By Conchuir Mac Siacais
Are you confused about reality? Well, according to Adam Curtis, you are supposed to be. Curtis, the controversial and radical English documentary/film maker that brought us intellectually stimulating binge TV such as,’The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?’, ‘Century of the Self’, and, ‘Bitter Lake’, has returned to our small screens with his latest Goliath BBC iPlayer production, the 166 minute ‘HyperNormalisation’. Fascinating, complex, macabre, and beautifully edited, much like our own world, the production is a thought-provoking attempt at explaining why and how the world we live in is a confusing reality. Curtis, beneath the smoke and mirrors is merely another journalist with his own perspective and his own sources. Therefore, he’s as much subject to scrutiny and questioning as any. However, as a dramatist, he is second to none.
In typical style,Curtis sets off traversing a mind-bending sequence of historic, and not-so-well-known events, analysing cultural, social, and political agents, whom he describes as architects of a “fake version of the world” into which we have all retreated. Through his works he provides viewers with an insight into the motives and devious practices of the elites and tyrants that have controlled the world, and continue to do so to this present day, however tenuously. He argues that this existential existence – brought about by neoliberalism, and the wholesale handing over of power from politicians to financiers – has plunged societies into a world of loneliness. There is a undeniable need to analyse the ever-increasing gap in global wealth inequality, and the dramatic rise of suicide rates everywhere from West Belfast to South Korea; the latter of which is reported by radical Slovenian author, cultural critic and philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, in his complex and evocative 2014 book, ‘Trouble in Paradise’, as having the highest suicide rate on earth. Therefore, taking into account the nature of our collective history as reported by Curtis, could we be compelled to accept the merit of such accusations?
In searching for answers to such questions, we are forced to consider uncomfortable truths. For instance, in over 30 years of armed bloody conflict in the north of Ireland, between 1969 and 1997, it is estimated that around 3,600 people lost their lives. The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the major nationalist and unionist parties in 1998, and in the following 17 years of that peace process, statistics reveal that 4,177 people lost their lives due to suicide. Statistics from almost a year ago. In mental health terms, we cannot deny the impact that conflict has had on communities, but the reality begs the question; Is the legacy of conflict in the north of Ireland the sole cause of this shocking reality or is there something else at work?
Any way you slice it, there is no doubting that we live in strange times, and in a strange world. We need only cast our lonely eyes on such spectacles as Donald Trump, Brexit, and the refugee crisis, to understand that the world we inhabit is plagued by extraordinary, unpredictable, and increasingly chaotic events. For the last 40 years or so, it appears that politicians and leaders have had an exceptionally difficult time exercising control and fostering stability, and the results are to be seen everywhere, from the skies of New York, to the beaches of Calais.
Democracy is, in fact, Plutocracy, a farce, an anti-democratic system that serves corporate power structures, at the expense of the ninety nine percent. Love, reduced, hallowed out, and in 21st century terms, is tantamount to nothing more than something Facebookers and Instagramers share in cyberspace. Music has become the echo-chamber of decadent values, a place where we can hear, and see, the most narcissistic interpretations of reality reflected back at us in repetitive sounds, and, of course, in images of half naked, half drugged, hammer-licking popstars. It all smacks of a fakeness, hinted at by Curtis, which severely saturates our everyday lives. Yet, do not do despair! Because through this weird and terrible, contradictory barrage of information and images, we occasionally encounter hidden gems, in this instance, the works of Curtis.
In opening the Pandora’s box, that is ‘HyperNormalisation’, one uncovers the strangest realities, existing in the real world, and, almost always, hiding in plain sight. Go see for yourself! One such story that catches the eye, however, begins around the turn of the millennium, when Vladislav Surkov, a wealthy Russian businessman, joined the presidential administration of Russia. Working closely with the businessman, the ex-KGB agent, and global hard-man, Vladimir Putin, has since, been able to maintain both domestic power, and by extension, global power, simply by allowing his administration to appear politically uncharacteristic, and unpredictable.
This, Curtis argues, is very much by design. Having completed three years of a program in theatre direction at the Moscow Institute of Culture, and a stint in PR, Surkov joined Putin, then used ideas from the avant-garde art world, introducing them into politics, with the ambition of, “undermining the Western perception of the world, to make politics a piece of theatre, and create confusion”. The ultimate goal, of course, the maintenance of hegemony in Russia. From this perspective, we can begin to see the motivations of Russian-born British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, when labeling Surkov, “Putin’s Rasputin”.
With access to the Kremlin’s purse-strings, Surkov created and funded groups such as ‘Nashi’, a large pro-government, ‘Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement’, whilst also funding neo-Nazi “skinhead” groups. A deliberate paradoxical act. The key however, in instances as such, was that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing. That way, no-one could tell where the administration stood politically, or, what their actual intentions were. This newly adopted politico-artistic strategy, therefore, found a new way of undermining whatever vestiges of democracy which still remained in the ‘motherland’.
In Naom Chomsky’s, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, an analysis of the media, and its role in the political economy, the seasoned MIT professor, in his opening pages, describes the ‘propaganda model’ in which ‘the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them”. Similarly, John Pilger’s documentary, ‘The War You Don’t See’, analyses this phenomenon in the context of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Surkov, therefore, tapped into this phenomenon, and in the process, took it to new, artistic, and deceptive, heights. Ultimately, by manipulating the electorates reality, and undermining people’s perception of the world so they become unsure of what is happening, Surkov and those alike, abuse power, for their own selfish, and often destructive, ends. Reality, in this instance, becomes something to be played with; a means to those ends.
This new way of manipulating the public, by confusing them, is described by Pomerantsev as, “a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shape shifting, unstoppable, because it’s indefinable”. An apt description. Trump, it seems, is using what appears to be the same strategy. Nothing is fixed, he attacks corrupt politicians, occasionally using some of the language of the Occupy movement. Then, in almost his next breath, he boasts about avoiding tax, and continues by viciously spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric. Creating confusion. A classic example of Surkov’s shape shifting. Yet, however racist, or unfounded his remarks, and they are both, we must concede that it is a strategy that has gotten him where he is, a candidate for the most powerful job in the world.
In this sense, who Trump attacks, and what he says, becomes unpredictable. His opponents cannot predict what he will do next, making it almost impossible for them to develop counter strategies, resulting in Trump becoming more powerful, at least in propaganda terms, than his banal counterparts.
Hence, in the Surkovian pantomime currently unfolding stateside, Trump plays his role well. Meanwhile, on the hill, the rest of Team America chase their tails. The most prominent actor in Team America, President Obama, stood, honest eyed, in the neo-pulpit, at the centre of Prague in 2009, pledging, to an elated crowd, to rid the world of nuclear bombs, thus bagging himself the Nobel Peace Prize. Strange, for a man that presided over an administration that has increased nuclear spending, more than any previous administration, so much so, that the cost to the US taxpayer will exceed 1 trillion dollars in 30 years. What a cool guy. And, while we’re at it, we should ensure Bush and Blair receive their rewards for their outstanding record in bringing democracy to the Middle East.
Leaving the foreign and domestic affairs of the world to megalomaniacs, is a risky game, it appears. Who would’ve ever known? But, rather than looking outwards, to the great and powerful Ozes of our world, for answers to our most pressing questions, perhaps we need to turn inwards. “Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world’ said Paolo Freire, the 20th century Brazilain educator and philosopher. According to Freire, this amounts to a universal truth, where ‘Praxis’, a value-driven action that is informed through dialogue, may very well be the answer. But, how do we achieve ‘Praxis’? How do we untangle the shackles placed upon our minds by the dogmatisms of Western life? Perhaps we need to turn inwards, to ourselves, our communities, our families, and friends. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that ‘there is no alternative’, to the types of leaders, societies, and economies, that currently run the world. We need to create new social spaces in which young, middle-aged, and old people can all think and act, and evaluate their social conditions. We need to speak truth to power. Ultimately, we need more access to unconventional narratives, such as those provided by Curtis, Pilger, Chomsky, and Freire.
As the radical educationalist Henry Giroux states: ‘The moral, political and economic violence of neoliberalism must be made visible, its institutional structures dismantled, and the elite interests it serves exposed. The fog of historical, social and political amnesia must be eliminated through the development of educational programs, pedagogical practices, ideological interventions and public narratives that provide the critical and analytical tools to enable the public to analyze both underlying ideologies and institutions of neoliberal capitalism as well as the intellectual and economic resources needed to provide meaningful alternatives to the corporate authoritarianism that passes itself off as an updated mode of democracy’. Without this, we will not address our deficits.
Anyway, it remains starkly obvious that Obama, Hilary, and their conniving cohorts, who were eloquently dismantled by John Pilger in his address to the University of Sydney in March 2016, entitled, ‘A World War Has Begun’, will remain the same old liars and warmongers, nothing new will come of their winning power, nothing will really change, for the better, at least. So, in spite of his obvious flaws, overt racism, terrible hair, and very questionable judgement, and, in the semi-apocalyptic spirit of the Brexiting left, must Trump win?
Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p04b183c
Adam Curtis, The Trap: What happened to our dream of freedom?: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhzJUsF_8dE-uHosgi5OJ6cdLk2nbpJcA
Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self: https://youtu.be/eJ3RzGoQC4s
Adam Curtis, Bitter Lake: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02gyz6b
Peter Pomerantsev, Putin’s Rasputin: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n20/peter-pomerantsev/putins-rasputin
Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: https://youtu.be/YHa6NflkW3Y
John Pilger, The War You Don’t See: http://johnpilger.com/videos/the-war-you-dont-see
John Pilger, A War Has Begun: http://johnpilger.com/articles/a-world-war-has-begun-break-the-silence-