by Jon Mitchell
HyperNormalisation is the new film by Adam Curtis, released on BBC iPlayer on 16th October. As with all his films, it is built around visual and aural juxtaposition and comparison, drawing links across temporal, thematic and geographical space to forge a particular vision – the Curtis vision – of the world as constituted. HyperNormalisation sets itself the task of explaining the emergence of post-factual politics; the roots of the seemingly bizarre, chaotic and patternless events of our times: from Donald Trump to Brexit, the war in Syria, suicide bombing and the enduring popularity of Vladimir Putin.
The story begins in the 1970s, and the birth of two ideas about how the world could be ruled without politics. The first was born in Syria, to Henry Kissinger and Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father). Kissinger was a master of dissimulative politics, and was committed to a strategy of maintaining stability, or balance, in the Middle East, at all costs. Kissinger believed that order could be maintained in the region through the careful management of information and misinformation, playing sides off against each other. The two main costs were the deferral of a solution to the Palestinian problem – which Kissinger regarded as marginal to the grander order of things – and a disgruntled Assad – for whom Palestinian repatriation was crucial, and who saw himself as a unifying Arab force, but was thwarted by Kissinger’s strategy of ‘constructive ambiguity’. By the 1980s, following Christian massacres of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Assad’s ire became materialized when the emergent Hezbollah, directed by Assad’s Syrian secret services, launched the first major suicide bombing campaign, aimed at US services deployed to Lebanon. With time, suicide bombing would mutate, to target civilians as well as military personnel, in the West as well as the Middle East, shifting from Shi’a to Sunni groups – from Hezbollah to Hamas to Al Qaeda to ISIS – and ultimately launched back at Assad’s son in the current Syrian war.
The second idea came from New York, in the aftermath of the city’s near-bankruptcy in 1975, when the financial institutions refused to bank-roll its debt. After various attempts to court investors, the city was eventually bailed out by the teachers’ pension fund, and later a federal loan. As a condition, the city’s affairs were placed in the hands of the Financial Control Board, which was dominated by bankers. There followed a period of crippling austerity, closure of public facilities and welfare provision, unemployment, and general decline. This financialisation of the city’s politics enabled two things to happen. First, it provided opportunity for private investment. The shrinking public sector left large swathes of New York property – land and buildings; ‘real estate’ – empty and decaying. This was a prime target for investment, particularly as the financial situation made possible lucrative tax deals. Among the investors was a young Donald Trump, who bought up derelict buildings with the plan of converting them into luxury hotels and apartments – the beginnings of the private-finance driven gentrification that has become a model for urban redevelopment globally. Second, it generated a new form of stability politics. To complement Kissinger’s ‘constructive ambiguity’, in which truth was manipulated to maintain geopolitical order, came a new imperative, in which politics – and with it truth – were manipulated to maintain economic order.
These twin agendas of geopolitical and financial stability created the world as we know it today. Syria was ignored, because it was too complex an adversary; the current war came seemingly out of the blue, because attention was focused elsewhere. Instead, other Middle Eastern adversaries were constructed, with cartoon villain dictators: Muammar Gadaffi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The vilification, rehabilitation and subsequent re-vilification of the former, and the exaggeration of evidence to support war with the latter, demonstrate the manipulation of truth involved in trying to maintain stability in the Middle East. The response of governments and international institutions to the financial crisis; the move towards austerity, perhaps even the creative truths surrounding the Brexit referendum, demonstrate the impetus to maintain financial stability at all costs.
More recently, and from a different source, though, came a force that permits the maintenance of political – and financial – stability through the deliberate production of apparent instability. In 2013 Vladimir Putin appointed a new advisor, Vladislav Surkov, a former businessman, Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Chief to the Russian Presidency, Surkov was also a theatre practitioner for the Moscow Institute of Culture, where he developed an interest in avant-garde theatre, which was to inform his work for Putin. In particular, it figures a performative strategy of generating chaos and confusion, to disorient the audience and make the President’s message appear reassuring and authoritative. It involves strategically encouraging – even funding – both supporters and opponents of the regime, at both ends and at all levels of the political spectrum. The more chaotic and out of control things appear, the more Putin’s power is consolidated. A similar strategy is employed by Donald Trump – the mutual admiration of the two politicians is related not to personality, but an appreciation of creative strategy.
This is the world according to Curtis – in which conspiracy builds upon conspiracy to present us with a world that is simultaneously out of control and very much controlled. Even the internet – seen by many as a source of potential critique, or alternative – is part of the conspiracy. From the 1980s onwards, the chief technology in the financialisation of the world was cybertechnology – or more particularly, the network of computers run by international companies to circulate financial data. This soon became a means not only of circulating information about finance, but of circulating finance itself, offering a third way in which the world could be ruled without politics. In parallel to this largely hidden cyberspace was another, more overt, cyberspace offered up as a utopian alternative within which could be built a global community based on the free exchange of opinion and critique. The problem was that the advent of social media financialised this ‘free’ cyberspace itself. Information is no longer free-flowing, but channeled by algorithms that assume our only activity is consumption, and therefore gear all the data we receive to our ‘preferences’. The result is that we are constantly presented with information that confirms, rather than challenges, our view of the world, and so prevents, rather than enables, debate and critique.
HyperNormalisation is a gloomy watch, but nicely put together. It plays fast and loose with the rigours of historical and political analysis. Yet it paints a particular and thought-provoking picture of the current state of global political economy. And if it’s right about the algorithms, it’s probably a vision to which you already subscribe.
Jon P. Mitchell is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex.