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The Century of the Self – BBC Documentary (by Adam Curtis)

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the century of the selfAdam Curtis does not shy away from controversial subject matters in his documentaries, nor does he hold back from taking a particular point of view, eschewing the idea of a neutral narrator. In his 2002, 4 part documentary series ‘The Century of the Self’ he explores the influence of public relations techniques developed by Edward Bernay’s in the 1920’s (which, in turn were influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud) – in particular, their relationship to the evolving conception of the individual self in the twentieth century.

This changing notion of self is juxtaposed continuously with the nature of the democratic political system in western capitalist societies and expresses the essential thesis that Bernay’s techniques led to the evolution of a concept of individual self which has exposed modern democracies to the irrational forces driving the modern individual person – and hence has endangered modern democracy itself.

This is a powerful and arresting documentary series – I ended up watching all four episodes back to back in a marathon effort. It was that gripping. I had felt similarly about his more recent documentary about the rise of neo conservatism and arab fundamentalism and the similarity in their techniques for recruiting followers (and their mutual need of each other in that project) – but ‘The Century of the Self’ (TCS from now on), is much grander in its scope. It seeks to analyse the different conceptions of the self in the twentieth century, and how these conceptions were ultimately used by corporations to manipulate consumers into purchasing their products. Curtis takes large swipes at corporate capitalism in this documentary, but his target is even wider than this – he seeks to tell a story about the relationship between the differing conceptions of individualism and the capitalist, democratic institutions (corporations and governments) which organise themselves around these conceptions.

The central figure in this story is Edward Bernays – the father of public relations. He was influenced by his uncle Sigmund Freud. He took Freud’s key thesis that individuals were driven by unconscious irrational forces and used it to develop marketing techniques which are now common place today. Some of the examples described in the documentary are priceless – some so ridiculous sounding that one almost doubts the veracity of the accounts.

One example is the campaign to convince women to smoke. He was told by a psychoanalyst that cigarettes were seen as a source of male sexual power, and that if he could associate the act of smoking with a sort of challenge to that power, then women would flock to it – the cigarette, a phallic symbol, would satisfy women’s penis envy. He organised a group of women to light up cigarettes in a parade at a given cue. He also told the press that he had heard that some suffragettes were planning to light up ‘torches of freedom’ – in a protest against male patriarchial society. According to Adam Curtis – sales of cigarettes to women soared as a result.

Such examples are common throughout the documentary series – but they illustrate the key idea that people could be turned into pliable consumers by harnessing their irrational fears and drives and associating, through symbols, products to the satisfaction of those drives. This idea remains constant throughout the historical narrative that Curtis weaves. What changes are the varying attitudes to these unconscious drives – and the way the sense of the individual self evolves throughout the century.

Earlier on – throughout the dominance of the psychoanalytic tradition, these unconscious drives are seen as dangerous – as the enemy within that can threaten capitalist democracy at any moment (think nazi germany or the 1929 stock crash). But the psychoanalysts lose their grip as the ideas of Wilhelm Reich come to the fore – those that believe that it’s not the unconscious drives themselves that is the cause of mayhem and pathology, but the repression of these drives. As this idea takes root and becomes mainstream, a new self expressive, self actualised sense of the individual comes to the fore – supposedly no longer determined by corrupt and repressive institutions (episode three is entitled “There is a policeman in our heads and he must be destroyed). the marketers and public relations professionals adapt and develop the focus group to identify and categorise the finite number of subtypes of this new kind of autonomous individual. This is apparently achieved with great success – and the process of marketing to individuals – convincing them to express themselves through the purchasing of products – continues. The key idea in this development is that it is no longer the psychoanalysts (or any other elite) explaining what it is that the people want – it is the people themselves… through the focus groups and other market segmentation techniques.

Curtis then turns to explain the relationship between this state of affairs and the political institutions which arose to accommodate this changing sense of self. Bernays had seen his techniques as the means for producing stable democracies – people were to be made placid and compliant through the satisfaction of their irrational desires with products. They were not to be trusted – and an elite political and corporate class was to ensure that these desires were sufficiently placated – but decision making, policy creation and ultimate power were to reside with this elite, not the people. As the new assertive, unrepressed self emerges, however, this state of affairs can no longer continue. While it is fine for the corporations who can continue to sell their products unabated, politicians are forced to play a similar game, and the creation of policy increasingly becomes determined by the whims of the demos.

Curtis describes how Thatcherism and Reaganism in the late 70’s and 80’s were the political movements which were underpinned in this new optimism in the individual. The aim was to get government off the backs of the individual and to let them express themselves as they liked. The left, which was still preaching the higher values of self sacrifice for the common good, was “left” in the dust. Voters left them in droves for the conservatives who embodied this new sense of freedom and autonomy for the individual.

Curtis goes on to describe the woes of the New Left as it too tries to comes to terms with the new individual – but concludes how it has left modern democracies with extremely weak governments that are at the mercy of the whim of populations that dictate, almost directly, their short term and flawed policies.

By the end Curtis’s own view is very clear – Bernays was right, the individual is irrational and not to be trusted… and that modern democracy is in the midst of a precipitous decline into madness and chaos.

I think its impossible not to watch this documentary and not be stirred into a great flurry of thought and speculation. This is its power as a documentary and since this is the essential aim of any informative piece, I think it is an enormously successful effort.

This does not mean it is totally immune to criticism – by the time it is reaching its final conclusion about the state of modern democracy and its inability to effectively govern, examples become pretty thin on the ground and cites only the failure of the Blair government to maintain its railways because the focus groups told them that people didn’t care about them… until, of course, trains started crashing and killing people. To really hit the point home, another episode should have been devoted to this point, I feel. The whole documentary is set up to bring us to this final conclusion – but fails in the last leg to provide decent empirical evidence.

But I won’t dwell on this and other criticisms in this review. I want instead to draw out a theme that lurks underneath the narrative weaved by Curtis but is not explicitly touched upon. This theme concerns the failure of Romanticism (as a philosophy of self) to act oppositionally to the established capitalist institutions which evolved, ultimately out of the Enlightenment era and the evolution of modern Bourgeoisie (and the enlightenment philosophies the romantics were supposed to oppose).

Without writing a whole essay on the subject – the essential ideas behind Romanticism which are determinative for this thesis are borrowed from Isiah Berlin’s conception – that is of the primacy of the human will… and the irreducibility of that will. Whether or not these are the accurate representations of the romantic movement is not at issue here – I will use ‘Romanticism’ as a convenient moniker for these two central ideas.

These ideas were put forward in opposition to the enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality – and the belief in an ordered universe, a logos which acted as a rational explanation of the universe as a whole. The relationship between these ideals of rationality and logos and the modern capitalistic society that evolved from them is complex and entire tomes have been written about it (and in fact it is my belief that enlightenment ideals can be preserved while standing in true opposition to modern capitalistic culture) – but given that one asserts that there is a link between the two, one can see why a romantic conception of self is supposed to stand in opposition to the enlightened conception.

Adam Curtis’s documentary is a neat explanation of how this opposition in practice totally fails. Wilhelm Reich’s ideas can be seen as essentially within the Romantic tradition – the primacy of the human will is given the front page of his philosophy of self. Modern institutions are seen as repressive of these essential drives (reminiscent of Rousseau, although he saw in natural human being as essentially rational – not irrational) – and these essential drives should be given free reign of self expression. TCS explores in detail how Reich’s ideas of the self have become completely dominant in modern culture. The idea of ‘being yourself’ – that horrible tautological cliche is in essence derivable from him and quoted ubiquitously by those trying to give pragmatic advice as to how one should conduct oneself. That it fails entirely as a pragmatic imperative provides the clue as to why romanticism fails to act as a legitimate oppositional force.

More of this last point below – but first its important to see that Romanticism has indeed failed to act as an oppositional force. And Curtis points to the phenomena which makes this apparent – the fact that modern capitalist society continues as it has before, even while the romanticist credo reign supreme in the minds of the general population. Marcuse described this as capitalism’s ability to incorporate opposites into its system without actually disturbing it’s internal logic. I would posit as the explanation, rather, the ultimate falsity of romanticism’s essential premise – the irreducibility of the human will. This falsity is brought into sharp relief by the success of the marketing companies in segmenting populations and convincing those populations to express that will through the purchasing of consumer products. The conclusion is that the human will has not at all demonstrated itself to be primary, but in fact is easily manipulated by corporations that employ scientific (enlightenment inspired) methodologies to facilitate exchange.

(This is certainly a criticism that can be leveled at Curtis insofar as he ties the marketing profession too closely to Freudianism which is ultimately unscientific in its methodology – there is, in reality, a proper science of marketing that is in development (to an advanced stage) – which, unlike most social sciences, adopts mathematical formalisation as its model)

With the falsity of that premise, follows the falsity of the idea that the individual is completely separate ontologically from the institutions of which, for the most part of its life, it serves as an instantiation. The prescription ‘be yourself’ is ultimately unhelpful because it does not provide any pragmatic solution as to the way an individual should negotiate itself through these various institutions. A man who decides suddenly to ‘be himself’ still finds that he gets up and goes to work everyday and participates as a cog in the vast machinery of modern life because he can’t imagine himself as distinct from this process. And this is why so many millions of people are happily participating in this capitalist, and repressive system – and at the same time succeeding in ‘being themselves’… If an individual always was, at least partly, defined by the institutions of which they are an instantiation – then choosing to ‘be yourself’ only expresses a continuation of that participation.

This is what the left has been trying to tell us all along – but the left has been spectacular in its failure to identify self-interest with the common good. Part of the failure is the left’s inability to come up with alternative institutions which aren’t communitarian in some sense, ruled by elites that prescribe what the common good is. The poverty of this approach is evident when you consider Marcuse’s defense of it in ‘One Dimensional Man’ – his defense is merely to say that this solution is preferable to that of the liberals (the lesser of two evils defense). And in fact, it ultimately doesn’t sound that dissimilar a solution than that offered by Bernays – who also wanted an elite to guide the stupid masses to a good that was ultimately considered to be ‘common’, ardent capitalist though he was. Need I state the ultimate flaw to this approach? – it being so obvious to me…. the inability of elites to successfully, and continuously direct us to the common good. Plato’s gold class has never arisen – the conditions for their arising have never been in place, nor are they ever likely to be. Justice – as the profession of that gold class always remains out of reach since the gold class will never come into being.

Is it possible, then, to create institutions which act as a true oppositional force to modern capitalistic institutions, which are neither based on romantic intuitions, nor the elitist convictions of the left? An extremely difficult question. In any case, for a great amount of insight into this question and many others, I certainly recommend to you Adam Curtis’ documentary: Century of the Self. It’ll certainly make you think more about the world and your place in it.

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January 25th, 2010

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3 to “The Century of the Self – BBC Documentary (by Adam Curtis)”


  1. As an artist and filmmaker, I appreciate Adam Curtis’s work very much, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review of TCS. My conclusions about the ending are different, but I would now like to watch it again after reading what you wrote. (You inspired me to read a bit about Reich, too, who I knew nothing about.) In recent years, I’ve been drawn more and more to philosophy. I’ve done quite a bit of study, but since it’s not my specialty, it’s still rather amorphous to me. I was delighted to read the concise way you’ve summed up some of the different schools of thought. I’m writing now to ask if you may care to write more about them. Since it’s your field, it may be fun for you to write a kind of brief survey essay. I know I would appreciate it, and I’m sure others would too. For example, as a layman, I hadn’t necessarily put together the connection between the Enlightenment and Capitalism, to name just one. It seems rather obvious now that you’ve pointed it out, but it wasn’t readily apparent to me. I never thought of the work of The Romantics as being a direct opposition to the Capitalists. Now that you mention it, I have a new perspective on Frankenstein. The older I get, the broader the meaning of “philosophy” becomes. It seems to encompass everything! Every important topic has some school of thought connected to it. Philosophers have had a huge impact on our world.

    • Dan Haggard says:

      Hi Crystal – thanks for the comment.

      It’s been quite a while since I wrote this post and the themes and ideas are no where near as fresh in my mind as they were back then. Rather than read another essay by me, you would do better to seek out the original texts of some of the authors I mentioned. Isaiah Berlin’s book “The Roots of Romanticism” is a great accessible read to get you started. I highly recommend it.

  2. D Birl says:

    It is a fascinating documentary with one huge contradiction. Curtis exposes certain examples of propaganda being used yet perpetuates the anti -German WW2 propaganda.


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