Is there any hope for Scotland in the apparently hopeless ‘Hyper-Normalised’ world of Adam Curtis? YES there is



I’ve just finished watching the much-anticipated three-hour-long documentary, Hypernormalisation’, by Adam Curtis, on iPlayer. This is only the latest in a long series of disturbing, controversial and thought-provoking pieces by Curtis, which includes ‘The Power of Nightmares’, ‘The Trap’ and ‘Bitter Lake’. I count myself as a fan of his work. I found it fascinating. His stories are of course ‘big history’ with sweeping themes, much generalisation and sometimes over-simplified links but that is only to be expected if he is to make us think about big ideas and big trends beyond our local and recent experiences. We do need to do that. The reservations we might have of Curtis are no greater than, probably less than, those we needed to have of Edward Gibbon’s ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and they are not enough to reject him unless you want to hide away entirely from confronting the awful abuses of power that happen on the world stage but which inevitably change your local realities. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Curtis, for background:

‘Curtis says that his favourite theme is “power and how it works in society”, and his works explore areas of sociologypsychologyphilosophy and political history. Curtis describes his work as journalism that happens to be expounded via the medium of film.’ 

Note that Curtis makes no claim to be other than a journalist. He’s not claiming to have done any more than to have provoked us into thinking about what is happening in our lives. I think this means that some of his critics who accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist are missing the point. Other critics have identified repetitive, predictable even clichéd patterns in his work but it’s quite easy to do this kind of thing with any important creative figure. Marx, Freud and Darwin can all be parodied but it doesn’t mean that their ideas are unimportant. Bob Dylan has just received the Nobel Prize for Literature yet his lyrics are a gift to any half-witted parodist. It’s so much easier to be smart in this way than it is to say something important in the first place.

What is Hypernormalisation saying about the World? Well, it’s a very gloomy dystopian view which suggests very little hope for us to be able to live meaningful lives any more. Here’s my take. From the mid-1970s, these developments produced a world in which people have nothing to believe in other than material consumption and self-absorption:

  1. Powerful corporate and right-wing interests (Reagan, Thatcher) combined to undermine and to destroy the post-war consensus on managing capitalism in the interests of the majority.
  2. US foreign policy under Henry Kissinger conspired to divide and to weaken the Arab world ostensibly to maintain stability but, by betraying Syria and Assad Snr especially, in effect released uncontrollable Islamist forces and the ‘weapon of the weak’ – suicide bombing.
  3. The take-over of politics by the banks and the corporations and their blind belief in the ability of market forces to control society made voting seem pointless.
  4. The acceptance by politicians of a new role as mere managers of the electorate in a market-dominated society further weakened the idea of democracy.
  5. The failure of the ‘Facebook rebellions’ in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements because, unlike Marxist rebels in the past, they had no idea of the kind of society they wanted to create once they had temporary control of the streets
  6. The massive growth of militant Islamism rushing in to fill the void of ideas created by the defeat of the Facebook rebellions and the return of old military and corporate power gave millions a reason to live and some, of course, a reason to die
  7. The Brexit and Trump rebellions in the England and the US emerged as examples of hopelessly inarticulate, politically incoherent and damaging, but understandable, responses to the failure of traditional politics, in larger countries

 So, what hope is there for Scotland in this? Paradoxically, our size, our geography and our current lack of power may help. Look at Iceland. They’ve jailed corrupt bankers, restored their economy and, best of all, given their lives a new sense of purpose in self-determination. Feeling you can control your life is in itself a reason to live. Their small population, strong sense of identity, resilient social justice and fairness values and their physical isolation have been crucial in this. Look at Catalonia and the Basque country. Look also at the relative contentment of the populations of smaller nation states like Denmark, Norway and New Zealand.

Scotland can do likewise. The Yes Movement and its accompanying train of sub-movements, against Trident, fracking and TTIP, for land reform and for greater equality, built on a strong yet inclusive sense of civic national identity can help us to create a new society based on meaningful relationships. As with Iceland, self-determination and the subsequent feeling of being in control can be reason enough to live. Only our dying Unionist groups and corrupt media stand in the way.




9 thoughts on “Is there any hope for Scotland in the apparently hopeless ‘Hyper-Normalised’ world of Adam Curtis? YES there is

  1. Clydebuilt October 20, 2016 / 8:47 am

    Geeze John, this is a toughie……. I get the thrust of the article. However, her indoors say’s that there has always been people who like to go to shopping. Before M&S, BHS we had large department stores. Nowadays we have Cathedrals to consumerism. So back in the day when, according to Curtis, people had more to think about. (Some) folk still chose to go shopping to escape reality. Others went to the Fitba.

    What Curtis is really trying to say is he can point to faults that have occurred. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that.

    It’s as if he thinks society isn’t as it should be unless every man and his dog are obsessed with politics. In the UK the only time when the masses were fired up with politics was after WW1 when there was night school classes held to educate them politically. It had taken industrialised slaughter to get the population to this place.
    Another take on this is that people’s interest in politics in this country is managed down by the diet of soaps and football to the point where voter turn out was very low. Some would say “Ticking over nicely”

    The Facebook revolution in Egypt wasn’t defeated by militant Islamism, Morsi was elected as a result of the revolution. It was the Military and middle classes that took over.


  2. johnrobertson834 October 20, 2016 / 11:59 am

    Thanks to you and her. I don’t agree with all Curtis says. Thought I made that clear at the beginning. However, how old is she? I know there were dept stores back then but the level of consumerism was much less than today. The Daily Record back in the 60s was full of news. My dad, a plasterer, talked about it all the time.

    The Arab Spring failed itself because of its lack of ideology and that allowed Morsi to fill the vacuum and win. That’s Curtis’s main point really. Liking that ideology even less, as you say, the middle classes welcomed the military back.


  3. Clydebuilt October 20, 2016 / 4:56 pm

    John I’ve been told to say nothing ( you don’t ask a lady her age etc.) , was consumerism less way back then as they didn’t have time to saunter round the shops’, disposable earnings, nor The Internet to shop at the click of a button. (Men worked Saturday mornings and women were down the Steamie (according to that bloke Roper), my maw worked a ringer over the bath.
    Interesting about the Record, Was the rag full of news as it didn’t have to focus on bolstering the Union. Also if it was full of news , did it come over as if the readership were morons.
    Psst are you any good at plastering, need a half ceiling plastered. (true)


  4. johnrobertson834 October 21, 2016 / 6:32 am

    Maybe but I’d argue that we actually were less materialist then pre the really intensive exposure to advertising we have now. Regret cannae plaster but can only get plastered.


  5. Leigh French October 21, 2016 / 1:24 pm

    I’ve been wondering what the utility is in continuing this mythologising around Iceland?

    Arguably the very opposite it true of what you’ve projected:

    – Iceland’s constitutional convention (to amend the existing interim constitution) is organised in a way that recognises the obstacles of familialism, ie how to overcome the problems associated with those structures of proximity as regards kinship etc.

    – The big monopoly industries have undue political influence, unequally wielded by a relatively small number of families – ie there’s a tendency to ignore actually existing class relations.

    – As for the IMF nonsense about Iceland having one of the strongest economic recoveries, the means by which the re-elected ‘banksters’ committed to repaying the IMF early is why there’s been an historically unprecedented wave of strikes in Iceland which is the more newsworthy story as regard social solidarity under ‘austerity’ cuts/ restructuring.

    – Iceland hasn’t jailed more bankers than the UK in the same period – those bankers have been “found guilty of crimes relating to deceitfully financing share purchases”, which sounds like ‘insider dealing’: ie “trading a public company’s stock or other securities by individuals with access to nonpublic information about the company” – in the UK between 2009 and 2015 the FCA (previously the Financial Services Authority) had secured 27 convictions in relation to insider dealing, and was in the process of prosecuting 7 others.

    – re essentialising ‘values’ as national character traits, the nature/identity cliche was rightly debunked long ago, and more recently for forming the basis of “the intensification of neoliberal values and corporate nationalism in Icelandic cultural politics” (ie competitive nationalism):
    […] how new forms of cultural action drew on reinvented origin myths of exceptionalism to promote and accentuate national characteristics, spicing up Iceland’s idiosyncrasies in order to promote its international standing on the basis of a distinct location of performance. […] Specifically, tapping into the clichéd equation Iceland=nature as a mark of differentiation. This concept of nature in Iceland might be seen as a dominant organising narrative in Icelandic contemporary cultural politics. Nature is not only thought to have shaped the Icelandic physique for generations, it is presented as the source of creativity, freedom, purity, entrepreneurship etc., which supposedly characterise Icelanders as people and Icelandic society as a whole. […] It should enable us to consider how identity and location become tied together (spatial organisation) in the influence and presence of an archival narrative of progress that is bound up (sometimes ambiguously) with a social pattern and performances of rootedness at large. Which in Iceland was to influence cultural assemblages and experiences around an entrepreneurial selfhood receptive to the force and needs of the global flows of capital, goods and information. […] (Tinna Grétarsdóttir)

    – re “strong sense of identity” (where the church and state remain conjoined) as the basis for regaining a supposed lost unity (classically, “solidarity based on stasis, with capital and labor rooted to specific geographic sites serving as the industrial fulcrums of class struggle”), why is the alleged decline of (imagined) national identification presented to be this felt loss, which itself re-asserts the normalcy of national division and hierarchies of (non)belonging. Why must identities be deeply felt identities, ie the culturalisation and emotionalisation of citizenship.


  6. johnrobertson834 October 21, 2016 / 2:04 pm

    Thanks Leigh for this very interesting and challenging contribution.

    Your knowledge of Iceland is clearly much greater and deeper than mine. I have to admit to only using it to make the point that a sense of identity based on a place, even one based on mythology might offer a way of living, in a way that at least seems meaningful (what other kind can there be?) enough to get by and which offers a mythology, if you like, for resistance to imperialism and corporatism .

    You wrote: ‘Why is the alleged decline of (imagined) national identification presented to be this felt loss, which itself re-asserts the normalcy of national division and hierarchies of (non)belonging?’

    Me: I didn’t say normal did I? I only think that some sense of identity based on civic community and place can be a form of resistance to brutal alienating globalising forces. It’s not hierarchical in the way that class-based alternatives are, is it?

    You wrote: ‘Why must identities be deeply felt identities, ie the culturalisation and emotionalisation of citizenship?’

    Me: ‘What’s wrong with feeling strongly about inclusion, equality, tolerance, care and so on and using the vehicle of a smaller more democratic community identifiable in place, to pursue them?

    Best, John


    • Leigh French October 21, 2016 / 4:02 pm

      thanks John – the various democratising claims being made for proximity/scale were something that Gordon Asher (who I think you know?) and myself were starting to wrestle with (before work overcame us), similarly with the awkwardness of communitarianism as sitting within a nationalising project.

      But going with the small state examples you used, most notably Iceland but you’ll remember the infamous ‘arc of prosperity’ too, then it’s evident that place-based proximity in itself has *not* provided for resistance as hoped – instead, it’s been at the core of neoliberal restructuring processes (even without specifically addressing NZ’s colonial constellations, the connection between place-making as soft power and changes to the film industry is a telling study).

      This is in part what I was referencing re Iceland – ‘Gambling Debt: Iceland’s Rise and Fall in the Global Economy’

      Sure we’re aware of the many critiques of communitarianism as regards perpetuating patriarchy as well as for reproducing dualisms (sameness/ difference, fixity/ fluidity) as an organising pole – that these very processes are generative of exclusivity and normalise in-group/ out-group identifications etc. (I’m being curt, but not to dismiss the many other views.)

      Whereas identities *are* fluid, porous, slippery and all those kinds of things – often simultaneously based in experiences and memories of multiple places/times and expressions of many different (albeit sometimes overlapping) group dynamics – back in 2002 we published an article by Critical Art Ensemble advocating “Coalitions, Not Communities”: “CAE is unsure who really wants community in the first place, as it contradicts the politics of difference. Solidarity based on similarity through shared ethnicity, and interconnected familial networks supported by a shared sense of place and history, work against the possibility of power through diversity by maintaining closed social systems.”

      Though I have my disagreements with Craig Calhoun’s work, here’s Regina Smardon: “[Calhoun] shrewdly observes that nationalist claims to ethnic or cultural similarity, on one hand, and common citizenship, on the other, ignore a crucial element that constitutes political community. These dichotomous perspectives focus on the continuity of nations and do not explain cultural reproduction or change. Whether claims to nationhood are based in ancient ethnicity (the paradigmatic example being Germany) or an historical moment that constitutionally guarantees rights and obligations (the paradigmatic example being France), they underestimate the importance of institutions, networks, and movements that bring people together across diversity within nations. Affective attachments between concrete persons differ qualitatively from individual attachments to large-scale cultural categories, such as nations. Furthermore, affective attachments based on similarity do not necessarily create the foundations for navigating difference. Calhoun warns that social scientists are guilty of conflating nation and society conceptually, a mistake he sees as having political consequences. […] Calhoun goes on to argue that broadening our understanding of citizenship requires attention to distinctions among different modes of social belonging.”

      I haven’t a copy of the book but I’m drawn to what seems to be Duyvendak (et als) problematising of place-bound organising & resolution in presupposed cultural unity, around the question of home & belonging and Romantic ideas of a place of (fixed) origin as a counter to popular anguish (‘alienation in total’), ie the primacy to belong or the Culturalization of Citizenship: “The notion of citizenship has gradually evolved from being simply a legal status or practice to a deep sentiment. Belonging, or feeling at home, has become a requirement”
      – The Culturalization of Citizenship: Belonging and Polarization in a Globalizing World, Duyvendak, Jan Willem, Geschiere, Peter, Tonkens, Evelien (Eds.)
      Which is not to say that “the sense of cultural loss on which the politics and everyday logic of autochthony is built” is not to be readily dismissed either – there’s some great work coming to the fore around the US presidency, like that of Arlie Hochschild on ‘Anger & Mourning’.

      A chat sometime with Gordy would be much appreciated, and I might be able to more fully answer what you’ve posed back to me. And thanks again for doing what you’re doing! – Leigh


      • johnrobertson834 October 22, 2016 / 4:06 am

        Hi Leigh. Thanks again for your thoughts. I know you don’t mean to but the depth and sharpness of your critique has me feeling a bit of a ‘happy idiot’ (c Jackson Browne in ‘the seventies’). Are you patronising me……inadvertently……. 🙂 ?

        I do know Gordon and may have had a few whiskies with him in the scruffy surroundings of Ayr’s Market Inn. As you know I’ve retired and have moved on from my quite heated disagreements with the UWS ‘leadership’.

        Thanks also for your final comment. I do appreciate that especially from one so thoughtful

        In the end, now, though, do I have any alternative but support for an independent Scotland run by a kind of social democratic civic nationalist party and hope for something at least a lot better than the UK was and even worse is drifting toward? My primary goal above all else has been to get well away from Britain’s bloody foreign policies. I think that a fair number of SNP voters consciously see themselves as anti-imperialists rather than nationalists. Or am I just getting old and tired?

        Best wishes for your own… noun of your own choosing…..journey?


        PS You’ll see I’m ‘up early’. Don’t sleep too well. Was falling asleep at work. Part of the reason I retired from my ‘plum post’ before 70!


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