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The Century of the Self

A seething mass of desires: Freud's hold over history

Ivan Tyrrell explores with Adam Curtis how Freudian ideas are flourishing in business and politics today and insidiously influence all of our lives.

Tyrrell: The Century of the Self was for me and many others I've spoken to, by far the best TV series for a long time. In four 60 minute programmes on BBC2, you showed how the ideas behind psychoanalysis were responsible for the development of mass consumerism and self absorption in western society. You also explored the link between consumerism and politics in ways that were terrifying to contemplate. How did you come to piece this amazing history together?

Curtis: I'm a journalist who stumbled over a story, not a historian. For me it began when I came across the intriguing information that Freud's nephew Edward Bernays had invented public relations, specifically using his uncle's ideas about human beings and human nature. From there came the idea that I should look at how Freud's ideas have been used generally in social and political ways, not telling the history of psychoanalysis but the history of how psychoanalytical ideas have been applied. When I started to research this I found lots of different stories about the application of psychoanalytical theories which had been missed out in the history of it, largely because psychoanalysis, as I am sure you know, is a very hermetic world…

Tyrrell: … a closed system of thought.

Curtis: Yes, both in the way it treats patients and also in the way psychoanalysts think of themselves. So what I did was to pull together various stories about how psychoanalysis was applied in different ways by some powerful 20th century figures in both business and politics.

As that started to come together, I began to make connections with another idea I was working on — about how today we all talk about our 'selves'. A hundred years ago, people didn't do that — a few rich people did, and you read about it in novels, but most people didn't. The question lurking at the back of my brain was "Why do we now always have this obsession with the self?" This is so dominant at the moment in society, whereas the sense of doing your public duty, or fighting in a war or being involved in a political revolution, where your self is absorbed into a grander project, has all but disappeared. Now the self is put on a pedestal and psychodynamic therapists are the 'cheerleaders' for this process in many ways. But they don't realise it and are very touchy about it, as I am sure you have found out.

Tyrrell: Yes, we certainly have.

Curtis: So I fitted the two together and I put forward an argument that one of the agencies of the rise of the self, and the use of the self both commercially and politically, was, and still is, Freud's ideas about human beings. His ideas still define our time politically and socially. So that is how The Century of the Self came about.

Tyrrell: Yes, most people think that Freudian ideas are dead in the water now. Scientists, certainly by the 1960s, stopped taking him seriously. But you show his influence is still very much alive.

Curtis: I think it is very important to say that the Freudian thing did not die out. Many say that psychoanalysis itself is pretty much on its knees: it’s over because it doesn't work as therapy. But the Freudian concept of human beings is still dominant in our society. In essence, Freud said that we are all driven by our inner emotions and by irrational feelings within us — that is his model of what we are. What I traced in the series was how that view of human beings suited certain groups in society — above all, people who made a living by selling products to the masses and in whose interest it was to develop consumerism. Following on from that was the rise of a form of politics which modelled itself on consumerism.

At the end of the last film I argued that Freud's view of human beings was fallacious. I am not saying that we are not emotional and irrational, but that that is just one aspect of our human nature. We have other sides to us which can be rational and more objective. We can think about things outside ourselves, not purely in terms of our self. And we can be inspired by things outside ourselves. That capacity, it seems to me, is all but lost. I am not sure it has been lost forever but it doesn't serve the purposes of the current power structures to encourage it at the moment —

Tyrrell: — which want us to meekly earn, spend, and endlessly shop for stuff we mostly don't need.

Curtis: Yes. So what I tried to do in the series was to trace how that side of human nature was discovered, worked on, agitated as it were, puffed up, given life — so that it became possible to appeal to it emotionally. The crucial person in this was Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, who lived in New York. He began his career as a press agent for visiting show-business celebrities on Broadway. In 1915 he organised Diaghilev's Russian Ballet tour of America. He had many famous clients like Caruso, Ziegfeld and Nijinsky. He was so good at his job that he was asked to join the War Department's Committee on Public Information, the propaganda arm of the US war effort and, following the armistice, he participated in a controversial press mission to the Peace Conference in Europe. He went on to conduct a highly successful campaign to promote re-employment of returning veterans. Indeed, his effective use of publicity and the enlistment of civic groups earned high praise and the thanks of countless American ex-servicemen.

It was about this time, just after the First World War, that Bernays sent his uncle Sigmund some cigars, which were hard to come by in Vienna at that time. To thank him, Freud sent back a copy of his book, The General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, and Bernays read it. He took out of the book the idea that humans were fundamentally emotional and irrational creatures. He immediately recognised that the corollary, of significance for anyone involved in public life, was that it was pointless to appeal to the masses rationally if you wanted to get them to support something.

Tyrrell: Didn't the profession of public relations begin as a direct result of Bernays' reading Freud's book and realising that it offered a way to manipulate the masses?

Curtis: Yes. Bernays was in the propaganda business and he wanted to sum up this notion of Freud's and promote it, but he didn't want to use the word 'propaganda', which had bad connotations — especially since the war, when people realised that propaganda was used to present selected information or promote a doctrine and that it was basically misleading, dishonest and exploitative. So he coined a new term, 'public relations', for the same thing.

He began to argue that the future of marketing, advertising and politics was to find ways of appealing to the emotional side of people through symbols, through the language of metaphor, in order to get people to react in the way that you wanted, quickly. He was one of the main architects of the modern techniques of mass-consumer persuasion, using every trick in the book, from celebrity endorsement and outrageous attention-grabbing PR stunts, to the eroticising of the motorcar. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn't need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires.

Tyrrell: But why did the big corporations pay him so much attention?

Curtis: They believed they had a huge problem. Mass production had become so efficient and was becoming bigger and bigger, and those running the corporations were worried about overproduction — that people might actually stop buying things once they had what they needed. So when Bernays started saying, "I can connect with people emotionally and manipulate how they feel about themselves so they will buy whatever I make them unconsciously desire," they listened. Up until that time, the working classes only bought things that they needed. But, with Bernays' input, people started to be sold something not because they needed it but because they would feel better if they had it. The new creed was: you buy things to express your inner sense of self.

Tyrrell: And it was also Bernays who launched Freud on the world in a big way?

Curtis: Yes. He arranged for Freud's work to be published in America in the 1920s and promoted his uncle's books, using all the new tricks of PR. Without Bernays, Freud would have been an insignificant figure and would never have had the influence he did — or have become well known to the public. It was public relations that made him famous, not academic credibility.

Tyrrell: You talk in the films a lot about 'needs' and 'desires'. What distinction do you make between them?

Curtis: I think that, from the 1920s onwards, people have become confused, by people like Edward Bernays, about the difference between needs and wants. For example, one of his most notorious 'successes' was to make it socially acceptable for women to smoke. He believed that you can persuade people to act irrationally if you link products to their desires and feelings, so he linked smoking to the women's suffrage movement, calling cigarettes 'torches of freedom'.

Tyrrell: Yes, that was absolutely fascinating, and horrifying, when you think of the massive rise in cancer among millions of women, as a result. Can you elaborate?

Curtis: By the mid-1920s, smoking had become commonplace in the United States but tobacco companies realised that cigarette sales would soar even higher if they could entice women to smoke in public. At the time, women had just won the right to vote, widows were succeeding their husbands as governors of such states as Texas and Wyoming, and more were attending college and entering the workforce than ever before. While women seemed to be making great strides in certain areas, socially they were still not achieving equality with their male counterparts. As far as smoking was concerned, women were only permitted to smoke in the privacy of their own homes. Public opinion, and certain legislation at the time, did not permit women to smoke in public. In 1922 a woman from New York City was arrested for lighting a cigarette on the street!

It was George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company, who recognised that an important part of his market was not being tapped into, and he hired Bernays to expand the sales of his Lucky Strike cigarettes to women. Bernays applied his talent to the problem. Recognising that women were still riding high on the suffrage movement, Bernays used this as the basis for his campaign. He consulted Dr A A Brill, a leading New York psychoanalyst, to find out the psychological basis for women's smoking. Brill said that cigarettes were equated subconsciously with penises, which women were envious of. He gave Bernays the idea that, if he could connect cigarettes with the idea of challenging male power, smoking in public could be sold to women, who would then have their own penises. So he came up with an idea for presenting cigarettes as 'torches of freedom'.

Bernays proceeded to stage an event at the annual Easter Day Parade, held in New York and attracting thousands, to introduce this totally irrational notion to American womanhood and it caused a national stir. He got a group of rich debutantes to agree to hide cigarettes in their clothing and, at a given signal, light up together. He then informed the press this would happen and of course photographers were present in droves and stories appeared in newspapers throughout America.

Bernays' efforts had a lasting effect. He persuaded female film stars to smoke ostentatiously on screen, thus endorsing smoking cigarettes as respectable and desirable. Thereafter, women began to smoke in millions because he had linked smoking to feelings of independence, power and freedom. It may have made some of them feel like that but, of course, they were just being exploited and made poorer and unhealthy by becoming addicts to a powerful drug.

Tyrrell: The force of Freud's ideas, and the way they were taken up and reacted to, also seemed to give people permission to be selfish. In the 1920s, they were being told, "Look, this is how you can express yourself. By buying such and such, you can be yourself." That allowed personal desires to override what was of common benefit in appalling ways.

Curtis: Yes. I don't say there was a conspiracy but that consumerism had an ideology just as much as fascism or communism did. It was another way of managing the masses in an age of mass democracy.

People like Bernays were the first architects of that. And the model they used was fundamentally the pessimistic Freudian view that we are just emotional, irrational creatures and nothing more. We live in that tent. We don't think outside it at the moment. That's what we are. We think of ourselves as emotional beings. We talk about our 'selves' all the time, about what and how we feel today, how we feel about someone else … endlessly. It denies another aspect of human nature, which is being able to think outside yourself, to think about others, to think rationally.

Tyrrell: Are you pessimistic about human beings?

Freud said that we are all driven by irrational feelings. That view of human beings suited those who made a living by selling products to the masses and in whose interest it was to develop consumerism.

Curtis: No. But I am pessimistic about the pessimistic view of human nature and how dominant it has become.

Tyrrell: In your second programme, you showed how Freud's ideas about the unconscious mind were used by those in power in post-war America. You described how politicians and planners came to believe Freud's underlying premise — that 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 led to the barbarism of Nazi Germany. So, to stop it ever happening again, they set out to find ways to control this hidden enemy within the human mind. This is where Sigmund Freud's youngest daughter Anna comes in.

Curtis: Yes. She and Bernays provided the ideas that were used by the US government, big business, and the CIA to develop techniques to manage and control the minds of the American people. But this was not a cynical exercise in manipulation. Those in power believed that the only way to make democracy work and create a stable society was to repress the savage barbarism that the psychoanalysts told them lurked just under the surface of normal American life.

Tyrrell: And that idea gained power because of what had happened with the traumatised veterans of the Second World War.

Curtis: Yes. What happened was that, during the war, 49 per cent of all soldiers evacuated from combat were found to be suffering severe mental health problems. In desperation the army turned to psychoanalysts. It was the first time such attention had been given to the feelings and anxieties of such a large number of ordinary people. At the heart of the experiment were some refugee psychoanalysts from central Europe. They worked with American psychiatrists, using techniques developed by Freud to take the men back into their past. They were convinced that the breakdowns were not the direct result of the fighting. They believed that the stress of combat had merely triggered old childhood memories of violent feelings and desires, which they had repressed because they were too frightening. To the psychoanalysts this mass of traumatised soldiers was overwhelming proof of Freud's theory that, underneath, human beings were driven by primitive and irrational forces.

Victory in the Second World War was celebrated as a triumphant reassertion of democracy. But, in private, many policy makers were worried about the implications of the analysis of the soldiers. It seemed to show that underneath every American was an irrational, potentially very violent creature. Moreover, what had happened in Germany seemed to bear this out. Policy makers believed that the complicity of so many ordinary Germans in mass killings during the war showed just how easily these irrational forces could break through — and overwhelm democracy.

The psychoanalysts were convinced that they not only understood these dangerous forces but that they knew how to control them too. They offered to use their techniques to create democratic individuals, because democracy, left to itself, couldn't be relied on to do this.

Tyrrell: And the source of this idea was not only Sigmund Freud, but also his daughter Anna.

Curtis: Yes. She had fled with her father to London before the outbreak of war and, after he died, became the acknowledged leader of the psychoanalytic movement. She saw it as her job to fulfil her father's dream of getting his ideas widely accepted throughout the world. Freud believed that civilisation developed to control our animal instincts. People couldn't be allowed to be free. Anna believed it was possible to teach individuals how to control these inner forces. She had come to believe this through analysing children — above all, the children of her close friend, Dorothy Burlingham, an American millionaire who had fled a failed marriage. She brought her children to Anna because they were suffering terrible anxieties and were violent and aggressive. Anna was convinced she could help these children. From her analysis of them she developed a theory of how to control inner drives. She believed that, if children could be encouraged to adapt to the society around them, then, as they grew up, the conscious part of their mind — termed the ego — would be greatly strengthened in its struggle to control the unconscious forces: the id.

Tyrrell: And she believed that, if a child did not conform, its ego would be weak and prey to the dangerous forces of the unconscious.

Curtis: That's right. And the Burlingham children did settle down and returned to America. The analysis seemed to be a great success. But the remarkable thing was that this one case became the template for a giant social experiment to control the inner mental life of the American population.

In 1946, President Truman signed the National Mental Health Act, born directly out of the wartime 'discoveries' by psychoanalysts that millions of Americans who had been drafted suffered from hidden anxieties and fears. The aim of the act was to deal with this invisible threat to society. And so a vast project began in America to apply the ideas of psychoanalysis to the masses. Psychological guidance centres were set up in hundreds of towns staffed by psychiatrists who believed it was their job to control the hidden forces inside the minds of millions of ordinary Americans.

At the same time, thousands of counsellors were trained to apply psychoanalysis to marriage guidance. And social workers were sent out to visit people's homes and advise on the psychological structure of family life.

Tyrrell: It sounds like a horror story! And you showed that this was only the beginning of the rise to power of psychoanalysis in America. Psychoanalysts moved into big business to use their techniques, not just to create model citizens, but model consumers. The Institute of Motivational Research was set up, to explore why people behave as they do, and buy as they do. And then psychoanalyst Ernest Dichter set up the first 'focus group', to discover the hidden motivations of people, in connection with particular products.

There is that marvellous story you tell about the Betty Crocker cake mix. Dichter got American housewives to free associate, and concluded that they had unconscious guilt about the ease and convenience angle, which was to be the selling point of the mixes. The solution was to give them a greater sense of participation. So, the cake mix required that the user had to add an egg. And that made sales soar, because the egg served as an unconscious symbol of a gift, added by the housewife for her husband, and therefore lessened the guilt about using the shortcut of a cake mix!

Curtis: That's right. Corporations and advertising agencies all started rushing, then, to employ psychoanalysts. They called them 'the depth boys'. What happened was that a group of psychoanalysts took what Bernays had begun and invented a whole range of techniques to get inside and manage the unconscious mind of the consumer. By the early 50s the ideas of psychoanalysis had penetrated deep into American life. The psychoanalysts themselves became rich and powerful and had many famous politicians, writers and show business celebrities as patients. And, as their ideas took hold, a new elite began to emerge — in politics, social planning, and the business world. What linked them was the assumption that the masses were fundamentally irrational. The way to manage a free market democracy, like America, was to use their psychological understanding to control this irrationality in the interests of everyone.

Then, after the Soviet Union exploded its first hydrogen bomb in 1953, fear of nuclear war and communism gripped the United States. The American government again turned to Edward Bernays for help, and he advised President Eisenhower that appeals to reason in the face of the communist threat were pointless. Instead, to win the Cold War, these mass fears should actually be encouraged and manipulated — but in such a way that they could be used as a weapon in the battle against communism. Rational argument was fruitless.

Tyrrell: I was brought up in those Cold War years, and your films explained a lot about why America acted the way it did in those decades. You tell, for instance, of how the United Fruit Company, which owned vast banana plantations in Guatemala and in effect controlled the country through pliable dictators, turned in desperation to Bernays for help when a new democratically elected socialist was elected president and refused to play ball. PR was used to paint him as a dangerous communist recruited by Moscow, and news media were bombarded with 'information' that Moscow intended to use Guatemala as a base to attack America — "a Soviet outpost in our backyard!" In the end, Eisenhower agreed to the Guatemalan leader's secretly being toppled, and it was seen by American people as a great triumph when he was forced to flee the country. Chilling stuff.

Then, in the third film, you went on to show how, in the 1960s, the influence of Freudian ideas in America was challenged by a group of psychotherapists who believed that the inner self did not need to be repressed and controlled. Rather it should be encouraged to express itself. Could you sketch in what happened?

Curtis: Well, firstly, psychoanalysis fell out of favour. It became impossible to hide the fact that it just didn't work. Some famous patients, like Marilyn Monroe, committed suicide. Anna Freud was discredited too. One of the Burlingham children, whose analysis had apparently been so successful, actually came back from America as an adult and committed suicide in Freud's London house, where Anna still lived.

Tyrrell: A very symbolic act.

Curtis: There was also a very famous experiment, funded by the CIA, in which the head of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Ewan Cameron, tried to remove the dangerous inner forces from mentally ill people by bombarding them with drugs and ECT to erase their memories of the past, and then replacing them with positive material, played to them on tape. All he ended up with was dozens of people with memory loss, and the realisation that it was harder to manipulate the human mind than he’d thought.

Such events marked the end of the political influence of psychoanalysis. At the same time, people on the political left in America became fed up with having, as they saw it, ideas implanted in their minds by big business and the state, a process directly stemming from Freudian ideas, particularly from Anna Freud and Bernays. The Hidden Persuaders, a powerful book by Vance Packard, accused psychoanalysts of reducing people to puppets by manipulating their desires. Students in the mid-60s started accusing corporate America of brainwashing people to keep them docile, while pursuing the Vietnam War.

Tyrrell: The authorities stamped on those protests viciously. I remember the dreadful scenes at the Democratic Convention in Chicago —

Curtis: Yes, where police turned on demonstrating students, and then the killing of four students at Kent State University, 18 months later. In the face of such implacable opposition the left fell apart as a political force. Individuals began to look for new ways to bring about change, thinking that, if enough people could change themselves, then the state too would change. They turned to the ideas of renegade psychoanalysts like Wilhelm Reich and Fritz Perls.

Tyrrell: But Reich was dead by this time.

Curtis: Yes, but one of his students, Fritz Perls, had set himself up as a psychotherapist guru in a little rundown motel called Esalen on a remote part of the Californian coast — Big Sur. Perls developed a form of encounter group in which he pushed individuals to publicly express the feelings that society had told them were dangerous and should be repressed.

What Perls and others working at Esalen believed was that they were creating ways that allowed individuals to free their minds of social constraints. Out of this, they thought, would come new autonomous beings independent of society, and this proved to be an enormously attractive idea to millions. In the late 60s and early 70s, thousands flocked to the Esalen Institute. From being obscure and fringe, it quickly became the centre of a national movement for personal transformation.

Tyrrell: The human potential movement.

Curtis: Yes. And, as the movement grew, the leaders of Esalen decided to try and use their techniques directly to solve social problems such as racism.

Tyrrell: And the film vividly showed what a disaster that was, when they held encounter groups in which blacks and whites confronted each other! Never-
theless, this movement took off in a big way when business realised it could be exploited.

Curtis: By seeking to create new beings — free of the psychological conformity which had been implanted in people's minds by business and politics — they created the 'me' generation. Corporate America was worried at first. For instance, fewer students bought life assurance on leaving university, because of the new concern with today, not tomorrow. Also, how could they provide products which expressed people's difference, when corporate America specialised in making large numbers of same? But they soon realised that the irresistible rise of this expressive self, rather than being a threat, was in fact their greatest opportunity. It was in their interest to encourage people to feel they were unique individuals and then sell them ways to express that individuality. And once again they turned to techniques developed by Freudian psychoanalysts to read people's inner desires — focus groups. But of course few individualists were interested in taking part in focus groups!

Tyrrell: You showed, however, that there was one entrepreneur who cleverly found a way of mass producing 'self', which eventually turned the corner for big business: Werner Erhard, who started 'est' — intentionally spelt in the lower case so as to be 'unpretentious'. He — and others who copied what he was doing, like Exegesis in Britain — claimed they could teach 200-odd people at a time to find out how to 'be themselves' on weekend courses. The core idea he promoted was that there was no fixed, innate self — which meant you could be anything you wanted to be.

When you interviewed him, did you get the impression he really believed all that stuff? The way you edited it, it was a bit like he said, "Oh I think it's all just a joke".

Curtis: The remarkable thing about Werner Erhard is that he does think it is a joke, but he would say, that is the point. He is the ultimate relativist. Where those who came before him, the human potential people at Esalen, believed that there was an intrinsic true and good self at the centre of all human beings, Werner Erhard truly believes that we are nothing. He thinks that we are trapped by the idea that we have a self and defusing the notion that you have a true self is empowering. He thinks the self is endlessly fluid and can be reinterpreted again and again. But what I think he didn't realise was that, by doing that to people, he also liberated big business because it meant that business could say, "You can have any identity you want, be whatever you want to be, and we will sell you whatever you need to express your identity". So, ultimately, I think the joke is probably on him.

Tyrrell: I know people who went on his course and came out incredibly greedy and materialist and exploiters of other people. Families were wrecked by it.

Curtis: I think what he was about was producing the most solipsistic, self-centred people you could possibly imagine. Really he was teaching people just to think in terms of their self — like, the world outside is not real — and telling them they could create their own reality by the strength of their own personality. It is extreme narcissism, but a very powerful idea that, arguably, led to the new self expressive consumerism which rose in the 80s and dominated life in the 90s. We have arrived at a point where you are sold one product to express yourself one day, then encouraged to express yourself differently the next day through another product. Many 'est' graduates also went into management consultancy and so the idea that you can make the world you want, and manage it, became part of the ethos of self expression which arose.

So Erhard was one of those who encouraged the puffing up of that selfish aspect of human nature which is irrational and not very nice. But he was also a great salesman and immensely charming.

Tyrrell: Oh yes?

Curtis: So maybe I was charmed!

Tyrrell: [laughs] Yes. Ah well, a lot of highly dangerous people are charming!

You also looked at Maslow's idealistic notion of 'self-actualisation', which became such a mantra in counselling and education circles. This is the idea that people can, if given enough 'space', become completely self directed and free of society. That what is inside us is a kind of seed that just needs enough space to grow fully. It has been called romanticism because it ignores the impact of life experiences on the brain — education, stress, etc — and how that affects who we become.

Curtis: Maslow thought that somehow, by producing people who are free of society, you produce good human beings — the obverse of Freud's view. Maslow believed that human beings' inner core is good, not selfish and irrational. But in essence it is still a Freudian idea — that fundamentally we have this emotional self. I would say that the emotional self is just one aspect of human nature; they both believed that it's the core of it. For Maslow, Carl Rogers and their followers, self actualisation is the process which allows that core to break free from social constraints and obligations, from thinking about other things than itself.

One example of its naivety is how easily and quickly it was exploited and used. Maslow's idea of the 'hierarchy of needs', for example, became the basis of what is now called ‘lifestyle marketing’, which is so powerful throughout the western world and underpins modern consumerism. A team at the Stanford Research Institute, which worked for corporations and governments, thought his hierarchy could be used to categorise society not by class but by inner drives.

Tyrrell: Oh, yes! They sent out huge numbers of questionnaires with penetrating personal questions about people's personal motivations — and received an astounding 86 per cent return rate because people just loved filling it out! The results allowed business to predict particular individuals' lifestyles — type of house, type of car, etc. If a new product expressed their personal values, they would buy it.

Curtis: Although Maslow and his followers were very keen to be seen as anti-Freudians, they are just offering another version of the same thing — that at our core we are just emotional, irrational beings.

Tyrrell: It certainly seems naive in the light of what has, in the last 10 or 15 years, been discovered about how the brain works — the relationship between emotion and thought. But what I hadn't fully appreciated until your programmes was just how much these ideas influenced big business and politics. We knew how they had affected, and in many ways held back the development of, psychotherapy and counselling, but didn't appreciate the wider implications you revealed. Do you think that the huge rise in depression and anxiety disorders in the last 50 years is linked to the rise of the self? Or is that just a coincidence?

Curtis: I think that, if you are arguing that there has been a rise in the increasingly isolated self in society, there is a parallel with the rise in rates of anxiety and depression.

But there is another way of looking at it which is that, as the self rose up in importance in society, it only revealed what had previously not been noticed because private feelings about the self were subsumed by much more complicated social structures; kinship networks and extended families and so on. What people suffered from had just been hidden away. Because of the breakdown of families and social structures, these feelings are more noticeable. Perhaps human beings, as someone once said, have always lived lives of quiet desperation. It is just that that quiet desperation is a little more obvious these days because people are isolated. We must be careful not to think there was a golden age when people lived in nice communities. Mostly, life was repressive and horrible. People probably repressed and held down those feelings of anxiety, depression and desperation.

Tyrrell: Mmm… That sounds Freudian to me! In your last film, you showed how the belief that the satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority was seized upon by left wing politicians to regain power. How did that happen?

Curtis: I think what is interesting is how late it happened. Conservative politicians, especially those who believed in the free market, have a very pessimistic view of human beings anyway, so they picked up on it easily. Ronald Reagan was elected on the slogan of 'let the people rule'. He wanted to "let people loose". Margaret Thatcher flourished on the idea of giving people what they wanted through the free market. Both Reagan and Thatcher encouraged business to take over the role of fulfilling people's desires. But those politicians who grew up in the postwar era with the belief that the state could and should be run by a paternalistic elite who knew what was good for people — could rationally imagine what people needed, inspire them and take them there — were very late in getting it.

I think two things happened. Firstly, the economic crisis of the 1970s showed the paternalistic way had failed. By the early 90s, the left were faced with the problem that their electorate, as Clinton's advisors said to him, thought of themselves as consumers.

Tyrrell: You show very clearly the big part that strategy adviser Philip Gould played in modernising the Labour party. He commissioned focus groups to find out the electorate's underlying feelings and, on the basis of his findings, tried to persuade Labour to make concessions to the aspirational classes. John Smith, at the time Shadow Chancellor, refused to have anything to do with such ideas and insisted Labour, if elected, would put up taxes to fund public services. He continued to reject Gould's ideas when Kinnock resigned and he himself took over leadership of the party, so Gould took himself off to join Clinton's campaign in America. Clinton bought the idea that people didn't want to pay raised taxes to fund benefits for wider society but couldn't honour promises not to raise taxes because the financial implications turned out to be too huge. He started losing support and, in desperation, took the advice that he would have to turn politics into a form of consumer business — identifying and meeting inner desires.

Curtis: That's right. So all the traditional policies were dropped and he concentrated on meeting the concerns of swinging voters — one of which was finding ways to stop children watching pornography on TV!

Tyrrell: And that ploy was a great success! Short term policies with no vision. And it started happening in Britain too. When Blair became leader of New Labour in 1994, Gould was his strategy adviser. He ran almost nightly focus groups, again concentrating on the swinging voters and the issues that mattered to them. When Blair was first in office, he didn't pay much attention to the railways because focus groups hadn't identified them as a high priority. But as soon as the rail crashes started happening, everyone blamed New Labour for not putting more money into the railways. They couldn't have, of course, because they had no long term strategy — just what mattered in the short term, to win the voters.

Curtis: Politicians had a complete failure of imagination and of nerve, particularly in Britain and America. They had nothing to offer and they still haven't. So they turned to focus groups and consumer techniques, I suspect, with a sense of blessed relief. In effect, they said, "We haven't got any ideas so let's ask people what they want and give it to them."

Tyrrell: And now they are trapped with no room for manoeuvre. Their 'policies' are increasingly dictated by short-termism and selfishness — consumerism.

Curtis: Policies are decided in committees that are inhibited by reports from focus groups —

Tyrrell: — And are always biased by urges to gain political advantage and please the people, which means no government can ever be in tune with reality. It has always seemed to me that democracy can never really work well, for the running of a complex country, because most people aren’t interested in or informed about the big issues, and are simply guided by slogans. It is the nature of democracy that the view of someone who is highly knowledgeable about the healthcare system, for instance, carries no more weight — in terms of votes and the future of the NHS — than someone who knows, or cares, nothing about it. But it is better to have a democracy with its limited ideas than a terrible tyranny, of course; yet perhaps there are other ways it could be done.

Curtis: Individuals who do have ideas are in business. Businessmen say, "We are much better at gratifying people's irrational desires because our profits depend on it. So, why don't we supply those services of government that government now seems so bad at delivering?" I think that is the next thing to happen.

Tyrrell: What, that business will take over government?

Curtis: Well, that's increasingly what this government wants business to do with the schools, prisons and hospitals. You see, once politicians adopted a consumerist model of people, they realised they were not experienced in operating it. So business people, those to whom it comes naturally to treat people as consumers, come to the fore and gain more power.

Tyrrell: One thing that strikes me about the type of society that we have now is how difficult it has become to think of other ways of being human or developing. Students today, for example, are sort of pulled into consumerism because they are lumbered with huge debts from the day they enter university. It used to be thought that young people need a period of time in their life to look at other ideas and philosophies and thoughts, and meet with people from other backgrounds and with different interests and that they should be allowed to change direction if inspired to do so, changing a degree subject in midstream, perhaps. And this was considered OK. But now being consumers of education and the pressure of having to pay off those debts is actually making it harder for students.

Curtis: It seems to me that consumerism is a way of managing human beings as much as it is a way of selling them things. The roots of it lie very explicitly back in the 1920s. We have forgotten this but it grew out of an ideological idea about managing the masses at a time when democracy was emerging. Back then they argued about controlling in a totalitarian way, fascist or communist. But another way to control people was found — through consumerism. So consumerism is an ideological response to the need government has to control the masses, and it is a very successful way of managing people, and your students are a very good example of that. I think some historical crisis, like a war, will come along and change everything. I certainly wouldn't trust those in charge of focus groups to run a war. When Philip Gould was asked whether he would use focus groups to run a war, he said, "Yes". You see, these people believe — and this is crucial — that consumerism fed by focus groups is a new and much better form of democracy. What I was arguing in the films was that this is a very limited idea of democracy. I am torn because I don't believe in the old paternalistic elite either, which is why I left the series open ended.

New Labour are faced with a dilemma. The system of consumer democracy that they embraced in order to get elected has trapped them into a series of short-term and often contradictory policies. As more and more things go wrong, there are increasing demands that they fulfil a grander vision. People expect them to use the power of government to deal with problems of growing inequality and the decaying social fabric of the country. But, to do this, they will have to appeal to the electorate to think outside their individual self interest. We have forgotten that we can be more than that — that there are other sides to human nature. And now, although we feel we are free, in reality we, like the politicians, have become the slaves of our own desires.

Tyrrell: Perhaps some slaves are escaping…


ADAM CURTIS has made a number of political-historical documentary series for the BBC. Besides The Century of the Self, these include Pandora's Box — six fables from the age of science, The Mayfair Set, and The Living Dead. He has won three BAFTA awards, twice for Best Documentary Series and once for Most Original Programme.
IVAN TYRRELL is a psychotherapist, lecturer and editorial director of Human Givens.


This article first appeared in "Human Givens Journal" Volume 9 - No. 3: 2002

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