“It’s ‘fuck off’ to everything,” says Adam Curtis (pictured below), 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” (the trailer of which is below) 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.
The Economist: Well, it’s not very romantic and it doesn’t create very compelling interview copy, but throughout recent history, incremental changes have made a lot of people’s lives a lot better all over the world.
Mr Curtis: I’m not denying it. But that has colonised all of politics. Those kinds of economic policies have a very good role to play. But in the 1990s that attitude spread and captured the whole of politics and at that point, they became managers. What we lost was the idea of politics where you tell a simple, powerful and romantic story of where you are going and what it’s all for.
These are questions that people do ask themselves. People ask why they can’t have a better standard of living, but they also have this thing in their heads asking what it’s all about. One of the reasons we have politics is because it gives answers to those sorts of questions. In Britain, for example, the Labour Party was born out of religion because it will give you a sense of being part of something that will go on past your own existence.
If you live in a world driven by individualism, what it doesn’t answer is what goes on when you die. I made a film about that arch-individualist Ayn Rand. She was interviewed towards the end of her life by an American television journalist who asked her what she thought would happen when she died and she said: “I won’t die. The world will die”.
It sounds silly, but what she actually means is true if you are an arch-individualist. If you are complete within yourself and don’t owe anything to anything else, then the whole world is in your head, and when you die it will go. I often think that one of the reasons why there is so much pessimism around, especially among the baby-boomer generation, is that they cannot face the terrible fact of their own mortality. So what they have to do is project that onto the whole planet.
If you take climate change, which is a serious issue, it’s been co-opted by pessimistic baby-boomers and turned into a dark nightmarish scenario, rather than saying that we need to restructure power and resources in a way that could make the world a better place. That would have been a really good way to deal with climate change. Instead, it got possessed by a dystopia which I think reflects that generation’s fear of mortality because they can’t see anything going on beyond their own death.
To go back to your original question, yes you’re right but you’re also wrong. The central thing in politics is emotion. It really is. It’s about saying: “We are together in this existence, in this moment, in the country, in this society, and we’re going to build something that will go on past us.” And politics did that. Mrs Thatcher did that. And what the people who voted for Brexit and for Trump are asking is: “What is the future? What is this existence for?” If you live in Sunderland or in West Virginia surrounded by people taking opioids, you want to know what it’s all for. And these are the questions that politics has to answer. They’re the questions that religion used to answer and that science used to try and answer, and it is tech’s Achilles heel.
The Economist: Who’s going to answer those questions?
Mr Curtis: I think it’s going to come out of religion, I really do. I think there’s going to be a resurgence of religion. It’s very difficult to talk about this because you just get shot down, but there are parts of Islam which are trying to deal with this.
The Economist: Isn’t religion an organised panic about death?
Mr Curtis: No. I’m not religious but I don’t share the liberal dislike of religion because I think its fundamental point is to reassure us in the face of our own death. That’s what religion does, it gives you a sense that you’re part of something that’s moving onwards. It reassures people. Death is frightening and for a generation who believe that they are alone and were liberated by that idea and had a really good time, to be alone in the face of death is very frightening. So I have a funny feeling that religion might come back.
The Economist: I hope you don’t think I’m being reductive, but it sounds as if religion is a bit of a placebo when it comes to mortality.
Mr Curtis: Well, you are being reductive because placebos are actually as powerful as real things. As we know, in the three-part episode of South Park called “Imaginationland”, Trey Parker very powerfully argues that imagination has been more powerful in shaping the world that we exist in now than anything else. And he’s right. And that’s what we’ve lost to be honest.
The Economist: This reminds me of your film “The Attic,” when you were talking about Churchill and Thatcher using myths to inspire the nation and those myths running out of control.
Mr Curtis: Well, myths do run out of control.
The Economist: Because they’re not real, they’re not sustainable.
Mr Curtis: Well, real isn’t sustainable. Look, hang on, countries are an act of imagination aren’t they?
The Economist: Go on.
Mr Curtis: Everything is an act of imagination. Politics is about imagining futures and having the power to bring a collective group of people with you who give you the power to make that happen. It’s what Churchill did during the second world war. That doesn’t mean that you can’t say that there were aspects of the second world war that were not good. The problem in our country is that myths have washed over the complexity. I don’t think you’re being reductive but I think you’re reflecting the managerial dryness of our time.
The Economist: I’ve been accused of that before.
Mr Curtis: Well, it’s the realness of our time. What I suspect is that it’s beginning to crack and that what people are waiting for are some big stories. Nationalism is the easiest story to go for. And what I’m speculating about is that there might be stories that we haven’t even imagined yet. You know very well that in 200 years the world won’t look much like the world we’re living in now. But those who run the world now don’t want you to think that. They want you to think that this is going to go on forever because that’s the philosophy of the managerial system. If that managerial system colonises everything, then everything atrophies.
There’s a sense of repetition and that repetition works very well for some people but not for others. But I have a sense that there’s a romantic age coming. I see it in the music that I like. I can see it in the weird industrial music that I find myself listening to. You can see people taking noise and turning it into big, romantic, sweeping things. It gives you a sense of dynamism and nothing is dynamic at the moment.
The Economist: Listening to you I have two thoughts. Please tell me if I’m going off on a tangent. On one hand, the system we’re used to obviously isn’t working. In my mind, globalisation is an insurance policy against world war three, because if you have assets and supply chains in another country you have an incentive not to bomb it. Now you can no longer win an election on that platform.
Mr Curtis: That’s gone.
The Economist: So what we have now is emotionally unsustainable, people aren’t buying into it anymore.
Mr Curtis: Yeah.
The Economist: But, my second instinct comes from the Talking Heads song “Heaven” where David Byrne sings “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. Because if you did have a political system which disincentivised war and alleviated poverty at unprecedented rates, as well as provided people with more wealth and more individual freedom than they had ever had before, it would get very boring very fast.
Mr Curtis: Yes, but people like me are not arguing for that kind of utopia.
The Economist: I’m not saying it’s a utopia. I’m saying that if you did find the least-worst political philosophy it would instantly become very stale and boring because that’s what happens.
Mr Curtis: Things change and people like me like things changing. Let’s take your example. Yes, that is probably what globalisation began as, but look at what it has become. I have this theory that what globalisation has now degraded to is a giant scam that allows very big corporations to pay no tax. That’s its real function—while the sense of moral purpose has dropped away. It’s a system that has become corroded. All I’m arguing is that just what you were saying: that it’s just not working.
What I’m asking for is a system that acts dynamically, which is what politics should do. It should look at the situation, like a good journalist does, and realise that people feel that it isn’t working because you and I know that’s true. We can argue over whether it’s working technically or not, but people feel like it isn’t. And when politicians are faced by that, there’s no way back. So that may open the door to what I see as the real role of politics, a dynamic responsive way.
I’ve always liked “War and Peace” where the two central figures are Napoleon and a Russian general called Kutuzov. Napoleon thinks you can control the whole world and make it your own. But Kutuzov, who everyone derides in the novel and who is in charge of defending Moscow, says “No, you can’t control the world because it’s chaos—but there are moments within the chaos that you can use for your own purpose”. That’s what politics is about. It’s exciting and dynamic. It’s got a narrative to it and, like good journalism, it responds to what’s happening.
And really, that’s all I’m asking for, because politics and journalism have become static and repetitive. I know within microseconds what an article is going to say, what a television program is going to be like and what most music is going to be like. I’m bored and I get bored, I think lots of people get bored, because I’m quite normal. That leads to a degrading of everything, which allows corruption to happen. Whereas, if you have a dynamic responsive system, there is a sense that you’re going somewhere even if you never get there. I’m quite conservative in that way, because I’m saying that the things that politics aims for has stopped and I want it back.
The Economist: He saved Moscow by burning it down.
Mr Curtis: (Laughs) Well you know, sometimes terrible things happen. But Kutuzov responded.
The Economist: It’s not what I would have done but it worked.
Mr Curtis: Well, you’re not a general.
I’m using humour.
The Economist: I know.
Mr Curtis: But you would agree that politics is not about desperately trying to hold the world stable. You can’t hold the world stable in the face of history. The ideology of our time, especially amongst the liberal middle-classes, even more than the conservatives, has embraced the idea of trying to hold things stable and static.
The Economist: It’s interesting that you should say that, because if you think about well-educated, progressive young people who desperately want to make the world a better place, it’s all about mitigation. On the micro level, almost all the young people I know really want to stop Brexit, and on a macro level they want to stop climate change. Both of those huge projects are about reverting to a status-quo.
Mr Curtis: That’s why I’m deeply suspicious of both of them. Not because I’m pro-Brexit and not because I don’t believe in climate change. I just think the response has been co-opted by that liberal managerial mindset, which is sort of sad. One of the reasons why you don’t get a response to climate change reports is because they’re dressed up as managerial things. They don’t say that this could be part of an extraordinary new kind of future.
The Economist: With Brexit and with climate change, if you say “We can adapt and turn this into an opportunity,” it feels like you’re rewarding and absolving the worst elements of humanity—like jingoism and the impulse to pollute—with impunity. I know you don’t mean that…
Mr Curtis: Yes, you get criticised for that. And that’s why they maintain their static position, because any voice that asks for change gets immediately tarred. What I’m saying is that you take the technologies that are emerging and push them much further with investment from the state, and you have a giant Marshall Plan. It would require some people giving up their positions of leisured happiness. In an age of individualism, it’s very difficult to get people to surrender some of themselves to an ideal that’s bigger than them. But if you do want to change the world, you’re going to have to do that, to be honest. I don’t like the word “leader,” but I do think that what we’re looking for are people who inspire us to think beyond the world we have at the moment.
The Economist: You want us to be more ambitious and more willing to stick our necks out…
Mr Curtis: And more caring at the same time.
The Economist: You’ve also made lots of films about people who have tried to make the world a better place and who ended up making it worse by accident.
Mr Curtis: That’s no reason to stop.
The Economist: Indeed, that’s no reason to stop.
Mr Curtis: What I’m trying to analyse in my films is why things went wrong, and I’ve constantly tried to show that it’s to do with power. That’s a word that’s almost never discussed at the present moment. There’s enormous power being exercised on us and we have no idea how to challenge it. As you say, everybody feels like this thing isn’t working. That’s because certain people have power and they’re exercising it for their own interests and not for us.
The Economist: What you really nailed at the end of “The Monkey In the Machine and the Machine In the Monkey”…
Mr Curtis: Oh yes, you liked the monkey film.
The Economist: What you really nailed was the point you made at the end when we see the people on the escalator in London. You were talking about Richard Dawkins and “The Selfish Gene” and you suggested that the reason we find these fatalistic ideas about genetics appealing is because they let us off the hook for all our failed attempts to make the world a better place.
Mr Curtis: Yes! Exactly!
The Economist: Right, so you know exactly why it’s so hard…
Mr Curtis: Yes, but the point isn’t that we should stop. Science has gone from being an optimistic source to a pessimistic source. Politics has gone from being dynamic to being static and managerial. And tech has brought in a system of feedback management that’s so seductive that we’re trapped. In the films I’m making at the moment, I’m going to try and explain why we live in this strange world where everything seems very unreal, but it’s all very static and whatever we do has no consequences. We’ve been led into a world which I think is incredibly dangerous and terribly sad, because we could be trying to change the world. But it’s difficult.
Yes, it’s difficult. I’m not trying to deny that.
The Economist: Of course not, I know. What I’m trying to get at with my excessively antagonistic line of questioning is that…we’ve been talking for 40 minutes, I’ve read a lot of your other interviews and I think I’ve watched almost all your films…
Mr Curtis: Bloody hell. You’re a stalker.
The Economist: You’re very good at telling us how things go wrong.
Mr Curtis: Yeah, that’s a journalist’s job.
The Economist: But can you give us anything to be optimistic about?
Mr Curtis: What I’ve just said is that you should be optimistic.
The Economist: You should be optimistic.
Mr Curtis: No, you should be optimistic…I am optimistic.
The Economist: Why are you optimistic?
Mr Curtis: Because I think that human beings, in themselves, are dynamic. They’re born, they live, they die. We’ve got the idea of a dynamic thing built into us. At the moment, everything seems stuck but there is a growing rejection of that. It’s happening at the margins. The liberals don’t know how to deal with it but it’s going to change. What my films try to do is to show how these things happen and that what’s often asserted as fact is often ideology. That’s all. That’s all I try and do.
You can’t ask a journalist, whose job is to analyse and pull apart something, you can’t ask that person to resynthesise it. That’s the job of a politician. The political class have given up. They’ve become managers and they’re being manipulated on a gigantic scale by those whose interest it is to keep them as managers. They’re beginning to feel the walls shaking around them, and they should take notice or somebody else who’s not very nice is going to come in and take those reins of power and lead us to somewhere we don’t want to go to. I’m optimistic because…well, you made me pessimistic when you talked about young people but I’m not sure you’re right.
The Economist: Wait, what did I say?
Mr Curtis: You said young people only want to stop Brexit and stop climate change.
The Economist: Ah yes, but I qualified it by saying “Well-educated, engaged young people”.
Mr Curtis: I think that’s true of the millennial. When I did “HyperNormalisation” I found that it cut through to the generation below the millennials. I don’t know how it happened: 18- and 19-year-olds are interested in power and the idea that you can challenge power, rather than just trying to hold things down. I think that’s a generational shift. And in that sense, I’m optimistic. Although, this is on the basis of talking to people who come and see my films. So it’s not very scientific. We’re living in a very pessimistic age where those in power are either pessimistic because they believe it or pessimistic because it’s useful, and people like me want to challenge that.
The Economist: By exploring how things went wrong…
Mr Curtis: Not by saying “We should be happy and nice,” but by saying “Let’s look back and see how they actually went wrong”. Think of the neo-conservatives. The idea that we are faced by a giant terrorist threat was not true. It was an ideologically-driven exaggeration of something that was true. And I was just trying to show how pessimism happens when dark things run out of control.
The Economist: Will you forgive me for saying something that is horrendously judgmental and sweeping?
Mr Curtis: Go on. I’ve been doing that, so you might as well do it as well.
The Economist: When you were saying that as a journalist you show people how things went wrong, and the job of the politicians to sort everything out. Well, that’s how we all feel, mate. We’re all waiting for somebody else to give us something to hope for. We’re all waiting for a white knight.
Mr Curtis: No, I don’t agree with that. I think what we’ve bought into is an idea that comes out of Silicon Valley and from the hippies, that leadership is always bad and that collective wisdom should decide things. But that leaves you in a very static society where you’re talked down to by the commentariat and no one address what you actually feel.
The day after the Brexit vote, I thought that if I was an ambitious left-wing politician, I would have immediately gone to Sunderland and said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. But the people you’ve voted for are going to con you.” And I’d have kept saying that, and a year later I’d be saying, “See, I was right. They conned you.” That’s what a good politician should have done. But have you noticed that none of them did?
The Economist: They would have been accused of patronising the electorate.
Mr Curtis: Not if they put it in populist terms.
The Economist: You mean if they did it with a northern accent?
Mr Curtis: No. You connect emotionally with them and say what you feel, which brings us to a very interesting question. Is populism always dangerous?
The Economist: I don’t know.
Mr Curtis: A lot of the left think it is. They think it’s a degraded version of politics, as if it were a drug that turned voters into zombies. That’s how it’s portrayed. You could argue that that might be snobbish. That what you call “populism” is just anger. As I said, they were given a button that said “fuck off” and they pressed it because they had been offered no alternatives.
The Economist: They didn’t just say “fuck off” to David Cameron…
Mr Curtis: It’s “fuck off” to everything.
The Economist: Yeah, including the Polish family down the street who had nothing to do with all of this decay.
Mr Curtis: OK, racism…how much racism do you think was in Brexit?
The Economist: I have no idea, but…
Mr Curtis: Wait—can I be The Economist for a moment? What was the highest level that UKIP ever got to in the polls? It was about 9%, or something like that.
The Economist: 15%, maybe.*
Mr Curtis: What was the proportion for Brexit?
The Economist: 52%.
Mr Curtis: Of course, racism is in there but it’s not the driving force.
The Economist: I’m not saying that at all.
Mr Curtis: What is racism? Racism is born out of fear. It’s not the old racism of the British Empire that claims to have biological superiority, it’s just fear. They’re frightened, they’re anxious, no one’s responding to this. And I’m not being patronising, but haven’t you noticed that since Trump and Brexit, none of the left have gone out and tried to really connect with that feeling, and do something with it that’s positive. They’ve behaved like frightened managers.
I have this working theory that the internet is the HR department for the world. I know because I work for a big corporation. If somebody behaves badly HR swoops in, your desk is cleared and you’re booted out of the building within hours. They never question the system that made that person behave badly. The HR people would never do that. And that’s exactly what the internet is doing at the moment. It identifies bad peoples, swoops in and ejects them. What it never does is question the system and in that way the internet reflects the corporatism of the people who invented it.
The Economist: But most of us are like that, aren’t we? We’re very prone to be reactionary…
Mr Curtis: Why are we prone to that? That’s your view.
The Economist: I suspect that these Silicon Valley platforms wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t reflect our desire for quick justice and our lack of curiosity about the people we disagree with.
Mr Curtis: No. When somebody like Harvey Weinstein behaves the way he does, we are shocked and we think he should be punished. There are different ways that feeling can be expressed socially by journalists, politicians and activists. But if you look at the way the MeToo movement is going, it’s behaving increasingly like an HR department. There are very few people saying, “Maybe this is to do with the system of funding in Hollywood, and how it’s become so ruthless or distorted that women of all ages are forced to behave almost like prostitutes in order to get the money to make films”. No one is analysing that.
I was talking to a Hollywood producer last night and he says that nothing has changed. So what I’m saying is that the anger is genuine but it can be taken in all sorts of interesting ways. And it’s the same with the Brexit anger, you can take it in different ways. If you really want to change the world you’ve got to go and connect with people who sometimes aren’t very nice. You’ve got to go and talk to racists. Why not? It’s interesting, isn’t it?
But instead, we say they’re terrible and they’re frightening and we retreat. And I just think that’s lazy and we’re waiting for somebody who has the courage to go out and actually connect with the people. The thing that really pisses me off is when the liberals say the people who voted for Brexit were stupid. They’re not stupid, they won.
The Economist: Did they win? You said they got conned. I’ve been conned in the past and getting conned doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, but it does mean that you didn’t get what you wanted.
Mr Curtis: They may have been conned about some of the reasons to vote for Brexit, but that vote was still an expression of what they feel, which is a sort of anger. One of the most cowardly things I think is all these nice middle-class people I know who are going to become German citizens. You fucking cowards. If you really think this is wrong, why don’t you stay here and fight for what you think is good? Fuck off. You want to go and live in Germany? It’s a retreat. But they’re somehow so proud of it. It’s part of the pessimistic mood and nobody has managed to explain to me why the middle classes are so pessimistic. It was when someone showed me “The Handmaid’s Tale”…have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale”?
The Economist: I’m afraid not.
Mr Curtis: It’s gruesome. It’s absolute shit. You’ll probably love it because it gives you a dystopia. Somebody told me it’s peak dystopia. You can’t go further than this. It’s torture porn for the baby-boomer generation. Sorry, I’m off the point.
The Economist: No, you’re not off the point. One element, which I think is under-discussed, is the one described by David Graeber, the anthropologist who exposed the idea that 40% of us believe our jobs either make no difference to the world or make it slightly worse.
Mr Curtis: I’ve met him…
The Economist:…I interviewed him a few months ago and it generated lots of traffic. Everybody loved reading about “bullshit jobs”. Perhaps the reason the liberal middle-class is so pessimistic is because a lot of them suspect that what they do adds little or no value to the economy around them, and that because of AI or another recession, there will be some kind of reckoning when we realise that our economy has turned millions of workers into superfluous people.
Mr Curtis: Maybe there’s a sense that they’re living on a precarious edge…
The Economist: …and we worry that our nice middle-class lives are unsustainable because of everything that’s going on in the world. That might be one of the reasons why so many people are so pessimistic.
Mr Curtis: I agree with Graeber. I’ve always thought that most people’s jobs aren’t their real jobs. Their real job is to go shopping. That’s your function in this society. After 9/11, I think Bush told everybody to go shopping because that’s the way to rescue a society. But it’s more than what you’re saying. People feel that this is all slightly strange and unreal.
When China put all its money into dollars, it allowed America to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with no real financial consequences in their own country. It was the first time in history that they had ever managed to do that. It’s fascinating. Have you noticed that one of the strangest things in our time is that since 2001, we’ve known that there’s this terrible war going on in Afghanistan, we’ve known that there’s this terrible war going on in Iraq, but it just doesn’t seem to have any consequences here—unlike the Vietnam War, where they had to borrow so much money and raise so much in taxes that it caused a financial crisis, which led to Nixon letting money go free, which is where we are now. There’s none of that. Meanwhile, goods come from China and cost nothing.
The Economist: One of the points that Graeber makes is that people with “bullshit jobs,” who essentially get paid to do nothing, is that while you might think that they would be happy because being paid to do nothing seems utopian. But really those people are consumed by guilt and fear.
Mr Curtis: And a sense of “What is this all for?”.
The Economist: Exactly. People want to exist for a reason.
Mr Curtis: Yes, they do. They really do!
The Economist: Indeed. And if you told a friend that we’re being paid to do nothing, they would say: “Oh, lucky you”.
Mr Curtis: But actually, you know that psychologically we want to do something that has a purpose.
The Economist: We need a story.
Mr Curtis: Yes. That’s really central to human beings. It really is. It’s central to politics and it’s central to journalism. And those things have atrophied because we live in a world in which there are no stories.
The key thing you have to realise about the machines is that they don’t look at us as a narrative. They look at us in a way that’s outside of time. They take everything that happened from all different times and they slap that data together, and it’s just about correlations. It has no narrative to it whatsoever. And we are trapped in that non-nutritive world. I’m sorry if that’s pretentious, but it’s a world that doesn’t in any way respond to what you just talked about. What’s this for? Why am I doing this? And the journalism doesn’t tell us stories about that, it just repeats opinions.
It’s also a world trapped in endless loops from the past. And you could argue that people like me are part of the problem because what do I do? I have masses of archives from the BBC from the last 50 years sitting in my edit room, and I constantly rework it and play it back to you in different ways, as everyone does now. Looked at Instagram recently? It’s images from the past constantly being played back to you. I wanted to do a show with Massive Attack—well, I did do a show with Massive Attack, but it didn’t quite work out the way I wanted it to, where you were going to be encased in this world of images to give you a sense of being trapped in this two-dimensional world.
To go back to your point, I think that is why people feel this sense of precariousness and this sense of doom. They know that it’s all a bit odd, but no one explains what that oddness is. That’s what I think journalism should be doing. Why is it so odd? Why do you feel so strange? There’s a jangly-ness at the back of people’s minds at the moment. You can feel it yourself. Is this really going to go on? Where’s it going? When does this change? No one is explaining those feelings, which is what “HyperNormalisation” was sort of trying to do in its own little way. Sorry, I do tend to rant.
The Economist: That’s quite alright. It might take a long time to transcribe.
Mr Curtis: That’s what I’m apologising for. I’ll keep it shorter now. Go on.
The Economist: I have a lot here. You can kick me out if you want.
Mr Curtis: Go on.
The Economist: Instagram is the worst social-media platform for your mental health, because it constantly exposes you to futures and pasts that you can’t experience.
Mr Curtis: And you’re frightened that you’re losing out.
The Economist: You feel a constant sense of loss…
Mr Curtis: Even though you know it’s probably not true.
The Economist: And you scroll back into the past and eulogise the times when you might not have been happy, but you represented yourself as happy. You were just saying that you were like Instagram, and that you might be part of the problem.
Mr Curtis: I am. The consequence of that technology is that it displays a sadness to us of missed opportunities. that’s what you’re really saying, isn’t it? It’s not designed to be like that, but I get that feeling when I go back through old footage. And an optimistic vision of the future is something that learns to shed that sadness. Maybe we’re getting trapped by those feelings. Maybe that does explain the pessimism. There’s something deep going on in our society and all novels are dystopian now. Those are my musings. I think you’re right, that there’s something in the technology that plays back two-dimensional versions of things that have gone.
The Economist: You’re not going to like this, but when you were talking about our culture’s sense of pessimism and its suspicion towards new ideas, you reminded me of Jordan Peterson and his rants about post-modernism and the idea that there’s no narrative or authoritative truth to cling to anymore.
Mr Curtis: Jordan Peterson is interesting. A journalist I know took me along to see him talk. He’s doing that thing of fusing science and religion and he’s doing it very effectively. And I looked at the audience and thought, “These are not the people I would like to spend much time with.” They’re all a certain type of man, with a far-away, serious look in their eyes. I wasn’t instinctively hating of him. I thought he was truthful to himself. He was trying to express a truth about what a lot of people feel, and doing so articulately, and trying to find a series of symbols to do it through.
The Economist: He taps into the feelings you tap into.
Mr Curtis: He’s talking to the lost and the lonely. To go back to your question about whether politics is just about management: It’s not. It’s also about touching those really big feelings that a lot of people feel at the same time in a society.
At the moment, there are all sorts of things that we’re not allowed to talk about because they’re absolutely verboten online. Things like loneliness, sadness and separation. You’re not allowed to talk about those feelings, and Jordan Peterson does and he tries to give people a framework in which to talk about them. I don’t agree with him because he’s a biological determinist, but I think what he’s doing is a genuine response to the feelings that most liberals are absolutely terrified of talking about.
The Economist: Ten years ago, during the Bush administration with all its religious fervour, the academic in vogue was Richard Dawkins who was very much against stories that protected you from the notion of mortality. So when religion was fetishised in the White House, it was Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who were fashionable because they were sceptics.
Mr Curtis: But their time is waning. Have you noticed?
The Economist: Yes. It’s because Obama pushed religion out of the Oval Office and robbed “New Atheism” of its counter-cultural capital. Now Richard Dawkins is unfashionable.
Mr Curtis: He also went slightly bonkers. He shouldn’t have started tweeting. He should have just shut up.
The Economist: That’s what I said to him when I met him.
Mr Curtis: What’s he like?
The Economist: I’d read almost all of his books and I was very excited about meeting him. He had just done a podcast interview. He had stains on his jumper. I told him that it was refreshing to see him talking about ideas instead of something he recently tweeted. He said, “Quite right,” and then he walked off and continued to tweet his reputation into oblivion.
Mr Curtis: Dawkins was originally a computer programmer. He’s basically a machine modeler of the world. That’s what his version of DNA is.
The Economist: He’s attuned to computer science, but he also loves poetry which means he can write brilliant sentences.
Mr Curtis: He writes beautifully. It’s not actually very rational but he’s good at emotionally evoking what he’s trying to say. “The Blind Watchmaker” is good. But you’re right, there was a phase in the early part of this century where all the liberals really bought into Richard Dawkins, but it’s gone now.
The Economist: It was a counter-cultural reaction to Bush and Blair. They’re gone, so he’s been swept aside.
Mr Curtis: Who’s replaced them?
The Economist: Yuval Noah Harari on the liberal side and Jordan Peterson on the conservative side.
Mr Curtis: Harari is a tech groupie. He buys into all that reductionist psychology.
The Economist: But he agrees with you. His new book is about why people need stories and those stories have faded away. Peterson is also similar because he says that postmodernism has ruined everything and left us all feeling lost and lonely.
Mr Curtis: I don’t think postmodernism is that powerful.
The Economist: But he does. Postmodernism is his catch-all term for a world without authoritative ideas and theories. Harari, Peterson and yourself are all providing an essentially similar diagnosis and appealing to very different audiences.
Mr Curtis: That probably means we’re right. People want a big narrative. What people don’t want are rants and columns. They want a story out of which you can draw ideas. At the moment, I’m working on a giant project with ten parts which is full of stories, because I want people to feel like they’re lost in the world and out of that come ideas. I didn’t really hate Peterson. I didn’t like him as a person, and I really wouldn’t want to spend time with him.
The Economist: You’d hate him if you read the YouTube comments under his videos, but as an individual he’s intriguing.
Mr Curtis: Yes, and you can feel when somebody is being genuine. He knows that you can take these two marginalised things, science and religion, and put the two together because they’re both about awesomeness and being part of a grand story.
Are you a South Park fan?
The Economist: I am.
Mr Curtis: I think they’re the geniuses of our age. They’re the journalists of our age.
The Economist: Don’t they fall into the trap of not being able to articulate alternatives?
Mr Curtis: That’s not what journalism does. Kyle’s speech at the end of the last episode of “Imaginationland”: it is incredibly romantic and optimistic about the world and I love it. I met Trey Parker and Matt Stone and they’re really good. Journalism doesn’t have to remain the same. It will take other forms. It tells stories about the world that in a way are imaginative. This is the battle I have with a lot of my colleagues in the BBC. They accuse me of being too imaginative in the way I put footage together. But they make up stories out of facts too, but when they do it, it’s boring. People like imagination if they feel that it’s genuinely rooted in fact. That’s why you have to tell stories.
Note: The highest support that UKIP received in opinion polls was 25% in October 2014, in a Survation poll for The Mail on Sunday.