Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Quest for Total Control

In part two of The Century of the Self, Adam Curtis outlines how the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud were applied in an effort to try to prevent a mass movement like the one present in Nazi Germany from ever emerging in the United States.

Ironically, the progenitors of these efforts wound up seeking precisely the kind of total control that the Nazi Party had sought in Germany.

Sigmund Freud believed that psychoanalysis could, at best, help people understand the internal forces within their own minds. His daughter Anna Freud, however, had different ideas entirely: she believed that people could learn to control these internal forces.

Of course, if an individual could learn how to control these forces, it isn't unthinkable that other people could learn how to control them on the individual'a behalf.

This at least partially seemed to be the impetus behind the National Mental Health Strategy introduced by Harry Truman's government in the post-war years. It mixed a demonstrable actual need -- the need to find ways to effectively treat the post-traumatic stress disorder, known then as shell shock, that many American veterans had returned from the war with -- with the desire to manipulate peole for economic or political gain.

The focus of these efforts was on identifying psychological barriers to certain acts, and removing them.

Political authorities turned the techniques of psychoanalysis toward creating a stable American society -- toward building a common identity that would lead toward constructive collective action.

But this is exactly what the Nazi Party had sought to do in Germany. They recognized a German society that had become unstable under the dual strains of the Great Depression and post-World War One political instability, and sought to establish Nazism as the means by which stability would be restored to Germany.

In some regards, they succeeded. The irrational behaviour of the German masses under Nazism were directed toward rationed -- if not rational -- ends.

To this end, the efforts of Anna Freud and her contemporaries were potentially self-defeating.

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