The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent): the use of psychoanalysis as tool for social control

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent)” (2002)

This episode continues Curtis’s investigation of the ways in which Freudian psychoanalysis was hijacked by governments and corporations as a tool to control the public and shape society to achieve goals these agencies desired. The tale is picked up in the context of World War 2 and the Shoah (Nazi-Jewish Holocaust) and what German popular support for Adolf Hitler’s government implied about human nature to Western governments. Horrified by the apparent irrational behaviours displayed by people across Europe, Asia and North America as a result of the Great Depression and the political instability and war that followed, the US government sought to investigate and mould the psychology of the American people through the use of psychoanalysis. Corporations, government agencies and social planners alike employed psychoanalysts to examine human motivation, hidden and unconscious desires and fears, with the aim of manipulating these forces for profit or to control people’s thinking and feeling.

Particular attention is paid to Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna and nephew Edward Bernays who promoted Freud’s ideas and theories and who (especially in Bernays’s case) were happy to offer their knowledge and services to the US government for dubious ends. The most outrageous example of psychoanalysis being used in a way Freud would have disapproved of was in Bernays’s eager co-operation in undermining and toppling the Arbenz government of Guatemala in the 1950s by presenting it to the US public as a tyrannical Communist government allied with the Soviet Union and playing on Americans’ fears of Communist control and supposed loss of their freedoms. Other attempts to understand human irrationality and unconsciousness led to the CIA funding experiments by Dr Ewen Cameron under the MKULTRA project which eventually proved to be a failure. Psychoanalysis entered popular culture: Hollywood movie culture was permeated by the theory and actress Marilyn Monroe consulted high-profile psychoanalyst Dr Ralph Greenson for help with her emotional problems. Her suicide in 1962 was a catalyst for a backlash against psychoanalysis: Anna Freud and her followers were accused of encouraging social control and repression. According to the documentary, Freud retreated to London where she died in 1982.

As is usual with his documentaries, Curtis draws on BBC archival material and mixes it with interviews, snippets of old Hollywood films and an eclectic mix of popular music over which he presents his premise of Freudian psychoanalysis and psychology in general willingly co-operating with government and big business to control people. Implicit is the belief that people are at the mercy of their desires, fears and other hidden psychic forces they can’t understand or control and which make them hysterical or violent; therefore the people must depend on an elite to control and tell them what to think and how to behave. The way Curtis tells his story, it’s as if the arrival of Freudian psychoanalysis suddenly opened the eyes of government and big business and made them see people in a way that makes the hoi polloi putty in these agencies’ hands; Curtis doesn’t appear to concede that before Bernays, governments and corporations had used other methods to convince the general public to support them and their goals. Nor does Curtis consider that other ideas such as French psychologist Gustave le Bon’s theory of crowd behaviour and that crowds might develop a herd mentality could have had some influence on Bernays.

As in another Curtis documentary “The Living Dead (You have used me as a Fish long enough)”, Dr Ewen Cameron’s experiments are not described as being part of the MKULTRA project even though knowledge of the MKULTRA experiments has long passed into popular Western culture. Curtis deals very little with the impact of psychoanalysis on popular culture in the 1950s and early 1960s – the films that Alfred Hitchcock made during this time (“Vertigo”, “North by Northwest”, “Psycho”, “The Birds” and “Marnie”) could have been referenced. He also does not cover any resistance from the psychiatric profession towards psychoanalysis during the 1940s-50s, nor does he mention the potential that psychoanalysis has for encouraging abusive or dependent relationships between the practitioner and his (rarely her) patients. The emphasis given over to psychoanalysis also ignores the social / political / economic context in which the theory began to be used as a tool of control; if people turn to apparently irrational ideologies or forms of government, that may well be because the economic and political situation they found themselves in and which was created by governments and corporations itself was extreme and irrational.

Since Curtis spends much time covering the US invasion of Guatemala and the overthrow of General Arbenz, he might have considered mentioning the impact of that invasion on the Guatemalan people: in particular, how many people died or were injured, and how the invasion set back the country’s political, cultural and economic development.

Generally this film, like many of AC’s films, draws together some interesting parallel strands to create a challenging thesis which isn’t the be-all and end-all of what it covers. If it starts a discussion or encourages further investigation, then this episode of “The Century of the Self” has done its work.




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