Adam Curtis’ new eight-hour BBC documentary is a confused mess. Yet at times it offers profound insights into the nihilistic decay of capitalist culture and politics.
Curtis frequently discusses the ideology and motivations behind the use of AI, such as those of control, manipulation and the discovery of hidden meanings.
He likens the tendency to be overly impressed by AI’s unique abilities to the seductive power of conspiracy theories, which also allegedly uncover hidden connections and meanings. He identifies this problem – this search for a hidden truth – as a defining expression of the alienation that plagues capitalism today.
Ironically, Curtis seems to believe he shares this oracular ability to see meaningful connections where others can’t. But this just results in a conspiracy theory for people who think they are above conspiracy theories.
What we are left with is an interminably long documentary, composed of meandering accounts of historical characters selected seemingly at random.
Curtis never really attempts to justify most of these accounts, some of which are extremely obscure. What he seems to be trying to uncover in these biographies is a hidden connection and deep meaning about the state of the world today, much like a conspiracy theory.
Enlightening or obscure?
Curtis’ series purports to be a history of the modern mind. But this is distorted by his postmodern, idealist fixation on outcasts and extreme cases, the only justification for which seems to lie in their novelty.
For example, the documentary maker dredges up the failed marriage of Robin Douglas-Home – the nephew of a Tory Prime Minister – to a fashion model. The only reason for this seems to be that it has something to do with a pessimistic mood in Britain at the time.
This theme is dropped from the rest of the series, however, and seems basically irrelevant to the general argument. Even if it were relevant, the example of an obscure marriage that broke up almost 60 years ago would hardly be enlightening.
The same applies to his baffling focus on the relatively obscure black nationalist Michael X; and on the influence of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing over the Cultural Revolution. The only thing these accounts have in common is their bizarreness.
20 minutes into new Adam Curtis and I already have whiplash as he zips from Bank of England insider trading to Mau Mau and then postwar immigration and now Mao’s wife. Enjoyable.— Duncan Robinson (@duncanrobinson) February 11, 2021
The audience is supposed to be impressed by Curtis’ obscure knowledge, which gives the impression that something genuinely new is being said. But his ideas boil down to mainstream left-liberal ones: society has recently been very consumerist; inequality has grown; there is a power imbalance of some unspecified kind; prior revolutions failed because they were led by ego-maniacs.
Adam Curtis is just like the postmodern philosophers, in that his ideas are highly conventional and predictable. But this is masked behind the obscurity and bizarreness of his examples.
Because he is driven by what strikes him as interesting or extreme; and because his approach is in the tradition of cultural analysis, Curtis’ account of history is characterised by one-sided exaggerations of an idealist character.
He looks upon history as a succession of captivating ideas, which inherently tends to treat the given idea as utterly dominant – until suddenly it is not.
An example is his discussion of the rise of national myths about England’s romantic rural past. He links this to the influence of one or two people, such as Cecil Sharp. England is described as suddenly being in thrall to this backwards nationalism in the early 20th Century.
This is then made the sole reason for Britain’s attempt to make tribal chieftains the leaders of the new country of Iraq, rather than the urban middle classes – that is, British people were apparently at the time obsessed with rural quaintness, and so promoted rural figures in their colonies.
In reality, such considerations were influenced far more by the need to find a reactionary base of support against the Communist Party, which was very popular in the cities.
All of this is traced back to Cecil Sharp and the trend around him. In reality, however, reactionary nationalism is an inevitable feature of any capitalist society, and is not dependent on the chance rise of an influential character.
To his credit, in the final episode, Curtis does make some profound points that also steer him away from conventional liberalism. He suddenly argues that conspiracy theories serve as a means of controlling and manipulating people – something that is quite clear with such ludicrous recent examples as the QAnon ‘movement’ that backs Trump.
His point is that they divert people’s well founded suspicions of power into harmless dead-ends. This is certainly the case; and this fact largely explains the rapid rise of such theories in an age of polarisation.
Curtis goes further and explains that because conspiracy theories serve to divert attention from the real causes of society’s problems, we should see liberal obsessions – for example, about Putin or Cambridge Analytica being responsible for the success of Trump or Brexit – as essentially conspiracy theories.
Because they cannot face up to the fact that inequality and financial crisis lie behind these political shocks, liberal commentators resort to comforting simplifications – which is what conspiracy theories are.
Liberal pessimism vs revolutionary optimism
Curtis leaves this conclusion to the final five minutes (of the eight hour series), however. As a result, he rushes to explain that despite all this, we can escape the madness of capitalism and change the world for the better.
In keeping with his lack of a materialist outlook, this statement is left incredibly vague, and is – in his telling – unjustified. The impression one is left with is that humanity is incapable of understanding or controlling itself, and is hurtling to disaster. His sudden assertion that, somehow, we can take control and improve things is not very convincing.
Despite his efforts, Adam Curtis never manages to escape the pessimistic worldview of today’s dejected liberals.
Marxists, by contrast, are confident about the future. Our optimism is not due to blind faith, however, but is the result of applying a materialist perspective to history – and therefore identifying the agent for revolutionary change: the organised working class.