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Stuff I Learned From Google Alerts: Self-Help, Rap, and the Allure of Conspicuous Consumption

October 9th 2011

Ever since starting this blog, I’ve had my Google Alerts set to the following: “Book inspired her to” – “Book inspired him to” – “Inspired by book.” For those of you who don’t know about Google Alerts, every time there’s an important article including those words, the article is sent to my email. This is how I find stories about “brave and beautiful” books that inspire distinct action.

I’ve learned a lot about other books as well. Comic books, for example, inspire a surprising number of books, plays, art gallery showings, and (of course) movies. First-time novelists are inspired by 1) their home town, or 2) an illness in the family. And finally, a lot of folks are (allegedly) inspired by self-help books.

This blog is devoted to books that are brave and beautiful, so I don’t include self-help on my list of Books That Bewitch Their Readers. I’m also skeptical that these books really inspire distinct action, or the kind of action that betters our world. Articles about inspiring self-help books go something like this: “Rich Dad, Poor Dad has inspired millions.” Such a sentence will appear before an interview with the author. Not yet have I found a story about an actual reader who actually changed their life, though surely such stories are out there.

Self-help books have been around for a long time, but they didn’t become a separate, highly profitable genre until the ‘80s. More recently, self-help books have adopted a decidedly profit-oriented message. Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Awaken the Giant Within are explicitly about money, but books masquerading as spiritual are also about money. Read this from the first page of Joel Osteen’s best-selling Become A Better You:

Frank Lloyd Wright understood the principle of stretching, constantly pressing forward, never being satisfied simply with past successes . . . too many people are living far below their potential . . . they’ve gotten comfortable, settled where they are, and lately become too easily satisfied . . . God wants you to go further. He’s a progressive God, and He wants every generation to be increasing in happiness, success, and significance . . . He never wants us to quit growing. We should always be reaching for new heights in our abilities, in our spiritual walk, in our finances, careers, and personal relationships.

He’s not talking to the top 1%, is he? Osteen is the head of a mega-church and preaches a less radical version of prosperity theology – a popular and deeply influential brand of evangelicalism that promises financial success to its followers. If you’re not rich yet, you’re not praying hard enough. Prosperity preaching gained popularity just when the gap between rich and poor was widening. It profits off the frustrations of the (growing) lower middle class. It teaches that financial woes result from personal and spiritual failure. Rather than be angry with the rich, one must strive to be rich.

Complacency with economic exploitation is likewise promoted by popular rap music. Famous rap musicians, for the most part, are individuals who became suddenly and exceptionally rich. With money, one can buy expensive alcohol, jewelry, and cars. And if you follow your dreams, you can likewise buy a Maserati. From 50 Cent’s hit song, I Get Money:

I’m stanky rich/I’m a die tryna spend this shit/Southside’s up in this bitch/Yeah, I smell like the vault, I used to sell dope/I did play the block, now I play on boats….first it was the Benzo, now I’m in the Enzo/Ferrari, I’m sorry, I keep blowin’ up….I was young, I couldn’t do good, now I can’t do bad/I ride, wreck the new Jag, I just buy the new Jag/No nigga, why you mad? Oh, you can’t do that?

He’s an asshole, but in the end his listeners want to be just like him.

Amidst a worldwide chasm between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ (as defined by capital), the rich have succeeded in convincing the poor that they can be rich, too. The more stagnant the economy becomes, the stronger the delusion of the American dream. The more dire the circumstances that artists like 50 Cent have escaped from, the more they embrace their new lifestyle. Capital accumulation has been at work for nearly two centuries, and inflation is no longer sufficient to create the mirage of ever-expanding capital; or, as some might term it, progress. From the Wikipedia page on capital accumulation: “Capital accumulation can only occur by taking income or assets from other people, other social classes, or other nations.”

As we all know but don’t like to think about, conspicuous consumption is supported by exploitative, old-fashioned industrialism in other countries, while capital accumulation (and its flip side, permanent poverty) is supported by the growing finance, insurance, and credit industries here in the states. Karl Marx, from Das Kapital:

“It is concentration of capitals already formed, destruction of their individual independence, expropriation of capitalist by capitalist, transformation of many small into few large capitals …. Capital grows in one place to a huge mass in a single hand, because it has in another place been lost by many…. The battle of competition is fought by cheapening of commodities. The cheapness of commodities demands, caeteris paribus, on the productiveness of labour, and this again on the scale of production. Therefore, the larger capitals beat the smaller. It will further be remembered that, with the development of the capitalist mode of production, there is an increase in the minimum amount of individual capital necessary to carry on a business under its normal conditions. The smaller capitals, therefore, crowd into spheres of production which Modern Industry has only sporadically or incompletely got hold of. Here competition rages…. It always ends in the ruin of many small capitalists, whose capitals partly pass into the hands of their conquerors, partly vanish.”

And from Wikipedia:

In a stagnating, decadent capitalism, the accumulation process is increasingly oriented towards investment on military and security forces, real estate, financial speculation, and luxury consumption. In that case, income from value-adding production will decline in favour of interest, rent and tax income, with as a corollary an increase in the level of permanent unemployment.

Sound familiar?

Annually, self-help products create $11 billion in profits. The top buyers of self-help products are those who previously bought self-help products. (No results. Or, as others might conclude, a good product in high demand.) It’s no surprise, then, that Occupy Wall Street isn’t a larger movement. Self-help empires, mega-churches, reality TV and prosperity-preaching music have romanced the public into a state of complacency. Why would one protest Wall Street when one wants to work there? When one, in fact, deserves to work there? When there is nothing morally wrong with working on that particular street? From The Secret, which earned its author at least $300 million:

People who have drawn wealth into their lives used The Secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their minds. Their predominant thoughts are of wealth. They only know wealth, and nothing else exists in their minds. Whether they are aware of it or not, their predominant thoughts of wealth are what brought wealth to them. It is the law of attraction in action.

So . . . if we all thought about money all the time, we would all be rich. No wonder Occupy Wall Street lacks a cohesive message; we’ve all been deluded by this hogwash. We’re drowned in a paralyzing concoction of hatred (for the rich) and envy (of the rich). If we start to question the true value of accumulated wealth, of levels of conspicuous consumption that border on reckless nihilism (wrecked my car just to show that I can buy another!!) — well, I’ll stop here, because this is a contradictory thought, and I must not let it take root in my mind.

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