Breve reseña de Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina” Fridman, (Stanford University Press, 2017)

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 Ariztía comenta el libro Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina(Stanford University Press 2017) de Daniel Fridman

Hace algunos meses José Ossandón nos invitó junto con Tomas Undurraga a leer y reseñar el reciente libro de Daniel Fridman. Como un resultado inesperado de esta invitacion terminamos preparando un breve “Book Symposioum” el cual sera prontamente publicado en el Journal of Cultural Sociology . Copio acá abajo mi breve aporte a esa discusion en donde comento algunos aspectos de un libro que realmente disfruté.

Neoliberal Subjects in the making

Friedman’s book presents a compelling and original version of how neoliberalism is enacted in social life. Unlike many books on this topic that have often focused on exploring either the unfold of neoliberal policies or the link between neoliberal ideology and expert knowledge, Freedom from Work presents an empirical sociology of neoliberal subjects “in the making”. The book can be situated therefore along other similar works that, inspired by Foucault, have explored how the neoliberal self is enacted (such as the entrepreneurial self or the business self). This is done by presenting a detailed ethnography of the financial self-help world, particularly about how ordinary people embrace the rules, worldview and calculative tools of financial self-help to transform themselves and to achieve financial freedom.

I found the book very compelling for several reasons.

First, it offers a welcome counterbalance to the dominant account of neoliberalism which has often focused on a “bigger” scale, such as the work that focuses on the role of government and/or regulations, or the works that map the economic global transformations. On the contrary, the focal point of this book is how mundane people deal and take neoliberal values, practices and technologies. In this sense, the book constitutes a valuable addition to an increasing corpus of research interested on situating neoliberalism in relation to specific practices and technologies. In doing so, the book follows the tradition of a more cultural oriented economic sociology (in particular, the sociologies of money and the sociologies of consumption), with interest on researching economic phenomena from the point of view of the actors and their experiences.

However, what I found particularly remarkable of the “bottom up” cultural oriented approach to neoliberalism presented here is that it complements the material of people talking and practicing financial self-help, with an analysis of the discourses and activities of the financial self-help industry. It is done, for instance, by analysing the roots and premises of the financial self-help discourse. The result is a work which offers a symmetrical approach that grasps both people’s engagement and the expert operation of financial self-help. Following this symmetrical vein, however, the addition of a more detailed description regarding the commercial and professional organization of the financial self-help industry would have been perfect. For instance, it would have been great to unpack how different products of the financial self-help industry are designed, produced and sold could have been considered.

A second element that I found particularly interesting is that this book shows a detailed account of the different empirical forms in which (economic) value and (non-economic) values are enacted and interweaved in neoliberal times. In fact, financial self-help, as a program of individual transformation, works by conflating economic value -expressed as financial gains- with different types of non-economic values.

Two versions of this conflation are particularly interesting. The first one is the detailed description of how financial success and individual achievement are intertwined. In financial self-help, the adoption and use of different techniques for making money and pursuing individual freedom are interconnected and inseparable.  The second one is the description of how in the “world of abundance” pursued by financial self-help there are no differences between individual economic interest and pursue of collective interest. In fact, as it is well detailed in the analysis of the multilevel marketing activities that the participant develops, economic interest is not the opposite but the basis of a genuine interest for others:  generosity and self interest are interconnected.

In my view, the description of these two conflations between value and values is particularly interesting as it illustrates a key aspect of the neoliberal moral grammar, which is the critical place of self-interest and economic value as the organizing principle of all moral and (increasingly) political value. From this point of view, the financial self-help world described by Fridman does not differ much from other economic cultural circuits, such as the world of management and marketing or the practice and values that organize the work in a firm.  In this sense, we can see how this book is situated in a long tradition of critical thinking in sociology about the colonization of social life by economic and market values.

However, and this is another strength of the book, this process is not analysed or presented in an abstract manner but as situated and rooted in specific socio-material practices. Achieving financial freedom involves mastering a series of practical financial knowledge and techniques, as well as being involved in specific experiences such as collective games, meetings and encounters. The process of self-transformation and the attainment of financial freedom is neither a result of the imposition of a pre-existent normative framework nor the pure performative effect of calculative tools, but the practical outcome of people’s engagement in discourses, exercises, games, meetings, affects and tools, among other elements.

To sum up, I believe that we need more of this type of bottom up sociology examining how neoliberal moral grammars are produced, mobilized and lived in contemporary times.


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