[Marxism] excerpts from an excellent critique of "self-help" books

Dennis Brasky dmozart1756 at gmail.com
Fri Apr 20 12:02:19 MDT 2018

If the essence of neoliberalism is an ideological faith in the righteous
virtue of individual choice, then self-help books are the true heirs of
Milton Friedman. In self-help, the self is all, and “help” consists in
convincing readers that there is nothing else.

Readers of self-help books, of course, don’t expect to read about politics
or society. The genre is about unlocking the key to individual health,
wealth, and wisdom, to use the categories from Tim Ferriss’s 2017 *Tools
for Titans*.

People pick up self-help books to find out how to get ahead in the world
we’ve got. If you want to read about how to change the world, you read
something else. It’s unreasonable, you could argue, to expect a genre
called “self-help” to try to help people other than yourself.

But self-help doesn’t just happen to be apolitical. Its rejection of social
context and political engagement is explicit and even evangelical. In
self-help, you help yourself precisely by refusing to think about societies
or structures.

So, what’s the problem with giving people a sense of empowerment? Self-help
is a $500 million industry; lots of people obviously find self-help books
inspiring and...well, helpful. People want to feel that they have control
over their lives, and self-help gives them a sense of control over their
lives. What’s the harm?

The harm is, in a word, neoliberalism. Neoliberal ideology broadly argues
that the market, when left to its own devices, chooses winners and losers
based on merit. People’s own virtue and drive determine their free choices,
and those free choices in turn determine their prosperity or suffering.
Collective action to right wrongs or help the suffering under neoliberal
ideology is wrong, unfeasible, or some combination of the two. Under
neoliberal ideology, as in the world of self-help books, the individual is
all. And when you banish politics and reduce the world to the individual,
you lose all ability to critique social structures. What’s good is what is
good for the individual. That makes it virtually impossible to articulate
an ethic beyond “might makes right.”

Self-help’s celebration of the wealthy is unpleasant, but its loathing of
the poor and unsuccessful is worse. This loathing is generally implicit—but
the implication is nonetheless quite strong. If your fate is in your own
hands, if you can change your life through sheer willpower, then failing to
do so is your fault and your fault alone.

In the world of self-help books, poverty, racism, sexism, injustice,
physical and mental illness, and simple bad luck don’t exist. Instead,
failure is always a form of self-sabotage.


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