Adam Curtis Knows Why You Hate Your Life – Part 2

The second guest post by Here Comes Everyone’s Adam Steiner

In part 1, I riffed about the first spark of targeted marketing that gave
rise to “the manufacturing of consent”; controlling voter behaviours based upon
personal desire. Now I want to talk about how this evolved into a direct one-to-one
relationship between market forces and the individual, and how our current
pursuit for happiness has divided the self and made many of us so terribly

The nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward
Bernays, helped to flog cigarettes to the female population of early 20th
century America and, in turn, influence voter behaviour. Freud’s divining
argument was that all actions are fulfilment of desires, even when they appear benevolent;
we are selfish, altruism is a lie. Bernays took this idea a step further than this
to argue that we should actively will ourselves in this direction, to act
selfishly is to live sincerely.

The Reagan-Thatcher-axis of the
80s made this mode concrete. They sold excess as success and encouraged mass
deregulation of the financial sector; capitalising the “p” in “Private”, favouring
wealth-making over social value. Reagan, the neo-actor, and Thatcher, the
bootstraps-yanked greengrocer’s daughter, lived-out this ideology of
self-creation: if you weren’t looking after number one, you weren’t truly living,
nor living truly.

Worse still, being attentive to
others along the death-race of success you would inevitably be left be behind
by the fastest, most focused and thus the most successful competitors, and so you
would be a fool to do otherwise (see Curtis’ The Trap on John “Beautiful Mind”
Nash’s, Fuck You Buddy principle). This cult of the individual created the
ironic squeeze where to be seen to break away from common (herd) mentalities
was to align yourself as closely as possible to your running mates in both
stature and style, swapping the major for the minor.

Eighties marketeers saw that selfhood
and individuality could be commoditised and ultimately fetishised as the way to
go – against all others. Neo-liberalism bought us fundamental freedoms coupled
with the burden of emancipatory and economic pressures, hand-in-hand,
confirming the myth that freedoms must be employed to be enjoyed.

For example, the current government’s
austerity drive affects almost everyone, excepting the richest 1%. This has driven
competition further in the workplace and freelance markets, forcing colleagues
against one another during redundancy drives and splintering union stability as
people are re-deployed to weaken their resolve and dis-establish workplace
organisation, while the encouraged dream ideal is to become one of those 1%.

And on the surface, this seems a
logical drive, as an individual driven to thrive not merely survive, private
wealth comes up Trumps, at the expense of others. In the economic crash of
2008, banks were bailed out, for us, by us, in order to keep markets fluid and
the nation solvent – this embedded business finance (which can outbid public
services to purchase or manufacture social value, not generate it via
grassroots community action) and property (space, public, natural, and for
living) which are disproportionately divided and controlled, by the 1%, to be our
zeitgeist societal regulator and universal measure, not positive civic

Facing this barrage of need, want
and seemingly diminished supply, the individual must shore themselves up
against others, fuelled by aspiration and (seemingly) enriched by technology.

As consumer choice is (appears) vast
and expansive – the realities of personal life choice are actually narrowed – buy
this, do that (a la Nike, see below) –
but it is in fact pigeon-holed and limited by your spending capacity – this
drives the need to succeed, and to live LARGE, the vague ideal being within some
mythical bubble of excess (house of many rooms, more cars than you can drive, sex
without emotional engagement).

During the England riots of 2011
one of the most popular items stolen were Nike Air Force 1 trainers (£70). Conversely,
bookshops were left undamaged and books unread. The prevailing cultural drive had
taught young people, in particular, to want the impossible; consumer goods they
could not afford, and every day trapped within condensed areas of deprivaton set
against the aspiration-bolstering business skyscrapers fencing-in one of the
richest cities in the world.

The individual is torn, between
hopes, dreams, desires and the crushing foot of reality (which can be ignored,
but only as soma escape). The need to “be more like X”, who succeeds well
within common parameters, is consequently to be less like oneself, or even
better, the better, BEST version of
You. “Fitter, happier, more productive…” etc. Linking back to Bernays, we often
choose political leaders who appear simpatico to our personal goals, investing
our hopes and energies in the candidate of our choice, which is often limited by
economic situation, for the one you feel best reflects you better self: “I
believe in social justice – I’m Jeremy Corbyn”; “I’m a good all-round chap, I’m
David Cameron” these are two modes of being we can subscribed to that we imagine
make things better for ourselves, we are alike, he and I…. But, to live by
comparison erodes the self, as much as there is any innate identity, a core
self that is difficult to shift, our outer personae are increasingly brittle,
multiple and ultimately insincere.

Here the Bernays web of advertising
appears to cushion us. There is more information instantly available to us than
ever before. Including non-information, web content clusters that scab-up into metadata;
open-source websites and comments pages
created new generations of peer reviewers and editors, who in turn add
equal grist and chaff to the mill, just to keep it churning. Replies demand response,
throwaway comments are hounded into apologies and resignations, not actions.

In the past, pros got paid to
produce accurate journalism or meaningful artwork, effectively patronised (read
that as you wish). This is increasingly less the case as people are undermined
by endless internships, zero-hour contracts and dead-end work experience
(expendable humans). So there is more information and the best of it still has
to be paid for, often via advertising – there is an ongoing struggle here
between myth-sellers flogging miracles and truth-sayers trying to keep their
heads above water.

Too much information, increasingly
a rotten apple, is forced through various (now necessary) framing devices
(screen interfaces, the spectacle of Google glasses, Apple watches, the mobile phone-tablet-laptop-triple)
with more and more content required to link together and coordinate the best information
– and a sump of targeted advertising to trawl – it’s hard to know who you can

Hyper-textuality blurs the lay-lines
of context; guiding us towards things making sense. Reality must be made to
fit, or made anew. The internal monologue is hijacked, James Joyce’s early-20th
Century ad-man, Leopold Bloom would struggle to maintain any kind of narrative
under the same barrage, more than half of it would be external “content”. We
hold multiple selves in our palms, through social media accounts we must disclose
(or pretend to) update and so be held-to account – there is also a sense of
debt – something to be settled. There is a validity to these other selves, when
they are free, but much of the ideals we are inspired (sold) to pursue can only
be “achieved” when bought, our self-worth can plateau at a spending binge we
cannot afford and look up to the next edge, but selfishness demands that in order to
become our better self we need the personal trainer, high quality cookware,
branded clothes and a car to be seen in – there is always another level.

Then we wonder why are dreams are
not realised, or reality doesn’t work out the way (we thought) we wanted it to
– we are often lead to chase retreating ghosts, mirages that swell and appear
more lush the closer you get. Generations of frustrated ambitions, where
desires have changed from a terraced house, a double-bed, children, holidays to
Margate (Morrisey’s riches of the poor, nicked from Edith Sitwell)

Looking up is hard to do. FOMO
(fear of missing out) compels you to compete, keep your eye on the ball,
capturing all screens at once. Awareness, beyond the self, is in decline – just
before walking into a lamppost or tripping over a homeless person – the things
that should make you question where you are, where you are going and why; what
it is/was you were meant to be doing/thinking, there is a cognitive dissonance
created by people spectating more, living less, operating within shrinking
parameters of mindlessness.

Curtis exemplifies this in his
method of fast-cutting – our perspective is saturated – as in real life. So,
have the marketeers won the internet? Were Freud and Bernays proved right? The
future’s confusing; the future’s a blurred rainbow.


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