The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering): too much focus on politics, not enough on culture and society

Adam Curtis, “The Century of the Self (Episode 4: Eight People sipping Wine in Kettering)” (2002)

Final episode in this 4-part documentary series brings the penetration of public relations from the corporate world into politics, news and current affairs reporting and nearly all other areas of Western society and culture up to the prexent day with a focus on Philip Gould and Matthew Freud (great-grandson of Sigmund Freud) who respectively advised the Democratic Party in the United States and New Labour in the United Kingdom on the tactics to win back power from political conservatives in those countries. Politicians across the political spectrum appealed to the self-interest of the so-called “aspirational” classes (the lower middle class, upper working-class people) to win power and to do this had to promise tax cuts or cut back on policies considered to be “social democratic”. Citizens became consumers in a culture increasingly focussed on fulfilling their short-term desires and appealing to a shrinking range of interests. People’s self-esteem became heavily dependent on having their needs and wants stimulated and catered to. Marketers and public relations firms developed more sophisticated methods and techniques of splitting consumers according to lifestyle, needs and desires and happily offered their wares and services to corporations, governments and other agencies alike.

As with previous episodes, Curtis employs snippets of old and recent newsreels and interviews to flesh out his thesis of how “left-wing” political parties in the US and Britain re-invented themselves into supposedly caring-and-sharing entities that followed closely the whims and aspirations of voters through polls, focus groups and other strategies recommended by PR consultants. He paints New Labour under its leader Tony Blair as slavishly copying the methods of the Democrats in the US, ignoring the influence of the Australian Labor Party which had re-invented itself as a social democratic party under Robert Hawke in the 1980s on Blair, and Blair’s own attempt to ingratiate himself with young people under the “Cool Britannia” label.

Curtis certainly makes a plausible case for the dominance of Freudian psychoanalysis and concepts as having had a huge influence on the thinking of governments and business without considering whether Freud’s theories happened to have come along at the right time when they did to be seized on by these and other agencies to legitimise their own agendas for controlling people. In other words, if Freud had not offered psychoanalysis to the world, something similiar would have had to be invented. Curtis also does not consider other possible influences on the thinking of both political conservatives and social democrats. The peculiar social, political, economic and cultural conditions in Europe and North America following World War I and continuing up to the present day, with the rise of the United States and its particular set of expansionist values and fantasies together with the collapse of European empires and their values, are ignored as an influential backdrop on the thinking of political and social elites and how they viewed the general public. It could be argued though that elites have always viewed everyone else as something less than human in order to justify their own elevated position to themselves, to make the Great Unwashed believe they are undeserving of democracy and control over their lives, and therefore to secure and maintain the elites’ psychological and physical hold over their serfs. Freudian psychoanalysis, Skinnerian behaviourism, Taylorist scientific management and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism are just some of the tools the elites have used time and again in various bizarre combinations to fine-tune, tweak and oil the joints in our social, economic and political hierarchies.

The episode focusses too much on American and British politics in the 1990s without really considering the effect of public relations on Western popular culture during that decade. There is a brief discussion on the use of product placement among Hollywood movie celebrities but no more; I would have thought that the rise of the cult of celebrity and reality TV shows during this decade merited more serious treatment than it does here. Social trends such as coccooning and the opportunities these gave to PR and marketing people are also ignored.

The sub-text of the entire series – that we have been tricked by our leaders into believing that human nature is essentially bestial and incapable of being improved, therefore we cannot and will never understand democracy, can never govern ourselves democratically and must always be under elite control – is a live current that Curtis addresses rather weakly and never seriously challenges. If anything, this deception is “the trap” that Curtis refers to in a number of his documentaries.




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