From Individual Power to Collective Shame

Times Square

In 1919, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays (1891-1995) founded America’s first public relations firm, applying psychoanalytic discoveries to promote consumerism and to use latent sexual energy to manipulate the masses through subliminal seduction.

Freud, and his more daring colleague Wilhelm Reich on whom I’ve written previously, knew exactly how important latent –unrealized potentiality– energy is to the overall health of the mind and body. In their work, the word ‘sexuality’ bears almost no resemblance to what it means to us today. Reich considered it a life force that exists in cells and moves in the atmosphere, and he directly linked it to a person’s capacity for love, work and knowledge. It can be blocked, obstructed and manipulated in many different ways.

With help from Freud’s nephew, this newfound knowledge was quickly weaponized in ‘subliminal seduction’ to gain, as is so often the case in history, money and power. It turned primary human sexuality into an illusory, secondary banality.

Subliminal messages are conveyed through contextual sounds, visuals and other sensories that are too subtle to reach the conscious mind but have a big impact on thoughts, feelings and behavior. I first saw the quantitative research on this during psychology classes in 2003 and have never forgotten about it since.

All human amygdala’s are wired in similar ways. Instincts for nourishment, sleep, shelter and sexuality are primary forces in this part of the human brain, the root of biological existence. To influence the masses you’ll need to get to that source. Marketing guru Seth Godin refers to this as a ‘lizard brain’ that keeps us stuck in primitivity and away from rationality and ‘success’, i.e. the very opposite of what Reich claims. In both cases is every human susceptible to its manipulation, most of all those who are convinced they are not susceptible to it.

All of this gives new meaning to the term ‘sex sells’: human nature is monetized, weaponized, polluted at the source before it has a chance to become a unique individual power. Sexuality is thwarted through commercialism, collectivism and ideology and consequently, the potential for individual power is misdirected into collective shame and guilt.

If you take any natural drive and block it, it twists and turns but still comes out. But instead of coming out in a straightforward, direct way, it comes out twisted and ugly.

‘A Book of Dreams’ by Wilhelm Reich’s son Peter Reich (1974)

Too many well-trained minds today seem unaware of this subconscious manipulative power, which became dramatically amplified through television, radio, cell phones and computer screens and can only be resisted through epistemic humility, introspection, temperance in media intake and so forth. Thanks in part to what Christopher Lasch named the ‘Age of Narcissism’ most of my academic colleagues seemingly consider their Ivy League minds immune to outside subconscious manipulation. The illusion of the elimination of risk is the biggest risk of all.

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