Self-help books have no politics. Indeed, in self-help books, there is, to quote Margaret Thatcher out of context, “No such thing as society.”
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. Gary John Bishop’s 2017 book is titled Unfuck Yourself, not Unfuck Your Nation; William H. McRaven wrote Make Your Bed (2017), not Make Your Neighbor’s Bed. There are no shortage of books about politics, injustice, and inequality. 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. “If you’re sometimes talking about how ‘unfair’ life is, you’ll start to act according that that view, perceiving slights where none exist,” self-styled success coach Gary John Bishop insists in Unfuck Yourself.
Similarly, Jordan Peterson, in his blockbuster 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, stipulates as one of his rules that you should “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who rocketed to fame after loudly proclaiming that he wasn’t going to use they/them pronouns for nonbinary people. His opposition to activism isn’t surprising.
But even so, “you have to be perfect before you speak out” is respectability politics with a vengeance—a sweeping claim that only the neatest, cleanest, most admirable human beings should dare to protest injustice. Peterson’s dictum that you must set your house perfectly in order before turning to broader concerns would invalidate the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and basically every activist ever, since activists are human beings, and no human being ever has their own life in perfect order.
As Peterson’s argument suggests, recognizing unfairness in the world, or working to change that unfairness, isn’t simply outside the purview of self-help. It’s presented, within self-help, as an actual barrier to happiness and achievement. Peterson uses the Sandy Hook child-murderer as his Ur-example of political action motivated by the unfairness of the world. Elsewhere, Peterson sneers at those who would imitate Christ by giving to the poor, arguing that Christ was the perfect man and it’s arrogant to try to measure up. For Peterson, only special people can work against injustice; most people shouldn’t even try, lest they end up committing some atrocity.
Retired Navy admiral Wiliam H. McRaven’s approach in Make Your Bed is less apocalyptic but more typical. For him, noticing unfairness isn’t diabolical; it simply holds back one’s own progress. “It is easy to blame your lot in life on some outside force, to stop trying because you believe fate is against you.” McRaven declares. “Nothing could be further from the truth.” McRaven’s example of unfairness is taken (like all his advice) from his experiences in SEAL training. Instructors would select trainees at random for punishment. This was meant to teach trainees that life isn’t fair, and to simply accept it and move on. The arbitrary exercise of unjust power, in McRaven’s book, is treated like the weather. Accepting it is a sign of maturity and strength; railing against it is weakness. Attempting to change it is unimaginable.
Focusing on the self alone, rather than external circumstances, is supposed to be empowering. “It’s entirely within our power to determine how we think about and talk about our problems,” Bishop insists. “To one person a situation may be negative. To another, that same situation may be positive,” Ryan Holiday argues in The Obstacle Is the Way (2014). The world is big and difficult to move. But you, supposedly, are the arbiter of your own thoughts and emotions. You can choose how you respond to obstacles, you can choose to be positive and powerful. Success in business and in life is within your grasp if you just decide you want it.
Narrow the world to the self, and suddenly you have control over the entire world. “To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the floods,” Peterson declares grandiloquently, turning posture into heroism. Politics, in this view, is actually disempowering, because it asks you to engage with structures—and with other people—you can’t control. Self-help says you can be strong by ignoring what’s outside and focusing only on your own reactions, or the position of your own shoulders. Reinhold Niebuhr asks for the wisdom to tell the things he can’t change from the things he can. Self-help responds that the one thing you can change is the self. Ignore everything else.
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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.”
Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way places the moral vacuum in especially sharp relief, because the book is, supposedly, based on the tenets of Stoicism. The Stoics in ancient Greece and Rome originally argued that virtue is the only real good, and that the virtuous life is free of passions and desire.
Somehow, though, in Holiday’s hands, Stoicism is transformed from a philosophy celebrating virtuous moderation to a philosophy touting Gilded Age grift and greed. For Holiday, a marketer and media flack by trade, the goal of Stoic philosophy is not virtue, but overcoming individual obstacles. Self-control isn’t a strategy to avoid desire, but rather a prescription for advancement. Holiday praises John D. Rockefeller for “cool headedness and self-discipline,” utterly ignoring the monopolistic practices and shady business dealings which were the real source of his obscene wealth. He also, jaw-droppingly, includes a paean to Samuel Zemurray, the head of United Fruit Company who engineered a U.S.-backed coup in Honduras in the early 20th century in one of the ugliest of America’s imperialist adventures.
“Forget the rule book, settle the issue,” Holiday says admiringly, lightly glossing over the fact that Zemurray “settled the issue” by employing mercenaries to depose a foreign government. Not satisfied with bringing authoritarianism and corruption to one Central American government, Zemurray was also involved in spreading propaganda which led to the CIA-backed coup against a democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954. Stoicism encourages its adherents to set aside desire in the name of virtue. So Holiday chooses as his Stoic hero an utterly amoral opportunist who literally engineered murder for the sole purpose of increasing his own wealth.
Holiday can tout Zemurray as an epitome of virtue because Zemurray made a lot of money—and in Holiday’s self-help ethos, individual lucre is the only ethic. Like Holiday, Peterson also takes a rich philosophical and moral tradition and hollows it out. In a bizarre passage in 12 Rules for Life, he recounts a dream in which he saw himself in the position of Christ on the cross. Christ is sacrificed to save the world. The cross is a symbol of God’s altruistic love; it’s the epitome of self-abnegation. But somehow Peterson turns this inside out; his vision, he insists, means, “It is possible...to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience.” If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you have is the individual, even the most explicit message of love and selflessness becomes uninterpretable. Samuel Zemurray is an icon of pragmatic problem-solving and Christ was nailed to the cross to validate self-assertion. When only the individual exists, all ethical and religious systems become just another mechanism for helping the individual get ahead.
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. Gary John Bishop (Unfuck Yourself), through a series of rhetorical back-flops, argues that everyone is always winning, so if you are unhappy, it means you have chosen to win at harming yourself. “You won at that failed relationship because you achieved exactly what you set out to accomplish in the first place.” Nick Ortner in The Tapping Solution (2013) attributes a blip in his own financial fortunes to his own guilt at being successful. He incurred debt and lost clients, he says, so that he would be on the same level as his friends and “nobody could be jealous of me or my financial success.” To make money, you just have to tell yourself you deserve to make money. If you fail, it’s because you want to fail. The Tapping Solution is a particularly pure distillation of the self-help ethos. Ortner argues that simply sitting quietly, thinking about a problem, and then tapping on pressure points on your own body while stating affirmations, can fix a bewildering array of psychological and physical ailments. Tapping, Ortner says, can make you lose weight and heal PTSD; it can cure cancer and poverty alike. “But what if pain, health concerns, addictions, weight issues, relationship challenges, and financial problems really could be resolved—quickly and easily?” Ortner gushes. “What if the impossible was actually possible?” The Bible’s Job needn’t have lost his family or have been afflicted with sores if he had only known this one amazing trick of telling himself everything was okay.
As Job’s comforters show, the idea that the poor and sick and marginalized are to blame for their troubles has long held obvious attractions for the rich, the healthy, and the powerful. Still, as Micki McGee points out in the Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life (2005), there has been a boom in self-help sales and culture since the last part of the twentieth century—a boom that tracks the post-Reagan/Thatcher rise of neoliberalism as an economic program and an ideal. Self-help’s vision of advancement without politics fits the politics of neoliberalism. The ideas may be old, but they have been repackaged with vim.
That repackaging is perhaps ugly, but it’s not surprising. The status quo always wants you to think it’s eternal and unchangeable, and that you should adapt to it rather than the other way around. Self-help claims to empower, but in robbing its readers of the ability to dream of a better world, it actually does the opposite. Empowerment requires solidarity. If help is restricted to the self, it’s not really help at all.