Business and the decline of political liberty
December 2, 2006 10:26 AM   Subscribe

The Mayfair Set [Google Video]. A BBC Documentary series on how City of London bankers systematically dismantled British industry from the 1960s-90s and removed the power of the state to protect people from the greed of the market A thought provoking documentary from Adam Curtis whose other documentaries The Power of Nightmares and The Century of the Self have been previously discussed and well received on Mefi. It is almost four hours long but well worth the effort.
posted by ClanvidHorse (23 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'll probably watch it, but I came out of "Nightmares" with the sense that I had been subliminally indoctrinated with sophisticated propaganda techniques. Thanks for the link.
posted by stbalbach at 10:34 AM on December 2, 2006

Holy run on sentence, batman.

Anyway, I don't know how much of a blessing being behind The Power of Nightmares is...

I can't say that I didn't enjoy it, but I could never quite buy it. The whole Al-Qaida being made up stuff was very interesting, but I could never see that is in fact true.

I'll still probably watch this though.
posted by Alex404 at 11:33 AM on December 2, 2006

Apologies for the lax punctuation. I read it twice and still never noticed. Curse you cut'n'paste!
posted by ClanvidHorse at 11:50 AM on December 2, 2006

It's fascinating that Curtis finds patterns in recent history; single individuals influencing our societies in a dramatic way (Stirling, Qutb, Strauss).
This accompanied by contempary pictures which seem to give it a subliminal sense of truth.

It's fascinating. I'm not sure that it's true.
Some form of propaganda indeed.

But then Michael Moore makes propaganda too of course.
posted by jouke at 11:52 AM on December 2, 2006

I didn't get the jist of PoN as Al-Qaeda doesn't exist, but that we helped boost it's credibility. Which ring true to me. We made bin Laden a household name, and by villifying him, we enhanced his status.

But this looks like a neat documentary, and I'll check it out.
posted by Busithoth at 12:18 PM on December 2, 2006

Some form of propaganda indeed.

I think this attitude must come from a lifetime of being spoonfed pap from US television, that pretends to have no point of view whatsoever, while always supporting the status quo.

Curtis generally has a position that he takes. A position that's based upon his reading and his research. He doesn't attempt to pretend he's aiming for some phoney balance, in which monkey A rebuts monkey B, in order to make the suckers who are watching think that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. Rather, he presents his position and the evidence that supports it in a dramatic and entertaining way, and takes for granted that you're sophisticated enough to understand that the images and sounds that illustrate it are just that -- illustrations.

But his position is always pretty explicit. If you think he's wrong, then do the reading yourself and come up with a position of your own.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:21 PM on December 2, 2006

So far, this David Stirling guy seems like a real cupcake.
posted by basicchannel at 12:35 PM on December 2, 2006

I think this attitude must come from a lifetime of being spoonfed pap from US television
Well, you think wrong.
I'm not under the impression btw that US news reporting is not opinionated.

I think you're overreacting.

I'm sceptical when a historical is too linear, too causal.
It's hard to form any other point of view when watching these documentaries; who can argue with his point on egyptian '60 politics, on 60s arab arms deals etc.
That combined with the seductive visuals makes it indistinguishable from propaganda.

I'm not saying anything about the truth of the statements in the documentatires mind you.
posted by jouke at 12:52 PM on December 2, 2006

Some like me are old enough to remember "the red scare" , the communist ating babies. In Italy this meme is being re-used by Berlusconi to rally people old enough to still feel hate and young enough to be naive , combined with the a minor form of OMG teh terrah scare ; of course all of this under the take-all flag of "freedom"...but some is freedomer then others, apparently.

Now this "war on terror" is the psychological equivalent of "the red scare" , but for a younger generation. Older, wiser people may feel like helping break this chain of fear, religious bigotry, free market ideology ; the market dictates nothing, the invisible hand is that of mafia.

I think we all deserve not to live in an ages of fear anymore.


That said I am certainly going to watch the video, thanks for this good post !
posted by elpapacito at 1:08 PM on December 2, 2006

jouke, you've definately touched on one thing:
he's a compelling documentarian, much much much more so than Moore is, in my opinion.
but his omissions can really speak volumes.

I just wish he played a little attention to other terrorist acts (like, say, the Iran hostage situation. no mention)

skepticism is good for you.
posted by Busithoth at 1:09 PM on December 2, 2006

We made bin Laden a household name, and by villifying him, we enhanced his status.

Just to clarify, I didn't mean to say that the idea of Al-Qaida being merely a name was wrong, I just couldn't entirely buy into his claims as much as I think he wanted me too. It did definitely shake up some of my underlying assumptions about how I was seeing things when I saw it, though - which is probably all he really wants anyway. But...

...his omissions can really speak volumes.

This is basically the feeling I got.
posted by Alex404 at 1:20 PM on December 2, 2006

I agree, busithoth, he's not nearly as bad as Michael Moore.

The part where James Slater explains why the orange part of Monopoly is most lucrative is fantastic.
posted by jouke at 3:03 PM on December 2, 2006

That the Orange properties (New York, Tennessee, etc.) are most valuable is basic Monopoly strategy. A little known corollarly is that the dark green properties (Pennsylvania, etc.) are the worst to build on. A classic smart-defeats-stupid move is to trade green for orange. I've sometimes even gotten someone to give me two Orange for one Green. Talk about a massacre.
posted by MattD at 5:02 PM on December 2, 2006

And the "market" isn't greedy, any more than hurricanes or butterflies. It's the state of nature.
posted by MattD at 5:04 PM on December 2, 2006

It's the state of nature.

LOL. When did this 'state of nature' come to be, perchance?
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 6:22 PM on December 2, 2006

thank you. I have had just about all I can take of Mike Rowe's Dirty Jobs and How It's Made.
posted by Frasermoo at 7:50 PM on December 2, 2006

Well, MattD, what I meant is that apparently analysing risc is so much in his nature that he even analysed Monopoly; the corporate raider who handled billions even wanting to game Monopoly.
posted by jouke at 12:07 AM on December 3, 2006

There is a notion (to which I suppose I subscribe) that the job of the historian is to create a narrative out of evidence, which then competes with other, conflicting narratives spun from the same material. That's certainly what Curtis does, and the flamboyant style acts as a kind of alienation device, reminding the viewer that what they're watching is constructed.

I'd be interested in more detail on the Clermont set's crypto-fascist ambitions of taking over Britain and "running it properly", and it would have been nice to see a mention of their murderous chum Lucky Lucan. But Curtis' programmes tend to have a specific thesis, and I personally think it's acceptable for him to leave out details that don't relate to that thesis.

I think his interviews are very good - there's a wonderful bit in TPoN where one of Bin Laden's erstwhile colleagues says that when he first arrived in Afghanistan he was only in demand for his money "and his personal qualities", and there's something enjoyably mischievous in his delivery of the line, as it could mean almost anything and implies a lot.

These programmes helped flesh out the detail of the disturbing chaos I saw represented on the news and interminably tedious political programmes like Weekend World throughout my childhood. Broadly speaking, I think his thesis makes sense, and I'm glad he put it forward. I would be interested in other theses that represent the same evidence.

If you hold on after the programmes there's a bonus of some of a totally unconnected Jonathan Meades documentary about Nazi Architechture, which is even more personal in its view and outrageously entertaining.

It's much, much better to have these signed, personal accounts than a bland, impersonal (but in no way less partial) view that can allow the viewer to delude themself into thinking there's such a thing as "historical truth".
posted by Grangousier at 7:25 AM on December 3, 2006

Thanks for posting this. So far I've only got about halfway through the series, but I look forward to watching the rest. For anyone who grew up in 1970s Britain, as I did, it's a great nostalgia trip -- Jim Slater and the Slater-Walker affair! Edward Heath and the 3-day week! Harold Wilson and the sterling crisis! -- I don't know how much it would mean to an American viewer, but it has enormous resonance for me.

Curtis is a brilliant film-maker, whose documentaries are both compelling stories and profound, almost poetic meditations on power and ideology. One of the themes he dwells on repeatedly, both here and in The Power of Nightmares, is that no one can predict the future (politicians don't control the economy, businessmen don't control the markets), and that events often have unintended consequences. (It's ironic that his films have often been seized on by conspiracy theorists, when they are actually deeply subversive of any sort of conspiracy theory.)

As history, however, his films are deeply problematic. The problem lies not in his use of facts (mostly accurate) but in the emphasis he gives to them. (In The Power of Nightmares, for example, his account of Leo Strauss was accurate enough, but vastly overstated the influence and the intellectual coherence of the Straussian school of thought.) Here I'm afraid I have to disagree with Grangousier's remarks above. It's perfectly true that all historians select facts in order to construct a narrative -- but this does not mean that there is no such thing as 'historical truth'. My criterion for judging Curtis's films is not just 'is this a plausible narrative?' but 'is this true?' and by that standard his films leave a lot to be desired.

The Mayfair Set, from what I've seen of it so far, seems to be open to two main objections. First, it hugely exaggerates the influence of the small group of mercenaries, gamblers and corporate raiders at the centre of the story. It is absurd to describe Jim Slater as 'the dominant force in the City of London' when the truth is that he was widely distrusted, never got onto the City's inside track, and was never in the same league as the big merchant banks (Rothschilds, Barings, Warburgs) whose ranks he unsuccessfully tried to join. Secondly, the film presents a bizarrely distorted picture of the 'old' City of London. From Curtis's narrative, you would assume that the stock market had come into being some time around 1950; that the City of London was run by 'captains of industry'; that there had never been any conflict between City finance and British manufacturing; and that all was sweetness and light until Slater and his band of buccaneers came along.

And this, to my mind, is the major problem with Curtis's films: that he sets up an exaggerated contrast between his heroes (often very unlikely heroes) and his villains. In The Power of Nightmares his hero is Henry Kissinger, who is presented as the clear-eyed exponent of a realist foreign policy (as opposed to the dangerous utopianism of the neo-conservatives). In The Mayfair Set his heroes, equally improbably, are the old school of British politicians and bankers, who are presented as faithful guardians of the national interest (as opposed to the predatory capitalism of their successors). It's brilliantly presented, but as history it just won't do.
posted by verstegan at 4:45 PM on December 3, 2006

This is more of a side note, but I have never seen a more powerful display of satisfaction than what's seen in the bit from a 1974 interview, beginning at 28:54, with Saudi energy minister Sheik Ahmed Yamani.
- Doesn't this new massive increase in the price of oil mean a change in the world balance of power between the developing nations like you, the producers, and us, the developed, industrialized nations?
- Yes it will.
- And what do you think arises from that?
- Well, a new type of relationship. You have to adjust yourself to the new circumstances, and I think you have to sit down and talk seriously, with us, about this new era.
A text snippet doesn't do it justice. Seriously, if you, like me, didn't live in 1974, take a look.
posted by Anything at 5:50 PM on December 3, 2006

The documentary speaks of Slater and then the Labour government taking over companies and then selling their assets.

Who bought the assets? Small investors?
posted by Anything at 6:38 PM on December 3, 2006

The opposite point of view was taken by Peter Lynch in "Beating the Street." He pointed out that when the Queen sold, he always was first in line to buy, because generally when an UK government business was privatized, its debt was eliminated and it was provided a generous cash cushion, then offered at well below cost. British Airways, the rail system, the water companies, and I believe a train system were his examples.

Investors in those, the majority of which were British citizens, did very well for themselves.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:20 AM on December 4, 2006

Great post. Thanks, ClanvidHorse.
posted by prost at 2:35 AM on December 4, 2006

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