The Century of the Self

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For the 2009 album by ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, see The Century of Self.
The Century of the Self
The Century of Self Titles.jpg
Directed by Adam Curtis
Produced by Adam Curtis
Lucy Kelsall
Stephen Lambert
Written by Adam Curtis
Starring Adam Curtis
Anna Freud
Bill Clinton
Edward Bernays
Herbert Marcuse
Jerry Rubin
Martin S. Bergmann
Robert Reich
Sigmund Freud
Stuart Ewen
Tony Blair
Werner Erhard
Wilhelm Reich
Cinematography David Barker
William Sowerby
Distributed by BBC Four
Release dates
Running time
240 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Century of the Self is a 2002 British television documentary series by Adam Curtis. It focuses on how the work of Sigmund Freud, Anna Freud, and Edward Bernays influenced the way corporations and governments have analyzed, dealt with, and controlled people.[1]


  1. "Happiness Machines" (17 March 2002)
  2. "The Engineering of Consent" (24 March 2002)
  3. "There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed" (31 March 2002)
  4. "Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering" (7 April 2002)


Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed the perception of the human mind and its workings. The series describes the propaganda that Western governments and corporations have utilized stemming from Freud's theories.

Freud himself and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed. Freud's daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in the second part, as is one of the main opponents of Freud's theories, Wilhelm Reich, in the third part.

Along these general themes, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of modern consumerism, representative democracy, commodification and its implications. It also questions the modern way we see ourselves, the attitudes to fashion and superficiality.

The business and political world uses psychological techniques to read, create and fulfill the desires of the public, to make their products or speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and citizens. Curtis raises the question of the intentions and roots of this fact. Where once the political process was about engaging people's rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a society, the documentary shows how by employing the tactics of psychoanalysis, politicians appeal to irrational, primitive impulses that have little apparent bearing on issues outside of the narrow self-interest of a consumer population.

The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers, are cited: "We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. [...] Man's desires must overshadow his needs".[2][3][4][5][6][7]

In Episode 4 the main subjects are Philip Gould and Matthew Freud, the great-grandson of Sigmund, a PR consultant. They were part of the efforts during the nineties to bring the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power. Adam Curtis explores the psychological methods they have now massively introduced into politics. He also argues that the eventual outcome strongly resembles Edward Bernays' vision for the "Democracity" during the 1939 New York World's Fair.



To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society in Britain and the United States. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

According to BBC publicity[8]

Nominated for:

  • Best Documentary Blubb, Royal Television Society
  • Best Documentary, Indie Awards
  • Best Documentary Series, Grierson Documentary Awards
  • Best Documentary, William Coupan Memorial Award


  1. ^ Adams, Tim (10 March 2002). "How Freud got under our skin". The Observer. Retrieved 13 January 2013. 
  2. ^ The quote is from a 1927 article by Mazur in the Harvard Business Review. See Häring & Douglas 2012, p. 17.
  3. ^ Mazur 1928, p. 24, 44, 47, 50, similarly read: "Any community that lives on staples has relatively few wants. The community that can be trained to desire . . . to want new things even before the old have been entirely consumed yields a market to be measured more by desires than by needs. And man's desires can be developed so that they will greatly overshadow his needs. . . . Human nature very conveniently presents a variety of strings upon which an appreciative sales manager can play fortissimo. . . . Threats, fear, beauty, sparkle, persuasion and careful as well as wild-cat exaggeration were thrown at the American buying public as a continuous and terrifying barrage. . . . And so desire was enthroned in the minds of the American consumer, and was served abjectly by the industries that had enthroned it."
  4. ^ Mazur argued tirelessly that the "extraordinary and miraculous system called mass production in the United States" would, "by its very nature, . . . be a creator of unemployment in a stable economy. On the other hand, a mass-production system which works in a growing economy will show to best advantage." Economic growth is "an absolute requirement if we do not want overproduction or unemployment. . . . I wish I could take this particular conviction, put it in a hypodermic needle and inject it where it would do the most good." Combined with the premise that growth requires increased consumption, Mazur concluded: "We must learn to sell better and to advertise better. We must convert a basic economic desire—to acquire more and more things—which has no limitation, I assume, among human beings, into actual demand for goods." Mazur 1955, p. 44–6.
  5. ^ "[I]n a system as productive as the American economy, it is vital that the levels of consumption be high and constantly rising". Mazur 1965, p. 164.
  6. ^ For Mazur's cultures of "needs" and "desires", see also Leach 1996, which notes (p. 99) that, by 1928, Mazur was able to declare that a "staggering machine of desire" had been erected.
  7. ^ For an account that calls attention to, and argues for the centrality of, the role played by Broadway in the creation of this "staggering machine of desire", see Schweitzer 2009. On p. 57, Schweitzer notes that the "construction of a mode of spectatorship intended to arouse consumer desire was hardly unique to the theater. Driven by anxieties about overproduction and labor unrest, and bolstered by statistical evidence that claimed women made 85 percent of all consumer purchases, manufacturers joined forces with advertising agents to manipulate consumer behavior. Against a backdrop of progressively violent strikes and protests, this group trained Americans to turn a blind eye to social inequities, to construct individual subjectivites around the purchase of commodities, and to view democracy as the freedom to choose between brands."
  8. ^ BBC Four Documentaries - The Century of the Self (archive copy)


  • Häring, Norbert; Douglas, Niall (2012). Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards. London: Anthem Press. 
  • Leach, William (1996). "Brokers and the New Corporate, Industrial Order". In William R. Taylor. Inventing Times Square: Commerce and Culture at the Crossroads of the World. Baltimore, MA: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 99–117. 
  • Mazur, Paul (1928). American Prosperity: Its Causes and Consequences. New York, NY: Viking Press. 
  • Mazur, Paul (1955). "New Markets—a Permanent Need". Challenge 3 (7): 43–46. JSTOR 40716944.  (subscription required)
  • Mazur, Paul (1965). The Dynamics of Economic Growth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 
  • Schweitzer, Marlis (2009). When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 

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