The Century of the Self

I recently watched a four-part documentary called The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis. It is about how Sigmund Freud’s ideas shaped the Western world. I haven’t read any of Freud’s works myself, but I’m sure everyone has at least heard of him and is generally aware of the basic premise of his theories. The documentary was mainly focused on how his ideas were used by political and business leaders to control the masses by manipulating their subconscious desires. Lots of little facts in there that were really fascinating. For instance, one thing I didn’t know was that Freud’s nephew was the one who really pushed his uncle’s ideas here in America, mostly against Freud’s will, and used them to further himself in the business world. His nephew’s name was Edward Bernays, who coined the term “public relations.” Essentially his idea of public relations was one of a giant propaganda machine, but he knew that the term propaganda had received a negative connotation due to its use in Europe. One of the fruits of the application of Freud’s ideas to business was the use of the focus group. The success of this method of finding out how people felt about products and ideas really shaped the business world, and later on the political world as well.

The final part of the series was about the political world and how they attempted to adopt the techniques of businesses a la Eddie Bernays in order to achieve widespread popularity among voters in democratic governments. Their goal was in a sense to find out how they could get people to vote for them without really changing anything too much. By finding out how to make certain personality types satisfied, a politician could appeal to the largest groups of people and then pretty much do whatever he wanted while in power, so long as he did the minor things the people wanted. The documentary equated it to “throwing them dog treats.”

I’m not doing it justice due to the fact that I watched it a few days ago, and pretty late at night, but overall it was very informative, although a few scenes were a bit “adult,” obviously due to the subject matter being Freud, especially when the effects of his theories were manipulated in the sixties and seventies with the “human potential” movement.

To summarize what I took away from the documentary in general, people are driven by basic desires, which makes them easy to manipulate on a societal scale. It’s nothing new, however, but merely a recent iteration of the Roman “bread and circuses.” The method of those in authority is to give people what they want. This allows the leaders to pretty much do as they please, because as long as everyone is busy chasing the newest product or idea, they will be too busy to notice anything else. We must stay vigilant in order to not fall victim to these things which beg for our attention, instead focusing on how we are to serve God in the midst of all this chaos.

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