Online films, text and selected images from Adam Curtis, maker of The Power of Nightmares, The Century of the Self, The Mayfair Set, Pandora’s Box, The Trap and The Living Dead.
The guiding idea at the heart of today’s political system is freedom of choice. The belief that if you apply the ideals of the free market to all sorts of areas in society, people will be liberated from the dead hand of government. The wants and desires of individuals then become the primary motor of society.
But this has led to a very peculiar paradox. In politics today we have no choice at all. Quite simply There Is No Alternative.
That was fine when the system was working well. But since 2008 there has been a rolling economic crisis, and the system increasingly seems unable to rescue itself. You would expect that in response to such a crisis new, alternative ideas would emerge. But this hasn’t happened.
Nobody – not just from the left, but from anywhere – has come forward and tried to grab the public imagination with a vision of a different way to organise and manage society.
It’s a bit odd – and I thought I would tell a number of stories about why we find it impossible to imagine any alternative. Why we have become so possessed by the ideology of our age that we cannot think outside it.
The first story is called:
CARRY ON THINKING
It is about the rise of the modern Think Tank and how in a very strange way they have made thinking impossible.
Think Tanks surround politics today and are the very things that are supposed to generate new ideas. But if you go back and look at how they rose up – at who invented them and why – you discover they are not quite what they seem. That in reality they may have nothing to do with genuinely developing new ideas, but have become a branch of the PR industry whose aim is to do the very opposite – to endlessly prop up and reinforce today’s accepted political wisdom.
So successful have they been in this task that many Think Tanks have actually become serious obstacles to really thinking about new and inspiring visions of how to change society for the better.
It is also a fantastically rich story about English life that takes you into a world that’s a bit like Jonathan Coe’s wonderful novel ‘What a Carve Up’, but for real. It is a rollicking saga that involves all sorts of things not normally associated with think tanks – chickens, pirate radio, retired colonels, Jean Paul Sartre, Screaming Lord Sutch, and at its heart is a dramatic and brutal killing committed by one of the very men who helped bring about the resurgence of the free market in Britain.
A couple of months ago the British branch of an obscure right wing think tank called the International Policy Network reportedly fell apart. The leaders apparently had an argument about climate change. Noone noticed and it was hardly mentioned in the newspapers.
But behind the IPN is the door to a forgotten history. The key to that door is the chairwoman of the IPN, Linda Whetstone.
Linda is very well connected. She is the mother of Rachel Whetstone who is the head of Global Communications for Google. And Rachel is the partner of the super-wonk Steve Hilton – he is David Cameron’s personal adviser in No. 10.
Linda Whetstone believes passionately in the Free Market and hates state intervention practically more than anyone else on the planet. Here she is letting rip at the Conservative party conference in 1978. Great shirt. And notice that even Mrs Thatcher sitting on the platform behind Linda looks a little frightened.
But the most interesting – and influential – member of the family is Linda’s father from whom she inherited her fervour for the free market. He was called Sir Antony Fisher and he invented the first modern think tank back in the 1950s. The Institute for Economic Affairs. It is the template for practically all the think tanks today.
Fisher himself would go on to found another 150 think tanks around the world.
But back in the early 1950s he was an isolated figure who felt completely at odds with the mood of his time. He worked with his friend Major Oliver Smedley in pokey offices in an old alleyway in the City of London, called Austin Friars. Together Fisher and Smedley were fighting a lonely battle against the state planning that was trying to reconstruct Britain after the war – because they were convinced that it was going to lead to a totalitarian state and the end of democracy.[…]