Daily Archives: November 10, 2009

Walls and Traps

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the “fall” of the Berlin Wall (the Wall was actually knocked over). Commemorating this event are billions of articles explaining how the collapse of Soviet-style communism was inevitable and that it was only a brutal police state which prevented millions of communist slaves from leaping into funhouse of capitalist democracy. To our (American) ears, claims such as this are entirely uncontroversial, even natural– in other words a sure warning sign. If we want to understand the world and its history we need to interrogate the obvious, the common sensical, to flip the historical script and peel the easy pronouncements of the pundit-class. The principle of inevitability, for instance, has more to do with an ideological attachment to specific interpretations of historical change than history’s “facts on the ground” themselves. There is also the matter of the fall of communism as a kind of zero-sum game: communism failed, thus capitalism is the clear answer to the challenge of human happiness and development. What this sort of pronouncement misses is 1) the fact that there were/are many communisms and capitalisms (you think capitalism always entails untrammeled social freedoms? Go visit China or Singapore) and 2) one historical expression (USSR)  of a complex utopian vision (“communism” and its variants as the freedom dreams of millions across time– ex. Europe in 1848, Paris in 1871, Algeria in 1962, San Francisco in 1934, Chile in 1970, etc.) does not exhaust the possibilities of that vision.

Recently, I screened a remarkable documentary by Adam Curtis titled The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, about global changes in “the West” (ask me sometime why I always put that phrase in quotes) that began during the Cold War in a Rand Corporation office. Briefly, John Nash, a brilliant young mathematician helped to develop Game Theory, a discipline for predicting outcomes, in this case as a way of mapping the shifting tensions between the USSR and the USA. To that end he devised a game called Fuck Your Buddy (later marketed under the brand name So Long Sucker), one which could be won only by behaving in a purely self-interested fashion and, ultimately, betraying the other players. One version of this scenario, well known to economists and other social scientists, is called The Prisoner’s Dilemma which Adam Curtis adapts (roughly) as follows:

You come into possession of a fabulous diamond. A short time later, you receive a phone call from a man you know to be a dangerous gangster. He tells you that you have his diamond and that he wants it back. He offers to pay you a substantial sum of money for the diamond’s return. Realizing that should you come into close proximity with the gangster he might simply rob you, you offer to bury the diamond in a field and suggest the gangster do the same. When each of you have buried their loot at an agreed upon time, you will then call one another and reveal where the object (money, the diamond) is hidden. The gangster agrees and hangs up. Looking at the phone in your hand, you begin to have doubts. What if the gangster simply pretends to bury the money? You’ll lose the diamond and have nothing. If the gangster, on the other hand, actually buries the money yet you pretend to bury the diamond and betray him, you’ll have everything. What do you do?

Curtis’s argument in The Trap is that the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the perceived necessity of calculated self-interest, has come to characterize all social and political life in “the West.” It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, of course, and his documentary also references the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and what is known as Public Choice Theory. The first of these was an outgrowth of a particular way of thinking which attempted to quantify human “normalcy.” If you consult the DSM you can find a list of symptoms for disorders such as ADHD, PTSD, etc. If you decide that you exhibit enough of these symptoms to warrant concern you could go to a psychiatrist and ask to be prescribed Prozac. (As many as 32 million Americans take some form of anti-depressant or about 1 in 10.) In essence, Curtis suggests that this quantification of behavior and consciousness operates according to the same “businessman’s model” of human motivation which informs Game Theory and, indeed, classical (economic) liberalism. More insidiously, the DSM gives us a false sense of what are acceptable or “normal” emotions for human beings– effectively “medicalizing” a large part of our lives– and the solution to this problem of feeling off, unhappy or abnormal is to take an SSRI. Don’t change your circumstances– eat this pill! Medication prescribed on the basis of an abstracted and quantified model of human normalcy thus not only ignores the fact that, hey, life sucks sometimes and sometimes we do feel sad or anxious or generally freaked out, but encourages us to ignore the political dimensions of our discontent. (Maybe we’re unhappy for a reason. Maybe, in other words, it not so much that each of us, individually, is the problem but that the society we live in seems somehow vapid, meaningless, cold, etc.)

To continue: Public Choice Theory, like Game Theory a Cold War innovation, attempts to apply the economic model to political situations, positing self-interest as a defining characteristic of government bureaucrats and employees. From this perspective, the State itself is composed of rational actors whose choices and policies reflect their own drive for prosperity at the expense of citizens. It is a remarkably cynical and two-dimensional view of humanity, one that appears to be held by many if not most Americans. The socio-political situation we inhabit today, Curtis suggests, is the outcome of the triumph of this “theory” of the world and the people in it, a victory of what Adorno (remember?) would call “instrumental reason”– which has, put bluntly, diminished the possibility of political change.

The Trap, in 3 parts, can be seen on Google video.