The Century of Self and The Trap: why regulation doesn't work

by admin on July 30, 2007

in Marketing,Tax and Ethics

If you’ve not seen the Adam Curtis series of BBC documentaries called The Trap then I believe they should be required viewing along with his earlier series The Century of Self. If you follow the links, you’ll see they’re available on Google. Each is an hour long and I’ve spent the weekend watching all of them. There’s also a series of Wikipedia entries which accurately condense the story lines and provide links to a number of resources including those through to some of the theoretical thinking behind these documentaries.

Why the heck should you be bothered? Ethics and an understanding of WHY there is such conflict between people like myself, Richard Murphy, Prem Sikka and Francine McKenna on one side and the Big Four on the other. And WHY ICAEW, PCAOB and other regulatory bodies have such a hard time bringing the profession into line.

The underpinning theory goes something like this:

  • In The Century of Self, Curtis argues that the PR industry, invented by Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays is based on the presumption that people can be manipulated and controlled by feeding their hidden desires and wants.
  • Today, that is interpreted to represent a form of liberty where business taps into people’s emotional responses
  • Business has used psycho-analytic derived techniques to tap into the notion that people fundamentally behave out of self-interest
  • In The Trap, market democracy provides the route to individual freedom
  • People are viewed as relatively simple machines that respond to these base needs
  • Politicians have abdicated power to business on the theory that liberty is best preserved by keeping people happy and supplied with an endless set of choices that meet their current needs
  • In this world, there is no place for society or community because selfishness is the norm

It’s not quite that simple and along the way, there have been many unforeseen consequences. If you work your way through then it becomes clear. For me, this has brought a moment of clarity.

If you read Prem’s latest polemic, it’s easy to see the repetitive arguments put forward by commenters that cling to the selfish view. These could just as easily be comments to some of the tax material seen on AccountingWEB.

Here’s my take. If you draw parallels between what has happened in business, local politics and wider politics it becomes obvious. Regulators have not fully realised that the main purpose of the professional in its world view and as conditioned over time is to ruthlessly exploit the notion of self interest. Since this is in line with personal self interest then we’re in stasis and therefore everyone is happy. Politicians are happy because they are only there to meet people’s needs. Therefore, while some of us may yell and scream, we’re behaving in an aberrant manner. ICAEW has no interest in doing anything concrete because it is wedded to the self interested profession.

From the Big Four’s perspective, nothing is wrong and even when it is under recently modified laws, then that’s an annoyance but not a cause for ultimate concern.

In these circumstances, nothing changes. But and it is a big but. While people on ‘our’ side argue ethics and social responsibility, we’re attacking it from the wrong angle. Instead of arguing redundant theory, we should instead look at the consequences of what Curtis describes as the ruthless pursuit of ‘negative liberty’ to the exclusion of all other forms of freedom. In Curtis’s analysis, which is based on theory worked out by Isaiah Berlin, the consequences are an erosion of liberty to the point of rebellion against what is seen as coercion. And rebellion almost always means civil conflict.

We can see that in the way practitioners complain about the increased burden and complexity of the tax system for example. We also see it in the way SOX has come and is now being modified and, in the US where AS5 is now in force – allegedly.

I have long felt that the 30 plus year dissatisfaction felt by many small practitioners about the dominance of ICAEW Council by the interests of what is now the Big Four would one day lead to a boiling over of the pot. See the parallels?
I believe the top brass at ICAEW is aware of this though not in these terms. I believe we will see change and I believe that will happen over the next 18-24 months. Such change could stall but my personal sense is that the continuing stream of bad news from the Big Four will serve as the pressure cooker fire that ensures change occurs. With it, I believe we will see a radically transformed profession where practitioners will be infinitely better off.

This is not just about connecting the dots. It’s about the application of solid social science that accepts the need for business freedom but not as an unfettered right where regulation is marginalised to the point of meaninglessness. Neither is it a wholesale rejection of psycho-analytic techniques though I believe they need moderating by the inclusion of environmental and behavioral models.

My belief is based on the fact I was fortunate enough to have undertaken my degree right at the time when the current dominant economic, social and psychological theories were getting a full head of steam in the real world. The learnings of what these mean are therefore pretty fresh to me. What I’ve yet to work out are some of the nuances around Curtis’s thinking as applied to the professions.

As a closer, I’m thanking the brilliant Loren Feldman for his crack at Chris Pirillo (NSFW warning.) That’s because comments on Pirillo’s originating post led me to The Century of Self and on to The Trap. Ironic isn’t it. A post from Pirillo on stuff he knows nothing about lead me to theories being worked out by the very people he thinks know diddly squat in the first place.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

Chris Pirillo July 30, 2007 at 1:49 pm

Indeed, the blogosphere works in mysterious ways.

Andrew Brooks July 31, 2007 at 5:31 pm

There is also the earlier Adam Curtis series called the Mayfair Set. Much of the series is devoted to the rise and fall of Slater Walker and should be required viewing for anyone under, say, 50 years of age and, therefore, not possessed of first hand knowledge of that period. The parallels with the current private equity sector are as fascinating as they are chilling.

The entirety of the Adam Curtis catalogue can be downloaded from

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