The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by English filmmaker Adam Curtis, well known for other documentaries including The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares. It began airing on BBC Two on 11 March 2007. Since this is a mainstream BBC documentary, expect some disinformation and propaganda.
The series consists of three one-hour programmes which explore the concept and definition of freedom, specifically, “how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s idea of freedom.
Episode 3. “We Will Force You To Be Free”
The final programme focussed on the concepts of positive and negative liberty introduced in the 1950s by Isaiah Berlin. Curtis briefly explained how negative liberty could be defined as freedom from coercion and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfill one’s potential. Tony Blair had read Berlin’s essays on the topic and wrote to him in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and negative liberty could be mutually compatible. He never received a reply, as Berlin was on his death bed.
The programme began with a description of the Two Concepts of Liberty, reviewing Berlin’s opinion that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the ‘safer’ of the two. Curtis then explained how many political groups who sought their vision of freedom ended up using violence to achieve it.
For example the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as antithetical to freedom, but in so doing ended up with the Reign of Terror. Similarly, the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the old order and replace it with a society in which everyone was equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to achieve its ends.
Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one’s goals, but also as an expression of freedom from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by African revolutionary Frantz Fanon. He developed it from the Existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a “terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others.” These views were expressed, for example, in the revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.
This programme also explored how economic freedom had been used in Russia and the problems this had introduced. A set of policies known as “shock therapy” were brought in mainly by outsiders, which had the effect of destroying the social safety net that existed in most other western nations and Russia. In the latter, the sudden removal of e.g. the subsidies for basic goods caused their prices to rise enormously, making them hardly affordable for ordinary people. An economic crisis escalated during the 1990s and some people were paid in goods rather than money. Yeltsin was accused by his parliamentary deputies of “economic genocide”, due to the large numbers of people now too poor to eat. Yeltsin responded to this by removing parliament’s power and becoming increasingly autocratic. At the same time, many formerly state-owned industries were sold to private businesses, often at a fraction of their real value. Ordinary people, often in financial difficulties, would sell shares, which to them were worthless, for cash, without appreciating their true value. This ended up with the rise of the Oligarchs—super-rich businessmen who attributed their rise to the sell offs of the ’90s. It resulted in a polarisation of society into the poor and ultra-rich, and indirectly led to a more autocratic style of government under Vladimir Putin, which, while less free, promised to provide people with dignity and basic living requirements.
There was a similar review of post-war Iraq, in which an even more extreme “shock therapy” was employed—the removal from government of all Ba’ath party employees and the introduction of economic models which followed the simplified economic model of human beings outlined in the first two programmes—this had the result of immediately disintegrating Iraqi society and the rise of two strongly autocratic insurgencies, one based on Sunni-Ba’athist ideals and another based on revolutionary Shi’a philosophies.
Curtis also looked at the neo-conservative agenda of the 1980s. Like Sartre, they argued that violence would sometimes be necessary to achieve their goals, except they wished to spread what they described as democracy. Curtis quoted General Alexander Haig then US Secretary of State, as saying that “some things were worth fighting for”. However, Curtis argued, although the version of society espoused by the neo-conservatives made some concessions towards freedom, it did not offer true freedom. The neo-conservatives were ardent supporters of the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile which used violence to crush opponents in a virtual police state.
The neo-conservatives also took a strong line against the Sandinistas—a political group in Nicaragua—who Reagan argued were accepting help from the Soviets and posed a real threat to American security. The truth was that the Sandinistas posed no real military threat to the US, and a disinformation campaign was started against them painting them as accessories of the Soviets. The Contras, who were a proxy army fighting against the Sandinistas, were—according to US propaganda—valiantly fighting against the evil of Communism. In reality, argued Curtis, they were using all manner of techniques, including the torture, rape and murder of civilians. The CIA funded the Contras by allegedly flying in cocaine into the United States, as financing the Contras directly would have been illegal.
However such policies did not always result in the achievement of neo-conservative aims and occasionally threw up genuine surprises. Curtis examined the Western-backed government of the Shah in Iran, and how the mixing of Sartre’s positive libertarian ideals with Shia religious philosophy led to the revolution which overthrew it. Having previously been a meek philosophy of acceptance of the social order, in the minds of revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini, Revolutionary Shia Islam became a meaningful force to overthrow tyranny.
The programme reviewed the Blair government and its role in achieving its vision of a stable society. In fact, argued Curtis, the Blair government had created the opposite of freedom, in that the type of liberty it had engendered wholly lacked any kind of meaning. Its military intervention in Iraq had provoked terrorist actions in the UK and these terrorist actions were in turn used to justify restrictions of liberty.
In essence, the programme suggested that following the path of negative liberty to its logical conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past 50 years, resulted in a society without meaning populated only by selfish automatons, and that there was some value in positive liberty in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves.
The closing minutes directly state that if western humans were ever to find their way out of the “trap” described in the series, they would have to realise that Isaiah Berlin was wrong and that not all attempts at creating positive liberty necessarily ended in coercion and tyranny.