Notes on Can’t Get You Out of My Head by Adam Curtis

  • the self is represented by only a small part of the brain, the rest of it is out of your control
  • political power transferred from people to finance
  • violent revolutions meant to wake up the population failed
  • the self replaced collective action
  • impotent attempts at radical change and revolution failed because they failed or didn’t care to gain power
  • isolated individuals have no power; they may have talent, a voice, strength, or great ideas, but they don’t have power in isolation
  • the world is not static

What I’m getting from Can’t Get You Out of My Head. The idea of the self is an illusion. In the brain itself, there is a small part of it that is our conscious self where we are in control, but we’re not in control of the rest of it. Therefore the rest of it is not subject to reason. Therefore, if you want to control society, you cannot rely on reason. You’ll have to manipulate that other part that is living in a dream world, by keeping it in its dream. But that part of the mind won’t be content forever, until suddenly it bursts out like in Alien (my image) in the form of revolution, looting, and violence in general.

On what feels like the other hand, Curtis argues that every attempt at violent revolution fails. The type of violent revolution that is meant to “wake up” the population to their plight in the Matrix. And one reason they don’t work is that they don’t have a plan to replace the current power structure with anything else.

Curtis doesn’t argue this, but I would say that at the heart of the problem is that people don’t understand how their government works. When you hit the streets that is an act of desperation. Presumably, you’ve hit the streets because you tried to address your grievances through your representatives and your representatives have failed you. Furthermore, once those representatives failed you, you then tried to unseat those representatives and then that failed as well. Finally, you tried to address your grievances to the press and you found that either your local press doesn’t exist anymore or they don’t care. Finally, in order to get attention for your grievances, you gather a mass of people. That critical mass of people alone is enough to get the press, maybe even national press if things seem menacing enough, to finally show up mostly because they think there is impending violence. Even at this point you need to have someone in your movement know how to take advantage of this moment. Otherwise, this will be a big waste of time. People can’t afford to sit out en masse on the street day and night for months at at time. Eventually, everyone will realize what a waste of time and money it is, or it will coalesce into something that actually is threatening to the power structure and that power structure will come crashing down to disassemble the gathering.

Instead, Curtis argues the opposite: that people gathering en masse is not an act of desperation, it is a show of force and power that political representatives can then use to enact the will of the people. But this kind of power display that he’s referring to was one that was backed by collective action in unions and political parties. Today, when people show up, it is merely a collection of individuals.

If representatives stopped representing and empowering the people and vice versa, who were the representatives empowering? Finance. Through de-regulation politicians essentially handed power over to the financiers. Weirdly, I don’t think Curtis utters the word “corporation” once in the film. If I were to ask Ralph Nader about this, the first word out of his mouth would be corporation and that all politicians are essentially representatives of corporations. Isn’t it more complex than finance? Health care, agriculture, advertising, media, weapons manufacturers, educational institutions, retail giants in big boxes or online. Corporations in general were all empowered, regardless of their industry. Yet, because we moved all of our factories over to China there is the question of what do corporations in this country actually produce. Typically, they produce nothing and they all seem to be trying to become finance companies themselves.

Although there is a lot of worry with the loss of factories and the loss of people power that they allowed, I think way too much credit is given to factories. Who wants to work in a factory? It’s not like if we could only bring back the factories, we’d all be better off. We could bring back all of the pollution they provide. Surely it produced plenty of alcoholism, drug abuse, mental health problems, and domestic violence as well — with or without union representation. And in the end, unless the workers own the factory themselves, they are at the mercy of the factory owners who can just pick up and leave if the union gets too uppity, as was illustrated by Curtis’s footage of a lawyer who represented coal miners in Appalachia. The coal companies provided a socialist utopia to the workers while they needed them. Once machines could do their job, they took away the socialist utopia and replaced the workers with machines and poverty.

We need a replacement for the factory. The masses of people need to have purpose and a means to live. Plenty of people are willing to work a job. They’re even willing to work in factories or in an Amazon fulfillment center. But they get abused. No one looks out for them. And there’s a welling anger in either case of employed and abused or unemployed and ignored. And this opens the door to tyrants, less power for people, and more welling frustrations and anger that erupts into unpredictable violence.

Stream from the Internet Archive:

Adam Curtis Explains It All. The New Yorker. Sam Knight. 1/28/2021

Talking Politics podcast interview. 4/7/2021

Iron Cage. The Nation. Kevin Lozano. 8/24/2021

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