The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines): the rise of consumerism, passivity and other anti-democratic forces

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 1: Happiness Machines)” (2002)

Finally after much nagging by a friend in London, I got around to watching Adam Curtis’s documentary series “The Century of the Self”, or its first episode at least. For Curtis, this is a relatively straightforward account of the career of American public relations man Edward Bernays and how he used his German psychoanalyst uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas and theories on human consciousness and unconsciousness to manipulate the public and its desires in business, economics and politics. Bernays’s career is firmly grounded in the context of post-WW1 society and political, environmental and cultural developments therein; a major issue in the documentary is the way in which governments in the United States and Germany, and American corporations in the 1930s used Bernays’s ideas and techniques to control the public and its desires and needs for their own ends.

Less whimsical than many of his other documentaries, and with a more urgent narrative style from AC himself, the film details Bernays’s belief that people are essentially irrational and subject to desires they do not understand or can control and it is up to others like himself to take over that control. Many ideas and concepts that are now established in marketing practice were innovations of Bernays’s: product placement in films, press releases, appeals to individuality, the use of third parties such as “independent experts” to promote products, celebrity endorsements and identifying leaders or perceived leaders in groups and networks as people who can convince others to follow their example in buying products. Through Bernays, corporations shifted from promoting the utility of products to emphasising their desirability and studying buyers’ vulnerabilities as a means to convince people they need the products. Rational citizens are transformed into passive consumers who can be told what they want and manipulated into believing they need something when they don’t.

Freud’s ideas about human psychology percolate into government and corporations in other ways in the 1920s – 1930s: if people are basically irrational and ruled by desire, it follows therefore that democracy will be ineffective as it relies on people being rational. From this point on, governments and corporations start to hire psychologists to pinpoint how crowds work with a view to shaping public opinion and thus behaviour. Incredibly, in the 1930s after the advent of the Great Depression leads to the rise of fascist and other similar anti-democratic forces in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the German government under Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and then Reichsfuhrer starts using Bernays’s work to take over business corporations and to control the German people’s feelings and desires and channel them into acts of nationalism and patriotism. Such acts also include scapegoating undesirable groups in society such as homosexuals and Jewish people. At the same time President Franklin D Roosevelt, believing in humans as essentially decent and rational thinkers, introduces his New Deal policies which invest heavily in new industrial and infrastructure development projects and rely on George Gallup’s opinion and popularity polls as a gauge of public approval of such projects. American business corporations, alarmed at FDR’s success with the public, begin a counter-attack, again employing Bernays, to convince the public that democracy and capitalism are synonymous and one can’t work without the other.

In the meantime Freud grows pessimistic about human nature as the Nazis increasingly control people’s lives in so many areas – work, school, health, use of media, policing – and frantic about his and his family’s future in a Germany becoming more hostile to Jewish people. Through a friend with connections to the British government, Freud and his family flee to London in 1938 where not long afterwards Freud dies from cancer.

The film flows smoothly and efficiently with little annoying and distracting kitsch music and it’s only really at the end when an excerpt from Raymond Scott’s trilogy of “Soothing Sounds for Babies” starts tinkling in the film’s coda that I realise I hadn’t heard anything else other than AC’s voice and those of his interviewees. Oh, there is music but definitely very unobtrusive music at that. Old archival film, splices of popular movies including “The Wizard of Oz” and shots of people interviewed make for quite an engaging film.

At the centre of this film and, I suspect, the other films in “The Century of the Self” series is a tussle between those ideologies and beliefs that posit that people are at the mercy of inner drives and emotions they can’t understand and control, and which must be controlled and directed closely by the State or corporations on the one hand, and on the other belief systems that hold that people are decent, rational and are able to exercise self-control and discipline, and can be trusted to govern themselves fairly without interference from others. The State as represented by FDR is an entity that believes in people’s rationality and ultimately in democracy; the State as represented by Adolf Hitler and American business corporations believe that people are unable to exercise rational behaviour and must be treated as passive empty vessels to be filled with corporate fascist beliefs. In FDR’s state, positive freedom becomes possible; in Adolf Hitler’s state, no freedom is possible; in the state governed by Bernays’s ideas, corporations sell the illusion of negative freedom.


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