Wendy Kaminer’s 1993 book, I’m dysfunctional You’re dysfunctional, pointed to the way that the “personal development” movement was inherently political. She was not just following through on the feminist slogan, the personal is the political, but she was anchoring it in a long American tradition.
“(My first working subtitle was "Self-Help and the Selling of Authority.") While American mythology celebrates the common sense of Frank Capra's common man, the American reality, reflected in the perversely named self-help industry is marked by a tendency to put our faith in experts. What sells self-help books, tapes, and workshops is the willingness to believe that there are experts who can help us achieve the good life, however it is defined at the moment; existential problems are reduced to merely technical ones, which can be solved by expert techniques.”
Shrewdly, she saw how this drew people – I would guess, mainly men – to Ross Perot in 1992. The persona he crafted was, in hindsight, something that was bound to find another figure eventually. This figure was, of course, Donald Trump. I actually don’t think Perot was disgusting, the way Trump is, but both Perot and Trump were fundamentally salesmen. Salesmen are not experts, but they use expertise as a gimmick. Hence, Trump’s famous relationship to “deals”, even though there is little evidence that he is actually very good at deals.
During the George Bush years, masculine self-help was monopolized by Straussians, who, whilst having a firm view of what men were (they were fighter pilots like George Bush!), didn’t really grasp the self-help market. Perhaps the most typical of the reactionary semi-self-help books from that decade was one that pretended to be a kind of philosophy – Harvey Mansfield’s ‘Manliness’ – and one that presented Bush as the John Wayne of our time – Fred Barnes’ ‘Rebel in Chief’. Ten years on, a sort of synthesis has been manufactured by Jordan Peterson, the rather cracked guru of Alt-right lost boys. Strauss has lost his flair, or whatever flair he had, and the new flavour is Jung, with a dash of racism and mucho misogyny.
I ran into some of Peterson’s lost boys on twitter. One recommended that I listen to Peterson’s videos. I was a little dumbstruck by that – the man said Peterson had “turned his life around”, and what he meant is that he watched YouTube? I mean, read a book. But then I thought that this is something very much in what James C. Scott calls the little tradition – the resistance to literacy, and to the centralizing administrators of the big tradition, for whom literacy is power. The lost boys no doubt went to school, learned to read, and even learned to twitter, but in doing so they lost the anchor of the masculine voice – and it is the male voice as much as the penis that has psychoanalytical value here. The authority of that voice is crucial to the transference that is both sought and feared, since it seems to suddenly cast into recognizable form the random features of drifting lives in late capitalism.
Wendy Kaminer, by the way, has moved onward and rightward herself. In her critique of victimization she has forgotten that to say that there are no victims is as crazy as saying we are all victims. Her recent essay on why Monica Lewinsky is no victim, but is a prime case of #metoo overkill, works within the framework of methodological individualism to concentrate everything on whether Lewinsky gave her consent to sex or not. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that you can just bracket the institution, the rules of the organization, and the power those rules express, victims disappear. Once you re-introduce, say, common sense, you then have to deal with the consequences of an office in which the most powerful person – the president – likes quite visibly to ogle women, has an affair with an intern twenty some years older than him, and has people who want to make trouble about that – for instance, the fiendish Linda Tripp – transferred. In this office atmosphere, women are disadvantaged in all the classical ways. That means that, as a class, they are discriminated against. Which is why even consensual “hanky panky” can soon poison the office atmosphere. Kaminer’s failure to see this, or rather, her willingness to impose a framework in which this is rendered invisible, is why she ends up being quoted with approval by ginks like Jonathan Chait.
“Responsibility” quickly becomes an establishment copout. It is the way the establishment keeps itself going. It sucks.