Century of The Self

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, changed our perception of the mind and its workings. The documentary explores the various ways that governments and corporations have utilized Freud’s theories. Freud and his nephew Edward Bernays, who was the first to use psychological techniques in public relations, are discussed in part one. His daughter Anna Freud, a pioneer of child psychology, is mentioned in part two. Wilhelm Reich, an opponent of Freud’s theories, is discussed in part three.

To many in 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? The Century of the Self tells the untold and sometimes controversial story of the growth of the mass-consumer society. How was the all-consuming self created, by whom, and in whose interests?

Along these lines, The Century of the Self asks deeper questions about the roots and methods of consumerism and commodification and their implications. It also questions the modern way people see themselves, the attitudes to fashion, and superficiality.

The business and political worlds use psychological techniques to read, create and fulfil the desires of the public, and to make their products and speeches as pleasing as possible to consumers and voters. Curtis questions the intentions and origins of this relatively new approach to engaging the public.

Where once the political process was about engaging people’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs as a group, Stuart Ewen, a historian of public relations, argues that politicians now appeal to primitive impulses that have little bearing on issues outside the narrow self-interests of a consumer society.

The words of Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street banker working for Lehman Brothers in 1927, are cited: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.

In part four the main subjects are Philip Gould, a political strategist, and Matthew Freud, a PR consultant and the great-grandson of Sigmund Freud. In the 1990s, they were instrumental to bringing the Democratic Party in the US and New Labour in the United Kingdom back into power through use of the focus group, originally invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations to allow consumers to express their feelings and needs, just as patients do in psychotherapy.

Curtis ends by saying that, "Although we feel we are free, in reality, we—like the politicians—have become the slaves of our own desires,” and compares Britain and America to ‘Democracity’, an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair created by Edward Bernays.


Freedom exists in Bangkok; but just for some kind of citizens. For those who do not have financial security, the same kind of freedom does not exist. Access to the city is facilitated for different reasons and one of the most important is the mobility, and Bangkok’s public transportation is not able to offer dignity to his entire population, on average a commuter spends 44 days (1056 hours) in a year traveling to and from work (O’ Neil, 2008).

Pedestrians are the most elemental component of the city, and in Bangkok seems like the relevance of this component is completely underestimated, which is easy to read when you notice the lack of coverture of the Metro Lines in comparison with the size of the city, or when you realized that the public buses are 40 years old. 

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Dignifying the pedestrian is not a priority for the authorities of this city, public investments are more concerned with developing infrastructures which promote the image of a world class city to attract international finance. The consequence of this processes is an increasing number of vehicles and the reduction of pavements sizes, therefore the pedestrian have a restricted area to walk and the idea of freedom is invisible from the perspective of the public space. 

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Housing security should not necessarily be determined through ownership. People must be given freedom to have access to shelter without conditions, because this is part of the construction of the contemporary idea of the right to the city. Actually, freedom in the wide sense of the word, within a urban development context, should ensure to people the possibility to build on their own terms, including aspects like design, materiality and location. 

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Graham Perring
Francisco Vergara