Sunday, January 31, 2010

Active Citizens or Passive Consumers

The "Century of the Self" documents how Freud's ideas and various counter arguments have dominated how big business and government have interacted with the American masses over the past century. It was produced by the BBC roughly ten years ago and is regarded as one of the best documentaries of all time. The central thesis is the tug of war between the idea that the great mass of citizenry is an unstable swamp of barbaric instinctual drives and anxieties or is capable of using their better selfs to dominate these drives. It is a competition between the views of treating people as active citizens to be dealt with rationally or passive consumers to be pacified by catering to these underlying irrational drives.

Of particular fascination is how the left when out gunned by the establishment in the 1960s sought to change society through individual, personal tranformation. Surprisingly, it was Reagan that won over this newly individuated class with his ideas on personal freedom and smaller government. This newly individuated class was also one of the main drivers behind America's economic resurgence under Reagan.

It is also fascinating how the left to regain control used life style marketing techniques to target these groups by promising a government that would fulfill their whims. This was a government that catered to base and often conflicting drives by use of focus group questionnaires lacking in context. It is/was a government that treated people as passive consumers not active citizens.

Below is a link to this excellent series:

Below is my summary of this excellent series. While the views summarized below do not represent my own, they have had a dominant impact on how the elites have viewed and reacted to society over the past century.

The Century of the Self

Series about how Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious mind have been used to control the masses in the age of democracy.
It started with a belief that underneath all human beings is a hidden irrational self that needed to be controlled for the good of individuals and the stability of society.

Sigmund Freud

Freud believed:
Unconscious aggressive nature can be easily triggered in crowds.
There are submerged dangerous forces lurking just under the surface of modern society.
Forces that could erupt easily to produce the frenzied mob which had the power to overturn even governments such as the Russian Revolution
One of the guiding principles of mass democracy was wrong that human beings could be trusted to make decisions on a rational basis.
Civilization and Its Discontents – In this book, Freud attacks the idea that civilization is sign of progress. Civilization was designed to control the dangerous animal forces inside human beings. This meant that the idea of individual freedom at the heart of democracy is impossible. Human beings could never be truly allowed to express themselves because it was too dangerous. They must always be controlled and, thus, be discontent. Man does not want to be civilized. Civilization brings discontent but is necessary for survival. Civilization is the only way to keep men within limits. Freud did not believe in the equality of men.

Edward Bernays

Public Relations = Propaganda

Engineering of Consent - Stimulate inner desires and sate the with consumer products as way to manage the irrational force of the masses.
Enlightened Despotism - Public had to be guided from above because they could easily make the wrong choices. Appeal to desires and unrecognized longings, tap into their deepest desires and fears and use that for higher purpose

Walter Lippman – Political Commentator

If human beings are driven by unconscious irrational forces then it was necessary to rethink democracy. What was needed was an elite class to manage the bewildered herd. This would be done via psychological techniques which would control the feelings of the masses.
Basic mechanism of the mass mind is irrational. The man in the street (the mob) is driven by their spinal column not their minds. Animal drives, unconscious, instinctual lurking beneath the surface of civilization.
Turned towards psychological science as a way of understanding how the popular mind works with the goal of developing strategies of social control.

Herbert Hoover

Consumerism = Central Motor of American Lives
Advertisers, Public Relations – You have taken over the job of creating desire.
People = Constantly Moving Happiness Machines that are key to economic progress
New way to run mass democracy centered on the consuming self that made the economy work and people happy and docile. This creates a stable society.
Democracy = palliative = feel good medication = responds to immediate pain or yearning but does not alter objective circumstances one iota
Democracies original intent was changing the relationships of power but this new concept was centered on maintaining the relationships to power.
If you stimulate the irrational self then leadership can do whatever it wants to do.


Hitler represented a growing despair with democracies in the 1930’s. Nazis convinced that democracy was dangerous because it unleashed a selfish individualism but did not have the means to control it. Democracy leads to chaos and unemployment.


Used rallies for forge mind of nation into a unity of thinking, feeling and desire. Frightened irrationality could emerge in large crowds, the mass libido of desires is given up to the leader and aggression is unleashed on those outside the group. Freud warned of these forces but Nazis felt that they could control them.


Free market capitalism could no longer run modern industrialized economies. This was the job of government. Big business horrified but this attracted the admiration of the Nazis.
Unlike the Nazis, FDR believed that human beings were rational and could be trusted to take an active part in government. FDR believed he could explain his policies to ordinary Americans and take into account their opinions. To this he was assisted by social scientist George Gallup.

Gallup and Roper

Gallup and Roper rejected view that ordinary people were at the mercy of unconscious forces and had to be controlled. They believed that people could be trusted to know what they wanted. They felt that they could predict the behavior of the public through polling.
Before scientific polling, the view was the general public’s opinions should be ignored because it was chaotic, irrational and ill informed.
Big Business
In the 1930s big business teamed with Bernais to fight back against FDR takeover of control. They asserted the ideology of democracy and privately owned business. They set out to show that it was business not government that had created modern America. They taught that democracy and capitalism went together that you could not have one without the other. They used the world’s fair Futurama display to demonstrate that Business responded to peoples inner most desires in a way big government could never do. They treated people not as active participants like Roosevelt but as passive consumers because this was the key to control in a mass democracy. The people not in charge, their desires were. Democracy not of active citizens but as passive consumers driven by hidden instinctual desires and if you could trigger those desires you could get what you wanted out of them.

Post War America

Government came to believe that hidden deep within all individuals were dangerous and irrational ideas. The unleashing of these instincts caused the barbarity of Nazi Germany. They set out to find ways to manage and control the human minds of the American people to suppress the savagery and barbarianism that lurks just below the surface.
The irrational has an enormous role in the life of the American people. There is much unseen unhappiness and suffering. Underneath the surface are enormous irrational and dangerous drives. What is needed is a human being that could internalize democratic values so that they cannot be shaken by the storms.

Anna Freud

Sigmund Freud believed the role of psychoanalysis was to allow people to understand their inner drives. Anna Freud believed that you could understand but more importantly control these drives.
The theory of how to control the inner drives was to teach people how to conform to the rules of society. This was more than moral guidance. If you strictly followed the rules of society, the ego (conscious part of mind) would be greatly strengthened in its struggle to control the unconscious. If you did not learn to conform then your ego would be weak and you would fall prey to the dangerous forces of the unconscious. Regulatory aspects of mind would be in charge rather than being a slave to passions.
The road to happiness was in adapting to the external world in which one lived. The external reality to which one had to adapt was never questioned. That the external reality might be a source of evil or something to which one could not adapt was not questioned.

Ernest Dichter

Dichter set up Institution for Motivational Research. He tried to understand the total personality, the self image. Believed that Americans were fundamentally irrational and could not be trusted. Their real reasons for buying were unconscious motivations for purchases. He did not ask specific questions but conducted group therapy for products (focus groups).


The elite class in post war America believed that the masses are fundamentally irrational and the psychological techniques had to be used to control the masses. This elite was necessary because individual citizens left to their own devices were not capable of being democratic. Elites were necessary to create conditions where individuals were capable of being good consumers and democratic citizens.
Manufacturing Consent - American people were not rational so you had to touch on peoples inner fears to manipulate them in the interest of a higher truth. Interests of the people and business were indivisible. It was necessary to manipulate the American people.

Ewen Cameron

CIA Brainwashing Experiments – It was felt necessary to manipulate people to fight the cold war. Humans have a great deal of vulnerability that cam be used to program them. Inside humans were dangerous impulses that were a threat to society. These dangerous impulses could be removed. He thought that psychiatrists should be involved with governments to monitor society. He was impatient with psychoanalysis and thought that repressed memories which were the source of problems could be wiped out with drugs and electroshocks. Tried to erase past and create a clean slate to which he could overwrite new memories and behaviors. He tried to fundamentally alter individuals. He used massive, repeated use of shocks and mega doses of drugs to reduce people to a primitive vegetable state. Having to de-patterned individuals he would reprogram them. The experiments were complete failure all he produced was patients with severe memory loss. The CIA found how difficult it was to understand and control the human mind. They found that humans were extremely complex and more controlled by outside factors than thought.

1960s Backlash Against Psycho Analysis

Why had it become so powerfully? Was it used for the benefit of individuals or used as a form of constraint in the interest of social order? Great truths can come from suffering and inform our lives. Are we lobotomizing ourselves? Instead of being used to free people, it was being used for control (power mad).

Vance Packard

In the book, The Hidden Persuader, he argued that Americans used as
puppets whose only function was to keep American production lines running. This was done by manipulating people’s unconscious desires to create longings for new models and products.

Herbert Marcuse

He argues that the childish use of psychology was used by big business to create a consumer culture that wasted resources and technology by actions such as planned obsolescence, useless features, the overabundance of brands. This type of prosperity leads to a type of schizophrenic existence. He claimed that an incredible amount of aggressiveness and destructiveness is due to the empty prosperity. Psychoanalysis was being used for corrupt purposes. It was wrong to control people. People did have inner emotional drives that were not inherently violent or evil. It was society that made these drives dangerous by oppressing and distorting them. Anna Freud had increased this tendency by trying to make people conform to society. This forced conformity made people more dangerous not less. He switched the definition of evil from individual inner conflict to society itself. Society was sick not the individual. People need to challenge society and not submit to this evil.
One Dimensional Man (Conformist and Repressed) – People are reduced to expressing their identities and feeling through mass produced objects.

Wilhelm Reich

Destroying the Policeman that Live in Our Heads – The inner self did not need to be repressed or controlled. It should be encouraged to express itself. Out of this would come a better human being and a new type of society. What emerged was the opposite: An isolated, vulnerable and greedy self who was more open to manipulation by big business and government. Those in power would gain control not by repressing the self but by feeding its infinite desires.
Reich challenged Freud’s fundamental basis for psychoanalysis. Freud argued that at heart human beings are still driven by fundamental animal instincts and the job of society was to control and repress these dangerous forces. Reich believed the exact opposite that the forces behind the unconscious mind were good. It was there repression by society that distorted them. It was this repression that made people dangerous.
The underlying natural impulse is the libido (sexual energy). If this was released, humans would flourish. Neurosis was due to the lack of orgasm.
The new left tried to confront the state that they believed was repressing society with groups such as the Weathermen attacking the government and big business but they realized that they were outgunned so they turned to the politics of the self. If the individual could remove the policeman implanted in their heads by government and corporate interests then society could be changed. To do this they turned to the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.

Fritz Perls

The center of this activity was the Esalen Institute where they tried to develop techniques to free themselves of controls implanted in their minds by society. Fritz Perls, a protégé of Reich has developed a method known as Group Encounters in which he pushed individuals to express feeling which society had told them were dangerous and should be repressed. He believed that they were creating ways to let individuals express their true inner selves. Out of this would come new types of individuals free from social conditioning.
Getting on the Hot Seat – Is a technique of self Enactment, self revelation, staying present to all the parts of yourself. Taking ownership of who you are, how you act, how you feel. Autonomy. Owning your freedom.
To the left, these ideals were attractive. They believed that these techniques could be used to create a self strong enough to overthrow the old order (the elites).
Human Potential Movement – Esalen type centers across the United States centered on personal and societal transformation.

Werner Erhart

Erhart developed “EST” (Ekhart Training Seminars) which were purported to train people to be themselves. This was self actualization training on a mass, production line scale. He went further than the Human Potential Movement, which believed there was a human core. Erhart believed that this belief in a core was just another artificial limitation that limited human freedom. He believed that there was no fixed self and that you could be anyone you wanted to be. The point of EST training was to peel of all the layers of personality to show you that it was all meaningless, which created freedom there were not freedom or restrictions. This was felt to be liberating because from nothing you could recreate yourself into anything you wanted to be. Society was meaningless and the individual was supreme.
Ultimately, the original intent of changing society through personal transformation was lost. The point became being happy within yourself. The politics were lost to a grandiose sense of the self. Socialism of the self.

Abraham Maslow

He was one of the leaders of the human potential movement.
Hierarchy of Needs - This is a system of psychological types describing emotional stages of people liberated their feelings. At the top was self actualization where an individual was completely self directed and free from societies restrictions.
Stanford Research Institute – group of economists and psychologists developed methods to research these new individuated human beings to develop marketing strategies that could be used by corporations to sell to them. They developed questionnaires to determine personality types akin to Maslow’s hierarchy. One personality type encountered was the “Inner Directives” that felt that they controlled themselves via their own personal choice rather than being controlled by society. The Inner Directives corresponded to the self actualizers on Maslow’s hierarchy. These people could be defined through the pattern of behavior by which they chose to express themselves. This pattern was not infinite but fell into identifiable types (life styles). This categorization of these new individuated personalities was called “Values and Life Styles.” SRI created a simplified questionnaire of 30 questions that allowed them to categorize people into the roughly one dozen categories of individuated groups. Companies could then determine which of these groups bought their products and tailor their advertising to identify their products with these groups. It allowed corporations to make their products powerful emblems of these groups. This was marketing by looking at peoples underlying values rather than specific actions or simple demographics. If a product represented a group’s values, it would be purchased by them.
The values marketing could be used to determine what products people would buy but also what politicians they would elect. Reagan’s message of freedom from big government was scoffed at by politicians and traditional pollsters. These people felt that the “Inner Directives” who they identified as supporting the left would not vote for Reagan. The SRI type marketers via their questionnaires saw that Reagan’s message appealed to these individuated personality types.
Individuated personality types are difficult to pick out of a crowd. They fall across all age, race, class categories. They can be identified easily via the value questionnaire developed by SRI.


Reagan inherited a difficult economic situation with the high unemployment and stagflation from the 1970’s. Contrary to governments that faced similar situations in the past, he promised no government intervention. Instead the economy would be saved by the “New Economy” created by the new class of Inner Directives who had carried Reagan into office.
Psychological Market Research – Old focus group techniques that were in the past used to determine how to sell a limited range of mass produced products were used to identify a new set of needs and create whole new ranges of products that would allow various life style groups express their individuality.
The generation that rebelled against capitalism started to embrace it because it was seen as a way to allow them to express their individuality. Instead of creating an identity, it could now be purchased. This changed the conception of a market of limited needs to one of a market of unlimited ever changing needs. The created an explosion of desire that created what seemed like a never ending consumer boom.
While individuals feel more liberated, they are increasingly dependent of products of big corporations for their sense of identity. Corporation realized that it was in their interest to promote a sense of individuality to create new markets. The rebellion against conformity was no longer seen as a threat to big business but an opportunity.
It is the satisfaction of the individuals needs, wants and desires that it primary. To the left this was the culture of greed. To the left the way to a better society was not to treat people as emotionally isolated individuals but to persuade them that they had a common interest in others and to help them rise above their individuals feelings and fears.
Roosevelt encouraged trade unions, set up consumer groups, pay for a welfare system. His aim was to create a collective awareness to be used against the unfettered power of capitalism which he blamed for the great depression. This idea had driven the Democrats for 50 years but had lost its power in the face of the individualism promoted by Reagan.


The Democrats ran focus groups that told him that voters were only interesting in paying taxes for things that benefited them and not for the welfare of others. Clinton decided to tailor his policies along these lines. He ran a campaign that pledged middle class tax cuts. They also focused grouped all his appearances and speeches ahead of time to gauge reactions and tailor the message.
The democrats wanted to remain true to their traditional policies but needed to regain power to do this. Tax cuts for the middle class were seen as the price that they had to pay. Once in power, they were determined to help the poor mainly through public health care. To pay for this they planned to cut defense spending and raise taxes on the rich.
Once in power, the Democrats realized that the budget deficit was much greater than expected. There was no way to borrow the money without spooking the markets. The only way to pay for the promised tax cuts for the middle class was to cut welfare as well as defense spending. Instead of cutting taxes, Clinton reneged on his promise hoping he could make personal appeals for continued welfare spending.
Clinton reverted back to the old Democratic tradition of the collective over the individual. He promoted universal health care, universal child care, addressing societal inequalities and homelessness. Suburban voters were not inspired by this vision. They wanted their tax cuts and felt betrayed by Clinton.
Clinton lost both houses of congress in the mid-terms elections and his popularity plummeted. He turned to Dick Morris for help who advised him that to win reelection he would have to transform the nature of politics. He would have to treat voters as consumers. The way to win back the crucial suburban voters was to forget ideology and to identify and promise to fulfill their desires and whims. He needed to be as sensitive as business with voters treated as consumers and their votes being the profits. Instead of treating voters as targets, treat them as owners. Instead of treating them as objects to manipulate, treat them as people you need to learn from. Instead of trying to move voters to your fixed position, you need to accommodate them. For the first time, life style marketing was used in politics.

Dick Morris, Mark Penn

The Clinton campaign hired a marketing firm to conduct research to identify swing voters and categorize them into life style categories. From this, they concentrated on identifying ways of making these swing voter categories feel more confident in their individual life styles. Dick Morris termed this small bore politics. The way to win power was to focus on the swing voters day to day practical concerns. These values on concerns that the swing voters thought that the president should address were very different from one traditionally associated with presidents. All his prior initiatives were dropped and instead he focused on things like V-chips for televisions. He was also made to participate in swing voter past times and modes of dress like hunting. Clinton ratings started to soar.
Dick Morris and Mark Penn started to set policy. Mark Penn set up a call center that called swing voters who were asked about specific policy. Dick Morris also encouraged Clinton to sacrifice a traditional Democratic program to prove his sincerity so he cut guaranteed welfare.
What Clinton did was cater to the voter’s desires. It has been assumed that democracy requires and active citizenry. Instead of demanding active participation, voters were treated as passive consumers to be pacified with treats. What works for big business when practiced long term in politics leads to a bewildering maze of conflicting whims. The focus on instant gratification does not lend itself to the sustained long term focus required of many government initiatives. Focus group politics are difficult to maintain because people can be contradictory and irrational. Deciding what to focus on is difficult when listening to a mass of constantly fluctuating individual opinions. The individual questions asked also do not allow for any context.
In the long term, politicians need to come up with a long term coherent plan that people can have faith in. Consumer focused politics trap politicians into short term and often contradictory policies. When voters become used to consumer politics, it becomes harder to appeal to them to think outside their short term interests. The Freudian vision of people is of selfish instinct driven individuals. This view is encouraged by corporations because it is good for business. Politics need to treat people with more respect and engage their ability to rationally debate and think beyond individual whims.

No comments: