The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis

The following 3 part film explores the origins in the 1940s and 50s of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Middle East, and Neoconservatism in America, parallels between these movements, and their effect on the world today. The parallel suggested by The Power of Nightmares is that both, Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States, needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them.

From the introduction to Part 1:

“Both [the Islamists and Neoconservatives] were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world. And both had a very similar explanation for what caused that failure. These two groups have changed the world, but not in the way that either intended. Together, they created todays nightmare vision of a secret, organized evil that threatens the world. A fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. And those with the darkest fears became the most powerful. ”

The Power of Nightmares, Episode 1: Baby It’s Cold Outside.

The Power of Nightmares, Episode 2: The Phantom Victory

The Power of Nightmares, Episode 3: The Shadows in the Cave

Other works by Adam Curtis:

1988: An Ocean Apart. Episode One “Hats Off to Mr. Wilson” (concerning the process by which the United States was involved in the First World War).

1992: Pandora’s Box examined the dangers of technocratic and political rationality. It received the BAFTA Award for Best Factual Series.

1995: The Living Dead investigated the way that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used by politicians and others.

1996: 25 Million Pounds a study of Nick Leeson and the collapse of Barings Bank. Won the Best Science and Nature Documentary in the 1998 San Francisco International Film Festival.

1997: The Way of the Flesh tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, the “woman who will never die”. It received the 1997 Golden Gate Award.

1999: The Mayfair Set looked at how buccaneer capitalists were allowed to shape the climate of the Thatcher years, focusing on the rise of Colonel David Stirling, Jim Slater, James Goldsmith, and Tiny Rowland, all members of The Clermont club in the 1960s. It received the BAFTA Award for Best Factual Series or Strand in 2000.

2002: The Century Of The Self (BBC Two) documented how the rise of Freud’s individualism led to Edward Bernays’ consumerism. It received the Broadcast Award for Best Documentary Series and the Longman-History Today Award for Historical Film of the Year. It was released in the US through art house cinemas and was picked as the fourth best movie of 2005 by Entertainment Weekly. View The Century of The Self online here

2004: The Power of Nightmares (BBC Two) suggested a parallel between the rise of Islamism in the Arab world and Neoconservatism in the United States in that both needed to inflate a myth of a dangerous enemy in order to draw people to support them.

Currently running on BBC Two:

2007: The Trap (BBC Two), with the first of 3 parts broadcast 11 March 2007; a series regarding the modern concept of freedom.

The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom is a BBC documentary series by British 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.

The series consists of three one-hour programmes which will 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.”

In the first episode shown on 11th March, Curtis examined the rise of game theory during the Cold War and the way in which its mathematical models of human behaviour filtered into economic thought.

The programme traces the development of game theory with particular reference to the formulae of John Nash, whose paranoid schizophrenia coloured his entire outlook of human behaviour (film of an older and wiser Nash recanting his earlier ideas about people is also shown).

Nash believed that all humans were inherently suspicious and selfish creatures that strategised constantly. He invented system games reflecting this belief, including one called Fuck You Buddy, in which the only way to win was to betray your playing partner, and it is from this game that the episode’s title is taken.

Curtis examines how game theory was used to create the USA‘s nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Since no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal – because the Soviet Union had never attacked America with its nuclear weapons, the supposed deterrent must have worked. This is a subject Curtis examined in his first series, Pandora’s Box, and he reuses much of the same archive material in doing so.

A separate strand in the documentary is the work of R.D. Laing, whose work in psychiatry led him to model familial interactions using game theory. His conclusion was that humans are inherently selfish and shrewd and spontaneously generate strategems during everyday interactions. Laing’s theories became more developed when he concluded that some forms of mental illness were merely artificial labels, used by the state to suppress individual suffering. This belief became a staple tenet of counterculture duing the 1960s. Reference is made to the Rosenhan experiment, in which bogus patients surreptitiously self-presenting at a number of American pychiatric institutions were falsely diagnosed as having mental disorders, while institutions informed that they were to receive bogus patients “identified” numerous supposed imposters that were actually genuine patients. The results of the experiment fundamentally challenged the ability of psychiatric medicine to genuinely diagose and treat mental illness.

All these theories tended to support the beliefs of what were then fringe economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, whose economic models left no room for altruism, but rather depended purely on self-interest.

As the 1960s became the 1970s, the theories of Laing and the models of Nash began to converge, producing a widespread popular belief that the state (a surrogate family) was purely and simply a mechanism of social control which calculatedly kept power out of the hands of the public.

Curtis shows that it was this belief that allowed the theories of Hayek to look credible, and underpinned the free-market beliefs of Margaret Thatcher, who sincerely believed that by dismantling as much of the British state as possible – and placing former national institutions into the hands of public shareholders – a form of social equilibrium would be reached. This was a return to Nash’s work, in which he proved mathematically that if everyone was pursuing their own interests, a stable yet perpetually dynamic society could result.

The episode ends with the suggestion that this mathematically modelled society is run on data – performance targets, quotas, statistics – and that it is these figures combined with the exaggerated belief in human selfishness that has created “a cage” for Western humans. The precise nature of the “cage” is to be discussed in the next episode:

  • 2. “The Lonely Robot” (18 March, 2007)
  • 3. Title not known (25 March, 2007)

7 thoughts on “The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis

  1. thanks for that! If anyone spots the full episodes of ‘The Trap’ available over the internet can you please post the location in comments. I know it is already available via torrent. Thanks


  2. Pingback: The Century of the Self - Adam Curtis « Bala Fría

  3. Update: I realise some of the videos have been removed from googlevideo. I am planning to fix this when I have a moment and will track down and embed the videos again. Apologies in the meantime for any inconvenience.



  4. Pingback: The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream of Freedom? « Bala Fría

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s