Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 2: The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts)” (2011)
Second episode in his documentary trilogy of how humans have surrendered their power to technology and technological systems, Adam Curtis’s “The Uses and Abuses of Vegetational Concepts” looks at how rival theories dreamt up by a botanist / socialist and a military man in South Africa in the 1920s came to influence concepts of the self-organising system in systems engineering, environmental studies and studies of human behaviour which fed into popular culture. The idea of self-organising systems posits that individuals are equal players in a system where they co-operate to achieve equilibrium and balance and that this balance is a good thing. There are no hierarchies or notions of coalitions and alliances that compete for power. The idea became popular in new fields of science such as cybernetics and migrated to studies of nature where biologists and ecologists alike believed that natural systems “strove” for stability and after disasters or other disturbances could restore themselves to their original balance. The idea also became popular among hippie counter-cultures in the West in the 1960s and many young people established communes in which they all expected to live as equals in harmony.
Curtis’s documentary proposes that the concept of the self-organising system, rooted in idealistic socialist concepts of British botanist Arthur Tansley on the one hand and in Field Marshal Jan Smuts’s fantasy of a steady-state British empire in which everyone and everything knows its place in a stable hierarchy on the other, will ultimately fail in real situations. In the 1970s, biologists and ecologists discovered that natural ecosystems don’t have an in-built stability. Human societies that try to abolish hierarchies and alliances and which sweep away old political and social institutions can become authoritarian and bullying, as students of the English Civil War in the 1640s, the French Revolution in the 1790s and the Russian Revolution in 1917 and their respective aftermaths will know. Yet the fantasy of spontaneous, self-directed reform movements erupting from youth remains attractive.
Curtis appears to be on steadier ground in this episode than in his previous “Love and Power” and the premise of “The Uses and Abuses …” looks very plausible at first sight. There is one problem and that revolves around what Curtis means by “stability” in self-organising natural systems: is he referring to a stasis where nothing ever changes or to an active stability where a network is just balanced but the balance changes constantly? Natural ecosystems may in fact be making continual adjustments and changes even when these aren’t apparent to the eye; if they are not examples of self-organising systems, then what is? Another problem is that natural ecosystems are not closed systems (ie, ones that receive no inputs from outside) where the balance actually tends towards greater disorganisation or randomness (entropy). Likewise human societies are not completely closed systems and, as long as there is some physical or intellectual input, tensions will always exist between the tendency towards hierarchy and social conservatism, and the tendency towards a less-structured and freer structure where social mobility is possible and frequent. Most societies around the world have such tensions.
The closest societies get to being closed systems are societies that are cut off from the outside world, either because of geography as in the case of Iceland, Tasmania and the Polynesians on their various islands for hundreds of years or as part of deliberate government policy as in China and Japan from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. These societies varied greatly in their social and technological complexity and their cultures were fairly stable; in fact Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns (1603 – 1867) enjoyed a flowering of culture and commerce and much of what we call traditional Japanese culture dates back to this period of isolation. On the other hand Iceland was poor during its period of isolation, due to the nature of Danish colonial rule combined with various natural disasters that wrecked the food supply. Modern Iceland developed an egalitarian society based on geographic isolation and cultural, historical and ethnic homogeneity. So whether such societies thrive or struggle to survive depends very much on the political, social and cultural conditions at the time the isolation begins combined with people’s access to the territory’s available resources.
Curtis presents the self-organised system concept as though it were an innovation of the 20th century but the idea as Jan Smuts at least conceived it is actually very old: the mediaeval worldview held that as stars have fixed positions in the sky and the planets revolve in perfect circles around the Earth, so too God lives beyond the sphere of the stars, nine orders of angels live in the heavens and humans live in a triad structure in which priests correspond to God or the head of the body, nobles correspond to the angels or the body’s heart, and everyone else corresponds to the commons or the body’s abdomen. Likewise ancient Indo-European society was divided into three levels of priest-kings, warriors and peasants and this triad structure became the basis of the caste system in Hinduism in India. I am not sure how Tansley conceived the system concept and whether it assumes a fixed flat structure of society in which everyone must be strictly equal and no-one is allowed to be better or worse than everyone else.
The sinister aspect of “The Uses and Abuses …” which Curtis may not have intended is that the film appears to criticise attempts to move towards a freer and more fluid social structure that respects equality, at least in law and in access to resources, and to support hierarchical social and political systems. The film also suggests that attempts to preserve and sustain natural processes and ecosystems are futile; if systems are dynamic and are constantly moving to new states of “equilibrium”, humans need do nothing to preserve the systems themselves, as opposed to returning them to their “original” state. I suspect Curtis was merely being tongue-in-cheek when he made this essay and doesn’t expect to be taken seriously by politically conservative or climate change denialist groups.
What Curtis missed out is that the concept of self-organising systems based on mechanistic systems or views of the universe such as what Tansley and Smuts may have believed where everyone becomes an individual separate from and equal to others has encouraged the development of atomistic societies where everyone is not only a separate and equal individual but an isolated one as well. Informal networks that arise in such societies may be fragile and break down easily if they lack institutional support or are banned. People lose the ability to work co-operatively, to bargain and negotiate with others, and a sense of community withers away. Corporations and government agencies are then able to exploit and manipulate people’s need for personal and collective security. In such societies, people are no longer fully rounded individuals but are merely consumers or ciphers: in short, they are machines. The underlying values and assumptions of such societies become important in determining whether hyper-individualist societies become fragmented or develop a communitarian nature based on individuals working together and Curtis completely overlooked these features.