Adam Curtis

Continuing the discussion from UK Labour Party elects its first left-wing leader in more than 20 years:


If I want to understand Game Theory, then yes, I should become well versed in it. If I want to understand your criticisms of Adam Curtis’ use of game theory, then all you have to do is tell me the basics of where he fails in his argument, and I can then reference those sections of Game Theory that you find flawed.
So, if you could tell me where you find these flaws then we can have a discussion on that point. So far you’ve provided no evidence.
And remember, Game Theory is only one aspect of many in his numerous documentaries.
Even if we find flaw in his use of Game Theory, that doesn’t negate his entire body of work, you’ll have to come up with a few more examples of where you find flaws.

No, I’m being frank. Let’s deal with the issue of why you find his work to be flawed, not with any character flaws you believe he may have.

Alright then, lay out your argument and let’s see if it stands up to scrutiny.


The problem is that game theory doesn’t give authority to arguments for removing democratic processes of regulation of markets. That was what fairly naive dse theory tried to do. Like much of systems thinking has tried to do since mid-century in managing risk (so we can make risky endeavors routine), there’s a level of risk in certain endeavors that cannot be made reasonable without scaling things down and publicly regulating the crap out of it.

That’s the recurring serious theme of Adam Curtis. But if that’s the only thing he did, he’d just be the Eeyore of systems theory and the economic determinants of culture, like Noam Chomsky is for power politics.


Thanks for the response. So are there any other solution equilibriums coming into play in this sense, or to put it simply (or crudely and possibly naively) is it less prisoner’s dilemma, and more common/mutual knowledge dilemma (prisoners and guards)? Or is it a bleak outlook of Systems Theory that’s more coming into play?

No, I’m being frank. Let’s deal with the issue of why you find his work to be flawed, not with any character flaws you believe he may have.

No, you’re not being frank. You accused me of making an ad-hominem argument, which I did not do. I’ll repeat what I originally said:

A great irony with Curtis is that the left love him, especially the more radical end, but he’s actually not much of a leftist at all.

You can find flaws in that Laurence Tennant article if you want (I certainly could, I think I’d disagree with him on most political issues), but take it up with him, it’s not relevant to my argument. The only relevant bits in that article to my point about the ironic reception to Curtis’ work are the ones that show that Curtis isn’t a leftist, this quote establishes that best:

Well, a lot of people go on about how I’m a leftist, but I’m not really, because I believe that ideas have consequences. And why I like people like Weber is because they are challenging what I see as that crude left-wing vulgar Marxism that says that everything happens because of economic forces within society, that we are just surfing, our ideas are just expressions—froth on the deep currents of history, which is really driven by economics. I’ve never believed that.

This is him discounting the philosophical underpinning of Marxism, historical materialism, and also quite clearly stating he’s not a leftist. He doesn’t seem to be a naive libertarian either (though he certainly goes on about the positive nature of individualism a lot), I’m not entirely sure what he is, but it doesn’t seem to be left-wing.

I’ll respond to the other stuff later, am supposed to be working here!

Still seeing no critique of his work. Being a non-leftie and having the lefties love you is hardly evidence of being a fraud.
I’m sure he’s liked by a some centrists and right-wingers too.
Having a diverse audience is no basis in calling someone a fraud, regardless of his political leanings.
Let’s try and stick to critiquing his work.


I’ll happily stick to critiquing his work if you accept you were wrong in your criticism of my finding certain people supporting his work ironic. Your continued obtuseness isn’t giving me much confidence this debate can continue in good faith.

Having a diverse audience is ironic now?
I think the people who like his work do so because of the content of it, not because they believe he’s some sort of comrade-in-arms on their side of the good fight.
Do you find great irony in people of different political persuasions finding common ground in whistleblowers too?
Your first comment was

Your next was

Your third was

Now I understand that you have issues with what you perceive as a great irony, I get that.
Now please explain your “full of falsehoods and misrepresentations” stance.
You’ve danced in circles for several posts now without giving me anything concrete, apart from some vague, unexplained idea on his use of game theory.


Fine, this seems to be as close as an apology I’m going to get from you. You claimed I was making an ad-hominem attack, I take it you are now accepting I wasn’t? We’ll have to agree to disagree on the nature of irony.

Fair enough, we’ll agree to disagree on the nature of irony.
Are you ready to critique his work now?

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With respect to game theory I posted this already, which you ignored:

the main problem IIRC was that he fixated on a single very simplistic model they used, and then erroneously extrapolated out to the whole field

To clarify this point a bit more, he was suggesting that the ideas of Nash and Buchanan (specifically an early model from game theory and how it was used in public choice theory) were behind a broad swathe of government ideology and public policy stretching from early Rand Corporation lobbying to the present day. He then critiques the simplistic models, and uses that to criticise the policies up to the present.

Two problems here, first the simplistic models are not the only models used, the field developed a lot in between, so even if his criticism has merit (which it does, but this isn’t really in dispute) it doesn’t really apply to the field in general (which spends far more time working on problems of co-operation than competition). Second, he doesn’t really provide much evidence to establish the link between those ideas and the policy, or any grand change in ideology in politicians as a result either, other than the initial stuff (and that itself was fairly flimsy), and certain superficial similarities.

I don’t disagree with all the points he makes, especially with regard to modern target based management in healthcare, education and policing, but I don’t think this fits in with his narrative really, it’s a separate development, not part of some kind of ideological conspiracy.

He did something similar in the one on computers, picking out some simplistic version of something and applying it to anything and everything seems to a common theme with him (though I think this was even more egregious, can’t remember that as well though).

The Power of Nightmares was all over the place as well, but I’ll come back to that tomorrow.


So there’re several points you make (I’ll simplify it, I hope it’s correct to your statements);

  1. Curtis claims that Nash and Buchanan’s model was used to influence policy. (Simplistic models).
  2. He criticizes the simplistic models for being used to influence policy.
  3. He fails to mention other models in use. (Co-operative models).
  4. He doesn’t provide enough evidence to link the models to policy enacted.

The RAND corporation actually believed that the models worked though, despite the failure of the games with their own secretaries. (U.S. Air Force Project RAND Memorandum RM-789-1)
“This did not, in the eyes of the analysts, discredit the models but instead proved that the secretaries were unfit subjects”
"Merill M. Flood, 20 June 1952, pp. 15–16: “Upon inquiry, it developed that they had entered into the experiment with the prior agreement to share all proceeds equally!”

So it is believed that they continued to advise on this model. Being National Security though there can be no confirmation of this.
According to the 2005 annual report, “about one-half of RAND’s research involves national security issues”. Many of the events in which RAND plays a part are based on assumptions which are hard to verify because of the lack of detail on RAND’s highly classified work for defense and intelligence agencies.
I’m not sure if or when RAND decided to drop this model, but they state “John (Nash) contributed important insights into game theory, which widened and deepened our understanding of mutual deterrence and the nuclear arms race”.
And the economist Friedrich Hayek supported the selfish model, which was the core of the simplistic model.
His accolades include “the Order of the Companions of Honour by Queen Elizabeth II on the advice of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” and “the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1991 from President George H. W. Bush”. So these ideas have been taken seriously recently.

So in summary
1. Curtis claims that Nash and Buchanan’s model was used to influence policy.
Given the above, it would seem likely that this model was used to influence policy.
2. He criticizes the simplistic models for being used to influence policy.
If these models were used (deregulation of the markets suggests they were) it’s a fair criticism.
3. He fails to mention other models in use. (Co-operative models).
Quite likely IIRC.
4. He doesn’t provide enough evidence to link the models to policy enacted.
Maybe true also, but as stated earlier, “are hard to verify because of the lack of detail on RAND’s highly classified work”.
But Reaganomics, Thatcherism and RAND’s statement “John contributed important insights into game theory” (mentioned above) are highly suggestive of a link, but not quite a smoking gun.

Thanks for the post, I look forward to your critique of ‘The Power of Nightmares’.

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This seems to be mostly between you two, so I won’t dive further into this except to reiterate your point that it’s little use to no-true-scotsman Curtis’ work. It is precisely the false perversions of science that bad actors like Thatcher, Brezhnev, Greenspan, and every corporate executive ever have used to push their magical thinking into becoming policy and received opinion.


It’s certainly an open topic, and I’m willing to have my opinion changed if there’s a good argument for it. My knowledge on the subjects he discusses are far from thorough.

Amen to that.

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