Holiday Special: Something That Changed My Perspective (#3)

This week, I’ve used the slowdown in business news as an opportunity to share some things I have come across that affected how I view the world.

I can’t recommend strongly enough that you watch the award-winning 2002 BBC documentary, The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis. The series comes in four segments; we’ve featured the first two earlier this week, “Happiness Machines” and “The Engineering of Consent.”

Curtis said, “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.” It focuses on how Freud’s ideas were used by business and government, far more deliberately and extensively than one might imagine, during the 20th century to achieve what Curtis calls “the engineering of consent.” From the BBC’s description:

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?…..

Sigmund Freud’s work into the bubbling and murky world of the subconscious changed the world. By introducing a technique to probe the unconscious mind, Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.

Today’s offering is “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed.” Although I found all the segments eye-opening, this one, which (among other things) explains how some of the social ideas coming out of the idealistic 1960s were co-opted by Reagan and Thatcher, was particularly illuminating.

I encourage you to watch a few minutes here, and then go over to Google Video, since you will see it in a larger scale format there.

Click here to view it at Google Video.

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  1. Anonymous

    Oh dear, what to say. Yes, the judgement about idiotic consumption of all sorts, the shop, strip mall and consumer goods culture is correct.

    No, it is not correct to blame it on successful application of the discredited theories of psychoanalysis or on the Freud family.

    Curtis makes movies which foment an hysterical approach to current affairs. There are far better guides to advertising and its role in society. But the key question is, once we see the effects of the whole junk shopping culture, what is to be done?

    This is the thing to think about. Curtis is very light on that indeed, and for a reason. Its a very hard problem.

  2. Yves Smith

    Anon of 3:03 AM,

    Have you actually seen the series, or are you merely reacting to the synopsis? The third segment, which is about how the human potential movement posed a huge problem to advertisers and politicians, but was successfully co-opted, goes far beyond a simple critique of consumer culture. And the fourth segment discusses how the left has been forced to the right, and suggests it will never be what it once was.

  3. Anonymous

    Truly wonderful that you are bringing attention to Adam Curtis’ excellent work. And it is so interesting to see how some people react to what he is saying and how he says it. Curtis does a good job of making the audience think for themselves. Some find it too demanding: they want their thoughts ready-made. For my part, i find his way of weaving narrative and clips from different sources truly creative. His restraint in presenting any conclusions is in itself a treasure and a gift in this world where everybody is promoting some sort of agenda.

  4. Anonymous

    Many thanks, Yves, for flagging the “Century of the Self”. It was better than brilliant.

    Will environmental constraints rein in our mindless consumption before it is too late? It is hard to be optimistic.

    For further festive cheer I will be hunkering down to watch “The Power of Nightmares” and “The Trap”, both also by Adam Curtis.

  5. Anonymous

    Yves, yes, I did watch the first two or three episodes, when they were first broadcast. So to be honest, my recollections are not as clear as your impressions. I also watched the Power of Nightmares, which is rather fresher in memory, and this is the motivation behind the judgement of ‘hysteria’. It did not impress me at all.

    I’m not differing with you on a basic point, that is, the unhealthiness of the current cultural preoccupation with consumption, spending, and the whole shopping culture. Nor am I differing with you that there are large corporate forces driving this stuff in a very unhelpful way. I’m really differing in evaluation of Curtis, and in thinking there’s any sort of causal link to depth psychology. I think Freud and the Human Potential Movement always were pretty much of a sham, always were the same basic phenomenon as the consumer goods push. Similarly with the PoN: yes, the US assisted in the building up of the Taliban. But, there was something there to build on, and something that doesn’t and never has since 600 or so liked us or wished us well.

    Its cause and effect, versus accompaniment from the same causes. That’s my feeling anyway.

    But your reproach is probably valid, I maybe do need to rewatch them, and watch the last episode either for the first time or more carefully.

    Thank you for a great blog by the way, while I am posting. Enjoy it, both when I agree and disagree.

  6. Mencius Moldbug

    It’s amazing how people can actually believe that Western societies have moved to the right across the last 40 years.

    Try an experiment sometime. Go to your friendly local library and read a random week of newspapers from, say, the 1960s. Any paper will do, but I recommend a major daily from a second-tier American city, such as the SF Chronicle. Then, if your mind is not made up, try the same with the ’20s.

    What you’ll see is that these “idealistic” ideas to which you refer were held by a very small, though socially and intellectually prominent, group of people. Whereas the ideas of the average reader of the paper you choose would, if magically teleported into 2007, cluster generally around a point which can only be described as the right-wing wacko fringe.

    There’s a policeman in your head all right. But it’s not a Wal-Mart commercial or a conspiracy between ExxonMobil, Dick Cheney and the John Birch Society. Um, gee, when was the last time you heard of the JBS? What do you think, it became so powerful that it no longer exists?

    On the other hand, our societies are full of incredibly influential institutions that seem perfectly designed to tell us what to think. They are called schools. And universities, and journalists, and NGOs, and foundations, and the like. All of which have considerably more motive, propensity and opportunity to install a “policeman in your head” than anyone at ExxonMobil.

    Adam Curtis is simply projecting. What annoys him is not that the electorate is being reprogrammed, but that they have not been reprogrammed as much as he would like them to have been reprogrammed, nor in the direction he favors.

    One can only imagine what the West would look like if its Tom Haydens and Eldridge Cleavers had not met some resistance, in the form of the now-defunct silent-majority types you will find all over the place in that 1967 newspaper. Sheesh. Probably a cross between Burning Man, Algeria, and “Escape from New York.”

    And the worst thing is that, since the squares really have met their Waterloo (when was the last time you heard an American politician even mention the racial spoils system, ie, “affirmative action”), it might still happen. Polls show that young people around the world are overwhelmingly to the left of their seniors. Sarkozy, I believe, got 2/3 of the over-60 vote and lost 2/3 of the under-30s. If you’re wondering where his Karcher went, seek no further.

    We now return you to your regularly scheduled “capitalism.” More government-guaranteed loans for everyone! Especially, of course, the underprivileged.

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