An interview with the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis  | PART II

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.

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