''The century of the self - Happiness machines'' - Adam Curtis (documentary)

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The century of the self, Happiness Machines



The century of the self is a series about how those in power have used Freud’s theory to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass-democracy.

A bit more than 100 years ago Freud made a new theory about human nature, primitive sexual, and aggressive forces, which are hidden inside the mind of all human beings.

It was not him but his nephew, Edward Bernays to take Freud’s ideas and use them to manipulate the masses. He actually showed how American companies could convince people to want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced good to their unconscious desires. By satisfying people’s inner selfish desires, one made them happy and thus docile. Turning people into “Happiness Machines”. It was the start of the “all consuming self”, which has become to dominate our world today.

During WW1 Bernays was hired to promote America’s war aimes He did this by playing on people’s feelings rather than on their rational thinking. His campagn for president Wilson was a succesfull one. This made Bernays wonder if this mass persuation could also be applied in piece time. The term propaganda already existed but because of bad connotation he called it ‘public relations’.
Bernays goal was to manage and alter the way the big crowd thought, and to do this he turned to his uncles writing. He was fascinated by the picture of hidden irrational forces that drive people. So instead of focussing on the factual (which was the standard idea of that time) he wanted to focus on the unconsciousness/ or emotions.
In one case that is presented, he had to make women smoke (which at that time was a taboo). Sigarets were related to male sexual power and stood symbol for the penis. So to make women smoke he had to challenge the idea of the sigaret as a symbol of male power. He managed, and this made him realise that he could persuade people to behave irrationally if you line the products to their emotional desires and feelings. He initiated the emotional connect to a product or service. Irrelevant objects could than function as symbols of how you wanted to be seen by others.

America went from a needs culture to a desire culture.

In the 1920’s Freud wrote more about the psychologie of the masses. This influenced American thinkers and writers at that time. One of them was Walter Lipman. He argued that if human beings were in reality driven by unconscious irrational forces then it was necessary to rethink democracy. The basic mechanism of the mass mind is unreason, is irrationality, is animality. He believes that the mob in the street, are people who are not driven by their minds but by their spinal cords.

Bernays was fascinated by Lipman’s arguments. In the 20’s he wrote books claiming that he had made the techniques that Lipman was calling for. By stimulating people’s inner desires, and then sating them with consumer products. He was creating a new way to manage the irrational force of the masses. He called it “the engineering of consent”.
Barneys thought democracy was a wonderful concept but he thought the people out there should be guided from above, a kind of enlightened despotism.

Hoover who became president in 1928 embraced this idea. He saw consumerism as the central motor of America. He called out to the people in the advertising business, praising them: “You have taken over the job of creating the desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines that have become key to economic progress”.

The consuming self made the economy work but also made people happy and docile, therefore it created a stable society. A democracy with feel good medication.

The initial idea of democracy was to change the power relation. In this ‘new democracy’ it was actually about maintaining the relation of power that already existed. When the irrational self is stimulated, the leadership can basically go on with what it wants to do. But then the Big Depression happened. In 1929 the markets collapsed and people stopped buying things they didn’t need anymore. Bernays ideas fell from favour and another way of gouverning was required.

In the mean time Freud wrote his book “Civilisation and his discontents”. In which he argues that civilisation is not there because of progress, but that civilisation has been constructed to control the dangerous animal forces inside human beings. The heart of his argument was that the ideal of individual freedom was impossible. Human beings could never be allowed to truely express themselves, because it was too dangerous. They must always be controlled and thus must always be discontent.

Meanwhile in Europe Hitler came to power. Goebbels said he was inspired by Edward Bernays.

In 1932 Roosevelt became president of the united states. The state took control of the free market. This not to destroy it but to strenghten it. Through technocrates and planners, projects were planned for the good of the nation. Which was called “the New Deal” Goebbels praises this approach, but there is a difference between the two ideologies. Roosevelt believes human being are rational and can take active part in the gouvernment. By polling people, asking strictly factual questions and avoiding manipulation of their emotions, you could trust people’s opinions and to trust what they want. While Goebbels believed in Freud’s ideas of the irrational mind of the masses.

Roosevelt got reelected, and the businesses started counter measurements against the New Deal, uniting themselves as The National Association of Manufacturers. Again Bernays was part of the plot to change public opinion.

Bernays believes were that democracy could exist without capitalism.