A century of psychology and social control

Links updated 9/17/2016:  Click on this if the links don’t work.

Recently I came across this four-part BBC series on how the corporate and governmental elites use the ideas of Sigmund Freud to manipulate and control the public.  It is full of fascinating facts I never knew.

Freud taught that human beings are at the mercy of powerful desires and emotions arising out of the subconscious mind.  The theme of this series is how corporations and governments in the 20th century sought to bypass critical thinking and manipulate the public by tapping into these desires and emotions.

The first program in the series is above.  It describes the early career of Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays, founder of the profession of public relations.  Born in 1891, Bernays was brought to the United States as a boy, and he served during World War One in the Wilson administration disseminating war propaganda.

During the 1920s, Bernays pioneered the use of advertising based not on the objective merits of a product, but on the consumer’s desires and anxieties.  He broke the taboo against women smoking cigarettes in public, for example, by making cigarette smoking a symbol of women’s liberation.

Bernays believed that the average human being was too stupid to be an intelligent decision-maker in a democracy.  If American business could find out what people wanted on a deep level and provide it, then traditional democracy would be unnecessary, he thought; if people could express themselves through focus groups, traditional political participation would be unnecessary.

Producer Adam Curtis follows Bernays into the 1930s, when he advised the National Association of Manufacturers on its propaganda offensive against the New Deal, and helped organize the 1939 World’s Fair, a tribute to the ability of the free enterprise system to satisfy the public’s needs and wants.  He touches on now Nazi propagandist  Joseph Goebbels openly rejected rational argument, and appealed to deep emotions and instincts.  It would have been interesting to compare Nazi and Soviet propaganda, inasmuch as both ideologies rejected the ideas of Sigmund Freud, but you can’t get everything into a one-hour program.

The second program traces the career of Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna Freud, who made psychoanalysis a major force in American intellectual life.  World War Two showed the horrible atrocities that irrational human beings were capable of.  Anna Freud and her followers offered psychoanalysis offered a technique for bringing irrational human impulses under control, and helping people adjust to the rules of society.

Curtis shows how the U.S. military during World War Two provided psychiatric treatment for victims of “battle fatigue,” previously known as “shell shock” and now known as “post traumatic stress syndrome,” and the U.S. government has been involved in metal health ever since.  He also depicts electro-shock therapy, the CIA’s disastrous experiments with mind control and Edward Bernays’ role as a public relations consultant to the CIA in the 1950s.

The third program describes the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s, which Adam Curtis, the producer, interprets as a triumph of the ideas of Sigmund Freud’s opponent Wilhelm Reich.  He shows footage of Herbert Marcuse, Fritz Perls and Werner Erhard. Therapists in that era encouraged people to express and act out their inner feelings.  Instead of self-control, they advocated self-expression.  Curtis noted that it was left-wingers who promoted self-actualization and personal freedom as an ideal, but its political result, in his view, was the election of Ronald Reagan.

The fourth program describes the focus-group politics of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.  As Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor pointed out, if consumer choice is the highest ideal of democracy, then there is no role for a liberal Democratic Party or a socialist Labor Party.  Corporations can satisfy consumer choice more efficiently than governments ever can.

I like this series a lot, but I have reservations.  Adam Curtis traces one thread of 20th century intellectual and social history, but, as he might agree, there are others than might be traced – economics, for example, and the ideas of John Maynard Keynes vs. Friedrich Hayek.  He is a little too categorical in saying the political left historically has appealed to reason and the political right to emotion.  Through skillful editing of visual images, Curtis made his case on the emotional level and not just on the factual level.

But he is dead right about how focus groups are used as a bogus substitute for rational judgment or democratic decision-making.  During my last decade as a newspaper reporter, I saw newspaper editors and publishers trying to make decisions about news coverage based on focus groups.  But if the public is not offered good news coverage, how can they decide whether they want it?  And if a newspaper covers the news based on readership surveys rather than editors’ judgment as to what is important, why have news pages at all?  Why not just have advertising supplements?

[Note 11/28/2011]  I originally linked to the four separate episodes of the documentary.  They were taken down from YouTube, so I substituted a four-hour version.

[Note 3/13/2015]  The BBC has been systematically taking down the YouTube copies of The Century of the Self.  I found some new copies on Vimeo.  I don’t know how long they will last.

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