“44 Minutes of Adam Curtis” is an insightful, enchanting discussion about the malaise of western neoliberalism – but it’s marred by Anglo-centrism, especially by the omission of alternative socio-economic systems.
Curtis has become a guru for the Anglo liberal-left, arguing, in documentaries such as The Trap (2007), that the idea of individual freedom became, in the post WW2 period, a distorted, misused obsession in Western culture, resulting in wars of aggression abroad, and alienation and anomie at home. This was how I felt when I first saw The Trap in 2012. My discomfort with the world was explained. I felt lost; the promise of freedom and the illusion of ecstatic utopia left me hungover and empty. New Labour’s monetarism and the war on Iraq left me disillusioned, and feeling my ideas were manipulated. That I was not a free being, rather I was part of an ideology; and it was being controlled.
So I have a great respect for Adam Curtis. But this interview left me feeling uncomfortable. I’ve become hyper-sensitive to media manipulation. Listening to this interview felt like PR, preparing me for the emergence of a new solution, or a new messiah.
Curtis says we are confused, and no-one knows the solution. He repeats this many times during the interview, which is set to a prolonged video of rolling Russian landscape viewed from a moving vehicle. He repeats this idea in many ways – our understanding has become dreamy, strange, weird, dream-fantasy … finally he suggests the solution is to abandon individualism and to re-industrialise – in a way that will save the planet and give us new purpose.
Actually, this is what Russia and China have been telling us for over a decade: that we need to get back to economic fundamentals, to the real economy of social enterprise and massive infrastructure projects, to escape the artificial world of market-led monetarism and “financial instruments” (speculation and financial predation) and the phony solution of “quantitative easing”. These ideas are concretely manifested in China’s Belt and Road initiative which invests in massive infrastructure projects along the natural pathways of trade and supply chains through national boundaries. China emphasises respect for the independence of nations, saying that boosting of manufacture and trade is “win-win”, as prosperity will enhance cooperation and understanding between nations. It is an alternative to the for-ever wars of Western liberalism.
The Belt and Road initiative is well established and appears to be a success. India, South Africa, Iran and many others are joining it through economic unions such as BRICS. These projects are eloquently described and praised by Putin and other commentators.
Curtis says the West is in a confused and dreamy state, and that no-one knows the way forward. My rough idea of economic history is that monetarism became the global economic system after America dropped the gold standard in 1970s. This allowed the value of the US dollar to be determined by “market forces” (or by the owners of capital). “Market-led” “monetarism,” spread to the UK through Margaret Thatcher and led to destruction of the social-welfare state, and to the social malaise Curtis describes.
As already said, China proposes an alternative to the Western economic system. And this not just a novel idea from a newly confident China.
Alternatives to monetarism have a long track record. Since the 1970s, economists of all political hues have argued for investment in economic and social infrastructure. These ideas are found in the manifestos of Lyndon Larouche in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. But they are not new. USA’s “New Deal” of the 1930’s, that saved America from the great Depression, was based on a national credit bank which financed massive economic and social projects. The New Deal was itself based on the “American Economic System”, which was developed by the USA after the war of independence from the British Empire. The young America (under Hamilton) financed and protected new manufacturing industries and set up a national bank to fund massive investment in social and infrastructure projects such as transcontinental railways.
On the other hand, the British Empire wanted to keep its colonies as agricultural producers, and favoured free trade so the goods manufactured in its factories had markets throughout its empire.
Now, Western economies and societies seem to be failing, and Russia and China appear to be growing stronger. My own contacts, as well as press reports, indicate a high level of happiness in China, related to economic improvements. But all Curtis says about Russia and China is that they are (also) dream states or brutal technocracy. I feel he should acknowledge the existence of BRICS and the Belt and Road initiative.
I should mention the climate emergency as a reason for the West’s de-industrialisation. As Curtis hints in this interview there may be alternatives to crudely shutting down industry. Especially if we can find solutions through technology. But this involves making agreements with Russia and China, and with our own impoverished populations, about sharing the natural wealth of the world.
Since Curtis must be very well informed by his years of research, I question why he omits the long history of economic alternatives to Western free market monetarism. Am I paranoid if I fear a political agenda, because Curtis works for the BBC? I have come to know the BBC offers a high standard of journalism – but is also a government mouthpiece. The BBC, in moments of crisis, will broadcast propaganda in the “national interest”, the most famous of these being the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction claim in 2003, and the fake warning of massacres in Libya in 2011, and fake news of chemical attacks in Syria in 2017.
The establishment co-opts influencers such as journalists to deliver patriotic messages in time of war. They tell us not to listen to what President Putin says. Why? Is it because we are too stupid to tell lies from truth? No, maybe because, Putin is proposing an alternative economic system that challenges the Anglo empire and its free-market stranglehold on the global economy.
Curtis describes the West’s confusion accurately and eloquently. This confusion is at least in part due to misinformation from the West’s media. I’m wondering whether Curtis is playing a part in the disinformation – or maybe he is playing a long game in deep cover, reflecting his employer’s apparent ignorance of alternative economic systems, while subtly planting ideas that change is possible, into his audience’s mind.
Curtis says no-one knows the way forward, out of the foggy dream of western liberalism. But it’s not complicated. Monetarism is based on money – which is not real, it’s just numbers. Maybe we need return to an economic system based on real things. Curtis hints as much, but avoids referring to those outside the neo-liberal hegemony, who feel the same – and especially to those who may be leading the way.
Many economists have said let’s get back to measuring our economy in terms of real things like industrial output or gold. Eg Lyndon Larouche. Below is a link to Larouche, from the Rising Tide Foundation, which challenges the neoliberal monetarist system and supports the (original 1786) American System:
The American System Explorations Workshop series continues with the first of several dives into a 2002 masterpiece by the late Lyndon LaRouche entitled ‘Economics: At the End of a Delusion’.
The Curtis interview was posted onto YouTube channel PoliticsJoe in the last week of October 2022: 44 minutes of Adam Curtis set to Soviet archive: Adam Curtis on the fall of the Soviet Union’s worrying parallels with modern Britain.