The link to this documentary was posted on FB by the son of an old friend that I have known for all the decades reflected in the video.
Hypernormalisation is a term created by Alexei Yurchak to describe the attitude of everyone in the Soviet Union during the last years before the crash in 1989. The people of Russia knew that the public relations version of their world created by the government was false, but it was so hard for them to imagine any alternative to the fake society in which they lived, that everyone behaved as though the PR version was the truth.
There is an old joke about a Soviet responding to a question about government control over the factory in which he works: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”
Note that the entire West was fooled by this faux version of the Soviet state and was shocked to find out that “things are seldom as they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream” when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
This documentary is about events since 1975 that point to the generalization of this substitution of fake for real around the globe. It is a long documentary (rolling near 3 hours) but can be watched in chunks on Youtube. It also contains disturbing images of violence, so be warned.
It has an air of conspiracy theory, and Adam Curtis reaches right up to that line, but he deftly uses the actual words of participants and actual events that I remember from the last 45 years to effectively build support for his ideas. I certainly can’t point to any of his notions and say they are obviously wrong.
He opens with an event that occurred in New York City in 1975 when the city’s sale of bonds to cover their debt of $275 million (a practice of the city of many years) had no takers. In the negotiations that followed, a board was formed consisting of 1 representative from the city and 8 representatives from the banks. It was this board that instituted the austerity program in New York City that destroyed its middle-class infrastructure and paved the way for the gentrified fortress of American elites the city has become today. At the time, I remember that this was recognized by social justice advocates across the country as a seminal moment, but its implications were generally lost from my memory, and I think others, through the intervention of the countless episodes of social degradation that have followed.
The major themes of the video are:
- Although money has always influenced politics, the politicians remained brokers for the use of it. The 1975 events in New York reversed this relationship. Curtis describes this as a shift in the role of who curates social stability. Traditionally that has fallen to politicians. Now, everywhere, finance has taken control over efforts to stabilize social systems as the standard way to reduce social instability, and politicians implement that control through financial, budgetary, and militarized mechanisms. Note that this reversal was deemed necessary because of the failure of politicians to provide enough social stability. Also, you should note the overlap of the banks that imposed austerity on New York in 1975 and the ones who were too big to fail after the 2008 financial crash.
- “Perception Management” has become the role of every elite institution globally regardless of apparent mission. While we focus today on “alternative facts” as though this process is new, the use of inaccurate favorable portrayals of events is so common and universal, that no one really notices most of it anymore. The accusation of “Fake” is now no more than a tool of ideological battle, and we simply gloss over the rest of the lies to avoid being overwhelmed. There is absolutely no concerted effort to restore the idea of “the facts control discourse”. There are so many lies told so relentlessly in the arena of public discourse that it would be impossible to do so.
- The management of perception has reached monumental proportions especially in any area where the use of financial control to gain social stability is failing. The poster child for this failure is the war on terror and it’s overlapping and various wars on black and gray markets. Curtis spends a lot of time on the Middle East as the foremost example of the chaos and misinformation (defined also as the impossibility of usable portrayal through perception management rather than simple lying).
- The rise of the use of personal suicide as a political and military weapon. The original inspiration for this was the elder Assad, but it truly flowered when Iran used thousands of children in their war with Iraq in 1980 to create paths through minefields by blowing up the mines with themselves. Although Iraq had a big advantage in weaponry (in large part from the US), they were first stalemated and then driven back by this hideous use of suicide. Now we see the worldwide use of many variants of such suicide including its use against the authors of the tactic, and the absolute inability of the West to stop it. We are beginning to become used to it. At the time, only war nerds like myself thought that was a significant military change in that otherwise pointless 8-year war.
- The failure of technological utopianism (and its allied idea of the individualistic focus as the path to happiness) to affect the rest of these forces. In fact, Curtis believes that art and culture have essentially abandoned the larger issues of social control and social justice by withdrawing to places of apparent safety. Art and Culture have been gentrified as much as the housing in New York City.
The video is also interesting because of the portrayal of the role that Donald Trump and his ongoing relationship with Putin has had on various aspects of this use of perception management.
What I took away from the whole of the documentary was the huge effort by global elites and social institutions to impose social control and create social stability, and the failure of those elites and institutions to actually succeed in doing that. They are trying just about every way imaginable to find methods of social control that lead to stability, and they haven’t been able to do that in finance, politics, insurgency, social conflict, cultural conflict, or ideological conflict. But, they are driving most of their potential allies (all of us), those who want real stability, from actual involvement in producing it by offering all of us only faux roles through the use of political slogans.
I think there are some exaggerations in the video, but it is hard to argue with the flow and overall impact of it. I am going to explore some of those exaggerations and why I believe that the trends, which Curtis identifies, relentlessly sabotage the very goals that both elites and insurgents pursue.
If you choose to watch the video, watch as much as you can, but don’t feel that you have to watch it all. It is brutal.
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