The Work of Neoliberal Governmentality: Temporality and Ethical Substance in the Tale of Two Dads

By Sam Binkley, Emerson College:

Rich Dad Poor Dad is a best selling book on financial advice written by Robert T. Kiyosaki. Originally self-published in 1997 as supporting material for Kiyosaki’s financial advice lectures, and later picked up by Warner Business Books in 2000, the text relates a rich allegorical narrative about the mental hard wiring required for financial success, and the concealed “ways of thinking” practiced by the wealthy. Kiyosaki’s method is comparative: he tells of his childhood relationships with two fathers; one a biological parent, the other a friend’s father who undertook the task of young Robert’s financial education. Each father presented radically distinct outlooks on financial life. His own father, the poor dad, was a government man, head of the Department of Education for the state of Hawaii who, in spite of his impressive qualifications and career accomplishments, remained “poor” his whole life, snarled in a plodding, credentialist faith in institutional advancement as a slow climb up the ladder of bureaucratic hierarchy. The rich dad, on the other hand, was a self-made millionaire with an eighth grade education who held a deep distain for the naïve approach to wealth generation practiced by the majority of Americans—one that conceived of earned reward in terms of educational credentials and the patient advance to higher salaried positions within a single firm. Throughout the book, poor dad’s dour lectures on the virtues of patience, loyalty and circumspection were contrasted with rich dad’s exhortations to swashbuckling fiscal adventurism, self-interest and self-responsibility. Kiyosaki compares the advice offered by his two dads:

My two dads had opposing attitudes in thought…
One dad recommended, “study hard so you can find a good company to work for.”
The other recommended, “study hard so you can find a good company to buy.”
One dad said, “the reason I’m not rich is because I have you kids.”
The other said, “the reason I must be rich is because I have you kids.”
One said “when it comes to money, play it safe, don’t take risks.” The other said,
“learn to manage risk.”

At first blush, the case of Rich Dad Poor Dad might seem innocuous enough: another proselytizing tome in a long tradition of entrepreneurial boosterism extending from Horatio Alger through Norman Vincent Peale to Donald Trump—a discourse on fis-cal self-realization extolling the virtues of entrepreneurship and voluntarism as a personal ethic. Yet what distinguishes this example is not just its timeliness given the current zeal for anti-welfarist, anti-statist rhetoric, and its veneration for market cowboyism, (nor it’s stunning popularity, becoming a New York Times best selling title in 2002), but the specific way in which it dramatizes the dynamism within this space, what we might describe as the inner life of the neoliberal subject. This space is characterized by a specific tension between the inertia of social dependency and the exuberance and vitality of market agency—a tension that is, in Kiyosaki’s prose, barbed with exhortations to mobilize the latter against the former.

In what follows, the provocations posed by Kiyosaki’s tale of two dads will provide a backdrop for an inquiry into debates around what has come to be termed “neoliberal governmentality.” I take this term to indicate the ways in which subjects are governed as market agents, encouraged to cultivate themselves as autonomous, self-interested individuals, and to view their resources and aptitudes as human capital for investment and return. Neoliberal governmentality presumes a more or less continuous series that runs from those macro-technologies by which states govern populations, to the micro-technologies by which individuals govern themselves, allowing power to govern individuals “at a distance,” as individuals translate and in-corporate the rationalities of political rule into their own methods for conducting themselves. However, in much recent work on governmentality, the emphasis has fallen on the institutional logics, the assemblages, technologies and dispositifs, as Foucault called them, through which the rationalities of neoliberal governmentality invest populations, while less emphasis has been placed on the practical, ethical work individuals perform on themselves in their effort to become more agentive, decisionistic, voluntaristic and vital market agents. The tale of Rich Dad Poor Dad reminds us of the dynamic practices by which neoliberal governmentalities are incorporated. Moreover, it suggests that these practices are ethical, in the sense that Foucault used the term in his later work: they involve daily work performed upon specific objects or features of the self held to be problematic—“ethical substances,” as Foucault called them, which in this case implicates and acts upon the embodied, moribund collectivist dependencies and dispositions that are the legacy of poor dad’s mode of existence.

Read full article at Foucault Studies

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