We watched a chunk of Century of the Self, Adam Curtis' 2002 documentary about the birth of the modern world, last night in the History of Advertising class. I showed it because it begins with a lengthy exploration of the work and influence of edward bernays, probably one of the most overlooked figures of the 20th century. Nephew of Sigmund Freud and developer of public relations and believer in the power of propaganda to influence the decisions of human beings.
Curtis' film does a great job of setting up the tensions that have, and continue to shape our world with regard to the relationship between democracy and capitalism. Bernays applied lessons learned from propaganda used in wartime and applied them to peacetime living, essentially giving rise to consumer society as we know and experience it today,
"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the
organized habits and opinions of the masses is an
important element in democratic society. Those who
manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling
power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society."
The film is filled with intense material and doesn't paint a great picture of Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, but it sets up this dichotomy about us--are we to be 'active citizens' or 'passive consumers'? The answer to that seems to be the tension that we all live in everyday. Another theme is the tension between big business and government over the how and in what way industry should be managed, represented and offered to citizens--another theme that is still playing out today.
"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."
The success for which Bernays is perhaps most widely known is his campaign on behalf of the tobacco industry to get women to smoke. smoking was essentially taboo for women, something only prostitutes might do, as with many 'pleasures' it was the domain of men. But Bernays, applying his uncle's principles and building on the theory from another psychologist that women view cigarettes as phallic, he managed to change an entire culture's view of smoking almost overnight, and with virtually a single act of carefully managed public action--heady stuff.
The issues raised by the film, about Bernays, psychoanalysis, relationship between business and government, between democracy and capitalism, the emergence of the consumer society etc., are central to understanding the nature of self-understanding that was developed in the early 20th century and continues to plays out today and, I would argue, key to any public dialog about issues related to humanity--anyone preaching or teaching should be aware of all this, because it is key to understanding the way we see ourselves today and it is a unique and challenging perspective.
This is what Noam Chompsky had to say about Bernays' 1928 book, History Is A Weapon,
[The] American business community was also very impressed with the
propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was
becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote
and that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more
people could participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and
So what do you do? It's going to be harder to run things as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefeller's image look prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry, which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact, the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term "propaganda," incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days. It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is possible to "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies." These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new techniques.
This is the main manual of the public relations industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didn't smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the techniques—models and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.