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“If We Don’t Look after Ourselves, No One Will”: Financial Self-Help and Neoliberal Political Rationality*

Fernando Ampudia de Haro
Translated by João Paulo Moreira


The aim of this article is to critically analyze the discourse produced in financial self-help literature (FSHL) within the general context of the financialization process. This analysis uses publications of this genre available on the Portuguese market as empirical material, and is based on the theoretical approach of governmentality studies inspired by Foucault. The first section reviews the concept of financialization, identifying its theoretical and empirical strengths and weaknesses. One such weakness is the lack of attention paid to microsociological aspects, which justifies the need to explore, in the second section, the type of subjectivity related to financialized capitalism. The third section examines the key aspects of this subjectivity, as presented in FSHL, including a framework for the characteristics of these publications, as well as a study of the motives, objectives and ways of putting self-help advice into practice. The final section focuses on the social basis of the texts as discursive tools of neoliberal political rationality.

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Editor's notes

Revised by Teresa Tavares

Full text

  • * Article published in RCCS 101 (September 2013).

1Talking about financialization these days is the same as talking about the dominant face of contemporary capitalism. Let us accept, as a general definition, that the concept of financialization stands for the steady growth of financial markets, players, institutions and motives as protagonists in the world economy (Epstein, 2005: 3). Most approaches to financialization tend to be of a macroeconomic nature. In our minds the colonization of the economy by finance is intimately associated with its occurrence on a global scale, which in turn redirects one’s analysis to the structural conditions leading to the wide reach of today’s increasingly financialized capitalism: the major trends and forces of globalization; bloc-based or area-based policies; or yet the actions of political or corporate entities, both national and supranational. But we know, since Max Weber, that capitalism entails the existence of a spirit – in sociological terminology, a subjectivity. In fact, in the context of financialization this particular facet is less palpable and harder to pin down, although no less important. Financialized capitalism at once requires and fosters a way of seeing and doing, a way of perceiving and interpreting the world, and also a form of personal self-perception which can be traced to a human archetype of behavioral and emotional management, which in turn both produces and is produced by financialized capitalism itself.

2The present article addresses this subjectivity, its principal aim being to critically analyze the discourse created by one of the tools used for conveying and constructing subjectivity: financial self-help literature (FSHL). The analysis a) uses, as empirical material, publications of this genre available on the Portuguese market; and b) is based on the theoretical approach of governmentality studies inspired by Foucault. It brings to the fore the importance of a mode of subjectivity that is consonant with the requirements of financialized capitalism (Papalini, 2013) and functionally capable of maintaining and reproducing it.

3The article’s first section reviews the concept of financialization, identifying its theoretical and empirical strengths and weaknesses. One such weakness is the lack of attention paid to micro-sociological aspects, and this justifies the need to explore, in the second section, the type of subjectivity related to financialized capitalism. The third section examines the key aspects of this subjectivity as presented in FSHL, including a framework for the characteristics of these publications and a study of the motives for, as well as the objectives and ways of, putting self-help advice into practice. The final section focuses on the social basis of the texts as discursive tools of neoliberal political rationality – where neoliberalism, as mentioned above, is understood in terms of the neo-Foucauldian take on governmentality.

1. The meaning(s) of financialization

4Financialization is a recent word, which means that we are still a long way from a plain definition or a consensus about its constitutive elements. However, we can list those aspects that are regarded as consolidated in the literature, and about which there is some consensus at this point:

  1. Generally speaking, the concept amounts to saying that the capital that circulates in the financial channels outweighs capital flowing through the channels of the productive economy. Such predominance is the outcome of a historical process that marked a shift from a Fordist production to a post-Fordist financial system (Heilbron, 2005; Epstein, 2005).

  2. This predominance also means that the balance between financial markets, on the one hand, and business and industrial corporations, on the other, has shifted in favor of the former, thus causing long-term pressure of dividends on industrial policy (Langley, 2007).

  3. Financial activity is highly capable of generating new assets as well as indexing systems that can serve as collateral (Leyshon and Thrift, 2007).

  4. On a global scale, the economy takes a back seat to finance, whose structural and logistical foundations are information technologies and the process of economic globalization (Martínez González-Tablas, 2012; Santos Ruesga, 2012).

5We are thus faced with qualitative and quantitative changes in financial activities. In this context, there is a relatively homogeneous set of manifestations and consequences linked to the development of financialized capitalism (Medialdea García Sanabria and Martin, 2013): the increased complexity of the foreign exchange market, the privatization of formerly public companies and services, the independence of central banks vis-à-vis governments, the many varieties of credit extension, the use of employment as an adjustment variable, or the growing instability of financial markets.

6In short, the study of financialization comprises a number of fairly constant characteristics, to wit:

  1. It often provides macro-sociological approaches where the role played by governments, the state, and corporations is given explanatory precedence.

  2. It is cast as a process that can force itself on individuals, who are relegated to a passive role as mere recipients of the actions of financial capitalism.

  3. It is typically defined from an economic standpoint and, therefore, through variables whose analysis plainly belongs in the realm of economics.

7Structurally this phenomenon has been thoroughly identified, which is actually one of its strengths. But that strength is also a weakness, in that the analytical efforts have mostly targeted the abovementioned macro-sociological aspects, with virtually no studies devoted to its workings in everyday life and in people’s immediate experience. The notion of “democratization of finance” erupted on the scene as an attempt to fill this void. The phrase alludes, on the one hand, to the growing number of middle- to low-income earners participating in the financial markets as well as the level of such participation, and on the other hand to the whole range of incentives in place for purchasing financial products in order to satisfy housing, health, educational or retirement needs (Erturk et al., 2007). In addition to its descriptive meaning, the democratization of finance has a markedly normative side, especially when viewed as the desired product of an increasingly market-oriented society. A case in point is Robert Shiller, the recent Nobel laureate in economics, who advocates the notion that a comprehensive variety of financial products should be developed to meet the needs of a vast number of customers. In other words, the democratization of finance is viewed as an extension of financial markets, an alluring gate of access to basic goods and services, for it generates a social order where free individual choice is the prevailing principle (Shiller, 2007). The most visible manifestation of this normative reading can be found in the financial education programs that are being or have been implemented pretty much everywhere. Countries like the United States, the United Kingdom or Australia have pioneered this field, while Portugal has had its own National Plan for Financial Education since 2011 (CNSF, 2011). In general, this type of program seeks to improve people’s financial literacy, both quantitatively and qualitatively, while increasing their ability to choose among different products. So ultimately it is the customer who monitors the market and forces institutions to adjust supply according to the needs of well-informed consumers (Bay et al., 2012).

8As far as the descriptive version of the democratization of finance is concerned, it is safe to say that the pervasive penetration of the financial world in everyday life and the shaping of individual and family everyday practices are widely acknowledged realities these days (Martin, 2002; Erturk et al., 2005). This pervasiveness is also felt in the sphere of work and wage relations (Alonso and Fernández Rodríguez, 2012), as well as in the media, where financial issues are often presented within the framework of spectacle and entertainment (Harrington, 2008; Clark, Thrift and Tickett, 2004). Thus, this alternative approach to finance as something that is an integral part of everyday practices focuses on micro-sociological aspects, allowing us a first glimpse of what might be the mode of subjectivity associated with such practices.

2. Subjectivity and finance

9As mentioned above, financial capitalism has a spirit of its own, linked to a way of thinking and of representing the world and to a set of patterns of emotional and behavioral regulation that interact with practices on a permanent basis. In this connection, there are studies that analyze the use of board games – such as the famous “Cashflow,” based on Robert Kiyosaky’s bestselling Rich Dad Poor Dad – as an educational tool for developing not only financial skills but also life skills, i.e., a tool for acquiring an all-round personality (Fridman, 2010). Other types of study address the mental and cultural aspects of the development of personal finance policies (Aitken, 2007), or the prototypical mindsets of investors as a function of historical context (Preda, 2005). This is a line of research shared by the present paper, which seeks to underscore a few major points:

  1. Building a subjectivity that befits the financialization process is crucial if the process is to be reproduced and maintained. Thus the process helps develop a certain type of subjectivity while being fostered by it.

  2. This subjectivity is not strictly the result of disciplinary action aimed at breaking the individual’s will or resistance. From a Foucauldian point of view, it is rather the product of various arrangements in technologies of government, namely the discourses of experts, the regulations in place, and even the different ways in which individuals choose to implement technologies of self-government (Miller and Rose, 1990).

  3. In order to understand the subjective aspects of financialization it is imperative that we put aside all notions of power as a unilateral imposition emanating from some central entity. A relational concept of power is adopted here instead, coming from multiple sources – state, corporate, business, etc. – and using personal autonomy as a fact upon which the exercise of government is based. In this context, each and every configuration of subjectivity is predicted on the notion of the autonomous individual. It is therefore easy, in an undertaking like the National Plan for Financial Education, to link its provenance and intentionality to formal government bodies and agencies, but in the case of self-help writings such identification is a lot less simple. As we shall see, however, such writings are relevant tools for constructing this financialized subjectivity. We are talking about authors with no professional or partisan connections with the state apparatus, who resort to the world of publishing to offer a specific product for solving issues – such as, among others, debt, consumption, saving and uncertainty – previously identified as problematic.

  4. The seeming banality of financial self-help literature as a tool for constructing subjectivities has to be deconstructed. Ultimately this is a way of foregrounding discourse so as to analyze the concepts, explanations and motives being used to legitimize a given model of conduct and emotionality. Besides and beyond the relationship between language and politics – a relationship that tends to oscillate between homology and ideology – we need an approach based on a dynamic understanding of the relationship between power and knowledge. Hence the Foucauldian angle, with its emphasis on the need to know an object – in the case of FSHL, the Self, one’s personality or inner being – in order to govern it: the object will only become governable when it is turned into a knowable, quantifiable and manageable entity, with its inherent traits and limits. It follows that the study of financialized subjectivity cannot do without a scrutiny of the discourses that shape this subjectivity.

10Bearing in mind the above guiding principles, we now proceed to explore its configurations as presented in financial self-help texts. To put it succinctly, there is the question of why one should be financially literate, what it means to be financially literate, and how to be literate in technical, vital and behavioral terms.

3. Financial self-help literature (FSHL): Characterization and presentation

  • 1 The best and most comprehensive characterization of the genre is to be found in Papalini (2008). Fo (...)

11We may start out by defining FSHL as a subtype of self-help literature. It creates reflexive programs for behavioral and emotional control, intended to improve one’s psychological mindset and adaptation to the social environment. Such programs establish a frame of reference to guide behavior and affect, facilitating an individual’s full inclusion in the specific behavioral patterns of his or her social milieu. By and large, self-help literature as a genre addresses the person’s subjective side, and that is the point of departure for the kind of life change that is perceived as satisfactory. Thus self-help resorts to a variety of rhetorical devices, the most common being: a) the use of the second person singular pronoun or of the inclusive “we”; b) the repetitive insistence on a few main points; c) illustration with real life situations and personal accounts; d) interactive, test-based diagnosis; and e) the portraying of readers as endowed with the ability to change their behavioral and emotional conditions. The expository structure usually starts by typifying the problem or situation requiring change, and then proceeds to apply the remedies and solutions prescribed by the legitimizing discourse on which they are grounded.1 Still, the genre’s boundaries are not impermeable, which explains the existence of a somewhat gray area where we find publications that, while not including the whole gamut of paradigmatic features of self-help literature, partake of certain of its elements and show a number of similarities. These include novels, biographies, memoirs, as well as writings on Eastern thought, alternative medicines and body control.

12Personal finance is but one of the topics commonly covered by self-help literature. Samuel Smiles’ seminal Self-Help, first published in 1875, not only coined the phrase but also contained early allusions to savings. The book offered mostly advice to small investors, whose modest capitalist ventures were regarded as those that truly foster civilization and development (Smiles, 1908 [1875]: 341-368). Other classics of the genre, such as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), or Orison Sweet Marden’s Be Good to Yourself (1910), also offer self-help content that would later be included in other manuals, drawing parallels between personal psychological growth and the business-oriented mind. The visibility of these manuals increased during the decades of European developmentalism, with issues like corporate management, administration, human resources and emotional management also being addressed (Ampudia de Haro, 2010, 2011).

13This visibility is no less felt today. The economic and financial crisis which broke out in 2008 and the austerity policies that followed have produced a social framework in which the whole issue of personal finance rose to new prominence. Whether real or induced, this prominence is actually linked to a public discourse that sees bankruptcy as the single major threat to the social order (Ampudia de Haro, 2014). This context has presented the publishing industry with a window of opportunity, generating a proliferation of publications that offer individualized solutions for financial problems as a way of effecting personal change. Bookstores, airports, shopping malls and highway service areas are the preferred ‘habitat’ of these publications. In addition to the genre’s customary conventions, today’s financial self-help writings present the following specific traits:

  1. The reflexive splitting of the individual as both subject and object of outside help applies primarily to economic and financial matters, and more specifically to household budgeting and to savings and investment planning.

  2. These are not technical manuals, nor are they guides for disseminating economic knowledge. The financial content is indissociable from their wider intent with regard to the behavioral and emotional change that the financial moves are supposed to effect. Generally speaking, financial self-help literature is not only a source of knowledge, but also, and above all, a source of personal change.

  3. Their reason to exist, according to their authors, lies in the fact that they are tools for dealing with the crisis. This categorization is also the reason why these writings tend to address the country’s economic situation, thereby somehow justifying the need to turn to financial self-help.

  4. The authors’ self-legitimation is affirmed either by their status as finance experts or by their professional experience as specialists or journalists in the field of economics.

  5. These writings involve a twofold dialectic: on one hand they clearly seek to inculcate a model of financial self-regulation – and therein lies their potential for creating something new – but on the other hand they exemplify and speak for those pre-existing models of self-regulation, which gives them the ability to reflect current behavioral patterns.

14Selections are always arbitrary. I am not including a number of books that happen to exhibit the same characteristics as the ones analyzed here. Therefore the authors and titles under analysis could well not be the ones mentioned below, but the type of discourse would not be significantly different. My list does not follow a logic of probabilistic representativeness, as it does not attempt to reproduce the target universe under analysis, i.e., all financial self-help books available on the market. Structural representativeness is what is aimed at here instead. In other words, an analysis is offered of the most significant discourses produced by FSHL, or the most common whenever the issue of personal finance is addressed (Ibáñez, 1985). Once the basics of this type of discourse are outlined, we will be in a position to be the mode of surhe Sheir pwet are beed heulogical managi7). Inrceiving appen ifying ilgovernmentality.


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    * Article published in RCCS 101 (September 2013).

    1 The best and most comprehensive characterization of the genre is to be found in Papalini (2008). For a shorter version, see Papalini (2010).

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    Electronic reference

    Fernando Ampudia de Haro, « “If We Don’t Look after Ourselves, No One Will”: Financial Self-Help and Neoliberal Political Rationality », RCCS Annual Review [Online], 6 | 2014, Online since 01 October 2014, connection on 17 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/rccsar.553

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    About the author

    Fernando Ampudia de Haro

    European University – Laureate International Universities, Lisbon, Portugal

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    © CES

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