The first part of Adam Curtis's latest documentary, 'The Trap', was broadcast on BBC2 last night. Like Curtis's previous documentaries, the programme propagates a liberalistic conspiracy theory. This time, the emergence of 'personal choice' as a political credo is the phenomenon for which Curtis seeks to provide an explanation.
In a distant sense, Curtis reminds me, actually, of Jonathan Meades, who used to stomp about the town and countryside, making dogmatic and unjustified pronouncements, presumably in the hope that most viewers would care not to analyse the logic of his arguments too closely. Curtis doesn't do any stomping, but instead splices various archive clips and interviews into a film, and explains with hypnotherapic calm how modern social, political and economic trends are really the result of secret cadres of right-wing thinkers and capitalists, acting omnisciently and omnipotently behind the scenes, controlling, shaping and manipulating the course of events.
In Curtis's delusional world-view, none of the trends in society seem to be the collective, net result of millions of individuals expressing their wants and desires; there doesn't appear to be any room for random processes in society, or unpredictability in human affairs; there is no sense of politicians extemporising, or making opportunistic decisions which have unexpected consequences; there is no sense of uncontrollable complexity. In particular, the strongest Curtis delusion is his belief that societal trends can always be traced back to the ideas of intellectuals. Politicians are always 'turning to' the ideas of various devilish intellectuals in the Curtis world-view. The ideas of individual academics are injected into society like a poison or drug, tipped into the water-supply. In 'The Century of the Self', it seemed that Freud's ideas were behind the rise of consumerism. Now, it seems, game theory and systems analysis are to blame for the popularity of 'personal choice' politics.
In last night's documentary, Curtis seemed to attribute game theory to the mathematician John Nash. This surprised me, because I thought game theory was invented by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. But then I guess they haven't featured in a Hollywood film. Moreover, game-theoretic concepts have been expounded in a less rigorous manner for many centuries by various military, political and economic thinkers; Hobbes's Leviathan, for example, contains game-theoretic reasoning. It's therefore surprising that Curtis should trace the cultivation of self-interest in politics to the development of game theory by Nash and the Rand corporation during the Cold War. Complexity, however, has always been the enemy of any conspiracy theorist.