Adam Curtis: Oh Dear

Charlie Brooker keeps stealing my bits about adverts – simply watch his bit about Sainsbury’s on his 2014 Wipe programme – so I thought it only reasonable I steal one of his.

This is Adam Curtis’ segment from Brooker’s New Year programme and while it’s not specifically about advertising it’s typically disturbing, brilliant and watchable. Curtis is one of the great communicators of our time and while I don’t always agree with his theses or leaps of intuition there is no-one so able to craft these thought-provoking packages with such clarity or style.

This one is about non-linear war, a nascent and arguably unformed idea used to describe the fog of modern warfare: a tactic that has been adopted by governments around the world in an attempt to keep their opponents permanently off-balance. It’s fascinating stuff and essentially amounts to ‘you can’t fight what you don’t understand’. The idea, in particular, that quantitative easing represents one of the biggest transfers in wealth from poor to rich in recoded history – in plain sight – is an astonishing theory.

There are two additional, contiguous notions here: the first that telling a lie often enough is sufficient in order for people to believe it; the second that keeping a population permanently frightened makes them easier to control. In light of the repeated and prevailing soundbites of our time – that we’re all in together, that we have to get the deficit down, that austerity is required and that Labour ruined the economy – and the number of times we were told by the media that 2014 was one of unique horrors, this becomes even more interesting.

As Brooker observed elsewhere, the media are entirely complicit in the propaganda wars waged by ISIS, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and every group – large or small – engaged in conflict around the world. Simply by giving them airtime, which a news broadcaster is duty-bound to do.

This means the media can be easily manipulated to do the government’s bidding, even when it remains entirely impartial. The result, as Curtis says, is that we’re constantly worried, constantly baffled, constantly appalled by what we see. It’s a uniquely febrile atmosphere and one that makes it easier for governments to manipulate both media and populace.

As for quantitative easing, is it essentially a way for the treasury to pump money into the economy – or to take it out? I honestly don’t know – I wonder if anyone does. But in these peculiar times efforts to keep us disorientated, confused and frightened will only increase.

One final observation: the line between what I’d roughly term a Marxist critiques of – and cultural theories of – capitalism and the rather more fanciful theories on shape-shifting lizards is increasingly hard to discern. Libertarianism, conspiracy nuts, communists, cultural theorists, Russell Brand and – yes – bloggers all seem to inhabit similar spaces online these days so it should come as no surprise that these messages bleed into one another.

I have little interest in the more exotic end of the spectrum but am fairly well-versed in its language, so I was intrigued at Curtis’ repetition of the word shapeshifter over images of Vladimir Putin and George Osborne. Is it an unusual coincidence or has Curtis gone the full tinfoil-hat? That would be a cause for a heartfelt ‘Oh Dear’.

• Adam Curtis’ new film Bitter Lake is landing on the iPlayer in coming weeks. Curtis has written a blog about it here. The transcript for the 2014 Wipe film, which really is worth digesting, is reproduced below.

If you want even more Adam Curtis, then watch The Century of the Self at the bottom. It’s basically a much more entertaining way of exploring the issues that are at the centre of this blog.

So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing and above all confusing. To which the only response is ‘Oh Dear’.

But what this film is going to suggest is that defeatist response has become a central part of a new system of political control – and to understand how this is happening you have to look to Russia and to a man called Vladislav Surkov who is a hero of our time.

Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisors and has helped him maintain his power for fifteen years, but he has done it in a very new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career say that what Surkov has done is import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.

His aim is to undermine people’s perception of the world so they never know what is really happening. Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly-changing piece of theatre: he sponsored all kinds of groups, from Neo-Nazi skin-heads to liberal human rights groups, he even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. But the key thing was that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake.

As one journalist put it” “It’s a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused, a ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because its indefinable,” which is exactly what Surkov is alleged to have done in the Ukraine this year.

In typical fashion as the war began Surkov published a short story about something he called Non-Linear War, a war where you never know what the enemy are really up to or even who they are. The underlying aim Surkov says is not to win the war but to use the conflict to create a constant state of destabilized perception in order to manage and control.

But maybe we have something similar emerging here in Britain, everything were told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory, of course there is no Mr Surkov in charge but its an odd non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power.

British troops have come home from Afghanistan but nobody seems to know whether it was a victory or whether it was a defeat. Ageing disk-jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no-one in the city of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that are being revealed there.

In Syria we are told that President Assad is the evil enemy, but then his enemies turn
out to be even more evil than him, so we bomb them – and by doing that we help keep Assad in power.

But the real epicentre of this non-linear world is the economy and the closest we have
to our own shape-shifting post-modern politician is George Osbourne. He tells us proudly that the economy is growing but at the same time wages are going down; he says he is cutting the deficit but then it’s revealed that the deficit is going up.

But the dark heart of this shape-shifting world is quantitative-easing. The government is insisting on taking billions of pounds out of the economy through its austerity programme, yet at the very same time it is pumping billions of pounds in to the economy through quantitative-easing, the equivalent of £24,000 for every family in Britain.

But it gets even more confusing because the Bank of England have admitted that those billions of pounds have not gone where they have suppose to – a vast amount of the money has actually found its way in to the hands of the wealthiest 5% in Britain.

It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history. It could be a huge scandal comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite siphoning off billions of public money. But nobody seems to know.

It sums up the strange mood of our time where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with a coherent narrative of their own.

And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is ‘Oh Dear’. But that’s what they want you to say.

The Century of the Self