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Film review: The Century of the Self

Illuminating and infuriating. I had no idea I could blame so much on Freud. This four part BBC series tells the story of how American consumerism was created as well as the fear of communism and how the human potential movement was co-opted into focus groups that, later, rendered politicians, especially liberal politicians, impotent while creating a citizenry catered to by boutique politics.

The first culprit is Freud's nephew Edward Bernays who took his uncle's idea that human nature was controlled by unconscious urges and unless people's minds were properly managed, ordinary people were likely to be a danger to society. Bernays had Freud's books translated and marketed them into best sellers, then offered himself as a consultant. His ideas were adopted by ad men who changed advertising from simply touting the virtues of a product to creating stories to appeal to underlying emotions. The same concept was applied to politics and government leading to a strategic covert propaganda.

The Century of the Self
Documentqry film series by Adam Curtis for the BBC
The series can be watched online at several locations on the Web, including:

Part two covers the career of Freud's daughter Anna, who made it her life goal to spread her father's ideas about the danger of uncontrollable urges. This was the time of shock therapy and the espousing of homophobic pronouncements along with other words of wisdom by the psychiatric community. This misguided efforts to force people into becoming a perceived normal was merely a reflection of the cultural morality of the time, but of course they did not see it that way. They were supposed to be scientists and immune to so base a perspective as cultural bias. The suicide of their key subjects including Marilyn Monroe, fortunately put a stop to such overt manipulations.

Meanwhile Bernays taught the government how to defend the interests of United Fruit by creating a campaign that painted a democratically elected socialist politician in Central America as a dangerous communist because he had suggested nationalizing the land owned by United Fruit.

In part three we learn that Freud's opposition was psychoanalyst Wilheim Reich who felt that everyone's problems would be solved if they only had enough orgasms. Anna Freud, the reigning virgin queen of psychoanalysts, would have none of this and plotted to ruin his career; he ended up in jail. Nothing is mentioned of Reich's attempt to reconcile his Marxist leanings with psychology and his belief in women's economic independence and other socially progressive ideas.

When the Freudian perspective lost popular appeal we see the rise of the human potential movement adopting Reich's theories. The human potential movement was supposedly the logical outcome of the student uprisings of the left (or perhaps it was the Marxist thread within Reich's work). Since it was not possible to overthrow the state and free the people from the oppression of a police state, the strategy of turning within and freeing the individual from internal oppression became the deciding trend. All we needed were the ESTholes to discover that societal concerns were empty and meaningless and that all that mattered was the fulfillment of the self. (As an eye witness I warn the viewer that the trends depicted here were that of a small group of mostly middle class idealists suffering from the betrayal of a liberal arts education. And while these trends did enter the general conversation, the majority of the public was watching TV. The benefits of such "liberation" arrived through a trickle down effect perpetuated by the advertising strategies that ensued.)

The new non-conformism, the liberation of the self and the encouragement to recreate said self as anything was a bit of a bump in the road for marketing forces so used to presenting the appeal of mass production, but this was soon overcome by advertising geniuses studying the new psychology and offering seemingly more choices in the hip new vernacular. This new sense of individual freedom was thus completely co-opted by products catering to the creating of identity for the self, much like a Mr. Potato Head kit. In turn such distractions ensured that social obligations were replaced by the narcissism of consumerism.

The final episode follows the strategies of Thatcher and Reagan in creating a new politics by appealing to the wants of the individual and institutionalizing the denial of compassion for those less fortunate. Liberal politicians follow the lead of the advertising community and come to rely ever more heavily on focus groups in an attempt to appeal to the feelings of voters and their individual need for expression. This leaves them with clever slogans, but no actual political platform with which to lead. Thus voters, having become a slave to their own desires, elect politicians without vision in an effort to have their personal needs met. The series concludes that we have forgotten how to think in terms larger than own own tiny desires so as a result have diminished the human potential to be something greater than ourselves.

So in case you were wondering why the population cannot seem to get it together to move forward on solving real problems like climate change, peak oil and unregulated corporate criminal activity, this might be a clue.

I watched these episodes twice. Apart from the revelation of Bernays' influence on propaganda and the tyranny of psychotherapy on American culture, in the end, I was unsatisfied by the blame for the unraveling of democracy being laid at the feet of this psychological journey into consumerism. It still comes down to the power of corporations, who are essentially the engines of empire, needing to increase market share and using whatever tools available to manipulate the people into allowing them to do their looting unwatched, whether it be through religion, bread and circuses or mind control. The series implies that Freud and Bernays invented consumerism by focusing on the self, but that was just the means. This is perhaps just another way to blame the public for being duped by the immoral activities of wealth and power.


As for human responsibility, the book The Tipping Point asserts that a handful of trendsetters direct culture, but it should also be noted that a great deal of effort and expense on the part of power is put into suppressing ideas, i.e. the American socialist movement of the 30s. And a lot of ideas simply go out of print. I'm not sure I go along with the rock bottom idea either, because of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I still think humans are capable of being inspired and I question the current trend, as in this BBC series, to attempt to generate outrage by showing how we are duped. Instead the series could have redirected us towards uncovering ideas that once inspired us to be greater than ourselves but then that might have become the story of how these ideas are suppressed.

Editorial Notes: Originally appeared at Amanda's Flickr blog.

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