Adam Curtis' The Trap - A Synopsis - Part 2
This is a synopsis of the second part of Adam Curtis' "The Trap – What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom?" the synopsis of the first part is here. This episode shows how in the 1990s politicians from both the right and the left tried to extend an idea of freedom based on the freedom of the market to all other areas of society. This had never happened before and the basis of this new 'freedom' was Game Theory, a system which reduced people to calculating, self-interested robots led by incentives rather than any idea of public duty. The result was the opposite of freedom; new forms of control, greater inequalities and the return of a rigid class structure based on wealth.
John Major, when he took over from Margaret Thatcher in 1990, started looking for what his advisers called "the vision thing", new policies for his government. He announced that he was going to create a more equal and fairer society and to that end was going to reform the public services. He would do this by bashing the bureaucracies, providing "choice", setting performance targets and introducing competition and incentives. These were the ideas of James Buchanan who had been such an influence on Margaret Thatcher. Buchanan argued that politicians and bureaucrats were self-serving and that public duty was a myth - it was impossible for them to interpret and express the general will of the people. This was pure Game Theory which suggested that the collective peoples' will was mathematically impossible as everyone was serving their own interests and strategising against their fellows. This was called the "Impossibility Theorem". Only the free market, not politics could decide what people really wanted. This was seen as the future - a market democracy where the unrestricted market took over much of the role of the politician and expressed the true will of the people.
When Bill Clinton was running for President in 1992, he promised to rescue the nation by reforming healthcare, extending welfare, investing in jobs and reducing the inequalities that occurred under President Reagan. However, just before his inauguration, Clinton was visited by Alan Greenspan, head of the Federal Reserve and Robert Rubin, the new economic adviser. They told Clinton that he would not be able to keep his promises by borrowing money which would lead to an economic disaster. Instead Clinton would have to cut spending and reduce programs. Clinton was also advised to leave it to the unrestricted markets to create wealth and see to peoples' needs. Clinton agreed and in his first term he dismantled much of the welfare structure that had been in place since the 1930s as well as all his healthcare plans. He also cut regulations on businesses as he was requested to do.
The economy did indeed boom and at the start of his second term, Clinton announced the end of the vision of liberal politics - that the power of big government could change the world. The new vision was that anything that gave the public what it wanted was democratic and thus good. Big business took over from big government and greed was no longer seen as a bad thing. This was not, as big business claimed, a return to the 18th and 19th century 'Golden Age' when Laissez-faire capitalism, not politics had ordered society. The political philosophers of that time had made a distinction between the self-interest of the market and other areas of social and political life - what Adam Smith called "moral sentiments."
Freedom was now being redefined to mean nothing more than the ability of individuals to get whatever they wanted. This new simplified concept of the individual as a rational, calculating, self-interested machine that can be analyzed by numbers as assumed by Game Theorists to make their models work, was now seen as proven. Everything humans did and felt had been programmed into us by our genes and all our actions were the result of rational calculations by that genetic programme. This idea was developed by geneticists in the 1970s studying animals, shifted their perception to look at behaviour from the gene's point of view. They saw the animals as machines being used by the genes to survive and replicate themselves. This was another application of Game Theory applied to genes. The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon set out to prove this gene theory by studying the warfare of the Yanomamo people who he filmed and questioned. He found that among these people there were closer genetic links between the people fighting together than those who were attacked. So humans were now seen as machines, politically, economically and biologically.
This machine model of humans led to a new idea on how to change society. Now psychiatrists and drug companies had a role to play in adjusting these machines. This became new form of control as people took the new drug, Prozac (SSRIs) to relieve their anxieties and conform to an idea of 'normality'. Some psychiatrists began to wonder if people were being conditioned to fit into parameters of a static model of what they 'should' be, defined by checklists - checklists that only accounted for observable symptoms, not any understanding of the patient's life. Dr Robert Spitzer wondered if many people were being misdiagnosed, with normal feelings of happiness, sadness, loneliness being treated as a mental disorder. A new system of management was emerging with drugs taking away difficult feelings making individuals happier but also simpler beings, easier to manage and more like the machines they were assumed to be under Game Theory - more efficient but less human.
When politicians started using this machine model, the result was a more rigid society rather than a more free one. When New Labour came to power in 1997 Tony Blair promised a society free of the arrogance and prejudices of the old elites who dominated the class system. New Labour was modelled on the Clinton Democrats and when they came to power they did exactly as Clinton did, giving power away to the banks and the markets - Gordon Brown's first act was to let the Bank of England dictate interest rates. New Labour also used the mathematical systems brought in by John Major and expanded them on an unprecedented scale believing that humans actually behaved in this simplified way suggested by the models. Performance targets and incentives were set for everything and everyone, including cabinet ministers. The Treasury under Gordon Brown started creating a vast mathematical system and started putting numerical values to things people had thought impossible to measure previously - hunger in sub Saharan Africa to be reduced to below 48 percent, world conflict to be reduced by six percent. All towns and villages in Britain were to be measured for a "community vibrancy index". Even the amount of birdsong there should be in the countryside was quantified.
The idea behind the mathematical system was to liberate public servants from old forms of bureaucratic control and workers were free to meet their targets anyway they wanted. However, New Labour soon discovered that people were more complicated and devious than their simple models allowed. Public servants began to find ingenious ways of meeting their targets. In the NHS, hospital managers used a variety of tricks. When ordered to cut waiting lists, they got consultants to do the easiest operations first meaning that complicated conditions like cancers were no longer prioritised. In one hospital patients were phoned up and asked when they were taking their holidays and the operations were then scheduled for the time they'd be away. In casualty departments a new role was invented - a "hello nurse" who did nothing except greet the patient so it could be recorded that the patient had been 'seen'. In order to meet the targets for a reduction of patients waiting on trolleys, managers simply removed the wheels and reclassified them as beds. Similarly corridors were reclassified as wards. In the police force, a trick to reduce the rate of recorded crime, was to reclassify numerous serious crimes as "suspicious occurrences" which wouldn't be recorded in the figures. Despite government attempts to dismiss these stories as anomalies, there were so many of them that it became apparent that this sort of behaviour was endemic in the public services.
The government responded by introducing even more mathematical levels of management. Complex auditing systems were used to monitor public servants meeting their targets in the correct way which meant even more control was exerted over them. A more rigid and stratified society was being created. In education, the government wanted to introduce league tables for schools so parents could see which schools were the best and which the worst. The idea was to provide an incentive for less successful schools to compete and improve thus raising standards across the country. The opposite happened. Rich parents moved into the areas which had the best schools. This forced up house prices and squeezed poorer families out. Schools taught pupils only the narrow facts needed to pass exams instead of giving them a fuller education in order to rise up the league tables. Because of this, children had a less of a chance of rising up in society. A series of reports in 2006 showed that there was a clear link between New Labour's education policy and the rise of social segregation. Social Mobility in Britain has now ground to a halt and the country is more rigid and stratified than at any time since the Second World War. At the same time the inequalities in society have become more extreme. Britain under New Labour is now even more unequal than it was under Margaret Thatcher with more and more wealth going to the tiny one percent at the top. Since 1997 differences in life expectancy and also in child mortality in different regions have increased too.
In America throughout the 1990s the economic model of democracy was leading not just to a rise in inequality, but also to financial and political corruption on a huge scale. The numbers behind the economic boom of the Clinton Presidency were not telling the truth - the giant accounting firms had become corrupted as they found new methods to make their figures look good, some of them were questionable and others fraudulent. This corruption was widespread. By faking profits on a huge scale, personal bonuses would be increased. Attempts to stop this corruption failed because of the huge donations of millions of dollars in campaign contributions given by the fraudulent corporations and accounting firms.
The Clinton administration portrayed the boom as a revolutionary success despite the growing evidence of corruption. This "democracy of the marketplace" was spun to make it look like all levels of society were benefiting, but this was completely false. Those at the bottom of society saw their income actually fall between the 1970s and 1990s. People in the middle saw a slight increase, while those at the top received massive increases.
Because politicians had given so much power away, they were unable to put things right once they had become weakened and corrupted. Millions of people had no representation and even less control over their lives. There was less job security in this market system so people lost out both through politics and the market.
Now questions were being asked in scientific circles as to whether too simple a picture of human beings was being portrayed by the mathematical models used in this new system. In genetics the idea that DNA is the all-controlling set of instructions for life has been replaced by a more complex model. Science has shown that the cell actually chooses and edits which parts of the DNA to use depending on the environmental forces acting on it. And the research done by Napoleon Chagnon into the Yanomamo people has also been questioned. It seems that the presence of an anthropologist and film crew may have affected the behaviour of the tribes and they were fighting for the gifts of machetes that were offered. Even John Nash has now expressed some doubts about his model of simplistic selfish individuals now that he has recovered from his schizophrenia. The idea of the free market as an efficient system is coming under attack and new research is showing that markets do not create stability or order. Politics has been shown to have a powerful role to play in control of the markets. The New discipline of behavioral economics has been studying to see if people really do behave as the simplified model suggests. Their studies show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational self-interested way in all experimental situations. One is economists themselves, and the other is psychopaths.