“40 years ago, there was another all-encompassing system. It was in the Soviet Union. But by the 1970s, the system was starting to crack. Russia became a society where everyone knew that what their leaders said was not real. Because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling along. But everybody had to play along and pretend that it was real. Because no-one could imagine any alternative. One Soviet writer called it HyperNormalisation. You were so much a part of the system, that it was impossible to see beyond it.”
Bafta award-winner British journalist/documentarian Adam Curtis, describes the oppression of the political and economical systems existent in the world with these words. We talked to Curtis, who studies the fields such as sociology, psychology and political history, about this sense of oppression, Donald Trump, Brexit, Patti Smith, Beyonce, and where we went wrong.
In your recent documentary HyperNormalisation, you’re stating that even the artists who are criticizing the system are parts of this system. When you were referring to the financial crisis that NYC had back in the 1970s, you’re criticizing artists like Patti Smith. Are we living in an illusion? Do you think that it is not possible to change anything at all?
I wasn’t trying to be too cruel to Patti Smith. I think a big shift happened amongst people who saw themselves as radicals back then. The previous idea was that you join together in a group and political radicalism was the power of the united group. At the end of the 1960s, that sort of political radicalism is seem to have failed. You had all the protests but you got Richard Nixon as a president. So it wasn’t working. It’s a bit like now. Because at the same time what was rising up in the society was this ideology of individualism: “What I feel, what I want is the most important thing.” At that point people thought; “If they can’t do it collectively, then I’m going to use the imagination of art to criticize society.” That’s what we see in people like Patti Smith.
Why do you think this approach fails?
Because you’re not very powerful when you’re on your own. However imaginative and clever you’re, you’re not strong. What Patti Smith did was genuinely very original. But it wasn’t powerful in the sense of changing the world. I made a series called The Century of The Self where I tried to show the idea of self-expression. In the 1970s corporations realize that they could make many more products, if they said to people like you and me; “This will help you express yourself.” Nike is a classic example. Each sneaker allowing you to express your identity. Self-expression became the central motor for modern consumer capitalism. It is at the heart of this power structure that you’re trying to overthrow. So the problem is, if you’re an artist trying to overthrow or transform society, using self-expression might be the worst thing you could do. Because actually you’re feeding the very thing that you are trying to overthrow.
So, how do you see the artists in today’s world in this context? Like Madonna defending women rights or Beyoncé being a voice for the Black Lives Matter movement? Do you think that even they’re parts of this system?
I have a cynical view of that. Beyoncé really didn’t stop Donald Trump being a president. It’s simple as that. Self-expression and art has got a very big question to ask itself. It saw itself as having the power to transform how other people saw the world. Well it didn’t. Because we have Donald Trump and in my country we have Brexit.
Then, what is the role of music and arts in our societies?
I have a much more realistic view. Music and art is a very good way of expressing what is going on in a society. It’s like a beautiful mirror. What it can’t do is to change the world. You can change the world through power and collective action. I go back to my point. Beyoncé did not stop Donald Trump, nor did Kanye West, nor did all the satirists on Saturday Night Live. And you can’t say that; “It would have been worse if we hadn’t had them.” You got Donald Trump.
Most people are complaining that they have no hope at all. What do you think about hope? What is hope for you?
You can’t just have hope out of nowhere. What you have to say is; “If I want to change the world, then I’m going to have to work very hard to do it.” Or you just accept the fact as a liberal middle class person, with lots of nice coffee shops around you in London, in New York and in Brooklyn. What you can’t do is just go on one march against the war and think that’s it. At the moment great deal of the left keep on coming up and saying; “We’re going to have a revolution.” And then nothing happens.
What do we need to do in order to change the world or the system we’re in?
If you want to change the world you’ve got to have some picture of an alternative you want. And you got to then go work at it and you got to change my mind. Therefore, you got to have self- confidence, courage and intelligence. You can’t just have hope. That’s a dreamy word. That’s like the poster I saw in a photograph the day after Donald Trump was elected. A young millennial holding up a poster outside Trump Tower, New York City which just said: “I feel so sad.” So what? So did I. But that doesn’t change the world. To be honest, if you do want to change the world you go ask yourself brutal questions about why you haven’t made it till now?
Why didn’t we able do it till now?
Because we confuse ideas with process. That’s what I was trying to argue at HyperNormalisation. A whole generation turned to the Internet as an alternative. A democratic reality without hierarchies, without the old traditional structures of power. But in fact, if you look at the Internet, it is owned and run by a few very large corporations. None of those companies ever showed any interest in changing the world. They’re not run by nasty people. They’re just run by people who want to manage and organize. It’s a very good way of running society if you want to exchange information about coffee shops. But if you want to change the world it tends to separate people up. And I think, stops collective action.
HyperNormalisation’ is quite an interesting term. Which also defines what many people in Turkey feel like nowadays. Many people definitely know that something is wrong. But yet they don’t have any solution so they pretend that everything is okay. Do people see the world in a similar way?
The term was originally used by a guy called Alexei Yurchak, talking about the Soviet Union in late 1980’s. I think we’re all like that. It’s possibly a little more extreme in your country. But the same feeling is true in America and Britain. What’s different from the previous system is we all know that it’s rubbish. We all know that nothing will happen. Yet we just accept it. It’s weird. We just accept it because no one gives us anything new. Social media or the internet keeps on feeding us with various versions of what’s already there. That’s the problem of Hypernormalisation. We all know it’s strange but we don’t have any picture of anything else.
To explain this, you’re perfectly referring to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in your documentary HyperNormalisation.
Because I feel Stalker is a perfect expression of that. It was a perfect expression of that idea in the Soviet Union, that there was something really strange going on. Reality wasn’t quite what it should be. But you weren’t quite sure what it was. Everything was shifting.
After watching HyperNormalisation and The Century of The Self, one can have an idea of the dynamics behind it, but how did Trump came in power?
One reason is that the liberals has retreated so much from understanding the world. They just didn’t see what was happening outside their own country. Also they were extremely patronizing to those who they didn’t like. One of the most interesting things I see at America in the last few years is the shows like the one Jon Stewart did. He constantly laughed at stupid people. If you do that, the stupid people are going to fight back. Laughing at them and telling they’re stupid isn’t going to change them. We fail to work out why they’re behaving like that and say; “We understand this. We sort of feel the same. Can we unite together?”
What do you think about being arrogant in social and political issues?
You worked for Rolling Stone Turkey. I read an article in the recent American edition titled: Welcome to the Donald Trump’s Ignorant America. And the article went on to say that not only Donald Trump had never read a book, but all the people who supported him didn’t read books. And I thought to myself that is so snobbish, that is so wrong, that is so stupid in itself. You’re being rude and nasty to those people. Many of whom don’t have the time or too frightened in their future to spend their leisure time reading books. All you liberals have read lots of books over the last few years. The economists who created the economy have read lots of books and none of you saw the economic crisis have coming in 2008. So reading books doesn’t really indicate anything as far as I can see. What I’m saying is the reason for Trump was the retreat by the liberals from a realistic understanding of the world.
The politics in Europe is not in a good state as well. What do you think about Brexit?
I think that the working class in my country were given a very big button with the words “Fuck off” written on it, and they just all pressed it. Because they were fed up with the liberals worrying about people abroad and not worrying about them. Liberals used to fetishize the working class in my country up until the 1970s. When the working class became nasty and didn’t want to be patronized any longer, the liberals gave up. And turned to things like Live Aid and Bob Geldof and started wanting to go to help people abroad. Which is a very good thing and I’m not blaming them. But what they then did is neglected what was happening to the working class in their own country. And then you started to get governments that didn’t have any real difference between them. People felt just completely marginalized. Then they were then offered this button and they pressed it. That’s where we are at the moment.
How do you see the current situation in Middle East?
It is born out of the fact that Middle East had decades of powerful Western countries supporting very undemocratic, corrupt regimes. And people have enough of it. And also it was the failure of the original postcolonial governments which led to the rise of Islamism as an alternative. It’s about saying; “Look we’ve had our fill of these liberal politicians who promise to build a better postcolonial world.” So it’s a right wing counterrevolution through the Middle East.
What do we need to achieve in order to end this polarization between the region and the rest of the world?
I don’t think there’s a simple solution. You have to take it case by case. Look at Syria, it’s a very complex situation. I do think Israel is a problem. Iran is a very complicated country. And we do have responsibilities. I mean, America brought the Shah in a coup in 1953. That is remembered in Iran. What we neglect to remember is our own history in the region. I just don’t think there’s a simple solution. Nothing is unsolvable but you have to recognize what the forces are.
I want to switch back to music. You’ve worked with different musicians like Damon Albarn and Robert Del Naja. What is the difficulty of working with musicians?
I did a bit with Damon Albarn. I did more with Massive Attack. The difficulty of working with a band is that while I’m interested in narrative, the bands are interested in songs. Very different structures. So it was difficult to work together. But I like Robert Del Naja. I think he’s very inventive. I used pieces of him on HyperNormalisation. I really liked it, they’re really clever.
How do you choose the topics you work on?
You find a good story. That’s what journalism is. The reason I did The Century of The Self is I discovered Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays. Who is invented the professional public relations in the 1920s. He used his uncle’s psychoanalysis theories. Well I didn’t know that, and I think that’s really interesting. Story is everything.
What are you working on nowadays?
I want to do a black comedy about the rise of secrecy, suspicion and paranoia in the West. We accept the idea of secrecy at the moment as if it’s sort of inevitable. I’m just wondering whether the idea of secrecy is temporary phenomenon of our time. At the moment I’m just driving around looking for good stories.
Final one, how do you see Turkey today?
When the liberals here get very upset about the Trump, I just turn them and say Turkey is much more important. I worry much more about Turkey, I do about than United States.