Guillermo is thirty-six and sells books in a little booth he owns in Parque Alvear, a park in Buenos Aires famous for its lively outdoor market of used books, magazines, and CDs, not very far from the neighborhood I grew up in. He sees himself as a small entrepreneur who hopes to one day open a regular bookshop and eventually make enough money to live off of investments. This long-term project is something relatively new in his life. Just a couple of years ago, he had no bank account and barely thought about business or investing. Guillermo attributes these new concerns to an important change in his outlook on life and money: “If you feel guilty about having money, you’re not going to be able to advance financially. . . . You have to feel that it’s right. You need to allow yourself to do it. And to allow yourself, you need to solve those issues in you that don’t allow you to do it,” he told me during a long conversation in 2007.
Guillermo only got into the used-book business after years of moving between various menial jobs. His father left when Guillermo was a kid, and his mother worked as a cook: “It was enough for the roof, and that’s it. . . . Imagine the salary of a cook. We would pay the rent and keep enough for the bus, and then we would sew our clothes, send the shoes to the cobbler. . . .” Guillermo dropped out of high school when he was fifteen, and took a job in a factory, where he painted doors and windows. The working conditions were so terrible that he promised himself that he would never return to this sort of degrading work again. Guillermo then cycled through a series of odd jobs: he worked in construction for some time, then painted apartments, and later sold homemade t-shirts, jewelry, and posters in Buenos Aires’ street markets and at beach resorts along the Argentine coast. A few years later, he started helping his brother, who was already a book vendor in the same park where Guillermo now has his shop.
Despite having dropped out of school, Guillermo has always been a curious and avid reader. While working with his brother at the bookstand, he observed how one particular book kept flying off the shelves: the financial self-help bestseller Rich Dad, Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not! He purposefully ignored it: “For two years, I had the book and I sold it, but I didn’t pay attention to it. I would look at the book and say, ‘These are the ones who think about money and nothing but money, and they don’t give a shit about people.’” His rejection of the book was rooted in his family’s left-leaning politics, which prompted him to see capitalism as evil, as the “poison of peoples.” Reluctantly, but taken by curiosity, he finally decided to crack open the cover, and was quickly intrigued. Reading this book prompted Guillermo to not only see economic prosperity in a new light, but also connect his finances with other spheres of his personal improvement. “Behind the issue of money were many of my issues, about how I saw all that. I realized that I had to change myself if I wanted to reach goals. If I didn’t change, I would just hinder myself. I was already working on my personal history, my life experiences, but now they seemed connected with economic progress, prosperity, abundance; all those things are related,” Guillermo recalled. His immediate feeling as he read his first financial self-help book was of regret: “I had lost so much time. . . . At first I thought, ‘What if I had started earlier?’ But then I realized that I was meant to read it at that moment.”
A few months after he read Rich Dad, Poor Dad, learned more from various financial self-help books, and tried out small innovations in the business, Guillermo’s working relationship with his brother began to suffer. For instance, on the recommendations found in Rich Dad, Guillermo started keeping better track of his business and personal expenses, recording every expense in detail, regardless of how small it was. His brother, who didn’t want to be “a slave to numbers,” rejected the practice. Guillermo eventually decided to dissolve their partnership and start his own bookshop in the park: “I used to have this prejudice that business and investing was a matter for sharks and backstabbers. When I split with my brother, I was then able to try ideas out and put things that I was learning into practice.”
Guillermo told me that the first lesson he took from Rich Dad was that he was unlikely to rise above the social circle that he frequented. His friends at that point were mainly bohemian artists—musicians, painters, writers, actors—in addition to some people from the used-bookselling business. For Guillermo, his circle of friends was partly responsible for his until-then-unquestioned view that money was bad and capitalism was evil. In an effort to meet new people, he did some online research and found a local forum of fans of Rich Dad. Among other things, forum members organized informal meetings to play Cashflow, a board game designed by Robert Kiyosaki, the author of the best-seller. Guillermo purchased a homemade imitation of the game on the Argentine version of eBay (MercadoLibre) and played with his wife, Sandra, but they soon realized that it was not so easy and that they needed an experienced player to guide them. So he and Sandra invited people from the online forum to play with them in their home. The success of the event—ten people showed up, including an experienced player who brought an extra board—led them to organize two more games in coffee shops in Buenos Aires. Guillermo started meeting other forum members from all walks of life. While they may not all have had similar backgrounds, they were concerned with similar issues. They were all trying to become financially successful; they were all influenced by the same book; and they were all interested in meeting “like-minded” people. They were trying to master a new language and interpret their lives through a common lens.
As part of his quest to meet new people and be exposed to new experiences, Guillermo eventually attended a talk about foreign exchange trading in the house of another forum member. When he returned home, he wrote a long post in the forum that is worth reproducing in its entirety. In more than one way, Guillermo’s post encapsulates what this book is about:
The lecture was truly very instructive . . . because even someone like me, who didn’t understand anything about the topic when he arrived, left the lecture with a much clearer understanding of the basic principles. I’m not going to tell you that I’m already a trader—not at all. But at least now I know the meaning of leverage, lot, pip, spread, pairs, broker, and several other terms about which I didn’t have the remotest idea before. Now if someone says pip, I know he’s talking about ten dollars and not about the sound used in the media when an insult is censored.
Joking aside, what I took from the talk as the major “asset” is that I connected with real people who, like you and me, are afraid, or for whom it’s not easy to become an investor—people who want to overcome this fear, who search for knowledge and invest their time in acquiring it, who take seriously the idea of having your money work for you, and who do things to make that happen. They don’t wait for it to occur randomly, but rather seek to be the architects of their own lives. After all the information and tools that this [online] community is making available to us, now more than ever the decision is ours.
To finish, I want to urge you to maintain the enthusiasm that we evidently have. That enthusiasm, with the right direction, can be like the wind that blows the sails of our ship, which will make it sail faster towards the port of our desired financial freedom (and the personal realization, transcendence, happiness, love, peace, fulfillment, and other things that come with it), knowing that we have to identify very clearly the destination we want to reach and the price we are willing to pay. Otherwise, the wind will be useless.
Guillermo continues to seek to transform himself into an investor. He wants to achieve financial freedom—a term that will be central throughout this book. In his post, he is quite clear that the project of financial freedom is not easy and that it demands a lot of effort. Guillermo now understands and embraces newly acquired language and technical tools of finance. The language and expertise of foreign exchange trading, which he ignored before the lecture, did not automatically make him a trader. But he now sees himself as a more competent person in the financial realm, a person who does not confuse a financial term like pip with a noise. This process of learning and self-transformation, the post reveals, is not experienced in isolation. Guillermo is happy to have come in contact with other people with concerns and objectives similar to his—in fact, he sees this as the major asset he gained from the event. Reading a book that tells you who you should be if you want to be financially successful is one thing, but meeting and interacting with several “like-minded” people is quite different because it provides the hopeful, enthusiastic social environment that such a vital project demands. Guillermo also knows that learning a few technical terms or even mastering the inner workings of global financial trading is important but not enough to lead to financial freedom. The individual has to overcome the fears and weaknesses that prevent him or her from becoming financially free.
Guillermo also hints at the idea that the ultimate goal lies beyond merely amassing money. Financial freedom does not belong to the economic sphere only; he ties it to realization, transcendence, and fulfillment. Acquiring the strength, knowledge, and discipline to have your money work for you is meant to provide the crucial individual autonomy without which one simply cannot be the architect of one’s life. Guillermo says that the decision to become financially free is fully in the hands of the individual. Like the books that inspired him, Guillermo explicitly dismisses any factor other than himself to explain the eventual outcome of his financial endeavors. Financial freedom, I learned over two years of fieldwork, is two things at once: first, not having to work for one’s income; second, an internal condition of the self, one in which the individual overcomes his or her deep fear of taking economic risks.
Producing the Neoliberal Self
This book delves into the world of financial self-help: a set of discourses, practices, techniques, interactions, and objects through which people make sense of and attempt to transform their financial planning and behavior, their social positions, their goals, and their selves. This is an analysis of a social world inspired by best-selling books that encourage their readers to become rich by transforming themselves. As Guillermo’s story suggests, changing oneself into someone with the right conditions to become rich is not a simple process. Most financial self-help books do not provide simple formulas to “get rich quick” but rather suggest to readers that there might be something fundamentally wrong with the core of who they are as a person, and that they have to endure a long and challenging self-transformation to correct it.
Financial self-help is an instance of the production of capitalist economic subjects in contemporary post-industrial societies. My interest in this production can be traced back to Max Weber’s interest in the emergence of the modern subject and of capitalist economic action. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (2002b), as well as in his work on world religions, Weber examined the conditions under which rational capitalist economic action appeared. For Weber, economic action in capitalism did not simply reflect material economic conditions, although those conditions certainly mattered, but was deeply connected to the ethical orientations and beliefs of subjects. In the case of the protestant ethic, belief in the uncertainty of religious salvation provided the motivation for the kind of rational, methodic economic calculation that distinguishes modern capitalism. Weber also considered technical abilities and accounting devices (such as double entry bookkeeping) as central in making new forms of economic action in early capitalism possible. One can calculate more rationally if specific tools have been invented and made widely available.
We are now in a very different time from the early modern period Weber analyzed. For Weber, the ethical tribulations around the salvation of European protestant believers only provided the early impetus for action, but once capitalism flourished, “the religious roots were beginning to die and give way to utilitarian earthly concerns” (Weber 2002a:118; see also Wherry 2014:421–22), and economic action became purely instrumental, disengaged from religious motivations. Yet this book suggests that ethical ends, although not necessarily religious, are still crucial to understanding how and why people today engage in specific forms of economic action, self-transformation, and calculation. The way Guillermo connects a mundane technical seminar on foreign exchange trading to transcendent desires for freedom and personal realization is an indication of this. I argue in this book that, as Weber suggested more than a century ago, both ethical motivations on how one ought to conduct and shape oneself and technical tools for calculation are at the core of contemporary capitalist economic action.
We find in Weber an early inspiration for an analysis of the intersection between ethical ends and technical tools in configuring economic actors (Weber 2002a:366). Two more recent theoretical frameworks have analyzed, in different but also intersecting ways, how actors are made in contemporary societies: governmentality and economic performativity. Both of these frameworks are in many ways indebted to Weber’s focus on the conduct of life (Callon 1998:23; Gordon 1987; Mennicken and Miller 2014:19; Power 2011:42; Steiner 2008; Szakolczai 1998:1405). In my analysis of financial self-help I bring together these two theories, which while different have important affinities.
Governmentality and Technologies of the Self
Financial self-help is first and foremost a set of technologies of the self, a term coined by Michel Foucault (1988:18) to refer to techniques that “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.” In other words, Foucault identified as technologies of the self the many ways in which individuals turn themselves into targets of their own self-transformation. While Foucault himself explored technologies of the self mostly in Greco-Roman cultures and early Christianity, his definition is abstract enough to leave open what specific desirable condition individuals may aspire to reach. Throughout history, these technologies have aided individuals in achieving a variety of such states. For example, renouncing sexual pleasure or practicing Christian confession are techniques that have been used to get closer to a desired state of purity. Contemporary financial self-help defines one particular condition as desirable: financial freedom. Financial freedom does not simply involve having lots of money. Readers of financial self-help are told that they will only be able to get money once they have transformed themselves into individuals who actively strive for freedom.
The exhortation to become free and entrepreneurial makes financial self-help a set of techniques of the self aimed at the creation of neoliberal selves. The terms neoliberal and neoliberalism have been the source of much confusion in the social sciences and humanities as well as in public discourse, so it is important to clarify what I mean here by neoliberalism and what it means in relation to financial self-help. First, a great deal of the confusion results from overuse: the neoliberal label has been attached to an increasing variety of phenomena and with little or no explanation of its meaning and content. This overuse blurs its specific properties and particular effects while crediting almost any novel social phenomenon in contemporary times to neoliberalism (Flew 2014). Second, the term neoliberalism “is most frequently employed by those who are critical of the free-market phenomena to which it refers” (Boas and Gans-Morse 2009:140), becoming “an all-purpose denunciatory category” (Flew 2014:51). The problem with this is not only that neoliberalism as a term has become a shortcut for “bad” and “undesirable,” but also that it is increasingly used with the assumption that readers will understand what it means. Recent literature has tried to spell out the varied meanings and empirical uses of neoliberalism. While there are several typologies of neoliberalism available,1 Wendy Larner’s (2000) seminal classification is still useful to distinguish three broad understandings of the term. First, neoliberalism can be understood as a more or less defined set of policies applied by governments in different countries since the 1970s to decrease state intervention in the economy, including reducing welfare programs, balancing budgets, deregulating markets, and privatizing previously public services. Second, neoliberalism can be characterized as an ideology upon which those policies have been based, and which promotes individualism and free markets. While each of these two visions grasps something important about neoliberalism, they are also limited if one wants to identify and understand more profound economic, social, and political changes in contemporary societies. While the latter makes neoliberalism appear as a unitary, coherent, and consistent ideological or philosophical doctrine, the former prevents us from grasping the effects and groundings of those policies and ideologies beyond the sphere of state programs. The third major understanding of neoliberalism, and the one that largely informs the analysis of this book, is neoliberalism as governmentality.
First put forward by Michel Foucault, the idea of governmentality encapsulates a set of scattered concerns about the rationalities and techniques deployed in the activity of governing (Rose, O’Malley, and Valverde 2006; Dean 1999). It is important to highlight that governing here is not limited to the state, but rather designates both the grand and mundane efforts of conducting the conduct of people. In a series of lectures in the late 1970s, Foucault (2008) examined twentieth-century neoliberalism as an interrogation into the “art of government.” More than a set of well-defined policies or a coherent philosophical doctrine, Foucault framed neoliberalism as a practical rationality of government with the paradoxical intention of not governing too much (Foucault 2008:13). While we can surely find typical neoliberal ideas (free markets, individualism, property rights) and typical neoliberal policies (deregulation, tariff reduction, austere fiscal policy, privatization), for Foucault and other scholars who analyzed contemporary societies following his concepts, what truly distinguishes neoliberalism is an approach to the art of government in which the priority is governing “from a distance” (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996; Miller and Rose 2008; Rose 1996).2 Neoliberalism is generally an attempt to deploy market mechanisms not simply as a system of distribution of goods and services but as a governmental principle that can be applied to any sphere of life. Neoliberalism is the art of governing through the free choices of autonomous individuals who feel responsible for themselves. The “retreat” of the state under neoliberalism, for example, is not simply a retreat, but also “a positive technique of government” (Barry, Osborne, and Rose 1996:11). Neoliberalism promotes spaces of individual autonomy so that the state has to intervene less directly. The freedom and autonomous choice accorded to individuals by neoliberalism is therefore not a reduction of “government” but rather a rearticulation of governmental techniques that puts more emphasis on individual self-governing (Dardot and Laval 2014).
Viewing neoliberalism as governmentality allows us to grasp changes in contemporary societies that have been subtle yet profound. Foucault (2008) identified as one of the most salient features of neoliberalism the notion that individuals should become “entrepreneurs of themselves.” By using markets as a governmental technique, neoliberalism prompts individuals to construct themselves as autonomous and free subjects who are able to compete. For Foucault, neoliberalism (particularly in its American version) understands individuals as enterprise units engaged in the accumulation and maximization of what economists such as Gary Becker called “human capital.” Their relation to themselves is seen as equivalent to that of an entrepreneur to his or her business, assets, and capital, demanding strategy, calculation, risk, and innovation.3 Thus, neoliberal rule seeks to create spaces of individual autonomy and to promote individuals’ self-understanding as autonomous entrepreneurs of themselves. As Graham Burchell (1996:29) notes, neoliberal forms of governing “encourage the governed to adopt a certain entrepreneurial form of practical relationship to themselves as a condition of their effectiveness and of the effectiveness to this form of government.” In sum, neoliberalism as a governmentality promotes the notion that individuals should be autonomous entrepreneurs of themselves, fully responsible for what they can or cannot achieve (Miller and Rose 1990; Rose 1996, 1999). This explains why technologies of the self are particularly important for neoliberalism.4
Financial self-help advocates and provides techniques to furnish exactly this free and entrepreneurial subject of neoliberalism. However, financial self-help products are not produced or promoted by any state agency. They are popular market products, even global best-sellers in their own right, like Guillermo’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad that flew off the shelves of his humble bookstand in Parque Alvear. This shows the pervasiveness of neoliberalism, beyond a centralized policy framework or a coherent top-down ideology, as a widespread set of practical techniques of self-government, of technologies to know oneself and operate on oneself that do not originate in a clear center of power. The production of neoliberal selves occurring in the world of financial self-help is not a top-down process of grand policy carried out by institutions, but rather something that happens every day, in self-organized groups, with the aid of colorful, best-selling books and other practical resources. Users voluntarily purchase and use them not as part of any government program, but as a way of dealing with the strains and difficulties that they find in their own economic lives. Many of these difficulties originate in the structural changes that the global expansion of neoliberalism prompted, particularly the changes in labor markets that have weakened job stability. Nevertheless, financial self-help enthusiasts learn that economic structures are not to blame for their economic difficulties, or for that vague feeling of having to work too much for very little reward. Placing the blame outside the self goes against the entrepreneurial and free spirit that they ought to cultivate if they wish to be financially successful. Readers are told that they have to search deep within themselves to break free from a dependent spirit inherited from welfare society, which relies on the security and guidance of institutions (welfare agencies, the state, corporate employers), and focus on cultivating their entrepreneurial qualities and striving for freedom. Indeed, the fact that they voluntarily adhere to the project of financial self-help is seen as part of a growing entrepreneurial spirit. They are not waiting for their problems to solve themselves magically: they are taking action. As Guillermo says in his forum post, they “want to be the architects of their own lives.”
Economic Performativity and Calculative Tools
Shaping the free and entrepreneurial self of neoliberalism is not only a process of changing one’s will, feelings, and desires but also a technical transformation. In the world of financial self-help, an indispensable tool if one wants to achieve financial freedom is financial intelligence. Financial self-help resources exhort users to educate themselves financially. People do not only have to desire financial freedom, they also have to acquire the technical tools that will make such a goal attainable. Guillermo, for example, had to reframe his deeply held resistance to making money and, among other things, stop feeling guilty about it; he had to revisit his relationship to money and to himself, his fears and preconceptions. But he also started to cultivate new tools for calculating. By reading, playing games like Cashflow, and attending workshops practitioners learn to calculate in new ways. They change how they classify income and expenses, assets and liabilities, and how they calculate risk and returns of investment. They even learn the technical and legal intricacies of evaluating real estate or stock market deals. In very practical ways, they try to turn themselves into market actors that calculate for the maximization of revenue from financial investments and the minimization of their own labor.
In order to understand this technical self-transformation that financial self-help entails, I have relied on the literature on economic performativity, which gives calculation and the material tools associated with it a central place in explaining how markets and market actors are configured. The concept of economic performativity, first introduced by sociologist Michel Callon (1998) as part of an expansion of Actor-Network Theory into economic sociology, has been particularly fruitful in explaining how markets and economic action are shaped by economic expertise.5 The main idea of performativity is, simply put, that the field of economics does not (just) study the economy, it actually performs it. From this perspective, economic models and theories are not mere reflections of a reality outside of them; they have the power to make the economy work in ways that are similar to those originally predicted by such models and theories. In other words, economic expertise contributes to making the world it studies (MacKenzie, Muniesa, and Siu 2007; Mitchell 2005; Muniesa 2014). This is also true about the frequent protagonist of economic action according to economics: the individual who rationally calculates in order to maximize benefits and minimize cost, also known as the homo economicus. In this sense, the homo economicus (or any form of economic action that can be assumed and modeled in economic theories) is neither a natural occurrence nor the fiction that sociologists have tried to expose for years. For Callon (1998), the fact that the homo economicus is not natural does not mean that it does not exist: distinguishable forms of action and calculation, such as the homo economicus, can in fact be produced. Callon asserts that the rejection of the homo economicus as a fiction prevented sociologists from investigating the processes through which market actors are actually configured and formatted. The challenge is not to prove that the homo economicus is an unrealistic simplification, but rather to understand the processes through which people acquire the tools that make them similar—although with varying distances from the ideal—to what economists treat as a reality.
This notion of economic performativity has brought attention to the role of calculative tools in shaping economic actors (MacKenzie 2009). For Callon, the homo economicus is essentially a form of calculation. That calculation is not a purely mental process; it involves collaboration between humans and non-human actors. Callon calls this collaboration “calculative agencies,” the assemblage of humans and calculative tools that makes up the real homo economicus. Formulas, accounting tools, balance sheets, lists, computers, and various forms of expertise (most notably economics) are regarded as “prostheses” through which people become calculative market actors. The performativity approach helps us understand the role of technical expertise and material tools in the production of economic actors. Economic action is an achievement that is not the result of the right “mindset” of a stand-alone actor, but of the right assemblage of calculative tools.
To be sure, when one thinks of economic expertise, financial gurus who publish how-to-get-rich best-sellers are not the first to come to mind. Yet they are economists in their own way. Callon has called attention to the importance for the notion of economic performativity of expertise that may not be immediately classified as “economics.” He calls these experts “economists in-the-wild,” who complement “confined economists” (Callon 2007:336). Callon emphasizes the role of formulas, statements, experiments, and techniques produced by non-academic economists in shaping the economic world. In fact, the idea of performativity to a large extent blurs the boundaries between theoretical and practical economists. The distinction between theory and technique is more a matter of establishing hierarchies than a true difference in types of production (Callon 2007:333). Several “lower-status” forms of expertise—lower when contrasted to academic economics—have a crucial role in shaping economic actors. For Callon (2007:333), “a host of professions, competencies and non-humans are necessary for academic economics to be successful. Each of these parties ‘makes’ economics.” Financial gurus and the resources and technologies that they promote are part of the network of calculative agencies that produces economic actors. Financial self-help is a vehicle by which economic concepts, language, and techniques reach mass audiences unlikely to have direct contact with more legitimate forms of economic expertise. A best-selling book that is probably never assigned in a university classroom and would never appear in the reading lists of professional economists introduced Guillermo and many others to a realm of economic calculation they had no idea existed.
Creating Economic Subjects: The Intersection of Calculative Tools and the Self
As a theory concerned almost exclusively with the relation between economic expertise and markets, economic performativity helps us understand how economic actors are shaped by calculative tools as actors in markets, but it says little about how this role relates to those actors’ subjectivity. Economic performativity is based on Actor-Network Theory (ANT), a theory that has prompted scholars to take seriously the significance of nonhumans (such as technologies or nature) in stabilizing and altering the social world, warning us of the dangers of invocations of “culture” or “society” as disembedded from the material world (Latour 1988). For ANT, action is not only human, but rather distributed in networks of humans and nonhumans (Latour 2007; Preda 1999). Therefore, nonhuman calculative tools are as much the protagonists of economic action as humans are. Yet because of this theoretical approach, economic performativity does not probe into the significance of humans as actors who reflect about who they are and who they want to be. In considering the shaping of economic actors, economic performativity focuses on how assemblages of humans and nonhumans are equipped with relevant technical powers of calculation, but does not consider reflexive human actors who in the same process are shaping their own selves, with the aid of discourses and practices (like those of financial self-help) that shape ethical orientations. In short, economic performativity offers little in the way of insights about humans as subjects.6 Recent theoretical and empirical work on accounting and governmentality, however, has shown that calculative tools shape more than our economic conduct. Calculating is constitutive of one’s self; calculation makes up who we are. According to Peter Miller (2001:392), “the calculative practices of accountancy are intrinsic to and constitutive of social relations, rather than secondary and derivative. . . . Accounting practices create a particular way of understanding, representing and acting upon events and processes” (Miller 2001:392–393). Financial self-help users change their notion of what makes a liability and what makes an asset, or start dividing income between “passive” and “active,” and they do this in a very practical way, resorting to board games, sheets, and lists. This change is enormously consequential for how they calculate, but also because they simultaneously transform how they see themselves and who they want to be. Calculation makes identity and personhood (see Miller 2008:57–58). Conversely, embarking on a particular project of the self makes particular calculative tools meaningful for financial self-help users. Acquiring these calculative tools becomes part of that project; if calculative tools are like “prostheses,” as Michel Callon called them, subjects actively strive to make those prostheses “fit” them correctly. Therefore, the technical transformation into a person who acquires financial intelligence is entangled with the ethical transformation into a person who strives for financial freedom. With one set of technologies and practices, financial self-help shapes readers both into market actors in financial capitalism and into neoliberal subjects that strive for freedom and autonomy. All the activities that financial self-help practitioners perform to enhance their financial skills and knowledge and to make money are at the same time practices of the self. Learning to calculate as an investor is also a way of cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit, liberating oneself, and showing that one is not afraid of taking risks and is not dependent on institutions or others to take charge of one’s own financial life.7
How This Book Came About
This book is the result of two years of research in two countries: attending meetings of financial self-help clubs, interviewing their members, reading their online forums, and consuming the same media (books, games, DVDs) as the club members. Financial self-help resources and their global use allow us to understand the impact of neoliberalism in everyday life and the configuration of economic subjects as a process of self-transformation. This book is about how the macro transformations of the economy in the last three or four decades have been accompanied by powerful, pragmatic, simple, everyday forms of expertise. In a world that has increasingly deprived citizens of the safety nets that characterized the welfare era (job stability, solid retirement plans, and strong welfare programs), individuals turn to popular books for guidance in order to make sense of their circumstances and try to adjust to new conditions. These books and the groups they foster provide the techniques necessary to turn the self into the subject imagined by neoliberal governmentality.
In spring 2006, I serendipitously came across an article in an Argentine newspaper about fans of the best-selling book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, written by American financial guru Robert Kiyosaki. The article mentioned that there was an online club with four hundred members (the club in which Guillermo participates, and which today has over sixty thousand registered members) that organized meetings to play a board game called Cashflow as a means of enhancing their financial skills and mindsets. I had seen Kiyosaki’s book in bookstores a few years before, but, like Guillermo, for a long time I never paid much attention to it. It seemed to be just one more of the dozens of “how to become a millionaire” books that I assumed existed in the world. After reading the newspaper article, I started seeing the book everywhere—at bookstores, newsstands, and airport shops. A few months later, I came across a long TV advertisement on PBS, part of the U.S. public television channel fundraising campaign, for a DVD featuring Kiyosaki. This was the first time I had heard him speak, and I saw much more than the motivation and hope I imagined popular best-sellers contained. His speech provided a theory (in popular form, but with some substantive sociological content) of the transition from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism (he called them industrial age and information age), and urged people to change inside (their selves) and outside (in their planning and strategizing) in order to succeed in the new economy. Eventually, I decided to buy the Spanish translation of Rich Dad, Poor Dad for five dollars on the streets of Mexico City (the majority of Mexican street book vendors gave a privileged space on their tables to Kiyosaki’s books—a testimony not only to their popularity but also to their global reach). I also started skimming the online forum mentioned in the newspaper and exploring online material about Kiyosaki and other financial gurus.
What makes Robert Kiyosaki and the Rich Dad groups stand out? First, Rich Dad has been the most successful brand of financial self-help in the last decade. Kiyosaki, a fourth-generation Japanese-American born in Hawaii in 1947, published his first books in the late 1990s. His publishing endeavors now include more than thirty books translated into dozens of languages, targeted at children, teens, men, and women.8 He also offers various seminars, TV broadcasts, videos, and coaching services. The sales volume of Kiyosaki materials cannot be compared to those of other authors in the genre. Estimates vary from ten to twenty-eight million books sold worldwide, and his books have been consistently top ranked in the United States, Argentina, and many other countries since they came out.9 The Rich Dad books are not only the most popular; Kiyosaki’s ideas are most often the point of entrance for people into the world of financial self-help, and Rich Dad is an appealing book that is easy to read, which many readers recommend (and even give as presents) to friends, family, and acquaintances. Kiyosaki’s pervasiveness is truly impressive.
Second, the Rich Dad series provides a specific tool, the Cashflow game, which brings people together and sparks networks of practitioners. Attending a Cashflow game provides an opportunity to play and enhance one’s financial skills, but it is also a chance to meet “like-minded” people, such as those Guillermo and his wife sought to find, and build community. Cashflow has contributed to creating new social worlds of fans of financial self-help. While participants in Cashflow clubs use and discuss other materials, Kiyosaki’s ideas give these groups their raison d’etre. Even activities not explicitly inspired by Kiyosaki’s work are still largely influenced by it.
Third, Kiyosaki’s world offers a defined set of ideas about the self, the economy, the structure of social classes, the nature of investing, and more. His ideas are reasonably consistent throughout his books and other products as well as the various spin-offs by other authors and gurus. The common complaint (even by committed fans) that most books largely repeat the same few ideas over and over at the same time could be said to reveal their consistency.
Finally, Kiyosaki’s products are an explicit response to late modern capitalism, which is what makes them different from classic nineteenth- and twentieth-century varieties of financial advice. On top of more general motivational and financial advice that has been common since the nineteenth century, Kiyosaki developed a popular social theory of the transition between the industrial or corporate period in capitalism and the late, financial or neoliberal stage (under the labels of industrial age and information age). The core recommendation for the current era, unlike with most corporate self-help books, is that people should make a plan so that they can eventually quit their jobs and receive “passive income” from investments.
One of the first things that struck me when I started learning about Kiyosaki, long before beginning the research for this book, was his international reach. As I mentioned earlier, my first encounter was when I read about Cashflow clubs and online communities in a newspaper from Argentina (the country where I am from and where I have conducted much of my scholarly research). The article mentioned that clubs had been created in places as disparate as California, Bulgaria, and Indonesia. I learned a little more about the ideas of Rich Dad watching American public television and, as I mentioned, it was in Mexico where I bought my first book. It seemed to me that there was something profoundly American about Kiyosaki’s ideas, actual examples, and financial advice, yet they somehow managed to travel successfully to countries that had little to do with the U.S. economy and culture. It is of course not unusual or new that cultural products from the United States make their way into other countries and quite successfully. As in most households with a TV set around the world, growing up in Argentina I only had to turn on the TV to watch dozens of dubbed American shows and movies in which one has to imagine, for example, what on earth a fraternity is or why the prom is so important. In other words, consumers of American cultural products worldwide have to understand them outside their original context of production. Yet American financial self-help resources are not movies or TV shows, which one usually consumes for entertainment, but technologies of the self; the relation between users and product is a practical one, aimed at self-transformation. Therefore, their consumption in a different context from where they were produced cannot be taken for granted: how do fans in those other countries make sense of advice and techniques that were not created with their economic contexts in mind? To find out, I decided to conduct fieldwork in financial self-help groups in the United States (where most financial self-help resources are produced) and in one other country. On the one hand, looking at practices that were similar across the two cases ensured that my analysis was not driven by the particularities of one country or the other, but by the characteristics of financial self-help as a global phenomenon. It also ensured that I was not referring to some peculiarly American occurrence. On the other hand, studying financial self-help in a country other than the United States allowed me to observe the process of adjusting and adapting imported American resources, which is the subject of Chapter 5. While I could have chosen several other countries, I selected Argentina because it offered a particularly illuminating case to study the global diffusion and use of American financial self-help (in addition to the obvious advantage that it is a country I know well). More than other countries, its cyclical economic crises and perennial financial instability make Argentina a place in which using the same financial self-help advice and tools as those used in the United States would seem particularly difficult. To give but one example, during the financial crisis of 2001, the government froze bank deposits and customers simply could not get a hold of their own money deposited in savings accounts. A walk in the financial district of Buenos Aires in 2002 was a surreal experience, with angry depositors hammering the sturdy metal gates that banks were forced to add to their entrances. This was just one in a long history of financial and currency crises Argentina has undergone, a history that makes Argentines feel that they are always walking on shaky economic ground.10 Despite such recurrent financial crises and pervasive distrust of the banking system, Argentines use American financial self-help books and develop similar clubs and activities. Argentine users, however, actively “translate” American products to make them fit their context, and some local authors try to fill the “applicability gap” with their own books. By studying how American financial self-help is collectively adopted in and adapted to another economic context, I want to contribute to a view of globalization as a social practice rather than as an abstract force.11
Throughout this book, I show that financial self-help has substantial effects on users, on how they see the world, themselves, and their social positions, and how they reconfigure some of their economic and non-economic practices. However, my research does not try to determine whether or not financial self-help works in terms of leading users to wealth or financial freedom. It would not be possible to determine with this kind of research whether users end up becoming rich or not, or if there are traits that would make someone more likely to succeed than others. The irony is that in conversations with fans of financial self-help throughout my fieldwork, they saw that question as the most worthy of investigation. A long-term, quantitative, longitudinal assessment would likely be necessary to answer such a question. Most important, the question of effectiveness would merely end up in either a celebration of financial self-help (if the answer is positive) or an exposé of the lies of the genre (if negative).12 Instead, this book takes a step back and questions the question of financial success itself. My goal is to offer a careful analysis of the ideas and practices of financial self-help and to understand what participants of fan groups are doing, their categories of meaning, and the context in which their ideas and practices emerge. Whether they become “rich” or not depends on many more factors than a person’s will, unlike what the main teaching of financial self-help assures. Whether financial self-help succeeds or fails in terms of leading users to riches, it still does something.
One afternoon in 2007, I timidly attended a Cashflow session organized by a group based in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood in New York City.13 Until that day, I had only read about Cashflow; I had no idea how to play the game. That was the beginning of my two-year ethnographic journey through the Rich Dad clubs of New York and Buenos Aires. Within a few weeks, I was regularly attending games organized by Sonny, a white man in his late forties who worked in a community mortgage firm in Manhattan. At my first Cashflow game, I also met Steve, an African American man who was the soul of the group. In many ways, Steve’s story was a perfect rags-to-riches American tale of redemption. He grew up in a poor family in the South, supported only by his mother’s disability income. When he was young, Steve decided that he would attend college and, after overcoming various obstacles, he earned a university degree. Since his childhood, Steve had felt that he did not want to spend his life working for a salary, and that there had to be more to life than school, four decades of labor, and then retirement. He found a more articulate formulation of his feelings when he read Rich Dad, Poor Dad as an adult. “After the Bible, it was the best book I’ve ever read,” Steve told me and every new member of his group. He had tried to talk to his friends about the book, and even gave it as a present to some of them, but they didn’t show much interest. For two years, he dug into financial self-help, reading books and attending workshops, but not taking much action. Eventually, he decided to start a local group that would motivate him, where he could also share his acquired wisdom about real estate investing. By the time I attended my first group’s meetings in the spring of 2007, Steve was already an expert in the business (he owned several rental properties) and was educating and motivating others to follow in his steps.
The group gathered once a month on Saturdays, and between thirty and sixty people attended each time. It was a diverse group, with a majority of African Americans, but also Latinos and whites, which was more or less representative of the neighborhood’s population. At each meeting, Steve combined heavily technical information about becoming an investor (particularly in real estate) with motivational tools to work on the self in order to become a successful person on the way to financial freedom. Yet Steve defied the popular image of a financial guru. He did not wear expensive suits or aggressively preach like late-night infomercial hosts. He always dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and he lived in the neighborhood. The meetings were organized in whatever place could be found in the community, usually at local schools or a meeting room in a member’s workplace. Most of the New York portion of my fieldwork occurred at these Saturday meetings and in the Cashflow games organized by Sonny in the city between 2007 and 2009.14
I spent eight months in 2007 and 2008 in Buenos Aires, where I searched for equivalent local groups and found two large financial self-help communities, both inspired by Kiyosaki’s books. One was the online forum that Guillermo joined. Born as an e-mail fan group in 2005, the forum grew from five thousand to eight thousand users throughout my time in Argentina and today boasts more than sixty thousand members. The forum has many sub-sections, not only on financial self-help books but also on general advice about investing and entrepreneurship. Members call it a “community,” and it has certain rules of etiquette, such as the courtesy of introducing oneself when entering for the first time, and the commitment to be polite and congenial. Users are supposed to contribute as much as they can to collective wisdom, and moderators regulate business proposals in order to prevent fraud or misconduct. People post questions and business opportunities and also receive feedback and encouragement about their investment ideas and entrepreneurial projects. The forum is headed and maintained by Luis, a computer technician in his mid-thirties who, like Steve and others, became hooked on financial self-help after reading Kiyosaki. Luis sees himself as someone that connects entrepreneurs, investors, and businesspeople in order to make successful investments happen. The forum officially sponsors a few business opportunities, and there have been several cases of collective projects with a plurality of investors who met in the forum.
The second group that I found in Argentina was led by Matías, a salesman and marketing consultant who created his own website devoted to Rich Dad in Argentina in 2006. After a friend recommended it to him, Matías read Rich Dad in one weekend, and within a couple of months he had finished reading all of Kiyosaki’s books. He then asked a friend who was traveling to the United States to bring back the Cashflow game, which was not yet available in Argentina. Matías started playing with family members and officemates in early 2006, and a few months later, as he was attracting more people to the games, he started a website. When a major national newspaper published an article about Kiyosaki, featuring a link to Matías’s website, the web server exploded with interested people. By the end of that year, he had organized public Cashflow sessions with over fifty people at coffee shops in Buenos Aires. He later assembled a team and started offering full-day workshops featuring talks on specific financial topics in the morning and Cashflow sessions in the afternoon. His group (Financial Freedom Argentina) organizes workshops throughout the country and has teams in several provinces.
Besides attending and participating in the activities of these clubs, I conducted fifty in-depth interviews with people I met at games and workshops or through online forums. I interviewed and had informal conversations with a wide variety of fans representing the diversity of the financial self-help world: from a school teacher to a professor of economics, from real estate agents to artists, from factory workers to insurance agents, from bank employees to engineers, as well as several enthusiasts who simply defined themselves as “entrepreneurs.” Like the people whom Guillermo met at his first Cashflow game, they had heard about the game in different ways. Some had found a financial self-help book in a bookstore or had a friend who insisted that they read one. Others had been dragged to a game by a friend or family member. Regardless of their paths, they had all found in the financial self-help world the narratives to explain why they were there and why it was necessary for them to change. They may not have thought that there was anything wrong with them before, but they discovered their financial deficiencies as they started their journeys.
An Overview of the Book
In Chapter 1, I define contemporary financial self-help and distinguish it from two of its closest relatives: general self-help and “get rich quick” schemes. I then turn to the diagnosis provided by Kiyosaki regarding the end of corporate capitalism and the end of job security. According to him, the number one task for those who do not want to be crushed by the “information age” is understanding that prosperity in this day and age has little to do with schools and jobs. Financial education, which is acquired through more informal channels, is the only indispensable education individuals should acquire, he argues. Kiyosaki also provides a theory of the class structure of capitalist societies (called the Cashflow Quadrant) that associates certain objective positions (employee, self-employed, business owner, and investor) with distinct forms of subjectivity. He suggests that individuals should understand what their social position is and plan to leave “quadrants” in which they work for their money and move to those in which they receive money from the work of others.
Predictably, moving between quadrants is not easy. Financial self-help authors suggest that one truly has to become a new person. Chapter 2 describes what kind of person users are urged to become. The answer is simple: financially free. Financial self-help puts freedom even above wealth itself. In a discourse with roots in American libertarianism, Kiyosaki tells readers that they have to combat their conformist self engendered in the welfare era and resist the temptation of security in favor of a quest for freedom and autonomy. Readers are exhorted to fight external dependence on institutions, but also their internal dependence on conformity and fear, and to essentially control their selves, in a discourse that echoes that used in the addiction recovery movement. In this chapter, I provide four examples that illustrate this project of financial freedom: the rejection of family education, the rejection of the school system, the rejection of frugality as a means of social mobility, and financial self-help’s discourse on gender.
In Chapter 3, I move from ideas to practices, by looking at the Cashflow game and its players. First, through the practice of Cashflow, players acquire definitions of what being rich means in the context of financial capitalism and establish financial freedom as a specific goal. Second, they develop calculative tools adjusted to the idea of financial freedom and incoming rent (called “passive income”). For example, they learn to distinguish between various forms of income, expenses, assets, and liabilities, and learn to place each of them in the correct columns of a balance sheet. Third, players work on the self by playing the game. They see themselves “in action” and identify what must be modified in their selves in order to produce the right subjectivity that will lead them to financial success. Finally, I analyze the work of translation that participants perform in practice in order to fit what happens in the game with what they call “real life.”
Chapter 4 engages with the collective dynamics of the world of financial self-help. Although the ethics of financial self-help appear to be about pure self-interest, there is space for generosity and disinterest in economic gains. While pure economic self-interest is not acceptable, pure generosity is deemed suspicious. People recognize that there are and should be economic gains for someone, and do not see helping others and making money out of it as contradictory. This conflation of interest and disinterest rests on the notion that pure disinterest is a sign of a yet unchanged “poor” self that lives in a “world of scarcity.” The rich, in contrast, live in a world of abundance in which there is enough for everyone, and therefore, the dual aims of interest and generosity are not contradictory. I examine two instances that illustrate this noncontradictory character of interest and disinterest. First, I analyze what users say about the fact that financial gurus live off their fans. Second, I examine an economic activity closely related to financial self-help: multilevel marketing (MLM) companies. These organizations sell products or services through independent affiliated members and are very popular (although controversial) in financial self-help circles.
Chapter 5 addresses the transnational circulation of financial self-help. Financial self-help is a global phenomenon with its epicenter in the United States: most resources are produced there and exported to other countries. But a great deal of local work is needed to make idiosyncratic American products work in the starkly different contexts of developing countries. Local networks of fans are crucial in “globalizing” financial self-help products. In this chapter, I draw on my fieldwork in Argentina to scrutinize the local interpretations and adaptations of American financial self-help. Users in Argentina are well aware of the American character of the genre and products, and they actively try to adapt the theories and advice to their more vulnerable (and less wealthy) economy and financial system.
In the Conclusion, I return to some of the theoretical and political issues discussed throughout the book and suggest some connections between financial self-help and the growing attention to financial literacy and entrepreneurship in policies by governments, NGOs, financial institutions, and international agencies. Finally, the methodological appendix presents details about the research process that led to this book as well as a reflection of my experience as an ethnographer in a world that is significantly different from my own. I reflect on the utility of ethnography as a participatory method that allowed me to learn a great deal about the world of financial self-help through my own participation, reactions, and observations, as well as those of my research participants such as Guillermo, Sonny, and Steve.
1. See Brady (2014:16). In a study of the various scholarly uses of neoliberalism, Boas and Gans-Morse (2009) identified four uses of the term in social science literature. First, neoliberalism has been used to describe various economic reform policies, including privatization of public services, deregulation of markets, fiscal austerity, and in general the reduction of the role of the state in the economy since the 1970s. Second, it has also been used to describe a comprehensive and coherent development strategy (as opposed to specific policy recommendations) contrasted with state-led development models. Third, it is often used to describe “normative ideas about the proper role of individuals versus collectivities and a particular conception of freedom as an overarching social value” (144). Finally, neoliberalism has been employed to characterize the economic paradigm of neoclassical economic theory, which assumes the perfect functioning of markets. Terry Flew (2014) identifies six ways of using the term neoliberalism: “(1) an all-purpose denunciatory category; (2) ‘the way things are’; (3) an institutional framework characterizing particular forms of national capitalism, most notably the Anglo-American ones; (4) a dominant ideology of global capitalism; (5) a form of governmentality and hegemony; and (6) a variant within the broad framework of liberalism as both theory and policy discourse.” See also Davies (2014).
2. Treating neoliberalism as governmentality does not mean disregarding its policy and ideological elements, but rather understanding that they are not always consistent because they are subjected to and motivated by a governmentality. Anthropologist James Ferguson (2010:172) argues that while using the term neoliberalism with more precision is undoubtedly good, there is still some utility in words that “bring together more than one meaning. As long as we can avoid the mistake of simply confusing the different meanings, the word can be an occasion for reflecting on how the rather different things to which it refers may be related.”
3. Under this human capital framework, anything people do can be considered an investment in their human capital (Read 2009:30).
4. It is important to highlight that while the term self has been used in several theoretical traditions, I use the term throughout this book within the tradition of governmentality studies initiated by Foucault in his later work. This means considering subjects “not simply as passive victims of social practices of power and social domination” but rather as creative agents (Elliott 2008:91). Foucault’s shift of focus from technologies of domination to technologies of the self around the late 1970s and early 1980s has been the subject of considerable scholarship. Scholars have debated about what exactly changed in Foucault’s approach from the years of Discipline and Punish to his later work on care of the self in Greco-Roman cultures and in Christianity. Analyses range from significant methodological breaks to continuity (Brady 2014; Collier 2009; Dilts 2011; Koopman 2013). According to Stephen Collier, there is indeed a methodological shift in Foucault’s abandonment of “epochal and totalizing diagnoses” that characterized some of his earlier work and his preference for a “fuzzy history” approach, in which different forms of power cohabitate and are linked “in a topological space” (Collier 2009:89–90). It seems clear that Foucault decreased his emphasis on practices of crude subjugation and discipline (such as the practices typically analyzed in the Discipline and Punish period) and moved into an exploration of practices of the self that may or may not involve self-domination, or at least in which domination is not the main feature (Foucault 1997b:282). The lectures on neoliberal governmentality (Foucault 2008) seem to be a hinge that connects Foucault’s earlier concern with discipline with his later historical exploration of ethics and care of the self (Foucault 2005:252). Throughout this period, Foucault became increasingly interested in how subjects fashioned themselves and less concerned with more coercive forms of subjectification.
5. For an analysis of the place of economic performativity in the larger field of economic sociology, see Fourcade (2007) and Zelizer (2007).
6. Subject formation and the self has been a consistent focus of governmentality, while economic performativity concentrates on the technical aspects that make action possible, with no consideration for things like self, self-conception, motivation, or desire. Yet there are important affinities between these two theories. Research on governmentality has consistently highlighted the significance of technical aspects of government, although with more specific attention than economic performativity to the intersections between the technical and the political (Callon and Muniesa 2005:1232; Miller 2001). For example, Miller and Rose (1990, 2008) formulated the idea of governing “from a distance” in neoliberalism, borrowing the concept of “action at a distance” from actor-network theorist Bruno Latour. Both were talking about the mediations of nonhumans, but Rose and Miller mobilized Latour’s concept to emphasize how it facilitates a form of government in which the ruler does not directly impose on the ruled. Fourcade (2007:1026) also suggested points of contact between the two theories. She says that economic performativity could be thought of as a theory of modernity, given that it offers an account of the centrality of market technologies in modern society and their capacity to transform the lives and social relations of market actors. For Fourcade, this means that “performative analysis in the sociology of markets is a natural rejoinder to a neofoucauldian tradition that focuses on calculability as the primary technology of neoliberal governmentality.”
7. It is important to distinguish the terms I use analytically from the native terms from the world of financial self-help. I refer throughout this book to concepts such as self, technologies of the self, autonomy, neoliberalism, calculative tools, and inertia even though these are not used by financial self-help fans or authors. The most commonly used terms by fans are financial freedom, financial intelligence, financial education, and rat race.
8. Many of Robert Kiyosaki’s books were written with the collaboration of his business partner until 2008, Sharon L. Lechter. The book covers show Lechter’s name only in smaller font than Kiyosaki’s and after the word with.
9. I discovered throughout my research that it is virtually impossible to find reliable numbers for best-selling book sales. I gathered these estimates from several media sources. The most optimistic number (twenty-eight million) comes from Kiyosaki’s own promotional materials.
10. In spite of the recent turmoil in the American financial system, in Argentina the United States is usually seen as the pinnacle of financial certainty and stability.
11. This book is not organized around a comparison of the two countries. To understand consistently the ideas, techniques, and practices of financial self-help enthusiasts, I draw on material from both places throughout this book, except for Chapter 5, in which I focus on the specific challenges of Argentine users. The goal is not to compare the economies in the United States and in Argentina, or how neoliberalism has had an impact in each country, or how Argentines and Americans in general feel about financial self-help. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973:22) said, ethnographers don’t study villages, they study in villages. The goal of using two cases is to examine how similar tools and practices of financial self-help (originated in the United States) are adopted across national contexts and how they are understood by users exposed to different conditions in regard to financial stability.
12. In Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, journalist Helaine Olen (2013) offered this kind of exposé of the myths of American financial gurus.
13. All names of participants, organizers, and locations have been altered to ensure confidentiality.
14. I also attended Cashflow meetings held by two other New York meetup groups. These groups were not as consistent as Sonny in organizing games.