Tag Archives: Adam Curtis

The Century of the Self (2002)

Adam Curtis’ acclaimed series Century of the Self examines how the introduction of Sigmund Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis has come to shape American culture. The series advances the thesis that Freud’s views of the unconscious set the stage for corporations, and later politicians, to manipulate public behavior through appeals to our unconscious fears and desires. Curtis’ detailed examination of how Psychoanalytic theories have been used to create a desire based consumer economy, manufacture public consent for unpopular military intervention and to emotionally manipulate the public in political campaigns raises important ethical questions about whether the utilization of psychological conditioning techniques to direct group behaviors is consistent with Democratic ideals.

Episode 1: Happiness Machines

Episode one explores the evolution of the American public relations industry and the use of Freud’s theories of Psychoanalysis to appeal to the subconscious desires of consumers. Freud’s cousin, Edward Bernays, first introduced the these principles in the United States by convincing American corporations that they could increase their sales by appealing to individual’s unconscious emotions.

Bernays created marketing innovations such as celebrity endorsements and the sexualization  of consumer products. One of Bernays more controversial campaigns succeeded in breaking the taboo on female smoking by linking cigarettes with the Suffragette movement. Bernays successfully persuaded woman to adopt the harmful habit by referring to cigarettes as “liberty sticks” and symbolizing the act of smoking as an expression of liberation and independence. By satisfying the inner irrational desires that his uncle had identified, people could be persuaded to act in ways they would not normally behave.

It was the beginning of organizational psychology and the social engineering practices which the soon come to dominate American society.

Episode 2: The Engineering of Consent

Part two explores how policymakers in post World War II America came to embrace Freud’s underlying premise that human behavior was influenced by irrational subconscious desires and used Bernay’s propaganda techniques to engineer public consent. Public officials became mistrustful of the general public, concerned that if individuals were left alone to act on their irrational  desires, the atrocities committed by Germany in World War II could repeat themselves in America. As a result, policy planners became preoccupied with installing social controls to identify and suppress the public’s potentially dangerous desires through social indoctrination.

Psychoanalysis gained increasing influence throughout American society as it proposed that dangerous behaviors could  be controlled by conditioning individuals to obey social norms. Psychoanalysists were employed to create organizational models as this ideology rapidly spread through the corporate and public sectors. However, this rigid system of social conformity created problems of it’s own as rates of depression, anxiety and disillusionment began to rise within the general public. As the failures mounted, the tenets of psychoanalysis would be placed into question.

Episode 3: There is a Policeman Inside All of Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed

The third segment explores how the perceived failures of psychoanalysis led to the public rejection of social conformity in favor of individual expression. Beginning in the 1960s, a group of psychotherapists influenced by the theories of  Wilhelm Reich began to challenge the validity of the psychoanalytic model in explaining human behavior. They asserted that unleashing  an individual’s subconscious desires led to empowerment and creativity. As the individual empowerment movement spread, the idea that individuals could transform society through political activism was soon replaced with the notion that a better society could only be achieved through individual transformation. Corporate marketers learned to capitalize on the ideological shift by persuading consumers to express their individuality through the products they purchased.

Episode 4: Eight People Sipping Wine In Kettering

This final installment of the series examines how politicians in the U.S. and Britain discovered the advantages of incorporating psychoanalytic principles into their political campaigns. Curtis explores the introduction of political focus groups to gather information about the  subconscious  motivations of voters and the ideological shift away from the public good towards fulfillment of individual desires. The segment focuses on the how politicians began pandering to individual self interest in an effort to maintain public office. Curtis raises the ethical question of whether the political shift towards egocentrism is actually capable of producing a more democratic society or if it simply exploits the public desires for self-liberation to maintain the existing power structure.

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004)

The Power of Nightmares is Adam Curtis’ documentary series about the use of fear for political purposes. It first aired on BBC Two in the Autumn of 2004 as a series of three one hour documentaries questioning whether Western concerns over terrorism and the threat of al-Qaeda were exaggerated by politicians seeking to maintain their power and authority.

The three part series assesses whether the threat from a hidden and organized terrorist network is an illusion. Should we be worried about the threat from this terrorist organization or is it simply a phantom menace being used to prevent the erosion of our faith in government?

Episode 1: Baby It’s Cold Outside

 Part one, examines the origins of the neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists in the 1950s.

In the past our politicians offered us dreams of a better world. Now they promise to protect us from nightmares.

The most frightening of these is the threat of an international terror network. But just as the dreams were not true, neither are these nightmares.

The Power of Nightmares examines whether the belief that the West is threatened by a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion.

UK Prime Minister and US President George W Bush stand behind a picture of Osama Bin Laden

At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neo-conservatives and the radical Islamists. Both were idealists who were born out of the failure of the liberal dream to build a better world.

These two groups have changed the world but not in the way either intended. Together they have created today’s nightmare vision of an organised terror network. This is a useful illusion which politicians have found restores faith in their leadership during a disillusioned age.

The rise of the politics of fear begins in 1949 with two men whose radical ideas would inspire the attack of 9/11 and influence the neo-conservative movement that dominates Washington.

Both these men believed that modern liberal freedoms were eroding the bonds that held society together.

The two movements they inspired set out, in their different ways, to rescue their societies from this decay. But in an age of growing disillusion with politics, the neo-conservatives turned to fear in order to pursue their vision.

They would create a hidden network of evil run by the Soviet Union that only they could see.

The Islamists were faced by the refusal of the masses to follow their dream and began to turn to terror to force the people to “see the truth”‘.

Episode 2: The Phantom Victory

Part two, the Phantom Victory, looks at how radical Islamists and neo-conservatives came together to  defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan

On 25 December 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan.

Moscow was able to install a friendly government in a neighbouring country but at a price.

The invasion gave a common cause to an extraordinary alliance of radical Islamists in Afghanistan and around the world and to the neo-conservatives in the US.

It was a key battleground of the Cold War.

Washington provided money and arms including even Stinger missiles capable of shooting down Soviet helicopters.

But it was Islamic Mujahideen fighters who would fire them.

Among the many foreigners drawn to Afghanistan was a young, wealthy Saudi called Osama Bin Laden.

Mujahideen fightersAfter nearly 10 years of fighting, Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan.Long before 9/11, he would have been seen by neo-conservatives in Washington as one of their foot soldiers, helping fight America’s cause.

Both the neo-conservatives and the Islamists believed that it is they who defeated the “evil empire” and now had the power to transform the world.

But both failed in their revolutions.

In response, the neo-conservatives invented a new fantasy enemy, Bill Clinton, focusing on the scandal surrounding him and Monica Lewinsky.

Meanwhile, the Islamists descend into a desperate cycle of violence and terror to try to persuade the people to follow them.

Out of all this comes the seeds of the strange world of fantasy, deception, violence and fear in which we now live.

Episode 3: The Shadows in the Cave

The final episode explores how the illusion was created and who benefits from it.

In the wake of the shock and panic created by the devastating attack on the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001, the neo-conservatives reconstructed the radical Islamists in the image of their last evil enemy, the Soviet Union – a sinister web of terror run from the centre by Osama Bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistan.

There are dangerous and fanatical individuals and groups around the world who have been inspired by extreme Islamist ideas, and who will use the techniques of mass terror – the attacks on America and Madrid make this only too clear.

Osama Bin LadenBut the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.

Wherever one looks for this al-Qaeda organisation, from the mountains of Afghanistan to the “sleeper cells” in America, the British and Americans are chasing a phantom enemy.

But the reason that no-one questions the illusion is because this nightmare enemy gives so many groups new power and influence in a cynical age – and not just politicians.

Those with the darkest imaginations have now become the most powerful.

Fair Use Notice

This video may contain copyrighted material. Such material is made available for educational purposes only in an effort to advance the understanding of human rights and social justice issues and is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. This constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.


The BBC was inundated with correspondence and Viewers were invited to put their questions to the creator of the series, Adam Curtis. Here are some of the Questions and Responses:

Page 1: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/4202741.stm

Page 2: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/3973195.stm

Suggested Reading:

Hungerford, J. M.. The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1950. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_memoranda/RM365. Available in .pdf form at:  http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_memoranda/2008/RM365.pdf

Lemnitzer, L.L. Northwoods Report: Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba. Washington, D.C.: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1963.  http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/news/20010430/northwoods.pdf

National Security Agency. Gulf of Tonkin Index. Washington, D.C.: NSA, 2005-06.  https://www.nsa.gov/public_info/declass/gulf_of_tonkin/

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? (2007)

“The Trap” is a three part documentary series by award-winning producer Adam Curtis which explores whether the economic model that human behavior is motivated by rational self interest has created a culture of suspicion which actually threatens individual liberties and reduces the quality of our lives.

The series chronicles how the introduction of game theory has led political leaders to adopt a simplistic model of human behavior which views social interaction as series of self interested transactions designed to maximize individual outcomes. This paradigm shift has transitioned governments away from their traditional role in promoting the public interest into institutions which act to appease the wants of citizens. At the same time, citizens have begun to identify themselves as simplistic beings whose freedom is associated with the fulfillment of desires. As a result, both politicians and the masses have embraced an egocentric concept of freedom which has caused us to accept an economical model of supply and demand politics which seeks to maintain relevance by meeting short term desires rather than improving our overall social condition.

Curtis proposes a more substantive and fulfilling form of freedom which allows us not only to fill immediate wants and desires, but to transform the overall quality of our living standards. This hope of improving the society we live in, he suggests, has been abandoned by policymakers in favor of a safer, less satisfying form of democracy which robs our lives of their intrinsic value.

Episode 1: F**k You Buddy

Part one examines how Game Theory and the idea that human behavior is driven by rational self interest has molded the political, economic and social behavior of Western Democracies.

Episode one explores John Nash’s hypothesis that human behavior is motivated by rational, self interested decisions to maximize potential outcomes. Using self interest as his first premise, Nash proposes that individual behavior is motivated by rational choices, rather than any sense of duty towards others. Therefore, in any social transaction an individual maximizes their potential benefits by acting in their own self interest. Curtis chronicles how this concept has influenced politicians, economists, anthropologists and even geneticists to embrace a market based supply and demand approach which has transformed the goal of government from seeking the public good to fulfilling public demand.

Episode 2: The Lonely Robot

Part two chronicles how a transition to an economic model of government administration has produced a controlling, dispassionate system of bureaucratic management driven by statistical analysis and desired outcomes. Curtis shows how the call for increased government efficiency and delivery of services, measured by numerical calculations, has resulted in increased institutional rigidity, inefficiency and corruption as administrators have resorted to manipulating statistics to meet performance targets rather than enacting the desired reforms.

Episode 3: We Will Force You To Be Free

Part three focuses on how the introduction of Isaiah Berlin’s concept of positive and negative liberties has influenced the Western concept of social progress. Berlin argues that the negative consequences of social revolutions can be avoided by enforcing negative, rather than positive liberties. Berlin reasons that the exercise of positive liberty always brings oppression because it requires the government to coerce an unwilling populace into embracing the desired social change. Therefore, Berlin suggests that it is safer for democracies to limit the government’s ability to cause harm through the exercise of negative liberty, allowing individuals greater autonomy over their own lives. However, Berlin warns, the idea of negative liberty can never become so absolute and inflexible, that democracy evolves into the very tyranny it seeks to avoid.

Curtis chronicles how Western leaders have ignored Berlin’s warning through an extreme vision of negative liberty which seeks to end global tyranny and maintain the peace through the use of state sponsored violence. At the same time, Western democracies have attempted to maintain domestic tranquility by suppressing passionate dissent and retreating to the safety of rational objectivism. As a result, Curtis argues, we are trapped within a false paradigm which stifles democracy and robs our lives of meaning.

Fair Use Notice

This video may contain copyrighted material. Such material is made available for educational purposes only in an effort to advance the understanding of human rights and social justice issues and is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. This constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law.

The Century of the Self (2002)

An award winning BBC documentary series which explores the progression of social engineering in the United states through the use of Psychoanalysis. The four part series raises important ethical questions about whether the utilization of psychological conditioning techniques to direct group behaviors is consistent with Democratic ideals.

The film can be viewed FREE online at: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/the-century-of-the-self/