An Analysis of Curtis’ “The Century of the Self” and Bernays’ Conception of Democracy
In the critically acclaimed network television show Mr. Robot, the anti-capitalist hacker-vigilante Elliot has his attention directed to a rooftop party in Manhattan from street level. After having indirectly committed one of the biggest attacks in US history that killed thousands of corporate leaders and employees just earlier in the day, Elliot sees New York City’s aristocrats happily enjoying themselves (e.g. drinking, laughing and dancing) despite the breaking news and-as his fixer connect reveals-the overdose of a senator’s mistress in the bathroom. There to cover up the scandal for the senator who happens to be on the payroll for the groups pulling their own strings behind Elliot’s master plan to bring down the world economy, the fixer exclaims to Elliot, “you see what I mean? Literally nothing can stop their shin-digs, not thousands dead across the country, not a lifeless mistress in the guests’ bathroom”. In the 1977 Indian film The Chess Players, two wealthy nobles ignore the coming British annexation of the Indian State of Awadh for the sake of playing chess, a game they are told is of Indian origin but also has a faster-paced, British variation. Throughout the film the nobles ignore their wives, their personal responsibilities and the growing political concerns of their neighbors, eventually going so far as to leave their homes temporarily in order to find a safe place to play their games. When the British finally arrive and power is transferred from the Bengali King to that of the British Crown, the two noblemen are unbothered, agreeing to play the British variation of the game so that they may quickly return home to their wives.
The wealthy, from the times of colonial India to that of modern day Wall Street, are-contrary to popular belief-the biggest victims of Bernay’s conception of power. Structured to manage the masses by making the commonwealth happier, more docile and thus more obedient, Bernay’s idea of democracy was contingent on stimulating the psychological minds of the public. As public relations historian Stuart Ewen reveals, “if you can keep stimulating the irrational self, then leadership can keep doing what it wants to do”. Such was the prerogative of the elite in America since Hoover’s election in 1928 when advertisers and public relations men were tasked to institutionalize desire. The resulting “consuming self” not only created a “functioning” economy but ensured a stable society. In reality, Hoover’s execution of Bernay’s model for consumerism legitimized a capitalist project of dominance and produced a society too distracted and too sedated by “the feel good medications” of capitalism to retaliate. People finally had a means to answer problems of pain and longing, but not the ability to change their objective circumstances: that is, their socioeconomic realities that made it difficult for them to live fulfilling lives, meet their original needs and coexist in a shared community not demarcated by wealth or status. As Ewen suggests, if the public continued to be distracted by their irrational selves that told them to act and consume on behalf of their desires, no rational threat remained to challenge those in power. Desire replaced dissent, resulting in a global community that not only made it permissible to live in ignorance, but demanded it. However, as the senator in Mr. Robot and the soon-to-be-divorced nobles of The Chess Players are keenly aware of, the sacrifices made by elites in pursuit of capitalist “shin-digs” are often more than one can bear by themselves. Elites become victims of their own desire under the same psychological framework they establish to dominate others, rendering all players (both the cheaters and the coerced) losers under capitalism.