The themes of Adam Curtis’ new documentary Bitter Lake should be well known to those familiar with his body of work: power, techno-politics, science, managerialism and the media. The film uses the contemporary history of Afghanistan to tell a story about how polities in the West have become incapable of understanding the complex and horrible happenings around them. Traditional forms of power in the West and Afghanistan have taken advantage of the fear and confusion to consolidate their control, but at the expense of an intellectually deskilled Western public and a world that is fundamentally less governable. Bitter Lake is more fable than scholarship, but the film is nonetheless a devastating examination of how Western interventions in Afghanistan refract the vacuousness of our own politics.
“Chaos Is a Ladder”
Curtis’ documentary series The Power of Nightmares, broadcast by the BBC in 2004, was a revelation. It was a compelling account of how the neoconservatives and international jihadi movements unknowingly constituted one another over the decades from the Cold War to the September 11, 2001 attacks, culminating in the disastrous war in Iraq starting in 2003. On another level, The Power of Nightmares was a vivisection of the politics of the time, whether practiced in Washington, London and Tel Aviv or in al-Qaeda training camps. Whereas the politics of the past had been based on notions of progress, the politics of Bush, Blair, Bibi and bin Laden was now based on fear. Those with the most harrowing nightmares, Curtis concluded, were the ones who wielded the most political clout in the age of the war on terror.
Then Barack Obama stormed the political scene with a message of hope. The junior senator from Illinois laid out a seductive vision that sought to banish the deplorable politics of fear by transcending all differences, particularly those of class and race. In Bitter Lake, Curtis locates these optimistic themes in a new kind of politics, one that seeks to control political opponents and even whole societies by refusing to define itself, by refusing to conform to the frameworks of right and left, liberal and conservative, black and white, elite and middle class. Polities in the North Atlantic world have embraced this idea because the mass media increasingly teaches society that all that is intractable and frightening in the world is the result of “politics.” Here politics is narrowly framed by the media as the petty, self-interested maneuvering of rival politicians rather than competition over scarce resources or other social scientific definitions of the term. And so “politics” is cast as something bad. Humanitarianism, the idea that innocent people should be saved from the clutches of bad politicians, has become the proclaimed basis of international military action. The heroes of our day and age are those visionaries who work outside of government or those political leaders who, like Obama in his heyday, attempt to rise above “politics” as the media tells us to understand it. But there are few heroes. Governments no longer want to govern because leading politicians no longer want to do politics in the sense of building social coalitions or negotiating in good faith with opponents. In this context of disoriented polities and disempowered governance, traditional forms of elite power, notably in the financial sector, have garnered even more influence and control over our private and public lives.
Curtis began mapping this new politics after The Power of Nightmares in his two subsequent works, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. These films also revisited the themes of science, technology and modernity that he had first explored in Pandora’s Box in 1992. Curtis has also suggested that our (anti)politics is not merely the result of an inept mass media and incompetent North Atlantic politicians. It is the deliberate strategy of some elite actors. In a recent short, Curtis documented Vladimir Putin’s rise through constant distortion and misdirection. Putin’s regime is able to rule by making everyone question what is real and who to trust. It is the politics of Lord Petyr Balish, the scheming social climber in the HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones: “Chaos is a ladder.” In Bitter Lake, Curtis takes these themes and enriches his account of our new antipolitics by bringing attention to the centrality of the Middle East in any efforts to account for the world in which we live.
There are two bitter lakes in Bitter Lake. One is the brackish expanse at roughly the midpoint of the Suez Canal. There, at the close of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz of Saudi Arabia to forge an alliance that would form the bedrock of the new global order as the economic and ideological systems of old European colonialism collapsed. In 2002, Timothy Mitchell described this alliance as “McJihad,” a marriage of necessity between opposing global forces in the absence of an alternative system of control and circulation. Mitchell’s understanding of the making of the modern Middle East ran contrary to theories of Islamist activism and violence as atavistic resistance to neoliberal hegemony, as found in Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld or Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Mitchell instead argued that neither the forces of “jihad” (the spread of politicized Islamic orthodoxy through violence) nor the forces of “McWorld” (neoliberalism’s vision of a world managed through democracy and capitalism) would be possible without the other. McJihad is the keystone of the post-colonial global political and economic order after World War II.
Bitter Lake describes the deal between Roosevelt and the Saudi king as a US guarantee of the survival of the Saudi regime in exchange for Saudi help in facilitating US preeminence in the region. That preeminence would help cultivate a new North Atlantic world order and contain the Soviet Union. The catch was that Washington’s sway would not extend to domestic affairs in Saudi Arabia, where the regime cultivated, and later exported, some of the most puritanical and militant forms of Islam in the twentieth century.
The other “bitter lake” is the reservoir behind the Kajaki dam on the Helmand river. American companies built Kajaki during the Cold War to help Afghanistan modernize and bring the country into the US sphere of influence. An unexpected consequence of the dam’s construction was the rise of the water table and thus the increasing salinity of the soil in the surrounding agricultural areas. One crop in particular — the opium poppy — thrived in the saltier earth.
In typical Curtis fashion, Bitter Lake tells a story about leaders, experts and celebrities who try and fail to reimagine the exercise of political power in the world. It is also about those who try and likewise fail to evade the ordinary circuits of politics through science, technology and managerialism. The result of these failures, as Naomi Klein also theorized in The Shock Doctrine, is the consolidation of power among those traditional elites who can withstand and exploit an environment of constant crisis. The second consequence is the creation, unleashing or transformation of forces that the scientists, technicians and managers never saw coming, do not understand and are unable to control.
Those who know Curtis’ work will find Bitter Lake comfortingly familiar. Curtis works by stitching together archival footage, raw news clips and a few original interviews with unlikely characters. An interview with a wealthy Texan socialite, Joanne Herring, who helped support the anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 1980s, demonstrates the naiveté of those actors who are unable to imagine the consequences of their interventions in environments they understand only through an ideology of wishful thinking. As always with Curtis, the rationale behind the use of segments and juxtapositions oscillates between the hilarious and the bewildering, between the provocative and the tedious. There is the typical droll Curtis voiceover that ties together the assortment of rare oddities excavated from news and film archives. Underlying it all is the aural accompaniment viewers have come to expect: beatless techno music, pop songs, unnerving sound effects and the ambient background noise of raw news audio.
Previously, Curtis was a master of the documentary miniseries, in which he expounded upon a complex thought over the course of several episodes. The pace could be blistering and the narrative convoluted, leaving the viewer overwhelmed by the rush of ideas, personalities and events. The television time slot imposed some economy upon the storytelling, but perhaps it was a straitjacket. Instead of running on television, Bitter Lake is hosted on BBC’s iPlayer, allowing for a runtime of two hours and 16 minutes. Thus freed to roam, Curtis assembles a refreshingly well-developed critique, unhurried and even lyrical. Bitter Lake could easily have been half as long or divided in two, so it is interesting that Curtis, like the contemporary musician who realizes an album no longer has to conform to the 80-minute length of a compact disc, no longer feels the need.
Bitter Lake is quintessential Curtis, but there are long, unnarrated scenes that are atypical in his oeuvre. We are asked to admire the beauty of the Afghan people and their land, or scratch our heads at the sheer contingency of an encounter. At the same time, we never forget — or should not 00 that these scenes were staged by processes Curtis is attempting to account for. A British soldier curiously interacts with a bird perched on his rifle. A group of Afghan hound aficionados are lined up for inspection by the queen of England and the king of Afghanistan. A cameraman writhes on the ground bleeding from a gunshot wound in his buttocks; his body is dragged away by unseen hands. A wheelchair-bound Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan menaces fellow passengers on the subway, exhibiting signs of extreme post-traumatic stress. A helicopter hovers over the horizon, seen through blades of tall grass ever so slightly waving in the wind. An Afghan man, half-jokingly, demonstrates his martial arts skills for the camera. Foreign soldiers evince constant confusion because they do not speak the language and have no idea what village they are in. Landscapes are taken in through the gaze of night vision and crosshairs, lots and lots of crosshairs. These languid scenes evoke the style of James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments and Anthony Wonke’s The Battle for Marjah, the war documentary equivalents of a Terrence Malick movie.
Though Bitter Lake is one of his most meditative films, Curtis is not, at his core, a visual storyteller. As his blog demonstrates, he does not need film to make his points. Curtis tells us the way things work and finds or makes the clips to prove it. His trademark voiceover and Helvetica captions do most of the intellectual heavy lifting. The viewer’s job is just to keep pace as Curtis deconstructs the meaning of interventions in Afghanistan. The end result is an exhausting yet satisfying treatise on modern politics.
After “Oh Dear”
Bitter Lake’s argument expands upon Curtis’ 2009 short The Rise of “Oh Dear”-ism, about the invention of a new kind of humanitarianism in the late Cold War period. This new humanitarianism was a reflection of the distaste for formal politics in 1960s counterculture. Private actors believed that they could intervene in wars to deliver aid to the helpless victims, circumventing both the dithering politicians at home and the damnable perpetrators of atrocities abroad. But celebrity-media initiatives like Live Aid produced questionable effects in Africa, demonstrating that politics could not be so deftly sidestepped. As aid expert David Rieff has argued, the Ethiopian regime manipulated Western philanthropic sentiment during Live Aid (“We are the world / We are the children”) in support of a massive resettlement program that was actually part of its campaign against rebels in the famine-stricken areas. Estimates suggest that as many Ethiopians perished in this forced population transfer — 100,000 — as were spared starvation. The regime described the transfer as a “humanitarian aid” project.
With the end of the Cold War, politicians and the media began to look for another bifurcated framework to make sense of the world. The humanitarian framework — a universe of nefarious politicians and their innocent victims — began to fill the void. But this edifice soon collapsed in the face of terrible wars in places like the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Those originally conceived as victims often proved as capable of evil as those who had been fingered as the bad guys. The media, having abandoned the idea that widespread violence was rooted in politics, lost the ability to explain. The result was a West in which the popular response to all the world’s horrors could only be an apathetic sigh, “Oh dear.” The media deskilled the collective intellect of the North Atlantic such that we have become incapable of understanding what the media is showing us.
What Curtis seeks to do in Bitter Lake is offer a richer account of our intellectual incapacity, our inability to see any order to the chaos to which we are so intimately connected. What better place to examine these connections than Afghanistan?
Afghanistan’s utility in this respect has its origins in the US-Saudi alliance, whose arrangements were put to the test in the 1970s. To punish the US for its support of Israel in the 1973 war, Saudi Arabia embargoed the westward export of oil. With the post-World War II liberal economic order and the North Atlantic welfare state already in crisis, the skyrocketing price of oil further destabilized the system. The long collapsing industrial sectors in the North Atlantic world saw further declines as interest rates and unemployment climbed. Neoliberalism, coming to the rescue, claims to have solved these crises through the creation of service-based economies and widespread consumer credit. Though socio-economic mobility actually decreased, the illusion of progress was maintained through debt and credit schemes. The international financial sector, flooded with the petrodollars from the wealth that poured into Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, became even more powerful given its central role in conjuring the chimera of socio-economic advancement in the declining West.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan championed the transition to neoliberalism in cooperation with the Saudi regime, with which fences had been mended. They also invented a new politics, one based on a moral vision of right and wrong. This vision was exported to places like Afghanistan, where US-backed resistance to the Soviet occupation was framed as a struggle of good against evil. This resistance was lavishly financed by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi regime also began exporting some of its most militant religious radicals to the Soviet-Afghan conflict following the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Among these radicals was a young Osama bin Laden.
The one area of British industrial manufacturing that had not been destroyed by the onset of neoliberalism was the weapons industry. Under Thatcher, Britain and Saudi Arabia signed billions of dollars in arms sales deals that challenged the special military relationship between the Saudis and the United States. Many of these arms sales were later exposed for involving massive bribes and corruption. Worse still, Saudi Arabia, though one of the world’s largest purchasers of armaments during the Cold War, was convinced by the George H. W. Bush administration that only the US could protect its oilfields from Iraq after the armies of Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. Incensed by the Saudis’ willingness to allow foreign troops on holy soil, bin Laden started down his path toward global jihad.
In Afghanistan, the withdrawal of the collapsing Soviet Union in the late 1980s led to a civil war in which the US-supported freedom fighters soon became despots and war criminals in their own right. In the Helmand province, an opium trade flourished thanks to the irrigation afforded by the dam the US had helped build several decades earlier. The Taliban emerged out of Islamic schools in Pakistan supported by the Saudi regime in an effort to spread the Saudi brand of puritanical Sunni Islam, Wahhabism. Bin Laden, however, sought to spread these same ideals by driving the US out of the Middle East just as he had helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But bin Laden would not face the US military directly; he instead opted for the indirect warfare of terrorism directed at US citizens and installations.
At the turn of the millennium, political leaders in the West continued to “ruthlessly simplify” — Curtis’ words — the world with resort to tropes of good and evil. Think Rwanda, Kosovo and, later, Darfur. At the same time, politicians gave away more and more prerogatives of government to the financial sector so that the banks could maintain the illusion of socio-economic progress. Political leaders justified this transfer of power in the name of liberating the individual citizen-consumer by devolving government authority to the private sector and the free market. Further exacerbating this transfer of power were the attacks of September 11, 2001, which brought the US economic system to near collapse. To revitalize it, interest rates were slashed so that borrowing would increase. From there, the road to the 2008 financial crisis was paved.
The moralizing humanitarian framework of our day was then applied to Afghanistan to give the 2001 invasion a nobler face. The occupation of Afghanistan was not simply about eliminating a terrorist safe haven; it soon became about the transformation of a society into a free democracy. That is, good Afghans had to be created to combat the bad Afghans of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In the 13 years that followed, an enormous international military and development apparatus attempted to create good Afghanistan, and it largely failed. The good Afghanistan, it turned out, was being built in partnership with the same warlords who had torn the country apart in the 1990s. To make matters worse, local actors in Afghanistan played upon the fears and simplifications of the West. Coalition forces and development projects were easily manipulated into fueling and funding a constantly shifting 20-year civil war. Afghanistan’s saviors, the occupying forces, likewise proved to be bad when widespread abuses — torture, assassinations, massacres, incompetence and corruption — were exposed. Soon no one was good, everyone was bad, and the public back home in the West was left saying, “Oh dear.”
What Afghanistan Reveals
Toward the end of the film, Curtis makes his central observation about the occupation of Afghanistan. The huge deployment of development and security expertise in Afghanistan since 2001 has been much more than a wasteful fraud. The problem with the managers of this latest occupation of Afghanistan, Curtis alleges, is that “few of them stopped to think whether what had happened to the Russians 20 years before might also happen to them. That, in a strange way, Afghanistan has revealed to us the emptiness and hypocrisy of our own beliefs. And that we may be returning from there haunted by mujahidin ghosts, knowing that underneath we believe in nothing.”
Likened to the titular planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 masterpiece Solaris, Afghanistan is said to have tricked the Soviets in the 1980s into seeing what they wanted to see even as it secretly drove them mad. Curtis believes that Americans also naively poured hopes and fears into the Afghan cauldron and wound up scalded when it boiled over. Afghanistan is yet more evidence for Americans that the world is impossibly dangerous and confusing — yet, we forget that, all along, we were the ones helping to making it that way.
The vacuousness of our crusading humanitarian politics today is exposed by a willingness to accept warlord rule in Afghanistan; along with it, we have also accepted billions of dollars of capital flight from this desperately poor country in the name of economic freedom. More importantly, the emptiness and hypocrisy of our politics is ultimately revealed by the 2008 financial crisis. The willingness of North Atlantic governments to accept and reinforce the corruption at the heart of the financial establishment, a rot that nearly hollowed out the world economy, was automatic. Our politicians were incapable of imagining a world in which the banks were not central to the governing of modern societies. And so even more power was handed over to them and taken away from democratic governments.
Almost as an epilogue, Curtis ends with the current Anglo-American campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The problem with this campaign is its inconsistency with the moralizing logic of our politics. (Or, rather, its consistency with the logic of “Oh dear”-ism.) Originally, President Bashar al-Asad of Syria was the evil one for plunging his country into civil war in 2011. The West openly debated mounting a humanitarian intervention to protect Syrian civilians. But soon Asad was fighting against the force that would become ISIS. The barbarity of ISIS, and its geographic reach once it reconnected with disaffected Sunnis in Iraq, eventually prompted a humanitarian intervention against the most effective enemies of the Asad regime. Like the cosmonauts who return from Solaris, we have lost the capacity to tell the difference between good and evil, true and false.
Curtis is frequently criticized for engaging in the same practice that he decries: ruthless simplification. That Bitter Lake lacks in historical nuance might, however, be part of the plan. Curtis concludes his latest offering by suggesting that, in the wake of the Afghan war, we need a new story to make sense of the world. It is difficult to tell whether he is being earnest or sarcastic.