Hence the lunacy of GM and nanotechnology, pathetic mass sedation of misery and frustration with Prozac and Viagra, manic production of novelty to pollute existential voids, and towering heights of belief in and commitment to human endeavour manifested in transient public opinion surveys and reality TV. This is no trap of misguided pragmatism versus exhausted idealism, as Curtis seems to conclude, but of the constitutional insanity of hierarchical order based on the superior knowledge wielded by leaders and experts. Acknowledging this, of course, would be a fundamental paradigm-shift too far – for him, the Beeb and for liberal democratic capitalism in general.

[television review published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 10, May 2007]

[for more essays and reviews by Tom Jennings, see:]