While We Were Dozing, the Money Crept In – The Echo Chamber and Hypernormalisation

There are certain voices that have a calming effect on you. Each will have their own. Mine are John Berger, David Attenborough, Adam Curtis. I don’t think I have daddy issues (!), but these narrators have something in their voices that draws you in to the story they are telling, in a safe and almost conspiratorial manner. I was very excited when Curtis’ Hypernormalisation came out, because some alarming things have begun occurring in politics, that we hadn’t seen before. A surge to the right, and nonsense passed off as truth became normal. Watching the film, I felt it was so important that I began to transcribe it. Already I am a poor PhD reader as instead of efficiently skim reading books and academic papers for the parts that pertain to me research question, I tend to read slowly and imbibe every point, at times, even every word.  Here then, I began to see that there was a process that started in 1970s New York that affected us now. Artists were ghettoising themselves in the 1970s, as “individual radicals” who did not try to change things, but “just experience them”, through disillusionment and powerless awe. Today’s Facebook echo chamber, in which we speak only to the converted, the lack of conversation in public space that is prevalent now in the age of mobile phones and social media, actually had it’s roots in the pre-digital age.

I stopped the film where the transcript below ends. Before I could address the issues realised in this first part, I did not feel ready to continue to the middle, let alone the end of the film. I am still in that limbo, however a solution has begun to form not only in my mind, but in my day to day life, and the conversations I’m having. Perhaps you will find something compelling in there also. Let us doze no longer!

“While we were dozing, the money crept in.”

(plato’s cave style lighting in the woods, spotlight, gentle music)

We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world.

Suicide bombers, waves of refugees, Vladimir Putin, Trump, even Brexit

yet those in control seem unable to deal with them. No one has a vision of a different or better kind of future.

This film will tell the story of how we got to this strange place. It is about how over the past 40 yrs, 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 on to power. And as this fake world grew, all of us went along with it, because the simplicity was reassuring,

Even those who thought they were attacking the system, the radical the artists the musicians, and our whole counter culture actually became part of the trickery, because they too had retreated into the make believe world, which is why their opposition has no effect and nothing ever changes.

But this retreat into a dream world allowed dark and destructive forces to fester and grow outside, forces that are now returning to pierce the fragile surface of our carefully contracted ‘fake world’.

HYPERNORMALISATION

The story beings in two cities at the same moment in 1975, one is New York the other is Damascus. It was a moment when two ideas, about how it might be possible to run the world without politics first took hold. In 1975 New York city was on the verge of collapse. For 30 years the politicians who ran the city had borrowed more and more money from the banks, to pay for its growing services and welfare, but in the early 70s the middle classes fled from the city, and the taxes they paid disappeared with them.

So the banks lent the city even more, but then they began to get worried about the growing size of the debt and whether the city would ever be able to pay it back. Then one day in 1975 the banks just stopped. The city held its regular meeting to issue bonds in return for the loans, overseen by the city’s financial controller:

Good morning ladies and gentlemen, today the City of New York is open for competitive bidding sale, 260 million tax, in tills and patient notes of which 100 million will mature on June 3rd 1975.”

The banks were supposed to turn up at 11am but it soon became clear that none of them were going to appear. The meeting was rescheduled for 2pm and the banks promised they would turn up.

The announcement on behalf of the controller, is that the offer which we had expected to receive and announce at 2 o’clock this afternoon, is now expected at 4 o’clock.

Does this mean that so far nobody wants those bonds?

We will be making a further announcement at 4 o’clock and I think that anything further that I could say now I think would not advance the interest of the sale which is now in progress.

Does this mean you have not been able to sell them so far today?

We will have a further announcement at 4 o’clock.”

What happened that day in New York marked a radical shift in power.

The banks insisted that in order to protect their loans, they should be allowed to control the city.

The city appealed to the president but he refused to help. So a new committee was set up to manage the city’s finances, out of 9 members, 8 of them were bankers.

It was the start of an extraordinary experiment where the financial institutions took power away from politicians and stated to the run society themselves. The city had no other option.

The banks enforced what was called austerity on the city, insisting that 1000s of policemen, teachers and firemen were sacked.

This was a new kind of politics, the old kind of politicians believed that crises were solved through negotiations and deals. The bankers had a completely different view, they were just the representatives of something that couldn’t be negotiated with, the logic of the market.

To them, there was no alternative to this system; IT should run society.

(Victor Gotbaum, Munical Workers Leader)

Just by shifting paper around these slobs can make 60-65 million dollars in a single transaction, that would take care of all the layoffs in the city. So it’s reckless, it’s cruel and it’s a disgrace.

There’d be a fair number of bankers who would say, well, it is the Unions who have been too greedy? What would you reaction be to this?

Er, I guess their right in a way, if you can make 60 million dollars in a single transaction and a worker makes 8-9,000 dollars a year, I suppose they’re correct and as they go back to their little estates in Greenwich, Connecticut, I wanna wish them well, the slobs!”

But the extraordinary things was, no one opposed the bankers.

The radicals and the left wingers, who ten years before had dreamt of changing America through revolution, did nothing. They had retreated and were living in the abandoned buildings in Manhattan.

The singer Pattie Smith later described the mood of disillusion that had come over them.

I could not identify with the political movements any longer, or the manic activity, in trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy.”

What she was describing was the rise of a new powerful individualism, that could not fit with the idea of collective political action.

Instead Pattie Smith and many others became a new kind of individual radical, who watched the decaying city, with a cool detachment, they didn’t try and change it, they just experienced it.

Look at that isn’t that cool? I love that like where, like kids write all over the walls, that’s needed in New York sometimes “Jose and Maria for ever” (laughs).”

Oh there’s a lot of things, like, when you pass by big movie houses, maybe we’ll find one, but they have little movie screens where you see like clips of like ‘Z’ or something, people watch it over and over, I’ve seen people, I checked them out, all day, I’ve gone back and forth, people watching the credits because they don’t have enough dough but its some form of entertainment, you know?”

Instead radicals across America turned to art and music as means of expressing their criticism of society.

They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside, the new radicalism should try and change what was inside people’s heads and the way to do this was through self expression, not collective action.

Martha Rosler 1975 Semiotics of the Kitchen

But some of the left saw that something else was really going on. That by detaching themselves and retreating into an ironic coolness, a whole generation were begging to lose touch with the reality of power.

One of them wrote at that time: “It was the mood of the era, and the revolution was deferred indefinitely and while we were dozing, the money crept in.”

Man crying, facing a corner at a police station, “What’s your date of birth Larry?

But one of the people who did understand how to use this new power, was Donald Trump

Trump realised that there was now no future in building housing for ordinary people because all the government grants had gone, but he saw that there were other ways in which to get vast amounts of money out of the state. Trump started buying up derelict buildings in New York, and he announced that he was going to transform them into luxury hotels and apartments but in return, he negotiated the biggest tax break in New York’s history, worth 160 million dollars. The city had to agree, because they were desperate and the banks, seeing a new opportunity also started to lend him money. And Donald Trump began to transform New York into a city for the rich, while he paid practically nothing.

Damascus 1975

At the very same time, in 1975, there was a confrontation between two powerful men, in Damascus, the capital of Syria, One was Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State. The other was the president of Syria Hafez al Assad. The battle between the two men would was going to have profound effects for the world and, like New York, it was going to be a struggle between the old idea of using politics to change the world, and a new idea that you could run the world as a stable system.

President Assad dominated Syria. The country was full of giant images and statues that glorified him. He was brutal and ruthless, killing or imprisoning anyone he suspected of being a threat, But Assad believed that the violence was for a purpose. He wanted to find a way of uniting the Arab countries and using that power to stand up to the West.

(Magical sounding countdown, juxtaposed with images of nuclear explosion.)

Kissinger was also tough and ruthless. He had started in the 1950s as an expert in The Theory of Nuclear Strategy, what was called “The Delicate Balance of Terror”. It was the system that ran the cold war. Both sides believed that if they attacked, the other side would immediately launch their missiles and everyone would be annihilated.

Kissinger had been one of the models for the character of Dr Strangelove

in Stanley Kubrick’s film.

(Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick 1964)

Peter Sellers: “Mr President, I would not rule out the chance to preserve a nucleus of human specimens, it would be quite easy (laughs) at the bottom of some of our deeper mine shaft.”

Nuclear Strategest, Thomas Schelling:

Henry was not a warm, friendly, modest jovial sort of person. He was thought of as one of the, more, er, anxious, temperamental, self conscious, ambitious, inconsiderate people at Harvard.”

Kissinger saw himself as a hard realist. He had no time for the emotional turmoil of political ideologies, he believed that history had always really been a struggle for power between groups and nations.

But what Kissinger took from the cold war was a way of seeing the world as an interconnected system. And his aim was to keep that system in balance and prevent it from falling into chaos.

Kissinger:

I believe that with all the dislocations we now experience, there also exists an extraordinary opportunity to form for the first time in history a truly global society carried out by the principle of interdependence, and if we act wisely and with vision, I think we can look back to all this turmoil as the birth pangs of a more creative and better system. If we miss this opportunity then I think there’s going to be chaos.”

And it was this idea that Kissinger set out to impose on the chaotic politics of the Middle East. But to manage it he knew that he was going to have to deal with President Assad of Syria. President Assad was convinced that there would only ever be a real and lasting peace between the Arabs and Israel, if the Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their homeland. 100S of thousands of Palestinians were living in exile in Syria, as well as in The Lebanon and Jordan.

Soraya El-Hayan, Syrian Social Affairs Ministry 1975 :

Have you found that Palestinian here want to integrate with the Syrians at all?”

No, never. They don’t wan’t, neither here nor in Lebanon nor in Jordan. Because they want to stay as a whole, as Palestinian. They call themselves “those who go back”, Al Idoun, we say in Arabic”

Asad also believed that such would strengthen the Arab world. But Kissinger thought that strengthening the Arabs would destabilise his balance of power.

So he set out to the do very opposite, to fracture the power of the Arab countries, by dividing them and breaking their alliances, so that they would keep each other in check. Kissinger now played a double game, or as he termed it ‘a constructive ambiguity’.

In a series of meetings he persuaded Egypt to sign a separate agreement with Israel. But at the same time he led Assad to believe that he was working for a wider peace agreement, one that would include the Palestinians. In reality the Palestinians were ignored. They were irrelevant to the structural balance of the global system .

Leslie Gelb, United States Department of Defence 1967-69:

The hallmark of Kissinger’s thinking on international politics, is its structural design. Everything is always connected in his mind to everything else. But his first thoughts are on that level, on this structural global balance of power level. And as he addresses questions of human dignity, human survival, human freedom, I think they tend to come to his mind as an adjunct of the play of nations’ at power game.

When Assad found out the truth it was too late. In a series of confrontations with Kissinger in Damascus Assad raged about this treachery. He told Kissinger that what he had done would release demons hidden under the surface of the Arab world.

Kissinger described their meetings, he wrote:

Assad’s controlled fury was all the more impressive for its eerily cold, seemingly unemotional demeanour.”

Assad now retreated, he started to build a giant palace that loomed over Damascus. And his belief that it would be possible to transform the Arab world, faded.

A British journalist who knew Assad wrote:

Assad’s optimism has gone. A trust in the future has gone.

What has emerged instead is a brutal, vengeful Assad who believes in nothing, except revenge.“

Inside the Soviet Empire

The original dream of the soviet union was but the people themselves would be transformed.

He believed he was an international revolutionary to challenge the power of the west. When he was a young office Gadaffi had been sent for training to England and he had detested the racism he had in the heart of British society.”

This is as far as I got.

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