The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis

Update 9/16/2016.  Sorry if the older links don’t work.  Try thisOr thisOr this.

Some years ago I posted videos of “The Century of the Self,” the great four-part documentary by Adam Curtis about “how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

The videos were taken down from the Internet, but Jason Kottke found new iterations and linked to them on  Here they are.  If you haven’t seen them before, I highly recommend watching them.  Each one is a little less than an hour long.

Part One, Happiness Machines, is about how Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, created the profession of public relations in the 1920s and taught American advertisers how to link products with consumers’ unconscious desires, and how these ideas influenced politics in the 1930s.

Part Two, The Engineering of Consent, is about how Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, taught Americans in the 1940s and 1950s to use psychiatry to control their irrational and dangerous desires, and how Edward Bernays worked with corporations, the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency to control public opinion and wage the Cold War.

Part Three, There Is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads He Must Be Destroyed, is about how Americans in the 1960s and after came to accept the principles of Freud’s enemy Wilhelm Reich that humans should be free to express their unconscious desires, free of the constraints of a repressive society, and how the ideal of self-actualization led to the triumph of Reagan and Thatcher.

Part Four, Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering, is about how Bernays’ ideas affected politics in the UK and USA in the 1990s, and how treating voters as consumers rather than citizens proved a trap for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

LINKS [added 4/3/2015]

BBC Blogs – Adam Curtis.

Adam Curtis: cult film-maker with an eye for the unsettling by Andrew Anthony for The Guardian.


Kottke also linked to a good review summary of the series by Dan Haggard for Reviews in Depth.  Here is the key part of Haggard’s review.

The central figure in this story is Edward Bernays – the father of public relations.  He was influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud.  He took Freud’s key thesis that individuals were driven by unconscious irrational forces and used it to develop marketing techniques which are now common place today.  [snip]

One example is the campaign to convince women to smoke.  He was told by a psychoanalyst that cigarettes were seen as a source of male sexual power, and that if he could associate the act of smoking with a sort of challenge to that power, then women would flock to it – the cigarette, a phallic symbol, would satisfy women’s penis envy. 

He organized a group of women to light up cigarettes in a parade at a given cue.  He also told the press that he had heard that some suffragettes were planning to light up ‘torches of freedom’ – in a protest against male patriarchial society.  According to Adam Curtis – sales of cigarettes to women soared as a result.

Such examples are common throughout the documentary series – but they illustrate the key idea that people could be turned into pliable consumers by harnessing their irrational fears and drives and associating, through symbols, products to the satisfaction of those drives.  [snip]

Earlier on – throughout the dominance of the psychoanalytic tradition, these unconscious drives are seen as dangerous – as the enemy within that can threaten capitalist democracy at any moment (think Nazi Germany or the 1929 stock crash). 

But the psychoanalysts lose their grip as the ideas of Wilhelm Reich come to the fore – those that believe that it’s not the unconscious drives themselves that is the cause of mayhem and pathology, but the repression of these drives. 

As this idea takes root and becomes mainstream, a new self expressive, self actualized sense of the individual comes to the fore – supposedly no longer determined by corrupt and repressive institutions (episode three is entitled “There is a policeman in our heads and he must be destroyed”)

The marketers and public relations professionals adapt and develop the focus group to identify and categorize the finite number of subtypes of this new kind of autonomous individual. 

This is apparently achieved with great success – and the process of marketing to individuals – convincing them to express themselves through the purchasing of products – continues. 

The key idea in this development is that it is no longer the psychoanalysts (or any other elite) explaining what it is that the people want – it is the people themselves… through the focus groups and other market segmentation techniques.  [snip]

Bernays had seen his techniques as the means for producing stable democracies – people were to be made placid and compliant through the satisfaction of their irrational desires with products. 

They were not to be trusted – and an elite political and corporate class was to ensure that these desires were sufficiently placated – but decision making, policy creation and ultimate power were to reside with this elite, not the people. 

As the new assertive, un-repressed self emerges, however, this state of affairs can no longer continue.  While it is fine for the corporations who can continue to sell their products unabated, politicians are forced to play a similar game, and the creation of policy increasingly becomes determined by the whims of the demos.

via Reviews In Depth.

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3 Responses to “The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis”

  1. mirrorgirl Says:

    Really interesting! How can I find more information or even watch it?


  2. philebersole Says:

    You should be able to watch it on this web log.

    If for some reason, this doesn’t work for you, click on the link.

    Here are some Vimeo links.

    I added some links about Adam Curtis to the main post.


  3. philebersole Says:

    Here’s another YouTube version


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