Taking the long view, and trying to perceive how a particular set of phenomena impact society over an arc of time, seems to be a dying art in political analysis just about anywhere on the political spectrum these days. That’s why a documentary series released two years ago by the BBC called The Century of the Self deserves a much wider audience here than it seems to be getting, showing at little rep cinemas like San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, where I saw it recently.
It is a four-part series tracing the progress of Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human psyche, as they were first used by his nephew Edward Bernays to form the basis of the public relations industry, then later applied by American corporations to create lifestyle-based marketing, and most recently, by political strategists to create focus group-based campaign strategy in the U.S. and Britain. If this sounds dry or tedious, or anything less than absolutely central to an understanding of where we are as a society today, it isn’t. On the contrary, series producer Adam Curtis turns the social applications of Freudian (and anti-Freudian) psychology into the political story of our times, giving the bloody, chaotic and often contradictory 20th century an unexpectedly coherent through-line. It becomes clear that the ideological battle that most profoundly shaped American society over the last hundred years was not primarily left-right, or capitalist-socialist, but between two fundamentally different conceptions of human nature, one stressing collective identity and rationalism, the other, individualism and the dominance of a personal, irrational subconscious.
Perhaps the problem we still find ourselves in today is that only one side, the irrationalists, ever realized that they were at war, and so the field was basically left open for them to conquer. Added to this, as will be shown, is the extremely useful role that the manipulation of subconscious desires has played in making corporate capitalism profitable and supremely powerful.
the ultimate pessimist, believed that human nature consisted of a thin
veneer of “civilization” wallpapering a subconscious swamp of enormously
powerful and destructive forces of desire and aggression. What was called
civilization was at best a necessary evil, a superstructure of repression
and control to keep these forces from running amok. But Freud seems to have
had little interest in the social applications of his ideas. It was Edward
Bernays, born in
The fact that Bernays, the inventor of public relations, was fearful of democracy, and believed that the only way to endure it was to ensure that an elite could effectively manipulate public opinion to maintain order, is not unknown to many on the political left in America and Britain. It was Bernays who coined the phrase “engineering consent,” and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have written of his work and his influence. The fact that the irrationalist view of human nature was synonymous with an anti-democratic view becomes one of the central points of this documentary. The first segment chronicles Bernays’ rise to power and influence through three presidential administrations, until the economic collapse of the 1930s temporarily eclipses his star.
1930s form an interesting test case for the predominance of Freud’s ideas in
social engineering. The PR industry, developed to sell patriotism and
increase consumption (in fact, to link the two at a subconscious level)
stumbles, when the material reality most people face can no longer be
reconciled with the fantasy it is trying to project. And Franklin Roosevelt,
attempting to save capitalism from itself, appeals precisely to rationalism
and collective identity, that is, solidarity, in order to promote a welfare
system that will offset the worst excesses of capitalism. Meanwhile, in
The Century of the Self explains, the Bernaysian irrationalists come
back with a vengeance as soon as the economy begins to rebound. Bernays’
production of the 1939 World’s Fair is presented as a major event. It is a
“total environment,” a fantasy city of the future, for the first time
explicitly linking personal happiness solely with the products of big
business. The next stage, the post-war period, is also critical. Bernays
makes money selling Cold War paranoia, to particular effect for his client
United Fruit Company, in the case of the
later years of the century prove even more interesting for the march of
human potential movement at first panics corporate
final chapter of The Century of the Self shows the morphing and
melding of the corporate and political realms, as conservatives like Reagan
and Thatcher win election based not on traditional party loyalties but on
pandering to (or successfully articulating, if you like) the primacy of the
individual, and the subconsciously reinforced idea that society is really
irrelevant, the individual alone is supreme. Thus government has no role in
social welfare, but should exist only to further individual initiative,
which is exemplified (surprise) by private business. The fact that this
creates an incoherent politics, particularly when the former opposition
parties in the
The lessons of this remarkable series are many. We are still seeing, in America at least, the triumph of the shill, of PR fantasy-production over reality, as people march to the polls and resoundingly vote against their own economic and social interests repeatedly, in exchange for chimera issues like Rovian “morality,” and as patriotism and consumption (“America: Back to Business”), consumption and freedom, are relentlessly equated in the public mind. The answer for those who seek true democracy is not, as The Century of the Self makes clear, to adopt the same tactics as the irrationalists. This is fated to fail, since those tactics were specifically designed to undermine democratic process, not to strengthen it. But mere appeals to rationality, without any ability to deconstruct the totalizing framework of the fantasy world, have also failed and will continue to fail. However it happens, it is clear that only a direct and sustained clash of lived experience with the ever-more frenetic and insane billboard-reality of the PR machine will alter mass consciousness. And once that clash happens, it is only reconstruction of a collective identity based on altruism, respect and solidarity that will sustain humanity until rationalism can fulfill its promise.
In the meantime, The Century of the Self, sans great production values, but with the power of coherence and historical perspective, provides an important weapon in the arsenal of understanding. See it if you can.
Christy Rodgers is the editor and publisher of the What If? A Journal of Radical Possibilities, a little magazine with big ideas. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
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