A 20th century man who didn't "believe true democracy could ever work;" father of 21st century politics / The Century of the Self {film}



Ever wonder who invented the craft of creating independent studies that produce research unfailingly reporting that products are good for you? Is there a moral issue around giving people what they want by taking away their defenses to manipulation?

The Century of the Self is a British television (BBC) documentary film that looks closely at the role of psychoanalysis in marketing and public relations, and how those in power have used Freud's theories to control the “dangerous” crowd in an age of mass democracy.

We’ve talked in the past here about manipulation -- both the possibility of feeling free and not really being free and the temptation of retreating into the safety of individual happiness at the expense of the whole truth.

The Century of the Self is interesting and relevant because it tells the story of the construction of the most effective apparatus of manipulation in the modern world.

The first major blip on the radar comes with the work of Sigmund Freud. The track continues with Freud’s nephew, and agent, Edward Bernays and the invention of public relations as a self-proclaimed nice word for propaganda -- the manipulation of the masses' subconscious animal instinct in order to give them what they really want.

The film challenges us to consider the entire history of mass manipulation and confront both the truth of our exposure and our susceptibility to it. For instance, the film’s consideration of corporate marketing in the rise of feminism. Familiar heroes appear in this narrative too. Martin Luther King Jr. is revealed as a critic of normative psychological theory and popular views of maladjustment:

"There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence."


Easy answers are also interrogated, and things aren’t always what they seem. These are state-of-the-art mind games, afterall. Like Earth Kitt’s ostensible self-empowering love, or Puff Daddy’s Vote or Die campaign, the human potential movement is revealed not only as a precursor to self-discovery, but also as a doorway to the idea of the forever-unfulfilled consumer.

Is this freedom that I'm feeling?
A fine line between neglecting and worshiping self-discovery is revealed. Werner Erhardt’s EST training was sort of both revolutionary and fascist in its ability to simultaneously free minds and strengthen the status quo. If existentialism's endpoint was the peeling back of layer after layer until the realization that it was all meaninglessness and emptiness, then here people began to believe that “it's empty and meaningless that it's meaningless and empty.” People were encouraged to invent themselves from this “powerful place of nothingness” from which “something can be built.” They were encouraged to believe that only the individual mattered, that there is no social concern, that “you need be all you think about”, and that it “wasn’t selfish to think about yourself, it was your highest duty.” The original idea was that, through discovering and expressing one's self, a new culture would be born that would challenge the state. What emerged with the help of reformed hippies like Jerry Rubin was the idea that people could be happy within themselves and that changing society was irrelevant. Politics were lost and totally replaced by lifestyle. Socialism had gone personal. In 1970 3-5% of Americans expressed this individualistic perspective, by 1980 the vast majority (80%) did.

"Candidates for the presidency of the United States had been pre-packaged and designed for many many years, what was new was an attempt to use very sophisticated, or pseudo-sophisticated, techniques to poll the public psychology, to find out precisely what the desires of the individuals were, and then to come up with a candidate and a platform and images and words that exactly responded to those deep desires."
-Robert Reich


Bernays' democra-city...
According to the film, when the technicality of how to actually be self-expressive arose, it was American business that stepped in to help these new “beings” express themselves -- “by reading, measuring, and fulfilling the desires of these new unpredictable consumers and the individuated wants, whims and desires of these more-evolved human beings.” Abraham Maslow's hierarchy would be a new way to organize people into types -- self expression was not limited, it fell into identifiable types called lifestyles and values. "I-am-me's"... "Experientials"... "Societally conscious"... and so on. If a new product expressed a person's values it would be bought by them, and not just products but the politicians they would elect. These so-called "inner-directeds" voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan, shocking observers who predicted they would never elect a right-wing candidate. "If you look at age, sex you can't figure it out, only when you look at values … Capitalism managed to develop products that took our philosophy and agreed with it then created products that help you be this limitless self." It fitted perfectly with changes in industrial design. Computers enabled manufacturers to create in short runs … “Went from a market of limited needs to a market of unlimited needs. As a consequence, economies now have unlimited horizons. And while the "new beings" felt liberated, they had become increasingly dependent on business. The ultimate endpoint is that there is no society, only individual people making individual choices to promote their individual well-being. And this new reality molded by corporations would be mimicked by government and politicians.”

“The only way to get the consumer votes back was to forget all ideology and bring the same consumer rules philosophy that the business community had because politics need to be as sensitive to the bottom line as business. Instead of treating them as targets you treat them as people you can learn from … Neuro personality polls to find out if someone was a swing voter and identify whether swing voters fell into identifiable psychological types … What's the point of getting reelected if u have no mandate to do anything once you're reelected.. and he'd say what's the point of a mandate if u can't get reelected?”

"The World's Fair created a spectacle, in which all of these concerns were met... Company after company presented itself as the sort of centerpiece of a society in which human desire and human want and human anxiety would all be responded to and would all be met purely through the free enterprise system. There was this sort of notion that the free market was not something that was guided by ideologies or political power, but something that simply was guided by the people's will … This was the model of democracy that both New Labour and the American Democrats had bought in to in order to regain power. They had used techniques developed by business to read the desires of consumers, and they had accepted Bernays' claim that this was a better form of democracy … In reality the World's Fair had been an elaborate piece of propaganda designed by Bernays for his clients, the giant American corporations. Privately, Bernays did not believe that true democracy could ever work. He had been profoundly influenced in this by his uncles theories of human nature. Freud believed that individuals were not driven by rational thought but by primitive, unconscious desires and feelings. And Bernays believed that this meant it was too dangerous to let the masses ever have control over their own lives, that consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control, while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society ... But what worked for business in designing products led the Labour government into a bewildering maze of contradictory (individualistic) whims and desires … You have a problem in terms of deciding what you're going to do, if all you do is actually listen to a mass of individual opinions that are forever fluctuating and don't really have any coherence and, crucially, are not set in context.”

Part One: Happiness Machines
Part Two: The Engineering of Consent
Part Three: There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed
Part Four: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering



Epilogue:



Originally Posted 6/2/2011

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