HyperNormalisation is a massive, insanely ambitious attempt to use fifty years of worldwide political history and accompanying commentary to identify and expound on a universal malaise, a sense we all feel of increasing hopelessness, dread, and disillusionment with the processes we rely upon. It is a fascinating, thought-provoking, maddening piece — and also very likely a doomed one, given that it tries to do all of this in under three hours.
I had started out aiming to use this as a space to discuss the documentary in more detail, but — with all due respect to Curtis — I’m not sure it holds up to that level of scrutiny. I found myself unclear on just what he wanted us to get from it (besides feeeear and baaaaaanks, at least,) and Julius has suggested that Curtis himself didn’t really have a clear vision in mind, which certainly seems plausible. But I still wanted to explore a couple of his underlying assumptions throughout the piece and how they interact — and interfere — with the public discourse.
It should go without saying that the usual disclaimers apply: this is all my own opinion/observations, I stand by what I say here but I put it forward to foster discussion, disagreements are meant to be received with an understood assumption of good intentions on all sides, boilerplate boilerplate (h/t Drunk Napoleon!)
The word “capitalism” carries two meanings that are often confused or conflated, to nobody’s benefit. There’s the ethos that making money is in and of itself a powerful and inherent good, and then there’s the system of behavior by which humans value, transfer, and render goods and services, the silly gits. The ethos is rife through our modern culture and places a high value on personal productivity and the requisite consumption. The system of behavior is something humans have been doing with increasing sophistication since the first cavemen noticed that one had a bunch of apples and the other had a bunch of oranges and that neither/both had a stick sharp enough to stab the other with.
The Left tends to address the shortfalls of the former by trying to transcend the latter — e.g. the Left’s perennial fascination with communism. The Right, of course, tends toward the inverse, justifying the former on the basis of the mechanics of the latter (everything I’ve read from Ayn Rand falls squarely into this camp.) It’s important to note that this conceptual “concatenation error” hardly started with Curtis, or Marx and Engels. In fact, it has been baked into the discussion from the very beginning: Adam Smith himself used his observations of the systemic behavior to build what would become the ethos, and writing styles certainly differed back then, but one could fairly believe he wouldn’t have disagreed with what his writing would lead to.
It’s a vital point to understand, because there are some (major!) issues with the ethos, but the system of behavior is inescapable, full-stop. I’m sorry, I realize this may hit people sideways, but please assume my best intentions and bear with me. We use the law to regulate markets, sure, but the markets also have a life of their own — ask the DEA how the War on Drugs went. And that’s at least nominally trying to protect and foster a healthy market! Attempts to brute-force a market to take a deliberately-chosen shape or characteristic have generally gone poorly, to put it mildly. We have a tremendous amount of economic history, about pretty much every conceivable scenario, and there has never been a time that a market, however strictly controlled, didn’t find a way to express itself on its own terms. Gray markets, black markets, informal barter, cost-cutting, efficiency-to-profit: whatever it is, the basic system of capitalist-mechanism thinking seems to be hard-wired into our DNA, no matter how desperately we aim for a different approach. We are at some fundamental level monetary creatures, so with apologies to Jurassic Park, “Markets find a way.”
I’ll come back to this further in this essay, but this combination of “capitalist” concept conflation and market inevitability tends to give right-wing economic thinkers a confidence that leftists sometimes don’t understand. A good friend of mine got his Harvard MBA and is now a chief trading officer at some mutual fund. One time, I was hassling him about an idea I had for a science fiction book (that predictably never went anywhere) where we could talk to aliens via FTL communication but actual FTL travel was flatly impossible. I wanted to know how cross-cultural currencies could possibly work in that scenario and he…I mean, he was kind enough to discuss it with me, but he was clearly unconcerned with the logistical difficulties involved. In his view, markets would happen organically and currencies would follow; there wouldn’t be any work for anyone to do to make it happen. What he thought I should really be focusing on was the nature of the information exclusive enough to be worth trading over via transfer. (It was a fun conversation, no lie.)
Anyway, back on track here! His confidence in the market’s ability to emerge in any setting whatsoever was absolute. He couldn’t conceive of a scenario where two “people,” for any definition of “person” close enough for the term to apply, were communicating but a market simply could not develop. Contrast this with HyperNormalisation, which on the one hand treats the banks as power-brokering boogeymen but also as hopelessly inured to their own system. The problem here is not that there isn’t room for either interpretation, exactly; it’s not that Curtis is “wrong.” The problem is that his point is framed in ignorance to the point of irrelevance. Banks are first and foremost a mechanism, a social cog in the monetary machine that we will inevitably make for ourselves no matter what we do — and they are cautious to a fault. (For a stark example of this, read up sometime on the medieval bans on lending at interest that gave rise to the racial stereotype that Jews are greedy when they filled the gap.)
With that in mind, I agree that banks currently need to be bound by (much!) more stringent regulation than they currently are; I’m not trying to say they’re the heroes of the piece. But I’d challenge the idea that treating them as the Supervillain Banks, as Curtis plays with here, helps the discussion at hand at all. New York City, 1975 happened because a city council was apparently unable or unwilling to curb their own spending. If they’d stayed in control of themselves, the mechanism wouldn’t have stepped in — but they didn’t.
Which, in turn, brings us to the fall of the Soviet Union.
“The original dream of the Soviet Union had been to create a glorious new world. A world where not only the society, but the people themselves would be transformed. They would become new and better kinds of human beings. But by the 1980s, it was clear that the dream had failed. The Soviet Union became instead a society where no one believed in anything, or had any vision of the future.”
Setting aside the hefty question of how Stalin had changed the Soviet experience of Communism — which Curtis does! — a great deal of what Curtis has to say about the fall of the USSR is just bunk. (pico, keep me honest here if I’m wrong!) This movie makes the failure of the Soviet Union out to be some completely unforeseen catastrophe, and a seismic indicator that a whole system could collapse. But for all the talk of the Evil Banks taking over the U.S. in this, it missed one of the biggest, most important pieces to plug into this conversation: economic forces ultimately killed the USSR. They were broke! And there were at least some right-leaning economists who suspected as much at the time and were heavily influencing American foreign policy, no matter what this movie says — I remember reading writing contemporary to the fall of the Berlin Wall making exactly this point. (As a side note, Curtis waxing poetic about the tragedy of the Soviet Union is one of the biggest reasons I couldn’t figure out just what his deal was. For all of his self-described neoconservativism, right-wing thinkers at the time were trying to bring exactly that outcome about; the fall of the Soviet Union hardly represented “the final failure of the dream that politics could be used to build a new kind of world” to them.)
So, some background about me and this documentary: I work for a very large healthcare system (nearly as many employees as Alphabet, which owns Google; roughly 15% as many people as the entire U.S. federal gov’t, not counting the military) as a financial analyst, and I’ve been an operations/data/financial/whatever analyst pretty much my entire career, largely in various healthcare-related stripes. This is a ridiculous thing to say, but there’s a problem I’ve run into for large chunks of my professional life that I assumed this movie would be about, or at least mention, from its description. The problem is this: we live in an age of vast amounts of data, but we need it to be expressed simply or else it’s meaningless. In other words, data doesn’t get any simpler just because it’s stored on a hard drive. The average person is not a professional data analyst and won’t understand the details of how a report is run; executives I’ve worked with have grown much more technically savvy in the last twenty years, but they’re still rarely analysts. At the end of the day, Curtis’ main assertion, taken in a direction he apparently didn’t intend at all, is a part of my everyday life.
It’s moronic to write nearly 2,800 words about what a documentary wasn’t about, but it ate ferociously at my mind watching this. And I don’t think it was mere egocentrism. The very concept of us all living in an imaginary world is something I worry about. We act like we have these algorithms for reducing complex issues to manageable chunks, for more personalized service and also for more elegant manipulation by controlling interests, but — Curtis does invest in this, from a slightly different angle — most of what they can really do is echo us back to ourselves.
We seem to have this idea that we have more information, and more reliable information, at our fingertips now than we’ve had any other time in human history. From a certain vantage point, that’s true, of course — Google Maps left my nephews and nieces aghast at the idea that a paper map could be a lifesaving device once upon a time. But that presupposition lives in an odd tension with the breakdowns we’re experiencing in the way we receive information and how we choose what to trust.
This is where I come back to the actual film, instead of my fantasy-land version. In my experience, Curtis’ observations about ELIZA, the computer program that used Rogerian listening methods to echo back what it was hearing to convince people it was human, relate to something that happens on a larger scale even than what he describes — the banks are doing it to themselves, too (e.g., the 4Q 2007 market crash.)
In point of fact, “the banks” — and economists at large, and society at large — generally have no idea what to do with the vast bulk of the data being collected. Babalugats had a typically excellent reply to my initial reaction that’s worth quoting here:
“The way that volume of information can be used as a substitute for censorship, that if you put out enough stuff yourself, the fact that it can all be easily disproved doesn’t matter because your people don’t have enough time to read through everything you’re saying and also the opposition. Attention is a limited resource, now that airspace or inches of newspaper are not.”
I’d argue that those inflicting this effect suffered from it first, that the inspiration for this mode of control came from experiencing the effects firsthand. Banks intrinsically deal in numbers; they have measures for literally everything bankers can think to measure. But actually speaking to a banker (which Curtis absolutely should’ve done, time limitations or no) quickly shows just how fluid our understanding of those measures can be, and what we think of as meaningful has changed over time. (Healthcare’s no different, by the way; people talk about that industry in the most general terms for a reason.) There can be a great confidence in the numbers and what they mean — but it’s not like bankers have never misplaced that confidence. Frankly, except for a very specific few, most bankers probably only roughly understand the actual raw numbers they lean on.
A related issue that Curtis missed, too, is that bankers can have great confidence in their numbers, whether they know what they mean or not, and in the system, such as it is, but they have a long history of distrust in their clients, for (let’s face it) some pretty understandable reasons. People often mean well, but people are more often foolish and shortsighted; betting on humanity’s wisdom is never the sure bet. And banks will always bet on the sure bet. This brings us back to the disservice that Curtis’ framing of the “financial takeover” (or however he put it) does: just like in New York City in 1975, the banks take over only when it’s the safest possible choice for themselves.
There’s a disconnect between the academic and artistic worlds that this movie lives in and the business world that drives so much of our daily lives in this economic system. It’s a gap that I thought about a great deal as I watched this. That disconnect can be summed up in one word: optimism. CEOs, near-miss CEOs, wannabe CEOs, everyone with a Harvard MBA anywhere, they’re all tremendously optimistic people, to the bone. It’s a complicated subject to broach, because on the one hand, of course they’re optimistic, they’re the 1% or will be soon enough. They have every environmental cause for optimism. On the other hand, there’s still a philosophical component that drives those folks in ways that other communities don’t always understand, and can sometimes learn a great deal from. Frankly, it’s a prerequisite for the job: someone who doesn’t think they can really make a positive change anywhere has no business leading a company.
And there’s no nice way to say this: whatever else the film seems to want us to think about the dread we feel, it definitely intends for us to feel that dread. It opens up with dark, disconnected images and ominous noises before lapsing into the cliché of the slightly-tripped-out pop-rock music, a clear signifier that The Happy Times Aren’t That Happy. In hindsight, one of my biggest points of confusion with this film stemmed from Curtis practically telling us to be afraid the whole movie, with all these disconnected reasons for why.
The effect can work like a reverse dog whistle of sorts: if I came for the dread, it’s inescapable — but the balloon punctures if you reject the dread in the first place. I’m not saying we don’t have work to do; we all know we do. But the piece is literally a message of hopeless fear, and it’s aimed at a group of people who are essentially immune to that attitude literally from the ground up. If you believe that it’s possible to do some small good somewhere, then you’d say, “I work with what I’ve got.” If, on the other hand, you believe that you’re one of the pre-selected 1% there to change the world, then this whole thing is a gigantic waste of time.
(As a tangent, it’s worth stressing that this optimism can be apathy, but is not automatically so; sometimes it’s exactly the opposite. After all, a passionate conviction to make the world a better place will inevitably either be tempered by experience or else collapse into despair. The world is full of collapsed optimists, but the tempered optimist can be a tremendous force for positive change.)
Anyway, this brings us back to that conservative cultural confidence I mentioned early on. The beliefs that the System works for me, that Optimism is the way, (probably) that God is on my side, etc. etc. etc. all combine to make the sort of person that this documentary would target, but who would never listen to a word of it. It was the final irony of frustration for me, thinking over HyperNormalisation: for all its talk of systems reinforcing themselves in echo chambers, ultimately, it works the same way itself.