If Eddie Bernays had never existed, he would have been too incredible to invent. This was the swanky back-room boy who named public relations, advised US presidents including Coolidge and Eisenhower, dreamt up product placement and celebrity endorsement, persuaded women it was cool rather than sluttish to smoke ("torches of freedom" was how he sold cigarettes, cashing in on suffragette chic), overthrew the elected government of Guatemala and, more generally, shifted democracy from being about the participation of the active citizen to being about the spending power of the passive consumer. If Adam Curtis, whose riveting four-part series The Century of the Self began on Sunday 17 March (8pm, BBC2) with the Bernays story, had said that the man also invented Bearnaise sauce, I would not have been surprised, although it would have been harder to pinpoint its capacity for mischief.
Bernays, who lived to the disgustingly old age of 103, was worth a documentary anyway, but he also happened to be Sigmund Freud's nephew. Every one of his ideas was a by-product of his uncle's vision that man, far from being in charge of his faculties, is controlled by darkly primitive forces, libidinous and savage desires that lead to war. As a corporate PR man, Eddie had a more positive spin on the general theory.
Yes, the unconscious could lead man to war, but it could also lead him to the department store. And if his motives were invisible to himself, they need not be to his masters, who could manipulate them, whipping them, for instance, into fits of hatred against the Other or into a lust for possessions they did not need. By association, Freud is therefore to blame for consumerism, the Wall Street Crash, Nazism, the cold war, Reagan, Thatcher and Matthew Freud.
TV rarely attempts histories of ideas, because ideas ain't visual. They work best in books, where you can reread them, and reasonably well on radio, where you are not distracted by imagery. But in The Century of the Self, the archival material is so remarkable, apposite and frequently funny that not once was I distracted from the argument. This series is one long illustrated essay, but the illustrations are half the fun. In any case, Curtis is greatly abetted by his cast of characters.
In the background grumbles Sigmund Freud, shocked by the First World War and convinced that, although civilisation might protect mankind from his primeval urges, this protection ensured that he was permanently discontented. In the US, there thrives Bernays, who, having got Sigmund out of a financial difficulty by finding him a US publisher, throws parties for the powerful in his corner suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, a shameless shaman. Interviewed in 1991, Bernays worked his way through a platter of food and giggled at his past triumphs. His daughter, Ann, said he made other people feel stupid. Not a nice man. On Sunday 24 March, the story continues through Freud's daughter, Anna, a virgin who appointed herself an expert on child-rearing and decided that, the more people conformed to society, the stronger and better the ego would become at suppressing the id. That two of her original charges later had breakdowns, and one committed suicide in the Freud family house were inconvenient contra-indications that the cult kept to itself.
However, the programmes do not simply record the dubious uses to which Freud's theories were put, but suggest that his theories, like all psychological theories, were dubious in the first instance. In fact, as the third instalment shows, Freud was sweet reason itself next to his successors: Wilhelm Reich, high priest of the orgasm; Werner Erhard, founder of est (Erhard Seminar Training); and the meddlers at the Esalen Institute whose contribution to racial harmony was to get black men and white men to shout at each other in encounter groups. These gurus considered our unconscious urges the best things about us, and their ideas gained a terrible currency. In an interview, Liza Minnelli once told me that we are not better than our feelings: "We are our feelings, Andrew." I begged to differ, and this programme gives me ammunition.
Yet just as the psychotherapists oversold their insights, so Curtis surely now overemphasises their influence. When, in the third programme, he says that self-expression led to "an isolated, vulnerable and ultimately greedy self, far more open to manipulation by both business and politicians than anything that had gone before", he makes the mistake of all critics of advertising who fail to mention that most new products fail. If there is now more choice, appealing even to consumers with a keen sense of their own individuality, is that not a happier outcome than being able to buy any colour Model T so long as it's black? And why should Curtis, so suspicious of the idea that we are at the mercy of primeval desires, believe we are dumbly susceptible to those who claim to be able to control them?
But there is hardly a moment to protest, so elegantly and speedily does he present his argument. Applied tenaciously enough, Freud's template does fit the human condition. Curtis, equally ruthlessly, makes the 20th century fit his. At the very least, it provides an alternative history of our time - and new reasons to distrust shrinks, pundits and PR men.
Especially if they are called Freud.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard