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1 February 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

The cruelties of self-help culture

The belief that hard work leads to success and personal fulfilment is a dangerous fantasy.

By Richard Seymour

“If you want something enough,” fast-fashion boss and former Love Island star Molly-Mae Hague explained in December last year, “you can achieve it.” Speaking on Steven Bartlett’s podcast, The Diary of a CEO, she acknowledged that people had different backgrounds, but insisted that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day” and “you’re given one life and it’s down to you what you do with it”.

Her comments have been derided as cruel Thatcherism. In fact, Friedrich von Hayek, the éminence grise of Thatcherism, would contemptuously dismiss Hague’s comments as the capitalist version of the “social justice” illusion – according to Hayek, the very idea of social justice is a “mirage”, a “quasi-religious belief with no content whatsoever”. Her words actually channel the mid-Victorian voice of Samuel Smiles, the liberal reformer and Chartist. Smiles’ mantra of Self-Help, published in 1859, sought to uplift the working class by encouraging industriousness and thrift, and warning against the improvidence that he thought was a cause of poverty. Hayek, writing in Law, Legislation and Liberty Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice (1976), was notoriously contemptuous of the Smilesian defence of “free enterprise on the ground that it regularly rewards the deserving”. Not only was it “erroneous”, but it was a weak defence of capitalism. The rewards of the market were not “just”, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that prices were set by competition governed by fair rules.

Ironically, a version of Smilesian uplift became a cultural mainstay of the neoliberal era inaugurated by Thatcher. But the virtues that markets supposedly reward today are different. In a system buoyed by soaring household debt and speculation, thrift and providence are not the dominant values. Rather, today’s rewards allegedly accrue to innovators and risk-takers. Still, the basic idea that effort is rewarded remains extremely popular: not just among “entrepreneurs”, but among the poor. I recall, in the darkest days of austerity, Guardian journalist John Harris’s heart-breaking interview with an unemployed man in Warrington. He was applying for dozens of jobs every week, usually getting no reply from employers, but when asked if he thought being unemployed was his fault, he replied: “Yeah, I do. I think I should have applied for more. I should have picked myself up in the morning, got out… tried more.”

One has to grasp the strange mixture of class shame and personal dignity in such a statement. We experience class shame when we internalise social situations, and defeats, over which we have little control. But just at the point where we have least control, it’s important to our self-respect, and our hope for the future, to claim some sliver of responsibility. The modern version of the self-help ethos can appeal to the poor precisely because it operates on this emotional contradiction. It is exemplary of what the American cultural theorist Lauren Berlant called “cruel optimism”. It makes people believe that anyone can achieve anything they want if they work hard enough. But that belief, because it is a fantasy, actively impedes the goal of personal flourishing that makes the fantasy appealing.

Let’s consider the fantasy more closely. Today’s self-help mantra, as Jen Sincero, author of You Are a Badass (2013) puts it, is that “if you want something badly enough, and decide that you will get it, you will”. This is a fantasy of infinitude, of a world overflowing with abundant wealth and opportunity for everyone. No one need clean, serve hot food, work tills, drive forklift trucks, enter data or deliver mail if they don’t want to. Everyone can be a millionaire “influencer” or CEO. No one is fundamentally limited by the gifts, or disabilities, that they were born with, let alone by being born into a particular class, city or culture. There is nothing put wrong by brute luck that can’t be put right by dedication.

All that we need in addition to hard-work, most self-help literature suggests, is to master “one weird trick”. For Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter in Rich Dad, Poor Dad (1997), the trick is financial literacy. For The Secret by Rhonda Byrne, the trick is to master the “law of attraction”. For You are a Badass, the trick is impervious confidence. This content may be snake oil but, like the best snake oil, it offers a jolt of motivational enthusiasm. For people who are demoralised and debilitated by relentless hardship and setbacks, and confused by the conflicting demands and promises of the world, this can be empowering.

The “success” wing of self-help is reinforced by its more psychologically-oriented counterpart, which deals with the problems of addiction, depression, and toxic relationships. In Coming Up Short (2013), Jennifer Silva finds among young working-class adults a peculiar “mood economy” in which “legitimacy and self-worth are purchased not with traditional currencies such as work or marriage or class solidarity, but instead through the ability to organise their emotions into a narrative of self-transformation”. This ethic of self-overcoming, aided by the emotional advice offered by Dr Phil and his ilk, and by the productions of what Will Davies calls The Happiness Industry (2016), can be extremely harsh. Young workers “draw unforgiving boundaries against their family members and friends who cannot transform themselves – overcome addictions, save money, heal troubled relationships – through sheer determination alone”. For, just as focused effort is the key to success, self-overcoming is the key to happiness.

Yet, self-help literature is even more expansive in its promise than this implies. Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, in Promise Land (2014), documenting her journey through America’s self-help culture, describes a conference headlined by Mark Victor Hansen, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul (1997). The conference felt more like “a tent revival than a classroom”. Though alienated by the charismatic emotionality on display, Lamb-Shapiro also felt “pangs of jealousy”. “I didn’t have anything in my life that I felt as passionate about.” If self-help books are stories of secular redemption, spun by a guru offering a Way, and with their promise geared towards the happy-ever-after, the good news gospel also offers mutual aid and communal salvation. Why else would the afflicted gather in the guru’s tent, if not to help one another and celebrate the transformation of their lives? Don’t we need to change our lives? Don’t we also need a version of what religion has traditionally supplied: namely, faith?

That millions gravitate to self-help literature, on a vast range of subjects – parenting, depression, handling conversations, sex, office politics, stopping smoking, being a woman, being a man, yoga and meditation – suggests that it fills a gaping hole. Indeed, Lamb-Shapiro invites us to see that, even if it is “deceitful and dangerous”, self-help might also fulfil a “necessary, social component”. Aspirational living might be either “beautiful, noble, or enslaving”, or simultaneously all three.

The inflationary rhetoric of aspiration is dangerous because it cultivates an attachment to ideas that will always let us down. It creates a daunting ego-ideal – we must always be rich, happy, triumphant, super-confident, clever, sexually adventurous and pathologically immune to criticism, or we’re not doing it right – that is likely to compound the miserable feeling of failure for the majority who do not live the dream. (At least Christianity, a major cultural source of self-help, acknowledges human failure.)

This rhetoric mystifies achievement by its relentless focus on individual effort – most people’s accomplishments, great or small, rely on a lot of cooperative work – and so contributes to the fragile, self-righteous pomposity of would-be “entrepreneurs”. And, as the philosopher Daniel Tutt argues, there is something alarming about how it frequently instrumentalises spirituality in order to adapt us to the market, or the workplace. Finally, it is perhaps salient that the main politicisation of this genre, lately, has come from the right, in the form of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life (2018). There may be something about the genre’s narrow-minded commercial cynicism, and its cheapening of life by reducing it to an experiential cliché that can be mastered with some “rules” and brash exhortation, that lends itself to conservatism.

Nonetheless, there is nothing inherently debasing about needing advice, encouragement, motivation, insight or spiritual nourishment. There is even something to admire in the effort to take control of one’s flourishing. And there is no intrinsic reason why this must entail fostering false hopes, encouraging submission to values that make one a failure, obscuring the real obstacles to success or happiness or pretending that they are the only things that matter. Self-help need not lie to people. Nor does it have to imprison people in monstrous egos. Self-help is cognate with the ideal of mutual aid, out of which modern trade unions, landless worker movements, squatter groups, cooperative associations and so on, emerged. It is no coincidence that self-help literature rose alongside the collapse in class and civic organisation, and the surge in new mutual aid groups formed by patients, addicts, sexual abuse survivors, and others.

What if Hayek was right to suspect that self-help’s promise of just deserts contains a displaced longing for social justice? I’ve been dreaming for some time, only half-jokingly, of a Little Red Self-Help Book. A book that, shorn of bombastic individualism, takes seriously our need for help, solace and emotional amnesty. A book that is honest about the system we live in, the emotional challenges of surviving it, and the realities of failure, but which offers us practical ways to navigate the real challenges that most people face, whether when dealing with employers, depression, unemployment, exams, or a hostile bureaucracy such as the police or the job centre. What if self-help pointed us, not endlessly back towards an idolatrous “self”, but towards other people, and towards solidarity?

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