“The Century of the Self”

Tim Adams wrote in The Observer of 10 Mar 2002:

“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…

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…

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…

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…

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.’ “.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s