By Anindya Bhattacharyya
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2041

The Trap – a new documentary from Adam Curtis explores individualism and freedom

This article is over 14 years, 10 months old
\"Human beings will always betray you. You can only trust the numbers.\"
Issue 2041
The Trap starts on 11 March on BBC2
The Trap starts on 11 March on BBC2

‘Human beings will always betray you. You can only trust the numbers.’

This chilling declaration flashes up in the opening credits of The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom, a new documentary series by Adam Curtis which starts on BBC2 next week.

Curtis is best known for his 2004 series The Power of Nightmares: The Rise Of The Politics of Fear. This detailed how neocons in the US talked up the threat of radical Islamism to justify their ‘war on terror’.

The Trap is even more ambitious in scope. Like The Power Of Nightmares, it uses archive footage and interviews to explore the history and political impact of an idea – in this case the model of ‘individual freedom’ that underlies neoliberal economics.

Curtis traces the roots of this idea to the early post war years, when a circle of right wing thinkers – followers of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek – became influential in shaping US nuclear strategy during the Cold War.

These researchers, including the mathematician John Nash, gathered at the Rand Corporation in California. They developed ‘game theory’ to model what a ‘rational’ military strategy would be in the face of threatened mutual nuclear annihilation.

These games imagined a paranoid world where individuals ruthlessly sought rewards and modified their behaviour in the light of that of their opponents.

Crucially, this behaviour could be measured ‘objectively’, allowing researchers to create computerised models and calculate ‘optimal’ strategies.

Curtis’s documentary traces how its underlying vision of social behaviour was picked up and generalised to areas such as psychology, economics and management theory. The political crisis of the 1970s offered the chance for the followers of Hayek to take centre stage.

They attacked notions of a ‘public service ethos’ in state controlled institutions, arguing that public sector workers were motivated purely by self-interest – just like the ‘lonely robots’ of their computer models.

Private sector management techniques were imported into public services, displacing previous attitudes with performance indicators, targets and incentives. This, it was claimed, would remove ‘inefficiencies’ and induce ‘rational’ behaviour into sluggish bureaucracies.


Curtis notes that while this project started in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s introduction of the ‘internal market’ into the NHS, it really took off under John Major’s government – and has been ruthlessly expanded under New Labour.

But far from ‘rationalising’ public services, this battery of statistics had the opposite effect. Public sector managers started to ‘game the system’ – fiddle the figures by reorganising services to artificially meet targets.

Curtis cites examples from the health service, education and policing. In one instance, hospital managers took the wheels off trolleys and reclassified them as ‘beds’ in order to hit their target of reducing the number of patients on trolleys.

New Labour’s response to this madness was to create even more targets in a futile effort to balance out the distortions produced by the system.

Public services were plunged into a nightmare world of metrics, audits and meaningless jargon – what Curtis calls the ‘tyranny of objective numbers’. The results of this shift have been disastrous, Curtis argues – and even some of the original founders of game theory, such as John Nash, now agree.

Far from bringing ‘freedom’ from bureaucracy, neoliberal management policies have increased social inequality, plunged the poorest in society into misery, and fuelled the rampant concentration of wealth in the hands of a new super elite. Under New Labour social mobility has declined to the lowest levels since the Second World War.


Curtis narrates his story by splicing together archive footage of news events, social situations, even clips from television dramas and films. It’s a compelling and original style that places his work somewhere between a documentary, an essay and a dream.

However, it has limitations. Watching The Trap one can’t help feeling drawn into the paranoid world of the Rand Corporation theorists.

While Curtis expertly traces the development of their ideas, he is silent when it comes to explaining why those ideas took hold.

There is no sense of any kind of alternative vision, nor any pointers to a solution. Episodes such as the rise of Margaret Thatcher just ‘happen’, with the immense political conflicts of that period relegated to a footnote. Rather than seeing ideas as being consciously promoted by particular social forces, Curtis paints a world where we all just sleepwalk into oblivion.

Nevertheless, Curtis’s work is gripping and thought provoking. His documentaries are proof that television can deal with complex issues without being patronising.

The final programme in the three part series – still in preparation as Socialist Worker went to press – examines the ‘war on terror’ as an attempt by neoliberals to extend their deranged vision of ‘individual freedom’ by force. If the first two episodes are anything to go by, The Trap is a strong contender for ‘must see’ documentary of the year.

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom starts on BBC2, 9pm, Sunday 11 March

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