Scott Noble, “Human Resources” (2010)
What can I say? This two-hour documentary on the history of government and elite attempts to control human behaviour and direct human culture and society is sheer mindfuck: it covers a whole gamut of approaches, methods and techniques to control people’s thoughts, moods and actions from the late nineteenth century to the present day. No stone is apparently left unturned and unexamined by director Scott Noble as he trawls through psychology, eugenics, race relations, corporate philanthropy, scientific worker management, the structure of education and schooling, Nazi medical experiments and CIA mind control experiments that produced a torture manual. Interviews with various political, social and cultural commentators including Harvard academic Rebecca Lemov, activists Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn and former schoolteacher turned education critic John Taylor Gatto mix with hard-edged female voice-over narration, a slew of archived newsreel material and excerpts from Hollywood and other movies going as far back as 1917 to give an overwhelming and often disturbing presentation on the nature of political-economic-cultural power.
The Adam Curtis school of documentary film-making sure has much to answer for: the music soundtrack is eclectic, boasting artists like Phillip Glass, Do Make Say Think, Sigur Ros, Aphex Twin, Mira Calix, Amon Tobin and Bob Dylan, and unfortunately can be too intrusive and distracting, especially during John Taylor Gatto’s interview; but apart from the whimsical music choices, the film overall has a lo-fi appraoch with very few fancy special effects. It could have been better structured: the film weaves from one topic to another and by the time the relevant “chapter heading” in the guise of a quotation appears on a red background, the film is already quite deep into the issue under scrutiny. Possibly “Human Resources” could have been divided into a three-part mini-series in the style of Curtis’s tetralogy “The Century of the Self” which deals with a similar if more restricted theme; Noble could have included more jettisoned material (he had 10 hours’ worth) into a trilogy.
The film starts off with an investigation of behaviourism and its development in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: even then, psychologists were seizing its concepts and philosophies to justify their agendas and political views and those of their sponsors in business, government and academia. From behaviourism the film goes into an exploration of eugenics and the social and political conditions prevailing in the United States that enabled the eugenics movement to flourish (though there is no mention of early links between birth control and family planning advocates on the one hand and the eugenics movement on the other) and then into how corporations tried to combat labour movements and unions with philanthropy and the adoption of scientific management or Taylorism (after Frederick Taylor, its founder). The attention given to Taylorism and how it dovetailed with Fordism, the organisation of work in factories and offices and the psychological effects of task fragmentation and deskilled work is considerable and chilling; needless to say, both Communists and fascists and other folks in-between found Taylorism attractive and tried to co-opt it into their workplaces. From the workplace to the school – ya gotta start oppressing ’em young! – and interviewee John Taylor Gatto (descended from Frederick Taylor) waxes strongly on the aim of Western education and its structures to control and mould children into passive, unquestioning and indifferent sheep, and the effect of grades, the use of testing and exams, and competition on children’s mental and emotional development.
The film emphasises that competition is far from natural – it takes care to mention that Charles Darwin never used the term “survival of the fittest” but only discussed natural selection – and there is mention of cross-cultural studies showing that co-operation rather than competition encourages creativity and originality whereas competition has the opposite effect. Frustration / aggression theory is invoked to explain why bullying, scapegoating and violence against outsiders or out-groups occurs and the idea of mental illness as being culture-specific is mentioned. Significantly governments and politicians are fingered as the most important mass murderers and serial killers in recent history and the film goes out of its way to examine the US government’s eagerness to employ Nazi German scientists, many if not most of whom were engaged in heinous medical experiments during the Second World War, in many post-war science and medical programmes. A depressing list of secret US government experiments in which unwitting civilians, sometimes whole cities, were exposed to uranium, radiation, bacteria, various chemicals and even yellow fever follows. (There is no mention of the government’s obtaining of documentation of Japanese medical / science experiments, equally and sometimes more horrific than those of the Germans, done in Manchuria and other parts of China, and apparently in Singapore and the Philippines as well during the same period. The documents are stored in a secret facility in Utah state.)
The rest of the documentary focusses on various mind control experiments sponsored by the CIA from the 1950s under Projects Artichoke, Bluebird, MKUltra, MKSearch and other related projects: adults and children alike were forcibly put on LSD, mescaline and other drugs, forced into prolonged sleep or subjected to electro-shock treatments. All these mind control experiments ultimately failed but helped to produce the CIA’s infamous torture manuals that were used in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq among other places. The film concludes with the ultimate mind control instrument: the television set and how the attrributes of moving images can ensnare viewers into passivity and suggestibility.
Inevitably with such an ambitious scope there will be weak spots and some of the film’s assumptions about frustration / aggression theory and behaviourism may be open to challenge. The film does not cover all it could and does not offer alternatives like W Edwards Deming’s Total Quality Management concept to Taylorist ways of organising work and the workplace, or forms of education other than the conventional Western kind with its emphasis on kids studying subjects in a fragmented way that emphasises testing and beating the other kids. No attention is given to public relations, marketing and advertising as forms of social control and the film also ignores Hollywood and other popular films and TV shows as potential propaganda tools: the narratives of most movies and TV shoes which emphasise conflict, winners and losers, and one hero individual against a mass enemy should have taken a beating. Pop music and other youth-oriented cultures and sub-cultures which stress individualism and peddle notions of freedom in the sense of being free from restraint and social conventions and doing whatever you like regardless of consequences also escape the hatchet job. The film does not cover gaming and whether gaming could encourage a passive mentality amenable to control and suggestion even though for some years now people at videogame-like consoles in the US send drone aircraft into faraway places around the world to kill selected target humans: there is a statistic doing the rounds on the Internet that for every two terrorists killed by drone aircraft, 98 innocent civilians are taken down as well. That’s some accurate kill rate.
The two things that really smacked me over the head were the revelation that the theory of evolution as Darwin had originally conceived it says nothing about competition being part of the process of natural selection – the idea originated with Darwin’s contemporary, the biologist / philosopher Herbert Spencer – and the news that economist Adam Smith had predicted that the organisation of work into a fragmented series of repetitive and boring tasks would destroy people psychologically and turn them into soulless beings.
Although an investigation of Western economies is outside the scope of the film, I consider that the kind of economic system we have and its assumptions connect too well with the social and psychological forms of control “Human Resources” discusses. Debt-based financial systems have the pernicious effect of encouraging competition among businesses and consumers which then spreads to other areas of society, irrespective of whether it’s needed or useful; scrambling for money to pay debts may force individuals to stay in unwanted jobs in which fragmented work tasks destroy their initiative and make them passive, and businesses to engage in intense forms of competition such as perpetual redesigning and marketing of products, aggressive and unethical marketing, pursuing cheapness, mediocrity and quantity at the expense of durability and quality, and stifling innovation and creativity. The result is that a short-term point of view is preferred over a long-term viewpoint and the economy lurches from one crisis to another. Competition biases economies towards a growth orientation which results in wastage of resources, pollution, environmental rape, economic colonialism which has to be justified somehow (hence, the need for propaganda about the racial, religious or other inferiorities of people like Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims generally and First Nations people of various countries to demean them as true owners of land and other resources so that foreigners can strip them of their wealth) and the accompanying military adventurism which generates even more environmental destruction, pollution and resource wastage, to say nothing of the lives and cultures destroyed.
When all modes of social, psychological and economic control are taken together, the conclusion that “Human Resources” comes to is that they reveal the nature of power as wielded by generations of elites as something psychopathic and wilful and that those who work for it willingly, even eagerly, will end up as much victims as the rest of us already under its jackboot. The film may require several viewings for its message to be absorbed.