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May 31, 2011



I thought the second installment was much stronger than the first; as you say, boiling it down to "Ayn Rand fooled you all!!!" was a bit simplistic to say the least. I think what this kind of thesis illustrates is the need for a popular history of neo-liberalism. Curtis has glanced at that particular elephant in the room in various of his documentaries but he has never tackled it head on. From his work on "The Trap" he's aware of Mirowski, so why not use the excellent "The Road to Mont Pelerin" (which you reviewed IIRC)as a basis for a new series? That way we might get somewhere in coming to terms with our current political climate, rather than erecting straw men as culprits for our modern moral turpitude.

Will Davies

Thanks, Juan. Yes, I agree with this. You're right about the lack of a popular analysis, in fact there was scarcely a decent academic analysis until The Road from Mont Pelerin. I'd also recommend Jamie Peck's Constructions of Neo-liberal Reason which came out last year. I imagine Curtis knows this literature - at the very least, Phillip Mirowski was one of the most prominent talking heads in Curtis's The Trap.

My review of The Road from Mont Pelerin is here: http://www.renewal.org.uk/articles/the-making-of-neo-liberalism/

Thomas Neumark

I've noticed that a lot of people's reactions to Curtis' work include comments along the lines of "it all boils down to" or "essentially his argument is".

I'm not sure that this is the best way to understand his work. I think the vignette's he shows us give us a sense of the geist or the spirit of the age, more than an argument based on causal assertions. Boiling his argument down misses the very thing that makes his documentaries worth watching.

Ian Christie

Great review of The Road from Mt Pelerin. I agree with your analysis. Neoliberalism still has plenty of energy because its proponents can always argue that it has never been given full rein, thanks to as yet unvanquished special interests, lingering welfare state sentimentality and anti-market values in outmoded institutions. Neoliberals used such arguments to turn the Crash of 2007-08 into a crisis of the social democratic public sector, not of neoliberal ideas and interests. There is plenty of opposition to them, but none of it is well coordinated or articulated in propositions that speak to power and prejudice with as much force. Even a bigger crisis than we have had will not shift the ideas, still less the interests, of those with most to gain from neoliberal governance; to shift them out of power, we'd need a mutualist-Green-social democratic grand unification theory and oppositional movements capable of working together and showing the patience of the Hayekians for the long game.

Will Davies

Thomas - I buy this up to a point, and certainly he should be permitted some artistic-intellectual license to play around with imagery and archives. The splicing together of Lewinsky and the Asia crisis was actually quite clever, assuming that one suspends any search for causality.

But there's also quite a bit of Curtis's narrative which includes phrases such as "the reason Greenspan did this", and "what the founders of the hippy communes believed", which tramples all over ambiguity or the inherent mysteries of human activity. The paradox of Curtis's work (forced on him by the needs of mass broadcasting) is that he debunks one set of causal theories, and elevates another in their place. Academics working in this vein (primarily Foucauldians) go to great pains not to declare that X idea caused Y activity, though they end up making such ambivalent and frustrating types of truth claim, that they could never hold the audience of BBC2 for more than a few minutes.


In terms of 'trampling over ambiguity and mystery,' I think episode 3 was the worst offender. Generally in Curtis' narrative 'people' stop believing one thing, only in order to immediately adopt another simplistic belief. So 'we' stopped believing in Enlightened notions of the status of humans, only to start believing in ourselves as machines. When even Dawkins can complain about a reductionist presentation of his views, surely something is awry?


Kate - Yeah, pretty much. No causal relationship was established between Dawkins view of the gene and wider ideas of human autonomy. "Dawkins sold a lot of books and spoke on TV" was pretty much the only reason given as to why "we" may have adopted this simplistic machine view. Moreover, constantly stating that "Enlightenment" thinkers thoughts this or that papers over a lot of complex history, specially when you (Adam) don't even attribute a source to these sayings. I think Curtis' argument in this episode ended up taking a very naive view of human affairs, as exemplified by the free ride religion (our "source of moral guidance) got given in the episode.

Will - I don't think human actions are as mysterious as you make them out to be, otherwise we wouldn't bother to do things like history or psychology. It's just that you have to establish a careful historiography that takes into account all sorts of factors while refusing to set up straw men. Whether you can actually do this work on a prime time BBC2 programme is debatable; personally, I think you could do so, specially if you avoid the sort of crypto-Foucaltian dialectic Curtis tends to hem himself in.

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