Century of the Self Part 4 - Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering - Transcript
Produced and Written by Adam Curtis
This is the story of the rise of an idea that has come to dominate our society. It is the belief that satisfaction of individual feelings and desires is our highest priority. Previous episodes have shown that this rise of the self was fostered and promoted by business. They had used the ideas of Sigmund Freud to develop techniques to read the inner desires of individuals and then fulfill them with products. This final episode is about how that idea took over politics. It tells the story of how politicians on the left in both America and Britain turned to these techniques to regain power. They believed that they were creating a new and better form of democracy, one that truly responded to the inner feelings of individuals. But what the politicians didn't realize was that the aim of those who had originally created these techniques had not been to liberate the people but to develop a new way of controlling them in a new age of mass democracy.
Century of the Self
Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering
The roots of the story lie way back in the America of the 1920s with one man. He was called Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud. Bernays had been one of the inventors of the profession of public relations and he was fascinated by his uncle's theory that human behavior was driven by unconscious sexual and aggressive drives. Many of Bernays' clients were large American corporations and he was the first person to show them how they could sell many more products if they link them through images and symbols to those unconscious desires that Freud had identified.
Stuart Ewen - Historian of Public Relations - The strategy he offered them was that people could now look at goods that emerging within the society and not merely view those goods as things that they needed in order to deal with some specific material want but also as goods which will stroke and respond to deep emotional yearnings. You know, how this bar of soap or this bag of flour will make me a happier more successful more sexually appealing less fearful person. Somebody to be admired rather than reviled. The powerful people in that world are those people who are capable of reading the public mind and giving the public what it wants in those terms. Bernays was the guy who was the foremost articulator of the theories which were driving this new system.
By the 1980s Bernays' ideas had come of age. A vast industry had grown up in America devoted to reading the inner desires of consumers. At it's heart was the technique of the focus group. Previous episodes have shown how the focus group was invented by psychoanalysts employed by US corporations. The aim was to allow consumers to express their inner feelings and needs just as patients did in psychoanalysis. The information was then used to promote and design new products which would fulfill those desires. And Edward Bernays who was now nearly a hundred years old was celebrated as the founding father of this marketing world.
And Bernays' ideas and techniques were also about to conquer Britain in the 1980s. Unlike America the ruling elites in Britain had always distrusted the idea of pandering to the masses. It was epitomized by the patrician elite who ran the BBC. Even as late as the 60s the popular programs were referred to as 'ground bait'. Their real job was to lure the viewers into watching more serious programs the elite knew was good for them. And market research reflected this attitude. Individuals were observed and classified by market researchers according to their social class from A through C2, D and E. When people were asked their opinion about both products and politics they were selected by social class and asked only strictly factual questions about what they thought. The idea that one might ask people what they themselves felt and desired and then give it to them was seen as alien to the ruling elites and to challenge their belief that they knew was best for the public.
But then in the economic crisis of the mid-70s British industries were forced to begin to pay attention to the inner feelings of consumers. As the recession deepened consumer spending fell dramatically and the advertisers insisted that the only way for companies to survive was to make their advertising more effective. And to do this they would have to delve into people's underlying psychological motives for purchasing. The advertising industry started to bring in Americans to run focus groups with British housewives.
The consumers were encouraged to play at being products from household cleaners to car seatbelts. The aim was not to talk rational, but to act out and reveal the inner emotional relationship to products. And then a politician emerged who also believed that people should be allowed to express themselves. Instead of being controlled by the state the individual should become the central focus of society.
Margaret Thatcher - Conservative Party Conference 1975 - Some socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a state computer. We believe they should be individuals. We're all unequal. No one thank heavens is quite like anyone else however much the socialists may pretend otherwise and we believe that everyone has the right to be unequal. But to us every human being is equally important. A man's right to work as he will, to spend what he earns, to own property, to have the state as servant and not as master, they are the essence of a free economy. On that freedom all our other freedoms depend.
Mrs. Thatcher's vision was of a society in which the wants and desires of millions of individuals would be satisfied through the free market. This, she believed, would be the engine to regenerate Britain. And with her ascent to power the advertising and marketing industries flourished. Their task was to find out what the British people really wanted and then sell it to them. In this new climate, the focus group flourished, and those who ran them borrowed from the techniques of psychotherapy to delve ever deeper into people's feelings about products.
Out of this research the marketeers began to detect a new individualism. In particular among those who had voted conservative for the first time in 1979. They no longer wanted to be seen as part of social classes but to express themselves. And crucial to this were the products they chose to buy.
Stephen Wells - Co-founder, Consumer Connection - We found that there was this trend towards what we called individualism where people still wanted to be part of a crowd but to express themselves as individuals within it. To have their own personalities, to be, I suppose, their own man.
Business responded eagerly to this new individualism and it soon became one of the main forces driving the consumer boom growing in Britain. Using the data from the focus groups, manufacturers created new ranges of products that allow people to express their individuality. Business also recategorized people. They were no longer divided by social class but by their inner psychological needs.
John Banks - Chairman, Young and Rubicam - If the primary need is security and belonging we call the groups Mainstreamers, if it's status and the esteem of others then it's Aspirers, if it's control it's Succeeders, and if it's self-esteem it's Reformers.
And this new marketing culture began to take over the institutions previously dominated by attrition elite, particularly the world of journalism. The assault was led by the profession of public relations. In the past PR had been seen as seedy and corrupt, but now it became a glamorous business promoting products and celebrities. And one of the rising stars was another member of the Freud family, Matthew Freud, the son of the liberal MP (Member of Parliament) Clement. What Freud and other PRs realized was that they could use their celebrities as levers to infiltrate their advertising into the editorial content of newspapers. The newspapers were offered exclusive interviews with celebrities but only if they also agreed to mention products made by Freud's corporate clients in terms dictated by the company.
Matthew Wright - Tabloid Journalist 1993-2000 - What happened with Freuds was you effectively got some kind of product placement or even product-- the manufacturers of products got some degree of control over how their products would appear in print. So if for example you wanted to write about Caprice's passion for stuffed crust pizza you would sign a contract which guaranteed that you would mention the firm Pizza Hut at least twice in certain positions in the introductory portion of the article and you would agree to run the Pizza Hut logo at such and such a size and such and such a place and of course that you would agree to run the enclosed pictures of Caprice eating her stuffed crust pizza. There was no choice about you would run this article as you were effectively told how to run the article in the press by Freuds. It's a rise of the corporate culture and the rise of business.
To traditional journalists this infiltration of advertising into the editorial pages was a corruption of their profession. But to Mrs. Thatcher's allies like Rupert Murdoch who owned The Sun and The Times, it was part of a democratic revolution against an arrogant elite who had for too long ignored the feelings of the masses.
Rupert Murdoch - Owner, Times Newspapers (interview from that period) - They hate to see someone communicating with the masses. They feel that newspapers, the written word is not for the masses. That should be left to television or perhaps to nobody. I'm very proud of The Sun and The Sun was not represented tonight in your film you just took page three which everyone seems so fascinated with, what about page one, or page two, every other page of the paper. That was typical piece of slanting and elitism by the BBC who after all in order to get viewers for this program put on a very sexy episode of Star Trek which I was just watching out in the room there. Interviewer: I don't think they put it on to get us viewers I think we are just lucky to follow them. Murdoch: They try to carry viewers into these programs, I know how it's done.
By the late 80s Mrs. Thatcher and her allies in advertising and the media had brought the desires of the individual to the center of society. As last week's episode showed it was the same transformation that President Reagan had brought about in America. Both politicians had encouraged business to take over from government the role of fulfilling the needs of the people. In the process consumers were encouraged to see the satisfaction of their desires as the overriding priority. To Thatcher and Reagan this was a new and better form of democracy. But to their opponents in the parties of the left they had summoned up the most selfish and greedy aspects of human nature.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher both embraced an economic philosophy that says the unit of judgment was not only the individual but it was the individual's personal satisfaction, the individual's own unique happiness and well being. It was in a sense the triumph of regarding individuals as purely emotional beings who have needs and wants and desires that need to be satisfied and can be satisfied unconsciously. It goes way back to the early part of the 20th century to Freud, to notions of the unconscious, the assumptions that in terms of our rational minds we are little corks bobbing around on this great sea of hopes and fears and desires of which we are only thinly aware and that the world of a marketer, the role of somebody selling something, including a politician is to appeal to this great swamp of desire, of unconscious desire.
The left believed the opposite. That the way to create a better society was not to treat people as emotional isolated individuals, but to persuade them to realize that they had common interests with others. To help them rise above their individual feelings and fears.
President Roosevelt - 1933 - Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
This idea had flourished in America in the depression of the 1930s. President Roosevelt faced with the chaos caused by the Wall Street crash encouraged Americans to join together in trade unions, to set up consumer groups, and to pay for a welfare system for those trapped in poverty. His aim was to create a collective awareness which would become a powerful weapon against the unfettered power of capitalism which had caused the crisis. That idea had driven the democratic party for fifty years. But now, Roosevelt's inheritors railed vainly against the effects of the self-interest encouraged by President Reagan.
Mario Cuomo - Democratic Party Convention 1984 - (speech) There is despair Mr. President in the faces that you don't see. Maybe Mr. President if you stop in at a shelter in Chicago and spoke to the homeless there, Maybe Mr. President if you asked the woman who had been denied the help she needed to feed her children because you said you needed the money for a tax break for a millionaire or for a missile we couldn't afford to use.
Mario Cuomo - Governor, New York 1982-95 - The worst thing Ronald Reagan did was to make the denial of compassion respectable. He said you've worked hard, you've made your money, you shouldn't have to feel guilty about refusing to throw it away on people who choose to be homeless and who choose not to work. That's what he said. He said it with an elegance and kind of a benign aspect that disguised it's harshness.
That same idea - marshalling the collective force of the masses to challenge the entrenched power of wealth and business had also led the labor party to power in Britain after the war. But in the 80s labor like the democrats in America lost election after election as millions who had once voted for them switched their allegiance to the conservatives. In the face of this a growing number in the labor party became convinced that if they were ever going to regain power labor would have to come to terms with the new individualism. One of them was an advertising executive called Phillip Gould who had been a life long labor supporter. Gould believed that labor's leadership had become corrupted by the same patrician arrogance that dominated all of Britain's institutions. They denigrated and disapproved the new aspirations of working class voters.
Philip Gould - Strategy Advisor to the Labor Party 1985-present day - Labor stopped listening to these people. And I remember the best example of this was after the election of 1983 which was the election above all where the people's voices were just not heard. And I had dinner with a leading labor party figure who had been heavily involved in the defeat and his wife said 'God these working class people we give them an education and give them chances in life and what do they do they read The Sun and they just don't vote for us.' And there was such a gap between these people just trying to make better lives for themselves and the kind of elitism of the labor party there was just this chasm that had to be filled.
Gould became part of a small group of modernizers centered around Peter Mandelson. Their aim was to reconnect labor with the lost voters. To do this Gould turned to the technique that he knew well from his work in advertising - the focus group. Gould commissioned focus groups in suburban areas across the country with small groups of voters who had switched to Mrs. Thatcher. People were encouraged not to talk rationally about policies but to express their underlying feelings. And what Gould discovered was a fundamental shift in people's relationship to politics. They no longer saw themselves as part of any group but as individuals who could demand things from politicians in return for paying taxes. Just as business had taught them to do as consumers.
Philip Gould - Strategy Advisor to the Labor Party 1985-present day - And I found that people had become consumers, you know people wanted to have politics and life on their own terms. I mean not just in politics but in all aspects of life too. People see themselves as they are, as autonomous powerful individuals who are entitled to be respected, who are entitled to have the best not just in (goods) but the best in health and in education too. All this was about getting the labor party to understand that people really really really had changed and unless the labor party changed it would not win.
Philip Gould now set out to try and persuade the labor party they would have to make concessions to what he called the new aspirational classes. He was going to face implacable opposition. In the run up to the 1992 election Gould argued that the only way to win was for labor not to put up (raise) taxes. But the Shadow Chancellor John Smith angrily refused. Labor would stick to it's fundamental policies. They would fight the election with the promise of tax increases to create a fairer society. And as the campaign began it seemed as if Philip Gould was wrong. The traditional polls consistently showed labor ahead despite the conservative campaign message that labor government would put up (raise) taxes. Even the conservatives oldest allies in the press became convinced that by harping on about tax the conservatives were cutting their own throats. And labor party too was convinced it would win and finally return to power.
Those running labor's campaign believed that by modern presentation they would attract back the voters yet keep the old policies. But Philip Gould was convinced that labor was going to lose. Through his focus groups he knew that the very people that were telling the traditional pollsters they would vote labor were in reality preparing to vote conservative out of self-interest but they were too embarrassed to admit it. And John Major also knew this because his focus groups were telling him the same thing.
John Major's victory in 1992 was a disaster for the labor party. The small group of reformers centered around Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould were convinced that the only way for the party to survive was to change it's basic policies. But their ideas were rejected by John Smith who had now become leader. Philip Gould left Britain to go work for the campaign to elect Bill Clinton President in America.
Philip Gould - Strategy Advisor to the Labor Party 1985-present day - The 1992 election, during and afterward people felt under great strain and really did feel demoralized and dejected and to from this to the Clinton campaign was an extraordinary experience because here suddenly I found articulated many of the ideas I had but I myself had fully been able to encapsulate or articulate.
What Gould discovered was that like the labor party the democrats had also been doing focus groups with swing voters. The difference was that Bill Clinton had decided to tailor his policies to fit with these voters desires. Above all with their ferocious belief that they should only pay tax for things that benefitted them, not for the welfare of others. The Clinton team decided that to win they had to promise tax cuts for these suburban voters. And they also used the focus groups throughout the campaign to check every appearance, speech and policy with them for their approval. What Clinton called the forgotten middle class became central figures in a new type of reactive politics.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - Candidates for the presidency of the United States has been pre-packaged and designed for many many years. What was new was an attempt to use very sophisticated or pseudo-sophisticated techniques to plum the public psychology to find out precisely what the desires of the individuals were and then to come up with a candidate and a platform and images and words that exactly responded to those deep desires. This was packaging at a new level. This was polling at an extreme.
But Clinton's campaign team led by James Carvell and George Stephanopolus did not believe that they were capitulating to the selfish desires of the middle classes. Tax cuts were the price they had to pay to regain power. But once in power they would still fulfill traditional democratic policies and help the poor who had been neglected under Reagan, above all with the reform of health care. They would pay for the tax cuts by cutting defense spending and increasing taxes on the very rich. In this way they believed they were forging a coalition of the new and the old voters both of whom could be satisfied.
But the democrats optimism was to be short-lived. In November 1992 Clinton was triumphantly elected President. But within weeks his administration discovered that the budgets deficit was far greater than they had anticipated. At a meeting in the White House in January 1993 the head of the Federal Reserve told them that the deficit was nearly 300 Billion dollars. There was no way they could borrow more without panicking the markets and causing a crisis. The only way to pay for the proposed tax cuts would be to cut government spending not just in defense but on welfare. Clinton was faced with a choice between the old politics and the new and he chose the old. The tax cuts were dropped and he tried to inspire the country with the old democratic ideal of government spending to help the poor and disadvantaged.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - At the start of the Clinton administration many of us including I believe President Clinton himself reverted back to an older tradition, tried to lift the public to talk about genuine ideals beyond the individual. And that reformed agenda being not only universal health care, and child care, and dealing with the widening inequalities in our society, and homelessness, many things that many citizens - particularly middle income citizens just didn't want to deal with.
But the suburban voters who had been promised tax cuts were not inspired by Bill Clinton's vision. They felt betrayed and wanted revenge. Their opportunity came in 1994 with the congressional elections. The Republicans led by Newt Gingrich promised huge tax cuts and to dismantle the welfare system. The voters who had defected to Clinton switched sides yet again and the Republicans won both houses of Congress in a landslide. For Clinton it was a disaster. Faced with a hostile congress there was no way for him to get his reforms through. His personal popularity plummeted and it seemed certain he would not be re-elected in two years time. In desperation and without telling his cabinet Clinton turned for help to one of America's most ruthless political strategists, Dick Morris.
Dick Morris - Strategy Advisor to President Clinton 1994-1996 - Clinton was in serious trouble he had lost the 94 election, he had lost control of Congress, and he hired me to come back and save him. So he was basically asking me to perform roughly the same role as a life preserver would if you are drowning.
What Morris told Clinton was that to win re-election he would have to transform the very nature of politics. The crucial swing voters in the suburbs now thought and behaved like consumers. The only way to win them back was to forget all ideology and instead turn politics into a form of consumer business. Clinton must try to identify their personal desires and whims and then promise to fulfill them. If he followed those consumer rules they would follow him.
Dick Morris - Strategy Advisor to President Clinton 1994-1996 - I said that I felt the most important thing for him to do was to bring to the political system the same consumer rules philosophy that the business community has. Because I think politics needs to be as responsive to the whims and desires of the marketplace as business is. And it needs to be sensitive to the bottom line - profits or votes - as a business is. I think all of this involves a changed view of the voters so that instead of treating them as targets you treat them as owners. Instead of treating them as something that you can manipulate you treat them as something you need to learn from. And instead of feeling that you can stay in one place and you can manipulate the voters you need to learn what they want and move yourself to accommodate them.
To get inside the minds of the swing voters Morris brought lifestyle marketing into politics for the first time. He went to one of America's most prominent market research firms called Penn and Schoen and commissioned what they called a neuro-personality poll. It was a massive survey of hundreds of thousands of voters but the only political questions it asked were to find out if someone was a swing voter or not. All the other questions were intimate psychological ones designed to see whether swing voters fell into identifiable psychological types.
Mark Penn - Market Researcher for President Clinton - 1995-2000 - Well we were asking people questions like do you think you're the life of the party? Do you think when you see things you like to have a list and organize them? Do you like to plan things ahead or be more spontaneous? Where do you like to go? What sports do you like to play? What would you do with your spouse on a romantic weekend? So we were asking people some very personal questions about their own lives to see were the kinds of people that were likely to change their vote also possessing a certain kind of personality traits and in fact they were.
The neuro-personality poll allowed the Clinton team to segment swing voters into different lifestyle types. They were given names like Pools and Patios, or Caps and Gowns who were urban intellectuals living in university towns. From this, the team could identify ways in which they could make individuals feel more secure in their chosen lifestyles. Just as business had learned to do with products. Dick Morris called it small-bore politics. Tiny details of peoples personal lives and personal anxieties which politics never even thought about or noticed before but which now had become the key to winning power.
Doug Schoen - Market Researcher for President Clinton - 1995-2000 - It was an America that focused on day to day practical concerns - should I wear seatbelts, should I stop smoking, should I wear a school uniform, is my neighborhood being protected. It was not so much a new individualism as the social order as we had known it had broken down so we got into people's heads, understood their psychology about lifestyle, about values, what they thought was important, what issues they wanted politicians and the president to address. And these issues proved to be very very different from what the conventional wisdom had suggested.
As the election campaign began, Clinton revealed Morris's new approach to a shocked White House. All traditional policies were to be dropped. Instead he would concentrate exclusively on policies that targeted the worries of swing voters. V-Chips would be fitted into televisions to prevent children from watching pornography and mobile phones would be fitted into school buses to make parents feel more secure. Dick Morris also persuaded the president to spend his leisure time in the same way as particular swing voters. He sent Clinton on a hunting holiday dressed in exactly the Gortex outfits the group called Big Sky Families liked. The aim was to reflect swing voters lifestyles back to them. The liberals in Clinton's cabinet hated this approach.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - I would say Dick why have a campaign if all the president is going to do is offer up all these little bite-sized miniature initiatives that appealed to people desires like consumers buying soap. V-Chips that you could put in your televisions so children could not have pornography and school uniforms. Why talk about them, they're so mundane and they're so tiny, and he would say if we don't do this we may not get re-elected. And I would say what's the point of getting re-elected if you have no mandate to do anything when you're re-elected and he'd say what's the point of having a mandate if you can't get re-elected? Isn't the ultimate goal getting re-elected?
But Morris's new politics were an extraordinary success. Clinton's ratings among the swing voters began to soar and Dick Morris along with the marketeer Mark Penn took effective charge of making White House policy. Mark Penn set up a huge call center in an office block in Denver and every night hundreds of telephone operators called swing voters in suburbs across the country to check with them every detail of policies Clinton was proposing.
James Bennet - Washington correspondent, New York Times - The policy was made by a group of people manning telephones in Denver Colorado placing calls to voters in places like Westchester and Pasadena and asking them what they wanted from their government, and asking them very specifically about specific policies that Bill Clinton was considering. Would you be more likely to support him if he offered this particular government service or if he offered that one. Those people told them what they thought, Mark Penn transmitted that to Bill Clinton and it came out of his mouth. So essentially it was suburbanite voters, suburban voters in the 90s were creating American domestic policy and some of it's foreign policy as well. Mark Penn was polling on questions like whether we should bomb in Bosnia, things like that.
Morris also insisted that Clinton make a symbolic sacrifice of the old politics to convince the swing voters to trust him. In August 1996 Clinton signed a bill which ended the system of guaranteed help to poor and unemployed. Welfare would be cut back after two years in order to force people into work. The new system was called Welfare to Work and would he said be a hand up not a hand out. It was the effective end of the guaranteed welfare system created by President Roosevelt 60 years before. For many in Clinton's cabinet it was also the end of the progressive political ideal that Roosevelt had represented. The belief that one used a position of leadership to persuade the voters to think and behave as social beings, not as self-interested individuals.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - Dick Morris and the pollsters had won. And by that I mean the people who ultimately got to the president shared the president's mind were those who viewed the voters as just a collection of individual desires that had to be catered to and pandered to. It suggests that democracy is nothing more and should be nothing more than pandering to these un-thought about very primitive desires. Primitive in the sense that they are not even necessarily conscious, just what people want in terms of satisfying themselves.
And the same triumph of the politics of the self was about to happen in Britain too. In 1994 Tony Blair had become the leader of the labor party and the reforming group centered around Peter Mandelson became all powerful. Almost every night Philip Gould ran focus groups with swing voters in the suburbs, but this time he was listened to. The desires and fears of the new aspirational classes became the force shaping labor party policies.
Philip Gould - New Labor Strategy Advisor Election Campaign 1997 - In that period I was talking to people who used to vote conservative and were considering voting labor and they want it understood they are financially pressed and there are limits to the extent to which taxation can be improved, and they think crime is an issue that matters to them, they want welfare to go to people who deserve welfare not to people who do not. This was seen by many in the labor party as selfish. I never saw that it was selfish I believed that Dad or Mom doing the best for their families was not selfish they're just doing the best for their families, that's what people do.
Derek Draper - Assistant to Peter Mandelson 1992-1995 - The philosophy of the campaign is let's concentrate on swing voters let's focus group them to find out what they want and what will appeal to them and let's just relentlessly push those things in the election. Philip Gould was crucial because he gave the 'raw material' if you like for these politicians to do this kind of politics, in that when he came up with stuff they'd follow it, pretty much without exception. Blair himself would pour over these sort of twelve page memos and say well this is what we must do. Groups of eight people you know dinking wine and eating Cheerios what they thought determined effectively everything that the labor party did.
And although those running the campaign would like to portray the new approach as their invention it was in fact copied from the Americans even down to the phrases that the American marketeers had tested on their swing voters.
Doug Schoen - Market Researcher for President Clinton - 1995-2000 - Peter Mandelson and their team were in the United States watching what we did and copied almost verbatim our approach in their 1997 campaign. Mandelson is not a fool and if anything he saw something that worked and said why not do it. And I can remember reading their manifesto and thinking they just took it lock stock and barrel. You know on the one hand you're proud and on the other hand you're cursing.
And as in America labor was forced to drop policies that would not directly benefit the swing voters even if it meant sacrificing it's fundamental principles. The commitment to public control of industry which was enshrined as Clause Four of the party constitution was dropped. The aim of Clause Four had been to use the collective power of the people to challenge the unfettered greed of business. But now Tony Blair was faced with crucial voters who no longer saw themselves as exploited by the free market. They saw themselves as individual consumers who were fulfilled and given identity by what business delivered them. The new Clause Four promised not to control the free market but to let it flourish.
Derek Draper - Assistant to Peter Mandelson 1992-1995 - What new labor did was suit people who exert power in society not through the political system or not through the democratic political system, so it's big business, and it suits interest in the status quo and just off the top of my head you know those three things are what the labor party is supposed to be a counter-force to. What that means is big business get to carry on exerting their power behind the scenes getting their way because their no count of adding pressure because you know count of adding pressure is not going to come from eight people sipping wine in Kettering.
But those who masterminded labor's victory in 1997 saw it as a triumphant vindication of a new form of democracy. By understanding and fulfilling people's inner desires through the focus group they were giving power to individuals not treating them as faceless groups who were told by politicians what was good for them.
Philip Gould - New Labor Strategy Advisor Election Campaign 1997 - I don't see the focus group as some marketing tool I see the focus group as a way of hearing what the people have to say. And I see the focus group as a way to a new form of politics. 1997 was I think fundamentally important in that I think it is the end of elitist politics that has dominated Britain for so much of the last hundred years.
In 1939 Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud's nephew created a vision of a future world in which the consumer was king. It was at the World's Fair in New York and Bernays called it Democracity. It was one of the earliest and most dramatic portrayals of a consumerist democracy. A society in which the needs and desires of individuals were read and fulfilled by business in the free market.
Stewart Ewen - Historian of Public Relations - The World's Fair created a spectacle in which all of these concerns were met and they met by Westinghouse and General Motors and the American Cash Register Company and company after company presented itself as the sort of centerpiece of a society in which human desire and human want and human anxiety would all be responded to and it would all be met purely through the free enterprise system. There was this sort of notion that the free market was something not guided by ideologies or by political power, it was something that was simply guided by the people's will.
This was the model of democracy both new labor and the American democrats had bought into in order to regain power. They had used techniques developed by business to read the desires of consumers and they had accepted Bernays' claim that this was a better form of democracy. But in reality the World's Fair had been an elaborate piece of propaganda designed by Bernays for his clients, the giant American corporations. Privately Bernays did not believe that true democracy could ever work. He had been profoundly influenced in this by his uncle's theories of human nature. Freud believed that individuals were not driven by rational thought but by primitive unconscious desires and feelings. And Bernays believed that this meant it was too dangerous to let the masses ever have control over their own lives and consumerism was a way of giving people the illusion of control while allowing a responsible elite to continue managing society.
Stewart Ewen - Historian of Public Relations - It's not that the people are in charge but that the people's desires are in charge. The people are not in charge the people exercise no decision-making power within this environment. So democracy is reduced from something which assumes an active citizenry to something which now increasingly is predicated on the idea of the public as passive consumers, the public as people who essentially what you are delivering them is doggy treats.
The problem for new labor was that it believed the propaganda. They took at face value the idea promoted by business that the systems used to read the consumers mind could form the basis for a new type of democracy. Once in power new labor tried to govern through a new system that Philip Gould called 'continuous democracy'. But what worked for business in designing products led the labor government into a bewildering maze of contradictory whims and desires. For much of labor's first term the focus groups said the railways were not a high priority and labors policies faithfully reflected this. But now those same groups are now blaming the government for not having invested more money sooner in the railways.
Derek Draper - Assistant to Peter Mandelson 1992-1995 - The point about focus group politics is that there isn't one because people are contradictory and irrational and so you have a problem in terms of deciding what you are going to do if all you do is listen to a mass of individual opinions that are forever fluctuating and don't really have any coherence and crucially are not set in contact. So that's why people can say you know I want lower taxes and better public services. Well of course they do. You know you say do you want to pay more taxes to get better public services and people are less sure. They then don't believe that if they pay more taxes they will be spent on better public services. So you end up in this quagmire and the truth is the politicians have to say look this is what I believe, I believe you should pay slightly more taxes to make better public services and I pledge that I am competent enough to use that money wisely do you want now to vote for me yes or no. And that's what Blair has failed to do. Tony Blair turned around and tries to feed back to them what they already believe and give them what they believe is sort of an individual incoherent contradictory nonsense and that's all he has to offer. And then he wonders why people don't get him. It isn't that they don't get him it's that they're looking for someone to do something that they can't do themselves which is actually come up with a coherent political opinion that they might have faith in.
New labor are faced with a dilemma. The system of consumer democracy they have embraced has trapped them into a series of short term and often contradictory policies. There are now growing demands that they fulfill a grander vision. That they use the power of government to deal with the problems of growing inequality and the decaying social fabric of the country. But to do this they will have to appeal to the electorate to think outside their own self-interest. And this would mean challenging the now dominant Freudian view of human beings as selfish instinct driven individuals which is a concept of human beings that has been fostered and encouraged by business because it produces ideal consumers. Although we feel we are free, in reality we like the politicians have become the slaves of our own desires. We have forgotten that we can be more than that, that there are other sides to human nature.
Robert Reich - Member of Clinton Cabinet 1993-1997 - Fundamentally here we have two different views of human nature and of democracy. You have the view that people are irrational that they are bundles of unconscious emotion that comes directly out of Freud. And businesses are very able to respond to that, that's what they have honed their skills to and that's what marketing really is all about - what are the symbols the images the music, the words that will appeal to these unconscious feelings. Politics must be more than that. Politics and leadership are about engaging the public in a rational discussion and deliberation about what is best and treating people with respect in terms of their rational abilities to debate what is best. If it's not that, if it is Freudian if it is basically a matter of appealing to the same basic unconscious feelings that business appeals to then why not let business do it? Business can do it better, business knows how to do it. Business after all is in the business of responding to those feelings.