The Century of the Self – Part 1: “Happiness Machines”


YouTube has the video The Century of the Self – Part 1: “Happiness Machines”.

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 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.

Originally broadcast on 29th April 2002.

I have read that these propaganda techniques had started in the run up to World War I. This video puts many details to what I could remember of my past readings. In fact I found mention of this idea in a previous post Chris Hedges Interviews Noam Chomsky (1/3).

Thanks to Sep Ebrahimzadeh for posting the video as a Facebook comment on one of my posts.

I now better understand the context of what I alluded to above and can recommend some resources for anyone else who might be curious:

There’s a book titled Propaganda by Edward Bernays (Freud’s nephew) including its excellent introduction by Miller. In this book Bernays described how and why he saw the populous as irrational and easily manipulated.

This 4 hour BBC documentary starts from shortly before Bernays and Freud’s time and connects the dots all the way to Raegan/Tatcher and Clinton/Blair’s era (which is largely where we are now)

The fourth part of the series describes how the “left” parties in America and England abandoned their principles and adopted the business-marketing style of governance in an effort to win votes and get reelected. Robert Reich’s short speech at the end sums up the problem succinctly:

The issue is a difference of idealogy between today’s corporate Democrats who have a Freudian view of their voters and the Democratic Socialist view of rational involved citizenry.


September 11, 2018

I have now seen all four episodes of “The Century of the Self”. Somewhere along about episode three it lost its way. I don’t feel that episode showed any understandinng of how to improve the political situation for progressives. I was singularly unimpressed with Robert Reich’s opinions at the end of the fourth episode.

Remember that this documentary was first aired in 2002. I think I have learned a lot more about reality than I knew in 2002.

With the economic collapse of 2008/2009, I am now much more educated on what the “free market” has managed to do with all that freedom. The economy has been financialized. More profit is made by charging for moving money around than is made by manufacturing to satisfy consumer wants and needs. The “free market” doesn’t care about providing consumers with enough income to buy stuff. The free market only wants to squeeze consumers by getting them to borrow more money. This way, the rich can profit more from interest payments on the borrowed money than they can make by selling actual goods. Whatever goods need to be made can be made by cheap foreign labor to which the corporations have outsourced the work. Why should corporations bother to pay USA workers higher wages, when you can keep all that money for themselves? If the workers don’t have the money to buy stuff, just shrink the size of the corporation to meet the size of the market. This shrinkage has the tendency to raise the value of the corporation that is left concentrated in the hands of the 1%

The rich have found that corporations can make more money per share of stock and raise the prices of shares of their stock, by using corporate assets to buy back the corporations shares. The companies make less total money, but with fewer shares outstanding, the people who own those remaining shares get a bigger share of the shrinking economy. Imaginary measurements are enough to dupe the uninitiated into thinking the economy is growing. These uninitiated just cannot understand why they aren’t getting their share of the supposedly growing economy.

Ultimately, the strength of the USA depends on the productive capacity of the economy. We can keep that strength by overspending on military power for a while, but eventually their won’t be enough of a domestic economy to support the military spending. The USA empire is approaching its ultimate collapse (which might not be so bad for the rest of the world). However, we don’t need to overdo that collapse.

The documentary focused all its attention on what people could be sold in terms of consumers goods and political ideas, and too little analysis of the economic consequences of the decisions people are being fooled into making.

Walter Mondale showed how foolish it was to sell a political program based on raising people’s taxes. Robert Reich isn’t going to have any more success in selling a program that way. We have to focus on the economic destruction of our society that is going on with the current policies. The economy has changed enough since Barack Obama got elected for people to see the harm they suffer from too much corporate power. It’s not so much that government power is so good as it is how damaging corporate power is when it has no controls over it.

The 99% don’t need their taxes to be raised, but the 1% certainly do. It is less about their paying their fair share as it is about transferring great wealth from the 99% to the 1%. This gives the 1% great powers over the country that they should not have, as evidenced by what they have done with all the power they have accumulated.

We need a better understanding of the damage that occurs when functions that the government should be doing are privatized so that even more resources can be taken from the 99% and given to the 1%. Progressives need to recognize the harm that can occur from too much government power, but they need to explain how much worse it is to turn that power over to the corporations. Maybe there needs to be more focus on the damage that occurs when too much power is concentrated in the hands of any single group.

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