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  1. The Weekend Essay
5 August 2023

America is nothing more than a self-help society

On both the left and the right, political radicalism has given way to cultish self-improvement.

By Sohrab Ahmari

A friend of mine was recently selected by his employer, one of America’s largest, to complete the firm’s executive-training course. Thrilled about what this portended for his career, he assumed the training would mostly deal with skills like financial analysis and strategic planning. Nope: his course only cursorily covered such matters. The main programming examined race, gender, sexuality, “identity and privilege” – for hours and hours.

Various employees would talk through their own identities on video, in the end either finding solace and strength in their identity traumas or else awakening to their tendency to traumatise others. Watching some of the clips, I was struck by how the whole thing resembled a political self-help programme: one that took cognisance of America’s fraught social relations – but promised that each person could resolve them interiorly, through a sort of auto-therapy.

“Working on yourself” these days bears surprising political valences. On the left, it often means “unpacking” the biases that blinker even the most well-meaning liberals, a process involving arduous examinations of conscience and public contrition. For those who belong to marginalised groups, meanwhile, self-help progressivism offers uncritical affirmation and uplift: their subaltern stories are to be amplified, while those from dominant groups are told to listen.

Yet the rise of self-help politics is as much a phenomenon of the online right as the left. If you know your way around Twitter’s darker corners (or parts of Lower Manhattan), you will have encountered a renascent racialist right. This scene is devoted to liberating the white man’s heroic spirit from the “longhouse” – an anthropological metaphor for the loss of autonomy and adventure that supposedly attended the long-ago transition to sedentary, agricultural civilisation.

The e-right blends classical notions of natural hierarchy with racist pseudoscience into a total account of contemporary malaise, set forth in underground tracts and spun off into countless edgy memes (“Total N***** Death” is a typical motif). Modernity, in this telling, is one big longhouse, where the grubby, low-IQ Untermenschen smother the aristocratic spirit: pretty radical stuff, at least at the level of political analysis and rhetoric.

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Yet as a practical programme, the e-right mostly cashes out as… self-help. Its leading lights advise bodybuilding (homoerotica is pervasive, even as “gay” is also an insult); the consumption of animal protein (“slonking eggs”); and the cultivation of aristocratic habits (whatever that means for the mostly urbanite professionals who, from my experience, make up their audience). To overcome the schemes of globalists and HR henpeckers, you must train body and mind, scout out new frontiers as your “barbarian” forebears once did, and lift yourself above the masses. Social antagonism is thus not to be collectively resolved, but transcended by the heroic individual perfecting himself, as the classical sculptor chiselled elegant form out of raw matter.

Such self-help programmes – whether conservative or progressive – aren’t going away, because they answer the needs of a group that has long conducted the moral soundtrack to America’s market society: the middle class. As the left historian Charles Sellers wrote, the US middle class “was constituted not by modes and relations of production but by ideology”: a myth of self-improvement repeatedly deployed to “quell rising anger over the class reality of bourgeois exploitation”. Beginning in the 19th century, striving middle classes corralled surging economic discontent into a frenzy for self-discipline and what today would be called “clean eating”. This historical role is crucial to understanding the strange mirroring of self-help politics on the left and right today.

The rise of market society, as Karl Polanyi taught, inevitably displaces more communitarian forms of belonging, exposing the weak and asset-less to enormous stress and coercion. In the American context, this process began gradually in the colonial era but accelerated after the revolution. That’s when statesmen like Alexander Hamilton set about building an ambitious capitalist state on the triple pillars of import substitution, public infrastructure and ample credit.

The Hamiltonian state raised taxes to fund the “internal improvements” needed to engender a national market. It constitutionally barred the states from rescuing debtors by modifying contracts. And, along with much else of the kind, it enshrined a new, Americanised version of common law that trashed the English model’s emphasis on communal rights, in favour of the absolute rights of the entrepreneur.

Growth exploded, to 3 per cent annually by the mid 19th century, up from 0.4 per cent through the previous century. But the commercial and manufacturing bonanza also meant the loss of the subsistence model that had supported generations of patriarchs and their kin in communities characterised by mutual help and generous leisure. Labour was proletarianised, once-cloistered farm girls were sent off to grinding factories, everyone was suddenly “on the clock”.

Popular frustration occasionally burst forth in violence: Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts in 1786-87; a Pennsylvania uprising against Hamilton’s whiskey tax in 1791. Still, the Hamiltonian machine chugged along, transforming the yeoman republic into an industrial powerhouse. That is, until the crash of 1819 suddenly alerted the many to their vulnerability and powerlessness, relative to the few. Under President James Monroe, what was supposed to have been an “Era of Good Feelings” saw economic anxiety metastasise into a “general mass of disaffection”, as the then secretary of war, John C Calhoun, famously warned.

[See also: How do you purge an elite?]

In the following decade, this “general mass of disaffection” found outlet in a single voice. It belonged to Andrew Jackson, the Tennessee backcountry upstart turned national hero for routing the British invaders of New Orleans in the War of 1812. As the 1824 presidential election approached, financial interests in Tennessee tapped “Old Hickory” as a potential nominee. It was a scheme for local political gain, not meant to be taken seriously.

Jackson had his own ideas. At the heart of his world-view was a ferocious hostility to financial speculation and paper money, a result of his own failed stint as a speculator and subsequent struggles with debt. His rage at bankers proved especially winsome to a coalition of urban working men and southern and western farmers, and, though thwarted by the establishment in 1824, Jackson would ride the “general mass of disaffection” to the White House four years later.

As president, Jackson trained his immense willpower like a rifle at the head of the Second Bank of the United States, and pulled the trigger. Congressionally chartered, the BUS functioned simultaneously as a depository for federal funds, a central bank, and a profiteering actor in the money market. Its biggest beneficiaries were New England merchants, mid-Atlantic industrialists and Southern slave capital – “the money power,” in the coinage of Jackson’s senatorial ally and one-time pub-brawl belligerent Thomas Hart Benton.

When Congress voted to renew the bank’s charter in 1832, Jackson issued the most famous presidential veto of all time. He condemned the bank for making “the rich richer”, while oppressing “farmers, mechanics and labourers”. To the bank’s president, the handsome and arrogant Nicholas Biddle, the veto sounded like a blast from the French Revolution. To the Jacksonians, however, it sounded like economic democracy had finally arrived.

Jacksonians’ monomania about the evils of paper money ended up destroying an institution that actually helped stabilise American finances. Yet the veto asserted, for the first time, the primacy of democracy over the market, politics over economy. Although the Jacksonians railed against “artificial”, or government-linked, privilege, and not the market as such, they had nevertheless loosed the genie of class politics in the United States; elites trembled.

It was at about this moment – of dangerous populist pressure threatening the market system – that the first ever wave of middle-class self-help ideology swept the country, drowning Jacksonian democracy’s more radical elements. The substance of self-help in the middle 19th century was quite different from its contemporary iterations. Yet its ultimate message echoes unmistakably today: social problems must be overcome by individual effort, even in the heart.

At a time when the richest 10 per cent owned three-quarters of national wealth, a Presbyterian divine declared that “one [American] has as good a chance as another”, and, therefore, the “poor man gets little pity”. Henry Clay, the most zealous heir to the Hamiltonian tradition, publicised the term “middle class” to describe those who “from small beginnings gradually rise” – this, even as social mobility had already started grinding to a halt.

Middle-class professionals, especially doctors, reframed the stresses and miseries that bore down on the poor and working classes as defects of individual character, to be reformed by educated professionals. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician (and ancestor of the ill-fated OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush), concluded that “disease is a habit of wrong action, and all habits of injurious tendency are diseases”. Idleness was the most injurious tendency of all, to be corrected in children and the indigent by the application of “medical” devices that immobilised subjects for long durations, until better habits had been inculcated.

Teetotalism, sparse herbal diets and cold showers were seen as the proper antidotes to the yearning for leisure that “wasted” wage-hours. Young men on the make voluntarily joined clubs and dormitories imposing military-style discipline: early curfews, exercise in the twilit hours. Evangelical Protestantism, which had once sanctified the anti-market (and anti-slavery) ethos of backcountry democrats, increasingly came to emphasise individual salvation. The era’s undisputed literary giant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, turned social reform into a matter of the heart: the harsh “laws of property”, he preached, would be transfigured into “universality”, if only young men of means would “let into it the new and renewing principle of love”.

Not even the most radical forces in middle-class politics could resist the siren song of self-help. While he campaigned against the South’s “peculiar institution”, the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison urged northern labour unionists not to make too much trouble for their masters, but find happiness in individual self-betterment (Garrison did later take up free labour’s cause). The abolitionist brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan, meanwhile, founded the country’s first credit-rating agency, which warned lenders away from men with “intemperate habits”, those drawn to the “sporting life” and those leading “large and expensive families” – that last measure of creditworthiness, as Sellers noted, was one of several disciplinary mechanisms that helped slash birth rates to 2.8 children per married woman by the latter years of the 19th century, down from 6.4 in 1800. Long before the pill and legalised abortion, the market squeezed American fecundity.

Today’s institutional mania for bias training on “issues of race, gender, and sexuality” makes better sense against this historical backdrop. Service- and information-sector employees face different stresses than did proletarianised yeomen of the Jacksonian era. But the stresses are real enough, and progressive self-help relentlessly instructs them that their own biases and “microaggressions” are to blame – “injurious tendencies” that must be corrected if not with Dr Rush’s torture chairs, then with confessional-style auto-therapy and new gospels of individual salvation from collective and historical sins.

Likewise on the right – and not just the admittedly niche racist e-right – the failure of conservative individualism to ameliorate any of this is transmuted into yet another opportunity for… individual self-improvement. Everywhere calls resound to “become your own bank” (through cryptocurrencies); your own educational institutions (with home-schooling); your own town (by building up new frontier communities in “safe” red states). If you don’t act now, and end up getting “cancelled” or overrun by the chaos of liberal governance, it’s your fault: a failure of American self-help.

It is notable that these tendencies are gathering strength in the aftermath of another populist upsurge – one that began with the Occupy Wall Street movement, crescendoed in Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s populist challenges to the establishment right and left, respectively, and has now petered out in failure and frustration. The historical pattern is discernible: when the culture of self-help has waxed in America, it’s usually been a sign that genuine populism is on the wane. 

[See also: Making democracy safe from capitalism]

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