Century of the Self

sociology, culture

Yesterday I finished viewing the Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self. This documentary presents an unusual but very convincing view of the history of democracy in the 20th century. This history is in this view shaped predominantly by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, as put into practice by the hands of Edward Barnays in particular. After having succesfully and durably solved most elementary human needs, people grew beyond being mere workers to become autonomous, vocal, demanding and capable humans, who had new demands beyond housing and food, and expected those demands to be met. As I write this, I realize this last bit is incorrectly summarized: due to the influences of Barnays for initially American industry this feeling of entitlement was engineered. Industry had solved the basics of providing for democracy, and was now worried that markets were saturated and therefore demand would fall, perhaps spectacularly so. They were looking for ways to create new markets, ever-growing markets, and so created, through Barnays, the consumer-economy. In this economy, ever-changing and inconsistent fashion, desires, would guarantee markets forever. I won’t explain further what Adam Curtis very clearly and brilliantly explains himself best in the documentary, which he put on Youtube himself for all to watch: see part 1 here.

A shot where a man argues that people are not in charge, but people’s desires are, seems to be the most fitting one line summary possible. Towards the end, it is shown how first conservatives and through the Third Way labour became politicians catering to these whims. People and parties became a market of consumers and suppliers, rather than a democratic society of citizens and politicians, in the way envisaged by Roosevelt, and I think taught in most schools (mine for sure). It’s a sobering but very convincing view of pretty much the most important thing in the world: the basis for our society. What was not really presented in the documentary was how the desires and whims of the people are influenced. Nowadays all pretense is dropped and we have the profession of influencers, people who try to steer the otherwise often incoherent desires in one direction or the other. Not only commercially, but also politically. Certain pundits, columnists, so-called journalists, are but tools for finding out the best way to pander to voters. Meanwhile people were busy satiating their desires, as Barnays envisaged, the ruling classes could continue to direct the world, because fundamentally, people can’t be trusted with such power (alternatively, people should not really interfere with the course of history, big wallets should).

This puts into perspective my own incline: ultimately we cannot trust our emotions, we must find methods to be rational and measurable. Find out not what politians say, but what they do. See who’s been working for our cause for decades and who didn’t, rather than play the above game. I wonder to what extent the above, the consumerist nature of our societies, is something than can be undone. Is it the Pandora’s Box for which Labour seems to hold it since the Third Way? I’m going to watch more of Adam Curtis to find that out.