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May 6, 2020

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. These days, we’re told repeatedly by our modern philosophers, Oprah Winfrey, Srikumar Rao, Tony Robbins, Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra and other corporate happiness monitors that prosperity and fulfillment come through deep introspection and mindfulness—just pay for more inspiring books, videos, retreats, seminars, and classes!
These prescriptions, while ostensibly useful in the short term for answering personal questions or alleviating stress, all fall within the genre of self-help. The trouble is, on the whole, they’re not very helpful at all. 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 only you, to fix it. Meanwhile, it imparts the appearance of virtue and legitimacy with hollow, cherry-picked references to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and psychology.
In recent years, there’s rightfully 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. Still, many of these critiques embrace the same form of individualism as the media they decry, ignoring the reality that the best way to ‘help’ people is to ensure their material needs—like housing, food, and healthcare—are met. 
On this episode, we’ll chronicle the development of modern self-help culture, from its 19th-century protestant, capitalist roots to its modern ambassadors; analyze how self-help culture promotes the values of neoliberalism; examine the ways in which modern mainstream critiques of the self-help industry fall short, embracing the same reactionary principles they should be rebuking, and dissect the profound institutional incentives that compel us to prioritize solipsism over solidarity. 
Our guest is political economist and author William Davies.