Routinely debunked yet unshakably entrenched, Freud’s basic conception of man as subject to repressed primitive instincts refuses to budge from the intellectual fault line on which it was birthed. A recent essay by Lee Siegel in The New York Times Book Review went so far as to dub this divide “the real culture war, and maybe even the real clash of civilizations.” The Century of the Self, an engrossing quartet of hour-long films by British documentarian Adam Curtis, doesn’t so much challenge Freud’s theories of the unconscious as shadow them through the corridors of corporate and political power. What emerges is nothing less than a history of 20th-century social control.
As is true of any account of the period, the dominant narrative in this remarkable suite of films is the triumph of modern consumer capitalism. Installing Freud as unwitting godfather, Curtis fingers Edward Bernays, Freud’s American nephew, as the Machiavellian mastermind who first thought to introduce psychoanalytic techniques into the sphere of big business. After a stint promoting the overseas image of Woodrow Wilson’s America during World War I (even coming up with the “democracy exporter” tag that remains so popular today), Bernays transitioned from wartime propaganda to peacetime “public relations”—a term he invented. This master pitchman, pioneer of the product placement and the celeb endorsement, recognized in Uncle Sigmund’s ideas about our hidden emotions the basis for a science of spin. He famously labeled cigarettes “torches of freedom,” linking them to suffragettes, and in so doing, smashed the social taboo of women smoking and doubled the tobacco industry’s market share. Bernays, whose books included Crystallizing Public Opinion and Engineering Consent (Goebbels was a fan), later consulted for the CIA and helped topple the Guzm government in Guatemala, but his most lasting legacy was in identifying the necessary conditions for a consumer democracy—a society of what Herbert Hoover approvingly called “constantly moving happiness machines.”
Curtis, best known for his recent politics- of-fear doc The Power of Nightmares, presents all this with wit and alacrity, combining suggestive archival footage, eloquent talking heads, and his own insinuating narration. Part two outlines the birth of the psychoanalysis-inspired focus group and links Freudian analysts (and their forbidding leader Anna Freud) to the social repression of the post-war years. This is where The Century of the Self is shakiest: Curtis points to Marilyn Monroe’s overdose and to the suicide of the daughter of Anna Freud’s close friend Dorothy Burlingham (in Freud’s London home, no less)—two symbolic tragedies, dubiously deemed emblematic of the failures of psychoanalysis.
The third part rebounds with an incisive account of the materialist individualism that sprang from the ruins of ’60s counterculture. The key figure here is Freud’s student turned adversary Wilhelm Reich, orgasm addict and harnesser of mysterious “orgone” energies. From Reich’s claim that the unconscious was a trove of healthful forces to be unlocked and not repressed came human- potential movements like Esalen and Werner Erhard’s “est” workshops. While their ascendancy coincided with a spirit of social progress, a belief that personal change would expand to political action, the dynamic soon turned inward, spiraling toward an end point that one of Curtis’s interviewees, Stew Albert, a founding Yippie, calls “socialism in one person.” Which is to say, capitalism.
The Century of the Self hits a point of no return in the Me Decade. Market research in the ’70s identified a new class of “inner directeds,” the grasping self-actualizers who were overwhelmingly focused on personal well-being and who went on to sweep Reagan and Thatcher into office. The final segment undertakes a scathing analysis of the incoherent pollster politics that has now fully poisoned the electoral landscape. The counterintuitive idea of treating voters like irrational consumers is smilingly expounded as a form of anti-elitist democracy by Dick Morris, architect of Bill Clinton’s depressingly Faustian 1996 re-election, and Philip Gould, the strategist behind Tony Blair’s landslide win the following year.
It’s clear from The Century of the Self and The Power of Nightmares, which charts the mirror image evolutions of radical Islamism and neo-conservatism, that Curtis is a skilled essayist and a prodigious researcher ( Century brims with amazing clips: vintage ads, early focus groups, primal therapy workshops, hidden-camera footage of WW II vets in analysis). But more than that, he’s a historian of ideas who can bring them to life, not least because he recognizes how they mutate, cross-pollinate, and are susceptible to distortion. He’s a gifted storyteller and an unabashed polemicist, guided by a crusading mistrust of the rich and powerful. His bold, broad-stroke arguments occasionally iron out nuance and sacrifice detail for the sake of elegant symmetry and paradox, but Curtis’s telescopic vantage ensures that the view is worth it. For a century now, debates have persisted over whether the unconscious mind exists as Freud believed (and if so, whether it is to be tapped or tamed or merely understood). But one thing has stayed constant: the eagerness and ability of the ruling elite to turn any given hypothesis of human nature into a profit maximizing strategy. The true subject of Curtis’s lucid, pessimistic film, it turns out, is the frightening adaptability of consumer capitalism.