June 24, 2024


Advocacy. Mediation. Success.

Can't get him out of our heads – the strange liberal adulation of Adam Curtis

(Spoilers, petty parody and some outer-head afterthoughts)


We are living through strange times.

And like all previous strange times, no one is quite sure if these strange times are any more strange than any other strange times.

Because most people have now become pretty used to this strange reality. 

Strange as it seems.  

But then in 2021 something very strange happened.

A man called Adam Curtis came up with a strange six-part series on the BBC. 

And it caused a sensation. 

For Curtis claimed that it was possible to show through trippy dance sequences and catchy narration how big issues of power could be understood.

And this was met with much curiosity, and not a little scepticism. 

But Curtis was not unduly concerned by this.

Because he had already put out similarly strange films.

Which had been received with the same strange mix of critical bewilderment and liberal adulation.  

And everyone thought that the cool hip-hop tracks and other quirky music over such footage was just the same strange work of this odd maverick.

But then other such hallucinogenic-styled images began to appear, posing deeper and more unsettling questions. 

And in the suburbs of middle-class America, a strange conspiracy theory started to take root. 

And spread across the globe.

And people really did begin to believe that this strange filmmaker was out to control their very perceptions.

But Curtis had not just relied on old home movie sequences to fascinate his viewers.       

He had come to believe that the stories of some strong-willed individuals could be added to these mesmerising visuals as a way of showing how power really worked.  

And he decided to prove it in a mass historical sweep of what was going on inside people’s heads. 

And so Curtis began looking through old archive films on China. 

Where he discovered Jiang Qing, a struggling actress.

Captured in old 1930s black and white reels.

But Qing was soon turning from b-rated movie roles to Mao’s wife and leading lady in the Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile in England, around 1958, some bowler-hatted bankers were being exposed for financial corruption.

This was the face of old power.

And a declining British Empire had not yet faced up to racism.

Even as reports were surfacing of British atrocities in Kenya and other colonial outposts.

And racist hatred of the immigrant ‘other’ was still deeply embedded at home.

Which was a melancholy hangover from the old days of lost Empire

And Curtis was convinced that he’d stumbled upon an original, disturbing and astonishing truth here. 

Which indicated much wider feelings of repression and guilt in all human thought.             

And scientists began to notice that, indeed, a disturbing set of changes in the collective human brain was taking place.

And they wondered whether individual consciousness was really a thing. 

And in that febrile moment between Cold War psychosis and Blackpool holiday camp reverie, a new counter-culture was being born.

And it terrified those who believed that order and conformity could only ever be maintained through showing repeated slow-motion camera shots of 1960s mass-banked computer rooms.                

And then, from seemingly nowhere, a strange old montage of tuxedo-dancing men moving in perfect ballroom formation came to light.   

And fears grew that popular viewing of this spectacle would lead to similar uncontrollable expressions of hedonistic pleasure.  

And behind the doors of off-limit CIA corridors, bow-tied, pipe-smoking boffins were captured in grainy images attaching electric wires to dazzle-eyed volunteers, trying to find explicable answers to all of this.

Meanwhile, the diverse stories of two strong women were playing out, Jiang Qing and Afeni Shakur, both troubled individuals attempting to make revolutions in different lands.

As was Michael de Freitas, aka Michael X, a wannabe Black Panther who tried revolutionary agitation in Notting Hill but gave it up for a life of crime.

And there were other such figures now around the world, all part of a new individualism coming up against the varying forces of authority. 

Including an English 1960s model, held back by her disturbed, aristocratic husband. 

And a rising Russian ballerina of the same era, resenting her Soviet masters.

All of whose individual stories were deeply fascinating.

But which only intensified viewers’ interest in how Curtis was going to connect all these fascinating and strong-willed individuals into an actual theoretical argument about feelings and power.

And psychologists were also perplexed.

They could not explain the deep and enduring suspicions that this was all really a kind of perverse trick. 

And they wondered why many people had reported vivid recollections of the same disjointed, dreamlike Curtis films.

But they quickly came to realise that it was futile to pursue such questions.   

Because what Adam Curtis was really saying here contained a potentially earth-shattering truth. 

That it was useless for individuals to try and work out in their already irrational heads whether it was rational for BBC funds to be used in such a repetitive and irrational way.

But, as Curtis had refrained from delving into the mind-controlling medium of the BBC itself, its elite took comfort in the belief that any such disjointed efforts to uncover real issues of power could never truly threaten the actual power establishment that the state broadcaster was an integral part of.

But this was an illusion.

Because in the very act of trying to hide this illusion, it only threatened to deepen mass suspicion, paranoia and disillusion.

And they worried that this would undermine the very illusion of the democratic order upon which they so relied.

But this was an unnecessary confusion.

Because, beyond that illusionary illusion, they soon came to realise that, actually, all such publicity over these programmes provided the perfect pretext for a never-ending cycle of Adam Curtis films seeking to comprehend all this fear, anguish and disillusion.

And they came to believe that awe-struck, liberal highbrow Guardian approval of his films would be sufficient to subdue any real awkward questioning of them and their commissioning.

But there was a problem.

And it revolved around latent perceptions of Curtis’s previous films on perception.

Might a now more perceptive public suspect that the film’s vital dance scenes were again being deliberately intercut for perceptive effect with petty stories, like the rise of Saudi power, the Nixon oil shocks, the impact of petrodollar markets and China’s one-state-two systems policy?

And would viewers really make the distinction between real Russian dissidents and Soviet-hating mafia exiles slumming it in New York?

And it was here that a new and confusing confluence of conspiracy ideas began to spread.

And as his latest series played out in relentless i-player loops, dark rumours again began to circulate that Curtis and the BBC were really part of some secret Bavarian-based illuminati.

But this was no collusion.

Instead, an alternative belief was spreading that it was all just a dark experiment by Curtis to prove just how gullible the BBC-viewing public really were.

And this gave rise to a whole new set of mutating questions. 

For if, in Curtis’s worldview, nothing was really what it seemed, how real were Curtis’s own films? 

And as doubts and paranoia grew, consumption of Valium and other
mind-dumbing palliatives increased.

But not everyone had been dulled and subdued.      

Because online watchers began to notice the proliferation of Adam Curtis memes and parody blogs of his films.

And psychologists one again struggled to unlock their meaning. 

But people now began to lose faith in the white coats too, suspecting that science itself had now shown itself inadequate in answering such momentous questions.

But this was also a delusion.

Because in coming close to so many issues that really were about how power works and the forces behind it, yet never close enough to making remotely useful connections, observers of Curtis’s work were pursuing the now more certain thought that they could never be totally certain whether he was just analytically inept or playing with their minds in order to provoke even further uncertainty.

And in the end people just reverted back to the safe, mundane assumption that, like the origins of the universe, the truth behind Curtis’s films might just always remain beyond the human mind.

And, by the halfway point of his series, this appeared to prove the case for nihilistic abandonment of any ideology. 

And that the search for any form of social progress was ultimately doomed.

But this was a fantasy. 

Because that very loss of human hope had created, in the second half of the series, a whole new line of enquiry on the renewed forces of Western liberal interventionism.

And with it a new era for globalists and technocrats.

And, with the mining communities in the US and other such collective forces beaten, this showed the futility of individualism in trying to fight big authority.

So in the 1990s, Bill Clinton, when elected, handed over power to the bankers for the very first time in history.

And, amazingly, it was also the very first time that politicians had ever, ever given up representing the collective masses and challenging elites.

And Blair, too, handed control to the banker class in the City of London.

And, like Clinton, found himself unable to handle the late-90s economic crisis which spread across the world.

And the new ascendant technocrat class also now feared the new mandated forces of Islamists and nationalists around the world. 

And Richard Holbrook began asking what the West must do in response.

And then there was the big post-Soviet fallout and economic chaos in Russia. 

And Yeltsin just couldn’t control the oligarchs.

Which only strengthened the liberal case for more militarist interventions and Nato expansion.

And conflict, crises and destabilisation was raging elsewhere. 

Ongoing oppression of black people in America.

And establishment corruption in the UK.

And many miscarriages of justice as well.

And the interventionism of Live Aid.

Meanwhile, the radical convictions of German terrorist groups had all dissolved in disillusion.

Alienation, anxiety, anomie and depression was spreading.

As had Nixon’s paranoia.

And his abandoning of the Gold Standard had handed massive new powers to currency speculators and big finance.

And the EU had allowed a new technocracy of Majoritarian institutions to run politics.

And there were growing scientific worries about climate instability.

And a whole mass sweep of other big world historical events, in no particular chronological order. 

But still the suspense of seeing how Curtis was going to link it all. 

And, wondering, curiously, when the word ‘neoliberalism’ might be used.

Rather than repeated assertions that politicians had just suddenly lost their power to bigger financial forces. 

Because, of course, that had never, ever happened before.

And this being art-house political economics, there was no seeming need for actually setting out the core causal elements of such a grand narrative.    

So, cut to curious footage of old rural English folk culture, suggesting some deep, revisited source of nationalism. 

And that famous silent film of Ku Klux Klan horsemen rescuing a white damsel, harking back to an imagined pure nationalism.

Which, apparently, is the respective roots of American and British exceptionalism.

The latter leading to an apparent, but misguided, imposition of an old order type of British romanticised national culture on Iraq and other Arab countries. 

But then in 1932, facing economic crisis at home, they just left.  

A penetrating reading, indeed, of British involvement in the Middle East.

Though, oddly, no mention of its key role in the creation of nuclear-loaded Israel.  

Which itself gets but two passing mentions: on the Entebbe terror attack; and Saudi threats to the West over oil. 

But no space, apparently, for the Nakba and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. 

Or even the US/UK 1953 coup in Iran – which the BBC had given the covert radio signal to begin.

But, hey, even a big-rush historian like Curtis can’t cover everything. 

So, instead, a fast trip back to discussion of drug production in the US.

And briskly on to Russian infiltration of MI5/MI6.

And a list of CIA covert coups around the world, with some comment from ex-CIA officer, Miles Copeland.

Then right onto the East Asia financial crisis, IMF bailouts and resistance from Malaysia’s Mahathir. 

And right back again to Jiang Qing’s political demise, a sage lesson, apparently, on her failed individualism.

And more on China’s deepening suspicions of the West’s intent, just as they had feared during the historic British importing of opium.   

So, in protective mode, China bought up mass US debt.

Which lead to massive US property and global consumer booms.

And then came the invasion of Iraq, which Blair saw as moral intervention. 

Failing to take some old Sir Percy-type historians’ colonial advice on the folly of such action. 

But, strangely, no mention of oil.

Or the neocon agenda to take down all such countries, from Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to Syria, and on to Iran. 

Instead, cue straight back to the war in Vietnam.

And the US peace movement’s political disruption at home. 

Which, in contrast, to the later war on Iraq, apparently saw almost no anti-war protests. 

And then how the Iraq disaster had seen the emergence of ISIS. 

It’s jihadi creed taken as akin to the atavistic KKK/folk mythical ideals of purest western nationalism.

A folk culture also likened to Trump’s ideological base. 

And Farage’s old English nationalist desire for Brexit. 

And still the anticipation of working out how Curtis would join all these mounting assertions and world events into some seemingly plausible thesis.

But then something very strange really did happen.

By the final episode, viewing hopes grew that Curtis was actually nearing some kind of incoherent conclusion.

But first, another whirlwind tour of a declining planet and the confused self.    

And an increasingly dislocated US. 

Then, amid more oppression of the black population, came a rap culture response.

An exciting delve into the mindset of Tupac Shakur, exploring yet another tortured individual’s fears and struggles.   

But, with no time to dwell on this promising story, a quick leap on to Saudi Arabia and its ruling elite. 

And excluded Arabs within this corrupt society, with its
now brazenly open money values. 

And the consequent rise of jihadism. 

And the spectre of Islamic revolution as an attempt to change the world.

Then, right back to the US for a new line on Chaos Theory.

The world, it seems, is just too complex to fathom.

But ‘complexity theory’ run by computers could identify ‘patterns’.

So maybe they could make sense of a seeming pattern in Curtis’s own film.

With its tendency to strange juxtaposition and thematic leaps.

As in another sudden return to rapper Shakur.

Who was now trying to channel gang culture outwards, but was still caught up in it.  

And with mass incarceration of black people, Tupac was now in jail, isolated and accused of betraying his gang community.

Another example of failed individual will.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, radicalised Islamist leader Abu Zubaydah had met with Osama bin Laden.

But didn’t trust him.

The Islamic revolution was falling apart, as was Zubaydah’s mental faculties.

And back in the West, more questions were emerging about the meaning of the ‘self’. 

Behavioural scientists believed there were multiple selves.

And that ‘all humans live in a dream world of made up stories’.

And the 1990s was the high point of such misguided individualism.


And this was because the bit in the brain that applied meaning to the world was thought to be disappearing.

Meanwhile, a similar deteriorating mood was evident in black communities.

But Silicon Valley idealists were now intent on using social information to build their own new self-freedom.

And back in Russia, oligarchs were subverting the new democracy.

And they selected Putin, who apparently ‘believed in nothing’. 

But then something unusual happened. 

The Kursk submarine tragedy was followed by popular anger and backlash.

And Putin responded by turning public anger onto the oligarchs. 

And found a new source of power in the dispossessed.

Meanwhile, a Silicon Valley boom, and artificial market bubbles, which then burst.

But venture capitalists were now engaged with Google.

Who started gathering more data on individual behaviour.

But there was a problem over the questionable use of such data, and looming government action against big tech.

But then 9/11 and the coming Patriot Act allowed Google to continue collecting data.

In order to better predict individual behaviour. 

And back in Afghanistan, Zubaydah was captured by the US. 

And CIA interrogation was used to unlock his inner thoughts.

The same Positive Psychology and water-boarding used at Abu Ghraib.

But it only produced incoherent utterances from Zubaydah, all believed by his CIA captors.

Which fed more paranoia.

And, meanwhile, in the UK, there was social disillusion.

Which Dominic Cummings had seen in the North East. 

And had used ‘complexity theory’ to understand and control these high forces, trying to see patterns in order to take back control from unelected elites.

And back in China, politics was losing its power to hold society together.

A rapid expansion of the middle class, money culture and ultra-corruption. 

And an experimental effort was launched to invoke past idealism as an impetus to social renewal. 

nd the leader of this new reform, Bo Xilai, had a fascination for old English stately homes.

Which kind of proved the power of old nationalism. 

And how it came to China.

But Bo’s idealism was really a front for personal advancement.

And back in Russia, corruption was growing too. 

With dissenting youth arrested. 

And Putin had just shifted power from the oligarchs to his own bureaucratic elite.

And Anna Politkovskaya was shot. 

And returning exile Edward Limonov tried to bring about a ‘communist fascism.’

Meanwhile, Google were now making billions through data.

And the Carly doll and Pokemon Go were all found to be surveillance-loaded.

But old Boolean ideas were now leading to new neural computer patterning. 

This was Vector-World and the rise of AI. 

And computers were now directing new mortgage systems. 

Risk analysts and Wall Street financiers had given complexity over to computing patterns. 

Then the big mortgage crisis hit. 

And now humans were again searching for conspiracy patterns. 

Illuminati fantasies about elite control abounded. 

And as financial collapse, bailouts, and austerity continued, major corruption was exposed.

But no one was held accountable.

And Steve Bannon et al were exploiting the moment. 

Dominic Cummings too, playing the populist card.

And Cummings’s efforts at this new technical fix had reawakened that same old dormant British nationalism.

And after British businessman Neil Hayward was found dead, Chinese reformist Bo Xilai and his wife were exposed.

And back In Moscow, Pussyriot demos were taking place on altars.

And Alexei Navalny began condemning Putin.

But, oddly, no time here to probe Navalny’s own far-right past.

And Putin ran with more dark past nationalism as a distraction.

And in the City of London, with its hidden kleptocrat wealth, shadowy cabals and suspicions grew.

And back in China, as Jiang Qing and her Gang of Four were tried and sentenced to hang, public anger intensified, matched by new surveillance systems.

Which saw the emergence of algorithmic governance, and good behaviour rewarded with social credits.

And Chinese reprogramming of the Uighur population.

And in the West, memes and high arousal emotions were encouraging even more clicks and shares.

With Facebook now manipulating behaviour by introducing messages into news feeds.

Which only increased suspicion across the internet.

And into this mix came two seismic shocks: Brexit and Trump. 

Major upheavals, particularly for the liberal classes.

Which was very hard for them to process.

And so liberals latched on to claims of Russian online manipulation as their default defence.

But there was a problem.

Because the scientific evidence for such priming wasn’t there.

And suspicions grew that Cambridge Analytica might just be exploiting the hysteria and suspicion.

They could bombard people with memes, but they couldn’t undermine what humans really thought and believed. 

But it was too late. 

Because while the liberal classes kept searching for evidence that Putin was responsible, and that he had orchestrated Trump and Brexit, machines just kept feeding off the paranoia, making big tech even more wealthy. 

And with this, big media and the intelligence agencies became highly regarded by the liberal classes in helping to expose these conspiracy theories.

But still QAnon flourished.

Showing that the liberal classes had failed to face up to the grievances that they had helped create. 

And they had no idea how to deal with this malaise.

And there was Brexit discord.

And MAGA uproar. 

And just as viewers…strugg…led……to ca…..tch…..th……eir…brea…th and make…sen…se of all this…inform…ation…

Then came Covid.

From outside these systems of power.

And this has helped expose just how deep the inequalities are.

The elite are getting richer as the markets keep rising in the pandemic.

One possible future is that individualism will disappear, and that science will find the way to manage everything.

And now the Biden moment, and hopes for a return to old stability.

But Trump and Brexit have shown that the enormous pressures from below will not go away.

Likewise, China, Russia and other societies are decaying, relying on surveillance to hold up their power.

But there’s another possibility to imagine, with completely new kinds of futures.

Where more people start to realise that they are being used by the tech companies, and that we are really stronger than we think.

And, in the words of the late David Graeber: ‘the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make, and could just as easily make differently’.

And Abu Zubaydah remains imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.


Adam Curtis has said this of his series:

“What I wanted to answer is, why did we go from this idea of confident empowered individuals who would move through the world as autonomous confident creatures, to millions and millions of us being anxious and uncertain and I’m frightened of the future? At the same time, almost frozen without any idea of what an alternative future could be. And if you’re going to do that, you’ve got to tell a history of what went on in inside people’s heads, as much as what went on outside. And what’s the relationship between the two: what happens when all sorts of ideas, from power and politics, get into our heads in an age driven by feelings.”

A seemingly laudable and ambitious exercise. 

Yet, after this mind-rushing, multi-packed ‘telling of history’, many viewers may be left not only exhausted and perplexed about the actual meaning of that task, but wondering whether Curtis ever really aspired to it.

Where, one may ask, does this idea of the “confident empowered individual” actually sit in any meaningful social, political, economic, psychological or even philosophical sense? 

How credible is this actual ‘premise’ of “autonomous confident creatures” all suddenly being subjected to anxiety and fear? 

Wasn’t every notional age, with its attendant ideas, politics and power, driven, ostensibly, by the given fears and ‘feelings’ of its times?

And how do you strive to tell, in such sweeping historical terms, just what really went on inside people’s heads, as well as what could be observed outside of them?  

Has Curtis used social psychology, political sociology, political economy, moral philosophy or any other analytical tools to probe real relations of power and individual feelings?

Or is he using the very expanse of the issues up for ‘study’ here as a ready disguise, knowing that he can never provide any convincing means of drawing them all together? 

Most notably, amid this expansive enquiry, Curtis never o
nce specifies that most momentous historical force: neoliberalism; failing to explain how this crucial matrix of corporate-led economic, political and cultural forces has come to control and determine almost every aspect of our daily lives, from physical to social, to psychological and, of course, planetary survival.

Nor is there any serious investigation of the corporate media as the driving force of all that dislocation and mind-distortion.  

Or would all that just be too prosaic and ‘mundane’ a film to make for ‘smart’ liberal audiences? 

Curtis has no particular obligation, of course, to follow any given form of enquiry. Yet, as with his previous output, this is a film which takes convenient cover, sitting in a kind of anomalous space between investigative documentary and artistic infotainment. Curtis adopts the role of playful puppeteer, but claims the mantle of masterful theorist. Alas, as the narration goes, this indeed is an illusion.     

Behind all the mystique and mirrors, Curtis’s film is a deeply contrived exercise, with its stylised aesthetics and catchy narration serving to shroud the actual vacancy of coherent analysis and credible conclusions.  

Not that this lengthy series is without entertaining and informative merit. It does reveal some deeply interesting figures and historical surprises. It is touching on some highly relevant questions about power and influence, such as the rising role of big tech and the climate calamity. The hallmark visuals and score are also, indeed, moodily mesmerising.

Yet where’s the connecting framework, the overarching theory? Even in more basic terms, where, for example, is the effort to show how the current spectre of racial subjugation is tied up with class power?  

In a final small sequence, Curtis does edge close to saying something of real significance about the delusions and evasions of the liberal class in helping to foster major economic upheavals and in allowing political grievances to fester, as in their failure to comprehend their own complicit part in the Brexit and Trump moments. 

Yet, as with minimal liberal ‘admissions’ of such, even this seems like a late, token observation, a kind of jigsaw supposition tagged on in feeble conclusion. 

Nor, for his apparent intention to look critically at all forces of authority and abuse, East and West, does Curtis ever really avoid the standard liberal ‘bad Russia/China’ tropes. Even beside the sins of the West, these states are still deemed the much darker, unpredictable menace.    

And after a whole tortuous argument to the apparent contrary, Curtis does seems to end up saying that humans are, indeed, capable of meaningful individual agency and collective responses. 

Yet, even with his final citing of the admirable David Graeber, this also looks like a kind of ‘hedging of bets’, hiding not only the film’s lack of connection, but its absence of any putative blueprint for action. 

Curtis’s film is a pretentious pastiche of grandiose ideas and tenuous assertions, a safely-cloaked version of the much more system-exposing and damning things so many more astute writers could have said, but will never be allowed the privileged platform Curtis is given to assert them.

Would the BBC ever give such space and scope to deep-searching, power-challenging journalists like Chris Hedges or John Pilger?

Like his previous output, it’s not hard to see the appeal of Curtis’s film for beguiled Guardian liberals. 

It’s an indulgence which, ironically, like his final comments on liberal dissonance, allows those very same myopic liberals another such trip into cognitive denial. 

This film is yet another such comfort blanket, keeping them safely wrapped inside the real systems of power they play a crucial part in servi

And it seems, in turn, that Curtis is playing on their superficiality of understanding as a similar comfort blanket for his own self-evasions. 

Maybe there’s a deep and penetrating film to be made here about what goes on inside those heads.  

But it won’t be coming from Curtis, or be lavished by those lost liberals. 

And it certainly won’t be commissioned by the BBC.