02 June 2011

The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts: Adam Curtis on Cybernetics, Ecology & Power

On Monday night I watched the second episode of Adam Curtis’s new BBC documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. It was brilliant, as I’ve come to expect from Curtis. For those who don’t know, he has made some of the most fascinating documentaries of recent years, all of them investigating the history of the ideas that have shaped the character of Western political and economic power in the 20th and early 21st centuries. These include The Century of the Self, about the use made of Freud’s theories by Western governments and corporations; and The Power of Nightmares, about the parallel development of al Qaeda and neoconservatism. The stories he tells are compelling, picking out threads of history that you had never imagined were there. Watching his films you feel something like the thrill of a big juicy conspiracy theory, but this is misleading. Those who have criticized him for conspiracy peddling are missing the point, and this becomes especially apparent when you watch several of his films, because while they all cover roughly the same period and the same events, it is remarkable just how diverse and conflicting are the ideas that come to operate in society. It’s not about sinister secret groups with sinister secret ideas, but about how in a divided world ideas come to spread through society and almost inevitably serve the interests of power, but in surprising and ever-changing ways.

The second episode of the current series, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts – which is available for the time being on the iPlayer here (for UK residents) – is about cybernetics and its influence on politics, power and the zeitgeist. Curtis’s argument in the program might be summarized as follows. In the twentieth century an idea developed of the world as a system of nodes in networks, connected together by flows of energy and feedback loops, the whole system being self-regulating, self-organizing and stable if left to work to its own logic. The programme traces the development of the idea, beginning with ecology and its subsequent embrace of cybernetics, and through the work and thought of a few important figures, including Arthur Tansley, the man who coined the word ecosystem; systems theorist Jay Forrester; and Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome and the concept of Spaceship Earth. Crucially, cybernetic principles began to characterize the way we think, not only of computers and machines, but of people and society. Curtis doesn’t claim that cybernetics was ever the dominant or central plank of the ideology of late capitalism, wherein we can find all of the secrets of the recent history of power (the other episodes of the series, and his other documentaries, trace the influence of other important ideas such as neoconservatism, objectivism, neoliberalism, and so on), but he nevertheless claims that it has had a deep lasting influence, and that as a way of understanding society it is at best inadequate to the task of changing it, and at worst serves to maintain the status quo and justify repression. The overarching theme is that we have come to see ourselves as machines, playing out pre-assigned roles in a global system.

The were several ways in which it caught on.

Ecosystems and Cybernetic Hippies

One was the science of ecology. Following the early work of Arthur Tansley, and until maybe the 70s and 80s, ecologists assumed that there was such a thing as the balance of nature, that nature was essentially in equilibrium. The modern science of ecology was founded on this assumption, and it was later supplemented with cybernetics, which was used to create computer models of what became known as ecosystems. This was particularly interesting, because I had always used the word uncritically. In fact, built right into the term is the assumption that nature works according to the principles of cybernetics, that it is a system that strives for equilibrium.

Another example was the American communes of the late sixties and early seventies which were established following the failure of the student protest movements, and which were fuelled by a disillusionment with politics. Commune members agreed to rules dictating public conduct and the resolution of disputes, the aim being to prevent the formation of powerful groups. Alliances between members were not allowed; instead, they held one-to-one discussions, witnessed by the other members. Politics was thus made impossible, and this was thought to be the recipe for preventing the growth of hierarchies and oppression. The founding conception of community for these people was drawn from cybernetics via ecology. Without the destablizing effects of politics, society would settle in to a state of harmonious equilibrium in which each person, or component, had its secure, rightful place.

Both of these applications of cybernetics failed. Ecological studies began to reveal a quite different picture of the natural world, one of instability and dynamism. As it turned out, there was no balance of nature, but in common with all powerful ideas the myth has lingered; I think we can all recognize that it continues to infuse our culture and the way we think about nature. As for the communes, none of them lasted more than three years. Charismatic, dominant individuals were able to gain power by sheer force of character, bullying weaker members in the one-to-one sessions and relying on the reluctance and habitual inability of the others to defend fellow members. This resulted in communities where oppression and fear were rampant.

Towards a Socio-economic Equilibrium

What links the various manifestations of cybernetics is a vision of the world as steady-state (or potentially so), and made up of components whose places and roles in the network are fixed. Curtis points out that when applied to society this is very different from the Enlightenment vision that people can change the world and make it better, again and again, repeatedly reconfiguring the network. Thus, a social systems theory can be used to justify the preservation of the status quo. And this is what happened, as it became influential among Western elites and, at the same time, began to seep into the public consciousness. Systems theorist Jay Forrester became involved with the Club of Rome think tank, which some time later announced to the world that its computer model was predicting global social, economic and environmental collapse. They went on to publish the book The Limits to Growth, and their ideas were taken up at the UN conference on the environmental crisis, in Stockholm in 1972. The central message was that there ought to be a way of managing the world as a whole, a way that transcended politics. Thus the world could be held in equilibrium and the imminent collapse avoided.

So, an international think tank was able to persuade the UN that politics might be a hindrance. What this seemed to amount to was a formula for maintaining the status quo which found its justification in a computer model. Crucially, this assumed that people were effectively automata who would just carry on doing what they were doing in the same way. What was being ignored was the potential for change effected by people acting together to achieve social goals.

Web Utopias and Revolution

Curtis makes a connection between cybernetics and the 21st century revolutions in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, and the protests in Iran (the documentary was presumably made before the Arab uprisings). His view is that these revolutions, which were spontaneously organized on the world wide web and had little in the way of leadership or guiding political ideology, and which failed or even made things worse, demonstrated the failure of cyber-utopianism and its underlying cybernetic ideas. Networks could help in organization, but they could not provide a way forward.

I think that Curtis is right. It does seem to me that these ideas, or at least their underlying assumptions, have, despite all of the failures I’ve described, only gained ground in recent years. It has become part and parcel of a post-political view of society as an unchangeable system, its members mere cogs. And I get the impression that many who today pose as progressive actually buy into the notion of a steady-state system in which our only hope is to achieve equilibrium. It is partly this view that allows nominally progressive thinkers and activists to call for population and immigration control and for a halt to economic growth, positions that in former times would mark you as conservative. It don’t think it has been widely grasped just how fundamental a change of attitude has taken place among liberals and the left. Today, for many of them, the modern world is one in which people are always upsetting the balance.

Whither Anarchism?

If Curtis is right, there are implications for my political position. I’ve been attracted to anarchism lately, thinking it might be a more suitable radical politics than Marxism, which I’ve recently found difficult to imagine was not directly responsible for the authoritarian and bureaucratic character of the monstrous Communist regimes of the twentieth century. But it’s now becoming clear to me that anarchism’s critique of capitalist society is so theoretically weak that it can be interpreted in ways that fit perfectly with all kinds of bourgeois ideologies. For example, it is a good match with systems theory, as the founders of the American communes were no doubt well aware. One of the problems for anarchists was always how to envision the form of organization in the future society, and now cybernetics and ecology suggested that society, as just another system, would organize itself – as long as people were able to interact freely without a mediating central authority. These ideas provided just what anarchists were looking for, and it is quite disturbing to observe just how cynically anti-political anarchists can be. Insofar as most anarchist visions of the future allow for some form of administration and management, you might (perversely, perhaps) see the modern managerial style of government ushered in by Clinton and Blair as a part-fulfillment of this vision.

This is all quite heartbreaking, especially because ecology and cybernetics seemed at one time to promise liberation from the evils of oppression. But I get the feeling that Curtis is an optimist at heart. If he is pessimistic at all, it is about the immediate future of optimism.

Adam Curtis’s blog
The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts on iPlayer

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