The great story-teller’s latest piece is a rum business indeed. Apparently:
The guiding idea at the heart of today’s political system is freedom of choice. The belief that if you apply the ideals of the free market to all sorts of areas in society, people will be liberated from the dead hand of government. The wants and desires of individuals then become the primary motor of society.
But this has led to a very peculiar paradox. In politics today we have no choice at all. Quite simply There Is No Alternative.
That was fine when the system was working well. But since 2008 there has been a rolling economic crisis, and the system increasingly seems unable to rescue itself. You would expect that in response to such a crisis new, alternative ideas would emerge. But this hasn’t happened.
Nobody – not just from the left, but from anywhere – has come forward and tried to grab the public imagination with a vision of a different way to organise and manage society.
It’s a bit odd – and I thought I would tell a number of stories about why we find it impossible to imagine any alternative. Why we have become so possessed by the ideology of our age that we cannot think outside it.
It is about the rise of the modern Think Tank and how in a very strange way they have made thinking impossible.
OK! But, wait, there’s more:
Think Tanks surround politics today and are the very things that are supposed to generate new ideas. But if you go back and look at how they rose up – at who invented them and why – you discover they are not quite what they seem. That in reality they may have nothing to do with genuinely developing new ideas, but have become a branch of the PR industry whose aim is to do the very opposite – to endlessly prop up and reinforce today’s accepted political wisdom.
So successful have they been in this task that many Think Tanks have actually become serious obstacles to really thinking about new and inspiring visions of how to change society for the better.
It is also a fantastically rich story about English life that takes you into a world that’s a bit like Jonathan Coe’s wonderful novel ‘What a Carve Up’, but for real. It is a rollicking saga that involves all sorts of things not normally associated with think tanks – chickens, pirate radio, retired colonels, Jean Paul Sartre, Screaming Lord Sutch, and at its heart is a dramatic and brutal killing committed by one of the very men who helped bring about the resurgence of the free market in Britain.
I see… Actually, I don’t. From here Curtis launches into a long and involved and colourful tale about the Institute of Economic Affairs and Friedrich Hayek. The colour matters because if there’s one thing Adam Curtis is not interested in it’s ideas. He’s much more interested in stories and the weirder they seem the better. Hence the sillyness about chickens and Screaming Lord Sutch and all the rest of it.
Sure, some of the IEA’s founders had their eccentricities and these evidently appeal to Curtis. It’s much better to concentrate on those rather than their ideas. Similarly, it’s important to caricature Hayek’s work while ignoring the greater part of the important parts of Hayek’s work. Curtis is an expert at playing the man and not the ball and then feigning innocence when this is pointed out.
Indeed, a vital part of the Curtis method is to hint at dark and malevolent conspiracies without ever actually stating his case in simple terms. There’s a slipperiness to his style that allows him to complain that his critics are forever misrepresenting his arguments (even as he misrepresents other people’s arguments himself).
In this instance, the IEA was, apparently, just a PR operation because it didn’t come up with "new" ideas itself (this is another caricature) because it already "knew" what it wanted to see happen and was, thus and only thus, designed to sell these ideas. Never mind that, drawing on Hayek and others, the IEA’s ideas were actually new and far from mainstream when it was founded. Many of them remain so today.
But where other people see a Think Tank making an honest case for policies it considers useful, Curtis sees a shadowy plot. Or something. If it takes 20 years for any of these ideas to become accepted then so much the better! What more proof do you need that the IEA was in the business of planting moles at the heart of the establishment as though it were some kind of pipe-smoking, libertarian KGB? (Typically, of course, Curtis doesn’t quite say this but it’s not an unreasonable inference to be drawn from his work.)
At no point, of course, is there any real attempt to evaluate whether the IEA or Hayek had any ideas that were useful or correct (or, for that matter, incorrect). Instead, these men’s idiosyncracies are offered as evidence they were kooks and, consequently, it is implied, their ideas must be suspect too.
When he’s not trying to be mysterious, Curtis is simply banal. It is scarcely a relevation that many capitalists are keen on monopolies (their own, of course). Nor is it controversial to observe that pirate radio was an example of how monopolies could be challenged and, in time, broken-up. Nor, again, is it novel to note that Hayek thought government-imposed price-controls were disastrous. It’s quite a jump from that, however, to claim Hayek "wanted to create a new, technocratic system of managed competition that didn’t in anyway threaten the existing structure of power". Indeed, I’ve no idea what "the existing structure of power" is supposed to mean or how this relates to a Hayekian view that’s suspicious of power and, for that matter, the structures of power.
But for Curtis everything is actually strange and oh so mysterious:
BY the early 1970s something weird was happening to the British economy. Inflation and unemployment started to go up at the same time – a combination that the government planners said was impossible. As a result the IEA began to move from the margins to the centre of political life – because they said it was exactly what they and Hayek had been predicting. It was the unforeseen consequences of trying to control the complex system.
In other words, though this is irrelevant to Curtis’s thesis, Hayek was right. On the other hand, maybe not! It seems that something else was afoot:
As a result of [Hayek-influenced policies] unemployment unions were smashed, wages forced down – and the capitalist class managed to make high profits again.
And instead of giving the workers higher wages – the bankers lent them money. Simple really.
Ah, you see, there it is: all these very complicated things turn out to have a very simple explanation after all! And never mind the fact that average real earnings increased throughout the Thatcher-Major era. Meanwhile:
[T]he elite doesn’t change and isn’t threatened by the real pirates and privateers. The system has maintained the protected position of the ruling elite in this country.
Who is the ruling elite? Curtis doesn’t say and for good reason. It’s certainly the case that inherited wealth and an Oxbridge education remain enormous advantages but to suggest, as Curtis does, that Britain is "ruled" much as it was – and by much the same people – in the mid-1960s is, well, a very strange position to adopt. If you doubt this, check the Sunday Times rich-list and look at the backgrounds of the wealthiest Britons. And no, an Etonian Prime Minister is not enough to prove Curtis’s thesis.
Nevertheless, to the extent that a private education still confers great advantages upon its recipient Curtis, and those who share his prejudices, might reflect that the excellence (not uniform but certainly general) of private education is at least in part the consequence of the very market forces Curtis appears to find so threatening. Here we have an example of a well-functioning market free of government meddling. And it works.
Moreover, though I dare say plenty of people disagree with it, this government’s desire to reform the English school system is, like Tony Blair’s before it, based on the sensible idea that monopoly provision is inefficient and, often, stymies the kinds of experimentation and reform that can help produce better outcomes. In other words, it’s a Hayekian attempt to extend opportunity to the many so they enjy greater opportunity than would otherwise be the case. It’s about extending privilege, not reinforcing it.
But back to Curtis’s bugbear, the dastardly think tank:
Now politics in Britain is dominated by Think Tanks, and almost all of them are copies of what Fisher and Smedley first invented. They are ideologically motivated PR organisations masquerading as the sort of scholarly institute that Hayek first suggested to Antony Fisher
And what’s more, most of these Think Tanks, whether on the left or right are peddling Hayek’s ideology in some form another – a managed and technocratic version of the free market as the central dynamic of society.
They have different versions of this – and they vary in how the government should use its power to bring this about, and how far it should extend into society – but at bottom they are all pushing the same fundamental idea. There is no alternative vision on offer. And this points to a very strange fact. That while all the think tanks constantly promote new concepts of how to micro-manage today’s free-market technocracy, none of them have come up with a genuinely new grand idea for a very long time.
And the question is whether most Think Tanks may actually be preventing people thinking of new visions of how society could be organised – and made fairer and freer. That in reality they have become the armoured shell that surrounds all politics, constantly setting the agenda through their PR operations which they then feed to the press, and that prevents genuinely new ideas breaking through.
There’s a quarter-truth here: there is considerable consensus in the develped world that the days of centralised state-planning are over. Scandinavia and the United States are more alike than they are different (and there are some areas in which the Nordic countries are notably freer than America).
But if there’s been no "alternative" to the idea of "the free [sic] market as the central dynamic of society" it may be because we’ve seen many, perhaps most, of the alternatives and appreciate that they don’t work either. Market-advocates – the sensible ones, anyway – do not claim market principles solve all problems or even raise every boat; merely that they’re better, more efficient and more palatable than any other. (As for the "rolling economic crisis" well, at least some of it – the Eurozone part – is, in part, the consequence of ignoring sound free-market principles and placing too much faith in central planning. And luck.)
True, you could organise society on authoritarian capitalist grounds (there’s an alternative for you, Mr Curtis!) but the costs of doing so are grim. Ditto with socialism. And the same might be said of revolutionary theocracy. An alternative, certainly, but not a pleasing one. Again, Hayek (and Fukuyama) were right. Some of us do not believe There is No Alternative but that There Is No Better Alternative.
But it is remarkable that Curtis can complain that Hayek is to blame for a world (or society) that is not sufficiently "freer" when what one might term libertarian principles have played a great part in making the world a freer, and often fairer, place. At the very least, it’s beyond-disengenuous to suggest free-marketeers are some brand of useful idiot, used by shadowy "elites" or, perhaps and alternatively (Curtis is never quite clear on this), actively conniving with those "elites" to suppress freedom and opportunity when, as he should know and I trust readers do appreciate, advancing freedom and opportunity is most of the point of these endeavours and ideas.
Meanwhile, you will search in vain for anything that Adam Curtis actually believes in, far less any hint of a new idea that could change everything or even anything. Ah, I dare say his defenders will say, he’s only asking questions! Fine. Perhaps he could ask some interesting ones then or, heaven forbid, argue in good faith.Tags: Britain, Education, Free market, Hackery, Libertarians