Hans Ulrich Obrist: And for the moment, for example at Wall Street and the St. Paul’s protest, is there no manifesto? [regarding OWS)
Adam Curtis: I’m very, very, very cynical about this. I got into trouble, because I wrote an article in Observer criticizing them, saying that they are like office managers—they’re obsessed by process. And their idea, which they have, of self-organization, I just rather cheekily pointed out that actually that’s also a mirror image of the free market. Their idea that somehow you don’t need leaders, you just have the group coming together and creating a new kind of order. They are trapped by that. I mean, I mustn’t be too nasty about the protest because I actually sympathize with what they’re saying. But, to be brutal, I mean, to be brutal, and I have talked to some of them. A lot of the leaders of the protest movement, especially here in Britain, come out of academia. Some of them are PhD students who studied what is called network theory. And network theory is, I think, dangerously limiting because it leads you to both a very narrow and disempowering idea of what democracy is. They have a vision that comes out of things like the commune movement of the 1960s, fused with some anarchist ideas—that imagines an alternative way of organizing society in a non hierarchical way, networked together where everyone interacts through feedback processes to create a kind of order. Many of them look to the internet as a model of this—and dream of a world without elites. I’m afraid I think this is a dead end—it also oddly echoes the very thing they are against, the invisible hand theory of Adam Smith—but it’s really a dead end because underlying it is a static managerial theory. It says that the feedback between all the individuals will create order and stability, and that’s it. To go back to what we were talking about earlier—about the limits of rationality in politics—this kind of managerialism cannot cope with the dynamic forces of history that politics has to deal with, and it is also totally uninspiring as an imaginative vision of the future. And I am quite shocked by how the left as a whole has completely failed to capture the mood of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that rose up in the wake of 2008. It is an extraordinary failure not to have come forward and said—“you thought it was good to be on your own. But now, when things go bad, it’s frightening. But don’t be frightened. We’re going to create something that will take you out of yourself and out of that fear, and make you confident, because you’ll be with other people, and together we’re going to create this.” That’s how you do it. And that’s where the new politics is going to happen. And in a way, the protest movement by obsessing over process, talking constantly about non-hierarchical systems of organization, just like I hear managers talk in the BBC, is like a roadblock stopping that happening. So that’s what I think. It’s a failure of political imagination dressed up in smart geek philosophy of systems organisation. I’m also deeply suspicious of the cyber-boosters who for the last year have been endlessly saying that it was twitter and facebook that created the Arab Spring. There’s a new kind of patronising orientalism creeping in—“it’s our western technology” that created the revolts. No it wasn’t—of course they helped to an extent, but the real motive force was a mass wave of emotional fury and anger born out of suffering and indignity. And notice that it is now the Ikwhan—the Muslim Brotherhood—who are making the running, for the simple reason that they have ideas, and they have a vision. It’s a very conservative one—but it’s a lot more than the liberals have.
e-flux, in conversation with Adam Curtis
n.b., Funnily enough, this is also roughly the critique of OWS from “Will McAvoy” on The Newsroom.