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.

Excellent article, I shall

Excellent article, I shall be reading more about much of what has been said. Excellent work.

Thanks for posting summaries

Thanks for posting summaries of these TV programmes. This is very valuable for someone like myself who has exercised his free choice not to have a TV!


One of the important points in the programme (and your synopsis) is that Adam Smith never said that the whole of society could be organised around competition. Adam Smith made it clear that his theories of competition applied only to a part of human activity, and that society had to make collective choices as well as individual ones. Organisations like the Adam Smith Institute provide a partial (and biased) view of what Smith said. However, under their influence, Governments make bizarre assumptions about being able to manage schools and hospitals like ice-cream sellers on a beach. Schools and hospitals cannot be opened, closed and moved around like foot-loose capitalist enterprises. Collective choices have to be made about how many are needed and where they will be. Trying to use the sum of individual choices to do this is nonesense. The fact that governments do it shows how far the misreading of Smith's ideas has gone.


Game theory. Game theory is a set of techniques. The games are simplified models of  human behaviour. The models that you are referring to (like the "Tragedy of the Commons" or the "Prisoners' Dilemma") make the assumption that people cannot cooperate or cannot make collective decisions. These games don't prove that people cannot cooperate, because that assumption is built into them. They simply provide a simplified description of circumstances where people don't cooperate. There are other games which do assume that people can cooperate, under certain circumstances and if there is a strong incentive do to so. It is worth reading stuff by Elinor Ostrom, particularly "Governing the Commons" where she discusses game theory, develops models that include cooperation, and applies them to cases of resource management (fishing grounds, alpine pastures, irrigation schemes) that have worked and that haven't worked. Ostrom (and the whole school of Polycentric Governance) demonstrate that people are capable of making collective decisions when they need to, though of course if you assume that cooperation is impossible then you will never manage to do it.


The dangers. The first danger of the current obsession with individual choice and with freedom being market freedom is that other kinds of freedom are ignored. There was a perfect example of this a year ago in Blair's response to criticisms of his policies to civil rights: he said that no-one could accuse him of being against freedom because he wasn't like Wilson or Attlee. Now as far as I know neither Wilson nor Attlee proposed locking people up without trial, but it would seem that for Blair that is not an important part of freedom.


The second danger is that human society now seems to have difficulty in dealing with issues where collective choices are going to have to be made. It seems no accident that the libertarian right overlaps strongly with those who deny the need to deal with climate change or the decline of energy reservces. Their model of market-based freedom only works if you assume that there are no natural resource limits. I would tend to agree more with Ostrom: we are going to have to learn how to cooperate to manage limited resources.



"Their studies show that

"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."

They obviously omitted politicians - of all and any persuasion - from their studies. People whose dominant motivation, trumping all others, is the acquisition of power and influence over the lives of others.

Seems to me that the assumption underlying this series is that some kind of benign State bureaucratic system (as yet unspecified) is the only way to counter the encroaching evil of a narrower and narrower definition of 'freedom'. Whereas it is the State itself, in all forms tried to date that is the real author and upholder of tyranny. The State defines the limits to 'freedom' and, in so far as that 'freedom' is judged a credible threat to the State (and all its latest fads and nostrums), it must be tightly circumscribed. The State, by its very nature, simply does not trust its own citizens - hence the stampede towards ever more sophisticated forms of surveillance. And any notion that the Left is somehow less susceptible than the Right to such failings is quite simply cloud-cuckoo-land.

Sabretache Blog

"Excellent" seconded , or

"Excellent" seconded , or fourthed, by now.

How many Neo-X economists does it take to replace a lightbulb ?

NONE ---  they are all sitting around waiting for the Invisible Hand to do it .

Adam Smith's 'sympathy' , and his distrust of businessmen,  their tendency to form monopolies to conspire against the common weal , have been forgotten by those who used his work for their own ends.   Well that is an indulgent interpretation which may apply to some fellow-travellers, and other parroting mugs. The real Power Elite  will source their propaganda arguments from anywhere that works for them, and they have the cash to invest in 'think tanks'and control most of the Media. 

Most of us know that the 'targeting -/ quantifying-/ marketising-everything' approach has been dysfunctional, destructive, vastly expensive, and has had the opposite effects to those  proclaimed.  Costs have been pushed forward to future generations.

The others , I suppose, will just argue that more blood needs to be let,  like surgeons from a previous era.

It is certainly interesting to see that scientific circles have not yet  been completely taken over by Business ,  but we did not wait for them to tell us. 

We knew that already, from our own eyes and ears.


If Sabretache is saying that

If Sabretache is saying that the State is the root of all oppression and so our main task has to be to dismantle the State, then I don't agree with him. The definition of "the State" is a body that has a monopoly of coercion; that can be risky but it is less risky than what you would have if you got rid of States, namely a situation where you have a number of different bodies competing to coerce you. (Ask the Iraqis - that is what has just happened to them.)

I am waiting to see where this TV series takes us too. Will it get as far as talking about other forms of governance that actually allow us to make collective choices, that hold politicians to account, that are seen as more legitimate?


Dave,wow what a fantastic

Dave,wow what a fantastic piece mate,spot on but VERY worrying,have you ever thought of running for PM??keep up the good work!

I exercise my free choice to

I exercise my free choice to behave according to somewhere between the extremes of being an economist or a psychopath.

Excellent article.   I

Excellent article.   I recently read an article "Political Ponerology:  A Science on The Nature of Evil adjusted for Political Purposes" that I think you would find interesting.  From the article:  Pathocracy is a disease of great social movements followed by entire societies, nations, and empires. In the course of human history, it has affected social, political, and religious movements as well as the accompanying ideologies… and turned them into caricatures of themselves…

A shining example from the

A shining example from the US Govt of one of the main points being made in Adam Curtis' films can be found here
In the first film it is pointed out that Nash's theories on Gaming require a non-cooperative population and as applied in politics have unfortunate consequences and secondary effects, particularly when people dare to behave generously.
It should not be surprising to see the neocons blindly marching on with the idea that the entire world and everybody in it can be reduced to a set of analysis scoring numbers and will then behave themselves as per the model, but it is.

  Science very much feels

  Science very much feels the clench of corporatism frog. I have direct experience of this. For example in the University formerly known as UMIST, the overwhelming number of grants were from corporations like ICI, Unilever, Welcome, Glaxo etc. Young gullible me was under one of these scientific/economic giants. Others came from EU funding and NATO. Government grants like from Kuwait and China were also accepted. When enrolling for my PhD, I had to sign a document saying that I was unable to claim sole rights over any commercialized process which I was able to develop while studying there. To a point, that was understandable, and VERY FEW researchers ever came out with results that were bad news to their sponsors. A survey about 10 years ago concluded that significant levels of scientific 'findings' in the Universities was unreliable and in some cases falsified. From my own experience I'd have to agree.

Although I can’t remember UMIST being singled out (I only heard a summary of the report). IF UMIST fell foul of these practices, being a very well connected University with plentiful high tech, modern and powerful analytical equipment {UMIST was usually in the top 4 Queens awards for research}, so imagine the pressure on other Universities to secure grants too to enable the upgrading and purchasing of equipment others already possessed, i.e. play catch-up. In conclusion, I'd say science IS under the corporate kosh. This is also seen by the deliberate separation from what may be described as the moral and spiritual dimension to life, in order that practices which most would find shocking could be carried out without challenge, for the sake of science a.k.a. for the same of money.

Galapagus - 'fraid you're

Galapagus - 'fraid you're right.

The prostitution of academic science is not that new either, but is being consolidated daily . I bought Robert van den Bosch's The Pesticide Conspiracy 1978 a coupla years after it came out. He went into entomology in 1946 after war service, and chapter 12 gives an idea --


You will recognise the phenomena you've experienced at first hand ....

For those who step out of line there are large numbers of examples of persecution -- the first that springs to mind is Dr Arpad Puzstai, GMO's 1999 ish.

Of course we seem a little off at a tangent here, since the logicians, mathematicians and behavioural economists probably lead lives less susceptible to influence. But what you have seen is remarkably similar to the spinning, false accounting, spurious government statistics, and generalised corruption described in Davide's (excellent ) article above.

Of course the arcane stuff done by theoreticians will remain unknown to the general public ,.... but is highly interesting to see the intellectually fraudulent underpinnings of gangsta capitalism being nibbled at . In a way, this is an artificial debate, since it is so obvious to most of us that there is far more to life than just economics .

Centuries ago John Donne wrote

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe .... any mans death diminishes me ..."


Since this is BW, I came across a relevant old Daily Mail in a second home here -- .

excerpt -----

"" Blair himself almost admits this: "When I was young, I paid more regard to intellect than judgment. As I’ve got older, I pay more regard to judgment than to intellect," which sounds nice in a homespun way until you wonder what the distinction between judgment and intellect really is, and for that matter how well he scores on either. ( I reckon Blair is refering more to instinct than judgement, here. frog)

His problem isn’t so much what a don might call his beta brain as his ignorance, lack of intellectual curiosity and absence of any broader general culture.

As the historian Paul Johnson, a friend and admirer, has ruefully admitted: "He never reads a book" - and it shows. For someone who enjoyed a long and expensive education, Blair is remarkably uncultivated and illread. He has no serious interest in art or music.

This matters far less than the ignorance of history which he has so often betrayed, and which has revealed itself all too painfully.

He claims to have read the Koran no fewer than three times but if he had read less of that and more about the making of the modern Middle East, he might have acted more wisely than he has. ""

Simple thoughts reside well in simple minds. Amusing that the Man who had those 3 priorities is so lightweight .

PS Cap'n Swing's recommendation of pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seconded . It's fun. Matchsticks needed for Ayn Rand's Atlas....

As always frog , thanks for

As always frog , thanks for the thought provoking and reasoned post (you too Captain). And I admit, heavily laden matchsticks went through my mind too, but my friend is a respected wise bloke, so there must be something in it! Anyway, there’s quite a few books in line first before Ayn gets a look in. Matchsticks lacking, I think I’ll have to ask him for a summary. Will feel guilty at doing so ‘cos I know, to spare the (internet) time is difficult for him.

Blair unspun:
Tony B claims to have read the Koran no fewer than three times i.e. 'the Koran', 'the Koran' 'the Koran'

Download Adam Curtis': The

Download Adam Curtis': The trap.

For those who missed it, Indybay has it on real media format. About 30Mb.

And the other group whose

And the other group whose behaviour is psychopathic and therfore suited to this enviroment- corporations. Now that's a good doco too.

Please read Adam Curtis:

Please read

Adam Curtis: caught in the liberal trap

Guano I agree with your

I agree with your comments carrying the title "Thanks for posting summaries".

As we have learned, game theory is built on the foundation of mistrust. In poker, where game theory sees its formulation, mistrust is major part of the game because of the power of bluff. Game theory tries to derive a way in which a numerical advantage can be pursued so that in the long run, one will come out better off. Once something eats into that assumption game theory has to fail.

That the Rand secretaries are said to have shown the theory to have failed and therefore inapplicable to non-poker situation should have showcased the ridiculousness of the application of that theory for what it was, as indeed any rational contemplation would also have concluded. The fact is, that people can achieve far more by altruism than by selfishness, was obvious. The suspicion basis of life causes paralysis, and is actual the real reason why some thought there was a problem in the first place! We can every day of our lives that selfishness is only a minor part of most peoples character. As a part of this is Individualism is why I mentioned Ayn Rand (coincidental name) to others here.

Curtis in the 'the trap' shows a clip from an old move "the league of gentlemen' which he used in another of his documentary of the same name. In that documentary, the emphasis of the 70's to 90's  political and economic landscape was attributed to the monetarists and no direct mention of the players in the Trap (pt 1) are mentioned {although the degree to which the monetarists may have ascribed to Game theory is unknown and possible}.

It seems like absolutely no attention is given by Curtis to the spread of technology/transport, media, drugs, music, culture mixing and so forth which altered peoples perceptions on life and their expectations of what they came to demand of the politicians. The internet over the last 10/15 years or so is similarly causing a major shift in this regard. The way a single variable is being attributed to all that is put in the documentary, and the fact I think at times the quirky visuals distract us from listening and analyzing his words are my sore points of this series so far.

Otherwise, well done Adam Curtis for helping bring about something to make people think for a change and to get us away from this 'crazytown' stagnation we find ourselves in today.

here is the intro to "The

here is the intro to "The Trap" --

Here's a clickable link to

Here's a clickable link to the intro for THE TRAP:

a href="">>

Davide, Only just got around


Only just got around to reading your reply to my post following the first episode.

I totally agree with what you said about Curtis' likely answer to my question but it really was poorly phrased on my part.

Watching tonight's episode still left me with the feeling that Curtis thinks, or is putting forward the argument, that the thinking/theory/assumption that human beings are inherently selfish, as espoused by geneticists/gametheorists/nash/dawkins/etc., is wrong and is the root of the problem.

If so I think that Curtis has fallen into a similar 'trap' as the politicians, and many others in society, by believing this is a dim view of humanity and then attempting to combat it,or argue against it, just as politicians try and exploit it.

Personally I believe it's the application of this knowledge, along with the misunderstanding of how that selfishness (which is a dirty word to some but as humans prove isn't a fundamentally bad thing at all) makes us behave (especially towards each other), which is where the problem stems from.

So to take another stab at my question.........

"Does Adam Curtis believe that society's current ills stem from the theory of the selfish gene, or the application of incentives based on a misunderstanding of the concept of selfishness."

Davide, I don't know if it's too late to change it or even to ask it at all but thanks anyway!

And can I just add that the

And can I just add that the link above to medialens is a totally pointless journey, a wasted keystroke.

If it is what I read a while back it's just an awful, and awfully immature, bit of ranting about how The Power of Nightmares didn't have enough historical context.

I doubt I need to tell anyone here that TPON was a documentary about the use of dreams and nightmares to sell 'stuff' in a marketplace, a study in human nature more than anything else.

Of course it may be a 'new' article/rant but I wouldn't hold out hope for anything other than more of the same.

Here is a torrent of the

Here is a torrent of the whole episode:

"And any notion that the

"And any notion that the Left is somehow less susceptible than the Right to such failings is quite simply cloud-cuckoo-land"

Agreed, both sides of the same coin.... excuse the pun

I think you obviously chose

I think you obviously chose the wrong project to be involved with then. Maybe applied for a grant through the EPSRC without a case-award?

"I had to sign a document saying that I was unable to claim sole rights over any commercialized process which I was able to develop while studying there" - you're within your rights to request sufficient renumeration (% of future profits) for your work, which should have been explained to you by the institution?

I think this is a very subjective and misrepresentative viewpoint overall.

I could find the first part

I could find the first part on google videos but can not find the second part.
Could anyone be so kind to upload episode 2? Torrents are way too slow down here...

Brilliant article btw...


The first two episodes are

The first two episodes are viewable on YouTube (in chunks):

you can watch the second

you can watch the second part on youtube at the following link:

to watch both episodes,

to watch both episodes, check the following site:

Will you also post a

Will you also post a synopsis of the 3rd part ?

Will you still post a

Will you still post a synopsis of the 3rd part ?

Thanks !