Politicians used Freudian ideas to first convince Americans they needed capitalism

The lust we feel for products  we don’t need started with Freudian ideas.
The lust we feel for products we don’t need started with Freudian ideas.
Image: Reuters/ Jason Reed
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Freud’s ideas are taken with a healthy degree of skepticism by clinical psychologists today. Though there’s been something of a backlash to the backlash against Freud, few take his theories as gospel. So it’s somewhat disconcerting to realize that Freud’s work was once used as a script to manipulate the public, and with remarkable effect. Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, was a propagandist who used his uncle’s theories to sell capitalism to the American public.

The methods Bernays used are explored in depth in The Century of the Self, a 15-year-old documentary by filmmaker Adam Curtis. Freud Day (May 6, 161 years since the psychoanalyst was born), is a good excuse to re-examine Curtis’ film. The themes he explores remain timely not least because psychoanalysts today believe that contemporary politicians are still exploiting subconscious Freudian impulses. Psychoanalyst and psychologist Michael Donner, president of the San Francisco Center for psychoanalysis, says he recommends the documentary to everyone. “People ask, ‘How did Trump get elected in this country?’” he says. “Well here: Watch this.”

The birth of “public relations”

Many of Freud’s more controversial theories (such as that all men want to have sex with their mother) have been dismissed by contemporary psychologists. But key themes in his work, such as the notion of unconscious impulses, transformed the way we view human behavior and are entirely credible. “Freud understood that people are irrational,” says Donner. “We build a layer of rationality on top of it. But we’re driven by needs, wants, and desires that aren’t necessarily rational.”

Freud believed that all humans are unconsciously driven by sexual and violent desires, but that these emotional impulses are kept in check (or repressed) by conscious social norms. And his nephew Bernays, who moved from Vienna to New York City with his family as a child, made a career of intentionally tapping into these unconscious impulses to sell products.

As Curtis shows in his film, Bernays invented the phrase “public relations” because “propaganda” had too many negative connotations. Though his earlier work involved convincing the public of America’s noble military ambitions during the First World War, Bernays applied his talents to selling products once the war was over. In previous decades, customers largely bought new items according to need—purchasing a new shirt once an old one had torn, for example (rather than stuffing their closets with largely unworn items of clothing, as we do today). But Bernays reasoned that unconscious urges for sex and power could be used to sell people products they didn’t strictly need, and that a purchase could reflect the buyer’s personal identity.

Turning a want into a need

These ideas are so ubiquitous today that they’re entirely unremarkable; companies use sex to sell sexless products, and speak to how buyers perceive themselves. When Bernays first started, the Freudian ideas behind his techniques were more explicit. For example, women in the US mostly didn’t smoke until Bernays was hired to expand American Tobacco’s market. He spoke to a psychoanalyst who claimed that cigarettes tapped into women’s unconscious penis envy, and so Bernays decided to link Lucky Strike cigarettes with power and women’s liberty by branding them as “torches of freedom.”

Bernays also shared his insights with the US government; President Herbert Hoover was one of several politicians who explicitly sought out Bernays to help sell policy ideas and campaigns. And Hoover once told a group of advertising executives: “You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines, machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

Bernays later persuaded President Eisenhower that promoting fear of communism, even if irrational, would drive a greater commitment to American spending. As the Guardian notes, Eisenhower went on to link consumption with American political ideals in his campaign, “You Auto Buy,” which portrayed spending on cars, houses, and groceries as a national duty.

“Democracity” in action

Bernays didn’t simply sell products, but capitalism itself. He directed the publicity for the 1939 New York World Fair, with the theme “Democracity,” explicitly linking democracy and capitalism together in a utopian vision of the future.

Bernays foresaw the enthusiasm that now greets the release of every incrementally modified Apple product, says Donner: “We shifted from a culture in which people said, ‘Behave and conform,’ to a culture in which people said, ‘Indulge yourself, enjoy yourself.’ That spurs capitalism.”

And Freud’s nephew truly believed that preying on such desires to encourage spending was key to a functioning democracy. He thought the elite should be able to manipulate the masses into feeding the economy with their many purchases. As he wrote in his 1929 book, Propaganda:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Though this sounds sinister, Bernays thought it was better than the alternative. If subconscious desires for lust and power were not manipulated into spending, then he believed mankind’s repressed urges could be released in other, more explicitly violent ways. And he had some justification for this belief: Bernays was deeply unnerved to learn that Joseph Goebbels used his work to create genocidal propaganda in Nazi Germany.

Fueling today’s populist revolt

In the years since Bernays’ death, his techniques have become a standard feature of political and commercial tactics. And, though it’s highly unlikely that politicians today are consciously referencing Freud, Donner believes that Bernays’ techniques have been passed down through the generations, meaning that leaders are still using his tactics to prey on unconscious urges. Across the world, he says, right-wing populist politicians are appealing to the public’s darker, once-repressed impulses.

“A good politician appeals to emotionality, which is irrational,” he says. “It seems to me that part of why Trump’s successful is that he has tapped into these desires… We’re being told, ‘It’s ok to indulge these wishes. It’s ok to unleash the aggression that’s inside of you, even if it’s normally against the rules.’”

Freud believed that newborns have no ability to distinguish their individual identity from the outside world, and humans have a subconscious yearning to return to that undifferentiated state. “Religion, drugs, music, concerts, singing in a choir, even falling in love, all involve a loss of the separate sense of self and return to the oceanic state that was once so safe and comfortable,” explains Donner.

Group identity serves to differentiate us vs. them, reasoned Freud, but those within the group experience this yearned-for breakdown of individual identity. Those outside the group then present a deep threat to the shared identity. “They threaten the illusion of oneness that is so powerful and gratifying,” says Donner. “The instinct for protecting the herd against the intruder is very powerful, and outsiders are a threat to survival.”

“I see Trump utilizing our notions of group identity, saying that ‘we’ are the superior group, which makes us feel good and strong and powerful—and demonizing the other,” says Donner. Even Trump’s tweets often explicitly create us-and-them groups. He often references “our” military and “our” border, while suggesting that Democrats and the media are part of an opposing group.

Meanwhile, in France, Marine Le Pen has criticized Emmanuel Macron as an “individualist.”  “She’s saying, implicitly, that he shouldn’t be thinking about the rights of individuals,” says Donner. “He should be thinking about France. And in France, we want to get out the people who are coming into our country and aren’t really French.”

Great salesmen and politicians have always had an intuitive knack for appealing to subconscious irrational impulses, says Donner, and the emotions whipped up by politicians today can certainly be understood from a Freudian perspective. Echoing the manipulations that Bernays pioneered, today’s political leaders are attempting to harness a powerful trove of repressed desires.