Wednesday, November 9, 2016

HyperNormalisation or Welcome to The Age of Absurdity

I added the subtitle above because this is one trippy film, but it's important to see (or read this summary in about 15 minutes) after last night. It actually helps explain Trump. After Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self, a very straight-forward documentary (albeit 4 hours long), this one, at just shy of 3 hours, is absolutely bizarre by contrast. News footage is mixed with feature film content and inane YouTube videos all with a soundtrack mix of NIN, 80s techno, discordant carnival music, and creepy singing children. It has the intentional effect of a funhouse mirror. It was perfect to watch as the votes came in last night.

We’re living in strange times. Huge superpowers have no ability to deal with extraordinary events and no vision for the future. And the counterculture is also sucked into this make-believe world, so they have no real effect on anything either. Most of events in the film were outlined by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine a decade ago, but Curtis adds in some further connections (like Trump’s involvement) and takes us on a journey through it. It's not just that politics have changed, but the way we've been trained to think has shifted dramatically.


Two ideas about how to run the world without politics took hold in 1975: intentional political negotiations of old were being replaced by a market driven trajectory and an absurdist fabrication of government.

New York was on the verge of collapse from politicians borrowing too much and the middle class exodus eroding the tax base. The banks were expected to buy bonds in return for loans, but one day they refused. This started a significant shift in power as banks insisted that if they’re protecting the loans, they must be allowed to take over the city. A committee was formed made almost entirely of bankers, and the financial institution took control, kickstarting neo-liberalism. They enforced austerity and many teachers, police, and fire fighters were fired. In the old system, politicians solved crises with negotiations; now bankers were letting the market run society, and the market can’t be negotiated with.

Nobody opposed this shift. The counterculture retreated. It was concurrent with a rise of individualism that doesn’t support collective political action, so radicals just watched the destruction with cool detachment and criticized it with art and music. Capitalists took advantage of it. Donald Trump recognized he couldn’t get state funding for housing, but could get cash by refurbishing old buildings. He got the biggest tax break ever and huge bank loans because the city was desperate. He transformed NYC at virtually no cost to himself.
David Levine's Kissinger

By contrast, in Damascus, the capital of Syria, a conflict was brewing between the president, Hafez al-Assad, and Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State. Assad wanted to negotiate politically in order to unite Arab countries to be able to stand up to the west. Assad believed there could only be peace if Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their homeland. They never integrated in host countries, like Syria.

Kissinger leaned towards running the world as a stable market system. He had been an expert in nuclear strategy's "delicate balance of terror" and aimed to keep the world in balance through turmoil, the birthpangs of a better system. Dislocation provides opportunity for a global society. A strong Arab centre would destabilize his ideal balance of power, so he set out to fracture the Arab world by breaking their alliances. He played a double game, "constructive ambiguity," and at once persuaded Egypt to help Israel while he led Assad to believe he was helping the Palestinian situation. When Assad found out, he was enraged and stopped trusting in the global political system.  [The grandson of Salvador Allende is currently calling for the arrest of Kissinger.]

The doublespeak of these negotiations became the norm. In the Soviet Union, technocrats pretended everything was running smoothly even though citizens could all see the economy was falling apart. The people became hopeless and apathetic. Everyone just played along with the fake version of reality; they couldn't see a viable alternative. The people were so much a part of the fake system, that they couldn't see outside of it. This façade of life became hypernormal. (Listen to Curtis discuss the word - why we want change but it never happens.)


Reagan was voted in with a vision of a moral American society, but he was stuck with Kissinger's legacy and the fury of Assad.

In 1982, Israel was determined to destroy Palestine. In Lebanon, where Palestinian refugees were living in refugee camps, the Israeli army allowed the Christian Lebanese militia, Phalange, into the camps and then watched as a massacre took place. Reagan was forced to react and sent marines to Beruit claiming to be neutral. Assad saw the troops as an attempt to divide the middle east into factions, and focused on getting the US out. He formed an alliance with Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. who created "the poor man's atomic bomb" as he convinced his followers to join a suicide mission in order to save the revolution (even though suicide is prohibited in the Qur'an), and mobilized 10,000s boys to walk through minefields to create gaps so the Iranian army could get across.

Assad took this idea of an unstoppable human weapon further and had followers strap bombs to themselves. They drove trucks into US marine barracks in Beruit, killing 241 Americans in October 1983. Hezbollah was formed with Iranians but under the control of Assad [something I've not heard before], and was used to attack America. In February 1984, Reagan became paralyzed by the complexity of the situation and retreated.

But an important part of this is the mythology of the martyr that was created. It has become firmly entrenched. It has to be; it's the only way families of the suicide bombers can cope with their loss.

The origin of cyberspace.


The power of the banks in NYC spread, but it was all covert. Banks and corporations were linked through computer systems that were invisible to citizens AND politicians. The networks gave them extraordinary powers of control. With no laws or politicians to intervene, brutal corporate power could flourish.

Others saw the internet as a platform for a new utopia, a safe place for radicals. Instead of fixing the world, they entered an alternative reality online. This has its roots in Leary's 1960s "LSD country" when the counterculture first looked to be liberated from politics. This is another myth we live by - the mythology that we can live more freely ignoring the political world. It was advance in the '90s by John Perry Barlow who focused on protecting the independence of cyberspace from politicians. He paints of picture of the internet as borderless, anarchist, independent of tyrannies, and free from hierarchies.

But two hackers, Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak, found and uploaded Barlow's credit rating online to demonstrate the hierarchies that exist already. The financial powers online can now know far more about us than ever before and therefore control us far better with less effort. The utopian rhetoric is a convenient camouflage hiding the emergence of the corporate powers.


Reagan created another mythology, that of the good Americans fighting against evildoers. He created an imaginary villain in Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. He was rejected by other Arab rulers and without global influence. But in December 1985, when terrorists attacked a Rome Airport, Reagan announced Gaddafi was behind the attacks even though all evidence pointed to Assad. There were far fewer consequences to the US to attack Gaddafi than Assad.

Gaddafi turned the crisis into a global drama and threatened suicide attacks against the US. He promoted himself as a revolutionary to liberate the repressed worldwide including blacks in America. He hired German engineers to build him a rocket to explore space, which gave him the capability of attacking Europe. He became a super-villain at the head of a rogue state. He was blamed for other attacks that he likely had nothing to do with, and he accepted the blame. He wanted an audience for his Third Universal Theory of a utopian socialist state.

Reagan prepared to bomb Libya using Gaddafi's rantings as fact regardless evidence to the contrary. In April 1986, the US bombed Tripoli, and their aim was so inaccurate many children were killed. Gaddafi stood on the rubble and denounced the US.


In the '80s, the US started testing weapons to conquer the Soviet Union, but when spotted, they promoted a fake conspiracy that they were misleading the population about aliens. They chose select people to find fake documents proving contact with UFOs. But the tactics fueled wider growing belief that the government lies and conspiracies are real. The blurring of fact and fiction became a central part of US government's "Perception Management" that aims to tell graphic stories to grab citizen's imagination as a way to distract them from dealing with the complexities of the real world.

The counterculture gave up revolutions and started making workout videos. The population, no longer able to have any effect on politics, focused their energy on something more important: controlling their bodies through a created obsession with workouts and diets. [I knew it!] The old system was dying, and a new system was about to be born.


The Soviet Union collapsed and it was the final failure of a dream of politics being used to create a new world. In the new system, politicians stopped trying to change things and focused on managing a post-political world. Ulrich Beck was first to describe this change.  Politicians hoping to make changes are suddenly seen as dangerous. Their new job is to predict dangers and avoid risks. The political class has been reduced to trying to steer society, putting out fires rather than doing anything actually effective. The new heroes will be the ones with the most accurate predictions. Larry Fink started BlackRock and built a huge supercomputer, Aladdin, which he used to predict with certainty the risk of any investment or event. He now manages 7% of the world's total wealth. His town is also where Prozac became most popular: everyone's brainwashing each other to be happy.

Other computer programmers were trying to develop artificial intelligence programs. As a joke, Joseph Weizenbaum created a computer psychotherapist that responds like Carl Rogers (by just reflecting back whatever we say) in order to parody the hopeless attempts at AI. But people found talking with Eliza helpful - even people that knew how it worked. It makes us happy and secure to have ourselves reflected back at us. The programmers started making systems to do that - intelligence pages - that gather data about people, look for patterns, and predict what they might want to see or hear or buy. It ordered the world and reassured the anxious. And it was highly profitable.


There's a dangerous flaw in the system because not everything can be predicted from data. Trump discovered that at his own cost in Atlantic City in 1990. His casino was losing money from a "whale" - a top gambler - Kashimagi. Trumped hired a different whale to set him up. When Kashimagi lost everything to the house, Trump thought he'd get his money back, but then mobsters got to him before Trump could. Banks saw that Trump couldn't pay the interest on his loans, and Trump went bankrupt.

Back in Damascus, Assad wanted revenge against the US. In December 1988, a plane was bombed over Lockerbie. Investigators pointed the finger at Syria, but the US focused on Gaddafi. Some journalists thought it was because the US and Britain needed Assad as an ally in the war against Hussein. Assad had released forces he couldn't control though, and his ideas jumped from Sunni to Shia Islam, and Hamas was formed [but many other sources seem to suggest Hamas is entirely Sunni?]. Shia are seen as the more brutal faction. They used suicide attacks in the heart of Israeli cities and went much further than Hezbollah ever had, which shocked the Sunnis, apparently. [I watched this bit twice, but I'm still confused because it runs counter to every other article I can find. Anyway...] The whole thing worked against Assad's original plan which was to join all Arab countries together to defeat the US.


Any optimistic vision of the future disappeared. The film has a crazy long montage of all the apocalyptical films created before 2001. Media provoked an intense fear of terrorism in the west. Then 9/11 happened.

In 1980, Reagan had a moment when he could have confronted the complexity of Syria, Israel and the Palestine crisis, but retreated and left Syria to fester and mutate. He went for Gaddafi instead because it was an easier battle to wage. But it changed the way people understood terrorism. Instead of violence being a result of complex political struggles, we got a simplistic image of an evil tyrant at the head of a rogue state and a sense that toppling the super-villain will save the world.

Blair and Bush set their sights on Hussein in Iraq. They believed stories about him instead of investigating reality. This is legend now, but the primary source that he had WMD was taken from the movie The Rock.

Then in 2003, Syria, under Bashar al-Assad (the younger son of Assad), sent Shia suicide bombers to attack Americans in Iraq as the first step in a plot to take over the Middle East. Within a year almost all foreign fighters were coming across Syria. Then things really got out of control as jihadists in Iraq joined Al Qaeda and turned to kill Shiites, and suicide bombers started to kill Syrians. Blair and Bush needed a way to show that the invasion had been a good idea, so they got Gaddafi, the fake super-villain, to become a fake global hero. They got him to publicly state his intentions to dismantle his WMD (which he didn't actually have) as a direct result of the Iraq invasion, and he took credit for the Lockerbie bombings. It was all new lies on top of old lies - the highest achievement of perception management. PR companies were paid millions to go to Libya and "reframe the narrative." As a world thinker, Gaddafi got to explain his Third Universal Theory to the United Nations and Trump offered to let him lease his land for the night, and made a fortune even though Gaddafi never stayed there.


The west has turned away from politics and deeper into cyberspace.

Judea Pearl worked on Bayesian networks which could predict behaviours even with incomplete data. They created software to mimic humans. With our current technology, we can upload millions of images and videos and the web feels much more like the real world. Then his son became the first journalist captured in Pakistan and beheaded on video.

Governments used Optic Nerve to take stills of people to look for terrorists, but mainly found amateur porn. The internet allows users to present themselves as they want to be seen. People are mesmerized by themselves. Social media sites created filters to see what people like and feed it back to them to the extent that people move in bubbles isolated from opposing information. Algorithms ensure that newsfeeds don't challenge preexisting beliefs. A few corporations are shaping everything we see and think. [We're like the robots in Westworld. We feel real, but we've all been programmed.]

BUT, another utopian version emerged when people realized they could use the internet to start revolutions. After the crash of 2008, Occupy Wall Street emerged. It was Barlow's dream incarnate. And then Arab Spring started with the "Facebook Youth" out in the tens of thousands. With social media, a revolution can be created quickly to take down a fascist leader.

But it ended up causing chaos instead of democracy. Radicals thought this new way of organizing was key to real change, but they didn't have a clear vision of the future. They were too focused on how to manage the people because that's what we're all swimming in - management. [I wrote a bit about this trend before, and I think one place to look for leadership with a real action plan is here, but that's just me.] In Egypt, social media brought people together, but once there, they had no clue of what new society to create. When the movement stalled, the Muslim Brotherhood rushed into fill the vacuum, and the left ironically turned to the military for help.

Strugatsky film
In the west, politicians have given so much power away to the banks that they have no real power to effect change themselves. They're just managers with a simplistic vision of the world, which is truly dangerous. In Russia, Putin saw that the lack of any belief in politics could work to his advantage. He turned politics into a strange theatre, which kept his power unchallenged. He was influenced by the sci-fi writings of the Strugatsky Brothers who wrote about the ease of manipulating the masses once we can shape reality to be anything.  Putin's technologist advisor, Vladislav Surkov, went further to take avant-garde ideas from the theatre into politics, to not just manipulate the public, but play with them and undermine their perception of the world to the extent that they're never sure of what's really happening. He turned politics into a bewildering spectacle. The key to this was to let it be known that they were backing opposing groups and clearly lying to keep constant confusion in the air.

That brings us to today and Trump's entire campaign. None of his policies are fixed; everything he does and says shifts constantly. He attacks all sides to perpetuate confusion so we can't quite tell precisely where he sits. Exposing his lies is irrelevant. Liberals are outraged, but algorithms made sure they were only heard by people who already agreed with them. Their wave of angry messages benefitted only corporations who know that "angry people click." Anger is good for business. Trump's strategy is to counter himself constantly. He realizes that the version of reality politics presented is no longer believable. Stories politicians tell don't make sense. In the face of that, we can play with reality and further weaken old forms of power.

Look at how the west dealt with Assad. He's evil, but Britain, America, and France bombed terrorists which had the effect of keeping Assad in power. And Russia sent troops to support Assad. This is Sarkov's strategy of non-linear warfare. The underlying aim is not to win the war, but to use the conflict to create a state of destabilized perception in order to undermine and control the masses. In March 2016, Russia announced it was leaving Syria, and held a concert to celebrate, but never made any motion to actually leave.

And now we have stirrings of fascism in the US.

Curtis leave no sense that we can actually do anything to get out of this mess in any way, but at least we can be aware of the absurdity of it all. And dance.

ETA: here's an interview with him by the Economist

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