The Century of The Self

Written and produced in 2002 by the legendary British documentarian Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self, offers a glimpse into a world of politics and mass psychology like no other.

This documentary series shows how easily the masses can be swayed to think in a specific way by using our inner desires and fears against us.

Episode 1: Happiness Machines

Episode 1: Matters of Life and Death

To understand how modern politics and mass psychology came into play, we must understand the human mind and how we generally perceive matters.

One of the first medical scientists to tackle at a more modern approach to psychology was Sigmund Freud. His revolutionary new ways of tackling the human mental state constructed entirely new ways of figuring out the human mind. His psychological practice and theories would propel the science of psychology forward and set new standards.

In Episode 1, we’ll take a look at Sigmund Freud’s American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession and would use his uncle’s theories and ideas to manipulate the masses.

His psychological mass manipulation tactics were applied by American corporations, giving them the marketing skills to create an unconscious need for mass-produced products the consumer otherwise had no real use for. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, the masses could be made happy and thus docile.

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

Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent

Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent

Episode 2 explores how those in power in post-war America used Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind to try and control the masses. The general consensus of this age from those in power was that democracy can only work in a society by using mass psychology as a tool to repress people’s fear or desire.

To safekeep America, the US government, the CIA, the FBI and, consequently, big businesses used these psychological tools to keep war at bay and hinder the instincts which had solidified such cruel acts as that committed by the Nazi Germany. The documentary explains that deep within the human mind, there were interpretations that we hold dangerous, instincts which need to be controlled, and raw emotions such as fear and irrational desire.

Episode 3: There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads; He Must Be Destroyed

Episode 1: Matters of Life and Death

Episode 3 visits the 1960s, when a radical group of psychotherapists challenged the influence of Freudian ideas in America. They were inspired by the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, a pupil of Freud who had turned against him and was hated by the Freud family. He believed that the inner self did not need to be repressed and controlled. It should be encouraged to express itself.

Out of this came a political movement that sought to create new beings free of the psychological conformity that had been implanted in people’s minds by business and politics.

The American corporations realised that this new self was not a threat but their greatest opportunity. It was in their interest to encourage people to feel they were unique individuals and then sell them ways to express that individuality. To do this, they turned to techniques developed by Freudian psychoanalysts to read the inner desires of the new self.

Episode 4: Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering

Episode 1: Matters of Life and Death

This episode explains how politicians on the left, in both Britain and America, turned to the techniques developed by business to read and fulfil the inner desires of the self.

Both the New Labour, under Tony Blair, and the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, used the focus group, which had been invented by psychoanalysts, in order to regain power. They set out to mould their policies after the people’s inner desires and feelings, just as capitalism had learnt to do with products.

Out of this grew a new culture of public relations and marketing in politics, business and journalism. One of its stars in Britain was Matthew Freud who followed in the footsteps of his relation, Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations in the 1920s.

The politicians believed they were creating a new and better form of democracy, one that truly responded to the inner feelings of individual. But what they didn’t realise was that the aim of those who had originally created these techniques had not been to liberate the people but to develop a new way of controlling them.

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The Century of The Self
  • Info
  • Release date17 March, 2002
  • Full runtime4 hours
  • Directed byAdam Curtis
  • NarratorAdam Curtis
  • Produced forBBC