It might sound obvious, but the way we react to global events depends on what information we have about them. In his latest epic polemic, Adam Curtis takes this simple point and turns it into something deeper and more unsettling. He argues that the way we have come to see the world is through a process of ‘Hypernormalisation’, also the name of his film, available through the BBC iPlayer.
The title comes from Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, which analysed the mood in the Soviet Union during its last decades. Yurchak coined the term ‘hypernormalised’ to describe the strange way that Soviet society was perceived by its populace at the time. Official pronouncements about matters like rates of commodity production were recognised as unreliable by most people every time they went to an empty shop or joined a food queue. But without alternative explanations, everybody had to act as if the official story was real, distorting their sense of reality. An analogy familiar from many workplaces is how targets and outcomes are measured, which everyone involved realises are manipulated and fake, but which we all pretend are objective and accurate. We’ve bought into a ‘dreamworld’, shaped from the top by politicians and financiers, as a way of covering up how they don’t have control over events, from suicide bombings to Brexit, from corruption to migration. The aim is to maintain as much stability as possible in an unstable world.
The political and social climate in which this shift in perception has taken place developed from the mid-70s. Then, according to Curtis, the way authority was exercised changed from old-fashioned political negotiation to new-style power through money and threats. Two examples he gives are from 1975, when in America, banks stopped lending to businesses, and took authority away from politicians, and in Syria, where President Assad’s attempts to unite Arab nations were scotched by the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. He used an approach he called ‘Constructive Ambiguity’ to fracture alliances between Arab states by misleading them about the details of treaties between other nations. This succeeded in disuniting the Middle East and infuriating Assad. These events helped shape the world we live in now, of tensions between Islamic states and a West still facing a financial crisis. Being unable to control the situation has meant that governments focus on manipulating our understanding of them, through other tactics like ‘Perception Management’. One example of this was the American government and armed forces engineering the UFO phenomenon. Curtis argues that they spread disinformation that the strange lights and shapes people were seeing in the skies could be alien spacecraft, to cover-up their real explanation as experimental military planes.
The strategy of Perception Management is more than just telling lies, though. Its ‘highest achievement’ was when George W Bush and Tony Blair turned to Colonel Gaddafi of Libya for help with the situation in Iraq. The Public Relations industry, espionage and most academics all contributed to Gaddafi’s reinvention as an ally, having been demonised by the West for years. Gaddafi pretended to dismantle weapons of mass destruction he didn’t have, and took the blame for the Lockerbie bombing in exchange for sanctions against Libya being lifted, introducing the odd notion of accepting responsibility for something you don’t admit doing. Gaddafi’s role and persona has been remodelled by Western states, regardless of the truth about him, whatever that is.
The government and media personified conflict in the Middle East with ‘evil people’ like Saddam Hussein, Assad of Syria and, sometimes, Colonel Gaddafi. This distracted us from how the conflict was really shaped, as described in Curtis’ previous broadcast (see Socialist Standard, March 2015). In Bitter Lake, he argued that American and European military and economic involvement in the Middle East fuelled jihadism and suicide bombings, which in turn fuelled more Western involvement, creating a feedback loop.
In Russia, perception has been manipulated through the work of ‘Political Technologists’, such as Vladislav Surkov, now working as a personal adviser to President Putin. Surkov sponsored fascist groups, and anti-fascist groups, and parties opposed to Putin. Then he let it be known that he was doing this, so that no-one could tell how real these organisations were.
When so much about the outside world is confusing and contradictory, we’ve turned to cyberspace to find some reassurance. But the algorithms behind social media mean that we get pulled to online content which isn’t likely to challenge our views. According to Curtis, in an age of individualism, we find security in having ourselves reflected back at us.
Radical politics has also changed to fit with our uncertain times, and now tries to influence people’s thinking through personal expression, not through collective action. So, singers, artists, comedians and writers (including Curtis himself) voice radical ideas which may empower them and produce great, perceptive works, but they can’t change the world because that relies on working together. Curtis says that radicalism now doesn’t involve people giving themselves to a collective project as much as those in the 1960s civil rights movement did.
He discusses the two recent movements which did involve people acting collectively: the Arab Spring and Occupy. He argues that the Occupy movement set out to make real the original aim of the internet, as a leaderless space, free from politics and hierarchies. The sharing and spreading of ideas which the internet enables means that it could be used to organise a revolution without leaders, and it contributed to both how the Occupy movement and Arab Spring operated. However, after using social media to organise themselves, radicals in the Arab Spring ground to a halt without having a vision of what they wanted society to be. Hard-line Islamists did have a plan for the future, though, and this gave them the drive to gain power. In the West, the Occupy movement lacked a programme to really change society, and instead became confused and dominated by meetings. Its members had no vision of a future world, so instead the movement was less about ideas than how to manage situations.
In interviews, Curtis has emphasised that not seeing a better, future society is central to the problem of our ‘hypernormal’ perception of capitalism. We’ve lost the ‘thrill’ of wanting to jump into an unknown future, and find reassurance in accepting the version of reality presented by (and suited to) the capitalist class and its apologists.
Rulers manipulating the ‘truth’ is nothing new. The difference now is the sophistication with which this is done, whether through Perception Management, Constructive Ambiguity, Political Technologists or algorithms. Curtis’ argument isn’t just that these approaches are used to keep control of us, but also to cover up the lack of control each section of the ruling class has over global events. His aim is to help us see through the ‘hypernormalised’ version of reality we are fed, to raise awareness of our awareness.