“The original idea had been that the liberation of the self would create a new kind of people, free of social constraint. That radical change had happened but while the new beings felt liberated, they had become increasingly dependent for their identity on business. The corporations realized that it was in their interest to encourage people to feel like they were unique individuals and then offer them ways to express that individuality. The world in which people felt that they were rebelling against conformity was no longer a threat to business but had become its greatest opportunity.”… “If politics is also Freudian, i.e. if it’s a matter of politicians appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that businesses appeal to then why not let businesses do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business after all is in the business of responding to those feelings.”
— The Century of Self, 2002
On this memorable day I’m curious about how we strike the right balance with our egos. After all, they can be used as a powerful driving force but left unchecked it can easily run rampant. In some ways it can be viewed as a formless and highly virulent parasite, intent on establishing itself through growing its collection of material objects, reputation and power.
Most of us fall somewhere on a spectrum of materialism, relying in some way or another on external objects and categories to define ourselves. Perhaps it’s comforting for the ego, to stake out our identity in a world that often craves definition, but the flip side of every definition contains a hidden limitation. We’re moving through the age of the Selfie, an era in which we have all elevated ourselves into the status of little gods. It is a humorous hindrance in a time that is begging for us to look beyond the self in order to see how we’re part of the collective. Can we evolve our consciousness so that the ego becomes a tool in our toolkit, rather than it using us as its own tool?
Who are you without your possessions? Without your clothes, makeup, cars and phone? Who are you without your social media status, history or reputation? Who are you when you stand naked and vulnerable in front of the world with nothing left but the quality of your character? It’s kind of a fun, and perhaps a little disconcerting, thought experiment. Do you really have any idea how much your insecurities and fears had been capitalized and quantified? How did Freud’s insights lead to the world of branding and marketing and even carry through to the 2016 US election? Well this amazing prescient documentary will help shed some light on it!
…and if you don’t have time to watch all 4 episodes. There’s a little synopsis and a few of my favorite highlights below:
** EPISODE 1 **
Documents Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew using psychological theory to create propaganda during WW1. After the war he created the field of public relations when he was recruited by corporate America to turn Americans from need based consumers to desire based, in order to fuel growth. He employed tactics that linked products to identity and sexuality. He also promoted how individuals could invest in the stiok market.
“he didn’t think of people in groups of ones, he thought of them in groups of thousands”
Instituted by Lippman’s post WW1 theories that Democracy was inherently flawed because people were innately irrational and animalistic he began to architect a system for “engineering consent”. First to create desire and then to satiate people with products & services that would keep them happy and docile. “If you can keep stimulating the irrational self, then leadership can keep doing what it wants to do”
The stock market crash of 1929 dented his reputation. But it was not the end by any means.
In his book called “Civilization and its Discontents”, Freud wrote that civilization had been constructed to control the dangerous animal forces inside human beings, the idea of individual freedom was impossible and human beings could never be allowed to truly express themselves, because it was too dangerous. They must always be controlled and thus always be discontent.
Politicians, even Adolf Hitler were trying to figure out how to avoid the selfish individualism of democracy. Bernays and Freud were actually a big inspiration to Nazi propaganda and mind moulding if the German people.
Roosevelt’s new deal and reelection, which promised further restrictions on corporations, brought Bernays and public relations back into the spotlight. He was employed to influence people into thinking that that you can’t have real democracy without capitalism. “It’s not that people are in control as much as it’s people’s desires that are in control…”
WW2 further altered the way governments thought of democracy. How could big business, government and other agencies further control the animalistic sides of the American people’s hearts & minds? Early psychoanalysis of returning soldiers seemed to confirm Freud’s theories so government began wondering how they could repress the savage barbarism lurking just inside of Americans. Especially in light of what happened with the irrational social behavior in Germany in WW2.
** EPISODE 2 **
Anna Freud helped pioneer early psychoanalysis, in particularly for children, to help teach children “normal social conduct”. She thought that if their egos were firmly set in place, this would prevent their subconscious irrationality from being let loose. Just adapt to your surroundings and you’ll be happy! The field of popular psychiatry was born with the belief that you could change people in limitless ways. National mental health programs, social workers and counselors were trained to help children, adults and married couples.
Institute for Motivational Research was created by Ernest Dichter. How could researchers find the secret self of the American consumer? He created the first focus groups to track people’s emotions. For example adding an egg to Betty Crocker recipes, while technically unnecessary, helped sales skyrocket sale because it removed the guilt housewives felt from the process being TOO easy. Advertising became increasingly psychological.
Meanwhile during the cold war Bernays helped the US and the United Fruit Company with a coup to overthrow a Guatemalan President who wanted the company out of the country. He did this by getting the US press to falsely claim that Guatemala was becoming communist so the CIA trained a rebel army and bombed the country with the support of the US population. It worked. We claimed to do it for Democracy, and the act seemed to prove that leaders could not talk with people rationally as they were inherently irrational and instead it was best to lead them through manipulating their fears. He seemed to miss the paradox that this was no longer democracy.
In the late 50s the CIA began secretly funding on how to find and control the inner drive of human beings. These brainwashing experiments were total failures, resulting in little more than memory loss and neurotic subjects.
After Marilyn Monroe’s suicide, which brought attention to the psychoanalysis industry, write Arthur Miller said: “the greatest truths we know have come out of people suffering. The problem is not to undo suffering, or wipe it off the face of the earth, but to make it inform our lives. Instead of trying to cure ourselves of it constantly, and avoid it and avoid anything but that lobotomized sense of what they call happiness. There’s too much of an attempt… To control man rather than freeing him. Of defining him rather than letting him go. It’s part of the whole ideology of this age, which is power mad.”
One critic of of psychoanalysis, Marcusa, began accusing the industry of repressing people’s emotions, which had made things worse, not better. He claimed that our sickness was at society’s level more than the level of the individual. This all climaxed with the suicide of Dorothy Burlingham, one of the earliest and ongoing patients of Ana Freud, at Sigmund Freud’s house in England.
MLK’s adjustment speech in 1967, encouraged people to stay maladjusted and not conform to inequality.
The era of repression seemed to be coming to an end! Or so we thought. What came next promised to free people but in fact created an even more malleable type of individual.
Wilhelm Reich was an early student of Freud, but rather than believe that people were inherently animalistic and that society should reform them, he believed people were inherently good and it was the very repression by society that turned them bad. He believed people could liberate themselves through liberating their libidos. …WHOA his life had a crazy end!! Research “Orgone energy” …wow!?! But his ideas were hugely influential….
In the early 60s a new generation emerged that attacked consumer America psychological marketing techniques. Mid 60’s protests targeting corporations for keeping them docile while America fought wars. Herbert Marcusa was the instigator. “There is a policeman inside all our heads, he must be destroyed.” Groups like the Weathermen used violence, promoting repression and deaths at Kent state. The new left began to fall apart. Instead of targeting the forces of control outside, they began to attempt to erode the forces of control inside their own heads. Without changing the personal, you’d never change the political. They turned to teachings of Wilhelm Reich. The epicenter was Fritz Perls workshops at Esalen, that allowed people to take ownership of themselves, owning their freedom and establishing personal autonomy.
The Human Potential movement was born. They went deep, including black/white extremist workshops. They were a disaster because they dissolved collective identity, which was the most powerful thing hate groups clung to. Next they tried working with nuns, encouraging them to honestly express themselves. They started wearing plain clothes, got sexual and eventually petitioned the Vatican to be released from their vows. The nuns left and the convent closed its doors, except for a small group of radical lesbian nuns.
Encounter Groups emerged, dedicated to love, personal experience, positive way of life and personal growth. Corporate America started to take notice and to get concerned. The ability to be self expressive became many people’s priority. They wanted products that would express their individuality and define their unique identify. This threatened the very nature of typical industrial manufacture.
In the 70s Werner Erhard brought techniques from Human Potential movement to create EST. EST attempted to peel off layers to get to the root, a meaningless nothing, a black slate upon which you could recreate yourself. “It wasn’t selfish to live a fulfilling life, in fact it was your highest duty”. But the original political goal of evolving government got lost as people learned to be content within themselves. People began buying into the concept that you could be happy and fully self developed on your own. “Capitalism is socialism within one person”!
How could corporations get inside their heads? In 1978 at SRI worked with Abraham Maslow to try to form the basis for understanding people’s desires and drive. Self expression was not infinite, and could still be categorized. They coined the new systems Values and Lifestyle that included dozens of new types of demographics, including:
– inner directives
– societally conscious
And it didn’t just work for products buy for politicians too! Reagan benefited from appealing to the inner directives, a group of people independent of age, race and religion. The new focus groups didn’t just review existing up and coming products but gave companies ideas for entirely new products by sharing their emotions and needs. these new products helped you be the limitless version of yourself. The new beings felt free but became increasingly reliant on corporations.
The original idea had been that the liberation of the self would create new kind of people, free of social constraint. That radical change had happened but while the new beings felt liberated, they had become increasingly dependent for their identity on business. The corporations realized that it was in their interest to encourage people to feel like they were unique individuals and then offer them ways to express that individuality. The world in which people felt that they were rebelling against conformity was no longer a threat to business but had become its greatest opportunity.
Freud believed that individuals were not driven by rational thought but by primitive unconscious desires and feelings. For this reason Bernays felt it was too dangerous to let the masses have control over their own lives.
Consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue to manage society.
“If politics is also Freudian, i.e. if it’s a matter of politicians appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that businesses appeal to then why not let businesses do it? Business can do it better. Business knows how to do it. Business after all is in the business of responding to those feelings.”
Happy Inauguration Day Everyone!