If you’re under the impression that the world’s problems began the day Trump found his caps lock button and ended the moment Joe Biden survived his inauguration with his frontal lobe intact, Adam Curtis has got news for you. Around eight hours of it. The BAFTA-winning BBC documentarian’s latest series Can’t Get You Out Of My Head – the televisual equivalent of David Byrne bawling “how did I get here?” – attempts to unravel the many threads of history that have interwoven into the shit blanket that is 2021. To do so, it takes in the scope of centuries, the influential stories of lesser-sung players and the ever-shifting tides of human psychology – and how the world’s power structures have, throughout generations, sought to bend it to their will.
Within these six episodes, each at least an hour long, lie a multitude of revelations. That the Illuminati conspiracy theory was invented as a joke in the ‘60s by a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald in a ruse called “Operation Mindfuck”. That Pokémon Go was an experiment in controlling the mass movement of people. That you can get many hours of moving incidental music out of This Mortal Coil’s ‘Blood’. And most surprising of all, that Glastonbury Festival caused Brexit – not our one, the 1914-25 festival designed to reboot some lost pre-industrial British village idyll of folk dancing, Toby jugs and knee-bells.
At the series’ core, though, is an oh-too-predictable pattern, endlessly repeating. That throughout modern history the primal human forces of fear, pride, paranoia, the suspicion of outsiders and greed for money and power have destroyed every political utopia from within. In China, Curtis focuses on the story of Chairman Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, an individualist at the forefront of a communist revolution who succumbed to cold vengeance and ambition once power had poisoned her ideals. In Germany, he hones in on the Baader Meinhof gang, destined to repeat the crimes of the Nazis they thought they were rooting out of society.
In America, he traces the roots of Trump-ism all the way back to the isolation of the frontier, where the dislocation of the prairie farmers from central government instilled a generational distrust of elites. And to the idea of American exceptionalism – that the USA is fundamentally greater than everyone else – which early cinema directed into a superiority over outsider threats via films such as Birth Of A Nation and the Fu Manchu movies. Later, this would embed itself so deeply into the country’ laws enforcement systems that undercover officers would become the primary instigators of Black Panther violence.
Britain’s modern-day schisms, meanwhile, are found to be rooted in the dented pride and belittlement of the collapse of the empire. Other factors included the handing of our national stability to the deregulated, profit-driven multinational banks. Oh, and by arrogantly assuming in the 1920s that Iraq would function in much the same way as Hampshire, we inadvertently laid the foundations for ISIS. Oopsie.
Though some stitches on such a vast canvas are inevitably dropped – Thatcher gets a pretty easy ride, and Mueller’s evidence of Russian election meddling gets brushed aside as a conspiracy theory – it’s a tangled web which Cutis weaves like a master. Luckily, he gives us a glimmer of a way out. “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make,” reads the keynote quote from American anarchist David Graeber, “and could just as easily make differently.” Our innate pessimism amid such an intricate and immutable world order, however, has us leaving Can’t Get You Out Of My Head fearing the worst.
Towards the series’ end it enters a discussion on the future of AI technology and the tech giants’ data harvesting techniques of mass surveillance. The key to understanding today’s human population, it argues, is in recognising its subconscious patterns of behaviour. But the series itself exposes our most self-defeating pattern: that our innate flaws are destined to destroy any dream society we might ever imagine. That rotten systems are never really overthrown, they just mutate, that power always breeds corruption, that political and social ideals are incompatible with human failings.
Adam Curtis highlights the idea that AI can be fed vast amounts of data on society in order to objectively discern patterns within it far beyond our understanding. But all they’d have to do is get online and watch Can’t Get You Out Of My Head to swiftly realise that it’s us, not them, that perhaps need switching off for the good of the planet. Just this weekend, the US Senate acquitted a former US President of a cut-and-dried case of incitement to resurrection, at which point Western democracy’s days were surely numbered, merely counting down to the moment someone smart has a go. As Curtis points out, all major world leaders have run out of ideological ideas, so we’d better get busy formulating something non-catastrophic to come next.