the century of the self

notes on The Century of the Self (2002), Adam Curtis's exploration on how Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind have been used by those in power to control people in an age of democracy.

I. happiness machines

Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays was the first person to take his ideas and use them to manipulate the masses. He did this by linking mass produced goods to unconscious desires. Satisfy passive desires and therefore make people more compliant. this is when public relations was created, replacing propaganda which had become a bad word ≈WW2.

1st experiment: make women smoke

  • amidst feminist movements, connect women to an image of challenging men.
  • If a women smokes, she is tougher and more independent
  • 📍 NY Easter Day Parade, rich women light cigarettes publicly.

Products started being sold as necessities and were durable. The emotional connection to a product or service shifted America from needs to desires. This was Bernays' plan.

First connections between products and media: Product placements in films & linking beauty products to models. Products were bought to express your inner-self to others. Bernays also persuaded actors to go to the White House → politics became part of daily public talk

1927: Consumption. Americans went from citizens to consumers.

  • ⤷ End Goal: Stock Market Boom, idea that ordinary people should buy shares introduced.

Bernays becomes Freud's agent and publishes his books, using his controversial ideas (sex, dreams, cocaine) to appeal to the public and create word of mouth. He made him famous (wild ideas), acceptable to the public (rational ideas) and profited.

The idea of immense forces (Freud's subconscious) hidden in plain sight terrified journalists. People no longer believed human beings could make rational decisions by themselves ∴ trust in Government/Democracy fell. Bernays proposed an elite to manage the "bewildered herd". They would govern by controlling the unconscious minds of the masses and The Engineering of Consent: stimulating people’s inner desires and sating them with consumer products.

1928: Hoover in power. He articulated that consumerism was the central motor of American life. He agreed people have transformed into constantly moving happiness machines, which became the key to economic progress (and also created a peaceful society).

Bernays discovered that by stimulating the irrational self of people, government could do what they wanted. He became one of the most prominent figures in the US.

Oct 29, 1929: While commemorating the 50th anniversary of the lightbulb, the US elite at the time (Hoover, Rockefeller, Bernays, prominent bankers…) saw the biggest stock market crash in history. People lost money and stopped buying goods they didn't need, Bernays' work collapsed

Freud retired. He wrote Civilization and its Discontents, where he argued that Civilization was created to control the animal forces inside human beings.

  • Individual freedom was impossible. Humans could not express themselves freely so they had to be in control ∴ they would always be unhappy.
  • Politicians sided with Freud, notably Hitler, who thought Democracy was a problem since it released selfish individualism without being able to control it.
    • He wanted to keep people’s desires central, but channeled in such a way as to bind the nation together. Goebbels cited Bernays as an inspiration

1933: Roosevelt elected. He wanted to revive the idea that Human Beings were rational and decided to involve the American Public into the decisions.

  • Creation of Opinion Pools: President Approval %, Agreement on laws...
  • As long as questions were straightforward, neutral toned and didn’t involve emotions, people could be trusted to know what they wanted. People could be rational, sensitive human beings who could take part in their country’s future.

1937: Roosevelt reelected. His New Deal stated it was the government's job to run industrial economies.

Bad news for business → Return of Edward Bernays. He attacked Roosevelt’s New Deal by creating an emotional connection between corporations and the public. He fabricated the idea that businesses, not politics, were the ones that created America’s Future.

Roosevelt's team quickly realized Bernays' strategy and launched ads exposing big corporation's plans. Since Roosevelt advocated that humans were rational, they wanted people to judge by themselves.

  • → This lead to the first cases of biased media, where some newspapers were more pro-government/pro-corporations news.

Bernays' response was to create the narrative that an Utopia would become reality if large stage capitalism was unleashed. He used the 1939 NYC World Fair and designed the entire fair to transmit the message "Democracy + Capitalism = ❤️"

  • He tricked people into thinking you couldn't have democracy without capitalism.
  • Painted the people’s desires as in charge of the future, not the people themselves.
  • Transformed the Public into passive consumers.

1938: Hitler annexes Vienna. Freud leaves to London and dies a couple months later.

II. the engineering of consent

the idea that by stimulating people’s inner desires and then sating them with consumer products, you can manage the irrational thoughts of the masses.

After WW2, 34% of all US soldiers evacuated were discharged because of mental problems. The army turned to psychoanalysis for help.

  • Breakdowns were not a direct result of combat. The stressed of combat resurfaced repressed childhood traumas that led to breakdowns.
  • ⤷ Proof of Freud's Theory

1946: Truman signs the National Mental Health Act.

  • Mental illness was declared a national problem and the idea that psychoanalysis could change people was born.
  • Psychoanalysis was applied to the masses. Even applied for non-war issues: Marriage counseling, family life…
  • This made Anna Freud the leader of the Psychoanalytic Movement.
    • She suggested soldiers be encouraged to adapt to a good social environment to strengthen the conscious part of the mind and allow it to control the unconscious.
    • This worked on several soldiers and some kid patients of her.
  • → What was first used to create ideal citizens, would now be used to create ideal consumers.

Psychoanalysts became very influential since top politicians wanted to be psychoanalyzed. Their ideas were soon translated into the advertisement industry. Ernest Dichter: showed value in focus group studies of products.

  • Easy-to-make cake was not selling well. He figured out that housewives loved the convenience but felt undervalued since it was too easy.
  • Solution: instructions were modified so that people would need to add an egg before mixing.
  • Sales of Betty Crocker Cakes went up significantly.

Bernays was once again one of the most powerful PR men in the US. He advised many big corporations, politicians and Eisenhower. After the United Fruits & Guatemala coup d'état in 1954, Bernays proved that by appealing to the public's inner fears, you could do more that just get them to buy products.

Is it wrong to give people what they want by bypassing their defenses?

PR started using celebrities (mostly represented by advertisements companies like Freud Corporations) as trojan horses to get advertisements into the editorial content of newspapers.

  • People changed from seeing themselves as part of political parties, to individuals that could command politicians in return for their taxes.
  • ⤷ Just as business taught them to do as consumers.

Anna Freud did not intend for her work to be taken this way, but accepted it. Meanwhile, the kids she treated started developing crises, alcoholism and anxiety attacks.

  • Marylin Monroe –who suffered despair and addiction to alcohol and drugs– started treatments based on Anna Freud’s ideas of environment. Despite all efforts, Monroe commits suicide. This lead to a wave of skeptisism about psychoanalysis.
  • Then, of the kids she treated went back to London for a session and committed suicied it Anna Freud's own house. This strong statement terminated the political power and influence of Freudian psychoanalysts. They now found themselves accused of having helped to create a repressive form of social control.

1953: USSR's first nuclear bomb. The US worried about reassuring population and hired Bernays to orchestrate an attack on Communism, shape US citizens’ fears and help politicians win the Cold War.

III. there is a policeman inside all our heads, he must be destroyed

Student Unions started to denounce consumerism & corporate America was a way of keeping the masses docile while the government is at war. New idea: If it isn’t possible to get rid of the policeman in one’s head by overthrowing the state, then one should remove the controls implanted by the state in one’s own mind.

There is a Policeman inside all our heads, he must be destroyed

Freud described an uncontrolled raging inferno of emotions. Reich complemented his ideas by stating that such range of emotion is a result of not allowing the original impulse to express itself.

  • 1950s: New therapy → express feelings openly (Reich)
  • Reich’s ideas were used to create a new self and ∴ a new society

1960s: Personal transformation movement, self-exploration was booming.

Corporate America starts to worry since behaviors become unpredictable. Marketing realized that the new expressive selves (hippies) were still consumers, but would only buy products that expressed their personality.

  • Political agenda: personal transformation → social transformation.
  • ⤷ Birth of individuality: People still wanted to be part of society, but also wanted to be different, "this product expresses me."

But individuality meant variety, and this didn't work in corporate America where the systems of mass production were only profitable if they made many numbers of the same object.

  • New ideology: only the individual matters, ∄ societal concern –It's not selfish to only care about fulfilling your life.

1970s: Corporations decide to profit by helping individuals express themselves. Researchers (mainly the Stanford Research Institute) discovered that people could be defined by different behavior patterns they chose to express themselves: self-expression was not infinite.

  • They invented the term "lifestyles" to categorize individualism and people by psychological drives and desires, not social classes.
  • Much more insightful than previously though: they could determine what politicians people would vote for.

Reagan runs for President campaigning on individualism and attacking 50 years of government interference in people’s lives.

  • It seemed inconceivable that young people, self-actualizing individuals (anti-corporations) and socially aware people would vote conservative, but Reagan's message of individual freedom appealed to them and his policies pooled well despite negative reaction from the media.

1981: Reagan elected. Demographics showed most of his voters were young people with no pattern of social classes, ages, sex or party.

From a limited range of mass produced goods that people would buy to multiple ranges of products that allow people to express their individuality, based on their lifestyles. A generation who once rebelled against conformity imposted by consumerism now embraced it: it helped them to be themselves.

The concern used to be that supply > demand. Since self-expression allowed for unlimited needs, it also meant unlimited demand, products and services.

  • Explosion of desire → Consumer boom that regenerated the US Economy

While the liberation of the self freed people from social constraints, it also made them increasingly dependent on businesses for their identity. Corporations realized it was in their interests to make people feel like unique individuals and offer them ways to express that individuality.

  • Triumph of the self: Everything is now viewed though the lens of personal satisfaction.
  • Just individual people making individual choices for their individual well being. There is no society.

IV. eight people sipping wine in kettering

New idea now dominates society: Satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority.

1992: Clinton elected.

  • He campaigned using extreme pooling and decided to base his policies on focus groups' results. His team designed every policy, word and image of his campaign to fit what people wanted. His main promise was to lower taxes (most popular in pools).
  • After winning the election, he realizes the US Deficit was way higher than previously thought ($300B) and decides to drop tax cuts promises.
  • People felt betrayed → Republicans promised tax cuts and won congress in the midterms.

This was a disaster for Clinton who decided to forget ideologies and turn politics into consumer business: instead of trying to move people, he saw what people wanted and moved himself into that arena.

  • Clinton used Freud’s ideas to categorize swing voters by personality traits and ways to make these voters feel safer in their current lifestyles.
  • He starts campaigning by dropping all traditional policies and focusing exclusively on swing voter-issues (phones in school buses, vCards).
  • Tiny details of people’s day-to-day lives (seatbelts, public smoking, TV ratings…) became key to winning power.
  • His team kept pooling all policies; "suburban voters pretty much created Clinton’s domestic policy."

1996: Clinton wins reelection. He ends the Welfare program, 60 years after Roosevelt's efforts.

  • A mark of the passing from Roosevelt's progressive political ideas (using leadership to persuade voters to think and behave as social beings, not self-interested individuals) to the arrival of lifestyle marketing in US politics.
  • The problem with basing policies on focus groups is that people are contradictory and irrational by nature: "better social services but lower taxes." Tony Blair (UK) failed to see this, Clinton adapted.

To deal with the ongoing inequality and decaying of social fabric, government needs to turn against the Freudian view of human beings and make people think beyond their self-interest. Businesses thrive on appealing to the unconscious side of people. Government needs to instead engage with the public in a rational discussions.

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