Political journalism is just about dead. In New Zealand we have very little informative and critical journalism to help us see what lies below the world of surface appearances (especially with the ongoing cuts in journalism). That's why it worth trying to see the fascinating documentary series entitled The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom by Adam Curtis, which has just screened on the BBC in the UK. This three-party series explores the dominant anti-collective ideology that views human beings as selfish, mistrustful, isolated individuals and which has been incredibly influential on politics and general life in the west since the end of the cold war. [Read more below].
The Trap argues that 'we have unwittingly subscribed to a bleak ideal of liberty that has, ironically, "become our cage", reducing our true freedom and fuelling a dramatic rise in inequality. It's self-perpetuating - if you keep treating people as if they were selfish and calculating, that's how everyone will eventually behave.
An elaboration of what the series is about is found in a Spiked-online article on the series entitled 'Our anger is being ironed out of us' (which is an article worth reading in full):
The thesis of the series is quite straightforward. It is in fact stated clearly and often, and it is patently not a conspiracy theory. It is that we live today within a conception of freedom and of ourselves that is narrow and limiting. It is an ideology that developed first in the Cold War and went on to be embraced by sections of both the right and left, and is today promoted by the likes of US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It found expression in many quarters, in the economic philosophy of FA Hayek, the anti-psychiatry of RD Laing, the negative liberty of Isaiah Berlin, the public choice theory of James Buchanan – and that is just for starters.
The Trap follows on from previous documentary series The Century of the Self, and The Power of Nightmares. The latter, was an excellent series that suggested a parallel between the rise of Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States, and that 'both exploited fear of enemies abroad and moral decline at home to dominate the political agenda and promote their own conservative beliefs'. It asserted that 'al-Qaida, as an organised entity, was essentially an invention of the west'.
The existence of Adam Curtis' work shows how poor the rest of modern political journalism is. Curtis argues that most political journalism is moribund because it lazily keeps to conventional assumptions about society, power and politics:
I am beginning to think that just about all of our journalism is trapped within received wisdom. When did you last see a piece of journalism that surprised you or challenged the way that you see yourself or the way that you see those who rule you? Take investigative journalism. That is supposed to be challenging journalism. Within microseconds you know it is going to reveal a bad person lurking in a large corporation, and it is going to turn up maybe one document that “exposes” something you really already know
So what are the politics of Curtis? It's hard to work it out exactly. One review of The Trap, says that 'it defies easy political categorisation, slating everyone from Margaret Thatcher to the radical counter-culture of the 1960s.' In the Spiked-online interview, he says, 'What motivates my work... is the belief that traditional divisions between Right and Left have become meaningless, and that power moves in wider channels than mainstream politics can ever hope to engage with'. He believes the real political issue today 'is no longer mainstream politics but the sources of power and how that power is exercised, the same power that has already slipped out of the grasp of our politicians.'
There should be no doubt that this ex-Oxford university politics lecturer is a radical and a leftist, but has little time for what passes as leftwing today. His battles seem to be against the reactionary forces that dominate in lieu of collectivism. He wants to change the world. As he says to Spiked-online, ‘the dream of changing the world and transforming people and freeing them from themselves’ is one that refuses to go away.