The Century of the Self – How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

“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.” – Adam Curtis

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?

Part 1


Happiness Machines

Freud provided useful tools for understanding the secret desires of the masses. Unwittingly, his work served as the precursor to a world full of political spin doctors, marketing moguls, and society’s belief that the pursuit of satisfaction and happiness is man’s ultimate goal.

Part 2


The Engineering of Consent

Politicians and planners came to believe Freud’s underlying premise – that deep within all human beings were dangerous and irrational desires and fears. They were convinced that it was the unleashing of these instincts that had led to the barbarism of Nazi Germany.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, and his nephew, Edward Bernays, provided the centrepiece philosophy. The US government, big business, and the CIA used their ideas to develop techniques to manage and control the minds of the American people.

Part 3

There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed

The Me Generation.

American corporations realised that self was not a threat but their greatest opportunity. It was in their interest to encourage people to feel they were unique individuals and then sell them ways to express that individuality. To do this they turned to techniques developed by Freudian psychoanalysts to read the inner desires of the new self.
Part 4


Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering

This episode explains how politicians on the left, in both Britain and America, turned to the techniques developed by business to read and fulfil the inner desires of the self.

Both New Labour, under Tony Blair, and the Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, used the focus group, which had been invented by psychoanalysts, in order to regain power. They set out to mould their policies to people’s inner desires and feelings, just as capitalism had learnt to do with products.

The politicians believed they were creating a new and better form of democracy, one that truly responded to the inner feelings of individual. But what they didn’t realise was that the aim of those who had originally created these techniques had not been to liberate the people but to develop a new way of controlling them.

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