An interview with the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis  | PART I


“It’s ‘fuck off’ to everything,” says Adam Curtis, describing public sentiment today. The British documentarist sees himself as an optimist amid dystopians, and as a classical journalist whose medium happens to be film. For 30 years he has produced a rich body of documentaries on politics and society for the BBC—and in the process, has emerged as a cult-hero to young thinkers trying to comprehend a chaotic world.

The films themselves are a collage of archival footage, words on screen and fast montages that create sprawling, idealistic-yet-dark narratives on the changing relationships among people, politics, philosophy, psychology, economics and power. They cut quickly between different tones and topics to resemble a train of thought or a rich conversation between friends. The mirror he holds up is disturbing: a reality that is freakish, demented, deformed.

His latest film, “HyperNormalisation” argues that stability has been preserved by ideas that are somehow both difficult to believe and almost impossible to escape. As part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative, we interviewed Mr Curtis at his work studio in London. The conversation glided from individualism and data to populism and “this sense of doom” that people feel. Fittingly for a discussion that touched upon the superficiality of media, we are publishing the transcript with only the lightest of edits. It is 8,500 words, or around 35 minutes to read. The less committed can google “youtube epic card trick” and affirm Mr Curtis’s theses instead.

The Economist: What is HyperNormalisation?

Adam Curtis: “HyperNormalisation” is a word that was coined by a brilliant Russian historian who was writing about what it was like to live in the last years of the Soviet Union. What he said, which I thought was absolutely fascinating, was that in the 80s everyone from the top to the bottom of Soviet society knew that it wasn’t working, knew that it was corrupt, knew that the bosses were looting the system, knew that the politicians had no alternative vision. And they knew that the bosses knew they knew that. Everyone knew it was fake, but because no one had any alternative vision for a different kind of society, they just accepted this sense of total fakeness as normal. And this historian, Alexei Yurchak, coined the phrase “HyperNormalisation” to describe that feeling.

I thought “that’s a brilliant title” because, although we are not in any way really like the Soviet Union, there is a similar feeling in our present day. Everyone in my country and in America and throughout Europe knows that the system that they are living under isn’t working as it is supposed to; that there is a lot of corruption at the top. But whenever the journalists point it out, everyone goes “Wow that’s terrible!” and then nothing happens and the system remains the same.

There is a sense of everything being slightly unreal; that you fight a war that seems to cost you nothing and it has no consequences at home; that money seems to grow on trees; that goods come from China and don’t seem to cost you anything; that phones make you feel liberated but that maybe they’re manipulating you but you’re not quite sure. It’s all slightly odd and slightly corrupt.

So I was trying to make a film about where that feeling came from, and I went way back into the past to do that. I borrowed the title from Mr Alexei Yurchak and called it “HyperNormalisation”. I wasn’t trying to say “Oh, we’re just like the Soviet Union collapsing”. I was just trying to show the same feeling of unreality, and also that those in charge know that we know that they don’t know what’s going on. That same feeling is pervasive in our society, and that’s what the film is about.

The Economist: Since “HyperNormalisation” came out in 2016, Donald Trump has entered the White House and populism has spread even deeper across Europe. Is that an interruption of the system you describe or a symptom of it?

Mr Curtis: No one is really sure what Trump represents. My working theory is that he’s part of the pantomime-isation of politics. Every morning Donald Trump wakes up in the White House, he tweets something absolutely outrageous which he knows the liberals will get upset by, the liberals read his tweets and go “This is terrible, this is outrageous,” and then tell each other via social media how terrible it all is. It becomes a feedback loop in which they are locked together. In my mind, it’s like they’re together in a theatre watching a pantomime villain. The pantomime villain comes forward into the light, looks at them and says something terrible, and they go “Boo!!”. Meanwhile, outside the theatre, real power is carrying on but no one is really analysing it.

This is the problem with a lot of journalism, especially liberal journalism at the moment. It’s locked together with those people in the theatre. If you look at the New York Times, for example, it’s continually about that feedback loop between what Trump has said and the reaction of liberal elements in the society. It’s led to a great narrowing of journalism. So in a way, he is part of the hypernormal situation because it’s a politics of pantomime locked together with its critics. And it becomes a perpetual, infernal motion system, which is a distraction. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a distraction from what’s really happening in the world. I would argue that there is a sense—in a lot of liberal journalism—of unreality. They’re locked into describing the pantomime politics and they’re not looking to what Mr Michael Pence is really up to, and what’s really happening outside the theatre.

The other interesting thing about Trump is that he doesn’t actually do that much. I know that he’s brought in some bad things. But what might be happening in the structure of power in America is happening outside that world. So in a sense, he is slightly hypernormal. I don’t know. No one really knows about Trump, but he’s got the liberals locked in with him. There’s a certain sense of co-dependency between him and the liberal journalists, which I think is corroding the ability of journalism to do a proper critical analysis of the world.

They have their own pantomime hysteria about Russia, for example. I’m sure Russia has done some terrible things but that’s not the reason people voted for Trump. People voted for Trump because they’re really pissed off. They feel marginalised and anxious about their future, and they wanted to send a message, and the liberals are not paying any attention to that.

The Economist: Let’s talk about that message and why it’s needed. You’ve made films about Alan Greenspan and Isaiah Berlin. What do you think the great liberal thinkers have got right and what do you think they’ve got wrong?

Mr Curtis: What no one saw coming was the effect of individualism on politics. It’s our fault. We all want to be individuals and we don’t want to see ourselves as parts of trade unions, political parties or religious groups. We want to be individuals who express ourselves and are in control of our own destiny. With the rise of that hyper-individualism in society, politics got screwed. That sense of being part of a movement that could challenge power and change the world began to die away and was replaced by a technocratic management system.

That’s the thing that I’m really fascinated by. I think the old mass democracies sort of died in the early 90s and have been replaced by a system that manages us as individuals. Because the fundamental problem is that politicians can’t manage individuals, they need us to join parties and support them and let them represent us as a group identified with them. What modern management systems worked out, especially when computer networks came into being, was that you could actually manage people as groups by using data to understand how they were behaving in the mass, but you could create a system that allowed them to keep on thinking that they were individuals.

This is the genius of what happened with computer networks. Using feedback loops, pattern matching and pattern recognition, those systems can understand us quite simply. That we are far more similar to each other than we might think, that my desire for an iPhone as a way of expressing my identity is mirrored by millions of other people who feel exactly the same. We’re not actually that individualistic. We’re very similar to each other and computers know that dirty secret. But because we feel like we’re in control when we hold the magic screen, it allows us to feel like we’re still individuals. And that’s a wonderful way of managing the world.

Its downside is that it’s a static world. It doesn’t have any vision of the future because the way it works is by constantly monitoring what you did yesterday and the day before, and the day before that. And monitoring what I did yesterday and the day before and the day before that and doing the same to billions of other people. And then looking at patterns and then saying: “If you liked that, you’ll like this”.

They’re constantly playing back to you the ghosts of your own behaviour. We live in a modern ghost story. We are haunted by our past behaviour played back to us through the machines in its comparison to millions of other people’s behaviour. We are guided and nudged and shaped by that. It’s benign in a way and it’s an alternative to the old kind of politics. But it locks us into a static world because it’s always looking to the past. It can never imagine something new. It can’t imagine a future that hasn’t already existed. And it’s led to a sense of atrophy and repetition. It’s “Groundhog Day”. And because it doesn’t allow mass politics to challenge power, it has allowed corruption to carry on without it really being challenged properly.

The problem I have with a lot of investigative journalism, is that they always say: “There should be more investigative journalism” and I think, “When you tell me that a lot of rich people aren’t paying tax, I’m shocked but I’m not surprised because I know that. I don’t want to read another article that tells me that”. What I want is an article that tells me why, when I’m told that, nothing happens and nothing changes. And no one has ever explained that to me.

I think it has something to do with this technocratic world because it doesn’t have the capacity to respond to that kind of thing. It has the capacity to manage us very well. It’s benign but it doesn’t have the capacity to challenge the rich and the powerful within that system, who use it badly for their own purposes. That’s the downside and we’re beginning to get fed up with it. And that’s allowed those on the margins of society to come in and start kicking, and we have no idea what to do about them.

The Economist: You want to read an article about why things don’t change after injustice is exposed. It could be that the kind of measure that it would take to repatriate money hidden on islands and sort out all this injustice would require a very bold and radical set of proposals. But proposals that are bold and radical are always a challenge to stability.

Mr Curtis: Yes, what I’m complaining about is stability.

The Economist: But people prefer stability to poverty.

Mr Curtis: People prefer practically anything to poverty. But you’ll find that it’s those who are in poverty who actually wanted change now. The people in West Virginia and Sunderland, who are having a shit time, are the people who voted for Trump and Brexit. But yes, the main part of this is stability and it’s interesting that the mantra of this technocratic system of management is the word “risk”, which if you do a word analysis, didn’t really exist in political coverage until the mid 80s. It comes from finance, but as economics colonised the whole of politics, that word spread everywhere, and everything becomes about risk-analysis and how to stop bad things happening in the future.

Politics gave up saying that it could change the world for the better and became a wing of management, saying instead that it could stop bad things from happening. The problem with that is that it invites all the politicians to imagine all the bad things that could possibly happen—at which point, you get into a nightmare world where people imagine terrible things, and say that you have to build a system to stop them.

In answer to your main question, yes it requires a big radical step, it’s called political power and politicians do have it. If you look at what happened in 2008, both the governments in Britain and America had the power to sign a massive cheque to rescue the banks and they did it. That’s enormous power. You’re right, people are frightened of instability. But the job of a good politician is to give them a story that says, “Yes this is risky, but it’s also thrilling and it might lead to something extraordinary”. We don’t have any politicians like that. They’re emerging on the right and they’re using the story of nationalism. Unless the left actually comes with a stronger story, I’m afraid the right are going to rise up and become even stronger than they are now.

The opposite of stability is a politics of imagination. There is a yearning that there must be something more than the repetition we hear every day that “if you like this you’ll like that”. I think it’s coming but I take your point, you are right, there is fear of that. But the job of a good politician is to say, “Yes, I understand your fears but look, it’s not right and we can do better than this”. I’m waiting for a politician on the left to come along and say that. So far, I haven’t seen one. Have you?

The Economist: No.

Mr Curtis: They’re managers at the moment, and that’s the problem.

The Economist: You don’t like being haunted by data from the past that’s used to try and predict the future.

Mr Curtis: Right.

Find more about Open Future here