Photo credit: Chad Batka/The New York Times
UR brains have an absolutely fascinating ability to memorize and envision new things. That happily keeps us employed, entertained, prosperous and seemingly civilized. This condition of superior mental capacity is what makes living in the West so great: the stability we have and the enthusiasm we all share within our diverse community to focus on furthering freedoms and equality all over the world. However, even though this tendency is what makes Westerners feel so entitled in the modern day, it is actually our freedom to be left alone and to be told many different truths — from many different sources — which we all collectively agree to be contradictions to each other, these are our main follies. We have all collectively agreed to disagree in an age of propagated fear, chaos and confusion, and that makes us ignorant for the time being. When in reality, every day we look outside and we see a peaceful, quiet and preemptive-for-change kind of environment. That contradiction confuses us. Most of us are — and always have been — safely secluded from war, bombs, threats, discrimination, natural disasters and lethal diseases — this has only dampened our ability to feel true emotion towards our fellow man. We live in protected bubbles and have our own bubbles inside of those bubbles in order to keep us away from the non-Western sentiment.
When I found Adam Curtis on the internet, I was exposed to this reality for the first time. Curtis is very much like David Attenborough in that: he’s intoxicating to listen to and he’s a deeply educational human being. Both of them are with the BBC and they are both amazing at what they do — separately from each other. Attenborough takes us to a primitive kind of kingdom, one where we explore all of the world’s untouched landscapes and animals up close — just like we would in nature if we really knew and understood them. We take the time to learn the basics of life; how the ecosystem works for so many different species and how families operate on Earth.
Curtis however, brings a much different kind of place to the surface. One that is more human-centric and concentrates on our large (but really tiny) contribution to the world — like our science, technology, media, war, and psychology. He shows us a reality that is so surreal and dark; where human intelligence, technological advancement, deception, and progress are the only cornerstones of real civilization on this planet. Human thought is easily malleable and that’s a great thing if you think about it like this: it’s good that we’re passive because from a young age we can easily learn new essential skills from our elders and from our local governments. Knowing our languages, learning and copying how to make a living, or how to live healthily and cooperatively is essential to our survival. But if you think a little bit deeper, from the perspective that our minds are easily susceptible to being influenced and made to believe all forms of media and propaganda that are produced by certain approved publishers — like the symbols, letters, numbers, the pictures and the videos which we come across regularly: then you’re also correct too.
People, over the past few centuries, have become ironically very gullible, exclusively self-expressive, and selfishly rude. Where as they attract to conformity and to individuality as if they were separate from each other but they really aren’t. We have to understand this. The ultimate path we are on towards ultimate freedom, happiness, liberty, individualism, uniqueness, self-expression and all forms of good communication — is not capable without releasing our anger and compassion to conform and to understand in a society. That’s what makes us human. We all have to hold back and not go too far with our imaginations, otherwise, we become “radicals”. We’re told we have OCD or ADD, or that we are hyper active, anxious or depressed. We’re told that there is a certain limit to how much we can rebel but we are encouraged to do so to be unique. This mix of conformity and individual expression has all the right hints that characterize it as slavery and oppression.
One of my previous posts was strictly about the 2016 film HyperNormalisation. This post is going to be more about Curtis’ other comments that he made after it was released to the public, and also some his other films — like the three-part series The Trap, 2007, and the four-part series The Century Of The Self, 2002. In the last chapter of Hypernormalisation, entitled A World Without Power, Curtis explains that people in the 21st century have turned away from politics, especially after the Iraq War. We all feel as if we were lied to about the Weapons of Mass Destruction which Saddam Hussien allegedly had, and that regardless of what we did or said — the war still happened. Millions of us gathered to protest the war but that didn’t matter to those in control. So what did we do? “Liberals, radicals and a whole generation of young people retreated into cyberspace, where they were free from hypocrisy and from corrupted politics.”
And in part, that is why nothing is changing. We’re not getting together anymore to protest for change, we retreat to the internet where our thoughts are cherished. In a podcast he did with Russel Brand, he mentioned how the Occupy movement in America, the Arab Spring in Africa and in the Middle East, and Syriza in Europe — all which happened after the Iraq War — were “all attempts to change the world radically, which had great force behind them, but all of them have stalled.” He said that, “I argued in the film [Hypernormalisation] they confused process with content. They assembled, they were powerful, had a great slogan behind them, but they just stopped.” There is a mass desire for change around the world, especially from young people — these events prove that to be true — but there is no “coherent, cohesive message or purpose,” so they all just fizzle out and we come back home where everything is peaceful and perfectly set up how we like it.
This is the ending sequence from the series The Trap:
As this series has shown, the idea of freedom that we live with today is a narrow and limiting one that was born out of a specific and dangerous time: the Cold War.
It may of had meaning and purpose then, as an alternative to communist tyranny but now it’s become a dangerous trap.
Our government relies on a simplistic economic model of human beings that allows inequality to grow and offers nothing positive in face of the reactionary forces that they have helped to awake around the world. If we ever want to escape from this limited world view — we will have to rediscover the progressive positive ideas of freedom and realize that Isiah Berlin was wrong: Not all attempts to change the world for the better lead to tyranny.
— The Trap, BBC
As a critic of capitalism; as socialist — I connect with that passage very deeply. Any time I bring up socialism in modern times — as a possible solution to our problems — I’m instantly bombarded with the message that communism can only bring tyranny and that we need only look into history to see that as true. But as Curtis pointed out, we are still living in a very constrained form of freedom which was created during the Cold War. Which means that this reaction to communism — as an evil vessel for gulags and for a one-party state — is only an indoctrinated fear that was considered to be true in the late 20th century and has now somehow infected the intelligentsia of today.
Russel Brand followed up in the podcast by asking, “has government been dealing with 21st century capitalism in a 20th century way or is it that now our governments are all about managing and avoiding risks?” Curtis responded, “what drives modern managerial capitalism is this desire to avoid instability. To always analyze the past and look for patterns that are happening now that look like dangers from the past and then adjust. There’s always a right way to be… Always a right body mass index, or a stable thing to be.”
This rears — in our capitalist system — a tendency to be afraid of any new kind change. To be afraid of what hasn’t been tried yet. We can’t compare it to anything that happened in the past, so we just avoid it as much as possible. The less radical people tell us to “look what happens when you try to change something.” They tell us to “look at what you tried to do with the Russian revolution,” but, according to Curtis, “what they ignore is the fact that you live in a society that comes out of a revolution which has got fantastic and wonderful freedoms in it.” He continued, “it can be good but it can be dangerous. At the moment we live in a static world where we’re absolutely terrified of all change. Where as someone like me would argue that change can be dangerous but it can also be thrilling.”
You can’t just blame the politicians.
It is us as well.
In the series The Century of the Self, it is made very clear how psychology has been used as a weapon against the ideas and the force that comes from the mass of people. Starting with Sigmund Freud and carrying on to the present day; the primitive and sexual forces inside our minds must be controlled by chaos. This fear of chaos is intentionally articulated by the media or in other words — by propaganda. Freud’s nephew, the father of modern American propaganda — Edward Bernays — worked with the government after World War I and he also attended the Paris Peace conferences with President Wilson. In an interview with Bernays, he said that “when I came back to the United States, I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace and propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it — so what I did was to try to find some other word. So we found the word ‘Council on Public Relations.” This is the first time that word was ever used.
At this point in history — just after WWI — a new form of democracy emerged. The form of democracy that Westerners still live with. It is where businesses reacted to people’s desires in a way politicians never could. A form of democratic freedom which depended on treating people not like “active citizens” — which is how they were treated before — but as “passive consumers.” Buying products and services would become the new form of expression. Over time, “politicians — who gave into the market and surrounded by a public which demanded more jobs and more freedom — seceded to any real change in society,” says Curtis. “Their actual power was so utterly limited because the limit of change [this is what he coined as The Trap] was shrunk by the numbers of the market. As long as the market is seen as the driver for society and governments refuse to push the limits of the market — inequality and war will only get worse.”
The real problems in the world today cannot be tackled with the kind of system we currently have. With the economic market in control of everything; the prediction of Boom and Bust will continue until a boom just can’t happen anymore. This will come about when all of the New Deal schemes have been deregulated and dismantled. Those programs which saved the entire world from the Great Depression are essentially what saved capitalism for us to use today. But capitalism has changed so dramatically since then into an enigma of corporate power over all individual freedoms and expression; it has now become a mental trap, locking us in a disaster mode of fear and chaos. At the end of The Century of the Self, Curtis pointed out that, “only two kinds of people act in a ‘rational’ kind of way…” — the way that modern capitalism predicts that all consumers act — “economists and psychopaths.”
Hyperreality, unlike Hypernormalisation, is “is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” This is the kind of world that we all are accustomed to in the 21st century. This is the mental state that we all have to break away from before we can expect to see any kind of evolution in our civilization. We’re living in a small manufactured world that is designed to keep us thinking that we’re expressing ourselves individually through capitalism — when in reality we’re just buying into the game that was made for us to play.