A friend was trying to give up cigarettes recently after more than 20 years of smoking. "It's not the nicotine," she said. "It's the feeling I get of, 'just fuck the lot of them.'" A spare few minutes with a fag was the precious time she had for herself, free of the demands of children, work and boyfriend, she explained.
One man, now dead, would have chuckled with delight at such sentiments. Eighty-plus years ago, this marketing genius cracked how to overcome women's objections to smoking - by associating tobacco with liberation. It's a simple idea that has sustained decades of cigarette advertising to women, and penetrated deep into the psychology of millions of female smokers. The man was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and his extraordinary career spans almost the entire 20th century. He advised US corporations and presidents on how they could use the insights of his uncle. In the process, he founded an entire industry - public relations - and pioneered methods such as focus groups.
This is more than just an intriguing piece of history. Bernays' career and those of his successors open wide debates that are usually conducted entirely in terms of the present. Take the current debate about corporate power. Think it's new? Think again - the 1920s uncannily echo many of the themes, such as overweening corporate power and the decline of the state. Or take political apathy, and find its roots lie in the counter-cultural movements of the left in the late 60s, when people gave up on politics and turned inward to discover themselves.
It is this historical context to present-day preoccupations that makes the current television series, The Century of the Self, so compelling. Even more than that, it is profoundly disturbing as it traces consumer capitalism's remarkable use of psychoanalytical thinking to promote a concept of the self, an understanding of human nature, that it could manipulate - namely, that we are nothing more than a bundle of irrational emotional responses and desires, often contradictory and infantile.
Clever market research enabled corporations to understand and respond to those emotions and desires, and politics was left on the back foot with its language of solidarity and responsibility. Put simply, what Thatcher and Reagan realized was that they had to retreat in the face of this alliance between consumer and corporate boardroom; what Clinton Democrats tried, and New Labour is trying, to do is copy it. By the end of the series, one is left asking: "Just what kind of democracy do we have?"
Bernays was quite clear on this point - he took Uncle Siggy's line that democracy was impossible because people were irrational and ignorant. The best hope of social order was to have an "intelligent few" who were capable of "regimenting the public mind". Needless to say, Bernays believed that public relations was one of the most important means by which the elite could manipulate the habits and opinions of the masses, and even the "terms of public discourse". As one commentator put it, Bernays developed a "strategy of social engineering", and though we may not like the PR men and the spin, we fall for it. It is proving more powerful and more enduring than any social engineering attempted by the state, or why do women still turn to smoking for liberation, even when they know it will probably kill them?
As if all that wasn't depressing enough, it gets worse. The 60s and 70s show how consumer capitalism adjusted to - and ultimately co-opted - the counter-cultural leftwing rejection of Bernays's and Freud's pessimistic view of human nature. It is the very versatility of capitalism that finds it triumphing over every challenge to it. Gramsci summed it up as capitalism's capacity to project itself as the natural order of things.
It all started with a simple problem: big insurance companies in the US in the late 60s got worried that a new generation weren't buying as much life insurance and they hired marketing experts to tell them why. The answer was that anti-materialistic, freedom-loving hippies didn't want to buy consumer goods; they wanted to find their true selves. They had resurrected the theories of Freud's contemporary, Wilhelm Reich, that individuals were inherently good and of infinite potential; it was society's rules and conventions that held back the individual. So they gave up on achieving political change and decided to transform themselves instead.
To hook them back on to buying, marketeers came up with "lifestyle" marketing for the "inner-directeds", selling products that would express their sense of self - hedonistic, freedom-loving and individualistic. Reagan pulled off a political coup by winning them over with promises of "letting the people loose", while Thatcher declared she would "roll back the frontiers of the state". It was the politics of the consumer king, and the state was in headlong retreat.
In their bid to win back power, the Democrats in the US and New Labour in the UK turned to the marketing men. As the Clinton strategist Dick Morris claimed in an interview, he simply applied to politics the same consumer philosophy that business used - to be responsive to the whims and desires of the consumer. In came the focus groups where those whims could be ascertained. Philip Gould, the New Labour strategist, imported the ideas from the US, celebrating it as "continuous democracy".
But Adam Curtis, writer and producer of The Century of the Self, argues that it is no such thing. By attempting to emulate business's emotional connection with the consumer, New Labour bankrupts itself. It has abandoned Roosevelt's understanding of political leadership as persuading voters of social responsibility. What we have instead is a politics "pandering to the unthought, unconscious desires of the voters", as Robert Reich, US labour secretary under Clinton, puts it. Or, as Derek Draper, a former New Labour apparatchik, sums it up, business exerts all the power in such a model because the eight people in the focus group in Kettering sipping wine aren't any kind of counterbalance. Furthermore, the whims of Kettering voters are contradictory - better public services and lower taxes - and erratic: they didn't care about railways in the first term, but complain bitterly about them in the second.
The argument that weaves through the series is that our concept of human nature has been politically and economically constructed - and for the benefit of whom? Business. "We have become slaves of our own desires, and we have forgotten we can become more than that," concludes Curtis. That raises the question, what more can we be? Here's the starting point for his next series, and it would be no easy task because, thanks to Bernays and his successors, the "regimenting of the public mind" has succeeded in obliterating or subverting all alternatives.
Our failure now is one of imagination and faith in the "more" we could become, and how that could form the basis for political renaissance and personal maturity as reasoning, reflective and responsible beings, not simply the erratic emotional creatures of Freud's imagination.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002