Skip to content

The Trap, The Wire and The Loop : Individualism as a Political Force

April 22, 2009

Over the past week, I have been thinking about two particular works.  The first, is Armando Iannucci’s spectacular In The Loop (2009) and the most recent of Adam Curtis’ documentary series The Trap (2007).  Both works examine the social and political fall-out from Tony Blair and New Labour’s decade or so in power.  Both present us with a post-modern political landscape in which facts and values are not only seen as open to manipulation by people in power, but where facts and values are seen solely as expressions of personal preference.  Far from being a hyperbolic and polemical accusation or a satirical construct, this understanding of human cognition is shared by people on the left and the right and has come to dominate the political and conceptual landscape to the extent that it is almost impossible to think of an alternative to it.  However, some films, such as those of Paolo Sorrentino present a radically different vision of human cognition.  One in which rational self-interest serves as a mask for much deeper and darker passions.

The Trap

The Trap

In his 2007 documentary series The Trap – Whatever Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, Curtis explores what he calls the ‘Simplified Economic Model’ of humanity and society.  According to Curtis, this model grew out of research carried out in and around the post-World War II Pentagon and RAND corporation.  Developing out of the perceived need to quantify the strategic decision-making process involved in both the Cold War and the Vietnam war, defence industry thinkers embraced the mathematical theorems underpinning game theory.  Game theory attempts to model decision making by quantifying different outcomes and so determining which decisions will lead to the most beneficial outcomes.  The most famous thought experiment to flow out of game theory is the prisoner’s dilemma.

(hat tip to Overthinking It)

(hat tip to Overthinking It)

John Forbes Nash’s Nobel prize was awarded in part for his discovery of the Nash Equilibrium, the stable point in any system whereby nobody gains anything by unilaterally changing their strategy if everyone else sticks to the same strategy.  What is interesting about the Nash Equilibrium of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that it suggests that the most stable and best outcome is for people to act in a selfish manner and to betray their fellow prisoner.  This insight, according to Curtis, lead to the belief by governments that everyone should be assumed to be acting as selfish individuals seeking self-advancement.  An expedient belief that clicked at a conceptual level with independently developed ideas such as Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, R. D. Laing’s atomised vision of the family, Isaiah Berlin’s championing of negative liberty, the critique of socialism found in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944) and the rise of Thatcher and Reagan’s New Right in the 1970s.  All of these ideas came together on a political and social level to create a vision of human institutions that continues to this day.  If one accepts the idea that humans are agents of their own self-interest then it follows that the ideology that fuels mass popular movements as well as the values underpinning public institutions are in fact nothing more than masks for the self-interest and ambition of the people involved in those institutions.

This is the view that informs much of David Simon’s The WireThe Wire presents us with a vision of politics that is informed not only by the Simple Economic Model but also by the deconstructionist idea that viewpoints are never what they appear to be.  In an interesting post,  Voyou  references this paper by Kinkle and Toscano and presents Marlo Stansfield not as someone who is psychopathologically detached, but rather as someone who sees beyond the rhetorics of self-justification that pervade the drugs trade.  In Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day (2008), it is made clear that while contemporary drug dealers see ‘the game’ as a business, previous generations of drug dealers saw their role more as political and community leaders, drawing inspiration not from America’s entrepreneurs but popular movements such as the Black Panthers.  In refusing to see himself as the head of a family, a military leader or a business man, Marlo represents a vision of the drugs trade that is stripped of all values, all pretence, all ideology, all justification.  This is the vision of politics we have in Armando Ianucci’s In The Loop (2009) as well as the sitcom it is spun off from, The Thick Of It.

In The Loop is set during the build-up to a war.  Where this war is to take place is never made clear, nor are the reasons for America and Britain’s planned invasion.  This is as far as you can get from the big ideas of International Relations.  Nobody mentions lebensraum, or presidential doctrines, there are no empires to topple or fifteen minutes to doomsday; some people want a war, others do not, the film’s conflict revolves around these two parties jockeying for position as they try to force their agendas through.  This idea is also expressed in the second The Thick of It Christmas special entitled “Spinners and Losers”.  The special revolves around the cast of the first series scrabbling for position after the unnamed Prime Minister resigns, forcing them to forge new alliances and relationships with a previously powerless but now powerful clique.  Exaggerating the somewhat nebulous (or in fact non-existent) policy differences between Brownites and Blairites, the special presents the change of power purely in terms of personal relationships.  In the world of The Thick of It, we are not governed by the divine right of kings or a supreme mandate from the masses but from by school yard popularity contests between politicians and their aides.

The institutions of The Wire and The Thick of It do not exist to serve the public or even to advance particular conceptions of what society should be like.  Instead they are arenas in which politicians battle for advancement.  The Wire shows us the political consequences of this but these consequences are never intended, they are always a side-effect of self-interested power plays.

However, this is only one side of the equation.

isaiah berlin

It is interesting to note that one of the influences upon Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” essay was the book Fear of Freedom (1941) by Erich Fromm.  Fromm made a similar distinction to Berlin in that he contrasted Negative Freedom’s ‘Freedom From’ with Positive Freedom’s ‘Freedom To’.  However, where Berlin presented his conceptions of liberty as an either/or distinction between societies, Fromm argued that both forms of freedom feature in the life-cycle of any civilisation.  Indeed, looking at Berlin’s conception of Positive Freedom, it is difficult to see it as anything other than a form of tyranny whereby bureaucrats sit by and decide the appropriate ways in which humans should flourish.  This is a vision of society that instantly brings to mind the Nazi obsession with physical fitness or East Germany’s heavily funded theatres.  However, missing from Berlin’s account of Positive Freedom as well as Curtis’ is the idea that human nature can be altered.  While modern governments see humans as selfish automatons, regimes grounded in Positive Freedom believe that this mind-set is merely the product of an unjust environment. For example, Marxists believe that when the revolution comes, the class consciousness will awaken and members of the working class who currently act like poor capitalists would realise the error of their ways and embrace the values of socialism.  The same is true of Islamists who see less radical Western Muslims as being in a state of false-consciousness whereby they think they are happy but in fact they are not.  The same thinking underpinned the hundreds of thousands killed in Khmer Rouge labour camps on the assumption that, once people were returned to the land, the taint of capitalism would disappear and people would embrace the values of the revolution.  Given such assumptions about the mutability of human nature, to present citizens with a fixed avenue for human flourishing is not to limit their options at all as part of providing Positive Freedom is also improving human nature to the point where the illusory nature of these other routes to flourishing should become apparent to them.

erich fromm

Fromm realised that the pendulum swings both ways.  During the 1990s, the West focussed primarily upon Negative Freedom.  The result were universal feelings of detachment and emptiness as people struggled to find meaning in lives that seemed to be limited to the cycle of working in order to accumulate money, which is accumulated in order to be spent, which then necessitates more working.  A cycle known as consumerism.  Fromm predicted such feelings of emptiness but argued that, once freed from the diktats of old authorities, people would use their personal space to concoct a new form of Positive Freedom; a political and social vision based upon a vision of humanity with a conception of flourishing more complex and involving than freedom from being interfered with.  However, between the Negative Freedom-fixation of modern politicians and a culture of post-modernism that resists and deconstructs the growth of meta-narratives, Western society has come to confuse the trappings of positive freedom with those of negative freedom and nations such as Britain and the US have started punishing those individuals and states who refuse to accept the Negative Liberty of late-stage consumer capitalism.

However, it is increasingly clear that the Simplified Economic Model – which made a society fixated upon Negative Liberty appear to be the only possible route to happiness – is in fact false.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Consequences of Love (2004) features a man who behaves as though the fleshy instantiation of the Simplified Economic Model.  Di Girolamo has no real links to his family, he has no real friends, he has no real home, he has no principles, yet he works hard and earns decent money and status doing so.  He is aloof, cold, sarcastic and disinterested in the people around him.  However, as the film progresses we learn that this is not the character’s natural state but rather a condition he has put himself in in order to survive.  Having lost billions of dollars that the Cosa Nostra deposited with him, the former stock broker detaches himself from his family and goes to work full time as a bag man for the mob.  He detaches himself from his family in order to make his absence bearable for them and himself and he sequesters himself away from any emotion or dream that might hinder his careful self-interest and so plunge him and his loved ones into danger.  Unfortunately, once the character decides to speak to a waitress he has been obsessed with for years, he begins to act in a foolish manner, sacrificing his own best interests for the sake of this waitress.  This new ideal of human happiness is so intense that the character simply cannot fight back once he realises it is out of his reach.

Film Poster

Film Poster

This theme is revisited in what is not only Sorrentino’s masterpiece but quite possibly the best film of 2009.  Il Divo begins in 1992 with the seventh election of Giulio Andreotti to the position of Italian Prime Minister and charts the fall of a man almost singularly responsible for the toxic political climate of post-WWII Italy.  Toni Servillo plays Andreotti as well as The Consequences of Love’s di Girolamo and it is easy to see the similarities between these two characters.  Il Divo opens with Sorrentino painting us a picture of a cynical politician.  Between his dry wit and his impassive features, Andreotti appears to be every inch the ruthless unprincipled political animal.  In the corrupt and colourful world of 1990s Italian politics, Andreotti is portrayed as a survivor, a ruthless seeker after his own self-interest.  The film suggests that Andreotti not only turned his back on former allies allowing them to be murdered, he also built alliances with murderers in order to hang on to power.  Seen in these terms, Andreotti is the next step up the evolutionary ladder from the self-serving clowns of In The Loop.  He is not wedded to any principles, or to any allies.  He is the embodiment of the Simplified Economic Model.  However, as Sorrentino is mocking the creature in the Nosferatu make-up, he is also drawing up a second image of the politician.  A man of devout faith who is aware of the corrupting power of faith but who believes passionately that certain evils must be accomplished for the good of the country.  In one terrifying scene, Andreotti presents his mea culpa, his justification.  As the scene progresses, the volume and tone of Andreotti’s voice rises and rises until he is raving about a divine mandate and the end of the world.  As with di Girolamo, the external image of a man driven only by rational self-interest is but a mask for a seething cauldron of not only powerful passions and desires but also absolute and unquestionable moral certainties that suffuse every inch of that person’s being and dictates their behaviour at all times.  What is perhaps most ironic about the centrality of the Simplified Economic Model to Western political thought is that its two of its most iconic leaders have been notable exceptions to it.

Since the Vietnam era, Noam Chomsky has been arguing that American foreign policy is underpinned by economic empire-building.  Chomsky’s What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992) argues that US involvement in Laos, Nicaragua, Grenada and Guatemala can all be explained in terms of advancing US business interests and Chomsky has even described the US bombing of Kosovo as providing a windfall to the international arms’ trade.  When called upon to comment upon the post-9/11 world and the invasion of Iraq, Chomsky returned again to his vision of America as a player acting in its rational self-interest; Chomsky went on to predict that should the war in Iraq be successful then America would turn its attention to other oil-rich nations such as Venezuela.  However, the Bush White House was not motivated by the nation’s rational self-interests but rather by the ideological belief of the transformative power of market democracy.  Both Bush and Blair were men who, while professing a belief in the Negative Freedoms of Liberal Democracy, were in fact gripped by profoundly non-rational religious views.  Like Sorrentino’s characters, they are outwardly rational, pragmatic, even cynical.  Inside, they are zealots.

(hat tip to Chicken Yoghurt)

(hat tip to Chicken Yoghurt)

%d bloggers like this: