The story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas and use them to manipulate the masses. 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.

Bernays 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 PR stunts, to eroticising the motorcar.

His most notorious coup was breaking the taboo on women smoking by persuading them that cigarettes were a symbol of independence and freedom. But Bernays was convinced that this was more than just a way of selling consumer goods. It was a new political idea of how to control the masses. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be made happy and thus docile.

It was the start of the all-consuming self which has come to dominate today’s world.

Happiness Machines

Adam Curtis’ acclaimed series examines the rise of the all-consuming self against the backdrop of the Freud dynasty.

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?

The Freud dynasty is at the heart of this compelling social history. Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis; Edward Bernays, who invented public relations; Anna Freud, Sigmund’s devoted daughter; and present-day PR guru and Sigmund’s great grandson, Matthew Freud.

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.

Creator, Adam Curtis, has graciously made this BBC series available for download in various formats at Internet Archive here:

The Century Of The Self 1 of 4 | One: Happiness Machines
The Century Of The Self 2 of 4 | Two: The Engineering Of Consent
The Century Of The Self 3 of 4 | Three: There Is Policeman Inside All Our Heads
The Century Of The Self 4 of 4 | Four: Eight People Sipping Wine In Kettering

Category: Psychology, Video

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3 Responses to “The Century Of The Self Part I: The Happiness Machines”

  1. Moodys says:

    A Jungian perspective of the self is more true than the Freuduan, however. The Jungian notion of the self is not prone (but not immune) to manipulation.

    Nod of thanks to BR for this important post.

  2. denim says:

    Great series. There is a link to more of Adam Curtis’ documentaries. I had missed them in my searching. I think they are going to be well worth viewing, judging by the title and blurb.

    All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace
    All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace is a series about how humans have been colonised by the machines they have built — “Although we don’t realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers.”

    The Trap
    If one steps back and looks at what freedom actually means for us today, it’s a strange and limited kind of freedom. The West apparently fought the Cold War for “individual freedom”, yet it is still something our leaders continually promise to give us. Abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the attempt to force “freedom” on to other people has led to bloody mayhem. This, in turn, has helped inspire terrorist attacks in Britain. In response, the government has dismantled long-standing laws that were designed to protect individual freedom …

    One may want to read the Wikipedia on this one first.
    The Power Of Nightmares
    Is the threat of radical Islamism as a massive sinister organised force of destruction, specifically in the form of al-Qaeda, a myth perpetrated by politicians in many countries—and particularly American Neo-Conservatives—in an attempt to ‘unite and inspire’ people following the failure of earlier, more utopian ideologies?

    The Power of Nightmares,
    subtitled The Rise of the Politics of Fear,
    is a BBC documentary film series, written and produced by Adam Curtis. Its three one-hour parts consist mostly of a montage of archive footage with Curtis’s narration. The series was first broadcast in the United Kingdom in late 2004 and has subsequently been broadcast in multiple countries and shown in several film festivals, including the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

  3. formerlawyer says:

    Adam Curtis also has a very interesting blog here: