The Mythmakers: Engineering of Consent

To many in both politics and business, the triumph of the self is the ultimate expression of democracy, where power has finally moved to the people. Certainly the people may feel they are in charge, but are they really?

– BBC, promotion of The Century of the Self by Adam Curtis

I decided to watch Adam Curtis’s BBC Documentaries he made over a number of years recently, and discovered that they’d been banned from for copyright reasons. These documentaries had been up there for years without any issues, but now it seems that the full code of the law has now emerged across the net on almost everything dealing with copywrite infringement. Should we call this the slow enclosure of the commons? Are the powers of commerce slowly closing off both funding and access to subversive books, films, documentaries? Oh, sure they obviously tell you these are copyrighted and that they are still being sold commercially, etc. That they have every right to block the reproduction and pirating (as they term it) of their commodities. But is this the case, are they truly making a profit off selling such works, or is it closer to the mark that a change in politics has suddenly infiltrated the online world with a force of reckoning that seeks to erase or at least minimize radical ideas that just might wake people up from their ideological slumbers.

Even if Curtis is a self-proclaimed libertarian, if you study the documentaries they actually hook into many of the underlying issues surrounding issues on the Left in ways not usually covered. He seems to have been influenced as early as age 13 by John Dos PassosUSA Trilogy. As he tells it: “You can trace back everything I do to that novel because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers. And it’s about collage of history as well. That’s where I get it all from”.2 Well worth studying…

Either way I decided the past week to go on and buy a copy and found a used copy being sold. Minimal cost for four of Adam’s works: The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, and The Living Dead. Each of these deals with aspects of the power of certain modern mythologies and their power over the shaping of belief systems that has taken place over the past century. The battle between Enlightenment ideals of rational thought and the darker underbelly of the reactionary forces that followed both the American and French Revolutions seems to be at the core of many of these documentaries. A sort of dialectical play between reason and desire and how these have shaped politics, society, and the singular individuals within those systems.

In the Century of the Self Adam Curtis shows the story of psychoanalysis and its aftermath, impact, and history as one of the keys to the 20th Century and its ideologies. From Freud the notions of humans as irrational creatures driven by sexuality and aggressiveness would shape many of the players within both private enterprise as well as government. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of propaganda used Freud’s early work to shape the progressive era isolationists of the U.S. through manipulation of mass media of that era. With a media campaign full of lies and mythical stories Bernays presented story after story of half-truths through silent-films, newsprint, magazines, etc. to sway people from their isolationist policies. Working for the administration of Woodrow Wilson during World War I with the Committee on Public Information, he was influential in promoting the idea that America’s war efforts were primarily aimed at “bringing democracy to all of Europe”. This slogan became the key component in his campaign and was attached to a myriad of products, labels, eye catching signs, ads in stores, in newpapers, etc. across the nation. He had awakened the emotions of the American popular imagination and released certain innate desires.

Bernays was influenced by the French writer Gustave LeBon, the originator of crowd psychology, and of Wilfred Trotter, who promoted similar ideas in the anglophone world in his book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War. Bernays refers to these two names in his writings. Trotter, who was a head and neck surgeon at University College Hospital, London, read Freud’s works, and it was he who introduced Wilfred Bion, whom he lived and worked with, to Freud’s ideas. When Freud fled Vienna for London after the Anschluss, Trotter became his personal physician, and Wilfred Bion and Ernest Jones became key members of the Freudian psychoanalysis movement in England, and would develop the field of Group Dynamics, largely associated with the Tavistock Institute where many of Freud’s followers worked. Thus ideas of group psychology and psychoanalysis came together in London around World War II.

He would realize after the war that what had worked in shaping peoples imaginations to got to war would work just as well for businesses, so he created the first private public relations firm in the U.S. Realizing that the term propaganda had negative connotations he switched it to public relations to soften its power. He was able to influence the political, social, and business elite that his ideas and methods could be used to sale products and manipulate peoples desires to effect behavioral change. Walter Lippmann, a leading progressive intellectual would write a book Public Opinion to earmark a critical assessment of functional democratic government, especially the irrational, and often self-serving, social perceptions that influence individual behavior, and prevent optimal societal cohesion. The descriptions of the cognitive limitations people face in comprehending their socio-political and cultural environments, proposes that people must inevitably apply an evolving catalogue of general stereotypes to a complex reality. This notion that the mass man in the street was a full of contradictory and somewhat dangerous emotions, that he was in effect an irrational being that needed the guidance and governance of an elite of experts and public officials would guide both government and business practices in the coming decades. Some say such ideas still guide decision making processes around the globe.

Edward Bernays just before WWII would help his uncle, Sigmund Freud, to escape his native Austria, allowing him and his daughter Anna to go to England. As part of this gesture he was able to get his uncle to buy into publishing his complete works into English in the United States. Freud hated the U.S. but consented to the publishing of his works. It was from that time that the influence of psychoanalysis and the theories of Freud would become mainstream business in the U.S. Curtis in his documentary ties most of this history together in a narrative of power, influence, and control both political and corporate as different forces vied with each other to incorporate Freudian theory and practice into the new consumerist society arising in the U.S. and U.K.

In 1939 Freud would die of cancer and leave his legacy in the capable hands of his daughter Anna. She would become the iron leader of the psychoanalytic movement from that time forward, promoting her father’s work at every opportunity even to the point of covering up its underlying failures. What’s of interest in this tale as we follow Curtis’s narrative is the manipulation of humans by both governments and business without any sense of ethical oversight. At every step of the way the underlying mythology of Freud of the irrational sexual and aggressive nature of humans is never questioned. And, when it is done so by such Freudians as Wilhelm Reich, the power of the mythology of a pseudo-scientistic psychology becomes the arm of the State to expunge such dissidents and silence them through legal pressure. Isolated and alone, Reich would develop a set of liberatory theories based not on sex and aggression, but on desire and emancipation as the driving force within humans. This force he would give a name: orgone energy, another mythic icon, revealing the notion that humans did not as in Freud need to be constrained, repressed, and controlled because of their irrational emotions, but rather they needed just the opposite the release from those repressive constraints that warped their characters and forced them into molds and conforming restraints that turned innocence into the deadly monstrous demons of repression. He tried to show how leaders in Fascism had manipulated these repressed desires and channeled them toward other ends using ritual, myth, and sacred scapegoating techniques as old as humanity. Rene Girard and other scholars would later show how such behavior was based on mimetic techniques in all societies in one form or another.

Be that as it may, Reich was ousted from the Congress of Psychoanalysis by Anna Freud herself for his heresies. Curtis presents this and much more about Anna and her promotion of Freud’s theories across the Ocean. Bernays himself would be one of those that would use his own public relations firm to promote these ideas in lectures to businesses around the country, thereby informing and building the consumer society we see around us today. His early branding techniques and ad campaigns, along with trendy slogans, etc. would speak to the mass individual’s desires rather than reason They felt that one could bypass reason and go directly to peoples desires and manipulate them through attraction, allure, and other affective techniques to buy products. Such things did not go unnoticed by those in Germany in the thirties. It would be Joseph Goebbels himself who would notice that “task of centrally leading both propaganda and education, uniting two concepts that are related but not identical, molding them into a unity that in the long term can serve the government and people.”1 Better than most Goebbels would cut to the core and realize the essential elements of the propaganda system:

Propaganda too has a system. It cannot be made any old way. In the long run, it can only be effective in the service of great ideals and far-seeing principles. And propaganda must be learned. It must be led only by people with a fine and sure instinct for the often changeable feelings of the people. They must be able to reach into the world of the broad masses and draw out their wishes and hopes. The effective propagandist must be a master of the art of speech, of writing, of journalism, of the poster and of the leaflet. He must have the gift to use the major methods of influencing public opinion such as the press, film and radio to serve his ideas and goals, above all in an age of advancing technology.

This notion of fusing propaganda, media and education would allow Goebbels to engender a new form of governance and social control; one he learned from Bernays and Lippmann. For as Guy Debord and so many others have recounted over the years, we are immersed in a propaganda machine, an infosphere of ideology that surrounds us like an invisible envelope, a transparent bubble of information and data that shapes us through powerful Information and Communications Technologies that have been naturalized for the most part in our lives like a seamless dream.

After WWII the consumer society would enter a new phase. With soldiers returning from war, with industry change over from war to civilian economies, with the need to build a new world in which the mass consumer would be taught to buy, consume, and discover the obsolescence of last years product and the need for this years the capitalist utopia of conformity and compliance shifted gears. People wanted things, lots of things, a complete house and yard full of things. It was during this era that the greatest control device known to man up to that time was introduced: the television. Television created the couch potato, the passive citizen locked into watching endless cartoons, war films, romances, westerns, crime shows, etc. A world that could be controlled and manipulated by the elites for the elites, the perfect system in which to teach the new consumer society not only what to buy, but how to live, how to behave, how to become what the elites wanted them to become. One can go back and watch many of these early black and white shows from different venues around the web and study the power of this media to shape these fifties citizens. I don’t have time to go into a listing of shows, etc. William Boddy’s book Fifties Television: THE INDUSTRY AND ITS CRITICS gives an informed look at this history for those interested. Tons of related works on media theory and its use as control and propaganda system are available in sociological, psychological, and legal, marketing, and other literatures. Fascinating to see the hype of public opinion, and the actual workings in the backgrounds as elites controlled and manipulated the systems for economic and governmental agendas.

The slow process of remythologizing society over the past century has been a fascinating study in itself. The quirky systems of information management and public relations of Bernays became over a hundred years the emergence of an industry that’s only purpose is to deceive, manipulate, and entertain its consumers as producers of their own desires to consume endlessly.

Think of it with the new neurosciences big business is learning to intervene directly into your actual physical systems now. Just as the early marketers learned from Freud, then from the Human Potential Movement (another aspect of Adam Curtis’s documentary I did not speak on in this short post). The problem with the Matrix we live in is that it seems to be crumbling around the edges, it seems to be breaking down, and all the nuts, bolts, hype will never put it back together again.  So goes the story… Yet, the others in this late capitalist system continue to hype the game, and  such books as below show how even in the self-help world of entrepreneurs, product designers, etc. are invoking the new sciences of the brain, neurosciences as the new battlefront for manipulating the human animal for commercial profit in the 21st Century :

Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy:

This one focuses on both neuromarketing and focus group technologies.

The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think:

Sheer stupidity is what economic rationalists see when Elvis Presley buys 100 glitzy Cadillacs, when New York governor Eliot Spitzer pays as much as $80,000 for escort services, and when Steven Spielberg invests with Bernie Madoff. But Kenrick and Griskevicius see something more complex. In these apparently stupid decisions, they discern the results of an evolutionary history that impels men and women to ignore their own immediate self-interest in ways that ultimately foster the biological success of the species. That biological success, the authors argue, depends on a human identity that evolution has partitioned into seven separate subselves, each serving a different fundamental human need: self-protection, disease avoidance, affiliation, status, mate acquisition, mate retention, and kin care. When the environment triggers behaviors inscribed in any of these subselves, economic rationality may go out the window. Some readers may protest that the authors are offering biological justifications for foolishness. But the authors actually provide readers with helpful strategies for managing their evolutionary subselves prudently. A persuasive look at the Darwinian dynamics of decision making.

Loyalty 3.0: How to Revolutionize Customer and Employee Engagement with Big Data and Gamification:

As our lives move online and nearly everything we do is being mediated by technology, all of our activity is generating reams of data – we are all “walking data generators.” Loyalty 3.0 reveals how to combine this “big data” with the latest understanding of human motivation to power gamification – the data-driven motivational techniques used by game designers to stimulate engagement, participation, and activity. With this potent combination, businesses now have a powerful engine for creating true loyalty among their customers, employees, and partners, and for generating a sustainable competitive advantage in their markets.

The Business of Belief: How the World’s Best Marketers, Designers, Salespeople, Coaches, Fundraisers, Educators, Entrepreneurs and Other:Leaders Get Us to Believe:

“This book is about understanding belief – what it is and how it is created. And it’s about how successful people inspire and move others, or how, in my lingo, they practice the business of belief.” In this well-reasoned and inspiring monograph Asacker presents his argument in three parts: What they know; What they do; What you can do.

Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics:

The human decision making process is a complex mechanism. In Design for Behavior Change by Stephan Wendel we see how many of our assumptions about how individuals make day to day decisions may be flawed. The “decision change” in the context of this book is from the perspective on an individual who wants to make a change in behavior (e.g., financial nutritional, etc.) and has “opted in” to a system. The text give us an understanding of how to build systems that facilitate that behavior change based on behavioral science research.

If we understand the basic decision making process as Wendel lays out we can begin to structure our applications and systems base on this understanding. Wendel goes on to build a framework for understanding the phases of decision making and how to facilitate supportive strategies in application to aid the user.

Having a decision theory background a lot of the research presented was nothing new but what was helpful was the structure and strategies he layered on top of the research. Having a structures way to talk about the the phases of the decision process and strategies to the work with those phases is of great benefit when designing systems for behavior change. Even if you don’t build systems of this type ave a look, it will reveal a lot about how and why you make your day to day decisions.

Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower

For too long marketers have been asking the wrong question. If consumers make decisions unconsciously, why do we persist in asking them directly through traditional marketing research why they do what they do? They simply can’t tell us because they don’t really know. Before marketers develop strategies, they need to recognize that consumers have strategies too . . .human strategies, not consumer strategies. We need to go beyond asking why, and begin to ask how, behavior change occurs. Here, author Douglas Van Praet takes the most brilliant and revolutionary concepts from cognitive science and applies them to how we market, advertise, and consume in the modern digital age. Van Praet simplifies the most complex object in the known universe – the human brain – into seven codified actionable steps to behavior change.

Neuro-sell: How Neuroscience can Power Your Sales Success

Anyone involved in sales faces huge challenges these days, from fierce global competition, pressure on margins, difficulties of getting time with prospective buyers and the power of internet-savvy buyers. To succeed in sales, you need something more than the traditional techniques. Neuro-Sell gives you the edge through a brain-based perspective, process and approach to selling that is sensitive to what’s going on in your customers’ minds. Learn how to really relate to your prospects and sell in a way that is comfortable for both buyer and seller. Understand the importance of the unconscious and find out how to get below the surface level of what people say to recognise what they really mean. Develop your skills in building sales relationships with the four main types of buyer by fully understanding their needs. And discover the five stages of neuro-negotiating that will see your sales rates rocket.


A glance at such fare as the above leads you to believe that nothing has changed, and that the insidious manipulation of humans will only become more invasive in the coming century as technologies of  information and communication gain even more interesting forms. Such hype as above would leave you to believe that capitalism is heading toward the total blitzkrieg on nothing more than the fully controlled network inforg developed for the purpose of a brain-based economy. Instead of free-markets, they are not proposing brain-markets, the infotainment of total enclosure of knowledge and power as desire. Reading each to the blurbs for the books one would actually think this was a prospectus for a satire rather than actual works being promoted to the elite marketers and knowledge workers of the current era as trusted fare for the young and upcoming designers and Salesforce, executives and corporate ladder jumpers.

In the next series I take up Herbert Marcuse and others as the notions of reason would begin to create in sixties pop culture a new ideology of the self and notions of desire and freedom.

1. Goebbels, Joseph (2009-05-31). Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda (Kindle Locations 34-35). Shamrock Eden Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. Interview: Adam Curtis by Chris Dark on 15 September 2011, Film Society of Lincoln Center, published 17 July. 2012

4 thoughts on “The Mythmakers: Engineering of Consent

  1. Excellent piece. This is the heart of social akrasis, the way the growing divide between knowledge and experience renders the how of society every more technical (nihilistic/machinic), and the what of society ever more fantastic (wish-fulfilling). I actually have a post detailing one (specifically academic) angle of this process scheduled for Monday.


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