By Callum Towler
I recently re-watched Adam Curtis’ seminal BBC documentary series ‘The Century Of The Self’ – a provocative analysis of how Sigmund Freud’s ideas about our irrational desires first spawned the PR industry in the 1920s, through his calculating nephew Edward Bernays, and later seeped into politics as a potent method of attaining power. If you haven’t seen it, you can view the episode in question below.
It is a fascinating insight into the volatile relationship between the state and the body politic. Delving beneath the surface gloss of political posturing, unearthing how psychoanalysis was used to sell ideas not to your intellect but your deep irrational emotions. First broadcasted in 2002, it is just as relevant now as it was then, and requires some updating for the Cameron years.
Curtis, using his trademark archive style, ends the series with the creation of Blair’s New Labour after over a decade in the electoral wilderness. Honing in on the elevated role of focus groups for dictating party policy. Listening to people’s hidden desires in this open forum was an insight into the general mood of Middle England. More deeply, it revealed how our relationship with politics had fundamentally changed.
In the post war years, western democracy shifted from a needs to a desires cultures as we transformed into voracious consumers. Instrumental were the roles of Public Relations and Advertising, realising that attaching virtues to a product was a more successful strategy than selling products on their features alone. They understood, quite cleverly, that we invest in things to express our inner sense of ourselves to others, and so representation is more important than function.
Consumer culture sated our most primal desires and we got use to it: infiltrating how we viewed politics and dissolving past allegiances. Now, in return for paying our taxes dutifully, we believed we could demand more from our politicians. Taxation was seen not as a means of redistribution but rather a crippling barrier to aspiration. Far from exploiting us, the free market gave us freedom. Self-interest became the primary fuel of our vote, illustrated when, contrary to polling, John Major defeated a Labour Party promising a rise in tax. Giving birth to the idea of the ‘shy tory’ that continues to this day. When the pendulum swings it sure looks good being on the side of morality but it feels much better voting for whoever you believe will improve your life.
New Labour latched on to these new truths of human psychology and ran with them. Dropping core tenants of party policy such as Clause IV. And creating a manifesto dictated by the whims of this consumer, and targeted squarely at them as the new dominant class in society. It was a pitch for power over and above principle.
Thatcher always said her greatest achievement was Blair, and if he is the same idealist his wife Cherie says he privately remains, then the worst remnant of his legacy will be Cameron. It’s no great secret that him and Osbourne viewed the New Labour project with awe as young aides. Subsequently using it as the template to modernise their beleaguered Tory party. First in the pursuit of power and later in control of it, Cameron’s approach mirrors Blairs, yet differs in three overlapping ways that I think Curtis would have centered on.
First, in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the public assumed a collective anxiety. The bright future heralded by Blair was punctured, and Cameron decided what tone he would strike with the public. If Blair’s message was defined by promising our desires could be a reality, then Cameron’s was about assuaging the newfound fear felt throughout the country. In the curious interplay between the two, he favoured fear and used it to his advantage.
To maintain power and popularity – the twin pillars of government – his premiership was now, at least on the surface, about representing the hope of economic stability. Money was pumped into business, and we entered the age of austerity, where the poorest – representing little threat of popular uprising – were, and continue to be, scapegoated. We were bludgeoned with the rhetoric of recovery that laced elements of hope inside a larger package of fear.
Cameron chose the targets of his cuts carefully; low-paid state jobs and those on welfare. Caring was hardly a high priority for the bulk of the electorate, more concerned with preserving their lot in such unstable times. In step with Klein’s analysis in The Shock Doctrine, the crash provided the perfect opportunity to exploit a collective emotional distress and further their ambition of a small state, free market economy. Targets of cuts had to be publicly justified, removing from the argument any state culpability at how the lack of opportunities and jobs led to welfare claimants in the first place.
Psychologically, Cameron’s government used the crash to exacerbate the feeling of ourselves as individuals, created first through those forces telling us to consume and later engendered by the policies of Thatcher and Blair. The message was clear; look after yourself, this is a dog-eat-dog world.
Second, under guidance from Lynton Crosby, the Tories advanced what New Labour began in terms of political strategy. Tim Ross’s recent book Why the Tories Won: The Inside Story of the 2015 Election reveals a party devoted to the science of perception, assimilating the principles of modern brand theory and advertising into every level of their communication plan.
Focus groups and polling are used to match policy to public mood. Messages are devised to hit you viscerally, they’re toiled over and rigorously tested, and once released, constantly repeated and stringently targeted at swing constituencies. The election campaign centered on letting the Tories finish the job with ‘security’ as the main theme. This in stark contrast to their branding of the ‘chaotic, untrustworthy’ Labour party and the ‘threat’ posed by the SNP. Undeniably it was a campaign that first realised fear to be it’s greatest weapon and set about releasing a series of messages to incite it.
Third, the Conservatives latched on to the fundamental truth of human psychology – revealed through the persuasiveness of branding – that what you represent is more important than reality. They realised that what they said, and how they said it, triumphed over what they actually did. This is where they differ most dramatically from New Labour who, in most parts, laid out where they stood and stuck to it.
The Tories pose as socially liberal and make stupefying claims to be ‘the party of the working people’ while unleashing savage cuts on the very people they say they represent. Creating a sort of smoke and mirrors world of political fantasy where perception defeats truth. Talking about the media’s role in this has almost become cliche but without support from large factions of the mainstream the Tories wouldn’t have been elected and couldn’t pursue their ideological aims so fervently. Masquerading as something your not despite all the evidence will come to be the defining feature of Cameron’s reign.
It’s interesting that Curtis is regularly labelled as a dye-in-the-wool liberal when the argument he puts forth in The Century Of The Self is a neoconservative one: that we are all individual consumers who make decisions irrationally, who vote selfishly, and think dispassionately if our fears and desires are satisfied. The Conservatives appear to believe this theory wholeheartedly, using it as a weapon to compound their control. Under Corbyn, Labour believe in the fundamental decency of human beings and in the utopia of a compassionate community. Whoever prevails in 2020 may put this argument about the human condition to rest for some time.