Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 3: The Monkey in the Machine and the Machine in the Monkey)” (2011)
Final installation in the documentary trilogy sees Curtis pick up a few very disparate strands of African colonial history, the rise of biological determinism and the marriage of cybernetics and mechanistic systems of organisation to sociology, and weave these into a shaky essay about how humans have become no more than machines themselves. As with previous episodes in the series, Curtis selectively picks facts linked more by coincidence than by intent to justify his premise; this latest attempt not only stretches credibility but doesn’t even acknowledge and / or blend ideas and statements made in previous episodes of the series to justify itself.
The episode develops against a background of Belgian colonial domination of the central African countries that became Burundi, Rwanda and Congo (Kinshasa) which later became Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Belgian rule was harsh and the colonies were virtual slave-states from the late 1800s on. Independence in the early 1960s proved no solution; the new countries were woefully unprepared to go it alone and promising politicians like Patrice Lumumba were killed or exiled with the secret connivance of the United States, Belgium or France. Under President Mobutu Sese Seko, the thrice-named Congo state became his personal fiefdom just as it once had been King Leopold II’s, to be looted and his people abused as he pleased. Rwanda and Burundi themselves fell captive to an ideology created by a former leader (King Kigeli IV according to Wikipedia) and enforced by the Belgian rulers that the Tutsi and Hutu peoples were separate races (even though they both speak Kinyarwanda and share kinship networks) and natural enemies; the result was ongoing war between the two “ethnic groups” over decades.
Into all this mess comes British biologist William D Hamilton, come to investigate a pet theory about the origin of the HIV virus in central Africa, and responsible for developing the “selfish gene” theory in which the gene is the basis of all human behaviour and genes act like self-interested, self-organised machines. This theory was elaborated by others to explain phenomena such as murder, suicide bombers and genocide, and applied to developing computer technology reliant on coltan, lithium and other so-called “rare earth” minerals mined in … yes, you guessed it, the modern DRC and nearby Rwanda and Burundi!
The “selfish gene” theory may have come from Bill Hamilton and a close friend and fellow biologist George Price may have helped refined it; there’s no mention though of other scientists like John Maynard Smith and E O Wilson who also contributed original insights of their own, such as introducing game theory into evolutionary studies and the development of sociobiology with which Hamilton became strongly associated. If anything, sociobiology should have been under the spotlight in this essay as a major influence on biological science and potential support for the idea of humans as machines shaped by evolution acting on genes. Funny how Curtis missed this opportunity to explore the field.
Curtis’s contention that accepting and believing the notion of humans as helpless machines as a way of explaining our failure to stop civil wars and genocide in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC – and, while we’re at it, most other parts of Africa – is too far-fetched and glib to explain that continent’s problems and ignores the role of Western governments (and more recently China) in creating and maintaining weak political, economic and social systems in African countries for their own interests. Former African colonies of France are bound to that country by the Central African franc whose value is determined by the French government. Inheriting a Westminster style of government and British law hasn’t prevented corruption, poverty, warfare and repressive rule in many ex-British colonies like Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Even Liberia, a country founded by former slaves from the United States, has seen its excessive share of civil war and atrocities committed by both government and rebel forces. At the risk of sounding boring, I’d like to mention that Angola and Mozambique endured years and years of civil war partly as a result of South African destabilisation efforts, secretly aided by Israel. The point is that if we Western countries left Africa alone, agreed to trade fair and square with them on equal terms, and helped them with no-strings-attached aid and loans, they wouldn’t be in the hell they are now while we wring our hands helplessly. The recent NATO invasion of Libya under a supposed “Responsibility to Protect” humanitarian charade to kick out Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had called for African unity and an African version of the European Community, invested in projects in Chad and Niger, and among other domestic achievements built the world’s largest irrigation project in Libya to bring sub-Saharan water to coastal Libyan cities (and the project being funded entirely by Libyan banks), shows the extent to which the West is committed to greed and selfishness and continuing a form of racism in which Africans are always helpless and can’t fix their own problems and outsiders have to “step in”.
I intuit a distaste for progressive, social-democratic politics in Curtis’s narration which becomes more and more resigned in the course of the program. It adopts an anti-liberal tone when he claims that “liberals” in the Belgian colonial administration encouraged the Hutus to rise up against the Tutsis when Rwanda achieved independence as a way of atoning for their abysmal performance as administrators. At the end of the program, he does not draw the conclusion staring viewers in the face which is that the notion of genes and evolution affecting social behaviour entirely can easily lead to a new kind of racism in which the political, social and economic problems of African peoples are attributed indirectly to their genetic standing and Africa must be ruled once again by benevolent foreigners.
Generally for me the trilogy has been a disappointment though some interesting ideas and history have been put forward. Curtis’s documentaries suggest human societies as they are now are too far gone in their love affair with computers and technology to change and to manage the planet and its resources more responsibly. The hidden elephant in the room, as always, turns out to be modern corporate fascism in which corporations, governments, academia, the news media and the military co-operate and form networks with the aim of self-enrichment while everyone and everything else can go fuck themselves.