Activist Watch List: The Century of the Self

<-- Episode 1

Welcome to the second installation of Activist Watch List (AWL) – a series in which we take a look at documentaries or otherwise important video content that illuminates the issues and conflicts at the heart of the activist community. In each chapter we will highlight a specific piece, discuss its importance, and invite our readers to join us in further discussion. Lastly, we will always chose documentaries that can be easily viewed and shared, free of charge. [click here to skip straight to the video]

What to watch: The Century of the Self

The Century of the Self is a British documentary written, produced, and narrated by Adam Curtis, originally airing in 2002 on BBC 4. The series identifies the multitude of ways in which powerful interests, both public and private, have used psychoanalysis to control populations. Or in the words of Adam Curtis himself:

“This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

Reasons to watch:

In the first installation of AWL we began our focus on social control, which refers to the regulation of the individual (whether blatantly or covertly) in the effort to create social conformity. In Episode 1 we examined social control as it manifests in the media. In this episode we look closely at the ways in which psychiatry has been leveraged to control groups of people without their knowledge or consent.


Our readers should be warned that this documentary is very long, but potentially life changing. Considered by many one of the best documentaries of all time, The Century of the Self occurs over four distinct parts, each enlightening, shocking, and powerful in their own regard. Overall viewers gain a better understanding of the origins of consumerism in America, as well as the ways in which both government and corporations have subtly coerced people into voting for certain candidates and buying particular products. The Century of the Self offers viewers a disturbing look into the ways that those in power manipulate public opinion to serve their interests.

Part I: Happiness Machines discusses the work of Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays, the American responsible for the creation of Public Relations as a field. Bernays saw Frued’s insights into the human mind as an opportunity to manipulate and control the masses.

Part II: The Engineering of Consent reveals the ways that politicians and others in power bought into Freud’s theories about humans and their “irrational desires.” It also discussed the disturbing lengths that those in power used Freud’s theories to control the masses to act against their own self interest.

Part III: There’s a Policeman In All of Our Heads, He Must Be Destroyed illustrates the ways that people pushed back against social control. It tells of psychotherapists who work toward freeing people of conformity and obedience.

Part IV: Eight People Sipping Wine In Kettering exposes the ways that contemporary politicians have revived Freud’s theories, using them to regain political power. The final part does an excellent job of summarizing the documentary as a whole and bringing it to a chilling ending.

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