HyperDramatisation: How Adam Curtis was consumed by a fictional reality

The thesis of Adam Curtis’ HyperNormalisation is that over the last 40 years technocratic risk managers and utopian fantasists have fed us a simplified fictionalised reality. The notion that suicide bombers, developments in AI, austerity, “cyberspace utopianism”, Prozac, the efficient market hypothesis, and your newsfeed share an origin story is certainly an audacious proposition.

As such, Curtis has to treat very ordinary political phenomena as shocking, revolutionary developments. Did you know, for instance, that governments lie? And international alliances change? And Russia disseminates propaganda? A lot of events are reduced to caricature. The Syrian civil war can apparently be traced directly and unambiguously to Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik approach to the Middle East peace process. Other important contemporary issues, such as Egypt’s shifting agenda following Gamal Adbel Nasser’s death in 1970 and the precarious position of Syria’s ruling (Shia) Alawite minority, are not mentioned.

Curtis seeks to frame the modern world as peculiarly defined by disillusion, deception, cynicism, manipulation, and injustice. However, there’s no reason to think any past period was somehow different. Curtis suggests that a significant transition happened in the 1970s, focusing on New York City’s fiscal crisis and its subsequent ‘takeover’ (in reality, budget management) by the Financial Control Board.

Curtis’ characterisation of the ideology purportedly behind this (he never uses the word ‘neo-liberalism’) as being premised on belief in stable systems and the infallibility of predictive modelling is a major distortion. If anything, the best (and not infrequently made) argument for free markets is that economic planning is impossible and price signals are necessary precisely because the future is unpredictable and the economy is never in stasis.

Curtis also bemoans a purported retreat of radicals away from politics and into art and irony. He fails to make a convincing case that, to the extent that this happened, it’s actually negative. Curtis quotes Patti Smith criticising large collective movements as stifling and perversely bureaucratic. Nothing suggests she was wrong, and it is odd to think she contributed less to humanity by making music than she would have done if she’d spent her time reading Trotsky. Occupy and the Arab Spring are portrayed as failing because they organised spontaneously and eschewed hierarchy. Revealingly, Curtis refrains from actually endorsing explicitly hierarchical social movements.

The implication that progress can only be achieved through government and collective movements is pernicious. Progress happens incrementally and experimentally in a deregulated environment. For all the dismissal of ‘techno-utopianism’, the Internet has provided enormous benefits for millions of people. If this comes at a price of more sophisticated marketing and people indulging in narcissism, trivia, and echo chambers then it’s still a good deal.

If Curtis is describing something novel, it’s only greater access to information. Reagan did not invent the cultural myth, Blair’s rehabilitation of Gadaffi was not the first clumsy sham marriage of realism and idealism, and the Iraq War was not the first foreign policy disaster founded on lies or mistakes. The only difference (perhaps) is that people have become more aware.

Parts of HyperNormalisation are illuminating, such as the discussion of Trump’s imperviousness to fact checking, the explanation of Vladislav Surkov’s propaganda techniques, and the revelation that Bashar al-Assad had a brother called Basil. However, ironically, by including and connecting everything that’s happened since 1975, Curtis ultimately only manages to portray a simplified, conspiratorial fiction himself.