Artillery Row

BBC iPlayer’s liberal conspiracy theory

Adam Curtis’s six-part history of the modern imagination is an obituary for serious or even semi-serious television

Considering how much TV we’re all watching, it’s impressive how little of it is worth watching twice – and how much of it isn’t worth watching at all. The only new programmes that make you think again, or think differently, or even, on a good night, think more deeply, are the bad ones. Watch an episode of Made in Chelsea or Married at First Sight, and you cannot help but think deeply about what has gone wrong with television. Watch two episodes, and you know the moving image has been a disaster for civilization.

The big event in Tellyland last week was the finale of The Masked Singer, in which we learnt the singer Joss Stone had been disguised for several weeks as a musical chipolata. The big event in Tellyland next week is the Meghan ‘n’ Harry interview with Oprah, which is sure to provide that most satisfying of televisual spectacles: fools making further fools of themselves.

Adam Curtis’s series is really a species of liberal conspiracy theory

The big event this week wasn’t really on TV, but went straight to iPlayer. This is the BBC’s equivalent of the movie studios sending loss-leaders straight to video in the age before everything went straight to streaming. As TV is now an almost entirely moronic medium, that is to be expected. It does raise expectations, though. I Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Adam Curtis’ six-part history of the modern imagination, does nothing but raise expectations through its relentless and occasionally interesting barrage of archival clips. The narrative, though, is banal and misleading. The music and editing are indulgent and at times tedious. In six hours, you could watch Fanny and Alexander and a series of Fawlty Towers. Either would tell you more about modern social history that Curtis does, and both would stay in your head.

Kenneth Clark, not a man to disguise himself as a singing chipolata, said that he knew civilization when he saw it. Adam Curtis knows his theme when he sees it: the mutations of power since the Fifties and the end of the age of European empires; the deterioration of individuality and mass democracy; the spread of transnational finance and computerised systems; mass democracy and mass immigration; the populist backlash and the rise of China; how we got in the mess we are now in. Just like Made in Chelsea.

The television critics have almost uniformly applauded Curtis, if not for flattering their political attitudes then for elevating an unsalvageable medium. Curtis is a dab hand at the jump-cut, but he is intellectually incapable of handling his historical themes. After a couple of hours, I realized that this was an intellectual choice, and that I had mistaken Curtis’s “history” for actual history. This series is really a species of liberal conspiracy theory. As such, it’s an interesting mirror of an institutional sensibility in the act of parting company with the world.

The twentieth century, Curtis reckons, was “the Age of the Individual”; in fact, it was the age of monstrous collectivization. We are introduced to three individuals: Jiang Qing, who was Mao’s wife and an instigator of the bloodbath that was the Cultural Revolution; the thug, black power grifter and murderer Michael de Freitas (aka Michael X); and his sometime employer, the slum landlord Peter Rachman. None of them seem especially significant individuals, other than in their depravity. Jiang Qing would have dismissed individualism as a variety of Western capitalist decadence.

We keep being told that people became paranoid because they were now controlled by complex and distant systems

The British, we learn, are racist because of the Empire, and Brexit is a retro white-power movement with volkische roots in Morris Dancing and other whites-only cults. This is curious. The British consistently poll as the most tolerant people in Europe, and the party that pulled off the Brexit deal includes such stalwarts of the Morris Dancing community as Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid and Priti Patel. Regardless of petty facts, we are told racism “continued to grow from the Seventies” in Western societies until it culminated in a black-shirted orgy of Nigel Faragism. Clips of brawling Seventies’ skinheads aside, how, if racism has grown since then, to explain the rising number of interracial marriages in every Western society, the consistent decline in racist attitudes in opinion surveys, and the willingness of voters to elect non-white representatives and leaders?

White Americans, Curtis claims, are a bunch of KKK-loving racists who became paranoid in the postwar suburbs, and eventually elected Donald Trump. This historical jump-cut is taken as read: after all, no self-respecting BBC producer would live in the exurbs of Essex with their armies of ravening Faragists. But there is simply no historical evidence to prove that suburbanites in the Fifties were more or less paranoid than earlier or later Americans. There is, however, malleable footage of Fifties’ Americans. There is also lots of cool footage of the criminals and bigots who founded the Black Panther Party, and a potted biography of the rapper Tupac Shakur, who became frustrated with his image and consequently raped a young girl.

Individuality was good until it became too individual in California, Curtis intones, and the collectivisation of bargaining power through unions was also good. The contradiction between these two goods was noted long ago by John Stuart Mill, who saw that under liberalism the individual mind was always going to be tyrannised by the audience of The Masked Singer. Curtis zigzags blithely past such questions, instead asserting that the unions were broken by individuality. Again, this is false history. The old industrial unions were broken by automation and the rise of Asia. There are still unions, but they are for white-collar professionals, not manual labourers. If the quality of mass democracy has suffered in this transition, that might be fault of the oligarchic intimacy between the newer unions, institutions like the BBC, and elected governments.

We keep being told that people became paranoid because they were now controlled by complex and distant systems. Yet people have always been paranoid; people didn’t need computers to accuse Jews of poisoning their wells. We are told that people’s understanding is little more than the totality of the images that they have been fed with; communist China is identified as being the first society to be turned into ideological drones. This is our old stand-by Marx’s theory of false consciousness, in which industrial England was identified as being the first society to be turned into ideological drones. It is essentially the theory that everyone except the people who believe in the theory is a semi-human thicko.

When we get to the Seventies, Richard Nixon is, as usual, represented as uniquely paranoid. But was he more paranoid than predecessors like Eisenhower, with his valedictory warning of the “military-industrial complex”, or successors like Hillary Clinton, with her “vast right-wing conspiracy” and her baseless claims that Russia stole the 2016 election? Or is it only that Nixon was foolish enough to bug himself, thus serving his head on a plate and its contents on a tape to posterity, while Hillary Clinton had the good sense to scrub 30,000 emails from her private server? As Curtis has already shown, paranoia is as American as lynching and crack.

The most striking aspects of Curtis’ treatment of Nixon lies in an omission and a reinterpretation that show how dishonest his mock-objective method really is. Although the themes of climate change and environmental apocalypticism are introduced in Nixon’s era, Curtis omits to mention that it was Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and began the slowing and occasional reversal of the degradation of the American habitat.

It’s surprising to see Curtis joining the populists because a chance to hate Nixon must never be resisted

Historians usually consider Nixon to have been a moral disaster but a strategic success. With Kissinger’s counsel, he got the U.S. out of Vietnam, defused the stand-off with Russia, and manipulated the Yom Kippur War of 1973 to push the Soviets out of the Middle East and open the path to the Israel-Egypt peace in 1978. He also opened relations with China. For decades, this has been acclaimed as a master stroke. In the last few years, however, populists right and left have started to blame Nixon for instigating the West’s disastrous economic entanglement with China. He’s easy to dislike, of course. But it’s surprising to see Curtis joining the populists because a chance to hate Nixon must never be resisted.

Threaded through the liberal conceits about Nixon is a tidy account of how taking the dollar off the gold standard in 1971 unleashed the banks and the transnational money markets. Curtis doesn’t put it this way, but all the ideological movements of the previous century, from communism and fascism to corporatism and social democracy, had agreed that capital must be subordinate to government. After 1971, transnational capital became the senior element in the partnership, with catastrophic effects for democracy.

To retain a degree of power, and project the image of unreduced power, elected officials aligned themselves with the power of finance: Tony Blair, for instance. This accelerated the eclipse of political power, and it intensified the social effects of market instability. It intensified the flight into unreality that Curtis accurately identifies as a large obstacle to the recovery of liberal democratic engagement, and which was well advanced by the late 1970s.

Unfortunately, the other obstacle to democracy that Curtis identifies is that the public are untrustworthy if not downright moronic and racist. We are introduced to a succession of psychologists as they painstakingly hypothesize the bleeding obvious: people think they act rational, but they’re actually all emotional, and putting a miniature TV in everyone’s hand hasn’t done much for their already limited powers of reason. All this is narrated along with a sinister underscore that suggest Cambridge Analytica is watching you.

But ruling classes of various dispensations have always thought that their subjects were irrational. It is our era, the era that is now ending in chaos, that is the exception to that historical rule. We are the ones who believed that the plebs and the mobile vulgus were actually “the people”, on the march through history towards that recently discovered goal called “progress”. We are also the ones who assign arbitrary direction to the people’s moods, so that we are living under “progress” when they vote for one party, but “reaction” when they vote for another.

Curtis exemplifies enormous condescension towards the present

Scenic as Curtis’s detours are, there’s something downright evasive about the near-total absence of the figure who loomed only second to the Queen in British imaginations in the years when money took over the world. Margaret Thatcher appears once, in a clip in which she shows the camera team her wardrobe and discusses how her frocks and jackets now have big shoulders because, we infer, power-dressing is in. She then advises that hems should never be ironed, because then they can’t be adjusted without exposing a permanent crease.

We are prompted to smirk at Thatcher’s provincial, lower-middle-class sensibleness. We certainly aren’t meant to reflect on the socio-economic transformations that Thatcher brought about. For someone concerned about the masses and the vitiation of elected representatives, Curtis seems oddly uninterested in the woman who turned Britain from a majority working-class, non-property-owning society into a majority middle-class, property-owning one.

E.P. Thompson warned against the “enormous condescension of posterity”. Curtis exemplifies enormous condescension towards the present. He denounces the collectivizers who wish to erase the past but condemns all modern political movements for trying to recover an idealized past. This leads to some interesting cuts – jumping from ISIS to Nigel Farage, for instance, which would suggest that Brexit was, y’know, just like the Islamic State. It also produces endless digressions into fake history.

For every novel clip of Soviet prison songs and Tony Blair looking foolish, there are inaccurate claims such as placing The Gulag Archipelago at the “root of the counter-ideology that dominates the world today… to believe in nothing”. Yet Solzhenitsyn always rejected nihilism, and his faith in Christ and Russia place him closer, if anything, to the root of the evil that Curtis also believes is dominating the world today: resurgent nationalism.

Did Vladimir Putin also “believe in nothing” and just adopt nationalism in an opportune and unconsidered manner – or is he a familiar figure, a sincere believer in the sacred exceptionalism of Russian fate? Did Deng Xiaoping really “give up on utopian dreams of the future” when he reoriented the Chinese economy towards producing cheap exports for Western markets – or did Deng revive an older Chinese dream, the one that placed the Middle Kingdom as the pole of the world, and devise a new route to future dominance? And were the hundreds of thousands who massed in Tiananmen Square in 1988 really motivated by “individualism”, a Western concept?

This series is a slightly bitter obituary for a certain kind of liberal sociology

In the fourth and fifth hour, we suddenly meet our joyless present and dystopian future: technocracy and AI. You might think that the best way to protect yourself against transnational markets and unaccountable leaders was to vote for sovereignty and accountability within the nation state. If you did think that, you are a racist. The roots of Brexit include Tony Martin, the recluse who shot a burglar and went to jail. It is implied that Martin was a wicked man and became a folk hero because one of his uncles was in the League of Empire Loyalists in the Fifties. If he was alive, Martin could sue for libel. Meanwhile, for someone quick to diagnose racism in others, Curtis has a striking penchant for characterizing the Chinese as faceless Asiatic automatons.

I had hoped that I’d be unable to get I Can’t Get You Out of My Head out of my head, but in fact it washed through without much effect. After six hours of clips, clips, belligerent Chinese automatons, doomy synth music, clips, more belligerent Chinese automatons, incoherent voiceovers and more doomy synth music, I felt deeply bored. In this as in much else, Curtis has succeeded in replicating the effect of swimming in the shallow seas of the digital life – the random associations and false significances, the soporific egotism. But that is a failure, and this series is a failure. It is a slightly bitter obituary for a certain kind of liberal sociology, and its false trails and self-serving distortions have no more merit than any other conspiracy theory. It is also an obituary for serious or even semi-serious television. And that is the only historical merit in it.

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