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(DV) Rodgers: Triumph of the Shill







Triumph of the Shill
Seeing The Century of the Self

by Christy Rodgers
March 29, 2005

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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.

Freud, 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 Vienna but brought up in the U.S., who first began to think about how they could be applied on a mass scale, to profitable ends. In 1919, as a propagandist for the U.S. government, Bernays’ first major gig was to promote Woodrow Wilson as savior to an exhausted, war-weary Europe. His appeal to the emotions was a consummate success, in those societies where rationalist ideals had collapsed in the pointless bloodletting of the First World War.

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.

The 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 Germany, the fascists use psychological manipulation on a mass scale to attempt to develop a power greater than capital’s, with of course, disastrous results.

But, as 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 U.S. overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala. At the same time, Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, peddles social conformity as the key to personal happiness. The spectacular failures of Anna Freud’s brand of psychoanalysis on specific individuals, most notably Marilyn Monroe, make a fascinating sidelight. After Monroe’s suicide, Arthur Miller provides an eloquent commentary on the foolhardiness of trying to erase psychological suffering from human life, instead of using it to deepen one’s understanding. But with big business correctly identifying the advantageousness of this basic idea set to its bottom line, the influence of the irrational rises spectacularly. The fifties also see the birth of focus groups, where for the first time, people do not merely respond to yes-no, good-bad questionnaires about products, but are encouraged to express their unconscious feelings towards the things they might buy, carefully observed by psychologists working for the ad agencies. This decade too produces some of the most terrifying experiments with the atomistic reduction of the human personality: the CIA-sponsored attempts to wipe experimental subjects’ minds clean with massive electro-shock and drug therapy, and then “rebuild” those minds according to their own designs. They, like Anna Freud and the Nazis, fail utterly, establishing, at least for the time being, that there are indeed limits to totalitarian possibilities for reshaping the human psyche.

But the later years of the century prove even more interesting for the march of irrationality in America. The Century of the Self chronicles the internecine war between Freudians and anti-Freudians, exemplified by Wilhelm Reich. His sex-positive approach is so threatening to the psychoanalytic establishment, that Anna Freud maneuvers relentlessly to have him thrown out. No longer is the primary importance of the subconscious debated; the fundamental question becomes, are subconscious desires destructive or liberating? The idea that they are beneficial and liberating, propounded by radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse, gibes well with the emergence of a youth movement battling the restrictions of social conformity. Here this remarkable story twists and turns with all the complexity of a complex decade. What finally happens: in the 1960s, anti-establishment political movements fail in their attempt to confront state power directly, and many people adopt the idea that only individual inner change will create lasting social change. Some of the more dramatic exercises (and excesses) of the ensuing human potential movement are described in this segment, from Esalen to EST. Perhaps the most interesting sidelight is yet another failure -- the attempt to address racism through black-white encounter groups at Esalen. This fails, as one of the organizers describes, precisely because the idea of viewing everyone as “just individuals,” supposedly without social constructs like race getting in the way, attacks the pre-ordinate sense of collective identity in the black radicals who participate. Once again, it is collective identity that poses the greatest challenge to the triumph of irrationalist individualism.

The human potential movement at first panics corporate America, because it is assumed that these new self-actualized individuals, as they are being called, will be anti-consumerist. However, once again with the help of PR men like Daniel Yankelovich, and academics and psychoanalytic professionals, chiefly at the Stanford Research Institute this time, big business discovers that this is far from the truth. Rather, such individuals mostly want to consume, but they want products that are tailored to their individualism, that help them make “statements” about themselves. So-called “values-and-lifestyles” marketing is born. The liberating potential of the subconscious, still championed today by sex-positive activists, comes to seem quaint compared to the power of marketing, when any sort of transgressive behavior can become a profitable niche market with minimal investment.

The 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 U.S. and Britain adopt fundamentally the same line and! strategy, is secondary to the fact that the message is perfectly coherent at the level of subconscious desires. You win by telling the individuated, consumerist public exactly what it want to hear, and you find out exactly what it wants to hear by focus-grouping it every step of the way. 

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:

Other Articles by Christy Rodgers

* The Republic of Gilead vs. The Prosperity Church
* Mourning Becomes Me, Y'all