April 15, 2008

The Century of the Self

In 2002, the BBC produced a four-part series called The Century of the Self which explored the rise of the consumerist society and how it relates to western democracy. The overarching thesis for the series was how the theories of Freud created the modern western political system known in 2002 where the search for self had mutated from a search for intrinsic meaning into a mindless quest for products which would allow one to express one's self.

What is remarkable about this series is how it ties together the use of psychology in creating our modern capitalist society and reinforcing the political structures that maintain the status quo. And it asks the question: what view of human nature holds? Are humans basically driven by irrational thoughts and desires requiring someone of authority to control them? Or are they capable of rational thought and can they be trusted to be part of a democratic process?

The first episode covers how business began to use psychological methods to build a consumerist society which they saw as being valuable both for building a prosperous society, but which also kept the masses tractable. To do this they engaged Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmod Freud who had found his uncle’s theories extremely valuable, as he incorporated these theories in the industry of Public Relations.

What Freud discovered was that people were deeply affected by their deepest emotional and visceral feelings instead of being the rational and logical beings upon which our founders had based their vision of a democratic government. Freud came to distrust people because of their irrationality and their aggressiveness and believed that democracy could not work. But what disturbed Freud, his nephew found it to be a source of wealth and power. Because Bernays realized that since humans are not often rational when they make decisions and they often make snap judgments based on their emotions, someone who could read and understand what drives people could control their behavior. And he realized that this could be a powerful tool for business.

One telling example on how he used this insight was to find a way to promote in women a desire to smoke. In the early 1920s he was approached by a tobacco company executive to find out how to overcome the deep taboo that kept women from smoking. What Bernays did was to use his uncle’s techniques to work with women to discover what caused them to feel as they did about smoking. It turned out that the way people saw cigarettes were that they were a symbol of male power and thus not appropriate for women. He saw that if he could connect smoking as a symbol of independence to the desire for women to be independent, he could overcome the taboo that kept women from smoking. And he realized that he could use the women’s movement to this end. He organized a rally for suffragettes who had been primed to believe by smoking they would be furthering their cause and had them all light up cigarettes under the slogan: “Torch for Freedom.” It was an incredibly subversive campaign because people who supported rights for women could not come out against women smoking.

What was clear in the BBC program was that one reason that businesses and the elite found Freud’s psychological theories so powerful was because they saw the masses as mercurial, unreliable and incapable of directing their own lives or participating fully in the society or in their government. So they found the tools that Bernays provided extremely useful in keeping people from interfering with the matters of their betters. And businesses thought they found a great mechanism for creating a society that could buy all the things industry could provide, which they saw as the ultimate in a stable and prosperous society.

Yet by the time of the great depression, the capitalistic vision was badly damaged because of another human tendency: the tendency to want to get in on a good thing while the going is good and then panicking when one realizes one’s gotten suckered into a big con. After World War I many people bought into the capitalist dream by buying stock on the market. But the market that they bought into was largely speculative and when enough people realized the lack of value underpinning the stock market, a large panic ensued and the wealth, the jobs and prosperity disappeared throughout the world.

In the United States, FDR largely discarded the idea that the citizens of the country were too irrational and mindless to participate in the government, and he spent much of his time reengaging people in a democratic conversation and used his policies to once more focus on the needs of the citizens and not just the demands of the corporations and businessmen. FDR had an inherent faith in the basic sensibility of Americans and he spent much time explaining his goals, verifying that he understood their concerns and working to gain their support for his policies.

Nevertheless, the overall idea that people were intrinsically evil and needed to be controlled for the good of the society was deeply entrenched in the politics of those times. In Germany, Goebbels had been very impressed with the work of Bernays in being able to control people via psychological tools and he began to use these same tools to tap into the inner lives of Germans for furthering Nazi Germany’s goals. The Nazis didn’t use these tools to encourage the individualistic tendencies of humans to create consumers who were happy with their lot, but instead they sought to tap the dark side of human nature to build a more potent society that would dominate all others. And instead of freeing business from government control, they incorporated business as part of the government, with the goal of creating an invincible empire where the people were to be sacrificed for the good of the society and the anger and tribalism of the people was to be used to more closely tie them to the party and their leaders. Yet, this was a dark and evil society, where the citizens were urged to partake in and collude with evil and not one where anything good could come. And it taught the western democracies to worry even more about human nature. Many of the psychological studies by the CIA were conducted in reaction to the example of Nazi Germany.

The series showed how the 20th Century brought about our modern consumerist society by tapping into the late 1960s quest for meaning. For a while, the children of the sixties were a mystery to businesses, but with psychology advertisers found a way to turn the quest for self into another powerful tool for business to manipulate as they tapped deeper into the human psyche and found a way to market and sell to those independent individuals. No longer were people separated by class or age or sex, but by their aspirations: the adventurers and explorers, the home-bodies, the strivers, and other inner directed individuals. Each one of these niches was mined and exploited so that now we have a country of SUV drivers (drawn to big and powerful vehicles) and suburbanites who look for bigger and better houses and bigger and better stuff all to be found at the malls. Everyone is catered to as if they are the only ones that matter and they only have to worry about their own lives and their own happiness. The problems of the poor or others who are not so fortunate are not the concerns of the inner-directed individuals. And industry once more thought they had found the perfect way to keep prosperity and their profits going.

As the last episode says, the liberal parties of both the United States and the United Kingdom found they once more could win elections by adopting the tactics of the businesses and by targeting the swing voters – but they could only get a mandate for the “small bore” policies such as school uniforms or emergency systems for schools, but nothing that would extend beyond the narrowest and most provincial interest. Therefore, in the Century of the Self government was doomed to be driven by only narrow and self-interested policies where happy consumers would put off the hard decisions (ie: how to maintain current infrastructure or put in place universal healthcare) until things fell apart. No hard problems could be tackled because most people didn’t think it was their problem.

The Century of the Self was a truly fascinating series, yet one that was strangely dated by two major factors that have arisen since 2002. One is the war in Iraq and the sense that more wars are in our future as we no longer seem to have the capacity to deal with others fairly and more cooperatively. The other is the overwhelming evidence that the perfect capitalistic vehicle of prosperity envisioned by business is hitting a brick wall as the signs of global warming and dwindling supplies cut into the ability to have a world driven by never-ending consumption. The problem of war once more puts into play the nightmare scenario of a state that consumes its people in service to the state and the fear that some will unleash the unconscious aggression of man’s inner nature in order to conquer their fears and their desire for total control. Furthermore the earth itself is showing the limits of man’s ability to gain meaning through consumption. Both of these problems cannot be solved if one believes that humans are incapable of doing or being better than the irrational, selfish individuals they are held to be. Democracy and true engagement from people all over the world will be needed in order to build a collaborative and inclusive world that can address the problems of global warming without inciting more fear, violence and war. Are we capable of rising to this challenge?

You can learn more about the series here.

And you can watch the episodes here.

[Ed: This was another of my articles written for the Vox Populi Nebraska eZine first published in the January 2008 issue.]

Posted by Mary at April 15, 2008 12:00 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

That really was a tremendously powerful documentary, Mary. Between that, The Shock Doctrine, and The Story of Stuff, a person can get a pretty good idea of what's gone so terribly wrong in this country and why.

Posted by: natasha at April 17, 2008 03:17 AM