Adam Curtis Wants You To Imagine Another World

The British documentarian discusses his new film, ‘Can’t Get You Out of My Head,’ why progressives need to ditch the term “neoliberalism,” and more.

Jacob Sugarman

British documentarian Adam Curtis speaks at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival in Telluride, Colorado. Getty Images North America

Early on in the second episode of his new six-part documentary for the BBC, Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, director Adam Curtis tells the story of a bestselling novelist from the 1950s and 1960s named Edgar Mittelholzer. Mittelholzer emigrated to England from British Guiana, and he wrote about what Curtis calls the violence and the racism that had been at the heart of the European empires.” One of the author’s most famous works, My Bones and My Flute, follows a party of colonialists who become possessed by the spirt of a vengeful slavemaster on an ill-fated journey up the Berbice River into the Guyanese jungle. 

One of the real problems I have is people who keep on using what I call the N-word, neoliberalism, because everyone knows they’re just talking about capitalism. But maybe this isn't capitalism any longer.

Living with his wife in Surrey, Mittelholzer grew disgusted with English society, which Curtis claims he saw as decadent and corrupt. In one interview, Mittelholzer even went so far as to propose that anybody who committed violence against a person or property be classified as vermin” to be eradicated.” The documentary reveals that the author would later climb a hill near his home, douse himself in paraffin and light a match. He burned to death,” explains Curtis. The anger and the fear [of the colonialists] had reached out to the colonized too.”

Such ghosts of history haunt Curtis’ riveting, kaleidoscopic (and occasionally confounding) new work. Until we confront them, he argues, we’ll never be able to imagine — much less create — a better world. 

Can’t Get You Out of My Head poses a difficult question to liberals as well as the Left: Why did the radical politics of the past 50 years fail again and again? The answer, he suggests, lies in the story of frustrated revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries like Mao Zedong’s mistress-turned-wife Jiang Qing, the Russian dissident Eduard Limonov, rapper Tupac Shakur and the British civil rights activist Michael de Freitas, later known as Michael X. (In a Curtis-ian twist, we learn that de Freitas was ultimately convicted of murder and executed in his native Trinidad and Tobago after a failed attempt to escape to the same Guyanese jungle that Mittelholzer wrote about in his novel.)

Each of these figures succumbs to cynicism, disillusionment or wrath, but they are not the only characters in the film unable to escape the past. Curtis also seems to be reckoning with his own film history and the larger cultural forces of nostalgia. Can’t Get You Out of My Head often feels like the director is playing his greatest hits — some analysis borrowed from his previous films The Trap, The Century of the Self and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a few musical cues from HyperNormalisation—even as he’s crafted something spectacular and new. The result is perhaps his most fully realized work to date.

Over the phone, Curtis spoke to In These Times about the reemergence of conspiracy theories in American society, why progressives desperately need to shed the term neoliberalism” and whether we are really living under capitalism anymore. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Jacob Sugarman: The modern world that you depict in Can’t Get You Out of My Head is a very static one in which little has changed in the structure of power over the past five years. But since the start of the pandemic, it seems as though there is an eagerness, particularly on the Left, to declare the historical period in which we were previously living over.” Do you see this as a real moment of rupture, or do you find these types of pronouncements premature?

Adam Curtis: If you look back into history, what you see is that at moments of crisis like this, there has been, despite all the fear, a desire to think of alternatives. Because the important thing about this pandemic, both in my country and in your country, is it has shone a very hard light onto the structure of our societies — that the culture is getting worse and that poverty is increasing, along with the marginalization of hundreds of thousands of people. The lower you are down that social structure, the further you are from the structure of power, the more likely you are to fall ill and to die. Whereas the further you are up the power structure, the safer you are. And that has shocked quite a few people.

One of the reasons I made these films was that I was trying to gently point out to those who see themselves as progressive that over the past four years, they haven’t actually come up with any alternatives to the things that shocked them — Brexit in my country and Trump in yours. If they genuinely want to change those inequalities and make a different kind of society, they’ve got to start thinking about how to do it. 

JS: One theme that runs through the entire series, and much of your work, is the public’s retreat into conspiracy theories. In the first episode, you detail how the isolation of the suburbs in the United States gave rise to the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 60s. But we are now more connected than ever before. So why do we live in such paranoid times?

AC: It’s partly the fault of those in power and partly our own fault. Conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time, especially in America, where they date back to the early part of the 19th century. People came from Europe to America to escape from an old corrupt power in the East, but always brought with them a suspicion that could easily become paranoia that the old corruption might have followed them. That explains the fragility that underlies a lot of America — this fear that, out in the darkness, there’s something dangerous. 

What is different about present-day conspiracy theories is that they are products of an age in which we’ve tried to live without big, grand stories. After the Second World War, those in power and millions of ordinary people said never again” to big ideas that ran out of control like fascism and state totalitarianism — stories that were supposed to unite the people but instead led to hysteria. In response to that, we have tried to live in a world in which people created their own stories. It’s what underlies the individualism in the West, not just in America. 

After catastrophes like September 11 and the banking crisis in 2008, the system that underpinned the idea that people could live as individuals in their own stories began to crack. When that happens, people feel very much on their own, and they start to search for an explanation for why they are feeling like that. Because those in power 60 or 70 years before had given up on telling big stories about what this was all for, the people found themselves without any stories, without any explanations. So in that vacuum, conspiracies rush in. Over the past four years, it wasn’t just the Right and the people you expect. It’s not just QAnon. It’s also the suspicions on the progressive Left that people and groups like Vladimir Putin and Cambridge Analytica distorted the vote. Paranoia took over everybody.

JS: Now that Trump has been vanquished, at least for the time being, do you see liberals and the Left slowly emerging from the dream world you argue they themselves constructed during his presidency? 

AC: I have no idea. They have to prove to us they’re engaged again in the real world. I find Biden interesting. A lot of people on the Left are very cynical about Biden, and it’s true, he had no real program other than I’m not Donald Trump.” But I was really impressed that he got up and made a speech attacking the war in Yemen and saying that America would not sell arms anymore to the Saudis running that war. I thought, Why hasn’t a mainstream figure on the Left been saying this over the last four years?” Instead, they have gone on about how Vladimir Putin is stroking a cat in the Kremlin. I was quite shocked. 

Here was someone outside the social media bubble, outside the world of Twitter, saying, No, this war is really bad and we’re going to do something about it. We’re going to stop sending arms to the Saudis to prosecute that war.” It was like an old-fashioned radicalism suddenly rearing its head. I remember thinking, Yes, come on, America. You have real responsibilities in this world. You helped create these problems, you can solve them.”

I think of Lyndon Johnson, who was seen as a pretty normal, straight, right-wing senator when he became the president by horrible accident. He then turned into this extraordinary reformer who allied with young radicals. There’s a growing pressure from people on the Right and Left in our societies who want change, and you’ve got to break through this bubble somehow. 

JS: One event that did not make it into your documentary was the January 6 Capitol riot in Washington. How do you view this in the context of the past four years and what, if anything, do you think it augurs for the future?

AC: I thought it was terribly sad on all kinds of levels, first and foremost because people got hurt and killed. It was terribly sad that a society had come to that. But what I think the Left has not fully understood is why those people decided to attack the Capitol. It was a melancholic anger because their leader, Donald Trump, had completely failed in the past four years to do anything that he had promised. 

If you actually look back at the 2016 election, Trump vowed to get rid of the corruption and the lobbying in America. He called it draining the swamp. He said he would bring the factories home from places like China and other parts of Asia, and restore the confidence of those in working-class areas. He promised to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and to stop all the wars, which are not producing a better world but are just producing horror. He did none of those things. He didn’t even build a wall. All he did was reduce taxes for rich people, which is what all Republicans do. What you saw was the sadness of a group who thought they were going to change the world through their hero, who had failed them. It was an apocalyptic lashing out.

JS: While we’re on the subject of Trump, I wanted to get your thoughts about another event that may have fallen into the interstitial period between the release of your film and when you finished production, impeachment.

AC: I was finishing my films right up to the last moment. I’m terribly sorry to say, but you’re beginning to behave like an American journalist.You’re assuming that the most important things in the world are what happens in America. If you analyze these films, 70% of them are not about America, and I did that very deliberately. It was a history of all the powerful forces in the modern world, of which some were in America. I consider American politics and the sort of narcissism of American politics one of the big problems of the times. I think I have two shots of Donald Trump. Honestly, his impeachment is not one of the great, big stories to put out.

JS: To clarify, I’m in agreement about Trump’s impeachment, which has been forgotten almost instantaneously. And your point is taken about the political culture in the United States. But In These Times’ readership is also predominantly American.

AC: I understand, but sometimes we outside of the country see a terrible inward-looking-ness amongst many of the progressives in America. It’s evidence of something I gently try to hint at in the films, which is that maybe liberals and the Left have gotten trapped in a terrible feedback loop of codependency with Trump. And maybe the reason they’re finding it difficult to let go is because they cannot confront the fact that they don’t have an alternative vision to take to those millions of people who voted for him both in 2016 and 2020. It’s not narcissism. That was wrong of me. That was rude. 

(Editor’s note: Subsequent to our conversation, Curtis asked to include this follow-up: Of course, I do realise that just as I was accusing American journalists of insularity, British journalists like me are equally guilty of lecturing people about far-flung countries across the world in a pompous manner — like about the war in Yemen — because we are still stuck, unconsciously, with the attitudes of the British Empire.)

JS: Can’t Get You Out of My Head makes a compelling case that both American and British societies are exhausted, but that they’re not alone. Is there any country right now, world power or otherwise, that seems to offer a path forward or an alternative vision of the future? 

AC: I try and point out that the big powers of our time may be far more exhausted than we think, and that includes both Russia and China. That’s not to say that they won’t go on being powerful. For example, America is still a very powerful country, probably the most powerful country in the world. The British Empire went through two phases. It had a stage of informal imperialism, when the world was pretty much run by its companies, and then a stage of formal imperialism, when it came roaring back as a power. You never know, America might do it. The answer is no one really knows. 

I think Africa may be the continent of the future. China has an aging population that has never really confronted the failures of the Maoist revolution. If you look at it objectively, it is a regime that totally depends on mass surveillance to hold onto power, with nothing else to offer its people. Africa is an extraordinarily dynamic place. I don’t know, I just think it’ll come from somewhere we don’t expect. But that’s not my job. I just want to point out that the powers we think of as strong may not be as strong as we think. And therefore, it may be easier to change the world than you think.

JS: Your film explores in part how Michael de Freitas questions radicals’ perception of themselves. What do you see as an authentically radical movement today? 

AC: Well, I think Black Lives Matter is really good, because it’s the first radical group in a long time that says, No, you don’t just make the world better by making people behave nicely.” It targets the corrupt and decaying structure of power around them. In the age of the individual, we have been encouraged to believe that everything we feel comes from inside us. So when we feel like shit, positive and behavioral psychology tell us to assume that it’s our fault. But there’s an older sociological view that says, A lot of what you do feel comes from inside you, but quite a lot of what you feel comes from where you are in society.” If you are close to the structure of power, you benefit from it and you tend to feel better than if you don’t. 

I like Black Lives Matter because it argues that if you really want to address racism, you have to change the structure of power. And that’s just inarguable. It took a group who were pretty much outside the mainstream of society to come smashing in and tell us that. I think that’s really good. A lot of the progressive movements of the past 20 to 30 years, because they grew out of the age of individualism, stopped talking about power or lost sight of it. If you’re going to change the modern world, you’ve got to actually work out where power is and how it works inside your head.

JS: Many of the characters in the documentary — de Freitas, Eduard Limonov, Tupac Shakur, Jiang Qing — are hugely charismatic but deeply flawed figures. Qing in particular was the architect of real atrocities. Why did you think they were the best people to tell the story of radicalism’s failure over the past 50 years?

AC: I wanted to do something a little bit different in these films than I’ve done before, which was to make a series driven by people and their stories. It’s like one of those great, big multi-part novels from the 19th century. I really like those and I just thought, Why can’t I try and do that with factual things, with lots of characters who come and go and interweave?” Once you start thinking like that, you get interested in ambiguous characters. The real fault of a lot of journalism in the present day, and this is true of my country as much as yours, is that it increasingly simplifies the people it talks about. They’re either goodies or baddies. You are either someone who is suffering from a warlord, and therefore you’re a good person, or you’re a warlord who is smuggling lots of money and hiding it in the city of London, in which case you’re a bad person. People are more complicated than that.

If you take Jiang Qing, she starts off as an actor in the studios in Shanghai in the 1930s. She’s scorned, put down by the studio bosses. She’s a very ambitious person. She wants to move forward, but they stop her, and she joins the Communist revolution in Yan’an, where she becomes Mao Zedong’s mistress. The other revolutionaries, all men around Mao, block her at every turn and she grows furious. And up to that point, you can really sympathize with her because she is one of the early individualists emerging even in a society like China. But then she’s put in charge of the Cultural Revolution about six or seven years later, and she becomes this monster who uses it to exact her revenge on those people. I tried to tell a story that shows the complexity of how you change the world. You can’t just assume that you can reinvent it out of nothing. The past always haunts us. 

JS: Mark Zuckerberg remains a source of ire among liberals, and not without reason. Can you explain why you’re more skeptical of the amount of power that a company like Facebook actually wields?

AC: Part of the Left’s own retreat into conspiracy theories comes from the idea that social media, and Facebook above all, can manipulate how we think and feel without our realizing it. Psychologists call it priming. The reason I’m mostly suspicious about it, and I report on this in the film, is because over the last four or five years, efforts to repeat a number of the major experiments that have been used to prove that priming can work have been unsuccessful. It shocked a lot of social psychologists, and it challenges the notion on the Left that Facebook can manipulate your mind. 

We may be stronger than we think. Social media can put us into a state of hysteria, but it can’t fundamentally change the way we feel. Our real problem is that we don’t actually have any kind of alternative idea for a society. So what we do is embrace a dark pessimism that says, Oh, we’re being manipulated.” It’s a way of avoiding facing those difficult questions the Left has retreated from over the last 10 or 15 years, really since the failure of protest against the banking crash in 2008. That’s not to say that Facebook doesn’t have very bad effects on society. Along with Google, it’s destroyed journalism. 

JS: Can you talk a little about what you see as the parallels between the United States and the late Soviet Union?

AC: The Soviet Union followed what was known as the Soviet plan, which was rooted in the idea that you could actually run an economic system in which everything is planned. That really collapsed in the mid-1970s, and to keep the country working, people invented a fake economy to justify what they were doing when in fact nothing was actually working. I think you can see that now with finance in America. Things went slightly strange at the end of the 1990s and they have taken on a logic of their own since 2008 with what’s called quantitative easing.” Both mine and your governments have been desperately pumping money into the system to keep people borrowing to the point that there are now negative interest rates. We’re being paid money to take out loans and punished for saving money, which by any measure is absurd. It’s absurd that the market is soaring in the midst of a global pandemic.

What we’ve got is not really capitalism any longer. It’s some weird, zombie-like force driven by the idea of debt and lending money, and no one really knows what it is. Over the last four years, we’ve had this hysteria in our heads. But outside, in the real world, this strange thing is growing. And no one is in control of it. One of the real problems I have is people who keep on using what I call the N-word, neoliberalism, because everyone knows they’re just talking about capitalism. But maybe this isn’t capitalism any longer. 

Whatever you think about capitalism, good or bad, it was supposed to be the engine not just of democracy but of our whole society. If you look at the last four years, it’s done nothing in the real world. All those companies, the corporations like Facebook, like Google, sit on vast piles of cash. They don’t actually make anything, do they? They’re not even like the evil robber barons of the 19th century. They don’t build bridges. The bridges just decay. They just sit on these cash piles waiting to buy something up, and that’s it. That’s weird. 

If I was going to be a good political journalist of the future, I would set out to describe what the hell this thing is and try to make people look at it in a new way. The trouble is that a lot of the journalists on the Left keep on using the same old language, which actually may be completely redundant now. There’s a theory that if aliens arrived on this earth, we wouldn’t be able to see them because we wouldn’t have the language to understand what they were. They may actually already be here because you only understand something if you’re told what it is. It’s almost like that with what is called capitalism.” We can’t even see it because we haven’t got the language to comprehend what is in front of our eyes.

JS: Did you happen to catch the movie Annihilation or read the novel by Jeff VanderMeer? 

AC: I haven’t seen the film, but I read the novel, and I thought it was fantastic. Why do you ask?

JS: Only because it’s a story that seems to grapple with this strangeness. And because it felt like an answer of sorts to Stalker, which you explore some in HyperNormalisation.

AC: I was going to say that Annihilation was a very, very good book, but it did steal from Stalker. And from that book Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. But I really do believe that we are in a very strange place, and we don’t understand it. If you read newspapers and the magazines of the capitalists like The Economist, they don’t know what’s going on either. They really don’t. Like all objects in the Zone, money is behaving in a very strange way. It goes the long way around the corner. 

Good journalism grabs people by dramatizing things in such a way that they look at them differently and they think, Oh my god, that’s really exciting.” And that’s what’s waiting to be done. Journalism is going to reinvent itself like it did at the end of the 19th century and during the 1960s when it finds a way to describe this weirdness that we’re living in. It would be like a new way of looking at the world.

JS: Your series begins and ends with a quote from the anthropologist David Graeber that reads, The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could, just as easily, make differently.” I do not think it is the express aim of your films, but it does come through in your work that you genuinely want things to change. What role do you think art and culture have to play in realizing another world?

AC: I’m a hack, and hacks don’t have visions of the future. I’m part of the problem, too. What do I do? I chop up old film from the past, put it together in different forms. I’m best at just explaining the now, how we got to this moment. But by nature, I’m progressive, which means that I believe it’s impossible to hold society static. The great, dynamic force of history roars on. Politics and power are about trying to change that for the better. At the end of these films, I offer three possible futures, but it’s up to others. I’m not a politician. To go back to that David Graeber quote, you and the people in power helped create this world together over the past 70 years, which means you can change it. 

Jacob Sugarman is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Jacobin and Salon, among other publications.

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