29 August 2013

Is Self-Help Fascist?

The forthcoming reissue of a 1936 self-help manual, Dorothea Brande's Wake Up and Live!, inspires dark reflections from Joanna Scutts, a reviewer for The Nation. Noting that self-help books were, unsurprisingly, very popular during the Great Depression, Scutts demonstrates that the "basic tenets" of self-help could be found across the ideological spectrum, but argues that a conservative if not fascist sensibility seemed most compatible with the belief that solving problems and making progress were matters of pure willpower. On one hand, Scutts identifies Franklin Roosevelt's belief that happiness lay in "the joy of achievement" rather than the mere possession of money" as a tenet of self-help, even if most self-help authors thought that the two naturally went together. On the other, she recounts Dorothea Brande's fascist associations and leanings and implicitly links those to a lineage of reactionary individualism climaxing in Ayn Rand. That self-help is individualist seems obvious enough; that it's reactionary follows from the presumed choice of individual over collective advancement. In Scutt's words:

There is nothing democratic about 1930s self-help, no sense that it might be possible to better yourself by working to improve everyone’s collective lot. In a political climate fearful of the spread of communism among the “inferior” or disenfranchised masses, the call to rise above, rather than strive together, was especially powerful. 

There's nothing surprising about this sort of commentary, except that Scutt's early invocation of FDR reminds us that the "basic tenets" of self-help weren't restricted to the right wing. If we look past the "self" in "self-help," the reliance (if not fetishization) of will in the self-help literature will not look unfamiliar to historians of the left wing. Thanks mainly to Leni Riefensthal, "will" is often thought of as a fascist attribute, but the idea that willpower can or should overcome all obstacles predates fascism and transcends left-right dualism. Infamously, the generals of World War I expected will (or "elan") to carry infantry across No Man's Land, through machine-gun fire, and all the way to victory. In barely fictionalized form, the novel and film Paths of Glory show generals scapegoating "cowardly" soldiers for defeat rather than admit that will alone couldn't overcome machine guns. Likewise, for all its scientific pretension, Bolshevism appealed to will power while exhorting workers to make great leaps forward, and impulsively sought to blame both physical and intellectual forms of sabotage whenever it fell short of its goals. Ultimately, the difference between conservative "self-help" and its leftist counterpart may be the latter's principled indifference to material success. Just as FDR ranked "joy of achievement" over wealth, at least for voters' consumption, so those much further to his left urged their adherents to take joy simply in being revolutionary, to live in a state of exalted will that constituted a kind of moral success unto itself, even while the people lived on rations and waited in lines for toilet paper. FDR praised not only the joy of achievement but also "the thrill of creative effort," which is exactly what Bolshevik propaganda aimed to instill in people. This may not sound like "self-help," but it was Scutt, not I, who said that these things mentioned by Roosevelt were basic tenets of self-help. For that matter, how compatible with fascism is self-help when fascism, nearly as much as Bolshevism, is about "working to improve everyone's collective lot?" In its idolization of the state fascism doesn't look much like a self-help movement. Scutt, however, is probably less interested in fascism as a theory of the state than in a retroactively defined attitudinal fascism, one that can be linked to 21st century reaction by a common contempt for the perceived "losers" of society.  Her subject, Dorothea Brande, seems particularly contemptuous toward the losers of her time and so looks like a precursor of the reactionaries of Scutt's time. In right-wing self-help, an effort of will is required not to be a loser just as, in the left-wing counterpart, you have to make an effort of will not to be a counter-revolutionary, capitalist-roader or class enemy. This is ideological self-defense; in the face of failure the will, not the idea, is to blame. If capitalism seems unsustainable today, capitalist ideologues will say that's because too many people are losers in their minds. Self-help, then, may be a building block of the ideology of capitalism, something distinct from capitalism itself. The willpower training we call "self-help" or "positive thinking" may be an essential component of ideology in general. If so, whether it skews right or left matter less than its overall bad consequences in modern history.

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