Self-help as Capitalism Porn?

Originally published by Consented Magazine.

 

As a teenager whenever my Dad gave me a lift somewhere he’d stick a self-help tape on. The likes of Zig Ziglar or Jim Rohn. He’d chuckle at all their little witticisms and look over at me – did you hear that? Hehe, did you hear that? – Yes, Dad, I’d say, rolling my eyes. He was, in fact, a working class Thatcherite, as was my mother. I hope by the time you’ve finished reading you’ll see the significance of that.

Since then I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with self-help. I succumbed to the temptation to buy The 4-Hour Work Week. I read The Game. I know, I know – I’m embarrassed to say so now. I even deleted it from my Amazon account history. At some point, I stopped being merely skeptical about (and simultaneously beguiled by) self-help, but began to see it as a force for wrong in many aspects of our lives. It seems to be everywhere: professional training, education, healthcare, religion, popular culture… government policy. Of course, self-help is a broad church, there are all kinds of weird and wonderful varieties, many of which hold completely antithetical positions to others. I’m not going to argue that it is inherently harmful or that it’s some kind of government conspiracy to enslave us all. But we could divide self-help into that which urges you to change yourself rather than change anything else and that which urges you to change yourself in order to change social structures.  Another time I’ll write on what’s great, or useful, about self-help. There’ll be much to say, but for now I’m saying something else – how self-help often merely helps the rich get richer. It helps them get richer and convinces the rest of us to cheer them on “go on and make more money, you’re our heroes, we want to be just like you!”.

 

“See you at the top!”

One of the core techniques of self-help is goal-setting. It’s pragmatic, sensible, prudent. If you want to do something, and as ‘desiring beings’ we generally do, it’s probably not a bad idea to articulate those things, set them down in detail, and work out a step-by-step plan to attain them. I’m not about to claim this is a fundamentally misguided way of going about your life. But, just as knives can be used to either repair or impair, maim or mend, so it depends on their purpose and intention. The goals promoted in See you at the Top by Zig Ziglar and 1000s of other self-help titles are things like acquiring money, getting promoted, accumulating possessions. It frames life as a struggle and society as a competition. Each human is framed as an antagonist rather than part of a community. And the mechanism of goal-setting transforms your unique life experiences, hopes, dreams, into measurable, quantifiable achievements (in the past) and goals (in the future).

These mathematical constructions can then be compared and contrasted with others, listed, tabulated, divided into wins and losses. If this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, maybe you feel you’re one of the winners, maybe this way of thinking is so deeply embedded in your thought processes as to be unimpeachable, or maybe you haven’t considered that turning people’s lives into a contest, where the rules are so rigged in the favour of the winners, and the consequences of losing may include suffering, humiliation, poverty, illness, even death, is possibly not ideal?

Once you’ve absorbed the psychology of goal-setting you feel you’ve got to maximize opportunities. You’re struck by feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out) and YOLO (you only live once). The self-helper feels the constant pressure of their self-set goals, where just being is no longer tolerated. The frog on the lily is not restful or ruminative – it’s lazy, wasteful and irresponsible. Every second must be utilized. Sociologist Micki McGee christened this ‘the belaboured self’. So when goals are directed towards your job, work is reformulated as a primary way of expressing one’s identity, and a source of personal fulfilment. The sense of achievement derived from the adult equivalent of happy-face stickers.

I’m not saying if you get promoted you shouldn’t celebrate or feel proud. I’m just saying what about all the other things you’re relegating in importance: everyday kindness, support of your loved ones, doing favours (how about that?). What if you don’t achieve the conventional things like money, career success and so on? Should you then feel worthless? Of course not. But this can often be the effect of having faith in self-help books by people like Ziglar and Rohn. In See You at the Top (1975) Ziglar educates us that just like a balloon of any colour would rise in the air, it is always what is inside you that will make you rise (nothing to do with privileges or inheritance then). He insists you are obliged to earn more than you need, because in doing so, you will create job opportunities for less privileged than you (greed, for want of a better word, is good, then). Money, assuming it is legitimately earned, is a yardstick that simply measures the service you have rendered (don’t question the justice of social inequalities, whatever you do).

Other prominent gurus share the worldview that the status-quo is as it should be and that we have only ourselves to blame or credit with our lot: M. Scott Peck, for example, deems it childish to even discuss oppressive forces in society. Stephen Covey (7 Habits guy) quotes Eleanor Roosevelt “no one can hurt you without your consent” (woah there Covey! Sure about that?). Some of the blunt titles of self-help works are enough to give you the gist of their thinking: How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World (1974) by Harry Browne, Power: How to Get it, How to Use it (1976) by Michael Korda, Looking out for Number One (1977) by Robert Ringer, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive (1988) by Harvey MacKay. Life is a jungle and only predators survive. Go ahead and be selfish, you have our blessing, in fact it’s the right thing to do. These are naked appeals to our baser instincts, our infantile fantasies of omnipotence, based on the fundamental assumption that might is right. And sometimes they explicitly link these ideas to capitalism. Ziglar goes on explicitly anti-communist rants. Jessica Lamb-Shapiro reports Mark Victor Hansen (author of Chicken Soup for the Soul) as insisting: “in case you ain’t got it, I’m pro-capitalism and free enterprise”.

In many of these type of self-help works, an old folk hero has been revived: the self-made man. In his new guise as the entrepreneur (which could now also appear in female form). This savvy superhero is thought to be equipped with a Swiss army knife of business skills. They can negotiate the hell out of any deal, sell the living daylights out of a product, motivate the stuffing out of themselves. They have the willpower of an ubermensch, the likeability and charisma of a moviestar, the smarts of a brain surgeon. The descendent of pioneers, adventurers and empire-builders. Resilient as a goddamn mediaeval castle. Able to deal with whatever life throws at them. It’s easy to see why this figure is so celebrated by those of a certain ideological persuasion. It recasts those at the top as entrepreneurs in retrospect – they’re at the top, they must have got there somehow, and that somehow must be by being a bloody amazing entrepreneur, right? Nothing to do with inheritance, nepotism or privilege of course. As if all business owners worked their way up from the bottom. Those dreary souls who stay in their safe little world of being employed by someone else are just lacking in spirit, correct attitude, and vision.

 

“How to Make Friends and Influence People”

The purpose of the self-help technique may also be about interpersonal skills. How to be likeable, be confident, assertive, happy, or calm. It was no coincidence that How to Make Friends and Influence People was published during the 1930s American Great Depression, while industry was developing huge middle management structures, managers needed a guide on how to suck up and shit down. How to fake a smile, remember names to give the impression you gave a damn about someone you’d met maybe once before. In Britain the economy has since transformed from predominantly manufacturing to service and finance. Again self-help books have catered to a changing market, where so many employees are client-facing (who isn’t these days?) and need to reconfigure their personalities to the exacting tastes of the consumer class: to be friendly without actually being friends, be eager to please, fake enthusiasm and ‘charisma’.

 

While the self-help products work busily to fashion certain types of workers ideal for a service economy, they simultaneously shape the ideal ‘consumer-citizen’.

The economy (by that we could just say ‘big capital’), requires citizens to buy stuff. Then buy more stuff. They must continually buy more stuff, eternally, whether it’s needed or not. Otherwise the economy (capital, remember) will get sad (or ‘depressed’ as the pundits say). So first the consumer buys self-help products, books, DVDs, mentors, boot camps, conferences. The self-help products then teach the consumer how to commodify aspects of their self. For example, it teaches them how to smile winningly. The smile wins them a new job, which translates into financial gain. Maybe it teaches a negotiation technique, for example, ‘go high or go home’. The self-helper has now acquired a way of being, a habit which forms part of their regular behaviour and so becomes part of who they are. And this acquired characteristic, paid for in full, is converted into economic value: they haggle a bit extra money out of a deal, or enhance their performance so that their employer rewards them with a pay rise. Thus: habits which become essential parts of who we are, a facet of our humanness, are bought and converted into monetary value just like any other commodity – like an iphone you buy and sell on ebay for profit. That new smile, that new way of thinking positively, that new mindfulness – all mere accessories, not much different from handbags and wallets. I’ll leave you to pursue your own comparisons of this with the commodification of human beings involved in slavery…

 

“Think and Grow Rich”

I’ve had more than one previous career (I’m currently a historian-in-training). One of them was involved in sales where I had meetings with various clients. On more than one occasion the subject of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret was brought up – “have you read The Secret?” they asked. If you’re one of the few that doesn’t know what it is by now (it has sold well over 28M copies since 2006), I’ll spill the beans (Byrne does not need any more royalties!). It’s disappointingly simple: if you think positively about something, you’ll attract it. Let’s say, £9.26. Think positively about £9.26 and the universe will send you a cheque. As simple (and stupid) as that. Not everyone has the knack, of course. And if you don’t succeed at first attempt, the answer is to keep practising and most importantly keep buying further products which repeat practically the same message.

Positive thinking sounds straightforward to many people. So what’s the problem? Be positive, it’s good for you. No-one likes a stick-in-the-mud (I tend to find). But it all gets pretty nasty when Byrne tells us that the flipside of the Law of Attraction is that if you think negatively about something you attract that too. She encourages us not to look at fat people if we want to lose weight. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you read that correctly. Don’t look at fat people, turn away, avert your gaze as if they were gorgons or scatography. Nice. It gets much worse: people afflicted by earthquakes in Asia only have themselves and their silly negative thoughts to blame. They should think on that as they crawl from the ruins of their cities and towns where entire families lie buried. I wonder if anyone has asked Rhonda what she thinks about victims of rape or domestic abuse, in fact, what she thinks of anyone oppressed by anything for that matter. All part of some grand cosmic plan, no doubt. Their fault. The poor are lazy, feckless good-for-nothings and the successful are worthy, blessed and sanctified. Everything they do is flawless and unassailable. Some will say I’m being hyperbolic but this panglossian view of the world isn’t just childish and illogical, it’s downright heinous. It’s an attempt to shut down all thought: don’t try to explain a single thing, don’t think, all is well, all is right, for we live in the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire dispatched this ridiculous way of thinking centuries ago, and yet here we all are, having to dispatch it once again.

But positive thinking isn’t reducible to the Law of Attraction, it’s most extreme form. We might settle for a milder version, more commonsensical. Something like the good old British stiff upper lip, rather than the American Pollyanna. Again, I don’t take issue with the idea itself, shorn of all context. It’s the purpose it’s put to. An enjoinder to make do. These are the cards you’re dealt so make the best of it. Don’t try to change things. Don’t demand new cards. New rules even. Be happy with what you’re given. This school of self-help distinguishes itself by not actually advising very much at all. There are no elaborate programmes of self-discipline, rather, it relies on a more passive plan to simply change your attitude.

 

“Rich Dad Poor Dad”

The core concepts of certain types of self-help are intimately bound up with an ideology of meritocracy. Don’t forget that this term was originally conceived negatively (by Michael Young). Somehow, possibly through the enormous influence self-help has had, it has come to be seen in a positive, even utopian, light. The cream rises to the top, they say (unless society is unstirred stew, rather than milk, where it’s actually the scum that rises). But this involves a scary level of self-deception to maintain belief in: you’d have to ignore the existence of gross inequalities in education provision (public/private schools), leg-ups that the middle-class receive like Old Boy networks, nepotism, inheritance, cultural capital (accent, ‘manners’, shared taste, deportment etc), internships which presume financial independence, class/race/gender privilege, effects of environment, family expectations and so on and so on. Thus the rejoinder is ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger’. Proponents of this view like to argue anecdotally here: “my Dad started from scratch…”. But let’s be grown-up and focus on classes as a whole. The argument of meritocracy is somehow to claim the moral high ground, of fairness. Everyone’s got a fair crack, ‘free enterprise’, anyone can get rich. It doesn’t even make sense: of course not everyone can get rich, hierarchy is built into our very economic system, and it’s colossally more difficult for someone at the bottom than someone nearer the top of the ladder. Meritocracy spreads the huge deception of a level playing field.

One facet of self-help common to all its forms, is an emphasis on individualism. Full and unqualified responsibility is dumped unceremoniously on the shoulders of the individual. In this way of thinking, humans are kidnapped from their heritage, context, social structure, collectivity and social class. If you have nothing to start with, what’s the big deal? Pull yourselves up by your bootstraps. Stop making excuses. Stop playing the blame game. So what if you had no education, turbulent home life, no money, just do it. This ties neatly in with changes in rhetoric about government and their relationship with the people, from the ‘70s. A new phraseology appeared in politicians’ speeches the world over, denouncing government intervention and a culture of dependence, and praising laissez-faire policy (now every other word is ‘strivers’ or ‘aspiration’). The State would no longer be able to encroach on personal freedom without a damn good fight. If everyone were just left alone they’d be fine.

Many commentators have also attacked self-help for representing and fostering a culture of narcissism (most famously, Christopher Lasch). For them it represents a loss of community and wise elders; a crisis of the self. All of a sudden, when the self-helper has absorbed self-help into their very psychology, it’s impossible for them to do anything for anyone but themselves. Any attempt at altruism is ultimately part of the self-help project. One’s ultimate goal is to create a certain kind of self – and every move forward from that point is merely aspect of this self-creation, whether it helps others or not.

 

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Self-help for Dummies

Thatcher was a huge admirer of the original self-help guru Samuel Smiles. Her svengali Keith Joseph even had a new edition of his 1859 Self-help published. When I was a teenager I didn’t get that connection between self-help and Thatcherism, or the wider neoliberal project, but I knew there was something fishy about it as I sat there in the car and listened to Tony Robbins tapes with my Dad.

What the self-help industry often does is cleverly target our dreams, latch onto the lack of fundamental aspects of humanity in our lives, and promises them to us without ever being able to provide. It’s pernicious because it does not address underlying problems and yet claims to: it does not address alienation in either the Marxist or Sartrean sense, nor uncertain unemployment, practical impotence in the workplace, the megadeath of meaning under late capitalism (the simulations and simulacra, the fetishization of commodities, the commitment to growth and productivity beyond all reason). And it holds you, the individual, responsible for your life, back and belly. And it refuses to brook any defence, for after all, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. By this rationale, the most oppressed should become the most powerful, and if they don’t they should look hard in the mirror before holding bosses, shareholders, or politicians to account.

 

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