In the popular show The Americans on TNT, about two undercover Soviet KGB agents pretending to live as Americans in a Washington DC suburb to spy for the USSR Motherland; in order to make themselves believable and not get caught by US authorities, they become totally ‘American’, more American than actual Americans. They ape everything a middle class, upwardly mobile American family would do to avoid detection and suspicion. They speak perfect unaccented American English, pretend to be flag waving patriots, never slip out a syllable of Russian, even in their most distressed moments, they are to maintain their cover. Part of aping the life of an American family is also to partake in all of the trappings of capitalism and consumption. The show is situated in the 1980s, the height of the Reagan era and the Cold War and the consumerism culture. While the ‘wife’ Elizabeth Jennings has no trouble separating her identities as a communist Soviet woman in her private hours and an average American wife in her daily public life, her husband Phillip Jennings isn’t so sure. He openly enjoys the trappings of capitalism, such as getting a flashy new Camero and spoiling their children with material things; things he was deprived of in his harsh post-War Soviet upbringing where even food was scarce. But he is still, deep down, a Soviet spy loyal to the motherland, a communist at heart, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the trappings of their ‘job’ which they do at great personal risk to themselves. His wife Elizabeth didn’t mind it so much either, but her alarm bells went off when he started attending EST Seminars. While she had no problems with her husband finding help for his childhood traumas and enjoying American consumption a little too much for her taste, attending EST Seminars was one step too far off the deep end. Like all good communists, Elizabeth Jennings recognized that EST is a propaganda perpetrated by the ruling class of capitalism.
EST is the precursor to the massive 11 billion dollar (or more) self-help industry today. The goal of EST is:
[To] transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself”. It “brought to the forefront the ideas of transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility”.
It is Reaganism reduced to two sentences. Werner Erhard is replaced by the likes of Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins today, who got even more cleverer and incorporated ‘spirituality’ in their charlatan teachings of ‘self-help’.
In and around the early 2000s, these ‘self-help’ gurus were all the rage. Positive thinking was all the rage. Manifesting (imagining) your way to wealth, happiness and prosperity was all the rage, as evidenced by the massive sales of the book ‘The Secret’ by Rhonda Byrne (published in 2006). I immediately developed an allergic reaction to all of these self-help gurus. It runs contrary to my dark morose nature, it runs contrary to evidence: if everyone can manifest (or imagine) their way to riches, wouldn’t we all be rich? Who wants to be poor? Who wants to struggle? And it runs contrary to my natural pessimism. But in spite of all this, I bought into it for a while. I was shamed into it by almost everyone I knew. Even people who didn’t read books picked up a Deepak Chopra book and read The Secret, they were able to read this claptrap but can’t finish Pride and Prejudice. I was told that I was depressed and anxious all the time because I had negative thought patterns and if I just think more positive thoughts, my life will be more positive and productive (translation: higher income). I would get that pay rise, that promotion, that dream job, my bank account would just overflow with the money I needed. I’ve tried thinking positive happy thoughts. I only got more depressed later when my happy positive thinking didn’t yield happy positive results. Also, it didn’t pay my bills. Money didn’t just magically appear as these gurus implied. It’s all a Reaganomics scam. Anyone can be rich, anyone can be middle class if they want to, they just have to work hard with a positive mental attitude, be rid of their self-limiting thoughts and beliefs, then everything else will take care of itself.
The issue here is not being against self-improvement, of developing positive thought patterns and behaviors to a happier more fulfilled life. This is necessary, but the problem with the American self-help industry is, it’s almost always predicated upon getting rich. Meaning if at the end of your self-help journey and you don’t become rich, you are the problem, you have failed at helping yourself. You pick up a Deepak Chopra book, it’s all full of spiritual babble, but you reach the end, the desired result is financial prosperity. Tony Robbins who is all the rage right now and has a documentary out on Netflix, hosts these self-discovery seminars, where he gets the audience to expose their emotional vulnerabilities to gain ratings and telling them that not letting go of their past trauma is the cause of their current financial troubles. We need to ‘awaken our giant within ourselves’ to become bigger and better versions of ourselves (which in the self-help world almost exclusively means richer), not necessarily a better person. How is he fit to make this assessment? On Tony Robbin’s website he calls himself an entrepreneur, philanthropist and bestselling author, I don’t see any qualifications of him as a qualified psychologist or therapist.
The ‘self-help’ industry puts the blame of one’s financial failures on their inability to transform the hardships of their life into learning moments. One would think after the financial crash of 2008, the self-help industry would expose itself to be the fraud that it is. It has nothing to do with positive thinking leading to positive actions and behaviors but bankers, governments, the ruling class who control the economy do what they want with our money and financial stability which causes our financial problems and misery. But after the crash of 2008, the self-help industry was booming, it’s still booming. Tony Robbins is hosting seminars all over the world, charging hundreds of dollars for a weekend of his seminars, selling books, DVDs, audio books to his followers, how if you just think big and rich like him, you will become rich like him.
These self-help theories are completely arbitrary, there’s no science or research to back it up. At best there is anecdotal evidence from previous followers, they only tell you of the success stories, not the people who forked over hundreds of dollars for a weekend or perhaps thousands for personal coaching and saw ‘no returns’ on that investment, only feelings of shame at their perceived failures. In capitalism, everything must be commodified for it to be legitimate, it must have monetary return, it must have a monetary value or the ability to generate monetary value. Self-improvement for the sake of self-improvement is not enough, it must have a financial reward attached to it in the end. People who are not upwardly mobile are not considered in the equation of ‘self-improvement’. Wishing to live a financially modest but a fulfilled life in service of others is not considered a ‘success’ by the self-help industry. You must dream big, get that big house, that dream car, that dream job (which is really making your money work for you and not really doing or making anything productive – something Donald Trump advocates – using other people’s money to build your business).
When you visit the websites of these ‘self-help’ gurus or ‘life coaches’ and you go to the testimonial section, it’s almost always about how much richer they’ve become. The big transformative events which occurred as a result of hiring this particular life coach is almost always monetarily related, very little of it has to do with real self-improvement or self-actualization in the true meaning of the word. The self-help industry is just another predatory scam to prey on vulnerable people, who feel stuck in their lives because of a bad economy, and they think that by forking over the last few hundred or thousands of dollars of their savings will jump start their financial lifeline again.