An interview with the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis  | PART III

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.

You can’t ask a journalist, whose job is to analyse and pull apart something, you can’t ask that person to resynthesise it. That’s the job of a politician. The political class have given up. They’ve become managers and they’re being manipulated on a gigantic scale by those whose interest it is to keep them as managers. They’re beginning to feel the walls shaking around them, and they should take notice or somebody else who’s not very nice is going to come in and take those reins of power and lead us to somewhere we don’t want to go to. I’m optimistic because…well, you made me pessimistic when you talked about young people but I’m not sure you’re right.

The Economist: Wait, what did I say?

Mr Curtis: You said young people only want to stop Brexit and stop climate change.

The Economist: Ah yes, but I qualified it by saying “Well-educated, engaged young people”.

Mr Curtis: I think that’s true of the millennial. When I did “HyperNormalisation” I found that it cut through to the generation below the millennials. I don’t know how it happened: 18- and 19-year-olds are interested in power and the idea that you can challenge power, rather than just trying to hold things down. I think that’s a generational shift. And in that sense, I’m optimistic. Although, this is on the basis of talking to people who come and see my films. So it’s not very scientific. We’re living in a very pessimistic age where those in power are either pessimistic because they believe it or pessimistic because it’s useful, and people like me want to challenge that.

The Economist: By exploring how things went wrong…

Mr Curtis: Not by saying “We should be happy and nice,” but by saying “Let’s look back and see how they actually went wrong”. Think of the neo-conservatives. The idea that we are faced by a giant terrorist threat was not true. It was an ideologically-driven exaggeration of something that was true. And I was just trying to show how pessimism happens when dark things run out of control.

The Economist: Will you forgive me for saying something that is horrendously judgmental and sweeping?

Mr Curtis: Go on. I’ve been doing that, so you might as well do it as well.

The Economist: When you were saying that as a journalist you show people how things went wrong, and the job of the politicians to sort everything out. Well, that’s how we all feel, mate. We’re all waiting for somebody else to give us something to hope for. We’re all waiting for a white knight.

Mr Curtis: No, I don’t agree with that. I think what we’ve bought into is an idea that comes out of Silicon Valley and from the hippies, that leadership is always bad and that collective wisdom should decide things. But that leaves you in a very static society where you’re talked down to by the commentariat and no one address what you actually feel.

The day after the Brexit vote, I thought that if I was an ambitious left-wing politician, I would have immediately gone to Sunderland and said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. But the people you’ve voted for are going to con you.” And I’d have kept saying that, and a year later I’d be saying, “See, I was right. They conned you.” That’s what a good politician should have done. But have you noticed that none of them did?

The Economist: They would have been accused of patronising the electorate.

Mr Curtis: Not if they put it in populist terms.

The Economist: You mean if they did it with a northern accent?

Mr Curtis: No. You connect emotionally with them and say what you feel, which brings us to a very interesting question. Is populism always dangerous?

The Economist: I don’t know.

Mr Curtis: A lot of the left think it is. They think it’s a degraded version of politics, as if it were a drug that turned voters into zombies. That’s how it’s portrayed. You could argue that that might be snobbish. That what you call “populism” is just anger. As I said, they were given a button that said “fuck off” and they pressed it because they had been offered no alternatives.

The Economist: They didn’t just say “fuck off” to David Cameron…

Mr Curtis: It’s “fuck off” to everything.

The Economist: Yeah, including the Polish family down the street who had nothing to do with all of this decay.

Mr Curtis: OK, racism…how much racism do you think was in Brexit?

The Economist: I have no idea, but…

Mr Curtis: Wait—can I be The Economist for a moment? What was the highest level that UKIP ever got to in the polls? It was about 9%, or something like that.

The Economist: 15%, maybe.*

Mr Curtis: What was the proportion for Brexit?

The Economist: 52%.

Mr Curtis: Of course, racism is in there but it’s not the driving force.

The Economist: I’m not saying that at all.

Mr Curtis: What is racism? Racism is born out of fear. It’s not the old racism of the British Empire that claims to have biological superiority, it’s just fear. They’re frightened, they’re anxious, no one’s responding to this. And I’m not being patronising, but haven’t you noticed that since Trump and Brexit, none of the left have gone out and tried to really connect with that feeling, and do something with it that’s positive. They’ve behaved like frightened managers.

I have this working theory that the internet is the HR department for the world. I know because I work for a big corporation. If somebody behaves badly HR swoops in, your desk is cleared and you’re booted out of the building within hours. They never question the system that made that person behave badly. The HR people would never do that. And that’s exactly what the internet is doing at the moment. It identifies bad peoples, swoops in and ejects them. What it never does is question the system and in that way the internet reflects the corporatism of the people who invented it.

The Economist: But most of us are like that, aren’t we? We’re very prone to be reactionary…

Mr Curtis: Why are we prone to that? That’s your view.

The Economist: I suspect that these Silicon Valley platforms wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t reflect our desire for quick justice and our lack of curiosity about the people we disagree with.

Mr Curtis: No. When somebody like Harvey Weinstein behaves the way he does, we are shocked and we think he should be punished. There are different ways that feeling can be expressed socially by journalists, politicians and activists. But if you look at the way the MeToo movement is going, it’s behaving increasingly like an HR department. There are very few people saying, “Maybe this is to do with the system of funding in Hollywood, and how it’s become so ruthless or distorted that women of all ages are forced to behave almost like prostitutes in order to get the money to make films”. No one is analysing that.

I was talking to a Hollywood producer last night and he says that nothing has changed. So what I’m saying is that the anger is genuine but it can be taken in all sorts of interesting ways. And it’s the same with the Brexit anger, you can take it in different ways. If you really want to change the world you’ve got to go and connect with people who sometimes aren’t very nice. You’ve got to go and talk to racists. Why not? It’s interesting, isn’t it?

But instead, we say they’re terrible and they’re frightening and we retreat. And I just think that’s lazy and we’re waiting for somebody who has the courage to go out and actually connect with the people. The thing that really pisses me off is when the liberals say the people who voted for Brexit were stupid. They’re not stupid, they won.

The Economist: Did they win? You said they got conned. I’ve been conned in the past and getting conned doesn’t mean that you’re stupid, but it does mean that you didn’t get what you wanted.

Mr Curtis: They may have been conned about some of the reasons to vote for Brexit, but that vote was still an expression of what they feel, which is a sort of anger. One of the most cowardly things I think is all these nice middle-class people I know who are going to become German citizens. You fucking cowards. If you really think this is wrong, why don’t you stay here and fight for what you think is good? Fuck off. You want to go and live in Germany? It’s a retreat. But they’re somehow so proud of it. It’s part of the pessimistic mood and nobody has managed to explain to me why the middle classes are so pessimistic. It was when someone showed me “The Handmaid’s Tale”…have you seen The Handmaid’s Tale”?

The Economist: I’m afraid not.

Mr Curtis: It’s gruesome. It’s absolute shit. You’ll probably love it because it gives you a dystopia. Somebody told me it’s peak dystopia. You can’t go further than this. It’s torture porn for the baby-boomer generation. Sorry, I’m off the point.

The Economist: No, you’re not off the point. One element, which I think is under-discussed, is the one described by David Graeber, the anthropologist who exposed the idea that 40% of us believe our jobs either make no difference to the world or make it slightly worse.

Mr Curtis: I’ve met him…

The Economist:…I interviewed him a few months ago and it generated lots of traffic. Everybody loved reading about “bullshit jobs”. Perhaps the reason the liberal middle-class is so pessimistic is because a lot of them suspect that what they do adds little or no value to the economy around them, and that because of AI or another recession, there will be some kind of reckoning when we realise that our economy has turned millions of workers into superfluous people.

Mr Curtis: Maybe there’s a sense that they’re living on a precarious edge…

The Economist: …and we worry that our nice middle-class lives are unsustainable because of everything that’s going on in the world. That might be one of the reasons why so many people are so pessimistic.

Mr Curtis: I agree with Graeber. I’ve always thought that most people’s jobs aren’t their real jobs. Their real job is to go shopping. That’s your function in this society. After 9/11, I think Bush told everybody to go shopping because that’s the way to rescue a society. But it’s more than what you’re saying. People feel that this is all slightly strange and unreal.

When China put all its money into dollars, it allowed America to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with no real financial consequences in their own country. It was the first time in history that they had ever managed to do that. It’s fascinating. Have you noticed that one of the strangest things in our time is that since 2001, we’ve known that there’s this terrible war going on in Afghanistan, we’ve known that there’s this terrible war going on in Iraq, but it just doesn’t seem to have any consequences here—unlike the Vietnam War, where they had to borrow so much money and raise so much in taxes that it caused a financial crisis, which led to Nixon letting money go free, which is where we are now. There’s none of that. Meanwhile, goods come from China and cost nothing.

The Economist: One of the points that Graeber makes is that people with “bullshit jobs,” who essentially get paid to do nothing, is that while you might think that they would be happy because being paid to do nothing seems utopian. But really those people are consumed by guilt and fear.

Mr Curtis: And a sense of “What is this all for?”.

The Economist: Exactly. People want to exist for a reason.

Mr Curtis: Yes, they do. They really do!

The Economist: Indeed. And if you told a friend that we’re being paid to do nothing, they would say: “Oh, lucky you”.

Mr Curtis: But actually, you know that psychologically we want to do something that has a purpose.

The Economist: We need a story.

Mr Curtis: Yes. That’s really central to human beings. It really is. It’s central to politics and it’s central to journalism. And those things have atrophied because we live in a world in which there are no stories.

The key thing you have to realise about the machines is that they don’t look at us as a narrative. They look at us in a way that’s outside of time. They take everything that happened from all different times and they slap that data together, and it’s just about correlations. It has no narrative to it whatsoever. And we are trapped in that non-nutritive world. I’m sorry if that’s pretentious, but it’s a world that doesn’t in any way respond to what you just talked about. What’s this for? Why am I doing this? And the journalism doesn’t tell us stories about that, it just repeats opinions.

It’s also a world trapped in endless loops from the past. And you could argue that people like me are part of the problem because what do I do? I have masses of archives from the BBC from the last 50 years sitting in my edit room, and I constantly rework it and play it back to you in different ways, as everyone does now. Looked at Instagram recently? It’s images from the past constantly being played back to you. I wanted to do a show with Massive Attack—well, I did do a show with Massive Attack, but it didn’t quite work out the way I wanted it to, where you were going to be encased in this world of images to give you a sense of being trapped in this two-dimensional world.

To go back to your point, I think that is why people feel this sense of precariousness and this sense of doom. They know that it’s all a bit odd, but no one explains what that oddness is. That’s what I think journalism should be doing. Why is it so odd? Why do you feel so strange? There’s a jangly-ness at the back of people’s minds at the moment. You can feel it yourself. Is this really going to go on? Where’s it going? When does this change? No one is explaining those feelings, which is what “HyperNormalisation” was sort of trying to do in its own little way. Sorry, I do tend to rant.

The Economist: That’s quite alright. It might take a long time to transcribe.

Mr Curtis: That’s what I’m apologising for. I’ll keep it shorter now. Go on.

The Economist: I have a lot here. You can kick me out if you want.

Mr Curtis: Go on.

The Economist: Instagram is the worst social-media platform for your mental health, because it constantly exposes you to futures and pasts that you can’t experience.

Mr Curtis: And you’re frightened that you’re losing out.

The Economist: You feel a constant sense of loss

Mr Curtis: Even though you know it’s probably not true.

The Economist: And you scroll back into the past and eulogise the times when you might not have been happy, but you represented yourself as happy. You were just saying that you were like Instagram, and that you might be part of the problem.

Mr Curtis: I am. The consequence of that technology is that it displays a sadness to us of missed opportunities. that’s what you’re really saying, isn’t it? It’s not designed to be like that, but I get that feeling when I go back through old footage. And an optimistic vision of the future is something that learns to shed that sadness. Maybe we’re getting trapped by those feelings. Maybe that does explain the pessimism. There’s something deep going on in our society and all novels are dystopian now. Those are my musings. I think you’re right, that there’s something in the technology that plays back two-dimensional versions of things that have gone.

The Economist: You’re not going to like this, but when you were talking about our culture’s sense of pessimism and its suspicion towards new ideas, you reminded me of Jordan Peterson and his rants about post-modernism and the idea that there’s no narrative or authoritative truth to cling to anymore.

Mr Curtis: Jordan Peterson is interesting. A journalist I know took me along to see him talk. He’s doing that thing of fusing science and religion and he’s doing it very effectively. And I looked at the audience and thought, “These are not the people I would like to spend much time with.” They’re all a certain type of man, with a far-away, serious look in their eyes. I wasn’t instinctively hating of him. I thought he was truthful to himself. He was trying to express a truth about what a lot of people feel, and doing so articulately, and trying to find a series of symbols to do it through.

The Economist: He taps into the feelings you tap into.

Mr Curtis: He’s talking to the lost and the lonely. To go back to your question about whether politics is just about management: It’s not. It’s also about touching those really big feelings that a lot of people feel at the same time in a society.

At the moment, there are all sorts of things that we’re not allowed to talk about because they’re absolutely verboten online. Things like loneliness, sadness and separation. You’re not allowed to talk about those feelings, and Jordan Peterson does and he tries to give people a framework in which to talk about them. I don’t agree with him because he’s a biological determinist, but I think what he’s doing is a genuine response to the feelings that most liberals are absolutely terrified of talking about.

The Economist: Ten years ago, during the Bush administration with all its religious fervour, the academic in vogue was Richard Dawkins who was very much against stories that protected you from the notion of mortality. So when religion was fetishised in the White House, it was Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins who were fashionable because they were sceptics.

Mr Curtis: But their time is waning. Have you noticed?

The Economist: Yes. It’s because Obama pushed religion out of the Oval Office and robbed “New Atheism” of its counter-cultural capital. Now Richard Dawkins is unfashionable.

Mr Curtis: He also went slightly bonkers. He shouldn’t have started tweeting. He should have just shut up.

The Economist: That’s what I said to him when I met him.

Mr Curtis: What’s he like?

The Economist: I’d read almost all of his books and I was very excited about meeting him.  He had just done a podcast interview. He had stains on his jumper. I told him that it was refreshing to see him talking about ideas instead of something he recently tweeted. He said, “Quite right,” and then he walked off and continued to tweet his reputation into oblivion.

Mr Curtis: Dawkins was originally a computer programmer. He’s basically a machine modeler of the world. That’s what his version of DNA is.

The Economist: He’s attuned to computer science, but he also loves poetry which means he can write brilliant sentences.

Mr Curtis: He writes beautifully. It’s not actually very rational but he’s good at emotionally evoking what he’s trying to say. “The Blind Watchmaker” is good. But you’re right, there was a phase in the early part of this century where all the liberals really bought into Richard Dawkins, but it’s gone now.

The Economist: It was a counter-cultural reaction to Bush and Blair. They’re gone, so he’s been swept aside.

Mr Curtis: Who’s replaced them?

The Economist: Yuval Noah Harari on the liberal side and Jordan Peterson on the conservative side.

Mr Curtis: Harari is a tech groupie. He buys into all that reductionist psychology.

The Economist: But he agrees with you. His new book is about why people need stories and those stories have faded away. Peterson is also similar because he says that postmodernism has ruined everything and left us all feeling lost and lonely.

Mr Curtis: I don’t think postmodernism is that powerful.

The Economist: But he does. Postmodernism is his catch-all term for a world without authoritative ideas and theories. Harari, Peterson and yourself are all providing an essentially similar diagnosis and appealing to very different audiences.

Mr Curtis: That probably means we’re right. People want a big narrative. What people don’t want are rants and columns. They want a story out of which you can draw ideas. At the moment, I’m working on a giant project with ten parts which is full of stories, because I want people to feel like they’re lost in the world and out of that come ideas. I didn’t really hate Peterson. I didn’t like him as a person, and I really wouldn’t want to spend time with him.

The Economist: You’d hate him if you read the YouTube comments under his videos, but as an individual he’s intriguing.

Mr Curtis: Yes, and you can feel when somebody is being genuine. He knows that you can take these two marginalised things, science and religion, and put the two together because they’re both about awesomeness and being part of a grand story.

Are you a South Park fan?

The Economist: I am.

Mr Curtis: I think they’re the geniuses of our age. They’re the journalists of our age.

The Economist: Don’t they fall into the trap of not being able to articulate alternatives?

Mr Curtis: That’s not what journalism does. Kyle’s speech at the end of the last episode of “Imaginationland”: it is incredibly romantic and optimistic about the world and I love it. I met Trey Parker and Matt Stone and they’re really good. Journalism doesn’t have to remain the same. It will take other forms. It tells stories about the world that in a way are imaginative. This is the battle I have with a lot of my colleagues in the BBC. They accuse me of being too imaginative in the way I put footage together. But they make up stories out of facts too, but when they do it, it’s boring. People like imagination if they feel that it’s genuinely rooted in fact. That’s why you have to tell stories.


* Note: The highest support that UKIP received in opinion polls was 25% in October 2014, in a Survation poll for The Mail on Sunday.

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