“Girl in Red” advertisement for Lucky Strike; shot by Nickolas Muray, a photographer enlisted by Bernays to help popularize feminine thinness and cigarette smoking. Source: Wikipedia

How the Self was Lost

Eddy Bernays and the Happiness Machines

And then in 1928 a President came to power who agreed with Bernays. President Hoover was the first politician to articulate the idea that consumerism would become the central motor of American life. …He told a group of advertisers and public relations men “You Have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.” What was beginning to emerge in the 1920s was a new idea of how to run mass democracy. At its heart was the consuming self which not only made the economy work but was also happy and docile and so created a stable society. (Curtis, 2002)

In 2002 the BBC began broadcasting the television documentary series The Century of the Self by filmmaker Adam Curtis. It was a mix of historical, social and political analysis of the early 20th Century in Europe and the US, focusing on the Viennese psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his American protégé and nephew Edward Bernays, the creator of what we call Public Relations or Lobbying today, and who became the darling of American enterprise. He was regarded a magician, who was able to convince US women that it is okay to smoke in public or that it’s good for Americans to have Bacon and Eggs for breakfast. Lucky Strike cigarettes became the Torches of Freedom that supposedly empowered and emancipated women in society by giving them symbolically a penis. Popular to this day this TV series became an eye opener for many about the power of mass media, the role of public relations in society, and TV advertising, most of all for those, who had never read The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, that was published for the first time in 1957.

At the beginning of the first episode, Curtis says,

A hundred years ago a new theory about human nature was put forth by Sigmund Freud. He had discovered he said, primitive and sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside the minds of all human beings. Forces which if not controlled led individuals and societies to chaos and destruction. This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.(PiALOGUE, 2018)

Although Curtis, in general, is spot on with his commentary there is something missing and even outright false.

I will argue, that not only Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was mainly wrong with his theories about the human mind and human behaviour, but also that the documentary fails to scrutinise Freud’s and Bernays’s theories based on more recent insights in neuroscience and psychology. Curtis said, “Freud’s ideas about how the human mind works have now become an accepted part of society. As have psychoanalysts,” which is simply not true. Most professionals regard Freud’s psychoanalysis as pseudoscience for good reason. Adam Curtis swallowed Freud — hook, line, and sinker — , and continued to perpetuate one of the most treacherous myths about human nature that was and still is used to deceive, suppress and control the masses.

According to Adam Curtis, Freud saw the First World War “as terrible evidence of the truth of his findings. The saddest thing he wrote, that this is exactly the way we should expect people to behave from our knowledge of psychoanalysis. Governments had unleashed the primitive forces in humans beings and no one seemed to know how to stop them.”

This belief was and still is widespread. In the video, Adam Curtis says, “Walter Lippmann, probably the most influential political thinker in the United States, who is essentially saying the basic mechanism of the mass mind is unreason, is irrationality, is animality. He believes that the mob in the street which is how he sees ordinary people are people driven not by their minds but by their spinal cords. The notion of animal drives, unconscious and instinctual drives, lurking beneath the surface of civilization..”

These are mere assumptions by Freud, Lippman, and others. The scientific evidence was either weak or missing. Sir Carl Popper, a philosopher of science, regarded psychoanalysis as unfalsifiable, that means untestable, and therefore a pseudo-science. Freud may be excused for his wrong conclusions, neurology and psychiatry were poorly understood medical specialities in Freud’s time. On the other hand, while ignorance can be forgiven, unsound research methods cannot. According to Webster (2011), “Freud, enraptured by his theories, had devised a method which, to a considerable extent, allowed him to create his own data. Instead of theories being based on observations, ‘observations’ were sometimes derived from theories.”

In other words, he just made up his theories without a systematic testing approach as he described his therapeutic attempts.

Berlin, November 9, 1918. General strike and armed uprising. The Kaiser abdicates. Source: Wikimedia

So what were the “irrational” forces that governments had “unleashed” in WWI?

This is truly a red herring, distracting from what really happened. The Triple Entente (France, Russia, Britain) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) did not “unleash” anything but rationally organised, prepared, financed, and launched the first major mass slaughter on this planet. For this reason, the masses had to be coerced and manipulated to participate. Despite heavy suppression, the resistance against this war was considerable in all involved countries. The English philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell was convicted and sent to jail for six months in 1918 for publicly lecturing against inviting the US to enter the war on the UK's side. In the field, the so-called “aggressive” and “irrational” masses celebrated Christmas across the trenches before being ordered back to battle by their “rational” officers in charge. The war caused quite some “rational” uprising and revolutions among the “irrational” masses in Europe, who suffered beyond imagination and never wanted to go through this again. They knew who was responsible and were ready to take over power in Europe. They succeeded in Russia, tried but failed in Germany.

Rational reasons for war are usually not made public. The enemy is demonised as the incarnation of evil, therefore war becomes an ethical necessity. If necessary a good lie (weapons of mass destruction) or a “false flag” incident does the job as well. The real reasons are in most cases banal, it’s usually about control of resources such as oil for example, or over populations, power, and territory.

The question remains where this general belief about the wickedness of the masses comes from and why Freud, who saw himself as an enlightened scientist, did fall for it as well. Webster (2011) has an interesting explanation,

There can be no doubt that …Freud genuinely believed that he was using science to sweep away superstition and introduce a new view of human nature. His real achievement in creating psychoanalysis, however, was to hide superstition beneath the rhetoric of reason in order to reintroduce a very old view of human nature.
By portraying the unconscious or the ‘id’ as a seething mass of unclean instincts, and seeing men and women as driven by dark sexual and sadistic impulses and a secret love of excrement, Freud in effect reinvented, for a modern scientific age, the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin.
At the same time, through psychoanalysis, he offered to all who followed him a means of redemption. If, in the twentieth century, psychoanalysis rapidly attained the status and power of an orthodoxy, it was for no other reason than that it was a form of orthodoxy itself — a subtle reformulation of Judaeo-Christian doctrine in secular form, safe from the attacks of science precisely because it was presented as science. Other reason than that it was a form of orthodoxy itself – a subtle reformulation of Judaeo-Christian doctrine in secular form, safe from the attacks of science precisely because it was presented as science.

Scapegoating the masses as being violent, irrational, and evil is a useful ideology for people in power, justifying politial and coercive control over the population. The Romans didn’t need Freud and the Subconscious to know how to keep their populace docile. Panem et circenses (bread and circus games), a figure of speech attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal, was what the masses needed to keep them from an uprising.

For both Bernays and Lippmann, managing the masses was about keeping them quiet and numb, taking the idea of democracy

and turning it into a palliative, giving people some kind of feel-good medication that will respond to an immediate pain or immediate yearning but will not alter the objective circumstances one iota. The idea of democracy at its heart was about changing the relations of power that had governed the world for so long; and Bernays’ concept of democracy was one of maintaining the relations of power, even if it meant one needed to stimulate the psychological lives of the public. And in fact, in his mind, that is what was necessary. That if you can keep stimulating the irrational self then leadership can go on doing what it wants to do.

So said Adam Curtis in the clip. It’s not that the masses cannot be deceived and betrayed, or whipped up against an imagined enemy. The Nazis persecuted the Jews, communists, socialists or any other group that didn’t fit their ideology and achieved popular support through massive propaganda in rallies, newspapers, and cinema, and the radio. Today, it works again in a similar way. It’s the Muslims, or the Russians, purely maligned for political exigencies.

Behind the rhetoric, we find that the true political agenda of those in power remains obscure and hidden unless dragged into the open by people like Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Movements such as the Yellow Vests signal instability. As soon as the economy deteriorates and the masses are plagued by poverty and violence, the political situation can change quickly into a massive revolt. Political action then is an act of enlightenment!


Bernays, E. L., & Miller, M. C. (2005). Propaganda. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ig Pub.

Curtis, A. (Producer), Curtis, A. (Writer) (2002). The century of the self [Television broadcast]. United Kingdom: BBC Four.

Kant, I., Humphrey, T. (Trans.).(1992). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? Retrieved from https://www.stmarys-ca.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/files/Kant--What%20Is%20Enlightenment_.pdf (Original work published 1784 A.D.)

Lessig, D.(2016, June 20).The Century of the Self (Full Documentary).Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ3RzGoQC4s&t=3s

PiALOGUE. (2018, December 29). Century of the self transcript. Retrieved from http://pialogue.info/books/Century-of-the-Self.php

Webster, R. (2011). Freud (Great philosophers) [Kindle]. Retrieved from Amazon.com

Webster, R. (2005). Why Freud was wrong: Sin, science and psychoanalysis. United Kingdom: Orwell Press