4th February 2017 — Generation Neon
The trouble with free elections is you never know who is going to win.
Leonid Brezhnev, The Premier of the Soviet Union (General Secretary, 1964–1982).
… over the past 40 years, politicians, financiers and technological utopians, rather than face up to the real complexities of the World, retreated. Instead, they constructed a simpler version of the World, in order to hang onto power. And, as this fake World grew, all of us went along with it… because the simplicity was reassuring.
Adam Curtis — in his new documentary HyperNormalisation
I was raised as a Quaker, The Religious Society of Friends — the official name. My brother and I went to a Quaker School. Quakerism gives one a strong sense of what I call “inner individualism”, which emanated from the religious belief that there was a “bit of God in everybody” and philosophy that their faith lives through action. For example, Quakers do not have sermons or services conducted by a priest. Instead, Sunday congregations were in a Quaker “Meeting”. People sit in simple room in silence for an hour. The 15 minute silences we had to endure are School were fine, even meditative. But the 60 minutes at Sunday Quaker Meeting was torturous for my wee brother and I. The theory being that, in silent worship one person’s spiritual communication is a connectivity which should not be refracted or influenced by any intermediary — it is up the individual to choose how he or she communicates with God, whatever form that may have. This is where the concept of an inner individualism came from.
From time to time people at random would stand up up in Quaker Meeting and break the silence to tell the congregation what was on their minds, which was sometimes interesting, but usually not. I’m not a practicing Quaker and many of the kids at my school were never Quakers in the first place. But many of us were, and still are, drawn to this seemingly passive, humanitarian, egalitarian expression of Christianity. The fact that every person was not only unique but had invaluable, yet intangible, inner worth. I guess it was empowering as a young, learning, growing individual. My brother and I had the same parents and went to the same school, he even looks like me. He lives alone on a boat and is a lock-keeper on the old canals in the Yorkshire Dales, I became a hedge fund portfolio manager in London, New York and Hong Kong and live with a wife and three kids. I hate the thought of living on a boat, he hates the thought of living in a city. You see? We’re all very different by nature (not nurture).
“What… even the psychopaths, serial killers and the genocidal dictators? Even THEY have God in them?”, I remember my brother and I asking the obvious question a child asks their Quaker father. “Yes. Even them…”, he would respond dispassionately, to our horror. His reasoning that some people are societal rejects, dangerous, morally corrupt, ignorant, misunderstood and mentally sick but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of goodness or indeed Godliness. Hmmmm… I spent many a day pondering that notion as I played with my Star Wars figures. Darth Vader… may be he had a teeny bit of God in him, but the Emperor Darth Sidious, surely not! My imagination didn’t stretch that far… or perhaps it didn’t want to.
On the inside, Quakers believed everyone was different, but on the outside Quakers were mind-numbingly refrained, they spoke softly and wore plain clothes (usually grey or brown) and discouraged confrontation. Pacifists. The Quaker culture is not to draw attention to one’s self. So, ironically, despite this inner sense of individualism, externally, Quakers did not seek external differentiation — they all looked and behaved very similarly. But that’s not the way West Africans are — that was my mother’s side of the family. It was an interesting upbringing. Polarized. My mother was impulsive, exuberant — even for a Ghanaian (and that’s saying something). They say psychopaths are impulsive too. She doesn’t look much like a psychopath to me. But Quakers try to welcome everybody, it’s part of their religion. So when one day a newcomer got up in Quaker Meeting to say that they were not actually Christian the correct, Quaker, response would be to sit in welcoming silence and consider what that person was saying in deep thought. My mother, the Ghanaian, got up and confronted the woman in the middle of a (supposedly contemplative, silent) Meeting for Worship: “this is a Christian society. Can’t you read? If you’re not prepared to be a Christian then GET OUT!” My mother had a glare I’ve only ever seen on West African women which has “CONFRONTATION” written all over it. My brother and I cringed so hard with embarrassment, praying only for one thing — for the ground to swallow us up and take us away from this Quaker Meeting. Patience’s outburst was most un-Quakerly. Yet my father and everybody else accepted it and absorbed it… because Patience (yes, ironic name) was an individual and they were Quakers, and that’s what they did. My brother and I were utterly confused. Our early life, it seems, was a kaleidoscopic collection of paradoxes.
Where am I going with all this? Well, I want to start with one of the quotes of the day from one of my favourite documentary creators. Adam Curtis’ new documentary film, HyperNormalisation, takes some investment, it’s 2 hours 40 min long, but it’s thought-provoking stuff and, it’s on YouTube and BBC iPlayer. This work was inspired by a book authored by Alexei Yurchak entitled Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Sounds a bit like the old, bastardised trading banter, which I have used as a previous Quote of the Day: the trend is your friend — except for the bend at the end!
Alexei Yurchak was writing about the Soviet Union at the peak of The Cold War, a period otherwise known as “the Brezhnev Era”. His observations led him to conclude that, despite the horror of their day-to-day existence, the people of the Soviet Union had drifted into a strange, almost ludicrous, trance-like state of apathy. Hypnotized by the absence of reality in their own World. Life in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union had become so abnormal, it had folded in on itself so that abnormality became normality. Alexei Yurchat called it HyperNormalisation. Suddenly, the more nonsensical something appeared, the more conventional it was and the more readily the public accepted it. Things just didn’t add up. Politicians would say one thing but the harsh reality, the poverty, the starvation, the economy said something completely opposite. So a form of mass mental paralysis unfurled, where everybody knew that everything was wrong, and yet nobody felt they could do anything to fix it. It was as if the only option was to just go along with the absurdity of the illusion … until it eventually all came crashing down upon itself. We’ll come back to Brezhnev later, he’s important.
Curtis’ proposition is that are going through our own eerie phase of HyperNormalisation today, where, the more abnormal things are, the more normal they have become. People don’t understand what is happening. What is more they don’t understand why they don’t understand. The Brits have voted to leave the EU, but how? The Tory Party are in disarray, but The Labour Party are making them look like the slickest outfit known to mankind! The Leader of the Free World aggressively defends the size of his “hands” openly in Republican debate and launches 2am Tweet attacks on everything from Meryl Streep’s acting credentials to Saturday Night Live’s comedic value. The Clintons would be apt casting for Game of Thrones. Europe is enveloped by the marching resurgence of the Far Right and a Central Bank hell-bent on being the only buyer in the market place… and the UK’s tweed jacket-wearing Labour Party Leader, in an almost comical lurch to populism, said he wants to introduce “wage cap” on the population (to which even officials within his own party dismissed as absolutely fucking bonkers). Abnormality is the new normality. Occasionally one feels so far removed from reality, the question is no longer whether you believe any of the politicians, the question has become: pinch yourself, do you actually believe you are alive and in possession of your own sanity or is this all some perverse dystopian hallucination?
Curtis’ answer is, effectively, “YES”, we have indeed collectively lost the plot but in a way that is entirely evolutionary. Like the Soviets in the Brezhnev Era, we have a scepticism for authority and the government so insurmountable that we simply don’t believe anything anymore — it doesn’t matter who is saying it. Politics has become a charade where the actors and plots have no more substance than a shit episode of Friends. The emperor is wearing no clothes, politicians have become just passengers — they have no collective plan on how to genuinely change the World for the better and if they did, they couldn’t execute anyway. In Curtis’ perception, the people are drugged up to the eyeballs. But not with LSD, like they were in the 1960s, and not through state-driven attritional hypnosis, as the Soviets were in the Brezhnev Era. We, in today’s World, have become intoxicated on a different cocktail of extreme cynicism toward superficial political “fakeness” and what we are taught is the new, modern form of individualistic freedom and personal empowerment. We’re high as kites.
On the topic of Trump. He imposed an immigration ban on certain Middle Eastern countries in an alleged attempt to block certain Muslim peoples entering the country. Then, only to take a seemingly embarrassing step backwards by revoking the action for those with green cards. Then, as ZeroHedge posted, a judge blocked Trumps executive command, imposing a temporary, nationwide restraining order on the ban and now we’re in a very odd political civil war with the White House and Department of Justice facing off against the constitution-hugging federal courts. One could be forgiven for thinking that Trump is mismanaging his government, he is causing chaos and therefore he has no control. But this may be doing a disservice to the intelligence behind the Trump administration’s strategy. The Curtis argument, would be that he is deliberately causing chaos and so has more control than he would have otherwise. By relentlessly executing disorderly initiatives, eventually organised political resistance loses traction and the people become pacified — as though hypnotised by the haze. All of politics on both sides of the camp become sucked into a swirling, mud-slinging vortex. Bullshit fatigue leads to protest fatigue which leads to resistance fatigue. This is not fact, it’s not even opinion… it’s just a theory. Anybody connected to the Blog-o-sphere could not have failed to notice this article by a Google Engineer going viral called Trial Balloon for a Coup? Perhaps the Coup conspiracy is a stretch (all Google engineers are vehemently anti-Trump, let’s face it), but I’m fascinated by this paragraph and how much it resonates with Alexei Yurchak’s and Adam Curtis’ theories on Hypernormalisation. Read this…
I see a few key patterns here. First, the decision to first block, and then allow, green card holders was meant to create chaos and pull out opposition; they never intended to hold it for too long. It wouldn’t surprise me if the goal is to create “resistance fatigue,” to get Americans to the point where they’re more likely to say “Oh, another protest? Don’t you guys ever stop?” relatively quickly.
But the US is not the only place experiencing a hyperbolic political environment. How did all this happen? Capitalism, freedom of expression, freedom of democracy, all coming together in a cosmic explosion of technological advancement. This should be a good thing, right? It was for a very long time. But with the internet, the Information Age and social media, Curtis muses that we have become consumed with our own individualism. But, unlike the Quaker form, which is more of an inner individualism (albeit relatively expressionless on the exterior), this modern tech-induced individualism is the reverse. It is full of flagrant communication and boundless external expression via seemingly limitless interconnected networks, yet from within the individual the substance can be more hollow (and, yes, I’m fully aware of the irony here as both Curtis and I hit <<SEND>> on another “hollow” internet-based transmission). The internet and our 21st century societal “freedom” has seemingly turned the individual into an inert, Teflon-coated bubble. Capable of organising at extraordinary speed (see Occupy Movement, Arab Spring) but incapable of executing any forward-thinking strategy with any fortitude or stamina.
Curtis argues that the modern internet-based society has disarmed revolutionary progression. It is as though the cosmic explosion of extroverted expressionism has taken the old, seemingly creative, reactive atoms like hydrogen, oxygen that we were present the 1960’s and 1970’s and turned us into neon atoms… a beautifully inert element, completely unreactive and incapable of “latching” onto anything tangible which might change our environment. We, the new Internet Individuals, are outwardly expressive to a higher degree than we have ever been, but are also inwardly-subsumed bubbles. Because we’re so enlightened with individualistic empowerment we, as individuals, cannot be truly loyal to any cause. We can “follow” and “retweet” and “like” and sometimes even gather on streets to demonstrate, but we never actually commit to any political movement in order to get change — the way we did in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
By creating the modern, empowered, emboldened, extroverted individualist, this new modern version of a capitalist society has consumed the revolutionaries and radical expressionists. It has achieved this by folding them inside their own digital consciousness by feeding them more historic, self-enforcing information — effectively about themselves. Referring to the role of the cyberspace and the internet, Curtis says in a recent interview with Jarvis Cocker that we have at times mistaken an “engineering system for a vision of the future”. The internet just takes historic data and presents it back to you in a form you already have expressed you want to see it. It cannot look forward because it has no forward-looking data. “If you have a system that is constantly trying to manage the World by reading data from your behaviour in the past, what it can’t imagine is a kind of future that’s never existed before”. The productivity of self-expression is muzzled because radicalism actually becomes self-reinforcing to the system not to the revolution, “the idea of self-expression becomes absolutely central to the power of modern capitalism — it’s what drives it”. And so, by expressing yourself overtly, you can only feed the socio-economic system that is already in existence — not revolutionise it. Consequently, we live in a World awash with historic “information” but where none of us really understands a vision for where we are going, politically. And because of this we are surrounded by fake news, fake politicians, fake economy, fake markets and nothing is real. We lead fake lives in a fake World. What is more, because nobody has a plan and so we just go along with it. Just like the Soviet passengers of the Brezhnev Era. We are politically inert, neon passengers in a state of HyperNormalisation.
It’s all a bit far-fetched for me. But that doesn’t stop it being thought-inspiring. Here’s where I deviate from Curtis. It’s all very well saying politicians and technologists are taking a very complex World and simplifying it for consumption so they can maintain power. But then only offering a relatively “simple” explanation to how we got here: cyber-based individualism leading only to tractionless radicalism is a bit hypocritical. But I believe there is more complexity to this that just technological utopianism and individualistic myopia.
Curtis has hit a nerve though. Because I believe we are in some form of HyperNormalisation. However, it is not just a bottom-up phenomenon he describes with a rising form of individualism but also a top-down phenomenon. The authorities, the government, the people in power were also pushing endorsements of HyperNormalisation down to the public. The best examples are the Central Banks who now control everything in the markets and the economy. The Central Banks now suck up every kind of fixed income asset there is to own in order to lower yields and borrowing rates. Is this a market? The stock market is actively propped up by Central Banks through aggressive easing and capital protection of the economy via the wealth effect and the mutated emigrations of a Greenspan Put. Jim Rickards writes that the markets are in “Cognitive Dissonance”. Here is the first sentence of his article…
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological term to describe a situation where perception and reality are out of sync.
The dissonance is all the more apparent because over the last decade or two the market and the economy has become less influenced by the idea-makers, the businesses and entrepreneurs or even the political masters. The economy is driven by a single man or woman pushing a button at a central bank. If a quarterly GDP number is expected to be +0.5% and ends up being considerably lower than expected at only +0.3% the market goes up! Why? Because it is now NORMAL for the central bank to react to bad news immediately with monetary easing. If the GDP number is normal or even slightly better than expected the markets react with caution (because the central bank will not have an excuse to press the “PRINT” button and flood the market with liquidity).
Nothing follows convention anymore. Non-convention is the new convention. The Central Banks have changed what it means to have a “normal” economy. The markets and everybody in it are in a HyperNormal existence and are thus caught in a strange web of feedback loops of causality (which Soros referred to as the reflexivity of the market place). But this new reflexivity is another form or HyperNormalisation. The more distressed things look with the economy, the more people expect the Feds to wade in and normalise things with huge quantities of money-injection. Abnormal becomes normal and market participants become Fed-watching zombies, hypnotized by their own state of HyperNormalisation. It would take only massive capitulations (Sept 11th, Lehman ’08) to shake the zombie markets out of their comatose stupor. And then only briefly … only for market volatility and cyclicality to slip back out of consciousness again. Like Curtis’ view of HyperNormalisation — nobody really knew where we were going or could take a step back to understand what we were doing. We are passengers and it’s becoming clear that, over a broader perspective, even the biggest authorities in the World (the central banks, the governments, the regulators) are passengers too.
It’s a fascinating theory, but I diverge from Curtis in other ways. Not only do I believe that this state of abnormality or HyperNormalisation was a top-down as well bottom-up approach but, unlike Curtis, I think the emphasis of causality was not only on technological advancement (internet age). I think this factor was only one of three main causes of what we came to call Globalisation which, I feel, eventually transmogrified societal interaction into a state of HyperNormalisation. What is important here was that these three seeds of extraordinary economic propulsion were planted in the rich fertile soils of a fiat currency system. Nothing would have been quite the same were it not for the flying paper money we see today. And so we come full circle to where we were after Lydian pebble-based economies, flying paper of the Chinese and Kublai Khan, William of Orange and the Banks of England, Germany’s hyperinflationary explosion and Charles De Gaulle’s psychological warfare with Richard Nixon. Of the other two factors outside of technological: one was industrial and the other was political.
We should start with the political, and for that we need to go back to the Nixon era… but to the other side of the Cold War. To the architect of modern HyperNormalisation and this chap called Leonid Brezhnev.