Episode 109: Self-Help Culture and the Rise of Corporate Happiness Monitoring

Citations Needed | May 6, 2020 | Transcript

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Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: How can one achieve happiness? It’s the eternal question. From Aristotle to Al-Ghazali, Thomas Aquinas to Arthur Schopenhauer. The answer, we’re told, is to look within. Now these days, we’re told repeatedly by our modern philosophers, you know, Oprah, Srikumar Rao, Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra and other corporate happiness monitors that prosperity and fulfillment come through deep introspection and mindfulness—all you gotta do is pay for our inspiring books, videos, retreats, seminars, and online courses.

Adam: These prescriptions, while ostensibly useful in the short term for answering personal questions or alleviating stress, all fall within the general genre of self-help. The trouble is they’re not very helpful. The self-help industry is predicated on the ever-American, and thoroughly capitalist, concepts of rugged individualism and personal responsibility, arguing that if you have a problem, it’s invariably up to you, and you alone to solve it. Meanwhile, it imparts the appearance of virtue and legitimacy with hollow, cherry-picked references to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and psychology.

Nima: In recent years, there’s rightly been a new crop of criticism leveled against the self-help industry, with books offering “anti-self-help” alternatives for improving one’s life, calling for people to relax and stop placing so much pressure on themselves all the time. Still, many of these critiques embrace the very same form of individualism as the media they decry, ignoring the reality that the best way to actually help people is to ensure that their material needs like housing, food, healthcare are actually met.

Adam: On today’s show, we’re going to examine the ways in which modern mainstream critiques of the self-help industry fall short, oftentimes embracing the reactionary principles they allege to be rebuking, and dissect the profound institutional incentives to prioritize solipsism over solidarity.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by William Davies, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he also is the Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. Will is the author of The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being published by Verso Books.

[Begin Clip]

William Davies: Over the last 40 years, we have turned distress into ‘there is something wrong with being unhappy,’ and that we’ve turned unhappiness into a symptom of illness rather than being something which actually can tell us something important not just about our experiences, but also about who we are and maybe what it is to be a human being.

[End Clip]

Adam: So before we start off, I just want to say that we of course are not qualified to answer the unanswerable and ethical question of human happiness.

Nima: What?!

Adam: I’m not a particularly huge fan of the word happiness, I think it can be a little bit squishy by its very nature. It’s also this weirdly not outcome-based moral criteria, right? A mass murderer is happy when he’s murdering so what? You know if happiness of the goal —

Nima: You’re such a joy at parties, Adam.

Adam: You know people say I’m a joy at parties, I am not a joy at parties. Absolutely not. My goal is to be a buzzkill. If people don’t like it, they can do something else. But the point is that I think that I want to be clear that we are not attempting to sort of tell you or to litigate the question of what is and what isn’t happiness. What we’re going to try to show on this show is that the term ‘gaslighting’ is thrown around a lot, but I think it’s applicable here, the sort of corporate gaslighting of happiness in lieu of material things that we know can create, if not happiness, can create a sense of security and a sense of contentment — like food, housing, healthcare — that in the absence of these material gains, and the sort of prima facie absurdity in our culture that we would even have those things being guaranteed to us, that in the absence of that, what we see is this kind of cottage industry, this sort of sub-industry of saying, ‘Actually, you don’t really need those things, you certainly don’t need them as rights or political axioms. What you need to do is work on yourself.’

Samuel Smiles

Nima: Right. The problem you are experiencing is not one that is systemic or structural or built on deprivation and scarcity. It is literally because you are not doing enough. Now by many accounts, the self-help genre as we know it today derives from literature published in the late 19th century, which continued into the first half of the 20th century. In 1859, the Scottish pro-business politician and journalist Samuel Smiles — I did not make that up, literally his name was Samuel Smiles — released the instructional book Self-Help. The book preached a timeworn message of personal responsibility: In order to achieve upward mobility, the working poor must persevere and engage in “self-education,” in other words, pull themselves up by their bootstraps., something you’ve heard all the time. But to do so, Smiles in his book drew upon the biographies of so-called “self-made” British millionaires of the Industrial Revolution, including people like Josiah Wedgwood, of course of Wedgwood tableware fame, and railway engineers Richard Stephenson and James Watt. The book was a commercial success for its time; it reportedly sold a quarter-million copies by the time of Smiles’ death in 1904. Now, there may have been some socialist critiques of this book in the 19th century. It’s hard to verify all of this due to the dearth of information across sources, but according to professor of History at Georgetown, Gregory Afinogenov, a writer by the name of Symon Diksztajn authored a booklet in 1880 analyzing how the ideology within Smiles’ book discouraged workers from thinking about systemic change.

Adam: So fast forward a couple decades and American philosopher Ralph Waldo Trine’s 1897 book In Tune With the Infinite promised that one’s ability to channel positive thoughts would lead to success. Trine’s work was popular with industrialists, including his friend Henry Ford, noted for his love of the Jewish people and his dislike of Hitler—just kidding, he hated Jews and loved Hitler. Ford, according to sociologist Micki McGee, credited Trine with, quote, “sustaining [Ford] during his arduous efforts to extract more labor power from his workforce.” So from the beginning, there’s a symbiotic relationship between self-help and the Horatio Alger narrative with industrialists because this is the sort of primary basis for their obscene wealth, right? That they worked hard and believed in themselves and that the only reason poor people are poor is not because they’re extracting their excess labor or the value of their labor, but in fact that they’re morally weak or that they haven’t properly internalized their potential.

Nima: Now, Trine is grouped in with what is known as the New Thought movement, a sort of proto-New Age school of thought which held that people could achieve better lives through introspection. According to religious studies scholar Christopher Evans, the movement contended that people had a God-given ability to direct themselves toward material success through their own thoughts. Now echoing this movement a few decades later, in 1920, French apothecary Emile Coué wrote the book Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion. His book took cues from the teachings of hypnosis and suggested that repeating positive mantras would affect change in the unconscious mind. Years later, in 1936, motivational speaker and corporate trainer Dale Carnegie published his bestselling book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book encouraged a sort of sociopathic manipulation, arguing that people could get their dream jobs and otherwise improve their lives by learning how to get people to like them, effectively rendering all relationships artificial, strategic, and purely transactional.

Adam: I’ve managed to crack the code of influencing people while having no friends at all.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Adam: (Laughs.) That was a stupid joke.

Nima: (Laughing.) It’s funny, though.

Adam: Right. So this book would include tips such as, and these are of course somewhat paraphrased: ‘show a genuine interest in other people,’ ‘be happy and positive,’ ‘remember that people love hearing the sound of their own name.’ Carnegie authored a number of self-help books with a sort of similar theme throughout the ‘30s including How to Get Ahead in the World Today from 1938 and How to Stop Worrying and Start Living from 1948. 1952 saw the publication of one of the most influential self-help books ever, Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Along with Smiles and Carnegie, Peale, a right-wing Manhattan minister, is largely considered to be one of the founding fathers, if you will, of modern self-help culture. The Power of Positive Thinking, which now an international bestseller, contained a series of apocryphal anecdotes about different people, from business executives to trapeze artists, who’d individually willed their ways into financial and personal success through prayer, visualization of desired outcomes, and of course, positive thinking. Peale’s work also echoed many of the tenets of the New Thought movement. Peale wrote many books, he wrote 46 books from the 1930s to the 1990s, all with recommendations on how to think and pray one’s way into success and fulfillment, and launching the self-help magazine Guideposts in 1945. So again, you see this relationship with the right wing and self-help from the beginning.

Nima: Peale had a profoundly reactionary agenda, though, accompanied by powerful political connections, offering a glimpse into the ideological framework of his, and also others’, self-help prescriptions. According to the 1993 New York Times’ obituary of Peale, he was a, quote, “favorite of wealthy business people, a critic of protesters of the Vietnam War, an opponent of John F. Kennedy for fear of a Vatican influence in the White House, and a supporter of his friend and congregant, Richard M. Nixon, throughout the Watergate period.” Now, according to author Chris Lehmann, Peale used Guideposts, again the self-help magazine that he founded in 1945, to disseminate anti-union and anti-New Deal propaganda. Lehmann, writing about Peale for In These Times in 2017 said this, quote:

Rather than harping on the dreary demands of socioeconomic justice and the hard work of equitably distributing the unprecedented mass bounty of the postwar American scene, the positive-thinking faith simply rejected personal failure as spiritual weakness.

End quote. Peale also attracted some renewed attention in even more recent years with the rise of Donald Trump. Peale was the longtime pastor at the Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, which Donald Trump attended with his family growing up, and Peale officiated Donald Trump’s first wedding.

Donald Trump and Ivana Trump with author Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth Peale (center) in 1988. (Ron Galella / Getty Images)

Adam: Peale’s interest in incorporating psychology into the otherwise explicitly Christian dogma laid the groundwork for psychologist Martin Seligman, who would go on to become a leading figure in the self-help industry, with major media and institutional backing. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Seligman developed such concepts as “learned optimism, ” essentially a repackaged version of Peale’s “positive thinking” that resembles many of the points conservatives have long been making about poverty as a moral failure. Seligman and adherents of positive psychology define, quote, “learned optimism” as, quote, “a concept that says we can change our attitude and behaviors — by recognizing and challenging our negative self-talk, among other things.”

Nima: Just be better. Just be better! And then you’ll be richer.

Adam: Yeah, totally.

Nima: It’s really just that simple.

Adam: It’s that simple. Stop working at Subway and just think better. The trend of willing oneself into success via “positive thinking” or “mindfulness,” was growing very culty in the 1970s, and explicitly anti-communist self-help “retreats” arose in the West Coast in the 1960s as a sort of counter counter-culture. These included the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California, whose founders incorporated meditation, yoga, and other kinds of New Age-y self-help treatment mechanisms as part of what they called the quote-unquote “human potential movement.” On its website, the Esalen Institute actually boasts that it, quote, “sponsored Boris Yeltsin’s first visit to the United States, immediately after which he resigned from the Communist Party.” Unquote. Yeltsin, who had been recently removed from the Politburo and was considered a Soviet opposition figure, visited the United States on a trip sponsored by Esalen in 1989, apparently in order to expose him to the wonders of capitalism in the United States. He met with then-President George H. W. Bush and toured the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and the grocery store and sort of played this whole ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so shocked’ —

Nima: And miraculously he became an anti-communist.

Adam: Right, he was so shocked by this sort of wonders of capital, even though he would have known that as a higher-up in the Soviet Union, but this was an extension of something Esalen created during the height of the Cold War called the Soviet-American Exchange Program, which the Institute claims was “cultural exchanges” via video chat between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but given Esalen’s staunch anti-communism, it was really just a way of projecting capitalist messaging to the Soviet Union. Esalen remains popular to this very day for Silicon Valley types who view this New Age positive thinking as a sort of counterbalance to what they view as the left-wing radicalism in California.

Boris Yeltsin marveling at a grocery store’s selection in the capitalist U.S., 1989. (Houston Chronicle)

Nima: By the late ‘90s, Seligman ushered in one of the leading psychological self-help trends: “positive psychology,” thereby giving self-help — the brainchild of right-wing evangelists and businesspeople — an air of scientific credence. Seligman didn’t coin the term himself, rather Abraham Maslow reportedly did back in the 1950s, referring to the aforementioned psychology of human potential. But Seligman popularized his own brand of this “positive psychology,” which he claimed was an effort to divert the practice of psychology away from primarily treating psychological conditions — God forbid — and toward fostering this notion of quote-unquote “flourishing.” Now, Seligman has published a multitude of self-help books by now, including Authentic Happiness in 2002, Flourish in 2011, and The Hope Circuit just a couple years ago in 2018. He is a mainstream figure in psychology; in the late ‘90s, he was appointed head of the American Psychological Association. Yet much of his work has been funded by The John Templeton Foundation, a somewhat covertly Christian organization named for the late Presbyterian billionaire investor that promotes a right-wing agenda, including stuff like “individual freedom and free markets” and, apparently, some sort of soft eugenicist initiatives that have to do with “exceptional cognitive talent and genius,” and “genetics,” and “voluntary family planning.” Now, one of its partners is the Bezos Family Foundation, a glorified education-tech company founded by Jeff Bezos’s parents.

Back in 2008, the Templeton Foundation gave Martin Seligman a $5.8 million grant to establish the Positive Neuroscience Department. According to authors Eva Illouz and Edgar Cabanas, “Templeton’s financial involvement in both the foundation and the dissemination of positive psychology has been crucial. His foundation alone invested tens of millions of dollars in positive psychology’s research programs for the study of positive health, positive education, resilience, and mindfulness; positive neuroscience, transcendence, and spirituality; hope and forgiveness; or the power of will and perseverance in goal achievement, to name a few.”

Adam: Relatedly, the Templeton Foundation has had a significant impact on academia. The Foundation helped fund the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a number of academic programs including PhD and MA programs, specialized courses in positive psychology, and symposiums and workshops. They also include the Templeton Prize for Positive Psychology, which is considered the largest monetary award ever given in psychology. The Dalai Lama, Margaret Thatcher, and George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford served as judges for the first few decades of the prize, which was established in 1972. Seligman has received a host of positive media coverage as an authority on positive thinking. Needless to say, his funding is never really mentioned. He’s been on Larry King Now, Oprah, he’s done TEDTalks. He was a primary subject in a New York Times puff piece in February of this year entitled, “How to Be More Optimistic.” The Washington Post even did a COVID-19 themed semi-puff piece on him when they did an article called, “How social distancing could ultimately teach us how to be less lonely.”

Alongside Seligman’s popularity came that of other major contemporary self-help figures, such as New Age, TEDTalk heavyweights Deepak Chopra, a close associate of Oprah and early hawker of expensive Western meditation and yoga retreats, and Brene Brown, who has published books with titles like The Gifts of Imperfection and The Power of Vulnerability. The general gist of this with varying degrees of scientific merit — obviously, Deepak Chopra has zero scientific merit — the general idea is that positive thinking and positive mentality is key to success. The implication, as we’ve discussed, being is that if you are not successful, it’s due to a lack of positive thinking, which works out well if you’re very rich, which works out well if you’re Jeff Bezos.

Nima: Right, because the world is always getting better and more just as long as you have money.

Adam: You just need to think more positively.

Nima: To get that money, right? And then you will realize that the world is just getting better and better.

Adam: Right. Yeah, just want to clarify that we are not belittling anyone who finds solace in these systems. To paraphrase Marx, it is a heart in the heartless world, it is the sigh of the oppressed, we get that these systems emerge because of organic need. And we also, of course, don’t want to belittle anyone’s use of psychology or even religion for that matter. What we will say is that there are powerful forces, sinister forces that promote these ideas over what we would proffer are better ideas, namely issues of solidarity, material, benefit of people’s lives, et cetera, et cetera. So we want to be clear that we are not mocking the people who engage in these practices, because that’s, that’s punching down. We try not to do that on the show. What we are talking about is that, that there’s a reason why certain self-help systems and why focus on solipsism is so popular in this country. And we wish to sort of critique the origins of that.

Nima: Yeah, taking care of yourself is really important. There are plenty of stressors in people’s lives and finding ways to deal with that to find solidarity, to find calmness, to find generosity can be really wonderful. But I think what we’re talking about today is the commodification of this self-help idea, that really it exists for one purpose only: to make your soul safe for capitalism, for profit and productivity to win out over peace of mind, for consumption to replace composure. And so I think that that is really why it’s so critical to explore how this hit the mainstream and how lucrative a business it is.

Adam: Right. So of course, Christians got in the game because it’s not self-help without a religious angle. There is the Christian self-help book from the early 2000s, The Purpose-Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?, which sold a bajillion copies, by evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Warren now has an estimated net worth of about $30 million. Now, the mother of all self-help —

Nima: We cannot do this show without mentioning The Secret.

Adam: The Secret, a multimedia New Thought franchise that made its first appearance in 2006. Created by TV producer Rhonda Byrne, The Secret was launched as a DVD and book preaching positive thinking. The Secret had an all-purpose approach to self-help, promising readers and viewers the ability to achieve everything they wanted in their personal and professional life. According to Byrne, her inspiration for The Secret was the 1910 book The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles. It didn’t take long for The Secret to become a megahit, you I’m sure have heard of this, garnering the attention of Oprah, Larry King, Nightline, 20/20, and other mass media platforms. As of 2015, the book had grossed some $300 million internationally, and it’s not a coincidence that it is inspired by a book called The Science of Getting Rich.

Nima: It all tracks back.

Adam: Self-help is inexorably linked to pro-capitalist propaganda. In 2004, the sort of pseudo-Left got into the game with a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know? which did the Deepak Chopra shtick where they took some of the gaps in knowledge of quantum physics, manipulated them, gave them kind of a New Age spin. The movie is pretty grotesque. I think I watched it in college because I went to college in Austin. It’s a very Austin movie, right?


Nima: I totally remember when this came out and I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be so deep.’

Adam: No, it’s not.

Nima: It’s not at all. (Laughs.)

Adam: And basically what it argues is that if you think hard enough, you can physically change yourself, that if you actually think strongly enough, you can lose weight, or I guess change your condition, literally that’s what it argues. It’s complete nonsense because of some sort of quantum mysticism but of course, it’s all pseudoscience, it was panned by scientists when it came out. And I don’t want to paint too broad a brush, I’m not saying that some of the other people we mentioned are doing this exactly, but even though it sort of acts like it’s left-wing, because that’s very hippie-ish, ultimately, the end goal is the same, which is that you’re responsible for yourself that if you just think hard enough, your material circumstances can change rather than, say, I don’t know joining a political party or joining a union or joining a mutual aid program or something else that can contribute to a meaningful material change in your life. No, no, no, you need to meditate harder and try to focus on your chi or whatever.

Nima: Now in our current coronavirus reality, news media has taken a shine to self-help lifestyle pieces. While reminders to take care of ourselves and divorce ourselves from capitalist demands of productivity are extremely useful and very necessary during, not only a pandemic, but actually I think at any time, but the pages of publications like The New York Times and Vox don’t exactly take that class-conscious approach to promoting wellness. They rather have published a number of articles recently telling an expressly bourgeois class to just kind of take it easy, betraying who actually has the luxury to engage right now in that kind of self-help. So on March 18, 2020 Vox published an article called, “Our calm is contagious: How to use mindfulness in a pandemic” and it features a Q&A with a meditation teacher and from this interview there is this question, quote, “What about practicing gratitude? I’ve generally found that my brain can’t be anxious when it’s busy being grateful.” And the answer from the meditation teacher is this, quote:

Yes. Human beings have a negativity bias. We get very fixated on threats and often overlook goodness and beauty. So it needs to be an intentional practice to celebrate goodness. By that I mean that we actually pause and savor seeing the gleam in our child’s eye or watching the new blossoms come out.

Many people get gratitude buddies and, at the end of the day, they’ll send a note to their buddy naming three things they’re grateful for. That can really lift people up and change the mood.

End quote.

Adam: Okay, this is bullshit.

Nima: (Laughs.)

Adam: Look, the economy has lost 30 percent of its value in a matter of weeks, there’s 22 million new unemployed people, there’s probably going to be 30, 35 million by the time you’re listening to this. I don’t think positive thinking is really the right way to go here. You should be doing negative thinking because there’s negative things happening. Now, I’m not an expert on human psychology, clearly—every episode I go, ‘I’m not a lawyer, but’—but it seems like negativity in this context would be a reflection of reality. I think there’s something to be said for being grateful for relative comforts if you have them, I suppose. It’s good to have thanksgiving now and then I suppose, it’s good to keep things in perspective. But the idea that we have a negativity bias is bullshit. Reality has a negativity bias. Capitalism has a negativity bias. I think being negative in negative times is a sober reflection of reality and anything else is just, you’re just deluding yourself.

Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, I think the point is not that we should all be wallowing all the time, but that there is this notion of ‘Take care of yourself so that you can be a better worker,’ right? Like, I don’t have any problem with people trying to take care of themselves and be grateful for things and love one another, spend time with their families, try and relax and take time, but all of this stuff is done in service of being more productive.

Adam: I think a better way to put it is not what you should or shouldn’t do, it’s the idea that being negative is somehow pathologized when it’s a totally natural reaction to what’s, you know what I mean? If you need to have some sort of meditation technique or whatever to calm down, I think that’s perfectly fine but the idea that we have a negativity bias during a massive global pandemic, that’s not a bias, that’s just what it is. The New York Times did its own, “Stop Trying to Be Productive,” which was a very sort of bourgeois, didn’t acknowledge that a great percentage of the workers have no choice but to be productive because they’re essential workers and are still working, they’re not working from Zoom from home. The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article, “Productivity and Happiness Under Sustained Disaster Conditions.” So there’s again, there’s this focus of, we are now centering the POV, the perspective of HR, of middle management, and that that’s the place from which we’re starting how to talk about happiness and wellbeing, right? Which American capitalist media does all the time, we sort of start from a place of centering productivity, not things like what is the status of mutual aid? What’s the status of the elderly? What’s the status of vulnerable communities? What’s the status of transgender people? We sort of gloss over that, it’s like, ‘Are you showing up to Zoom meetings on time?’ Which I guess if you write for Inc.com, or whatever is, I guess, fine, because that’s your niche, but mainstream media sort of internalizes or begins from a position of what’s good for business, what’s good corporate managers, and the dovetailing of this self-help culture with the needs of corporations and corporate monitoring is going to be the second part of the show, which is going to be what we’re going to talk to our guest about.

Nima: We’re going to be joined in just a moment by William Davies, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he also is the Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre. Will is the author of The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being, published by Verso. Will is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Will Davies. It is so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed Will, thanks so much for joining us.

Will Davies: My pleasure.

Adam: So I want to start off by sort of defining the terms here. In your opinion, what exactly encompasses the happiness industry? We discussed the origins of corporate self-help quite a bit in the intro to the show. I was curious if you could sort of tell us how these origins inform the current ethos of our corporate obsession with wellness.

Will Davies: Sure, in the book, I tell a history that actually goes all the way back to the Enlightenment and the work of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was very interested in trying to quantify and measure happiness as a basis for designing what he considered to be just public policy, because he believed that governments ought to be guided by science in the same way as other types of developments should be at that time and that a good public policy was one that created the most happiness for the most people, that is the famous principle of utilitarianism. But for Bentham, he thought it should actually be a scientific project, it should be aimed at trying to actually capture how people really feel in response to a particular intervention. And this is something that became a big part of neoclassical economics in the late 19th century as a way of trying to understand how markets work and why markets are a good way of organizing society. But I think there’s another strand to this history, which is a big part of my book, which is the way in which the insights of psychology and behavioral psychology started to become applied by American management and corporations. Really, it’s not long after the origins of psychology as a modern science itself in the 1870s and 1880s. And I think that our contemporary obsession with wellness in the workplace and emotional leadership and enthusiasm and passion that we bring to our work is a legacy of a long history that dates back to that moment towards the end of the 19th century, which really took off in the 1920s, 1930s of trying to think about how people’s feelings and behaviors and moods could be integrated into the workplace. So to deliver productivity gains first and foremost.

Nima: Yeah, it’s this idea that happiness, which is a largely subjective thing, hard to quantify, hard to measure, gets reduced to, as you said, like as a utility, like as a tool. Before we kind of move away from these origins, Will, can you tell us a little bit about what you have called the anti-philosophical agnosticism? And how that fits into all of this?

Will Davies

Will Davies: Well, again, it takes us back to the work of Jeremy Bentham, who was someone who was a very, very English example of a philosopher who was very skeptical of a philosophical language and believed that abstract concepts about justice and about even human rights and these sorts of things were distractions, and that if the whole question of progressive public policy and of justice were to be placed on rational or empirical foundations, then there needed to be some way of trying to capture what good and bad meant in ways that didn’t get circumvented by philosophy and metaphysics and abstract ideas. And for that reason, the sort of utopia of Bentham and I think it’s a very powerful utopia that has hung over various traditions of psychology and management and economics ever since, is that we might be able to find some kind of indicator in the human body of what a good decision or what a good public policy or a good managerial intervention consists of. And I mean Bentham himself thought, well, maybe we can discover how people feel by things like their pulse rates, also the use of money that if someone’s prepared to spend $10 on something it’s suggested it gives them twice as much pleasure as when they spend $5 on something. And this was a particular insight that the English economist William Stanley Jevons built on in the 1860s and 1870s with the development of early neoclassical economics. And I think the significance of all of these sorts of utopia or this fantasy of an entirely non abstract or non philosophical foundation for questions of justice and questions of value in the progress, well it otherwise would might be known as positivism in the sense that it’s an attempt to try and convert the questions of politics into questions of behavioral and biological science. I think it was particularly influential in a particular moment in American history with the origins of behaviorism in American psychology, which John B. Watson, who I talked a bit about in the book, you know, he was the founder of behaviorism in psychology, and what he quite explicitly promised this development was going to offer to decision makers in management and in government and positions of power, was the ability to predict how people would behave in ways that really made no account of the most conscious or self-conscious subjects with freedoms, with internal worlds and feelings and so on and that it might be possible to develop a type of social science and subsequently a type of public policy and a type of management that really treats human beings in the same way as one might treat any specimen from the natural world and not actually have to pay any recognition to the fact that they have an internal self-conscious life as has been so important through most of the history of philosophy.

Adam: That’s what I’m obviously fascinated by and I think your book centers, which is this idea that about five minutes after people realize you could have a field of science that helps people with their depression or anxiety, about five minutes afterwards you have people saying wait a second, we can do something maybe even slightly more sinister about this and that fuzzy line between helping and sinister is really what makes it so fascinating, and we don’t have time to go down the whole history of PR and everything, but suffice to say that the materialist critique of corporate psychology, for lack of a better term is that it is by definition, very limited in scope.

Will Davies: Yeah.

Adam: It is not really concerned with systemic change. To make a crude analogy if I may, if I’m someone whose job is to whip slaves in 1850, and I know there wasn’t psychology back then, and I go see the psychologist, they would say, ‘Well, how do we manage the anxiety of beating slaves all day?’ They would be deeply unconcerned with abolition of slavery, right? To make a sort of very crude, made-up historical example. But I want to talk about this limited scope of managing neuroses or managing psychology and of course there is, of course, medical depression, these things are real, I’m not saying they’re all sort of made up by capitalism.

Will Davies: Yeah.

Adam: But certainly there are things made worse by people’s conditions, right? Poverty, et cetera and I guess I’m curious, in your research, to what extent have you found, what is the sort of anti-corporate psychology backlash? What are people who are concerned with a more materialist or more holistic or more systemic critique of society, where do they fit into this and what percent of this field do they make up?

Will Davies: Yeah. Well, I think it’s worth saying that there’s a question which I suppose dates back through most of the history of the humanities and philosophy, which is the reality and in some ways, the unavoidability of distress as part of the human condition, and with the birth of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in the late 19th century, this takes on a more scientific basis in terms of trying to understand what makes people miserable. And what psychoanalysis offers, which in some ways, makes it quite compatible with materialist critique, and there have been lots of Freudian Marxists and Marxist Freudians from the Frankfurt School that have tried to bring bits of Marxism and Freudian insights together, but what psychoanalysis is fairly clear about is that although distress may be something that is internal in terms of neuroses of people being in conflict with themselves, the origins really begin somewhere outside and with psychoanalysis your parents fundamentally although, it can, of course, be aspects of your society as well and in that sense of what is the very least turns the question of distress into something that is relational and social, and about the relationship of the individual to their social world in the same way that a Marxist critique might say something that is not entirely incompatible with that, although quite different in terms of diagnosis. And then there is, in ways that we’ve been alluding to, the resuscitation of, because early psychiatry, in the tradition of Emil Kraepelin in the late 19th century, was tried to found psychiatry in a wholly biological theory of the body and the brain and there is a huge neo-Kraepelinian resurgence in American psychiatry in the 1970s and 1980s, which via things like the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM-III in 1980, that set the theme for this massive expansion of American pharmaceuticals in relation to psychiatry, and a complete revolution in how things like depression were understood from being something which, you know, as late as the early 1970s would have been seen still, potentially, in quasi-Freudian terms, in terms of something to do with one’s past, one’s parents, one’s internal sense of guilt or shame, which was to do with repressed desire and so on, through to being some kind of neural dysfunction as is a kind of orthodox view of it today, and that revolution goes on over the ‘80s and the ‘90s.

But I think it also, so that’s kind of a bit of context, in answer to your question, there have been traditions of things like social epidemiology, which is the attempt to try to understand the distribution of various diagnoses across society in terms of how they correlate to things like inequality, in relation to things like materialist values and this sort of thing, there are also of course, still, you know, psychoanalysts around who dispute the purely behavioral and cognitive and biological theories of depression and so on and there have been traditions which have sort of bubbled up but often got snuffed out quite quickly. We still survive what might be called critical psychology, which is, I suppose, a kind of general, it’s not really a sort of discipline, so much as a various heterodox psychologists and psychiatrists scattered around the place who have said that we have, you know, over the last 40 years since particularly the DSM-III, we have turned distress into there is something wrong with being unhappy, and that we’ve turned unhappiness into a symptom of illness rather than being something which actually can tell us something important, not just about our experiences, but also about who we are and maybe what it is to be a human being. So there have been these little pockets of resistance to it. But I mean, ultimately, what they’re fighting isn’t just a sort of rising to disciplinary hegemony within particularly American psychology and psychiatry, but also the American pharmaceutical industry, which has made huge amounts of money from the conversion of various human ailments into medical illnesses and I mean, there’s quite shocking relationships between Big Pharma and the American Psychiatric Association, in terms of the numbers of people on the advisory boards who are also paid by pharmaceutical companies.

Nima: I think another aspect of this that you write about in your book and that you talk quite a bit about is the centrality of monitoring and surveillance to this current self-help corporate culture there’s, you know, a really amazing amount of monitoring that managers do to employees, that may even be shocking to even our, you know, jaded lefty listeners, can you kind of lay out some of the more haunting examples of this and what these corporate surveillance policies, practices, tactics really say about the current state of labor?

Will Davies: Yeah, so first of all, I think it’s worth just recognizing a basic principle, which is that if you want to know how someone is feeling, you have lots of different ways of finding out, but let’s just split it into a simplicity binary, but one is to actually have a conversation with them, which is something that psychoanalysts, but it’s also something that Democrats believe that actually people should be entitled to report on their own conditions to express their own complaints and to actually give voice to their own suffering is something that most people on the left believe to some extent, the alternative is, making our way back to our friend Jeremy Bentham again, which is to build some kind of paradoxical architecture, which subjects them to this type of monitoring or surveillance, that you refer to, so that you can try to spot patterns in their behavior, so as to try and draw your own conclusions without actually having to listen to them or give them any kind of Democratic voice at all. Now, I think that there’s been a huge boom in the kind of bleeding edge of this in what’s called emotional AI or affective computing, much of which has been spun out of the Affective Computing Lab at MIT, and there’s been a lot startups such as Affectiva and Realeyes, these are companies that offer AI-based analysis, facial movements on the part of consumers, so as to try and track how consumers might be feeling on the basis of face movements and eye movements and facial expressions and this sort of thing. And that kind of, the book incidentally was published in 2015, so it’s in relation to some of this kind of emotional AI progress it’s really quite dated now, in terms of the sorts of technology moves so quickly.

Nima: Don’t worry, folks, it’s a lot worse now.

Will Davies: (Laughs.) But that, you know, debates about facial recognition have now kind of moved firmly into the sphere of civil liberties debates and so on. But there are also companies which subject their employees to various forms of surveillance, analyzing email via forms of sentiment analysis, which is the broad basket of techniques to try and to understand the emotional content of a particular piece of content of one kind or another, you know, a sentence or a tweet or whatever it might be, so to try and trace relationships in the workplace, but also perhaps to mean it’s something like call centers, I mean, it is possible to monitor the telephone conversations of people working in call centers to check that they are using enough enthusiasm when they are on the phone to a customer. And this of course doesn’t involve actually listening to the call with a human being, it involves an algorithmic analysis of the tone of voice and this sort of thing. And I mean, again, a lot of this stuff is since I published the book, but Alexa, this isn’t anything to do with labor as such, but it certainly involves the privacy questions related to emotions, but these home listening devices such as Alexa and others, they are, it’s just been discovered, building up psychological profiles of people in their homes so that not only can they recognize the different voices of people in a family, they can also start to build up a psychological profile of the people as they’re speaking in the home even if they’re not addressing Alexa. This is the frightening thing about these technologies. So that if there is a member of the family who seems to be developing certain kinds of symptoms, again, understood in this highly physiological or behaviorist sense that has become an orthodoxy in the psychiatry profession, that that can sort of be added to a particular user profile. So the ability to draw conclusions about people’s, what used to be considered the inner state, but now increasingly, behavioral state, in an emotional sense is expanding all over the place. Of course, the potential, we know that Amazon warehouses are also the sort of neo-Taylorism dystopias in terms of the amount of measurement and quantification of human behavior that goes on using wearable technologies and timed bathroom breaks and this sort of thing, and that is sort of part of a broader problem of a bigoted surveillance that now goes on, but that can also include the psychological dimension.

Adam: So this is obviously extremely depressing. Now as lefties, we would say, well, if you want to improve worker wellbeing you should give them an extra day off and a pay raise, right? This is not complicated, you don’t need a PhD, you don’t need a Nobel Prize economist to come in with a bunch of algorithms, you just give people more leisure and less surveillance and less monitoring and less asshole bosses, right? This is sort of a simple way of viewing this and I think this really gets to where the rubber hits the road, which is where does this go from, maybe even liberal Cass Sunstein-esque benign nudging, which again, I do think can be quite sinister, to something a little bit more sinister and a lot of this comes down to disclosure, awareness of that you’re being manipulated, and there’s kind of this corporate gaslighting culture that seems to move in and out of liberal spaces in a way that I find very disturbing. You talk about even Facebook running experiments in 2014 that they later disclosed and there was kind of a backlash against that because they weren’t disclosed. To what extent does this kind of manipulation, corporate surveillance kind of gaslighting you into telling you you’re happy, Hawaiian shirt Fridays, name it, whatever it is, to what extent is this a matter of openness and disclosure? And I don’t mean disclosure, in the sense that you checked a box with about 10,000 words of text that nobody reads, but like real disclosure, a real sense that, oh, your bosses monitor your emails or your boss is trying to psychologically profile you. It seems like there’s basically none.

Will Davies: That’s right. I mean, I think that that is the problem. I mean, you know, some of this is about privacy and transparency norms. I mean, in some ways, some of the politics around this does come down to classic, traditionally liberal concerns about things like privacy and rights and transparency and so on. The problem is that if you do know, for instance, I mean, there’s a huge new development in London, round the back of Kings Cross Station, where it was discovered, I can’t even remember how exactly it was discovered, but the whole area was basically blanketed in facial recognition technologies. And the defense, which I think is interesting, whenever you see this defense, I think gives us kind of grounds for a great suspicion, but the defense was that this was to maximize the experience of the people using this whole era and it’s always a weird kind of allusion to the fact that well, we want your experience to be as good as possible, which is why we need to basically kind of track every single kind of time you smile in their vicinity. But I mean, I think that knowing it doesn’t necessarily change very much. I mean, of course, it can create a sense of scandal and some kind of outcry, but it doesn’t always change a great deal. I try in the book not be entirely cynical about what good management can actually mean because I think there is a point at which, I mean, particularly since I suppose the 1970s, I mean, there’s a tradition which I tell the story very briefly in the book, of how the tradition of human resource management that is commonly dated back to the work of Elton Mayo, in the 1930s, which is an attempt to try and manage work places on the basis of groups and social psychology and this had some actually, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, people on the Left, picked up some of this tradition in the Tavistock Institute in London, to try and think about, ‘Well, if we were to take seriously the fact that actually groups can be the basis for productive workplaces how might we sort of build this towards democratic workplaces and how it might just be the basis of new types of social solidarity?’

I don’t think the Left certainly shouldn’t be discounting social psychology per se and I think there are moments in the history of management in areas such as occupational health, is another area where, during the 1960s, there was great attention to the fact that actually being subjected to authoritarian management structures, and having zero status and being disrespected was actually bad for your health and it was much more stressful than being in a position of power and being in a position of authority. And this awareness that actually inequality is actually bad for people physiologically and mentally, clearly has a lot of political potential if it can be mobilized in the right way. So say in that case, we need to give people more power and we need to challenge hierarchies, and challenge massively unequal pay scales and this sort of thing and to actually give people voice and some kind of autonomy. Now that agenda can draw on the copious evidence from the field of occupational health, that actually, this will make people more well in certain respects. Of course, where there’s a different reading of all of the evidence, which is ‘in that case, we need to bring in more smoothie bars and more shoulder massages.’ You know, I mean, that’s the kind of Google campus answer to it. Obviously the harsher answer to it is that simply, you know, people, if they take too much sick leave, or whatever it might be is, there that’s just kind of, you know, they can’t continue in a job.

Adam: Yeah, because it’s, you know, you look at this and you’re and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, I don’t want to be a simple country lawyer here, but 90 percent of these problems can be solved if you have a union.’

Will Davies: Yeah, yeah.

Adam: And it’s just like, that’s not an option, right? And so when that’s not an option, when worker power or real solidarity or any kind of real power from below is just not an option. Then you invent a cottage industry of increasingly exotic and sophisticated forms of psychological operations, for lack of a better word. And that, to me, seems like a tremendous waste of human resources and talent. So you’re using this brilliant, you know, these brilliant minds, right? The Nobel Prize for Economics has gone to behavioral psychologists, what, like four or five times?

Behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman accepting the Nobel Prize in 2002. (Jonas Ekstromer / AP)

Will Davies: Yeah, sure.

Adam: And they’re sitting in a room and figuring out ways of manipulating people instead of empowering them or giving them rights and I don’t know maybe I’m being, again, maybe I’m being a bit of a country bumpkin here but it strikes me as a gross misallocation of human talent.

Will Davies: No, I agree. I think, I mean, in some ways, without wanting to kind of, you know, there’s danger of sort of totally instrumentalizing the idea of democracy so that it becomes a purely sort of problem solving exercise, but I think it’s clear that there are and there is evidence from various, I mean, there’s a danger of romanticizing particular kind of Nordic culture of capitalism, but there are examples of different ways of doing capitalism, which don’t play so much, or different ways of running firms rather, which don’t require quite so much of this kind of subterfuge and this kind of manipulation, but which actually involve a kind of redistribution of power within the structure, which is the firm and of course, there’s, you know, we know from all the work of people like Erik Olin Wright and others that there are organizational forms, which start to bridge into non capitalist forms of organization, which involve much greater equality of voice between different factors of production, and that carries serious risks with it from a managerial perspective but it could be that it also doesn’t generate all of the problems that, as you say, this sort of cottage industry, has been invented to solve, because in some ways that this cottage industry arises to the extent that people are not considered to be authoritative spokespersons for their own experiences and their own unhappiness in some respect.

Adam: And it seems like sort of a conflict of interest is embedded into this where there is so much more money in going to the CEO of a corporation and telling them how best to manipulate their employees than there is in human wellness, that I assume that most of the human wellness, which I do think is sizable, and you talk about and there are schools of it, but my guess they’re not getting as much money and as much sort of institutional support.

Will Davies: There’s a big question about when you think about what are workplace wellness programs? I mean, there are sort of different, there is a stratification in this, unsurprisingly. So there’s, I mean, you could break it down into roughly three or four different tiers. There’s the elite tier which is basically the tiers of executive burnout, which is that you get these people who, I mean, it’s just, I guess, a particular kind of American pathology of people who kind of work way too many hours, making more and more and more money, but are also putting their health at risk by potentially taking more and more stress upon themselves. And in the book, I talk about these kinds of corporate athlete programs where if you are the CEO of a company, you can go and spend huge sums of money on going on a weekend with, you know, I don’t know, like a famous sports star or various people who can kind of talk to you about being a kind of high-performance, elite leader and thinking about your mind and body in these ways. And you get this kind of stuff at Davos as well, which it kind of integrates with meditation programs and, and mindfulness exercises to try and kind of reboot oneself. I mean, that in particular is a big part of the kind of Silicon Valley ideology where, you know, the brain is basically considered to be a computer and you need to kind of become better at knowing how to switch it off and switch it on again so as to kind of get even more productivity out.

Then there’s a kind of, across the kind of large swathe of the middle-class service sector, there is basically what you might call HR, which is various sorts of management techniques, which aim to deal with trying to make sure that people have got someone to speak to if they’re getting a bit too stressed, and they’ve got some way in which they can occasionally go on to take a break and maybe they get sort of a Friday offer a particular, you know, healthy lunch or whatever it might be and then you’ve got more of a sort of monotonous Taylorism end of the service sector, which is more like the call center scenario where people’s internal wellness and the fact that they even have subjectivity, and they have reasons to be unhappy becomes completely discounted altogether. And it’s much more about ensuring that they put on displays of happiness when they need to, I mean, this is the kind of stuff which Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Managed Heart, which was a landmark sociological study of effective labor from the early 1980s, I think, but she studied people working for airlines of the way that they were sort of trained to smile and comport themselves in a particularly positive fashion and this was more about, purely about the behavioral dimensions of being happy and it turns out that behind the smile and behind the ‘Have a nice day’ that people actually were deeply stressed and becoming unwell but that’s really no concern of management whatsoever.

Adam: Yeah, I don’t want to be too pat about leftist solutions to this problem, because you know, you do touch on the fact that even socialist or quasi-socialist organizations still face somewhat similar problems. So I think it’s not as sinister or as manipulative, which, you know, it’s like, you watch Star Trek and is supposed to be this post scarcity socialist utopia, and then you realize that half the show is just middle management. Like there’s an entire episode of Star Trek where he manages an errant employee named Barclay, and he has to get him on program, you’re just like, you realize Picard is just a middle manager and he’s just like, spends half his time dealing with HR problems and it’s like, oh, yeah, even in our socialist future we got to do this bullshit.

Will Davies: Well, I think it depends what you mean by socialist organizations in today’s world.

Adam: I mean, obviously. Yeah. Obviously.

Operations room for Project Cybersyn, 1971–73. (Stafford Beer Archive)

Will Davies: I mean, it’s interesting because I think it’s, particularly now we face a world where The question of economic planning suddenly comes roaring back, only now under the guise of a Bezos-style platform based planning rather than necessarily sustained planned economy and I think that one of the things which interests me about this whole area is that part of the, I think, the sort of the fantasy of being able to gain objective knowledge of people’s feelings and people’s desires purely on the basis of their behavior and on the basis of cues given by their faces and their behaviors and choices and so on, is that you might be able to give them what they want without the resort to market. And actually, you mentioned Cass Sunstein, I mean, he did a study of what he called, without any kind of critical awareness, of he called “predictive shopping,” which was the idea that well, maybe you know, Amazon could build up a good enough profile for people’s psychology and their identities and their feelings that eventually you could actually just start mailing people stuff to arrive at their house without even having to choose it, that the algorithm could know your desires better than you or certainly before you do and therefore you wouldn’t need to have markets any longer. So, although this is not necessarily the type of socialism that many of us would celebrate or seize, it is the case that throughout the history of dreams of planned economies, some of the science has been seized more enthusiastically by those trying to replace the market. You think of the book Red Plenty of interest in Project Cybersyn, the experiment in a planned economy in Chile in the 1970s, which is the idea that with enough data about people’s behavior, then we wouldn’t need to have markets any longer. Well, that’s a dream that, I mean, Lenin himself was a great fan of Frederick Taylor, the American management scientist, because he believed that what was going on in American factories in the early 20th century was evidence of how you could actually plan a whole society without the need to operate with the market prices. Now, that’s not to say that, I don’t say that to condemn promises of socialism or dreams of socialism, but I think that what some of this agenda holds within it is something that is in some ways, without wanting to be too depressing about it, worse than neoliberalism, in the sense that it’s when neoliberalism sort of takes on aspects of a planned economy because it starts to analyze and predict human behavior without even meeting the data point of the choices that they actually make in markets.

Nima: Right, without actually needing the humans to do it.

Will Davies: Right. Because I mean, you know, to the extent there is a glimmer of a version of liberty within the vision of consumer freedom, not a particularly satisfying one, one that doesn’t really leave choices, one to be sort of snuffed out if you take a wholly —

Adam: At least you run through the motions.

Will Davies: But the Bentonite theology towards the society where with enough surveillance, then you don’t even need to rely on the choice making power of human psychology.

Nima: Well, this is appropriately depressingly on brand for I think our show, so thank you for laying all that out. Before we let you go Will, can you tell us what you are maybe currently working on what we can look forward to?

Will Davies: Well, I’m like many people at the moment under lockdown. I’ve got a huge amount of small children and have to juggle lots of things.

Nima: Yes. But are you cheerful and productive at the same time?

Will Davies: I mean, I guess.

Nima: (Laughing.)

Will Davies: I’m trying to work, funnily enough I’ve been in interested in looking a little bit, earlier before the lockdown began, I’d been looking a bit into of questions of intergenerational transmission of assets and the whole role of death within advanced neoliberalism and the dynastic fantasies of contemporary sort of raunchier capitalist forms because I think that, as we know from the work of Thomas Piketty and others, the levels of inequality that particularly Anglo American capitalism is heading towards at the moment is really raising the question of intergenerational transfers in a way that hasn’t been as urgent for 100 years and the reason I say “funnily enough” is that I can start thinking a little bit about how does our contemporary model of capitalism deal with the whole question of mortality and trying to think about that in a philosophical way and then suddenly, things have come along putting that in a different light.

Nima: I can’t wait to see your new work on that. This has just been a great conversation. I can’t thank you enough for joining us, William Davies, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he also is the Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre, the author of The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being which was published in 2015 by Verso. Will Davies, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Will Davies: Not at all. Thanks very much for having me.


Adam: Yeah, so one thing we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention is that there has been a sort of backlash to the self-help culture. But then, as we mentioned in the intro, these backlashes also kind of omit—not our guest’s, but others—there’s The Art of Failure, The Anti Self-Help Guide, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, in 2012 and 2015. There’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have With People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want To Do. So there is this sort of like edgy anti-self-help, but then invariably, most of these books, if not all of them, end up—there’s another one called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life—they still suffer from the fundamental same problem, which is that it’s your responsibility.

Nima: Right. There are articles in The New York Times from 2017 like“I’m Not O.K. Neither Are You. Who Cares?” And that article actually takes a pretty uncritical look at the burgeoning genre of anti self-help literature. Its biggest gripe, it really seems, is that the word ‘fuck’ is used just too much in the titles of these books, something I just don’t sympathize with. Obviously.

Adam: Well, it is though, because they do that really annoying thing where they put “f*ck”—if you’re going to be edgy just commit to it. There’s nothing worse in the world than the asterisk swear word, it’s like ‘I’m edgy, but I’m not going to commit to it.’ It’s like, don’t do it, use another word, it’s fine, not every context needs swear words, but if you’re going to, I don’t know, that always annoys me. I will say that the one thing sort of omitted from all these conversations is, of course, a robust discussion. Sometimes they’ll sort of touch on some Nordic countries here and there, but generally, there’s not really robust discussion about what an alternative system could look like. We don’t monitor socialist or communist systems of how they can measure happiness in a way that is based on delivering material needs. Again, occasionally, maybe they’ll talk about Denmark every now and then, or they’ll talk about some program somewhere in Sweden, but generally, we don’t really turn to alternative models, because we’ve been, it’s been drilled into our head that these models are not, they’re just not on the table for this country and so providing for my basic needs, like health, education, literacy, job, if these things are sort of not an option, then it logically follows that the one thing you can do in these is to try to mitigate your situation by trying to make minimum gains around the margins. Because it’s true that on a micro level, if I wake up every day, and I rise and grind and I do 100 push ups and I read The Secret and I’m super positive and I treat everyone a certain way, yeah, I can see that having some material benefit if you don’t go fucking crazy. I can see that having some material benefit in the aggregate on a micro level, right? But it’s not a way to build any meaningful, long-term material gains for any significant amount of the population, right? It’s completely atomized. It’s the definition of neoliberal, it’s totally, it takes a systemic problem, and puts the burden on the individual to solve it in a way that they can’t possibly do because again, you have things like depression.

Nima: Right.

Adam: You have things like drug abuse problems, you have things like poverty, and without addressing those things, you’re really just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic for the most part, there’s not really much the person, the individual can really do and I know that may offend some of our American listeners, because it’s such an ingrained part of our culture, but really, without knowing people’s individual circumstances, these things just are not universally applicable in any meaningful way. They’re just not.

Nima: And so often, I think, this idea of personal responsibility, of self-help, so the focus on — what? — the self as opposed to the collective is inherently anti-systemic in its approach to what you need to do to make it through the day. And it’s not ‘Organize,’ it’s not ‘Change the structure of society to be more fair to have wellbeing be part of what we all collectively create together to have less burden on ourselves to survive and to thrive,’ but rather, it is ‘Be happy with what you have learned to accept what you have, where it is, because the system is what it is, don’t seek to change it’ and that actually, is something that is present in both self-help and so-called anti self-help, that the crux of anti self-help is again, focus on what you have, deal with it, don’t give a fuck about what other people think, and just indulge in your own personal desires. So it gets to hedonism as self-help rather than an actual collective focus on how we can make our society fairer and better for more people, it is just about accepting what you have, making it better for yourself and those only closest to you, which really, I think is going to just perpetuate the system that we have, and is going to not help working people as much as it will certainly help bosses and middle managers who just want productivity up and for people to be smiling on Zoom calls.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, if productivity is the alpha and omega of where you begin and end this conversation, then of course, you’re going to want people to think positively because if I’m the author of your suffering, the last thing I want you to do is to think critically about how to meaningfully end that suffering, I want you to think about how to manage that suffering, because I’m the one inflicting suffering on you as your boss.

Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it, with Adam inflicting suffering on all of us. (Laughs.)

Adam: It is what I do best, buddy.

Nima: Thank you, Adam. (Laughing.) So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. We cannot thank you all enough for continuing to listen, continuing to support, continuing to share and rate and review the show, every little bit does help, power of positive thinking here. So thank you again of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become, if you are able to, a supporter through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. Of course an extra special shoutout goes to our critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.