T. Undurraga reseña y comenta Freedom from Work de D. Fridman

Billedresultat[La categoría “debate” es una sección dedicada a discutir a partir de libros publicados por los contribuidores de Estudios de la Economía. En este post Tomás Undurraga comenta el libro Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina, (Stanford University Press 2017) de Daniel Fridman. El debate sobre “Freedom from Work” continuará con un comentario de Tomás Ariztía, para terminar con una respuesta de Daniel a los comentaristas] 

Based on careful ethnographic research, this book provides a compelling account of how financial self-help followers aim to change their economic thinking, adopt new practices and thereby reach financial freedom. Freedom from work investigates the expansion of neoliberalism not at a structural level, but rather at the micro level where self-governance is shaped. It follows financial self-help groups, artefacts and actors, paying attention to the philosophy and materiality of their actions – e.g. forums, board games, interactions. The book is based on a two-year ethnographic fieldwork (2008 – 2009) with groups of financial self-help fans in New York and Buenos Aires. Specifically, it focuses on the cult-like influence of Robert Kiyosaki’s bestselling books and how devoted readers adopted and spread their views, aiming to do business, gain new followers, and change their lives.

Fridman offers a comprehensive explanation of the logic of financial self-help circuits, the promises which engage fans, and the practices distinctive of the programme. According to Fridman, the popularity of Kiyosaki’s books can be explained by a powerful combination of motivational elements, engaging tools for the development of rational thinking, and his sociological interpretation of late capitalism changes. The book argues that it is the combination of these elements that makes Kiyosaki’s ideas so popular. First, financial fans are personally challenged to voluntarily change their economic perspective, developing the courage to overcome their fears about money. Second, this philosophy promotes discipline in acquiring new financial expertise and tools (literacy in economic history, business planning, accounting practices, taxes, investing). Fans are then encouraged to use these techniques to change their economic practices. Third, Kiyosaki’s programme offers a diagnosis of contemporary capitalism – e.g. the rise of globalisation, the state’s changing role in the economy, and the decline of working conditions – that helps readers make sense of their own personal experiences, and financial grievances. Kiyosaki thus criticises the crises of industrial capitalism, at the same time inviting followers to survive by themselves in this brave new world.

Freedom from work is at its most impressive in revealing the logic by which this financial self-help programme produces the ‘neoliberal self’. Kiyosaki’s books promote an anti-corporate discourse that challenges readers to develop new ways of thinking and to acquire new accounting practices, e.g. to quit their traditional jobs and search for a business investment opportunity that produces passive income. This programme is not only about making money, but is primarily concerned with helping people gain financial freedom. “‘Getting out of the rat race’ means having all one’s expenses covered by an income that does not require work. That is ‘financial freedom’” (2017: 95). The conversion techniques followers need to adopt involve not only gaining new bookkeeping tools, but also shifting their own self-conception, with the aim of leaving aside the security of standard jobs and overcoming their fear of financial risk-taking. As synthetized in Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad Poor Dad, this is the path of making money work for you, rather than the other way around.

Freedom from work does an excellent job of synthesizing insights from three bodies of literature. First, it studies how contemporary financial self help is an instance of the production of capitalist economic subjects, and in this regard is obviously indebted to Weber’s work on the spirit of capitalism. Second, from Foucault and Miller’s governmentality programme, it explores how the financial self-help literature functions as a technology of the self, transforming followers into individuals who actively strive for financial freedom. Third, from Callon’s performativity programme, it studies the role played by calculative tools, such as workshops and the Cashflow board game, in helping to forge this new economic mentality.

The book is structured in five chapters. Chapter 1 explores the connection between the rise of the financial self-help literature and the neoliberal era, distinguishing it from the broader self-help genre as well as from ‘get rich quick’ schemes. It introduces the main framework of Kiyosaki’s philosophy – the cashflow quadrant – and proposes a sociological explanation of why his call to financial freedom is seductive for so many. Chapter 2 describes the core promise of Kiyosaki’s books – financial freedom – and the type of persons that followers are advised to become: financially informed, risk-taking entrepreneurs of the self who are liberated from dependency on external institutions such as bosses, corporations and governments. In this Kiyosaki’s anthropological view is revealed: a view in which poor people are motivated by fear to work dependently for money, while rich people are mobilised by dreams and aspirations, thus boldly deciding to make money work for them.

Chapter 3 explains the performative role that the Cashflow board game has on users: fans formulate new economic goals, acquire calculative tools, and work on their inner selves to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Freedom from work offers an interesting analysis not only of the logic of the game, but also of how players learn through practice to apply this economic framework to their own lives. Chapter 4 explores the collective aspect of financial self-help groups. Rather than discovering an individual endeavour framed exclusively in terms of self-interest, Fridman instead uncovers a world where self-interest and other-regarding interest are seen to be in balance. That is to say, in line with Zelizer’s work, Fridman finds that in financial self-help ‘communities’ the aim of making money cohabits with a wish to help other group members develop along the same path: economic and non-economic interests are combined.

Chapter 5 focuses on how Kiyosaki’s self-help philosophy, which is largely rooted in U.S. economic culture, travels around the world, specifically to Argentina. The book describes recent Argentinean political economic history, and the type of mentality that has emerged from reiterative economic crises. In describing the way in which Argentinean followers adapt the Cashflow game to their own circumstances, Fridman shows how these American products are made global by active local engagement. The book concludes by discussing how in Buenos Aires the local impact of Kiyosaki’s programme ran amok, examining the political controversies provoked by a Kiyosaki-inspired non-profit which aimed to indoctrinate school children in financial skills, drawing ire from the government. Fridman closes the book with a methodological appendix in which he describes the ways in which he collected the material, analysed the discourses of the financial self-help literature, made observer participations in cashflow groups, etc. This section is particularly satisfying for the way in which it is imbued with Fridman’s self-reflexive analysis of his own ethnographic relationship with financial self-help participants and organisers.

The book has multiple virtues. First, it offers a thoroughly contemporary study on the place of ideas in the making of neoliberal subjects. In line with Weber’s (1905) seminal work on the spirit of capitalism, Fridman studies one way of making today’s entrepreneurial self. In this case, his question is not so much about elective affinities (e.g. between protestant beliefs and the spirit of capitalism), but rather about the psychological and economic conversions that financial self-help followers experience in searching for financial freedom. Fridman not only studies the impact of Kiyosaki’s ideas on ordinary people, he also follows the painful process endured by many self-help fans in changing their financial practices. This ethnography thus seeks to evade a common critique mounted against Weber, Boltanski and Chiapello (1999), and others who are often accused of failing to explain how the ideas at issue travel and are transformed into practices. Fridman captures the enthusiasm of financial self-help converts who discover a seemingly new truth about how the world works and how to manage it economically. The book describes the many moments in which this self-transformation takes place, from the realisation that Kiyosaki’s description of the neoliberal world matches with their own experiences – they are indeed trapped in the ‘rat race’ of financial dependency on corporations and the state – to the alluring ‘realisation’ that they have the power to break this trap through economic self-discipline and personal transformation.

Second, elaborating on Callon and Actor Network Theory, the book seriously explores the place of materiality in the making of entrepreneurial self. In digging deep into the performativity of workshops, forums and the Cashflow board game, Fridman explores how equipment matters for educating financial intelligence. By playing Cashflow, users acquire calculative tools to distinguish between different forms of income, expenses, assets, liabilities, learning to organize this information on a balance sheet. Players also learn to develop their inner character, educating their attitudes with the aim of better identifying opportunities, making investments and taking risks. Through practice people train themselves to understand that financial success should be understood as a constant source of income that enables one to pay for living costs and beyond, ideally without working, and thus ‘making money work for them’. This board game is not about winning per se, but is presented as a tool for learning how to create financial habits that the players don’t yet have.

Third, Freedom from work is a fine piece of ethnographic research, providing strong sociological analysis. It does particularly well at deciphering the logic of the financial self-help system. Multiple analytical layers accompanied by thick descriptions invite the reader to understand not only the motivations of financial self-help fans, but also the way in which they constitute themselves as communities of practice in New York and Buenos Aires. Ethnographic research is about the encounter between ethnographer and the world she encounters. It is about the back and forth relationship between fieldwork notes and theory, of data collection and analysis. Fridman offers multiple insights about the relational character of ethnographic studies. He openly shares his own position as researcher in dealing with financial self-help fans and the reactions they had to his own research, and explores the ethical decisions he made in encountering these ‘natives’ – e.g. how he confronted the question of his own involvement in the groups he studied. Fridman’s strategy was to narrate many of his experiences in dealing with these ‘natives’ while bracketing, to the extent possible, his political, economic and moral stances on the world he studied. “Although I personally reject many of the ideas espoused by financial gurus, the concerns of participants of financial self-help were about issues that are not exclusive of that world… [but of] … capitalist societies: our personal finances, our money, our jobs, our retirement, and our freedom… Those ideas may have been different from my own, but my job was not to contrast them with mine (although sometimes it was hard not to do so). My task was to understand the internal coherence of those ideas and practices” (2017: 189). Ethnographers are commonly advised to leave their own preconceptions aside, so to embrace the world they intend to explore in the most open possible manner. Fridman fully respected this ethnographic principle. The book thus raises again the age-old ethnographic question: what do we do with our own normative stand on the ‘natives’ we are studying? How do we reconcile our own normative position on the phenomena studied with the ideal, non judgmental starting point that much ethnography requires?

While I agree with the importance of facing an ethnographic encounter by suspending one’s normative position, in Fridman’s book I missed a chapter – or two – on the aftermath of the research, seriously assessing the implications of this financial philosophy on fans and on society as a whole. In its current descriptive mode, the book is brilliant at unveiling the logic of the financial self help system. But in leaving the reader to come to her own normative conclusions about this world, Fridman misses an opportunity to engage with the various reactions that his object of study is bound to provoke in the reader, the very reactions that make financial self-help so intriguing, attractive and repellent at the same time. In particular, I missed three critiques: an empirical, a normative and a biographical critique of Kiyosaki’s philosophy and its followers.

First, I missed an empirical critique assessing the gap between what financial self-help promises and its real life impact on followers, measured in material terms. Of course, increasing economic understanding, acquiring calculative tools and participating in communities of practice herald real changes. But on a social scale, a greater look at statistical numbers would have helped the reader dimension the issues in play. How many people in the US have read these books? How many people participate in these groups in the US and Argentina? What are their social backgrounds? How many of them meaningfully changed their economic position after participating in these groups? What kind of concrete businesses or strategies have they implemented?

An empirical contrast point would have allowed the reader to dimension the impact of Kiyosaki’s programme, and to appreciate the scale on which it performs neoliberal subjects. Kiyosaki proposes four ways to escape the “rat race”: 1) investing in the stock market; 2) starting a business; 3) investing in real state, and 4) getting involved in network marketing. Of these four routes, however, only the last is easily achievable for most members of financial self-help groups, and this is especially so in Argentina. What we learnt from Fridman about Kiyosaki’s Argentine fans is that the other routes are generally closed to them due to structural economic factors well beyond their individual control. Thus, the promise of financial freedom for most of them generally ends up materialising through the adoption of network marketing strategies, with little material pay-off. This might suggest that the promise of financial freedom turns out to be less comprehensive or less satisfying, and therefore more illusory, than the life change promised.

Perhaps it is unfair to ask Fridman’s book for something that it does not aim to offer, but I wonder about the extent to which the industry of financial self-help is a placebo, promising economic transformation that tends to work only under certain special conditions. How many of the fans truly change their economic situation following Kiyosaki’s recipes? And how many poor fans? Setting aside the question of possible changes in people’s mindset, and therewith the making of neoliberal governmentality, what I doubt is for whom – and for whom not – and on what scale — this programme actually works to deliver changed material conditions. By not addressing this empirical aspect of the financial self-help programme, Fridman leave us with this important empirical question unresolved.

I further wonder if there is a connection between this unresolved question and the definition of neoliberalism that Fridman uses. In Freedom from work neoliberalism is examined from three angles: a set of policies, an ideology and a technique of self-governing. Fridman, however, pays less attention to another dimension of this project: neoliberalism as class struggle (Harvey 2005; Piketty, 2013). In this vein, neoliberalism is seen as the financial reaction of an economic elite that feels threatened by the expansion of the welfare state. Against that threat, the financial sector and its allies use neoliberalism as a counterattack, with the aim of regaining the advantages of the capitalist class. Fridman misses the opportunity to explore the ideological role of the financial self-help literature by denying or occluding the dimension of class struggle. “One of the benefits of living in a free society is that we all have the choice to be rich, poor or middle class. That decision is up to you, regardless of what class you are in today” Kiyosaki claims (1999: 6). From this perspective, if you do not get out of the ‘rat race’, the only one to blame is you. In promising that everyone can achieve freedom from work, this literature essentially denies the basis of class, individualising responsibility for economic failure.

Second, I missed a normative critique that would have discussed the moral and social implications of Kiyosaki’s philosophy. Fridman does a terrific job of unveiling the libertarian assumptions of financial freedom’s promise. Where Fridman falls short, in my view, is in his failure to offer a normative critique of the sociological implications of expanding this type mindset more broadly in society. The book would have been richer if Fridman would have concluded by reflecting on the social and political consequences of this libertarian programme – e.g. antagonism to taxation and state institutions, erosion of political and economic institutions, and other consequences of a view that divides the world between winners and losers. Fridman here misses an opportunity to problematize the foreseeable consequences of implementing these sorts of libertarian ideas at a mass scale. For instance, widespread acceptance of the idea that you can be rich without working, implies a social world in which it is widely agreed that ‘someone else’ has to do the job – whatever that job may be. Further, Kiyosaki’s call to make money out of any opportunity is explicitly a call to take advantage of crises and disasters. Crises are not seen as negative events, but as opportunities for crafty self-seekers, those who “have acquired the financial intelligence to be attentive to the opportunities of crises”. For Kiyosaki, crises are moments where large amounts of money are moved between the poor and the rich, and an entrepreneurial self, rather than thinking of how to help those negatively affected by the crisis, has to be ready to take advantage. While Kiyosaki’s descriptions of post-industrial society might be accurate in some regards, his solutions strike one as profoundly socially unsustainable. By not problematizing the normative aspects of the financial self-help programme for society, and thus leaving all the most inflammatory normative questions out of the picture, Fridman’s neutrality ends up giving us an oddly thin picture.

Third, I missed a biographical critique that takes into account the trajectories of financial self-help fans. What happen when the Kiyosaki fan is effectively transformed and the promise of self-discipline, richness and financial freedom is reached? Fridman could have tested this case using Weber’s argument about the secularising aspect of richness as a comparison point. Weber (1905) argues that despite the religious foundations of the spirit of capitalism, once richness was acquired, the austerity of life promoted by the protestant ethic was largely abandoned by early entrepreneurs. I wonder what happens to the disciplined life of Kiyosaki’s followers if and when they achieve the sought for financial freedom. Do they largely maintain their methodical habits once they manage to make money work for them? To what extent do the passions unleashed by money erode the inner discipline that, in some cases, helped make financial freedom possible? Fridman’s book focuses on the moment of conversion, on the making of the financial free spirit. It would have been enriching if he had followed these ‘transformed’ selves describing the aftermath of their transformation.

As part of the same missing biographical critique, I would also have appreciated an exploration of failure. What happens with the inspirational discourse of financial freedom when a converted follower aims to become an entrepreneur, takes a loan for an investment, but then fails and needs to resume his ‘day job’ in order to service his debt? The picture painted by Fridman is extremely rich in showing the personal transformations needed to become an investor. What Fridman pays perhaps less attention to is how that transformation is enormously tough, full of failures and set-backs, both personal and economical. One thing is to change the mentality and vocabulary, another is to risk time, money and the self on a project. I would have liked to know more about the experience of failed financial self-helpers, and how they dealt with their failures.

As a way of closing, I want to return to the point Fridman stresses in his conclusion: that Freedom from work is a book about another side of neoliberalism, one not only focused on subjects exposed to the tribulations of new structural economic conditions and policies, but also “exposed to popular books and other tools that provide them with a diagnosis of those conditions, and recommendations on how to deal with them” (2017: 177). Freedom from work is an insightful and well researched book that shows one way in which neoliberal subjects are nowadays produced. The book’s many contributions and achievements far outshine the missed opportunities noted above. Any researcher interested in economic sociology, neoliberal governmentality and the materiality of the financial world should read it. Further, this would be good place to start for a reader interested in the reflexive capacity of ethnographic research.

Tomás Undurraga

Universidad Alberto Hurtado

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