Adam Curtis: another manager of perceptions

Jonathan Cook

Adam Curtis’ new, near three-hour documentary HyperNormalisation, showing on BBC iplayer, is being garlanded with predictable praise from liberal commentators. As ever, Curtis joins the dots in interesting, and sometimes compelling, ways. But HyperNormalisation also continues a trend by Curtis of using his insights to present a deeply conservative, disempowering and ultimately false impression of the world.

His recent films have been premised on the notion that our societies are driven almost exclusively by a struggle of ever-more complex ideas, often dangerous ones, and only marginally by economic forces. As it has become ever harder to find plausible solutions to an increasingly inter-connected world, and as western leaders have become ever more lost in the moral and ideological darkness of modern life, those who have excelled are the usual suspects – from Syria’s Assad and Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump.

HyperNormalisation is best when it deals with “perception management”. The west’s repeated reinventions of Libya’s Col Gaddafi – first as a bogeyman, then as a hero, then as a bogeyman again, depending on the needs of the day, and always at odds with the reality – is an incisive rebuttal to those who believe the media are committed to telling us meaningful things about the world. Though Curtis does not explicitly draw this conclusion, much of his film suggests correctly that the corporate media are the chief managers of our perceptions.

But much else is weak and unconvincing. The idea, for example, that the Occupy movement in the west and the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt failed for the same simple reason – that they had no vision of what came next – concisely illustrates much of what is wrong with Curtis’ thinking.

In Egypt, the revolution failed primarily because the secularists had little organisational structure behind them, after decades of repression, and because the forces of reaction – Egypt’s military-industrial complex – were too well-entrenched and sophisticated to be so easily ousted. The Islamists under Mohammed Morsi were allowed temporary and very limited access to the levers of government power by the miiitary in a move to divide the opposition. Morsi’s rule inevitably pitted the Islamists against the liberal secularists. Morsi was given enough rope to hang himself, antagonising the secular opposition so that they would welcome the military’s return. But in truth, the military never went away. There was never a vacuum in Egypt, of ideas or anything else. The army was just sophisticated at perception management – so good at it, in fact, that Curtis himself seems incapable of seeing behind the curtain.

The other major disappointment is his choice of easy villains. So the exemplars of perception management become Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, rather than Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton. But the idea that Putin and Trump somehow took perception management to a whole new level is preposterous. It again signals that Curtis is falling for the very “perception management” he claims to be exposing.

Curtis tells us how in the 1950s the US military fed to Americans who had seen UFOs fake documents to encourage them to believe they had witnessed visitations by aliens. It was a way to deflect attention from the more problematic reality: that they had seen the US military experimenting with new weapons systems.
Perception management is now rife in everything we are told. Little of the coverage that matters most in our media, itself part of the corporate power structures Curtis occasionally alludes to, can be trusted. Gaddafi’s treatment should remind us of this. Support for Trump – and for Bernie Sanders, and for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK – is a symptom of the public’s disillusionment with western leaders. Trump taps into this disllusionment, too often with brutally ugly – but satisfyingly concrete – answers. Walls against Mexicans!

Sanders and Corbyn, on the other hand, have tried to find real answers to questions other politicians and the media barely acknowledge. Because they are searching for solutions to problems that have been intentionally obscured, their political struggle is much harder and their voices more easily marginalised. Sadly, Curtis adds to this mystification of western politics rather than exposing it. He mentions neither Sanders nor Corbyn.

Curtis is similarly misleading in attributing to Putin what he describes as new moves to create a hollow, diversionary politics of false-flag democracy movements, youth organisations, human rights groups and opposition political parties. But anyone who has been following the US state department’s colour revolutions of the past two decades will know that Putin did not invent the wheel here. He is playing a dirty politics in which Washington has long excelled.
Instead, Curtis repeats his by-now common refrain: that western leaders have no solutions to the world’s complex problems. So in Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush and Tony Blair followed predecessors like Ronald Reagan in casting the world simplistically as a fight between good and evil. Their opponents were portrayed as demonic genuises.

In this way, Curtis effectively lets Bush and Blair off the hook. They fell for an idea, a mistaken and lazy one. They wanted the best for us, to protect us from these evil masterminds, to rebuild a reassuring world for us. They may have been wrong, but their intentions were good.

It is no surprise that Curtis only briefly deals with the US-UK attack on Iraq and even then does not mention oil as a factor, or the fact that Cheney and others made huge financial gains from the dissolution of the Iraqi state, or that the Iraq war generated a weapons sales bonanza for the military-industrial complex, or that there were geo-strategic interests for the US and Israel in weakening Arab nationalism. These issues are off Curtis’ radar, so well has his own perception of events been managed.

Similarly, the section on Curveball entirely misses the significance of this Iraqi defector. Curtis notes that Curveball, whose real name was Rafeed al-Janabi, took a dubious scenario from a Hollywood thriller – about nerve agents contained in glass spheres – to bolster his claims that he could verify Saddam Husein’s WMD programme. Curtis presents this as further proof that all of us, even security services like the CIA, are losing our connection to reality, so blurred has the line between fiction and fact become.

But that is not the lesson of Curveball. German security services who originally interviewed him pointed out the improbability of his testimony from the outset. Britain’s MI6 did not believe Curveball either. But their warnings were ignored by the CIA and the White House. Curveball did not manage anyone’s perceptions. He was simply another illusion by which the US could manage our perceptions, our resistance to a country being cynically destroyed for its resources and to reconfigure the Middle East.

Conversely, Curtis concludes with an assertion of such stunning political puerility that it undermines almost everything that has gone before. He argues of Putin’s involvement in Syria: “The Russians are still there – and no one really knows what they want.” Curtis does not know what “the Russians want” only because his preceptions have been carefully managed by the western media. Russia has very obvious strategic interests in being there. Among other things, it is trying to prevent the takeover of another country on its doorstep by Islamic jihadists, to halt the further destabilisation of the Middle East, and to prop up a key ally in Russia’s front against US expansionism.

“Great Games” of this kind between global superpowers have been going on for all of modern history. There is precisely nothing new about them, or mysterious.

The complexity Curtis luxuriates in is really not so complex. The world is divided between those who have power and wealth, and those who do not. The battle for the powerful is to keep their power, as it always has been. And that requires keeping the rest of us docile, misinformed and filled with a sense of hopelessness. Curtis is simply playing his part in managing our perceptions – and doing so in great style.

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Cass
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Cass

Glad I’m not the only one who thought this documentary was ridiculously stupid. It’s just a bunch of fear mongering, disjointed images pieced together with ominous music and haphazard connections between events that feels forced with little critical thinking behind them. This is the conservative view of the world – always afraid of everything – technology, had leaders, etc., always quivering at the thought of change. News flash: autocratic, crappy leaders have existed for most of humanity before any of these new technologies. I dunno, I just found the whole thing a monstrously stupid piece with no solutions to offer.

Cass
Reader
Cass

*bad leaders, my mistake.

Jacek Dabrowski
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Jacek Dabrowski

” The world is divided between those who have power and wealth, and those who do not. The battle for the powerful is to keep their power, as it always has been. And that requires keeping the rest of us docile, misinformed and filled with a sense of hopelessness. .” – except that this is the exact message I got from his art doco. The things you pointed out he skipped on are totally obvious.

Arrby
Reader

Jonathan’s piece is great. I should read Curtis’s to be fair, but I really don’t think I need to. The confusion and chaos that the global 1%’s game playing have led to have their origins and Jonathan simply and clearly addresses them.

Arrby
Reader

It gets really confusing. And discouraging. “But in truth, the military never went away.” Indeed, In my reading around, More than once I’ve come across mention of color revolutions and hybrid war that, in fact, the US (and it’s allies and proxies) begin with invisible maneuvers (like using social networks alongside phony expressions of unrest and opposition from media sources and from dupes) and the cooptation of students and young people who are then urged to push for ‘democracy’. Egypt no doubt harbored many who were properly oppressed, who properly yearned for freedom, but, apparently, there was much manipulation going… Read more »

chrisb
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chrisb

One of the masters of perception management is Vladimir Putin. Quite how he managed to persuade loads of socialists in Western Europe that he was a socialist, while governing a hugely unequal society, I do not come close to understanding.
I am equally baffled how anyone can claim to seriously analyse Russia’s involvement in Syria without mentioning Tartus.

rtj1211
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rtj1211

He does not try to claim he is a socialist. ON the contrary, he has openly stated that he represents conservative values. He inherited an enormously unequal Russia in 1999 and has done what he can to try to reverse that somewhat. Go too far and he would have been bumped off by the mafia. If you read between the lines he is pretty tough with oligarchs and improved the lot of ordinary Russians before the oil blockade instigated by US/Saudi tycoons.

writerroddis
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writerroddis

Tartus is Russia’s sole remaining former USSR naval base outside Russia. So yes, Russia has interests in Syria that, among many other things, put it at odds with western imperialism. Having been too weak to prevent regime change and homicidal chaos in Iraq and Libya, Moscow drew a line in the sand on Syria. Tartus is indeed one of the reasons Putin stands by Assad. The “pipeline war”,/a> is another. But who is baffling you with claims to “seriously analyse Russia’s involvement in Syria without mentioning Tartus”?

Jen
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Jen

Russia is involved in the Syrian war because the Syrian government requested Moscow’s assistance in fighting ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra, all other terrorist groups linked to these organisations and their various allies who include the US, the UK, Australia, Denmark, Belgium and other Western nations. The Russians have a dog in this war because many if not most terrorists fighting in Syria have come from Chechnya or Dagestan within the Russian Federation, and might return there. Tartus has never been mentioned because it is a naval base on lease to Russia. Russian involvement in the war is confined to aerial… Read more »

Alessandro
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Alessandro

Well-put Jen. Yeltsin was a disaster for the vast majority of Russians, but under Putin the country has recovered. It’s true that he hasn’t prosecuted most of the oligarchs, but he also put a stop to what I can only call the criminal firesale of public assets.

Alessandro
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Alessandro

chrisb, I think you may be misinterpreting people’s reasons for taking Russia and Assad’s side in Syria. The issue isn’t whether or not Putin is a socialist, as he very clearly isn’t anything of the kind. It’s that the war in Syria was begun and escalated by reactionary and terrorist groups and NATO military in an attempt to extend their global hegemony. The U.S. is the world’s leading imperial power and doesn’t like it when other countries try to assert their independence – see Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, the Philippines, Cuba and of course China and Russia. I don’t support Putin,… Read more »

Philip Roddis
Reader

Well put, Allesandro. I’ve encountered the same misplaced accusation – on the “irony” of socialists defending Putin – in Grauniad BTL exchanges, and with liberals elsewhere. They too assumed the only reason the left would defend a foreign state or leader is that it sees them as also on the left. In January my open letter to an Owen Jones struggling with the same misconceived formula put it thus: “Since America is still the greatest power on earth, its post 1990 behaviour reckless and terrifying, I’m glad we have Vlad. Let me put this more plainly. Should Washington succeed in… Read more »

archie
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archie

Watched this documentary last night on UTube ( no longer subscribe to the Tory propaganda machine that the BBC has become ) , and agree with Cooks analysis of it , although it touched on some of the issues there was no follow through of any depth and felt like it was almost a Vox Pop type production with distracting film clips some of no relevance to the subject being discussed. Overall I was left with a feeling of hopelessness and questioned my support for any political party as it “was all useless” . Thus , is this what Curtis… Read more »

Alan Brown
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Alan Brown

Excellent article.I heard James Corbett talking about this a while ago.Ive only seen the trailer for this film,and it was obvious that this was going to be an excuse note for Western foreign policy.

binra
Reader

Alas and yes – a gatekeeper. If he was a reluctant gatekeeper he could give cues for the perceptive to pick up on. But the idea of using psyops and then making it clear that they are psyops whilst asserting they are not – of a nature to render thinking and critical dialogue almost impossible without standing out as a ‘nutter’, an offensive violator of ‘decency’ or a danger to society is true enough – though he didn’t reveal how fake a lot of it is. In fact he simply operates the purveying of dissociative and destructive device by not… Read more »

davidstuddert98buddha9
Reader

Curtis has lost his way — while his early programs concentrated upon specific ideas and how they went from isolated instances to mainstream ideas: game theory for instance, the ones he does now are like an all in history of the world. They are way too broad as you say and thus simplistic. Its also one reason why they have become so long. Plus of course analyzing game theory and the rise of psychoanalysis and how these strands of thinking have found a legitimization underlying neo-liberalism means he is following a single stranded idea and thus avoids the charge that… Read more »

Alessandro
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Alessandro

Completely agree, great analysis.

marladeni
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marladeni

Curtis: sevenoaks school, oxford, bbc….. a classic anglo spooks pegidgree.

Jen
Reader
Jen

Jonathan Cook has always been a highly perceptive writer and his criticism of Adam Curtis is spot on. I would add to Cook’s article my observation that Curtis arrives at the conclusions he does by selectively cherry-picking only those examples that support and bolster his particular viewpoint, and which enable him to ignore the real political and economic forces behind apparent chaos. Almost without exception, Curtis’ documentary series like “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” choose to compare and contrast odd examples like, say, the history of Rwanda and Burundi with other carefully chosen examples of self-regulating systems… Read more »

Robert Elliot (@xxzardozxx)
Reader

I have the impression he is targeting a specific audience – liberals who know they are being lied to but aren’t about to go to some crazy conspiracy website to try to figure out what is going on for themselves. They still need to be told by an authority figure what is going on. The answer is no one’s in charge and everything is spiraling out of control but thankfully there’s no real malevolence in the world. It’s just human foibles and good intentions gone awry. Good thing they didn’t go to that conspiracy website. They might have been mislead!

grumpyaccountant
Reader

“The idea, for example, that the Occupy movement in the west and the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt failed for the same simple reason – that they had no vision of what came next – concisely illustrates much of what is wrong with Curtis’ thinking.” I have to take issue with this comment, largely because, in the UK, the Labour Party has become the embodiment of “no vision”. Despite the xenophobia and general hatefulness towards anyhone or anything “other” into which much of our population has been guided by both government and (most of the) MSM propaganda over the last… Read more »

archie
Reader
archie

I agree with you regarding the clowns that purport to be the Government at present , but with respect , Corbyns Labour party has been busy at local level where it matters most .There have been 2 weeks ago street stalls across the country demonstrating against new Grammar Schools and the following week with local protests against NHS cuts to try and keep that up in the media. Remember you are not hearing or seeing things that Labour are doing at the moment because it suits the MSM not to report it . As regards to Labour having no vision… Read more »

grumpyaccountant
Reader

Oh, come on! It really can’t be right to be focus exclusively on local level matters, that Corbyn’s coterie musy know by now will not reported fairly and probably not at all, but say precisely nothing loud and clear, with passion and anger, to condemn the vileness of the reactions from both the MSM and some Tories to giving shelter and protection to a handful of desperate refugees into this country. It’s simply not credible to hide behind the MSM’s treatment of Corbyn, or 10 pledges I doubt many outside the most committed party members could recite, or the behaviour… Read more »

archie
Reader
archie

In respect of focus , it is exactly that focus , at grass roots level that is going to effect more change than any top down approach as seen before in the Blair years. That is the main point of Corbyn’s ideals , that is the democratisation and re-invigoration at the local level. There is no “hiding” behind what the MSM does or does not do , but the re-iteration of such facts continues to keep it in perspective , after all the topic was about perception management and that is what happens to Labour constantly via the MSM no… Read more »

grumpyaccountant
Reader

I take on board everything you say but…. I said nothing about ranting and frothing but, if Corbyn, who I acknowledge is a fundamentally decent man with what appear to be very good intentions, hardly ever tackles Tory crap head on, you surely cannot deny that the people who really need to be persuaded that Labour cares about them now, the undecided, the essentially decent Tories and Kippers who don’t like the bile emanating from their party of choice, need to hear some positive, reasoned argument, not ranting and frothing, against the offending policies, not just when the bottom-up revolution… Read more »

mog
Reader
mog

Great review.
The mere fact that Curtis airs on the BBC is indication enough for me that he is not going to be effectively clarifying the world’s crises in the manner of writers like Cook.
The It’s all just a set of co-incidences and cock-ups, (that keep benefitting the same groups of people) meme is looking a bit thin these days wouldn’t you say?

Husq
Reader
Husq

It’s all just a set of co-incidences and cock-ups, (that keep benefitting the same groups of people<

The Guardians get out clause.

Frank
Reader

Mass thought-control, or perception management if you will, began to emerge in the 18th and 19th centuries, with Alexis De Tocqueville’s magnum opus, ‘Democracy in America’ (1835) and John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ (1859). Both men were anticipating the coming of mass society and the methods whereby the elites were beginning to fashion instruments for manipulating the thought processes of the masses. This, of course, was before the advent radio and television and the various other technologies of mass communication which have massively expanded and refined this process. According to Mill: ”In politics it is almost a triviality to say… Read more »

damien
Reader
damien

Your last paragraph is excellent — and critical. Previously, an elite ruled the nation — for good or bad, mostly bad. Now we live in a “flatter” society, one where the power structures, the media and the official public ethos affirm that we are all equal. In terms of moral entitlements, to fairness and equity, this is a good thing. But in terms of managing public debate on important issues and national governance its a problem. If you have a ten second attention span, no knowledge of history, can’t see others’ points of view and are endowed with an excessive… Read more »

damien
Reader
damien

Curtis effectively lets Bush and Blair off the hook …They may have been wrong, but their intentions were good. Perhaps it’s worth reminding people about FBI translator Sibel Edmonds who was monitoring FBI wiretaps conducted from before 9/11. In her 2009 interview by Phillip Giraldi in The American Conservative magazine she says: “The monitoring of the Turks picked up contacts with Wolfowitz [Paul Wolfowitz, US Undersecretary of Defense] and Perle [Richard Perle, senior US policy advisor and war hawk] in the summer of 2001, four months before 9/11. They were discussing with the Turkish ambassador in Washington an arrangement whereby… Read more »

BigB
Reader
BigB

I’d love to know the full extent of what Sibel Edmonds knows about 9/11- but she’s been gagged. The 9/11 Ommission wouldn’t go near her although she wrote to them. She’s offered to tell all and name names – on live primetime TV – but has not had any offers so far. Another carefully manicured perception by the M$M that somehow al Qaeda did it perhaps?

ultra909
Reader

I suggest reading her book. Seems legit to me. Her and her husband eventually decamped to NZ in disgust.

Boo Radley
Reader
Boo Radley

She lives in Oregon now, and works on newsbud now, they have just started their second funding campaign.

tutisicecream
Reader

Perception Management for Dummies:
1. Make sure you do lots of what you want to accuse the opposition of doing.
2. Turn around basic ideas so black becomes white and white then becomes black.
3. When the opposition reacts to this skulduggery accuse them of what you have been doing all along!
For all of this to work effectively you need a delivery system* which will cost you a lot more money than your opposition can afford.
* A delivery system will include: corporate backers, mass media, judiciary, military and militarised police.

physicsandmathsrevision
Reader

Excellent comment. Thank you.

physicsandmathsrevision
Reader

Excellent commentary Jonathan. Well done and thank you. I once attended a public meeting where Curtis was one of an “anti-Extablishment” panel of four. He was scathing about our government and its actions in the Middle East, particularly. The issue of “9/11 Truth” was raised from the floor. The entire panel dead-batted it. I asked Curtis specifically, “How is it that you criticise “government to the point of using the word “evil” yet when it comes to evidence that wouls prove your case and have a genuinely powerful effect in arresting the continuation of these evil actions you simply won’t… Read more »

Davide
Reader
Davide

“His recent films have been premised on the notion that our societies are driven almost exclusively by a struggle of ever-more complex ideas, often dangerous ones, and only marginally by economic forces.” Oh lordy, now where have I heard talk like that before? From the Bush administration, as related by Ron Suskind: ‘The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not… Read more »

BigB
Reader
BigB

Karl Rove was the Bush aide who was later identified as the source of the “We are an Empire…” quote. He is also credited with the “Scheherazade strategy”: “When policy dooms you, start telling stories – stories so fabulous, so gripping, so spellbinding that the king (or, in this case, the American citizen who theoretically rules our country) forgets all about a lethal policy. It plays on the insecurity of Americans who feel that their lives are out of control” (According to Ira Chernus, professor at the University of Colorado – http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2008/US-Empire-Reality1jan08.htm) Especially note that the President only “theoretically rules.”… Read more »

damien
Reader
damien

… I think it [Occupy] failed because it was largely driven by careerists, political opportunists and pseudo-leftists who had some vague ideas about anarchism and/or reforming capitalist society. I agree. The lack of a political agenda meant they were an easy mark for the authorities. The Occupy movement is remarkable not just for its scale of civil protests globally but for the abrupt and controlled manner in which it was shut down. The Domestic Security Alliance Council (DSAC) consists of US military and intelligence agencies, the FBI, Homeland Security and major US corporations set up to monitor “domestic terrorists” —… Read more »

writerroddis
Reader
writerroddis

Excellent review. Just back from a month in Asia, I watched this on the say so of a friend. It’s perceptive in places but offers an idealist worldview that pays scant attention to the material forces driving the horror show – the perceptively managed horror show – that is Really Existing Capitalism in an age of inter-imperial rivalry at its most dangerous level in at least thirty years

Oddlots
Reader
Oddlots

CIA Flashback: “We’ll Know Our Disinformation Program Is Complete When Everything the American Public Believes Is False.”
Finally: “Mission Accomplished.”

paulcarline
Reader

If it were only the American public we would have less to fear. But it’s the vast majority of the public in the Anglophone world and a very large percentage of the European public, both of which have been subjected to the same heavy disinformation programme – and not just since 9/11. We can go back to at least WWI to see how the so-called ‘elites’ manipulated the news to pursue their own ends – primarily economic wars, including preventing the alliance between Germany and Russia that those elites feared.

John
Reader
John

So what was the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact if not an alliance between Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union?
It was not necessary for the western ‘elites’ to manipulate the news for or against this purpose.
It was obvious from any reading of Mein Kampf that Hitler would order an attack against the then Soviet Union, with – or without – any alliance or pact between them.

Your enemys enemy is not your friend
Reader
Your enemys enemy is not your friend

But this is the bizarro world version of american exceptionalism. Other states’ elites are simple saps incapable of independent thought.