If you’re going to control people, you have to control their thoughts, but how do you do that? There is a fascinating BBC documentary series called The Century Of The Self which I watched last week. It consists of four one-hour broadcasts. The entire series focuses around how Sigmund Freud’s ideas have been used to try to control crowds of people in our age of democracy. It’s brilliant.
We’re first introduced to Sigmund Freud and his psychological ideas of the unconscious. He discovered that underneath our conscious everyday thought lies these irrational forces focused around things like sex, procreation, and aggression. While Freud’s attempts to understand the mind were both academic and clinical (to treat neurotic patients), his nephew Edward Bernays thought it might be interesting to see if he could control these irrational unconscious drives and get people to do what he wanted.
So, Bernays decided to market himself to large corporations and soon became an extremely wealthy consulting expert. For example, he was hired by tobacco companies to get women to smoke cigarettes. During the early twentieth century, there was a taboo against women smoking and they wanted him to change that. So how do you manipulate people into buying something they don’t need? How do you get all these women smoking cigarettes which are bad for their health?
Bernays visits one of Freud’s pupils, A.A. Brill, and has him deeply psychoanalyze women. After considerable thought, Bernays realizes that the real problem with women in that era is they had an unconscious grudge against their husbands as they weren’t given any freedoms in their society. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t work, etc. The women would never admit this. After all, they loved their husbands and would never admit that they’re angry at the fact that such a loving man was actually controlling them. So, Bernays gives them a way to outlet their frustration without them even knowing it. Cigarettes were to become “torches of freedom.”
He uses celebrities at the time to smoke cigarettes and markets them as this symbol of freedom. Though this is never directly said in the advertisements, the underlying hidden message is: Do you want to be an independent, successful woman like these movie stars? Tired of the boring life of a housewife? These women don’t need a man supporting them. They’re independent! Puff on one of these! Everything from the graphics to the ad copy all speaks to that primitive brain of these women.
Before long, women were smoking. To this day, smoking cigarettes is associated with a symbol of independence and freedom. After all, who is the man of freedom? The cowboy, riding his horse in the open field. Hardly anyone lives that life, but a lot of men want to think of themselves as free spirits, so they market their cigarettes to appeal to that unconscious drive.
When you think of brainwashing, you probably envision some man or woman strapped to a chair, staring into these flashing lights, given mind altering drugs, and scientists infusing hidden thoughts into their brain. In actuality, manipulate is much more subtle. Primal animal like passions deep within people are exploited and used to modify people’s behavior through things like image based advertising.
The whole first episode is about the application of Freud’s ideas to big business, spearheaded by Edward Bernays. The second episode is just as fascinating. The Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels reads Bernays books and is fascinated. They hire psychoanalysts to analyze all these everyday people and they learn about their frustrations living in Germany at that time. That’s when they bombard the minds of the people with these Freudian unconscious techniques and they’re all swept away. Everything from the speeches, to the uniforms, to the architectural style of buildings is all designed to appeal to the people’s unconscious hopes and frustrations. Within a very short time Hitler becomes this mythical figure, almost unreal.
You have to remember the history. After World War I, Germany was blamed for everything. Their economic situation spiraled out of control and left them with massive inflation. Many lost their life savings, their businesses, everything. A great people were being trampled on, abused, and they were all frustrated. Hitler’s message was, “You’re the greatest people on Earth! Why do you put up with this? We have the greatest history known to man!” He erects these statues from past epochs of their history, romanticized. There’s flags everywhere, fiery speeches are delivered in massive religious like halls, marching bands parade away, and on and on. For example, take this statue. It’s the eagle, soaring high in the sky, strongly carrying a symbol of their people far up in the clouds. All the statues were placed high up to get people to lift their heads toward the sky.
I’d recommend you listen to his speeches as well. Notice how they appeal to emotion and never reason.
Hitler never encourages critical thought or individuality. He wanted fanatical obedience. He tells them to believe and have confidence in him, appealing to reptilian instincts to follow the strong man. If you read books like Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death, you learn that there are strong instinctual drives within our brains for what he calls “immortality projects”. Even if unconsciously, our minds are always thinking of death and what we’re leaving behind. We want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Hitler (or maybe we should say Goebbels) creates the Nazi party as an immortality project for the people, a great nation that will last forever. All of these things infuse people’s minds with meaning and purpose, especially the youth who haven’t yet to be disillusioned to the scam.
After this Nazi nightmare, the U.S. government was terrified. How were they going to control these new unconscious forces and maintain order? I agree with President Roosevelt that people can be rational and trusted to make sound decisions, assuming we give them reliable and accurate information. People with this same line of thinking created the Gallup polls, to rationally poll the people to hear their desires and opinions on things. That’s the right direction, not manipulation. Even in polling, asking loaded and emotional questions is greatly frowned on, as it should be.
The third episode is an equally fascinating examination of the rise of the self-help industry which arose in the 1960s. All of the sudden, everyone was obsessed with individuality. Problem was, people weren’t sure what it meant to be an individual, all they knew was that they needed to be one. There’s this huge rise of hippies and gurus and other masters offering to help the masses find themselves.
People were in the streets protesting, dancing to their rock music, exclaiming that they weren’t going to be a part of “the system”. They didn’t want to dress the same way, or drive the same cars, or eat the same foods. They were tripping on acid and felt they were infinite consciousness, all possibilities, the totality of all that is. They didn’t want to be trapped in a box.
This worried big businesses because their manufacturing processes relied on making large quantities of the same thing in order to be efficient. If everyone was wanting different things, how in the world would they know what to produce? How could they make this work?
Here comes the real irony. It turns out people aren’t infinite possibilities after all. Stanford psychologists were hired to analyze people using Freudian like techniques and it turns out that all people, even the hippies, easily fall within a few set categories. Businesses changed their marketing and product lines to match the new demand and things smoothly sailed on.
I really enjoyed the interview with this hippy guy living in this shack on the beach. Apparently he was a leader of one of these movements. He tells the documentary maker, “Out of nowhere, the corporations started making products that even a guy like me, a man of infinite consciousness, would want.” His house was filled with hippy swirls, weird lights, and strange glass windows. I paused the video and laughed and laughed.
It’s also really interesting how this “individualism” movement turned out. Whereas before, people would be perfectly content with a nice living room and kitchen set, now they had to have their own, unique kitchen and living room set, setting them apart from the person next door. Big business had a heyday with this. “Don’t be like everyone else, buy the new [fill in the blank]…” In the end, the whole movement to “find yourself” ended up being reduced to shallow consumerism, people buying things they didn’t even need, and everyone looking over their shoulders to compare themselves to someone else.
The final episode deals with politics, primarily focusing on the Clinton administration in the 1990s. In order to win the election, he started using these Freudian techniques in his speeches to appeal to different demographics. Bill Clinton is big into psychoanalysis. In his autobiography, he said that he’s read The Denial Of Death over and over.
In elections, there are two huge chunks of people, some who will always vote Republican, and others who will always vote Democrat, regardless of who’s running or their policies. Clinton knew this, so he directed these Freudian tactics at swing voters. He hired analysts to psychoanalyze everyday people in the swing states and got deep into their minds. Then in his speeches he went on and on about all these petty things that those swing voters were concerned about. Things like chips in televisions to block pornography and other weird things like that. His popularity soared in those key demographics and was elected and reelected.
Before this time, politicians had messages about the future direction of the country, about their own vision. Now politicians are becoming more and more opportunistic, appealing to short-term interests of these random people for votes. This has made it incredibly difficult to govern. Policies are no longer even coherent, appealing to the random whims of all kinds of people who don’t even know what they’re talking about. They cut funding for railroads and then those same people get mad at their leaders when the trains aren’t working well. Stuff like that. It’s complete madness and it’s swept the world by storm. It’s become the norm for politicians in Europe and all over the world.
We’ve went from a nation of self-responsible, socially conscious citizens to these petty narcissists who believe that everything should conform to our desires, even if we know nothing about the issues at all.
You guys can probably now easily see why I have a picture of Sigmund Freud in my website’s top graphic. His thought is so important to understanding the past hundred years, whether it be history, society, or individual psychology. It makes me wonder, what if Sigmund Freud had never lived? What if these discoveries of the unconscious had never been brought to light? Our culture would be totally different, the Nazi’s may have never been as successful as they were, and even our politicians would govern differently, based on reason instead of emotion. Quite a profound thought. Freud unleashed a torrent of a madness over our world. Who would have thought!
Here is the entire documentary series on Youtube, if you want to see it. If this video is taken down, just Google it and you’ll easily find all the episodes on sites like Vimeo and others.