The Century of the Self
TV series in 4 parts written and directed by Adam Curtis (BBC TV, March-April 2002)

Self 1
Self 2
Self 3
Self 4

Click here to watch the entire series on YouTube
It’s all essential viewing if you want to reclaim your brain.

Since I can find no authoritative single text on the incredibly important topics covered by this TV series, I have taken the liberty of posting four reviews from the UK press on this single page.


Top of document1. Primal therapy — Crackpot touchy-feely manipulation have replaced reason and ideas in modern politics
by Nick Cohen in The Observer, Sunday 2002-03-02
originally posted at http://media.guardian.co.uk/overnights/story/0,7965,669578,00.html

During their stay at the Maroma Hotel, a pricey retreat on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Cherie Booth/Blair took her husband by the hand and led him along the beach to a ‘Temazcal’, a steam bath enclosed in a brick pyramid. It was dusk and they had stripped down to their swimming costumes. Inside, they met Nancy Aguilar, a new-age therapist. She told them that the pyramid was a womb in which they would be reborn. The Blairs became one with ‘Mother Earth’. They saw the shapes of phantom animals in the steam and experienced ‘inner-feelings and visions’. As they smeared each other with melon, papaya and mud from the jungle, they confronted their fears and screamed. The joyous agonies of ‘rebirth’ were upon them. The ceremony over, the Prime Minister and First Lady waded into the sea and cleaned themselves up as best they could.

When the unnerving story broke, those who could rid their minds of the image of vacuous self-indulgence might have wondered how an authoritarian right-winger could be comfortable with therapies which are meant to be liberating.

I can’t trace the origins of all Aguilar’s quackeries, but am reasonably certain that the screaming Blairs were unwittingly following the prescriptions of one Arthur Janov. He invented ‘primal therapy’ in 1970, the moment when many baby boomers decided the personal was political. If enough people changed themselves, the reasoning went, the world would change with them and there would be no need to fight the riot squad. Janov told his patients to destroy their fears with primal screams ‘so that you can be free in the present and free to build your future’. Psychic rebirth came from Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud’s treacherous disciple. It was the unique selling point of the Esalen Institute in California in the 1960s. You were reborn when you released yourself from the grief and rage that society has created by distorting the true, independent you. There were dozens of competing varieties created at the time. The most popular was Werner Erhard’s ‘est’ courses, on which you were freed ‘to be whatever you want to be’ by instructors who beat you up.

Reichians blamed society for repressing good emotions. Freudians said that a civilised élite was needed to control the dark and irrational masses. But the similarities between the rivals were more striking. The treatments both offered were pseudo-science as medicine but a great help to government and business, as Adam Curtis shows in The Century of the Self , a resounding justification for the licence fee, which continues on BBC2 tonight.

The branding of products is not as modern as the business schools pretend. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, used psychoanalytic techniques to show cor porations how they could keep the plebs happy by associating their goods with unconscious desires. In 1928 he wrote in his honestly titled Propaganda, that ‘those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country’. Bernays advised presidents to become objects of desire by being seen with film stars. He orchestrated the PR for the American overthrow of Guatemala’s elected government in 1954 - the start of a war that produced tens of thousands of corpses.

The young who rejected the protestant work-ethic in the 1960s threatened Bernays’s controlled, consumer society. Life insurance companies, for example, found that graduates who were reinventing themselves to get the most out of the present had little interest in buying cover for the future. If, however, companies could ‘conform to the new non-conformity’ there were corporate therapists who could persuade rebels that consuming allowed them to be whatever they wanted to be. Music and clothes could be presented as an expression of individuality easily enough. So could a life insurance plan if you had the right spin.

Curtis has found a jaundiced 1960s revolutionary, Stew Albert, who watched his contemporaries settle for ‘socialism in one person’. The idea that ‘you can buy anything’, he said, ‘replaced the notion that you were perfectly free to create anything or that you were perfectly free to change the world’.

In the 1970s Christine McNulty of the Stanford Research Institute looked at how the new consumers would vote. Stanford divided people by their attitudes and ‘lifestyles’ rather than their class. Regardless of their backgrounds, those who believed they were free from the chains of society were far more likely to vote for Thatcher and Reagan than any other group. Her colleagues thought she was mad. These were socially aware and socially concerned people who may well have marched against the Vietnam war. But the appeal of ‘choice’, and getting ‘government off the backs of the people’ was far greater than nostalgia for a vanishing youth. They had been taught that selfishness was the way to liberate the abused self. The surprise, in retrospect, was that anyone was surprised by their conservatism.

The pattern established by Bernays repeated itself. Focus groups created by psychoanalysts for business took over politics. I don’t want to pretend that Thatcher and Reagan were innocent in this debasement of public life, their aides knew all the modern tricks. But the use of psychiatry to persuade the public that politicians were servants who gave them what they wanted was taken to its extreme by Blair and his mentor Bill Clinton.

When he was running for re-election in 1996, Clinton was happy to do what no Republican president had dared do and slash welfare. He then ordered a ‘neuro-poll’ of suburban voters to ensure he had their approval. They weren’t asked about their irrelevant political views. Clinton wanted to know their inner feelings: whether they were spontaneous or organised; what they would do on a romantic weekend.

He offered the electorate micro-policies to calm their barely expressed fears. Vaguely worried parents, to quote the most notorious example, were promised ‘V-chips’ in televisions to stop children watching porn, rather than proper funding for state education. Robert Reich, Clinton’s Labour Secretary, asked: ‘What’s the point in getting elected when you have no mandate to do anything?’ To which Dick Morris, Clinton’s pollster, replied: ‘Politics needs to be as responsive to the needs and whims of the marketplace as business is, and needs to be as sensitive to the bottom line.’ (Morris knew about the market-place. He resigned from Clinton’s staff after being caught sucking the toes of a $200-an-hour Washington whore.)

Derek Draper, Peter Mandelson’s former aide, confirmed that New Labour was as bad. He saw its leaders lost in therapy as they followed the free-associations and subliminal identifications of focus groups. Blair would ‘pore over’ the reports. ‘A bunch of eight people drinking wine determined pretty much everything Labour did.’

It sounds pitiful, but Philip Gould, Blair’s focus-group organiser, has convinced himself that therapeutic marketing has produced a nobler system of government. The arrogance of politicians who knew what was best has gone, he maintained. Voters were ‘consumers’; their focus groups ‘created a new form of politics’. The fight against this sinister folly is the best reason for democrats to get out of bed in the morning.

In politics, psychoanalytic techniques are no more than manipulative attempts to divert public attention while business carries on as usual. Blair made a - Freudian? - slip when he blurted out that his ‘tough’ stance on crime was a ‘load of nonsense’. Gould describes in his autobiography how he exploded when the market researchers he usually reveres told him the public would accept higher taxes. Curtis’s film has bitter moments as former friends look back on the time they wasted supporting new ways of defending the powerful. A contemptuous Draper says that focus-group politics ‘suits big business, suits entrenched interests and suits the status quo’. If business is better at pandering to primitive yearnings than government, asked Reich, why shouldn’t it replace government - a question he may regret raising.

In British constituencies and American states where the winner takes all, the only people who are worth probing are swing voters in marginal seats. This is scarcely popular sovereignty, but the best answer to Gould’s hijacking of democracy is the one that should hurt him most. Purists insist democracy is based on the assumption that some voters are rational for some of the time. As the turnout at the last election showed, millions broadly agree. Bored and disgusted with the politicians who say they only wish to pander to their emotions, they, rationally, walked away.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002


Top of document2. Slaves of Our Desires. Our Habits and Opinions Have Been So Cleverly Manipulated by PR People That We Have Forgotten How To Think
by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, 2002-03-25
originally posted at http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0325-03.htm

A friend was trying to give up cigarettes recently after more than 20 years of smoking. “It’s not the nicotine,” she said. “It’s the feeling I get of, ‘just fuck the lot of them.’” A spare few minutes with a fag was the precious time she had for herself, free of the demands of children, work and boyfriend, she explained.

One man, now dead, would have chuckled with delight at such sentiments. Eighty-plus years ago, this marketing genius cracked how to overcome women’s objections to smoking - by associating tobacco with liberation. It’s a simple idea that has sustained decades of cigarette advertising to women, and penetrated deep into the psychology of millions of female smokers. The man was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his extraordinary career spans almost the entire 20th century. He advised US corporations and presidents on how they could use the insights of his uncle. In the process, he founded an entire industry - public relations - and pioneered methods such as focus groups.

This is more than just an intriguing piece of history. Bernays’ career and those of his successors open wide debates that are usually conducted entirely in terms of the present. Take the current debate about corporate power. Think it’s new? Think again - the 1920s uncannily echo many of the themes, such as overweening corporate power and the decline of the state. Or take political apathy, and find its roots lie in the counter-cultural movements of the left in the late 60s, when people gave up on politics and turned inward to discover themselves.

It is this historical context to present-day preoccupations that makes the current television series, The Century of the Self, so compelling. Even more than that, it is profoundly disturbing as it traces consumer capitalism’s remarkable use of psychoanalytical thinking to promote a concept of the self, an understanding of human nature, that it could manipulate - namely, that we are nothing more than a bundle of irrational emotional responses and desires, often contradictory and infantile.

Clever market research enabled corporations to understand and respond to those emotions and desires, and politics was left on the back foot with its language of solidarity and responsibility. Put simply, what Thatcher and Reagan realized was that they had to retreat in the face of this alliance between consumer and corporate boardroom; what Clinton Democrats tried, and New Labour is trying, to do is copy it. By the end of the series, one is left asking: “Just what kind of democracy do we have?”

Bernays was quite clear on this point - he took Uncle Siggy’s line that democracy was impossible because people were irrational and ignorant. The best hope of social order was to have an “intelligent few” who were capable of “regimenting the public mind”. Needless to say, Bernays believed that public relations was one of the most important means by which the elite could manipulate the habits and opinions of the masses, and even the “terms of public discourse”. As one commentator put it, Bernays developed a “strategy of social engineering”, and though we may not like the PR men and the spin, we fall for it. It is proving more powerful and more enduring than any social engineering attempted by the state, or why do women still turn to smoking for liberation, even when they know it will probably kill them?

As if all that wasn’t depressing enough, it gets worse. The 60s and 70s show how consumer capitalism adjusted to - and ultimately co-opted - the counter-cultural leftwing rejection of Bernays’s and Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature. It is the very versatility of capitalism that finds it triumphing over every challenge to it. Gramsci summed it up as capitalism’s capacity to project itself as the natural order of things.

It all started with a simple problem: big insurance companies in the US in the late 60s got worried that a new generation weren’t buying as much life insurance and they hired marketing experts to tell them why. The answer was that anti-materialistic, freedom-loving hippies didn’t want to buy consumer goods; they wanted to find their true selves. They had resurrected the theories of Freud’s contemporary, Wilhelm Reich, that individuals were inherently good and of infinite potential; it was society’s rules and conventions that held back the individual. So they gave up on achieving political change and decided to transform themselves instead.

To hook them back on to buying, marketeers came up with “lifestyle” marketing for the “inner-directeds”, selling products that would express their sense of self - hedonistic, freedom-loving and individualistic. Reagan pulled off a political coup by winning them over with promises of “letting the people loose”, while Thatcher declared she would “roll back the frontiers of the state”. It was the politics of the consumer king, and the state was in headlong retreat.

In their bid to win back power, the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the UK turned to the marketing men. As the Clinton strategist Dick Morris claimed in an interview, he simply applied to politics the same consumer philosophy that business used - to be responsive to the whims and desires of the consumer. In came the focus groups where those whims could be ascertained. Philip Gould, the New Labour strategist, imported the ideas from the US, celebrating it as “continuous democracy”.

But Adam Curtis, writer and producer of The Century of the Self, argues that it is no such thing. By attempting to emulate business’s emotional connection with the consumer, New Labour bankrupts itself. It has abandoned Roosevelt’s understanding of political leadership as persuading voters of social responsibility. What we have instead is a politics “pandering to the unthought, unconscious desires of the voters”, as Robert Reich, US labour secretary under Clinton, puts it. Or, as Derek Draper, a former New Labour apparatchik, sums it up, business exerts all the power in such a model because the eight people in the focus group in Kettering sipping wine aren’t any kind of counterbalance. Furthermore, the whims of Kettering voters are contradictory - better public services and lower taxes - and erratic: they didn’t care about railways in the first term, but complain bitterly about them in the second.

The argument that weaves through the series is that our concept of human nature has been politically and economically constructed - and for the benefit of whom? Business. “We have become slaves of our own desires, and we have forgotten we can become more than that,” concludes Curtis. That raises the question, what more can we be? Here’s the starting point for his next series, and it would be no easy task because, thanks to Bernays and his successors, the “regimenting of the public mind” has succeeded in obliterating or subverting all alternatives.

Our failure now is one of imagination and faith in the “more” we could become, and how that could form the basis for political renaissance and personal maturity as reasoning, reflective and responsible beings, not simply the erratic emotional creatures of Freud’s imagination.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002


Top of document3. Full of their selves. Andrew Billen finds new reasons to distrust shrinks, pundits and PR men
by Andrew Billen in The New Statesman, 2002-03-25
originally posted as http://www.newstatesman.co.uk/site.php3?newTemplate=NSArticle_NS&newTop=Section%3A+Front+Page&newDisplayURN=200203250040

If Eddie Bernays had never existed, he would have been too incredible to invent. This was the swanky back-room boy who named public relations, advised US presidents including Coolidge and Eisenhower, dreamt up product placement and celebrity endorsement, persuaded women it was cool rather than sluttish to smoke (“torches of freedom” was how he sold cigarettes, cashing in on suffragette chic), overthrew the elected government of Guatemala and, more generally, shifted democracy from being about the participation of the active citizen to being about the spending power of the passive consumer. If Adam Curtis, whose riveting four-part series The Century of the Self began on Sunday 17 March (8pm, BBC2) with the Bernays story, had said that the man also invented Bearnaise sauce, I would not have been surprised, although it would have been harder to pinpoint its capacity for mischief.

Bernays, who lived to the disgustingly old age of 103, was worth a documentary anyway, but he also happened to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Every one of his ideas was a by-product of his uncle’s vision that man, far from being in charge of his faculties, is controlled by darkly primitive forces, libidinous and savage desires that lead to war. As a corporate PR man, Eddie had a more positive spin on the general theory.

Yes, the unconscious could lead man to war, but it could also lead him to the department store. And if his motives were invisible to himself, they need not be to his masters, who could manipulate them, whipping them, for instance, into fits of hatred against the Other or into a lust for possessions they did not need. By association, Freud is therefore to blame for consumerism, the Wall Street Crash, Nazism, the cold war, Reagan, Thatcher and Matthew Freud.

TV rarely attempts histories of ideas, because ideas ain’t visual. They work best in books, where you can reread them, and reasonably well on radio, where you are not distracted by imagery. But in The Century of the Self, the archival material is so remarkable, apposite and frequently funny that not once was I distracted from the argument. This series is one long illustrated essay, but the illustrations are half the fun. In any case, Curtis is greatly abetted by his cast of characters.

In the background grumbles Sigmund Freud, shocked by the First World War and convinced that, although civilisation might protect mankind from his primeval urges, this protection ensured that he was permanently discontented. In the US, there thrives Bernays, who, having got Sigmund out of a financial difficulty by finding him a US publisher, throws parties for the powerful in his corner suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, a shameless shaman. Interviewed in 1991, Bernays worked his way through a platter of food and giggled at his past triumphs. His daughter, Ann, said he made other people feel stupid. Not a nice man. On Sunday 24 March, the story continues through Freud’s daughter, Anna, a virgin who appointed herself an expert on child-rearing and decided that, the more people conformed to society, the stronger and better the ego would become at suppressing the id. That two of her original charges later had breakdowns, and one committed suicide in the Freud family house were inconvenient contra-indications that the cult kept to itself.

However, the programmes do not simply record the dubious uses to which Freud’s theories were put, but suggest that his theories, like all psychological theories, were dubious in the first instance. In fact, as the third instalment shows, Freud was sweet reason itself next to his successors: Wilhelm Reich, high priest of the orgasm; Werner Erhard, founder of est (Erhard Seminar Training); and the meddlers at the Esalen Institute whose contribution to racial harmony was to get black men and white men to shout at each other in encounter groups. These gurus considered our unconscious urges the best things about us, and their ideas gained a terrible currency. In an interview, Liza Minnelli once told me that we are not better than our feelings: “We are our feelings, Andrew.” I begged to differ, and this programme gives me ammunition.

Yet just as the psychotherapists oversold their insights, so Curtis surely now overemphasises their influence. When, in the third programme, he says that self-expression led to “an isolated, vulnerable and ultimately greedy self, far more open to manipulation by both business and politicians than anything that had gone before”, he makes the mistake of all critics of advertising who fail to mention that most new products fail. If there is now more choice, appealing even to consumers with a keen sense of their own individuality, is that not a happier outcome than being able to buy any colour Model T so long as it’s black? And why should Curtis, so suspicious of the idea that we are at the mercy of primeval desires, believe we are dumbly susceptible to those who claim to be able to control them?

But there is hardly a moment to protest, so elegantly and speedily does he present his argument. Applied tenaciously enough, Freud’s template does fit the human condition. Curtis, equally ruthlessly, makes the 20th century fit his. At the very least, it provides an alternative history of our time - and new reasons to distrust shrinks, pundits and PR men.

Especially if they are called Freud.

© New Statesman


Top of document4. Television: No use making plans for Nigel (extract)
by Andrew Anthony in The Observer, 2002-03-24

In Adam Curtis’s new documentary series the self is laid bare as never before. And it’s enough to make you pause for thought. Like Dr Johnson’s dull friend, television often seems to have only one idea, and that one is usually wrong. So it’s not easy to prepare yourself for a programme like The Century of the Self, which is packed full of ideas, even if not all of them are right.

Bringing together politics, big business, psychiatry and public relations, this four-part series sets out to tell the Freudian history of the twentieth century. Which is to say, it not only seeks to reveal the unconscious forces that shaped major events and developments, but it also attempts to explain how the Freud family themselves helped channel these forces. That’s a tall order, not least for the viewer, but Curtis, the writer and director, has shown in the past that he is adept at telling a complex story through the lives of a few individuals. His Mayfair Set, which examined casino capitalists such as Jimmy Goldsmith, is probably the best history of free-market asset-stripping ever made.

The first instalment of the new series looked at how Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, took his uncle’s theory of hidden desires and applied it to consumer capitalism. He realised that if you wanted to make people behave irrationally (ie to buy goods they didn’t know that they wanted) it was more effective to link products to their sublimated emotions.

Bernays invented the term ‘public relations’, and appears to have been the ultimate behind-the-scenes string-puller. He turned presidents into products and products into feelings. It was he who broke the taboo on women smoking by disseminating the notion that cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’.

Curtis intercut interviews with disciples of Bernays, footage of the man himself as a spry centenarian, and newsreel of vast mid-century crowds to fascinating, if slightly confusing effect. In pushing the idea that Bernays was an architect of mass control - someone whom Goebbels admired - the film did not properly address the tension between the self as an individually experienced concept and the self as a tool of mass manipulation. As a result it seemed to suggest that the difference between consumer and totalitarian societies was at best superficial, and quite possibly illusory. That said, the first part of The Century of the Self was never less than thought-provoking and if the remaining three match that we are in for a rare treat.

The late-twentieth century icon of the self was Princess Diana, who could emote for Britain, and often did. She appointed herself Queen of Hearts during the historic interview she gave to Martin Bashir. Overnight Bashir became the most envied, and so most loathed, journalist in TV. Suddenly more famous than potential interviewees, he turned himself into a big-story specialist, dealing exclusively in exclusives. Nowadays Bashir-watchers are forced to maintain a constant, mostly unrewarded vigil. His appearances, like that of some exotic bird, are few and far between and often unpredictable. But on Monday night, at last, he landed back on our screens in an unscheduled ‘special’ Tonight programme. With him was Joanne Lees, the woman who last year was abducted in the outback of Australia by a stranger who apparently killed her boyfriend. The reason she had allowed herself to be Bashired was because whispers persist about the validity of her escape story.

In a sense, this was another trial by television, though much less aggressive than the one Bashir conducted with the Stephen Lawrence suspects. As such it was a disappointing affair. It became clear that Lees’s account was almost certainly true but that her emoting was transparently false. In short, she didn’t know how to cry for the camera. One felt sorry for the poor woman. She thought that having given her statement to the police her trauma was a private matter. She hadn’t realised that her, and every other, self had long been subsumed by public relations.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002


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