Gurus All the Way Down

Madeline Lane-McKinley

Art by Diana Settles

Elizabeth Warren and the magical thinking of the political class.

It’s 2004. George W. Bush is still the president. Elizabeth Warren is on Dr. Phil. On March 10, the psychologist-turned-self-help-guru launched by Oprah Winfrey invites Warren, then a Harvard Law professor, to provide financial tips for his live studio audience. It is a defining moment for Warren, as her biographer Antonia Felix writes — the day she realizes that “she may have accomplished more good in only a few minutes” on television than in over two decades of scholarly work.

The next year, Warren and her daughter, management consultant Amelia Warren Tyagi, will write a book promising “the ultimate lifetime money plan.” All Your Worth will be the second book the Warrens have co-authored, after The Two-Income Trap. “What if we told you that this book could show you how to cover your bills, without worry or fear? No more bounced checks. No more anxiety about how you’ll make it through the month,” the Warrens write in their opening pages. The mother-daughter duo offers their readers a “plan for life”: “You will build a solid foundation that accounts for all your worth, and you will create a plan you can live with for life.” After delineating a six-step process to finding a lifelong financial plan, the Warrens assure us, “You don’t need to worry — you have mastered your money.”

Over the next two years, All Your Worth becomes a New York Times bestseller. Also, the global economy craters.

Since the 2007–2008 financial crisis, the self-help industry has enjoyed a significant boom. Key texts include Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass®, and more recently, Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. All, in their own way, make the case that your best life is within your means, as an individual — that is, as a woman, and more specifically, as a white woman whose horizons and conventions remain “middle class” (education, career, homeownership, marriage, and a future of investments that include children). The historical ephemerality and threatened disappearance of that social formation is, in reality, the occasion for the entire genre.

“It’s self-help gurus all the way down.”

Often there are “easy steps” involved: five, six, ten. Things like recipes for juice, ways of stretching, or approaches to organizing a sock drawer, are treated as philosophies, and vice versa. Spiritual wisdom is conjured via a series of banal yet unworkable analogies: marriage is like a garden, parenting is like building a boat. It’s all somewhat biblical, except that redemption is the promise of a slimmer waistline, a better sex life, or, in the case of All Your Worth, a future without financial worry. By pinpointing different sites of anxiety, these books all bring a set of relatable — that is, conventional — problems into orbit.

Many readers will be repelled by the clichéd, anesthetizing effects of the genre. The point of every self-help book is to neatly package a “way of thinking” which operates, instead, as a lifestyle of unthinking. But that’s exactly why we need to be thinking about it.

Published in 2013, Sandberg’s Lean In typifies this phenomenon and, more specifically, self-help’s monopoly over “feminism” today. As the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sandberg challenges working women to make up for the “ambition gap.” Per genre requirements, Sandberg’s easy solution is pure internalization. And she takes this up in revolutionary terms: “We can reignite the revolution by internalizing the revolution. The shift to a more equal world will happen person by person. We move closer to the goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”

Such “leaning in” is nothing new: patriarchy has a long history of coercing women to internalize, to individualize rather than collectivize. And this idea retains force, even in its claim on feminism, because the thought of looking beyond the “self” of “self-help” is made unthinkable.

The horizon of a Lean In “revolution” may be around the corner; perhaps any revolution is possible if it aims low enough. Calling itself non-discriminatory, multicultural, and egalitarian, it is a world of leadership, hierarchy, and competition. And now this impending revolution has brought us Warren’s presidential prospects. Warren’s is a lean-in not just for executives, but for the executive branch: at the level of policy, distinguishable enough from Sandberg’s corporate feminism, while at the level of ideology, not in the slightest.

It’s in this sense that the language of “balance” in All Your Worth seems less like framed embroidery, and more like a dangerous toxin. To “have enough,” the authors claim, is not impossible — it’s about mastering the principle of financial balance. “You’ve heard of a balanced diet, with enough of each of the basic food groups. Balancing your money follows the same general idea,” they write. The weight-loss diet is a way of understanding the narrative logic of “self-help” at large: a system of self-imposed austerity, for which the constant regulating and disciplining of the individual comes to stand for any plausibility, and therefore implausibility, of social transformation.

Balance, in other words, is how the revolution is internalized — how women looking for something like help come to blame only themselves for their struggles, because, as Elizabeth Warren tells them, balance is possible, if you have a plan. Because, as Brené Brown tells them, vulnerability is intrinsic to self-worth. Or, as Marie Kondo tells them, joy is just a matter of tidying up.

“By the time you reach the last step,” the Warrens promise of their five-step plan, “you just might transform your life.” The desire to transform our lives shouldn’t be laughed off. What this industry has tapped into is a significant insight: we want to believe that a better life is possible.

Of course the problem is that capitalism isn’t a system of balance. It’s a system of disequilibrium and perpetual crisis. But not surprisingly, capitalism goes without mention in All Your Worth; it is left as something natural — the framework within, and principle through which, all “balance” can be achieved. What to do when, predictably, the market crashes again? “You have years and years before you’ll need that money,” the Warrens promise their readers, not yet at the crest of the subprime mortgage crisis, “which means there are years and years for the stock market to turn around,” they explain. “So just sit tight, and keep on investing.”

Since 2005, during her years as a senator and now as a presidential hopeful, Warren’s policies have, as many will point out, significantly changed. But these policy changes follow a general trend: an expansion of the logic we find in All Your Worth from the household to capitalism at large. This is the analogy to end all analogies, which suffers only from being in every regard mistaken. Its nihilistic core remains consistent, at any rate: freedom cannot ever be now. “Paying for yesterday is perhaps the most important investment you can make in your future. Getting rid of those debts will buy you breathing room,” the Warrens explain, “and it will bring your dreams — the things you really, really want — into reach.”

Today, Warren’s campaign has largely focused on her perceived competence in public financing since the financial crisis. At the same time, the appeal of her expertise in personal financing sustains this fantasy that the revolution can be internalized by capitalism itself — that financial security is possible for an individual in a system of unending precarity, that the nation can manage its finances successfully within the global economic system, that said system can find an equilibrium in the face of nonstop crisis.

More recently, Warren has described herself as “capitalist to my bones.” She promotes a “capitalism for all.” Seemingly at her most pragmatic, she is most dystopic in her thinking. Like most dystopias, hers appears at first as a utopia:

Now take a moment to picture your future. You’ve mapped out your dreams, and you’ve created a plan to bring them to life. Your future is safer than ever before, and you have control over where it’s headed. Let your smile grow even wider. In fact, you can laugh out loud. You have given yourself the gift of tomorrow.

What a gift, this tomorrow! — this futurity of paying off, saving, so as to finally gain personal control over what cannot be controlled or wished away, that which will never be named. This is in some sense the tender heart of self-help’s spiritualism: that if you hold yourself to account you can transform the world. Structurally, it is not terribly dissimilar from the idea that consumption choices — refusing to purchase plastic straws, perhaps — are a route to human survival. Or, in a far closer comparison, it echoes the guiding logic that a “revolution in consciousness paves the way to both personal and national renewal.” This is not Warren speaking, but another presidential candidate with whom she has shared the stage this summer, Marianne Williamson. It’s self-help gurus all the way down.

“We hope this is a lifelong road of smooth wealth building, month after month,” the Warrens write, as if there’s steady ground to build on. “But in just the same way that negative-thinking traps can stop you from balancing your money, these thinking traps can also sabotage your savings plan.” In other words: the only way out of a thinking trap is not thinking about the capitalism in your bones. When (not if) the next crisis ensues, perfect your work ethic, your personal discipline, and hope for the best. Believe in the longue durée of market recovery, and in the meantime, maybe you’ll get lucky and survive as merely witness to the misfortunes of those around you. While we can talk about how Wall Street is to blame in the abstract, you will always be the one left to survive the consequences.

And for this reason, within the narrative world of self-help, it can only be you, alone, who survives. The family unit is the only collectivity describable in this world of individuals, always to be managed, that is, balanced, by the imagined reader, the mother/wife. At work here is something quite different from Warren’s progressive posturing among her fellow democrats, more akin to liberal Thatcherism: “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Following in that vein, the Warrens write, “Suppose, just suppose, you can make a big difference in your money relationship all by yourself. Yes, your partner is not perfect,” they note (how true!), “but you are the one reading this book, so we’re talking to you — and this is your chance to make the most out of this opportunity.” Just lean into it.

After all, you could still build your future: “golden years learning karate, or writing the great American novel, or just fishing with the grandkids.” In 2019, this sounds more like the first act of a Jordan Peele movie. And in the third act, the grandkids don’t get golden years, they get climate collapse. Still, Warren’s planned life of “comfort and dignity” is a useful artifact. It gives us a picture of something we might once have been told or even believed in. It’s the idea that good intentions, self-care, patience, and hard work will someday amount to something. Were we ever that young?

A future of never-ending ecological and economic crisis is already here. In this world, why wouldn’t there be a vast desire for self-help, even a self-help president? This is what it means to seek the sweet spot between Thatcher and Williamson: to promise that transformation is in your individual hands, while ensuring that nothing can change. Things are bleak.

The problem with self-help is that it wagers on this bleakness, on finding some purportedly happy equilibrium within perpetual crisis. It keeps another world at bay: a future that could be ours.