As a portrait of how Russia came to be the cynical and aggressive autocracy of today, Adam Curtis’s seven-part BBC documentary series TraumaZone: What It Felt Like to Live Through The Collapse of Communism and Democracy is impeccable. It is a claustrophobic, sprawling Russian novel of a film, depicting what happens to a society when it loses any faith in its guiding ideology, and yet can find nothing workable with which to replace it.
A constant rebuke to the increasingly dumbed-down stylistic tropes of 2020s TV programming, the Curtis series begins with long, Tarkovskian, establishing scenes of a continent-spanning nation in disarray. Then, as the collapse accelerates, the scenes are cut shorter, harder and become increasingly hard to watch: images of communities ravaged by war, corruption and economic catastrophe, in which mere survival is paramount and cynicism is universal. After the decade of anarchy and degradation we have witnessed, Putin’s arrival on the scene in 1999 seems to come almost as a relief: the horrors of the present still lie offstage, waiting to be born.
While it is a brilliant work of recent history, can we draw parallels with our own society, which faces a comparable loss of faith in its guiding structures, and confusion and cynicism about any possible political futures?
I ask him, when we meet at UnHerd’s new Westminster club, whether, like the marginal aestheticising rebels on which his films so often centre, such as Tupac Shakur and Edward Limonov, he considers himself a dissident.
“No, no, I’m just a hack,” he says. “But what I’m interested in is finding individuals who embody the dilemmas of our time. I think Tupac’s absolutely fascinating because he was trying to do that thing of talking about power, talking about politics, but as an individual, and expressing it individualistically through his music. Most talked the radical talk, but they gave up on radical action. Tupac didn’t, he really tried to fuse those two together. He knew individualism and self expression was sort of the thing of our age — you couldn’t go back to collective organisation, no one wanted that any longer. But he tried to fuse that with radical action. And ultimately, it didn’t work, it’s a sort of tragedy.”
“Limonov founded the National Bolshevik Party in the mid-Nineties. And many people just saw him as a fascist. And he was interested in fascist ideas. But actually, what he became was a focus for all those people who had been completely pulled away from what was happening in the rest of Russian society — all kinds of punks, all kinds of radicals, all kinds of ecologists.”
Yet Curtis’s interest in marginal political figures, holding up a distorted mirror to their crumbling political orders, is hard to separate from his own position within the state broadcaster, deconstructing the ideological pieties of our time from a standpoint, as E.M. Forster said of the poet Cavafy, “at a slight angle to the universe”. Similarly, in his sympathetic portrayal of the efforts of reformist Communists to preserve their crumbling system, it’s possible to discern a certain conservatism of the Left in his work, in which the rampant consumerism and individualism of capitalist society, when it hits the Soviet Union like a nuclear strike, is revealed to us afresh as something absurd and horrifying. What, then, are Curtis’s own politics?
“I’m very much of my time. I don’t have a fixed politics,” he says, adding that his 2002 series The Century of the Self, which traced the roots of the Nineties Third-Way consensus back through the midcentury advertising industry to the birth of psychoanalysis, could be interpreted as “a crystal perfect piece of neoconservative ideology, domestic neoconservatism, because what it’s actually arguing is the rise of individualism acted like an acid eating away at the fabric of social organisations, leaving a society of people bereft, individuals alone, supported by a wave of debt on their own, and just waiting for the crash, which is a sort of moralistic neocon attitude. That’s not actually what I think. But you could argue that about most films, I think. I don’t know really what my politics are.”
“I mean,” he adds, “I don’t share a thing that a lot of the liberals have, which is I’m always quite interested in Right-wing ideas, because I think for a long time, they were quite confident that they made the running. And even now I hear people like Peter Thiel talking about René Girard on mimetic desire. I think it’s quite interesting. Because actually, if you ever wander around a bookshop, everyone else is looking at what everyone else is buying, you understand what mimetic desire really is — it’s that if you’re on your own, how do you know what identity you want? That’s why everyone is curtain-twitching at the moment on the internet, because they don’t know what they want to be.”
Curtis’s films are, in essence, works of intellectual history, which outline how the ideological fixations of elites, particularly their quest for constructing political utopias, break apart on contact with the messiness and ambiguity of the real world, often creating dystopias for the people who have to live with the consequences. But in constructing his own all-encompassing theories of everything, which draw links and parallels between widely different events with an often hallucinatory clarity, is he constructing his own counter-mythology? Is Curtis, in fact, a conspiracy theorist himself?
“I do think there’s something very interesting that has happened in the last 20 or 30 years… in this country and America, the political parties have become increasingly homogenised,” he told me. “Despite all the rhetoric and the squealing, there is actually very little difference, and you can see this with the election that’s coming up here. What, then, has happened is that the word “conspiracy”, I’ve noticed, has changed its meaning… It’s also increasingly used by people deep within that narrow bandwidth as a criticism of people who are outside the bandwidth, who may actually have a reasonable, alternative attitude to the world.”
“So sometimes I get accused of being a conspiracy theorist. What I would say to that, is that it often comes from the sort of people who used to go on about how there were weapons of mass destruction out in the deserts of Iraq, and the very fact that you couldn’t find them proved they existed. And those people who for years went on about how Cambridge Analytica or Vladimir Putin and various other evil people gave you Brexit and Trump. Well, that’s a bit rich, excuse me, because the one thing I have never done in any film is allege anything like that. What I’m intrigued by is going outside that bandwidth because I think it’s so narrow…”
“I’ve been shouted at by sort of nice, sweet liberal people at dinner parties, saying, ‘Well, I’ve read the Mueller report…’ Within the bandwidth it leads to that madness. It is madness. It’s sort of dying away now, but they went mad. And this goes back to my thing about ‘What have we just been through?’ A really odd time. And then we come out of it, and we press buttons to try and make things better, and none of them work. It makes me think, what’s the solution to that?”
What is the solution, in a world where we have lost faith in the organising myths of our society, but there is no obvious successor ideology? Perhaps the clearest insight into Curtis’s own sense of political futures can be drawn from the concluding sequence of 2021’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, whose psychedelic bricolage of themes from 20th-century history provided an alternative cultural hinterland to the angry populisms of the 2010s. In it, Curtis ends on the suggestion that not just the West but also its autocratic rivals China and Russia are “exhausted, empty of any new ideas”, and that “all of them have corruption that is burrowing deeper into their institutions, corruption that the politicians seem powerless to stop”. Yet the series ends on a surprisingly optimistic note, concluding with the famous quote from the anarchist anthropologist and political theorist that “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently”.
Graeber “was a really, really interesting person”, Curtis told me, “because he wasn’t just an anarchist, he was a bit like Murray Bookchin. They’re the anarchists that [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan knew, he was sort of almost a libertarian socialist, which is a thing that I’m really fascinated by, because I do think that individualism isn’t going to go back into the box. But if you want to change the world, you’ve got to come together in some kind of way, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to be powerful. Because if you’re on your own, it’s lonely, frightening, and you’re not powerful. And no one’s managed to square that circle. And I’ve always thought libertarian socialism is sort of trying to get to that point. And I really, really liked the quote I used, which is that actually, we made this society, it’s not like it came out of nothing, it was just imposed on us, and that does mean we can remake it if we want to.”
And yet, Curtis’s films make clear we are locked in an iron cage of ideology, enforced by increasingly shrill and hysterical political taboos, where any attempt at exploring alternative futures is cast as a one-way journey to the horrors of the 20th century. We are trapped in a failing system, whose morbid symptoms become ever more grotesque, yet in which popular attempts to correct its failing course are pathologised as merely the devious machinations of shadowy elites, who have hypnotised the dull-witted masses to do their bidding for them. Yes, things are bad, say the defenders of the current order as it collapses around them, but the only alternatives are far worse.
“What I’m so fascinated by in our time,” Curtis tells me, “is the ideology, and I think it’s okay to call it an ideology, that prevents us doing that. It’s a really interesting ideology, because it isn’t like other older ideologies, which would say ‘No, this is fantastic, this is the dream world’ — which is what they did in the Soviet Union, right up to the end. In this society, the press, the think tanks, all the wonks, have this sort of view that ‘We know it’s crap. We know it’s not ideal, we know it’s not wonderful. We know there’s corruption, but we can’t do anything about it. We know there’s injustice, we know there are inequalities, but we can’t do anything about that. But you’ve got to accept it. Because the rest is so horrible. The rest is much worse.’
“And what they mean by that is the alternatives are terrifying. They’re like the terrifying autocracy that Vladimir Putin has created in Russia. They’re like the technocratic, brutal surveillance system that Xi Jinping is running in China, or even worse and darker than that, there is radical modern Islamism, which you see in Iran, and also, if you take the New York Times as your Bible, the terrible fascism that Donald Trump and his followers are going to bring to America.
“What I find so fascinating about now is that all those things have proven to be much more fragile, much weaker than the established view said. Putin would seem to be a transitional figure in a yet fully collapsing empire, who probably will lose power in some way or another. I have a friend in China, whose parents are quite high up in the Communist Party. They are quite frightened about what’s happening in the protests. They know there’s a real problem. And also, that there is an enormous amount of debt in China, far more than we had in 2008. Iran… I think what might happen in Iran in the future might be extraordinarily important.
“And quite frankly, despite all the efforts of the New York Times, Donald Trump is beginning to be seen as what he probably was — as some weird grifter, who managed to occupy a space that we’d left open, because we were attending to something else, and just occupied that space and touched on something in America.”
For Curtis, it seems, the looming failures of the West’s rival autocracies, for all that they are held up by liberals as justification for preserving our own failing system, and by some radical conservatives as models to be emulated, open up a strange and unlikely moment of possibility. At the other end of the present global crisis, perhaps, lies the opportunity to finally transcend the long 20th century. Things may seem bad, but a better future may already be straining to be born.
“They’re all fading away,” he says, “which makes me — I mean, this is a really weird thing to say at this present moment in time — quite optimistic, because it’s like the way is open now to actually start thinking in quite a radical way… and that actually, maybe that’s the kind of journalism we should be doing.”
Order your copy of UnHerd’s first print edition here.