Douglas Rushkoff on the self-help movement

By the 1960s, the German philosopher Herbert Marcuse had revived much of the spirit of Reich – this time for an audience already dissatisfied with the spiritual vacuum offered by consumerism. /…/
Marcuse became a hero to the real counterculture movement, and his words inspired the Weathermen, Vietnam War protests, and the Black Panthers. They saw consumerism as more than a way for corporations to make money; it was also a way to keep the masses docile while the government pursued an illegal war in Southeast Asia. /…/ But as Stew Albert, a cofounder of the anti-Vietnam war movement the Yippies, contended, the police state began in an individual person’s mind. People who sought to be engaged in political activism needed first to make themselves new and better people.
The counterculture and its psychologists again revived the spirit of Wilhelm Reich in the hopes of freeing people from the control of their own minds. To this end, in 1962 the Esalen Institute was founded on 127 acres of California coastline. The Institute hosted a wide range of workshops and lectures in an atmosphere of massage, hot tubs, and high-quality sex and drugs, all in the name of freeing people from repression. The Human Potential Movement – Renaissance individualistic humanism updated for the twentieth century – began in an explosion of new therapies. Fritz Perls taught people how to kick and scream while George Leonard conducted ‘encounter sessions’ between black and white radicals, and another with nuns from the Immaculate Heart Convent in Los Angeles – a majority of whom discovered their sexuality and quit the order immediately afterward.
Underlying all of this therapy and liberation was a single premise: Esalen hero Abraham Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’. The Brookly-born psychologist’s map for the individual’s journey to more liberated states of being held that people needed to fulfill their lower needs for food, shelter, and sex before they could work on higher ones such as self-esteem and confidence.s At the very top of Maslow’s pyramidal chart sits the ultimate human state: ‘self-actualization’. For Maslow and his followers, the goal of the self-actualizer was autonomy, independent of culture, environment, or extrinsic satisfactions. Agency, personal creativity, and self-expression defined the actualized ‘self’.
Like Dorothy embarking down the yellow-brick road to self-fulfillment, thousands flocked to the hot tubs of Esalen to find themselves and self-actualize. Instead of annihilating the illusion of a self, as Buddha suggested, the self-centered spirituality of Esalen led to a celebration of self as the source of all experience. Change the way you see the world, and the world changes. Kind of. Instead of fueling people to do something about the world, as the Weathermen and Yippies had hoped, spirituality became a way of changing one’s own perspective, one’s own experience, one’s own self. By pushing through to the other side of personal liberation, the descendants of Reich once again found self-adjustment the surest path to happiness. Anna Freud would have been proud. You are the problem, after all.
The self-improvement craze had begun. Instead of changing the world, people would learn to change themselves. Taking this as their central operating premise, the students of Fritz Perls, Aldous Huxley, and the other Esalen elders developed increasingly codified and process-driven methods of achieving seld-actualization. David Bandler introduced the Esalen crowd to what he called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. Part hypnosis, part behavioral therapy, NLP sees the human organism as a set of learned neural patterns and experiences. By reframing one’s core beliefs, a person can relearn reality. The NLP practitioner is a kind of hypnotist who can help reprogram his patients by changing their ‘anchors’, ‘associations’ and ‘body language’.
This work trickled down both directly and indirectly to Werner Erhard and Tony Robbins, who democratized these self-actualization technologies even further through their workshops for EST (now the Landmark Forum) and Unleash the Power Within. Erhard based his seminars on an insight he had gained as a used-car salesman: people weren’t buying cars from him at all – they were buying something else that they were simply projecting onto the car. When he was doing his sales job properly, he was just selling people back to themselves. So why not do this without the cars at all?
Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within seminars explicitly married self-improvement with wealth and power. By walking across hot coals, his seminar participants were supposedly demonstrating to themselves the power of mind over matter and, presumably, over money and other people. While the initial focus of this commercial form of NLP may be on self-hypnosis, one only needs as much of that as is necessary to justify the hypnosis of others. That’s why the focus of most NLP today is on applying it to sales, advertising, and even influencing jury selection and deliberation.
It’s not that the self-help movement solf out. It was sold out to begin with. /…/
Making money off the new spirituality is not a corruption of this movement’s core truths, but their realization. In that sense, the obligation of Landmark graduates to enlist their friends in multi-thousand-dollar courses really does confirm the teachings of Werner Erhard. In their logic, the refusal to do so indicates a weakness, an inability to master the energy of money, or a difficulty communicating with one’s friends from a place of power. /…/
Every new self-help modality is an opportunity for a new pyramid of wealth-building as it is shared with successive groups of benificiaries. The patient of a healer first pays to be healed, then pays even more to learn the technique and heal others. Finally, if he’s lucky, he can move to the top of the pyramid and charge still others to be healed themselves. /…/
Getting past any guilt, shame, or ethics, today’s self-helt practitioners no longer consider profit to be a happy side effect of their work, but its raison d’être.
Maintaining one’s brand means keeping up appearances. Confessing to a neighbour over a beer about the loss of a job or a missed mortgage payment may have once meant enlisting his help. Among branded neighbors, it means admitting vulnerability. /…/ What labor unions once earned through solidarity, a society of secreted, branded careerists takes away. Now we can all get paid less for what we produce because admitting to one another how little we’re making is bad for our brands.
That doesn’t stop this ethos of self-branding from trickling into almost every arena of human interaction, from dating to college applications. Courses in ‘Speed Seduction’ teach NLP hypnosis to nerds hoping to incapacitates bimbos’ cognitive functioning for long enough to bed them, while professional counselors rewrite seventeen-year-olds’ personal essays with the right emotional hot buttons for admissions officers. Hey, that kid sounds cool.
Just like those young businessmen in Bret Easton Ellis’ satirical novel American Psycho who obsessed over the embossing of their business cards, for us the image is everything.
But it’s a difficult moment to try to return to being human again, too. Even that sounds more like a self-help course than a workable strategy. And so human beings go from subjects to citizens, citizens to workers, workers to consumers, and consumers to brands. In the journey towards self-incorporation, market-friendly spirituality provides a momentary release from this uneven fight. All the while, the artificial structures we created – corporations – become bigger players, the true gods of this artificial realm, immortal, utterly impervious to our humanity, and capable of rewriting the rules as they go along.

Douglas Rushkoff: Life Inc. (2009)