Friday 17 June 2011

Why The Greens Should Watch Adam Curtis

Soul Destroying: The classical ecological paradigm regards a state of equilibrium as Nature's "default setting".  Adam Curtis's latest series of documentaries argues that our faith in "the balance of nature" is in fact a manifestation of our own inability to meaningfully disturb the equilibrium of the political and economic machinery in which we are enmeshed. Finding ourselves unable to beat the machines, we appear to be trying to join them.

ADAM CURTIS makes television programmes that challenge our understanding of the world. To call this puckish fifty-five-year-old’s productions documentaries scarcely does them justice. Curtis ransacks his BBC employers’ visual archives for his trademark rapid-fire imagery, and makes free with both classical and popular music for his films’ evocative soundtracks. Elucidated and enhanced by these sensory onslaughts, Curtis’ ideas strike hard and sink deep in the minds of his viewers.

His latest offering, a three-part series entitled All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace should be compulsory viewing for every member of the Greens’ caucus and party.

They won’t enjoy it, but I’m confident it would do them a world of good.

Because the second part of Curtis’s trilogy, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”, interrogates and then radically deconstructs one of the central tenets of the green belief system, that: left to themselves, all ecosystems tend towards a state of equilibrium.

It’s the idea which underpins the entire environmental movement. Stripped of the notion that some mysterious natural force somehow keeps all things in balance, the prospect of the human species abandoning its destructive behaviour – and thereby earning itself a “sustainable” niche in Mother Nature’s steady state – becomes a chimera.

Curtis’s challenge to the original ecological paradigm forms just one part of a much broader critique of the way in which men and women of the twentieth and twenty-First centuries have attempted to empty human behaviour of its moral and political dynamism by applying to it the soulless logic of mechanical systems.

At first blush, this would appear to have little or nothing to do with green ideology. Surely the logic of the machine is precisely what greens are fighting against?

What Curtis demonstrates, however, is that the stereotype of the “luddite” green is almost entirely mistaken. By a series of daring conceptual leaps, Curtis links the right-wing libertarianism and extreme individualism of the tea-partiers’ guru, Ayn Rand, with the “turn on, tune in and drop out” libertarianism of the Californian hippies.

The link? Cybernetics.

Cybernetics and systems theory gave rise to the notion that computers could not only free capitalism from the regulatory chains of the social-democratic herd, but that they would make possible a world in which human-beings and the natural world “did their own thing” in perfect harmony.

The curious title of Curtis’s series is taken from a poem by the celebrated 60’s poet, Richard Brautigan. He wrote of:

a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

Curtis challenges the superficial radicalism of Brautigan’s hippie vision by drawing on the very real experiences of those who took the systems theory utopians like Buckminster Fuller at their word and established communes of networked, non-hierarchical, self-organising individuals held in equilibrium by the self-correcting influence of “feedback loops”.

What brought these communes to their bitter, often violent, ends was that their anti-political ethos, far from eliminating coercion and exploitation, actually ended up facilitating it. By forbidding majority decision-making and the formation of factions (evil manifestations of the despised practice of politics) all the communards had done was draft a bully’s charter.

Because all human (and natural) systems are dynamic and subject to constant challenge and response, the question of agency is inescapable. Moral and political decisions cannot be magically excised from our social and economic environment unless – and this is the whole point of Curtis’s series – we are willing to regard ourselves as nothing more than amoral bio-machines.

The conflict within the New Zealand Greens, which Sue Bradford has written about with considerable passion of late, carries alarming echoes of Curtis’s critique. The Greens’ prohibition against faction-forming, and their distaste for majority decision-making, sound remarkably similar to the rules of those dysfunctional Californian communes.

Add to this their newfound willingness to become just another “responsible” component in the political circuitry of capitalism, and Sue’s concerns are readily understood.

That’s why Russel Norman, Metiria Turei and their colleagues should invest three hours in watching Curtis’s remarkable trilogy.

It will remind them of what they once had – and are at mortal risk of losing.

The insight that it’s only our ability to make moral decisions that makes us human.

And that there’s absolutely nothing “natural” about it.

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 June 2011.


Matt said...

Couldn't agree more.

Adam Curtis, a true virtuoso, makes incredible television series, a kind of cross between documentary, political commentary and visual-audio artistic performance; all delivered with Curtis' authoritative BBC-accent delivery. It is a miracle that the BBC can still produce such stuff.

The Abuse of Vegetative Concepts can be found here:

His classic series The Century of the Self details the displacement of the post-war consensus by a virulent individualist liberalism.

It's a disgrace that Adam Curtis' documentaries haven't been given the exposure they deserve by New Zealand broadcasters.

Will Truth said...

"All ecosystems tend towards a state of equilibrium."

Isn't this more a scientific hypothesis rather than a political belief. I'm an ecology graduate and I was taught that it's probably true in the short term (1000s of years) but only if the system is not perturbed by outside factors such as climate etc. And in the long term of course there is always a meteorite or plate tectonics or something to disrupt the equilibrium.

I would have though the politicial belief is whether you should fight the equilibrium or just go with it. And I don't think you can say Greens always want to go with it. In NZ, where ecosystems are in the process of transitioning to a new equilibrium with few native birds and plants and many exotic ones, the Greens are often in favour of fighting the equilibrium by trying to eradicate possums etc (even though they may disagree over whether poison is the best way to do it).

Anonymous said...


"Longhair dreamers, give conchies a bad name. Drugs and voodoo, mental. Scared of work, scared of the boss, weak as cat piss."

"Our own fault. Spoiled em rotten after the war."

Dancing Cossacks jerk ridiculously across Dick's miraculous new machine.

"Godfathers. Christchurch. Who pays for all this?"

"Advertising. Big companies."

"Jesus. We've lost, Rose."

"Faith in your blood, Mick. Faith."


Anonymous said...

Left to its own devices, nature is a picture postcard of the survival of the fittest. It tends to be brutal.
The green left shies away from this view to the more agreeable one of harmony. Hence the total antipathy towards the words 28 verses into Genesis....subdue the earth and have dominion over it. In other words clobber the things from creation that would clobber you and use the rest wisely.
The Libertarian world view is it's in your best interest to clobber everything. The end result of that is what Thomas Hobbes described in Leviathan "...the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short." Though in the interim with better medical care and while the borrowing to prop up our socialist expectations lasts, we might look forward to life poore, nasty, brutish and long.

I agree with Curtis. Left to itself life will head, not for cosmos but to chaos.


Michael said...

Chris's last two sentences sum it up I think. Circles. If we look to the natural world to guide us, then we should simply look out for ourselves, because that's what natural creatures do. Selflessly protecting nature is unnatural, but could be a higher moral position? And of course we now know that looking out for ourselves also means preserving nature to some (highly contentious) extent. I think it is often felt that the Greens are the only politicians with souls, even if they are deluded. In fact, as discussed above, the basis for environmental values is far from transparent or agreed. Morally, is it environmentally enlightened self-interest, or something more? Of the Environment and the Economy, I think the former makes a better stone idol, but the worship of either seems misplaced. And politicians make both to bow before the Electorate.

Anonymous said...

The fruits of the Green Idolatry are too un-sustainable, given the scales & pressures of societies' abilitites to both nurture & destroy itself, to be anything other than short lived - the question is will they bring down civilisation on the scale dreampt of in any degree or will the wide scale rejection of catalyze a new paradigm of progress into existence?

Semi & very very extremely loosely related to above....will Labour continue the way they are going by directly trying to take down Key/National or indirectly via the economy(& the people are not as stupid as they think if so) with a landslide win for Key/National; while the Green's whittle away their support from the other angle ( which silmultaneously strengthens the support for whatever platform Key/National have from the general electorate)?

Or will they play their m.m.p. card to reject the Greens as a Govt partner as National did NZ First? This means Green social votes ( & it would be well to offer them a few sensible environ/social policies that they can vote for without turning off mainstream NZ) are voting for National ( & the Green's forced the issue first here) or less likely no Govt if they change their tune. This also means National votes are voting for Green &/or Maori coalition first & foremost or against spirit of m.m.p system depending on which hand Key plays. That's the two elements of what it boils down to.

It would mean not ruling out Act (who while they have majority of things backwards, are philosophically not at odds with majority of NZ) but who are unlikely given low poles and replacing Hide with the likeable D Brash...

& of course not ruling out NZ First, who despite smear campaign just finished below thresehold last time, and who have a track record of doing good job in Govt. to pop. yet are coming from advantageous position of not being in Govt( & who John Key ruled out, is he going to rule out more parties? I.E. is the election choice/theme now about m.m.p. system itself?)

jh said...

"Because the second part of Curtis’s trilogy, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”, interrogates and then radically deconstructs one of the central tenets of the green belief system, that: left to themselves, all ecosystems tend towards a state of equilibrium.

It’s the idea which underpins the entire environmental movement. Stripped of the notion that some mysterious natural force somehow keeps all things in balance, the prospect of the human species abandoning its destructive behaviour – and thereby earning itself a “sustainable” niche in Mother Nature’s steady state – becomes a chimera."
I would have thought that one of the main ideas underpinning the entire environmental movement is the fact that humans have beaten bugs and our population follows a j shaped curve. That being so the denial of any population issues comes from the far-left and far right. By implication there is a self correcting mechanism at play?

Conflating the Greens with ecology101 is a bit confusing as their ecology seems to do a side step when it discovers the human species. For example I heard Meteria call Nationals plans for beneficiaries "vicious" even where payments for unsupported women on the DPB be linked to using contraception.

jh said...

"That being so the denial of any population issues comes from the far-left and far right."
By far right (in this case) I was referring to libertarians who deal in land sales. E.g Owen McShane (not the National Front).

Mark said...

Curtis’ documentary is historically flawed and inaccurate on many counts (as any visual journey through a complex history would be, it’s just not possible to elucidate that level of depth in the TV format), although I applaud him at bringing the notion of computing as an ideology to a wider audience and challenging the cyber-utopianism and belief that democracy emerges ‘naturally’ out of the internet.

The equilibrium concept is just as abused in the ‘science’ of economics as ecology, yet Curtis for some reason, didn’t draw the connection between the ‘machine dreams’ of cybernetics and the post-ward Rand Corporation economic/game-theoretic/cold-war complex.

All very relevant for any political party to understand, no less the Greens. But if people actually followed what they’re talking about, it would be apparent that they’re really focused on the effects of short-sighted human development causing pollution and environmental degradation which will harm long term economic development just as much as it will the environment (the concept of which I think most educated people would admit is a Victorian era construct that is artificial, ie: a false distinction between a pure nature and an exalted civilization). It’s clear that some supporters of the Green Party and some MPs understand this. Some probably don’t (watching that documentary may help them get there). But I don’t see the Green Parties around the world (as distinct from the global environmental movement) saying that we need to return to a state of ‘equilibrium’. I see them saying that we cannot afford to continue policies of infinite growth because organic/mineral resources are finite and agricultural resources are cyclical, and if we continue blasting non-renewable resources into oblivion, polluting and destroying our long-term health and quality of life, we will destroy ourselves as well as the ecosystems around us.

jh raises an interesting point. It’s impossible to look at this argument objectively, and not immediately think of population issues. It’s a thorny problem and people don’t like to discuss it, for fear of being labelled ‘genocidal’ or in favor of eugenics.

Chris Trotter said...

To be fair Mark, Curtis does address the economic/game theory issues you allude to in an earlier series - "The Trap: What happened To Our Dream Of Freedom?" - also well worth watching.

Shane Gallagher said...

Hi Chris,

Just a point, as a green party member, we don't do what the hippies did - we agree by consensus and if that doesn't work then by majority vote. It is a very different process. There is little place for the bullying tactics evident in Curtis' excellent film. It is a free debate on ideas and freely argued. It allows for everyone to make their point (or not). Everyone is entitled to speak and to be heard and their points debated. People can support each other and groups do form all the time. People are allowed to block consensus as well. As for not allowing faction-forming - well the Marxist left is well acquainted with that and I must say it has helped it lose the class war in heroic fashion. ;-)

I disagree about what you say about how we think - we are not delusional at all about how ecosystems work - we know full well that ecosystems are dynamic and can enter new states - that is what we are trying to stop with for example, global climate change. Or to take a local example the Waituna Lagoon in Southland - if the pollution increases then the lagoon will change states and that will be irreversible. We understand that concept intimately.

I am passing this doco around to everyone I know. It is excellent. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Kia ora!

Mark said...

Thanks, I hadn’t seen that previous film — will check it out.

Victor said...


Thanks for directing attention to this fascinating set of programmes.

The thought occurs to me, however, that Curtis paints with something of an over-broad brush.

For example, the notion that individuals have a duty to achieve their maximum potential, irrespective of the presumed demands of society, long predates Ayn Rand's rather facile formulations.

It's there implicitly in Byron and many other exemplars of the Romantic movement and is centre stage in Nietzsche and his numerous disciples, including that celebrated apologist for mass murder, George Bernard Shaw.

Moreover, a supposedly scientifically-based amoral individualism entered social theory with the eminently Victorian, Herbert Spencer and has been around ever since.

Similarly, the notion of human society as naturally tending towards self-regulation and consensus was, contra Curtis, far from being alien to the Enlightenment.

A key concept of much seventeenth and eighteenth century European thought and art was the 'State of Nature'.

This was conventionally conceived of as a benign, static, orderly and rational dispensation on the part of a benign and rational deity, its laws of balance and intelligent design ascertainable to the unprejudiced mind through Newtonian Physics.

Hobbes was exceptional in seeing the State of Nature as invidious. A more normal approach was to ask how best to reclaim the virtues of this golden age, throwing off the burden of History, whilst conveniently retaining such creature comforts as could be justified by appeals to Reason.

It was assumed that, in the State of Nature, all men, when confronted by significant issues, would simply consult their native intelligence and the rights that Dame Nature had given in equal measure to each one of them.

Once their brains were no longer corrupted by superstition or priest-craft, they could again, as in the State of Nature, be expected to agree on most issues, leaving only a limited role to government and none at all to the exercise of untrammeled power.

There were, of course, dissenters from this sunlit view of existence. Utilitarians completely dismissed notions of Natural Rights and of a past golden age, whilst Burke saw our beings as rooted in a history he had no desire to escape and Hume doubted our ability to know anything for sure.

Rousseau, meanwhile, accepted and rhapsodised about the State of Nature hypothesis but asked the pertinent question of why, if man was born free, he was everywhere in chains.

His conclusion, not all that different to Hobbes's, was that chains were necessary but required legitimisation by vote, a perception not lost on his fervent disciple, Maximilien Robespierre.

And whilst liberal-minded gentlemen gave up powdering their hair, aristocratic ladies ordered paintings of themselves suckling their own babes and Marie-Antoinette played at being a shepherdess,the concept of Nature itself underwent a seismic shift.

Suddenly, the verdant valleys of the Classical imagination gave way to the towering Alps and gushing torrents of Romanticism. Nature was no longer worshiped as rational, orderly, balanced, comfortably benign and constant. Rather, it was charged with mystery, terror and hidden but profound significance.

....more to come

Victor said...

continuing previous post....

The twin beliefs, in a stable, beneficent, balanced, natural order and in the inherent tendency of humans to achieve rational consensus, remained joined at the hip and received a further jolt when the great French Revolution failed to produce a new human order that was palpably stable, benign and rational.

Increasingly, social theorists, including Hegel and Marx, abandoned the old obsession with nature for various highly schematic accounts of universal history, out of which, they assumed, their varying visions of a rational, non-conflicted, consensual society would emerge.

Nature might be static and stable but history was clearly dynamic.

And, then, Darwin exploded the myth that the nature was indeed static and that what we saw around us had always been there.

Species came, species went, plains became mountain ranges, continents disappeared,oceans changed their shape entirely and man was a very recent newcomer to this tumultuous and savage creation, descended from other beasts and, hence, far from inherently rational.

Strangely, though, some continued to believe that humans defaulted naturally to rational, unforced and unorganised consensus.

Marx apparently believed such a consensus would come about once the contradictions of class and economic conflict had been swept away.

Even more assuredly, the powerful international Anarchist movement of the turn of the last century was convinced that the time was already ripe for the consensual utopia to emerge, albeit that some its number retained a faith in the importance of explosives to hurry matters along.

....yet more to come

Victor said...

...concluding my over-lengthy remarks

In summary, although I'm highly impressed by Curtis's work, I think he's made too much of both the newness of the doctrines he discusses and of their essential link to computer technology.

Having said which, the mode in which political ideas are expressed changes from century to century, and even from decade to decade, normally to reflect changes in human experience.

John Locke, for example, explained representative government through an analogy with a joint stock company, of the sort that was suddenly proliferating in Late Stuart London.

But that's certainly not the only way to explain representative government. It just happened to be a pertinent and persuasive way of thinking about it in a particular time, place and social milieu.

Similarly, in the last third of the twentieth century, it would have been tempting to think of just about any political idea (good or bad) in terms of technology in general and computer technology in particular.

Had the Soviet Union survived and caught up with the global communications revolution, I suspect there would, by now, be many an expert on 'Cybernetics as the bridge from Really Existing Socialism to Communism', seeking the ear of uncomprehending and probably somnamulent Politburo members.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed watching this series tremendously and learned much from it.

And, one last quibble, Chris. As humans are a natural phenomenon, everything they do is, to my mind, ipso facto 'natural', including making rational, ethical decisions. Moreover, according to some quite persuasive ethologists, we're not the only creatures doing it.

gareth said...

Took your advice Chris, watched all three episodes and loved it. The archival footage and music is great.
I didn’t get the sense of a single ‘big idea’ he was pushing and found some of the links between subjects tenuous but wasn’t fussed because it was all interesting watching.
I think it’s a long-bow to draw comparisons between the Greens and ideas raised in the documentary.
You say:
“The conflict within the New Zealand Greens, which Sue Bradford has written about with considerable passion of late, carries alarming echoes of Curtis’s critique. The Greens’ prohibition against faction-forming, and their distaste for majority decision-making, sound remarkably similar to the rules of those dysfunctional Californian communes. Add to this their newfound willingness to become just another “responsible” component in the political circuitry of capitalism, and Sue’s concerns are readily understood.”
I think our longevity, actually political representation, stable transfer of personalities, and interaction with levers of power all show the Greens are functional, as opposed to ‘those dysfunctional Californian communes.’ If anything, the Greens being political directly reject that ‘drop out’ mentality of the Californian communes, or NZ communes or Ohu scheme and ‘get’ the need to engage with politics.
There’s an interesting interview with Curtis about it here: and a key point he says is: “I'm very sympathetic to a lot of the protest movements and to challenging power in society, but you are not going to do it through self organizing networks where you all sit round and there are no leaders and there is no guiding vision, except self-organisation.”
The recent Green Party leadership transfer is an example that the Greens were able to avoid the single strong leader model that defines our minor parties in the MMP environment yet at the same time have leadership. The co-leadership model is another example.
I like to think the Greens have found a pragmatic and principled middle ground between strict hierarchy and no organisation that encourages participation, informed debate, consensus (not majority) decision making but importantly – decision making. Its slow, energy-consuming and sometimes painful but I think is in part why ‘faction-forming’ which of course exists in the Greens isn’t as damaging or as public as in other parties.
I don’t think we’re “just another “responsible” component” in New Zealand’s power dynamic and many of our ideas and policies are directly challenging to that norm and we haven’t shied from them all the years we’ve been in Parliament.

I think the link he makes between right wing philosophy, the 60/70s counter-culture movements and computer culture is interesting.
I’m a big fan of the Whole Earth Catalogues, which were perhaps the early non-digital Internet and was always surprised the founder Stewart Brand, was later quite right-wing. The computer world if anything mirrors the political spectrum: from open source theorists to corporate proprietary software moguls.
At the moment I’m campaigning for the freedom of internet and I think maybe it’s an interesting analogy. I don’t think the internet per say is a human right, but in our modern world computers and the internet are a key tool in accessing information and engaging socially and politically, which are a human right.
Likewise with those computing founders, computers were a tool, not a theory in itself which people could adapt their ideas to.
Thanks for the video recommendation.