(....) Let me give an example - the 1954 US intervention in Guatemala, where the media in the USA was manipulated to make people believe there was a deadly Communist threat lurking in the Guatemalan jungle, in the form of democratic socialist (with no links to Moscow), Jacobo Arbenz. Following the first democratic elections in 1950, the Arbenz's new government had initiated land reforms which would benefit around 100,000 peasants and expropriate 234,000 acres of land from the US-owned United Fruit Company. This was obviously a threat to American business interests in the area, and ultimately the whole of Latin America. So, a US state / corporate campaign was put in motion to crush the threat of democracy and independant national sovereignty. Following a media and public relations operation that went to the highest levels of government, nothing less than a bloodbath ensued. Hundreds of union leaders and thousands of peasants were murdered in a US-backed terror campaign which Howard Hunt, Head of CIA Operations in Guatemala in 1954, likened to the Nazi blitzkrieg.
The BBC's 2002 documentary series, "The Century of the Self" had an episode on events in Guatemala that followed the story right up until the massacres started. US involvement in the genocide was not reported, and neither was Guatemala's unfortunate position as just one of many Third World nations that had been and continue to be subjected to similar, if not worse, anti-democratic terror campaigns.
If we want a future where corporations and governments are unable to manufacture an atmosphere whereby they can literally get away with genocide, we need a mainstream media completely free of corporate and state influence. Public pressure, grassroots activism, and direct action can shorten or even prevent wars, stop environmental and humanitarian disasters (eg. Ilisu dam, Brent Spar). But as a society we are not free to act appropriately if our information is bogus or incomplete. If the truth about what the elite classes are up to was widely reported without fear, the journalistic culture of silence
Letter to the Producer from Professor Peter Fonagy and Dr Mary Target
The Anna Freud Centre and the Sub-dept of Clinical Health Psychology, University College London
27 March 2002
Dear Mr Curtis
We are writing to express our great concern about the second programme in your series “The Century of the Self”. We write as psychoanalysts at the Anna Freud Centre in London (a charity which has built a world-wide reputation for its work with children with emotional and behavioural problems) but also as academic psychologists with a respect for the truth. Had your programme established a set of true facts, however unpalatable, we would have accepted it. However, there were serious and fundamental errors in the research for the programme and in the line of argument adopted.
The main point we would like to make is that Anna Freud’s work and contribution to 20th Century culture and thinking were very misleadingly portrayed. We know of nothing in her extensive writings to support the statements you make about her advocacy of conforming to society through suppression of emotion. The section on brainwashing, while not specifically mentioning her by name seemed strongly to suggest it stemmed from Anna Freud and her teachings. She was definitively not an advocate of social control. Her work stands as a monument to individual freedom and to the struggle for each of us to achieve our different biological potentials.
Her approach to the treatment of children, equally, was born of the belief that if the environmental impingements on the child’s life could be removed, the child would naturally find his or her developmental path, and be most likely to achieve personal fulfilment. Far from being seen as the leader of the international psychoanalytic movement, she was forced to struggle considerably to make her views heard. She was far ahead of her time in putting great emphasis on the role of the family and the environment in contributing to children’s problems. Far from her advocating that children should be made to adapt to the environment, she argued the environment must sometimes be altered to facilitate the child’s development.
As your research must have revealed, Anna Freud was very active in caring for traumatised and under-privileged children during the war, and in offering help to the disadvantaged for three decades after that (e.g. children in the East End of London, the blind, physically ill and adopted children). Her experiences in treating children brought up in concentration camps convinced her of the individual’s inherent capacity to find something helpful and even life-saving, even in the worst possible circumstances in which true adaptation was not an option. Especially regrettable was the attribution of a sinister fascist mentality to a woman who herself was the victim of Hitler’s persecution, and who courageously stood up for the persecuted in every context. Public figures who were very influenced by Anna Freud, for example David Astor, editor of The Observer, consistently spoke for the rights of victims who had often been deeply at odds with their societies.
Another aspect of your program that we believe to have been misleading was an imputation against psychoanalysis in general. The humane therapeutic treatment of soldiers in the Second World War; the recognition of the disturbingly high prevalence of mental health problems in the US; legislation and service to deal with such problems – in your film these become part of a sinister conspiracy driven by psychoanalysis. Historically, the influence of psychoanalysis in the reform of psychiatry, during and after the Second World War was one of the single most important moves towards a humane culture. Prior to this, treatments for psychological disturbance included physical abuses (the centrifuge, cold baths) and permanent incarceration (as attested by asylums all round the major cities). Contrast the treatment of “shell-shock” (now known as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder) in the First World War, when suffering soldiers were shot for desertion, with the far more humane approach adopted by the US Army in the Second War and ever since. Your footage seemed to ridicule the distress of soldiers, who were then as they are now people with emotions and conflicts, and sympathetic attention to this appears to us greatly to be preferred to the punitive treatment meted out up to then.
Your thesis that psychoanalysts were specifically involved in the right-wing politics of the 50s is fallacious and unsubstantiated. In fact, many US psychoanalysts suffered grievously under McCarthy because of their left-wing histories and sympathies. Your programme made a hotchpotch of the collaboration of mental health research and the CIA, which was driven mainly by behavioural psychologists, at that time dominant in the academic psychology world in the US. It had absolutely nothing to do with psychoanalysts as a group or with the approach. Your depiction of the work of Cameron, a biological psychiatrist whose work contained no psychoanalytic principle, appears to have been irrelevant to your argument.
You present the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe as triggering the decline of psychoanalysis in the US. Historically this is very far from the truth there were far more important reasons although Ms Monroe’s life and death make better television. You are right to imply that the well-known and widely publicised deprivations of Ms Monroe’s early life could not be overcome by psychotherapy, however intensive. Perhaps psychoanalysts have at times been remiss in their undue optimism about the extent to which early maltreatment can be reversed, but we do not see this as having been true of Anna Freud. We are not in a position to comment on the specific cases of the Burlingham children. Clearly the outcome for two of the children was very tragic, however you also state that the children were disturbed before they met Anna Freud and that they had lived for several years away from her before their tragedies unfolded. The evidence suggests that Anna Freud was highly cautious about the power of psychoanalysis to rescue people to whom great damage has been done, or whose environments have been very deprived. This does not mean that she would not do all in her power - only that we believe she would not have promised to succeed.
Anna Freud’s belief in the need to intervene to protect children from adverse social conditions led her to promote public education and social projects. She did not claim that children should adapt to unacceptable circumstances, against their natures, quite the opposite. Respect for individuality, and deep understanding of the child, are part of what psychoanalysis in the 20th Century offers to the 21st. Fortunately they are lessons which are increasingly learned by policy-makers, but the prevalence of child maltreatment attests to the continuing need for work of this kind. We, and the Anna Freud Centre, are continuing to try to do such work. The inaccurate and misleading portrayal of psychoanalysis does nothing to help us to carry this work forward. We would very gladly meet you to discuss these issues further, particularly if you intend to make another programme on psychoanalysis.
Professor Peter Fonagy Dr Mary Target
A formal complaint has also been lodged with the BBC Programme Complaint Unit
Dear Adam Curtis,
Many thanks for your email. I wrote the Media Alert, so I'll respond. I did see the first part of your series. It contained some excellent material, particularly by the standards of mainstream analysis. But what was so disturbing was that while you at times really did touch on issues that are all but taboo in our society, you ultimately reproduced exactly the kind of deceptive spin that Bernays used to camouflage the truth about big business control. A good example was the framing explanation of the issues presented, and repeated, in several parts of the series:
"Politicians and planners came to believe that Freud was right to suggest that hidden deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had lead to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. To stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control the hidden enemy within the human mind." (The Century of the Self - The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)
As you'll know, if you've read Elizabeth Fones-Wolf's study of the period, Alex Carey's work, and countless books by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, and many others, this could not be further from the truth. Post-1945, as now, the real fear of politicians and planners was the existence of dangerous +rational+ desires and fears - popular desires for equity, justice and functioning democracy; popular fears that unbridled capitalism and militarism would once again lead to horrors on the scale of the two world wars. Freud's theories were incidental - useful in refining traditional methods of popular control perhaps, but a sideshow.
Do you really believe that big business was fundamentally motivated to avoid a repetition of the barbarism of Nazi Germany, as this passage explicitly states? Even a glance at the detail of the massive business-labour conflict that raged in the US during the first half of the last century - a conflict all but ignored by your series - demands a very different formulation; one along these lines, perhaps:
Politicians and planners became convinced that popular expectations, heightened by impassioned talk of the 'fight for freedom and democracy' during two world wars, had raised the real possibility of a democratic threat to elite control of society. Employing tried and tested methods of popular control rooted in fear (of 'Communism') and greed (for consumer goods), elites attempted - then, as now - to associate 'Americanism' and 'freedom' with 'free enterprise' in the public mind. The goal, very simply, was, and is, the protection of entrenched profits and power. The results included countless repetitions of Nazi-style barbarism throughout the Third World, as US business - ostensibly defending the West against 'communism' - exported the battle against popular interference abroad. Time and again interventions sold to the public as struggles against 'Communism', turned out to be struggles for Western profits against independent nationalism supported by impoverished people. The cost in human suffering has been beyond belief - literally millions of people killed, tortured and disappeared.
Why did you not mention the full price played by 150,000 people in Guatemala as a result of the machinations of Bernays et al? Would this not have contradicted your own claim that US politicians and planners were fundamentally motivated to avert barbarism? This, for Guatemala, +was+ a holocaust. It was also remarkable that you failed to mention that this was only one small example of the murderous consequences of US elite actions throughout the Third World. Why, after all, would the effects of US power politics be felt only in Guatemala? How could the really appalling wider picture not be worth even mentioning?
It's a while since I saw your series, but a couple of other observations spring to mind. Your programme accepted that Bernays set out to paint Arbenz as a Communist:
"In reality Arbenz was a democratic socialist with no links to Moscow. But Bernays set out to turn him into a Communist threat to America." (The Century of the Self - The Engineering of Consent, BBC2, March 24, 2002)
In other words, US elites did not play on Cold War fears; they created and then exploited them. And yet you then went on to say:
"Bernays had manipulated the American people, but he had done so because he, like many others at the time, believed that the interests of business and the interests of America were indivisible, especially when faced with the threat of Communism."
But isn't this precisely the deception that Bernays and others tried to spin, rather than the actual truth?
After seeing the first part of the series I was really intrigued to see how honest the series would become as it got closer to the present day. You could have delved into the enormous 'green backlash' (see Andy Rowell's book of the same name) of big business today in working to prevent action on climate change in the name of 'jobs' and 'American economic security'. You could have looked at the role of business in boosting National Missile defence in response to 'rogue states', in demonising foreign 'enemies' to boost arms sales, in preventing the lifting of sanction against Iraq, in undermining democracy, and so on (see our Media Alerts section: www.medialens.org for more on all of these) - this would have represented a logical continuation of the themes of the earlier parts of your series. But you gave no indication of just how all-powerful and corrupting business propaganda has become - in government, in schools, in the corporate media, in the culture generally. Instead, the focus suddenly became limited to how 'Third Way' politicians were seeking to use business techniques to sell politics as a kind of product to voters - interesting but trivial.
Mr Curtis, your programme made some important points, but the end result was to present business control as much more benign, much less lethal, than it really is. Ultimately, you kept a lid on the ideas and understanding that have the power to wake people up - exactly the kind of thing that Bernays, and all PR gurus ever since, have worked tirelessly to keep from the public. If you had told the truth, your efforts would not have been appreciated or well-received, I can assure you.
Co-Editor - Media Lens
Primal therapy — Crackpot touchy-feely manipulation have replaced reason and ideas in modern politics
by Nick Cohen in The Observer, Sunday 2002-03-02
During their stay at the Maroma Hotel, a pricey retreat on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Cherie Booth/Blair took her husband by the hand and led him along the beach to a ‘Temazcal’, a steam bath enclosed in a brick pyramid. It was dusk and they had stripped down to their swimming costumes. Inside, they met Nancy Aguilar, a new-age therapist. She told them that the pyramid was a womb in which they would be reborn. The Blairs became one with ‘Mother Earth’. They saw the shapes of phantom animals in the steam and experienced ‘inner-feelings and visions’. As they smeared each other with melon, papaya and mud from the jungle, they confronted their fears and screamed. The joyous agonies of ‘rebirth’ were upon them. The ceremony over, the Prime Minister and First Lady waded into the sea and cleaned themselves up as best they could.
When the unnerving story broke, those who could rid their minds of the image of vacuous self-indulgence might have wondered how an authoritarian right-winger could be comfortable with therapies which are meant to be liberating.
I can’t trace the origins of all Aguilar’s quackeries, but am reasonably certain that the screaming Blairs were unwittingly following the prescriptions of one Arthur Janov. He invented ‘primal therapy’ in 1970, the moment when many baby boomers decided the personal was political. If enough people changed themselves, the reasoning went, the world would change with them and there would be no need to fight the riot squad. Janov told his patients to destroy their fears with primal screams ‘so that you can be free in the present and free to build your future’. Psychic rebirth came from Wilhelm Reich, Sigmund Freud’s treacherous disciple. It was the unique selling point of the Esalen Institute in California in the 1960s. You were reborn when you released yourself from the grief and rage that society has created by distorting the true, independent you. There were dozens of competing varieties created at the time. The most popular was Werner Erhard’s ‘est’ courses, on which you were freed ‘to be whatever you want to be’ by instructors who beat you up.
Reichians blamed society for repressing good emotions. Freudians said that a civilised élite was needed to control the dark and irrational masses. But the similarities between the rivals were more striking. The treatments both offered were pseudo-science as medicine but a great help to government and business, as Adam Curtis shows in The Century of the Self , a resounding justification for the licence fee, which continues on BBC2 tonight.
The branding of products is not as modern as the business schools pretend. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, used psychoanalytic techniques to show cor porations how they could keep the plebs happy by associating their goods with unconscious desires. In 1928 he wrote in his honestly titled Propaganda, that ‘those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country’. Bernays advised presidents to become objects of desire by being seen with film stars. He orchestrated the PR for the American overthrow of Guatemala’s elected government in 1954 - the start of a war that produced tens of thousands of corpses.
The young who rejected the protestant work-ethic in the 1960s threatened Bernays’s controlled, consumer society. Life insurance companies, for example, found that graduates who were reinventing themselves to get the most out of the present had little interest in buying cover for the future. If, however, companies could ‘conform to the new non-conformity’ there were corporate therapists who could persuade rebels that consuming allowed them to be whatever they wanted to be. Music and clothes could be presented as an expression of individuality easily enough. So could a life insurance plan if you had the right spin.
Curtis has found a jaundiced 1960s revolutionary, Stew Albert, who watched his contemporaries settle for ‘socialism in one person’. The idea that ‘you can buy anything’, he said, ‘replaced the notion that you were perfectly free to create anything or that you were perfectly free to change the world’.
In the 1970s Christine McNulty of the Stanford Research Institute looked at how the new consumers would vote. Stanford divided people by their attitudes and ‘lifestyles’ rather than their class. Regardless of their backgrounds, those who believed they were free from the chains of society were far more likely to vote for Thatcher and Reagan than any other group. Her colleagues thought she was mad. These were socially aware and socially concerned people who may well have marched against the Vietnam war. But the appeal of ‘choice’, and getting ‘government off the backs of the people’ was far greater than nostalgia for a vanishing youth. They had been taught that selfishness was the way to liberate the abused self. The surprise, in retrospect, was that anyone was surprised by their conservatism.
The pattern established by Bernays repeated itself. Focus groups created by psychoanalysts for business took over politics. I don’t want to pretend that Thatcher and Reagan were innocent in this debasement of public life, their aides knew all the modern tricks. But the use of psychiatry to persuade the public that politicians were servants who gave them what they wanted was taken to its extreme by Blair and his mentor Bill Clinton.
When he was running for re-election in 1996, Clinton was happy to do what no Republican president had dared do and slash welfare. He then ordered a ‘neuro-poll’ of suburban voters to ensure he had their approval. They weren’t asked about their irrelevant political views. Clinton wanted to know their inner feelings: whether they were spontaneous or organised; what they would do on a romantic weekend.
He offered the electorate micro-policies to calm their barely expressed fears. Vaguely worried parents, to quote the most notorious example, were promised ‘V-chips’ in televisions to stop children watching porn, rather than proper funding for state education. Robert Reich, Clinton’s Labour Secretary, asked: ‘What’s the point in getting elected when you have no mandate to do anything?’ To which Dick Morris, Clinton’s pollster, replied: ‘Politics needs to be as responsive to the needs and whims of the marketplace as business is, and needs to be as sensitive to the bottom line.’ (Morris knew about the market-place. He resigned from Clinton’s staff after being caught sucking the toes of a $200-an-hour Washington whore.)
Derek Draper, Peter Mandelson’s former aide, confirmed that New Labour was as bad. He saw its leaders lost in therapy as they followed the free-associations and subliminal identifications of focus groups. Blair would ‘pore over’ the reports. ‘A bunch of eight people drinking wine determined pretty much everything Labour did.’
It sounds pitiful, but Philip Gould, Blair’s focus-group organiser, has convinced himself that therapeutic marketing has produced a nobler system of government. The arrogance of politicians who knew what was best has gone, he maintained. Voters were ‘consumers’; their focus groups ‘created a new form of politics’. The fight against this sinister folly is the best reason for democrats to get out of bed in the morning.
In politics, psychoanalytic techniques are no more than manipulative attempts to divert public attention while business carries on as usual. Blair made a - Freudian? - slip when he blurted out that his ‘tough’ stance on crime was a ‘load of nonsense’. Gould describes in his autobiography how he exploded when the market researchers he usually reveres told him the public would accept higher taxes. Curtis’s film has bitter moments as former friends look back on the time they wasted supporting new ways of defending the powerful. A contemptuous Draper says that focus-group politics ‘suits big business, suits entrenched interests and suits the status quo’. If business is better at pandering to primitive yearnings than government, asked Reich, why shouldn’t it replace government - a question he may regret raising.
In British constituencies and American states where the winner takes all, the only people who are worth probing are swing voters in marginal seats. This is scarcely popular sovereignty, but the best answer to Gould’s hijacking of democracy is the one that should hurt him most. Purists insist democracy is based on the assumption that some voters are rational for some of the time. As the turnout at the last election showed, millions broadly agree. Bored and disgusted with the politicians who say they only wish to pander to their emotions, they, rationally, walked away.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Slaves of Our Desires. Our Habits and Opinions Have Been So Cleverly Manipulated by PR People That We Have Forgotten How To Think
by Madeleine Bunting in The Guardian, 2002-03-25
A friend was trying to give up cigarettes recently after more than 20 years of smoking. “It’s not the nicotine,” she said. “It’s the feeling I get of, ‘just fuck the lot of them.’” A spare few minutes with a fag was the precious time she had for herself, free of the demands of children, work and boyfriend, she explained.
One man, now dead, would have chuckled with delight at such sentiments. Eighty-plus years ago, this marketing genius cracked how to overcome women’s objections to smoking - by associating tobacco with liberation. It’s a simple idea that has sustained decades of cigarette advertising to women, and penetrated deep into the psychology of millions of female smokers. The man was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his extraordinary career spans almost the entire 20th century. He advised US corporations and presidents on how they could use the insights of his uncle. In the process, he founded an entire industry - public relations - and pioneered methods such as focus groups.
This is more than just an intriguing piece of history. Bernays’ career and those of his successors open wide debates that are usually conducted entirely in terms of the present. Take the current debate about corporate power. Think it’s new? Think again - the 1920s uncannily echo many of the themes, such as overweening corporate power and the decline of the state. Or take political apathy, and find its roots lie in the counter-cultural movements of the left in the late 60s, when people gave up on politics and turned inward to discover themselves.
It is this historical context to present-day preoccupations that makes the current television series, The Century of the Self, so compelling. Even more than that, it is profoundly disturbing as it traces consumer capitalism’s remarkable use of psychoanalytical thinking to promote a concept of the self, an understanding of human nature, that it could manipulate - namely, that we are nothing more than a bundle of irrational emotional responses and desires, often contradictory and infantile.
Clever market research enabled corporations to understand and respond to those emotions and desires, and politics was left on the back foot with its language of solidarity and responsibility. Put simply, what Thatcher and Reagan realized was that they had to retreat in the face of this alliance between consumer and corporate boardroom; what Clinton Democrats tried, and New Labour is trying, to do is copy it. By the end of the series, one is left asking: “Just what kind of democracy do we have?”
Bernays was quite clear on this point - he took Uncle Siggy’s line that democracy was impossible because people were irrational and ignorant. The best hope of social order was to have an “intelligent few” who were capable of “regimenting the public mind”. Needless to say, Bernays believed that public relations was one of the most important means by which the elite could manipulate the habits and opinions of the masses, and even the “terms of public discourse”. As one commentator put it, Bernays developed a “strategy of social engineering”, and though we may not like the PR men and the spin, we fall for it. It is proving more powerful and more enduring than any social engineering attempted by the state, or why do women still turn to smoking for liberation, even when they know it will probably kill them?
As if all that wasn’t depressing enough, it gets worse. The 60s and 70s show how consumer capitalism adjusted to - and ultimately co-opted - the counter-cultural leftwing rejection of Bernays’s and Freud’s pessimistic view of human nature. It is the very versatility of capitalism that finds it triumphing over every challenge to it. Gramsci summed it up as capitalism’s capacity to project itself as the natural order of things.
It all started with a simple problem: big insurance companies in the US in the late 60s got worried that a new generation weren’t buying as much life insurance and they hired marketing experts to tell them why. The answer was that anti-materialistic, freedom-loving hippies didn’t want to buy consumer goods; they wanted to find their true selves. They had resurrected the theories of Freud’s contemporary, Wilhelm Reich, that individuals were inherently good and of infinite potential; it was society’s rules and conventions that held back the individual. So they gave up on achieving political change and decided to transform themselves instead.
To hook them back on to buying, marketeers came up with “lifestyle” marketing for the “inner-directeds”, selling products that would express their sense of self - hedonistic, freedom-loving and individualistic. Reagan pulled off a political coup by winning them over with promises of “letting the people loose”, while Thatcher declared she would “roll back the frontiers of the state”. It was the politics of the consumer king, and the state was in headlong retreat.
In their bid to win back power, the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the UK turned to the marketing men. As the Clinton strategist Dick Morris claimed in an interview, he simply applied to politics the same consumer philosophy that business used - to be responsive to the whims and desires of the consumer. In came the focus groups where those whims could be ascertained. Philip Gould, the New Labour strategist, imported the ideas from the US, celebrating it as “continuous democracy”.
But Adam Curtis, writer and producer of The Century of the Self, argues that it is no such thing. By attempting to emulate business’s emotional connection with the consumer, New Labour bankrupts itself. It has abandoned Roosevelt’s understanding of political leadership as persuading voters of social responsibility. What we have instead is a politics “pandering to the unthought, unconscious desires of the voters”, as Robert Reich, US labour secretary under Clinton, puts it. Or, as Derek Draper, a former New Labour apparatchik, sums it up, business exerts all the power in such a model because the eight people in the focus group in Kettering sipping wine aren’t any kind of counterbalance. Furthermore, the whims of Kettering voters are contradictory - better public services and lower taxes - and erratic: they didn’t care about railways in the first term, but complain bitterly about them in the second.
The argument that weaves through the series is that our concept of human nature has been politically and economically constructed - and for the benefit of whom? Business. “We have become slaves of our own desires, and we have forgotten we can become more than that,” concludes Curtis. That raises the question, what more can we be? Here’s the starting point for his next series, and it would be no easy task because, thanks to Bernays and his successors, the “regimenting of the public mind” has succeeded in obliterating or subverting all alternatives.
Our failure now is one of imagination and faith in the “more” we could become, and how that could form the basis for political renaissance and personal maturity as reasoning, reflective and responsible beings, not simply the erratic emotional creatures of Freud’s imagination.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
Full of their selves.
Andrew Billen finds new reasons to distrust shrinks, pundits and PR men
The New Statesman, 2002-03-25
If Eddie Bernays had never existed, he would have been too incredible to invent. This was the swanky back-room boy who named public relations, advised US presidents including Coolidge and Eisenhower, dreamt up product placement and celebrity endorsement, persuaded women it was cool rather than sluttish to smoke (“torches of freedom” was how he sold cigarettes, cashing in on suffragette chic), overthrew the elected government of Guatemala and, more generally, shifted democracy from being about the participation of the active citizen to being about the spending power of the passive consumer. If Adam Curtis, whose riveting four-part series The Century of the Self began on Sunday 17 March (8pm, BBC2) with the Bernays story, had said that the man also invented Bearnaise sauce, I would not have been surprised, although it would have been harder to pinpoint its capacity for mischief.
Bernays, who lived to the disgustingly old age of 103, was worth a documentary anyway, but he also happened to be Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Every one of his ideas was a by-product of his uncle’s vision that man, far from being in charge of his faculties, is controlled by darkly primitive forces, libidinous and savage desires that lead to war. As a corporate PR man, Eddie had a more positive spin on the general theory.
Yes, the unconscious could lead man to war, but it could also lead him to the department store. And if his motives were invisible to himself, they need not be to his masters, who could manipulate them, whipping them, for instance, into fits of hatred against the Other or into a lust for possessions they did not need. By association, Freud is therefore to blame for consumerism, the Wall Street Crash, Nazism, the cold war, Reagan, Thatcher and Matthew Freud.
TV rarely attempts histories of ideas, because ideas ain’t visual. They work best in books, where you can reread them, and reasonably well on radio, where you are not distracted by imagery. But in The Century of the Self, the archival material is so remarkable, apposite and frequently funny that not once was I distracted from the argument. This series is one long illustrated essay, but the illustrations are half the fun. In any case, Curtis is greatly abetted by his cast of characters.
In the background grumbles Sigmund Freud, shocked by the First World War and convinced that, although civilisation might protect mankind from his primeval urges, this protection ensured that he was permanently discontented. In the US, there thrives Bernays, who, having got Sigmund out of a financial difficulty by finding him a US publisher, throws parties for the powerful in his corner suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, a shameless shaman. Interviewed in 1991, Bernays worked his way through a platter of food and giggled at his past triumphs. His daughter, Ann, said he made other people feel stupid. Not a nice man. On Sunday 24 March, the story continues through Freud’s daughter, Anna, a virgin who appointed herself an expert on child-rearing and decided that, the more people conformed to society, the stronger and better the ego would become at suppressing the id. That two of her original charges later had breakdowns, and one committed suicide in the Freud family house were inconvenient contra-indications that the cult kept to itself.
However, the programmes do not simply record the dubious uses to which Freud’s theories were put, but suggest that his theories, like all psychological theories, were dubious in the first instance. In fact, as the third instalment shows, Freud was sweet reason itself next to his successors: Wilhelm Reich, high priest of the orgasm; Werner Erhard, founder of est (Erhard Seminar Training); and the meddlers at the Esalen Institute whose contribution to racial harmony was to get black men and white men to shout at each other in encounter groups. These gurus considered our unconscious urges the best things about us, and their ideas gained a terrible currency. In an interview, Liza Minnelli once told me that we are not better than our feelings: “We are our feelings, Andrew.” I begged to differ, and this programme gives me ammunition.
Yet just as the psychotherapists oversold their insights, so Curtis surely now overemphasises their influence. When, in the third programme, he says that self-expression led to “an isolated, vulnerable and ultimately greedy self, far more open to manipulation by both business and politicians than anything that had gone before”, he makes the mistake of all critics of advertising who fail to mention that most new products fail. If there is now more choice, appealing even to consumers with a keen sense of their own individuality, is that not a happier outcome than being able to buy any colour Model T so long as it’s black? And why should Curtis, so suspicious of the idea that we are at the mercy of primeval desires, believe we are dumbly susceptible to those who claim to be able to control them?
But there is hardly a moment to protest, so elegantly and speedily does he present his argument. Applied tenaciously enough, Freud’s template does fit the human condition. Curtis, equally ruthlessly, makes the 20th century fit his. At the very least, it provides an alternative history of our time - and new reasons to distrust shrinks, pundits and PR men.
Especially if they are called Freud.
© New Statesman
No use making plans for Nigel (extract)
by Andrew Anthony
The Observer, 2002-03-24
In Adam Curtis’s new documentary series the self is laid bare as never before. And it’s enough to make you pause for thought. Like Dr Johnson’s dull friend, television often seems to have only one idea, and that one is usually wrong. So it’s not easy to prepare yourself for a programme like The Century of the Self, which is packed full of ideas, even if not all of them are right.
Bringing together politics, big business, psychiatry and public relations, this four-part series sets out to tell the Freudian history of the twentieth century. Which is to say, it not only seeks to reveal the unconscious forces that shaped major events and developments, but it also attempts to explain how the Freud family themselves helped channel these forces. That’s a tall order, not least for the viewer, but Curtis, the writer and director, has shown in the past that he is adept at telling a complex story through the lives of a few individuals. His Mayfair Set, which examined casino capitalists such as Jimmy Goldsmith, is probably the best history of free-market asset-stripping ever made.
The first instalment of the new series looked at how Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, took his uncle’s theory of hidden desires and applied it to consumer capitalism. He realised that if you wanted to make people behave irrationally (ie to buy goods they didn’t know that they wanted) it was more effective to link products to their sublimated emotions.
Bernays invented the term ‘public relations’, and appears to have been the ultimate behind-the-scenes string-puller. He turned presidents into products and products into feelings. It was he who broke the taboo on women smoking by disseminating the notion that cigarettes were ‘torches of freedom’.
Curtis intercut interviews with disciples of Bernays, footage of the man himself as a spry centenarian, and newsreel of vast mid-century crowds to fascinating, if slightly confusing effect. In pushing the idea that Bernays was an architect of mass control - someone whom Goebbels admired - the film did not properly address the tension between the self as an individually experienced concept and the self as a tool of mass manipulation. As a result it seemed to suggest that the difference between consumer and totalitarian societies was at best superficial, and quite possibly illusory. That said, the first part of The Century of the Self was never less than thought-provoking and if the remaining three match that we are in for a rare treat.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
How Freud got under our skin
Sunday March 10, 2002
From advertisers to politicians, everyone wants to appeal to our sense of Self. And, as a new TV series shows, it was Sigmund Freud's nephew who turned the analysis of our subconscious into a boom industry: PR
Sigmund Freud may have invented the Self, full of unspoken dreams and desires, in 1900, but it was his American nephew, Edward Bernays, who packaged it and put it on to the market. Suddenly, everyone wanted one. And, of course, no one wanted one that was quite the same as anyone else's.
Bernays, born in Vienna in 1891, had worked at the end of the First World War as a propagandist for America, and after 1918 he decided to carry on in this role. But he invented a brand new name for for his profession: public relations. He later turns up throughout the century - he lived to be 103 - as a kind of Zelig, shaping the American mind, with clients including Presidents Coolidge, Wilson, Hoover and Eisenhower, as well as Thomas Edison, Caruso, Nijinsky, scores of the largest corporations and many foreign governments. But his great genius was to first sell Uncle Siggy's ideas of the unruly subconscious to the American public and to American business.
Bernays brought his uncle's books to America, found a publisher for them and discovered ingenious ways to advance the significance of their ideas in the mainstream press. He believed, like his uncle, that man was controlled by his irrational desires; he also saw that by applying the principles of psychoanalysis, these desires might be controlled and manipulated on a vast scale, for power and profit.
Bernays was among the first to understand that one of the implications of the subconscious mind was that it could be appealed to in order to sell products and ideas. You no longer had to offer people what they needed; by linking your brand with their deeper hopes and fears, you could persuade them to buy what they dreamt of. Equipped with our subconscious wish-lists, we could go shopping for the life we had seen portrayed in the adverts.
Happily, as Bernays realised, Uncle Siggy's creation - the great lasting invention of the twentieth century - arrived at a time when business, and American business in particular, through the techniques of mass production, and planned obsolescence, was suddenly able to satisfy those shifting desires. Like those little Japanese dolls that get bought at Christmas, and need feeding and nurturing, he knew that the Self, once owned, would prove very expensive of attention.
It required all sorts of therapies and counselling, but most of all it needed to express itself - and one day it might want to express itself in one way, and the next it might want to do it in another. It was fickle, the Self, a follower of whim and fashion, and its only constant seemed to be that urgent aggressive fact of wanting.
So, in Bernays's future, you didn't buy a new car because the old one had burnt out; you bought a more modern one to increase your Self-esteem, or a more low slung one to enhance your sense of your sex-appeal. You didn't choose a pair of running shoes for comfort or practicality; you did so because somewhere deep inside you, you felt they might liberate you to 'Just Do It'. And you didn't vote for a political party out of duty, or because you believed it had the best policies to advance the common good; you did so because of a secret feeling that it offered you the most likely opportunity to promote and express your Self. 'Our people,' said Herbert Hoover, 'have been transformed into constantly moving happiness machines.'
All of this - the way in which Western society has made sacred the feelings and desires of the individual, and how several generations of the Freud family has been at the heart of that crusade - is the subject of a remarkable BBC series which begins next Sunday. The Century of the Self is written and produced by Adam Curtis, the inspired and curious documentary essayist, whose previous work includes Pandora's Box , the wonderful series about the science of the Cold War, and, most recently, The Mayfair Set, his astonishing account of the reckless casino capitalism of James Goldsmith and his cronies, which fuelled and dictated Thatcherism.
The idea for this series was originally suggested to Curtis, appropriately enough, by a PR, Julia Hobsbawm, daughter of Eric, another great shaper of centuries. Hobsbawm mentioned to Curtis in passing Bernays's own distinguished ancestry and it set his mind working. At the time, he was plotting out a history of spin in the twentieth century; the Freud connection seemed the perfect link, and so it proved.
By following in detail the story of Bernays - and subsequently the blood-related stories of Anna Freud, who did so much to propagate her father's ideas, and to a certain extent, Matthew Freud, the Blairite PR guru - Curtis examines the ways in which an idea, the modern idea that our feelings and desires are the most important thing about us, has taken on the status of a religion and changed the nature of our democracies.
Bernays himself emerges as a remarkable character. He not only was able to sell the American people anything - he made it cool for women to smoke and for children to love soap and for eggs to accompany bacon - his skills also could win elections and change the course of foreign policy. In one extraordinary sequence, Curtis shows how Bernays single-handedly toppled the popular Guatemalan government with one or two publicity stunts, playing on Cold War fears, and acting on behalf of a banana corporation.
He shows, too, how the principles of Freudianism, initially through Bernays, had a profound effect on corporations and governments, and led directly to the new all-pervasive ideas of market research and focus groups - psychoanalysis of products and ideas. He then examines how those forces have shaped the way we live and think and vote today.
'What I set out with,' says Curtis, 'was a clear journalistic aim: to challenge the idea that our feelings are what we are. I wanted to show how they are merely an aspect of what we are and that they had been purposefully exaggerated by vested interests, both corporate and political, to make them seem like our whole humanity.'
In proving this, and in showing, as Bernays predicted and helped to engineer, how American and British democracy has evolved from supporting a liberal elite which told you what was good for you, to supporting another, market oriented elite, which keeps you in check by constantly giving you the things you feel you want, Curtis, however, found himself presented with a problem.
'It's much too easy really just to claim the old democratic patrician culture was better,' he says. 'People in a consumer society probably have more fun, certainly have more things, and we find those things comforting, enjoyable, and who is to say there is anything wrong with that? But we have also, perhaps, become trapped by an idea, and it has got into every corner of our lives.'
If you look around you, it is hard not to agree with this observation. The sovereignty of the Self is reflected back on us from every angle. Apart from the fact that the purchase of every canned drink or deodorant requires us to locate the hero inside ourself, our television, for example, is increasingly dedicated - from Trisha to Changing Rooms to Pop Idol - to Self-help and Self-improvement and Self-creation. We find collective comfort in celebrity; we like to colonise another Self, and treat it like our own. Our bestseller lists, from Harry Potter to Bridget Jones to A Boy Called It, reflect different kinds of wish-fulfilment.
Business culture, which expects more and more of its employees' time, also spends more and more money on making those employees feel self-empowered and self-motivated. The internet, solipsism incarnate, is our fastest growing leisure pursuit, and the fastest growing sector of it is pornography: your wish is its command key. In the near future (by 2010), it seems, the Self will enjoy its own unencumbered space. If you run a society based on the satisfaction of desire, then, of course, there should be no surprise when conventions based in part on duty, such as marriage, begin to collapse. Forty per cent of British households will be home to single adults. Our news does not often ask us to think; it requires us to emote, and our politicians, on the advice of their research and PR men, do likewise.
In Bernays's terms, this is all pretty much as it should be. Fearing the unleashed subconscious, Freudians believed that psychoanalysis could normalise people for democracy. Bernays, particularly after the rise and fall of the Third Reich (Goebbels was an assiduous student of his methods), thought that the safest way of maintaining democracy was to distract people from dangerous political thought by letting them think that their real choices were as consumers. He believed, and argued to Eisenhower, that fear of communists should be induced and encouraged, because by unleashing irrational fears, it would make Americans loyal to the state and to capitalism.
In the wake of the Soviet atomic tests in 1958, Eisenhower for the first time made conspicuous consumption the first duty of the free: 'You Auto Buy,' he sloganed. This was, of course, the very same exhortation made by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic after 11 September. Your democratic duty in the light of global terror was to indulge your Self: go shopping, save the world. The interests of the free market and the pursuit of personal freedom were indistinguishable.
Curtis's series shows how these ideas were imported to British political circles, firstin the wave of individualism that attended Thatcher's economics, and subsequently how the Left, in both Britain and America, was made aware that it could never be elected without appealing to these forces. In one mesmerising piece of television, Dick Morris, special adviser to Bill Clinton, explains how he talked the President into shifting his second election campaign away from big issues - tax and health and welfare - in order to listen to the comparatively tiny concerns of key marginal focus groups. Clinton subsequently ran the entire campaign on the findings of that research - devoting himself, for example, to legislation for a digital device that would screen pornography from family televisions - and won an election he had looked certain to lose.
Having found that these methods could win them power, the Blair and Clinton administrations also believed that the sophisticated application of focus groups might prove a way to govern: they hoped that they could tap directly into the wishes of the people, that it would be a new form of very direct democracy, and one where all your wishes came true.
'In fact,' Curtis suggests, 'what we are seeing is a kind of pseudo democracy, which listens all too carefully to the population, but not really to its rational thought, and allows itself to be shaped by that. New Labour increasingly keeps on being trapped in the focus groups. They are listening to feelings, whims and desires of the Self and, of course, these desires change. Their early focus groups showed railways, for example, to be a very low priority, so perhaps for that reason they did not invest. But the real question remains - whether they could have ever come to power without tapping into this desire for self-interest.'
In this respect, the genie of the Self has already escaped the bottle. One logical conclusion of Curtis's argument is that business will eventually take over the functions of government, since it is much better, more effective, at simply satisfying people's desires than any politician ever was. This is something that Bernays predicted. In an interview when he was 100, the father of public relations allowed that he may have created something of a monster.
'Everyone has a press agent now,' he said, 'or a media consultant or communications director or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes,' he suggested, 'it seems sort of like having discovered a medicine to cure a disease, and then finding out that so much of it is being administered that people are getting sick from the overdoses.'
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