The Century of The Self – A Summary, Critique and Practical Lessons
This documentary is nothing short of astonishing. It gives you an explanation to why the world is the way it is today and how human nature shaped it in the past century. Even if you didn’t learn any new facts from it (you will), it would be worth watching just for the way it connects the dots. It’s made up of four parts. I’ll share my notes and critical thoughts of it.
The film starts with the ideas of Sigmund Freud, who believed that humans are irrational and are governed by their subconscious fears and desires. His nephew, Edward Bernays, put his theory to practice and got to work to build a social structure that controls the masses that could not be trusted to control themselves and would pose a threat otherwise.
Bernays worked with business and government using the techniques and ideology he took from Freud. One of his great success stories was getting American women to smoke, which was previously unheard of. However, Bernays associated it with gender equality (torches of freedom) and it took off like wildfire. The techniques he applied are astonishing: he paid women at mass gatherings to smoke setting an example.
What Bernays realized was that what people needed was very different from what they wanted. And that the latter was way more profitable for business. Also, as long as people’s desires were fulfilled governments could do pretty much what they wanted.
The National Socialists of Germany essentially shared the same belief about democracy as Bernays did: it didn’t work. Bernays’ solution was to build a system that provides an illusion of democracy and wellbeing, while the Nazis were straightforward: they would abandon democracy for an alternative that would channel the masses uncontrollable energies in ways that held the nation together. That didn’t work out too well either, but at least they were honest about their stance on democracy.
In the socio-economic system Bernays helped build, people are not active participants, but passive consumers. People are not in charge, their innermost (often irrational) desires are.
The engineering of consent
It didn’t take long for big business in the US to get from psychoanalysis to focus groups in order to figure out the deepest fears and desires of people that they didn’t know themselves and then to manufacture the matching products.
Ernest Dichter realized that people didn’t always know what they wanted and the origins of their desires were often unconscious. He essentially invented the focus group, which gave him a chance to observe consumers using and interacting with products and letting them talk freely about them rather than asking straight questions. One of his memorable achievements was when an instant cake didn’t sell well, he figured out it was because house wives felt guilty for not having to work. So they made the women add their own eggs to the mix, which changed the perceived ease of making the instant cake and now women felt like they deserved the credits for their work and sales soared.
Psychoanalysts like Dichter trained corporations to identify and exploit people’s fears and desires. By the early 50s their ideas became widely accepted in business as well as politics. The reason why they did what they did was they believed that by regulating people’s wild desires and unconscious fears, we’d live in a better society. By giving people products that complement their personalities, products they could identify with, people would become more stable emotionally and able to lead more balanced and happy lives. Psychoanalysts believed that ordinary individuals and the masses were not capable of being democratic by themselves unless their unstable way of being was controlled. They believed themselves to be part of an elite that had the knowledge and means to enable the masses to live in a democratic society and they did so by promoting the ideas of psychoanalysis and the practices derived from them at every level and fragment of society.
Freud’s daughter, Anna, was determined to spread his father’s theory as well as to take it a step further. And she did. She took a troubled mother and her four children and moved them into a new environment, which, in combination with psychoanalysis, was supposed to cure them of anxiety and aggression. The experiment seemed to have worked, but decades later all the problems resurfaced and several of the then grown up children committed suicide.
One of the outright deceitful acts of Bernays under the umbrella of shaping public opinion was his way of making Guatemala look like a communist threat to the US and overthrowing its government. Bernays sent over American journalist and made sure the people they talked to painted the picture he wanted. He went as far as organizing an anti American demonstration and setting up a fake news agency just to spread fake news about the threat Guatemala posed to the US. He did all this with the justification that the cold war had to be won and the American way of life had to be preserved. However, the masses were not able to act rationally so they had to be manipulated. Bernays called this the engineering of consent.
The CIA went even further. They funded brainwashing experiments in which they tried to erase the memories of people and create new identities that were in line with their interests. They succeeding in erasing memories, but failed miserably to reprogram people.
Psychoanalysts’ influence and power peaked around the 50’s in America and started to decline in the 60’s. Merilyn Monroe, who was the patient of a prominent psychoanalyst, committed suicide which raised a lot of questions about the effectiveness of their methods. Then books appeared and influencers spoke up against psychoanalysts saying that the system they helped build was based on planned obsolescence and helped a small elite to get rich by exploiting and controlling the masses through the manufacturing of products that repressed and fulfilled their hidden desires. So the pendulum swung the other way. Psychoanalyst were now accused of building a society that corrupts the innocent individual as opposed the Freudian idea of the evil and dangerous individual that was a threat to society.
There is a policeman inside all our heads, he must be destroyed
The Freudian view of the human psyche is based on dangerous and primitive emotions and their repression. That’s why Anna Freud tried to cure her patients by putting them in a new environment and that’s why she died a virgin. Wilhelm Reich believed the opposite. He though that sexual energy had to be expressed freely to be healthy and that humans are inherently good, but the society that wanted to repress their inner energies made them sick and dangerous. He also believed a lot of baloney, like he could cure cancer and make rain fall…
Reich died in the 50s, but his views became very popular in the 60s. People took to the streets and demonstrated against corporations and the government and how they worked together to keep the masses docile while they fought an unjustified war in Vietnam. Demonstrators were overpowered by the state, which resulted in a change of tactics. The personal become political. People started making the changes in themselves they wanted to see happen at a social level. Psychologist that followed and took Reich’s teachings further developed methods for people to express their innermost fears and desires that would allow them to shed the controls and conditioning imposed by society. The movement that started with small isolated experiments quickly spread nationwide in the US and by the 80s 80% of the American population was transformed.
The process had dire consequences for business. The insurance industry took the first blow as these new free individuals who lived in the present didn’t buy insurance. And that’s where business had to reinvent itself. Mass production was dead. They had to come up with products that facilitated self expression, and showing off individual differences. Corporations realized they had to conform to the new non-conformist consumers in order to stay in business.
Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of needs provided a basis for business to segment society into groups that had their own desires. It also became clear that there was a limit to being different: the ways in which people liked to express themselves could be categorized. They called this method the Values and Lifestyles system. This went way beyond the previous methods of demographics and social classes and allowed businesses to make offers that seemed really personal to consumers.
The exact same methods were employed in politics. Regan and Thatcher both got into power because they appealed to the “inner directives” group, who could not be identified with traditional methods as they were part of all social classes and demographic groups. But by going after their values and figuring out what mattered to them (less government, more individualistic society), they were able to give them exactly what they wanted.
The hippie movement started as a rebellion against the state and big business and was aimed at self expression and self actualization. By the end of the century, these new self actualized individuals became dependent on business for their new identities because business found the way to help them be who they wanted to be. Business turned a threat into the biggest opportunity in history. An old and finite economy based on the static needs of the masses fulfilled by mass produced products was made redundant by an ever changing and infinite number of individual desires that made infinite economies possible. In this new individualistic society, there is no society really. It’s all about the individual and satisfying its desires.
Eight people sipping wine in Kettering
The first three episodes showed how business learned to read consumers’ desires and sell them products that satisfied them. The closing episode shows how politics has done the same towards the end of the century using the very same techniques as business.
In the classic model of politics, different candidates showed up with their different agendas and it was up to the voter to choose one that matched their preferences. In this new system dominated by super granular opinion polls and analysis of people’s political desires, each candidate tried to match their agenda to what they thought people wanted.
At first, that might sound like the ultimate democracy. However, by responding to people’s particular whims and even unconscious desires, politicians ended up making contradicting policies and not having a clear sense of direction. In addition, things that people favoured in the short term (like spending less on infrastructure), backfired in the medium and long run and cost politicians votes. So in essence, what worked for business, didn’t work in politics.
The final message of the documentary is that by the end of the century, we willingly reduced ourselves to our conscious or subconscious desires and trying to satisfy them at all times. We have forgotten that being human is a lot more than that.
On the whole, this film is extremely useful to forming a well rounded view of the world we live in and to putting together the pieces of the puzzle that the developments of the past century represent. At the same time, it’s important to note that this is only one of many different interpretations.
My strongest critical point is that it could easily fuel conspiracy theories. By focusing on the Freud family and certain other individuals, it suggests that these people had an agenda and it was up to them to trigger the events that took place. Conversely, I believe that while the individuals portrayed played a significant role in shaping the course of events (and, consequently, our world today), they were instrumental, but not essential to the process. They were not part of a secret society with an evil plan to enslave humanity. They merely acted out of self interest (even believing they were making the world a better place) and in accordance with the incentives their environment gave them. In other words, if they had not done what they did, other people would have, because the system was set up in a way that this was the only possible outcome.
The 20th century saw an unprecedented acceleration of technological development (which is hardly referenced in the documentary), and the human psyche could not keep up. Our physiology has not changed much since the prehistoric ages. We have a lot more in common with our ape ancestors than we do with the rational beings we like to think we are (not necessarily in the Freudian way though). And we suddenly found ourselves in a completely new environment, which presented brand new challenges and also certain opportunities to everyone who saw them.
The stories of the people who saw those opportunities dominate the documentary. There is no conspiracy. There is simply a profit motive and there are advanced techniques to read people and give them what they (don’t even know they) want. The documentary fails to make that point and lets the viewer assume that there is some dark and mysterious plot behind all this.
I feel that to paint an accurate image of the entanglement of capitalism and democracy of the 20th century, externalities should be mentioned, which the documentary fails to do. The idea of planned obsolescence does come up at one point, but the fundamental flaw in the capitalistic economy is overlooked: as long as neither business nor the consumer pays for externalities, such as destruction of the environment, exploitation of human and natural resources, the system is distorted. Someone will eventually have to pay for these, as we increasingly find with global warming, but the fact that these costs are removed from the economic cycle is essential to understanding the capitalistic societies of the 20th century.
The documentary discusses the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in detail, but it focuses mainly on how they got into power rather than the consequences of their policies, which was just as if not more important in shaping our recent history. The feverish deregulation, privatization and liberalization and the belief that markets were self regulatory and would solve every problem of society lead to suboptimal performances across many domains, growing inequality of wealth distribution and recurring economic crises. The most eloquent example is of course the crisis of 2008, which is obviously out of the scope of current film.
Again, this documentary is definitely a must see for everyone wanting to understand the world today and it begs for a 5th episode. From what we’ve seen of the 21st century so far, the tendencies of the past century have only accelerated. That said, small groups have also sparked up and they keep flashing the light at the end of the tunnel so that we can hope to transcend the Freudian capitalistic socio-economic system sometime in the late 21st century.
The dilemma this documentary raises concerns everyone who wants to succeed in a capitalistic society. To succeed in business you need to employ the same techniques big business does. Or do you?
I don’t think the techniques are bad in themselves. It all depends what you use them for. As long as they are used to figure out real needs of people that will improve their lives and allow them to become better versions of themselves, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. To me the key is solving a real problem that really improves someone’s life as opposed to making them believe that it does.
What practical lessons can we take away from all this?
- Question your own wants and desires – they may not be your own.
- To live a good life, you need to work for things bigger than yourself.
- Make products that help people become better versions of themselves and (only) then you can use any technique necessary to get them to buy your product.