Adam Curtis’s brilliant, three-part TV documentary, The Power of Nightmares, explains how and why the world came to be in its present state. At its heart is a scaled-up version of Smith’s Law: a global power that exists to rid the world of evil is forever dependent upon the existence of evil. Making sure evil remains healthy becomes its POSIWID. It’s where the nightmares start.
Curtis’s work begins with him exploring manipulative possibilities (and realities) arising from the group’s pathological need for an enemy against whom to unite. For the wielders of power, he identifies, crudely, two kinds of nightmare. There’s an existential one arising from the absence of an enemy and there’s a material one arising from the presence of an enemy.
The nightmare power of the first is to sunder the group. It therefore threatens the powerful. The nightmare power of the second is to make the group conform. It therefore reinforces the powerful. The first is challenging, liberal, individual and not easily manipulated. The second is comforting, reactionary, collective and easily manipulable. In the battle with the enemy, the first makes victory a threat. The second makes victory unnecessary. The first is bad, the second good. Power – the power to manipulate - simply reflects the power to create enemies. And when the power is a superpower, the enemy, fittingly, needs to be a super enemy.
Terror is the super enemy, the war on terror the manipulators’ super lever. Curtis identifies and names these manipulators as, surprise, surprise, Dubya’s Washington neo-cons. And he traces the roots of the nightmares they create to a pretty interesting place.
Everyone knows, from page one of Marx, that all bourgeois societies carry within them the seeds of their own destruction and in early post-war America, two young academics came to similar, though independent, conclusions about what should be done to address the destructive rottenness they perceived all around them.
One of them, a philosopher called Leo Strauss, blamed the rottenness on modern society’s denigration and cheapening of the discipline he held dear. He looked for a way to restore philosophy’s ancient role and make it once again an elitist, esoteric rule-maker for the way the masses should live their lives.
He founded a school of thought that today wields enormous power. In it it became the duty of initiates to manipulate the fears of the masses in order to ensure their acceptable collective behaviour and to thereby save society from itself. The vehicles for manipulation were of no real consequence to Strauss, though religion and evil were always easiest and often best. He made it clear that the elite need not believe a single word of the message they preached. Only the manipulative process mattered.
Within the post-war era’s prevailing culture of liberalism, Straussianism and its adherents became something of an academic underground movement. Finding it hard to get work in the academic mainstream, Strauss’s disciples spread, cell-like, to all corners of society taking his ideas with them. The most vehement gravitated to the seat of power and worked as researchers, consultants, aides, advisers and think-tankers in Washington. Their influence on successive presidents culminated in 2000 when they took ownership of the vice-presidency, the Pentagon, the attorney general’s office, the state department, the budget office and countless lesser governmental functions. From these heights today’s nightmares are manipulated.
The other guy was an Egyptian scholar, called Sayyid Qutb. He was visiting the US in 1948 to study education systems. His esoteric and elitist solution to save a depraved society from itself demanded a return to the fundamentals of Islam where practically everyone can fit the bill as a suitable enemy. And where practically anything is allowable in defence against evil. A couple of years later, on returning to his native land, which sought more and more to closely mimic the west he despised, he revivified the banned and moribund Muslim Brotherhood and was tortured extensively for his troubles. He died in 1966. His influence and following though continued to grow, peaking with the martyrdom that ensued after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Over the years, Qutb’s philosophy gave birth to Al Qaida and his number one disciple, his equivalent of, say Strauss’s Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle, is today Osmam bin Laden’s right-hand man.
Next week, Curtis tells how these two world-views came together to defy the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Victorious, they each thought that they had succeeded alone and took success to indicate the rightness of their world-view. Then, with the Soviet enemy defeated in Afghanistan and the Cold War ended in Europe, Smith’s Law kicked in and they were both in desperate need of an enemy. Conveniently – and symbiotically - they became each other’s. And the nightmare continues.
Curtis is compelling viewing.