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Self-Help Shouldn't Be a Dirty Word

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I was at a drinks party of a history conference this week, talking to a young academic who was writing a PhD. "And what are you working on?'" she asked me. I said I was researching the role of support groups and self-help networks in education and health.

"Oh", she said, "well, I'm a socialist, so I don't believe in self-help."

Her attitude is pretty much the norm among intellectuals. There is a widespread feeling, particularly among sociologists, that self-help is an ugly manifestation of neo-liberalism (see, for example, 'The Age of Oprah: A Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era'). Self-help, for many, particularly on the Left, means Zig Ziglar telling you how to be a winner, or Anthony Robbins getting you to walk on coals, or Rhonda Byrne telling us we can all be rich if we just think rich thoughts. It brings to mind corporate seminars with Steve Ballmer jumping up and down like a bald gorilla, or Annette Bening desperately repeating positive affirmations in American Beauty: "I will sell this house. I will sell this house!"

Not only is self-help wickedly neo-liberal and individualistic, according to the intellectual consensus, it's also stupid. The best way a book reviewer can diss a book, these days, is by calling it 'self-help'. Naomi Wolf's new book, Vagina, for example, has attracted incredibly vitriolic reviews, but surely the lowest blow was calling it 'self-help marketed as feminism'. Ouch. You want to diss Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer? Call them 'just self-help dressed up in a lab coat'. Ohhhh SNAP!

Academics would admit to reading anything, even 50 Shades of Grey, before they admitted to reading a self-help book. When the great novelist David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008, and around 40 self-help books were discovered in his library, everyone was a bit, well... embarrassed. And when the University of Texas created an official archive of Foster Wallace's books, the self-help titles were surreptitiously removed, like a pile of porn mags under the bed of a dead relative.

Well, it's true, a lot of self-help is pretty awful. You can drown in all that Chicken Soup. A lot of it is badly written, full of dodgy statistics and falsely-attributed quotes (my favourite is the idea that Plato said "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Plato would never say that!). And some of it is a weird religion for capitalists, what C. Wright Mills called the 'theology of pep'. But that's not the whole story with self-help. It's just the direction self-help took in the 1980s, and unfortunately most people strongly associate the word with the Reagan era.

There is an older history of self-help - a history of mutual improvement clubs, corresponding societies, lending libraries and friendly societies. It runs through the 17th Century via Protestant groups like the Quakers and Methodists, into 18th Century mutual improvement clubs in London, Edinburgh, Philadelphia and beyond. It runs into the working class education movement of the 19th and 20th Centuries, through Chartism, the Co-operative movement, the battle for universal suffrage (Samuel Smiles, the author of the 1859 book Self-Help, was a supporter of universal suffrage and the Co-operative movement, and his books were widely read by Labour activists at the turn of the century).

It runs through Gandhi's theory of swaraj and the Indian self-governance movement of the 1940s, and through Malcolm X and the Black Nationalism movement of the 1960s (X declared, in his most famous speech, 'We need a self-help program, a do it yourself philosophy, a do it right now philosophy'). It is still alive, and vibrant, in the Indian women's self-help movement, and the UK Refugee Community Organisation (RCO) movement. It is also a huge movement in mental health, leading to life-saving organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous or Hearing Voices.

I feel a strong affinity to that history, partly because I come from a Quaker family, and partly because self-help helped me, when I was suffering from depression and anxiety in my early twenties. I went to two psychotherapists, both of whom cost a lot, neither of whom helped me. I then found a support group for social anxiety through the internet, and together we practiced a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy audio-course, every Thursday evening.

That helped me a lot. So did reading ancient Greek philosophy, which I discovered had been the inspiration for CBT. Over the next decade, I tracked down and interviewed many other people who had helped themselves through reading ancient philosophy - none of them were 'intellectuals', they were ordinary people who'd self-medicated themselves with philosophy. I called my book self-help, and I wore that badge with pride.

What appeals to me about self-help is its autonomy. I like the fact that people help themselves rather than being subjected to the theories and power structures of their 'betters' - whether that be psychiatrists, or academics, or Party officials. I like the fact that the advice people share comes from their first-hand personal experience rather than academic theory. I like the democracy of it, the lack of hierarchy, the egalitarianism. I think this, secretly, is why some academics look down their nose at self-help: because it challenges their intellectual authority, their expertise, their Mandarin status.

But I'm aware that one can take this sort of self-reliant philosophy too far. It can be too individualistic. It can put too much emphasis on the superhuman individual conquering all circumstances. I think this critique can be directed at both Pierre Hadot and Foucault - they concentrated too much on individual spiritual exercises in Greek philosophy, and missed the communal aspect. As I put it in my book, "the Greeks knew that the best way to change yourself is together with other people".

That's why I'm increasingly interested in self-help communities, in mutual improvement. I've moved, personally, from quite a Stoic-libertarian philosophy to a more communal philosophy - I suppose it's more Christian, in the sense that it's grounded in a recognition that life is difficult for everybody and we all need to help each other (not that I'm a Christian).

I'm interested in experiments in communal self-help like the School of Life, which the intellectual Left loves to sneer at. But what outreach has the London Review of Books done recently, or the New Left Review, or Verso Books? When did the Left stop caring about adult education? (One possible answer: when Perry Anderson took over editing the New Left Review from EP Thompson in 1962, and the intellectual Left became totally entranced by continental philosophy and contemptuous of the British mutual improvement clubs that Thompson so admired).

Yes, the mutual improvement ethos can also be taken too far. It can be used as an excuse by libertarians for cutting public services, for closing libraries and hospitals, for dismantling comprehensive schools, for rolling back all the gains that the labour movement achieved since it first came to power in the UK in 1924.

But self-help groups aren't inherently libertarian, or laissez-faire capitalist. Support groups can really help people to get better. Self-help books can really help people (the best ones can, anyway). They can empower the vulnerable and relieve human suffering. And they can also work very well in partnership with public services, rather than as a rival.

So the next time someone disses a book as "just self-help", say to them, "what do you mean...just?"

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