On 18 and 19 November, we sent out a two-part media alert about the recent BBC2 series, ‘The Power of Nightmares’ (for transcripts, go to:

Adam Curtis, who wrote and directed the series, located key goals of modern US foreign policy in the beliefs of a group of myth-making neo-conservative “idealists”.

According to Curtis, these neocons were motivated by a perceived need to counter the destructive impacts of “selfish individualism”. They also promoted a vision of the United States spreading “the good of democracy around the world”. Curtis took this propaganda at face value. His central claim was that “politicians are seen simply as managers of public life” but that, almost by accident, “they have discovered a new role that restores their power and authority”. Rather than “delivering dreams”, Curtis said, “politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares.”

However, Curtis overlooked the historical reality that the alleged focus on countering “selfish individualism”, as well as the demonising of foreign ‘threats’, were not the exclusive preserve of a cabal of neocons. Nor was this a relatively recent phenomenon that took hold during the Reagan years. In fact, such propaganda was part of a sustained programme of social engineering carried out by US governments, both Democrat and Republican, and by powerful business associations, from the 19th century onwards.

Curtis had nothing to say about the key issue of business control of American society;  the words ‘corporate’, ‘corporation’ and ‘business’ were not mentioned in the series. Instead, the neocons were depicted as fanatical ideologues, with no mention of their roots in the business community or their furtherance of corporate interests.

The red herring of “You wanted me to make a different series”

Curtis responded to Media Lens twice on the same day (22 November). The first reply was as follows:

“I think it comes down to this. You believe that business and corporate interests shape the world and that ideas and political ideology are just froth on the surface that disguises the real, hidden forces underneath.

“The neoconservatives and the Islamists believe the complete opposite – that ideas can fundamentally change the world. In the neoconservatives own words: ‘Ideas do have consequences.’

“I don’t believe either of these positions. I think the reality is far more complex – that ideas do have widespread effects but not in the way those who developed them necessarily intended. They are taken up, used and distorted by many other forces including business and corporate interests.”

“From my perspective, yours and Mr Chomsky’s arguments are just as much a political ideology as that of the neoconservatives – although in many ways they are a more interesting and satisfying explanation of the forces shaping today’s world than the neoconservatives narrow manicheanism.

“But the reality is that both the neoconservatives and the Islamists have become powerful and influential and I chose to make a series of films that explained the roots of their ideas and how they were taken up, simplified and distorted. This was the focus of the programmes, and I made them this way because very few people know anything about the history of these ideas and I thought it was important to tell that history from the point of view of those involved and to critically analyse the development of their ideas.

“You want me to have made a different series – about the underlying role of business. That would be a completely different programme – a perfectly good and very important subject – but different. You are doing the same as you have done in the past, you criticise me for not making the programme that I never intended to make in the first place.

“That said, I do take your argument seriously and I thank both you and all your correspondents for taking the time to write to me. The interplay between political ideology and other forces is a fascinating and complex subject and I am well aware that in three hours of film time I left out masses of important arguments and perspectives and it is very good to be reminded of what I have missed. I am sure I will return to this area again – and your criticism I am sure will help me shape future projects.” (Email to Media Lens, 22 November, 2004)

We are grateful to Adam Curtis for his gracious response.

The essence of Curtis’s objection to our critique is that “You want me to have made a different series”. In fact, we critically appraised Curtis’s +own+ thesis on its own terms and found it to be fundamentally ill-conceived. Curtis’s stated focus – the ideas motivating both the neocons and “the Islamists” – cannot be understood without examining the reality of western state-corporate power on the one hand, and the response amongst Islamic peoples to the suffering wreaked upon them by that same power, on the other.

By ignoring the role of business, and its partnership with the state, Curtis removed the context that would allow a proper understanding of the political world today. For Curtis, such arguments “are just as much a political ideology as that of the neoconservatives”. But the influence of corporate power is not a political theory – it is a central political fact of modern life. In seeking to understand the modern world, an analysis of the role of corporate power is not somehow optional – unless making sense is also deemed optional.

Curtis’s arguments can only be taken seriously if we ignore the historical record, including formerly secret US internal documents, that clearly demonstrate the motives and intentions of policy makers, whether neocons were in power or not. Summing up this record, historian Mark Curtis notes that:

“The US’ most fundamental role in the world is organising the global economy and key regions to benefit US business, a strategy that has further impoverished dozens of nations and which holds large regions of the world hostage to commercial interests.” (Curtis, Web of Deceit, Vintage, London, 2003, p. 118)

This brutal imperialism, which Adam Curtis ignores, is one of the most powerful forces shaping world affairs today. Zbigniew Brzezinski, an adviser to several US presidents, explained American policy in stark terms:

“To put it in a terminology that harkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together.” (Quoted, John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, London, 2002, p. 113-114)

In dealing with the concerns of “the Islamists”, Curtis ignores the fact that Osama bin Laden has clearly listed three political grievances as primary motives for the September 11, 2001 attacks: the oppression of Palestinians, the devastating effect of US-UK sanctions and war on Iraqi civilians, and the presence of US military bases in Saudi Arabia. These motives, it should go without saying, can never justify atrocities carried out against any target, western or otherwise. But for Curtis to ignore these political grievances, and to focus instead on hatred of western “selfish individualism”, is seriously misleading.

Of fantasies, gravity and unexamined power

In a second reply later the same day, Curtis responded further. (A full-length version of Curtis’s second response was actually published as a Guardian comment piece, ‘Fear gives politicians a reason to be’, 24 November, 2004)

“Of course politicians in the past have used fear and exaggerated threats, but this time I think it is different. In the past it was always in response to another political threat to their power – whether it was internal, from the organised working class, or from abroad. This time I think they have turned to fear not because of a real enemy outside but because they feel that their own sense of legitimacy and authority dwindling.”

Curtis here concedes that a central plank in his original argument was inaccurate: manipulation of fear and terror is indeed a long-standing convention, not a recent development by extreme neocons. But he now makes the dubious claim that politicians have, for the first time, targeted an invented enemy to counter a loss of legitimacy and authority.

In reality, political leaders and state planners have +always+ feared popular demands for equity, justice and functioning democracy. They have always hyped external enemies to promote subordination and passivity. As Chomsky has noted: “Remember, any state, +any+ state, has a primary enemy: its own population.” (Quoted, ‘Understanding Power’, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, The New Press, 2002, p. 70)

We can be sure that Blair was deeply disturbed by the public rejection of his drive to war, when two million people marched on the streets of Britain in February 2003. But in the same way, the governments of the day were troubled by ‘industrial unrest’ in 1970s Britain, and during the civil disobedience, for example, of the 1920s, 1930s and 1960s.

Curtis goes on to argue that: “In the period roughly from the end of the first world war through to the economic crisis of the 70s politicians on both the right and the left believed that they could use the powers of the state to reshape and change society. This was a belief common to the National Socialists, Clement Atlee and the Keynsians, and LBJ. This belief flourished in the post-war years – and out of it came a wide cultural influence of politics because it offered a vision of a new type of world which everyone could work towards.

“The architects of this vision were the politicians and this gave them great authority because they not only managed society but they gave a meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives. That idea of progressive politics collapsed in the crisis of the 1970s – and out of it came the modern pessimism that society is too complex an organism to be changed in a rational fashion. The alternative was allowing the hidden hand of the market to guide and shape society – and so politicians like Mrs Thatcher gave the power that previously had been held by the state away to the market.”

In fact the modern state has been highly successful in reshaping society to suit the needs of corporate business and investors. Peter Townsend of Bristol University has written:

“Poverty is not something people impose on themselves for want of effort and community organisation. It is constructed by divisive and discriminatory laws, inflexible organisations, acquisitive ideologies of wealth, a deeply-rooted class system and policies which serve privilege in the short term and destroy society in the long term.” (Townsend. Quoted, John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, pp.79-80)

Meanwhile, society has been saturated by state-corporate propaganda promoting the illusion that “progressive politics” have been seeking to provide “a meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives”. Thus, we are to believe that the state has been fundamentally benevolent, prioritising the common interests of the public, rather than the interests of a select few.

The reality behind the rhetoric has been the desperate plight of the marginalised and dispossessed sectors of society in both rich and poor nations, and the devastation and slaughter wreaked around the world by western power in southeast Asia, Indonesia, Brazil, Korea, Cuba, Haiti, the Philippines and so on.

It is condescending for Curtis to suggest that politicians “gave a meaning and purpose to peoples’ lives.” This is an elite, top-down view of society, and ignores visions, aspirations and initiatives originating at grassroots level.

But Curtis argues further that: “This has increasingly left the politicians with a loss of authority. Although politicians like Gordon Brown and Clinton do (or did) promise to make health and education work better, they are not promising to change the world – only to manage it in a more efficient way (Clinton – guided by Alan Greenspan gave away the last vestiges of political control over the economy much as Mrs Thatcher did). It would be impossible for Lyndon Johnson to make his famous ‘Great Society’ speech today – that idea that politicians can change the world would be laughed at.

“Of course there is massive social and economic progress but it is no longer perceived as having been produced by politicians. Politicians and politics don’t give meaning and purpose to our lives any longer – and this has created a crisis of legitimacy for them. If all they offer is a better managerial style – then why should we vote for them? This is one of the reasons New Labour remains so dominant despite all crises – no-one believes the alternative will be any different – the conservatives don’t have a vision to offer, merely the promise of sacking more civil servants.”

There is no acknowledgement here of the immense benefits to society resulting from the concerted pressure of cooperative workers’ movements and others on the lower rungs: improvements that were often won only at great cost to themselves, and not simply handed down by elites. Nor does Curtis recognise here the positive, alternative vision of an equitable and sustainable society that is being articulated by the diverse strands of the global justice movement – often termed pejoratively, by the mainstream, as the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement.

Curtis goes on to claim mistakenly, once again, that politicians have only recently discovered use of fear as a device for restoring power and legitimacy: “This is why I argued that politicians have found in fear a way of restoring their power and authority and recreating a sense of legitimacy. I do not in any way think it is a conspiracy – I think they have stumbled on it. Put simply, they have found a grand, dark force to protect people against – and they can use the power of the state to do this. It is a mirror image of the positive future they used to promise us – but now it is a frightening future they promise to protect us from.”

Curtis here contradicts his previous acknowledgement that manipulation of fear is an old ploy, and returns to the discredited notion that this is a +recent+ development by politicians afraid of losing their legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

Curtis writes: “I think that this is largely a fantasy (of course there is the threat of Islamist terrorism – but not in the organized, sinister network they portray) – it represents the last gasp of a liberal political elite to maintain their sense of specialness in society. The reality is that there are lots of new elites in business, science and the media who are creating the new progressive visions, and the age of politics as a system that gave meaning and vision to society may be dying. Or we may be living through an incredible era of prosperity and calm in which politics has gone into abeyance – and when a real crisis comes along politics will return in a new form we cannot possible imagine.”

There is a desperate quality to Curtis’s attempts at a rebuttal – the conclusion is particularly bizarre. The claim that “we may be living through an incredible era of prosperity and calm in which politics has gone into abeyance” is an elitist view that holds that politics is a game played by powerful politicians, and channelled by power-friendly corporate media. Politics, by this view, is certainly +not+ the activity and ideals of grassroots movements, which are currently flourishing like never before. Last year’s massive worldwide protests against the attack on Iraq war were +not+ a sign that “politics has gone into abeyance”.

Curtis writes abstractly of a hypothetical “real crisis” that may come along sometime in the future. The “real crisis” of global hegemony by the world’s biggest rogue state is overlooked. So, too, is the “real crisis” of impending planetary catastrophe under human-induced climate change. These topics are clearly nowhere to be found on Curtis’s ideological radar system.

Curtis concludes: “But – to return to television – these new systems of power and the elites behind them are the thing we in the media should be analysing and reporting on – not the old and decaying fantasies of a political elite. So, in a sense I agree with you – but the aim of my programmes is to show the fantasies of that political elite and it would be the job of another programme to examine where power is now being exercised.” (Email to Media Lens, 22 November, 2004)

There is nothing new about “these new systems of power and the elites behind them”. And there is certainly little prospect of the corporate media reporting and analysing systems of which it is an integral part. And so, Curtis ends where he started in his response to us: that “it would be the job of another programme to examine where power is now being exercised”. Thus, his series leaves us in the dark about that crucial issue. It would be rather like producing a popular astronomy programme on the structure of the universe and neglecting to mention the role of gravity.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the powerful forces that shape world affairs are leading us into a fully-fledged nightmare, of which we already see terrible flashes in Fallujah, Palestine and elsewhere. And while the BBC continues to make high-cost series like The Power of Nightmares at public expense, those powerful forces are free to go about their business, unexamined and unchecked.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Adam Curtis, the writer and director of The Power of Nightmares:

Ask him why he failed to address the promotion of fear and nightmares by +all+ US and UK governments in the past century. Why did he not locate the roots of neocon policies in business control of domestic and foreign societies for profit? Why did he overlook the effects of this profit-drive in western mass killing in the Third World? Is this very real “politics of fear” not central to an understanding of international affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries?

Email: [email protected]

Email: [email protected]


Email: [email protected]