There’s this sound that’s been really popular on Instagram lately (or, Tokstagram, I guess?). It’s a woman talking about how her life’s pursuit of pleasure confuses goal-oriented people. You’ve probably heard it by now, it goes:
“So when people say, what are you doing? You say, things that please me, and they say, toward what end? And you say, pleasure.”
It started with this video by user @thisiscolormecrazy, and as of writing this, the original video has received 15.2 million views and 47.6K remixes. I casually shared it a few weeks ago without much of a second thought, because on a surface level, it sounded like it vibed with my anti-capitalist values.
Pleasure and joy are more worthwhile pursuits than accomplishment, I agree! Many other creative people do, too — the sound appears to be very popular with artists, particularly videos that show them engaging in their practice. But after seeing this sound approximately one thousand more times in my feed, I got curious about who was speaking.
A closer look at the hashtags and comments revealed that it’s the voice of Esther Hicks, a motivational speaker and author who preaches on the Law of Attraction. Hicks’ work has been enthusiastically endorsed by Oprah and is also said to have inspired the 2006 film The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. She started a company with her late husband, Jerry Hicks, called Abraham-Hicks Publications, and they claim to be interpreting the words of a spiritual entity called Abraham.
Their website says:
Abraham has described themselves as “a group consciousness from the non-physical dimension” (which helps a lot!). They have also said, “We are that which you are. You are the leading edge of that which we are. We are that which is at the heart of all religions.”
The couple got their start in the 1980’s with Amway, a multi-level marketing company that sold motivational books and tickets to self-improvement conferences. One of those books is Napoleon Hill’s 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich, to which Jerry credited his success, according to this post by a skeptical blogger named Kyra:
In Abraham Hicks' Introductory CD, in the segment called "Living Think and Grow Rich," Jerry states that "it [Think and Grow Rich] worked so well for me that in a very brief time I was able to build a multi-national business, touching meaningfully the lives of many thousands. I even began teaching the principles that I was learning from the book."
I found a copy of Think and Grow Rich on the Internet Archive, and reading it felt like connecting a million dots about American culture. Hill claims to have been told “the secret” to getting rich by Andrew Carnegie, the famous steel baron presented to us as a “self-made man” (like Elon Musk, right?).
Hill claims to have spent 20 years interviewing and studying the methods of men like Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt, Charles M. Schwab, and Thomas Edison, even including “endorsements” from rich and famous men in the beginning of the book, among them former president Woodrow Wilson.
So what is Hill’s secret to success?
“…the ether in which this little earth floats, in which we move and have our being, is a form of energy moving at an inconceivably high rate of vibration, and that the ether is filled with a form of universal power which ADAPTS itself to the nature of the thoughts we hold in our minds; and INFLUENCES us, in natural ways, to transmute our thoughts into their physical equivalent.”
If this sounds like 2006’s The Secret to you, that’s because it fucking is. This entire ideology has been recycled and repackaged with some quantum physics sprinkled in to give it a new scientific sheen, but its origins lie in America’s Gilded Age.
Ideas about changing your life by vibrating at a higher frequency with positive thoughts are popular in this economic downturn for the same reason they were popular when Hill published Think and Grow Rich during the Great Depression, because they feel personally empowering at a time when the masses are grappling with terrifying economic precarity.
Hill, by the way, was a con man who only got rich by writing these ridiculous motivational books — his previous business endeavors (there were many) had fallen apart or ended in straight-up fraud, and much like Jerry Hicks’ Amway scam, his only claim to riches was claiming to know the secret to riches. (Curiously, toward the end of his career, Hill also claimed to be channeling the wisdom of spiritual entities.)
There’s no proof that Hill ever met all the famous men he claimed to have learned the secrets of success from, and he said that’s because he lost all his documents in a fire. Sure! In this wild account of Hill’s shady life, Matt Novak notes:
The ghost of Hill’s fingerprints can be found on some enormous U.S. industries. Hill paved the way for business and spiritual gurus like Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra. Donald Green rightly notes that Hill’s writings have had an incredible influence on the leaders of American capitalism.
Napoleon Hill didn’t invent these ideas about harnessing energy through positive thinking, though — the “New Thought” movement was in full swing by the time he wrote Think and Grow Rich. Historian Christopher H. Evans traces the beginnings to the late 19th century clockmaker Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who believed you could heal the body with the mind.
By 1897, though, the power of thought was less about curing disease and more about attracting money. Enter Ralph Waldo Trine’s book In Tune With the Infinite, in which he writes:
Within yourself lies the cause of whatever enters into your life. To come into the full realization of your own awakened interior powers is to be able to condition your life in exact accord with what you would have it.
Henry Ford supposedly loved this book so much that he “ordered it on mass, and distributed copies freely to high profile industrialists.” Which is not surprising, because the message here is deeply conservative and individualistic: you are responsible for your lot in life, and all you need to do to succeed is try harder.
These are the spiritual origins of American bootstrap mentality, and you can draw a direct line from Quimby, Trine, and Hill to #manifestation on TikTok. Sophia June quotes Tiktoker Shawn Owens in NYLON:
“Visualization is the best manifestation technique,” Owens says. “I’ve used that technique to manifest my apartment; I started to visualize myself in that space. Be specific about making coffee or decorating things to embody the energy of the thing you’re trying to attract in your life,” he says. “I feel like manifesting is just as easy as breathing. It’s a part of you.”
Visualization isn’t new either — another major influence in the New Thought movement was Christian pastor Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote the 1952 book The Power of Positive Thinking and was famous for telling people to “picturize, prayerize, and actualize”, as Tara Isabella Burton explains in her book, Strange Rites:
Peale may formally have been Christian, but the exercises he promulgated were pure New Thought: “Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” he wrote. “Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade. Your mind will seek to develop the picture…Do not build up obstacles in your imagination.” Peale’s legacy extends beyond his wide readership. At Marble Collegiate, he was the personal pastor to the Trump family and officiated Donald Trump’s 1977 wedding to Ivana.
As the historian I mentioned earlier points out, New Thought and Christian libertarianism are happy bedfellows. In a paper called Capitalism, Consumerism, and Individualism: Investigating the Rhetoric of The Secret, Carolina Fernandez writes:
[Rhonda] Byrne claims that the Universe works through steps entitled the “Creative Process,” which she says is taken from the New Testament of the Bible. The steps are: ask, believe, receive.
Picturize, Prayerize, Actualize! Ask, Believe, Receive! Live, Laugh, Love!
It appears to supporters to embody New Age progressive ideals, yet the root of the theory actually supports individualistic nationalism and conservative social ideals. This is problematic because individuals who might perceive of themselves as liberal (because they are open-minded about spirituality) are being manipulated by conservative ideology.
In a study of Sedona’s spiritual manifestation community, anthropologist Susannah Crockford describes a talk given at a conference she attended in 2012:
The speaker was Dave Schmidt, a former state senator for the Republican Party and an ordained Christian minister, who left a career in banking and finance to follow his spiritual path as a motivational speaker on spirituality. Schmidt advised that the stock market was run by the ‘dark cabal’ who falsely inflated it to create fear and panic, which would work against ascension. The current financial system was third-dimensional and therefore it would end with the ascension. Some who had individually ascended to higher dimensions already had no need for money. The lack of attachment to money was a sign of spiritual development.
Here, the solution to economic inequality is not taking power back from the exploitative ruling class, it’s ascension. This idea cuts collective action off at the knees, but masquerades as radical by pointing out elite corruption. The Secret does this, too, as Fernandez writes:
At the beginning of the book, one of the first quotes suggests that the upper classes have always known about The Secret and have been trying to hold down the working classes by withholding it.
Bob Proctor offers another stab at the theory that the rich, ruling class bourgeoisie is withholding “The Secret” from us, the “masses.” He says, “Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret, and now you are being introduced to The Secret”
It’s designed that way, but the conspiracy is not an economy based in mass exploitation, it’s some shadowy group of rich people who won’t share their secrets!
According to The Secret, there is a valid reason and divine right for the bourgeoisie classes to be in power. In essence, The Secret lauds the core principle of capitalism and suggests that it is microcosmically re-configured in each individual (through entrepreneurialism), which results in an individual socialism of sorts, which of course is paradoxical. In this way, The Secret borrows socialist rhetoric to hail the individual as an oppressed member of society, and then instead of suggesting a revolution of the masses that serves to lift up all in the working class, suggests through the stories in a chapter entitled “The Secret to Money,” that entrepreneurialism, the hallmark of the capitalist principle, is the answer to their oppression.
New Thought proposes that the solution to the economic precarity of capitalism is just more capitalism with positive thinking. This can be subtle, but economic metaphors sometimes make their way into this ideology more blatantly.
This episode of the Qanon Anonymous podcast looks at the New Age spiritual community on TikTok, and discusses a video of someone describing what they call their “Amazon Delivery Method” of manifesting:
You know when you order something from Amazon, you get so excited, you cannot wait for it to arrive? After you place your order, do you sit there asking yourself, when is it gonna come? Is it actually gonna come? You don’t doubt that it’s coming, you know it’s coming, so you’re gonna treat your manifestation the same way. You’re going to literally place an Amazon order to the universe of your manifestation.
Guest Liv Agar says these creators are equating spiritual certainty with the “certainty of the supply chain”, a certainty that can only exist because of the brutal exploitation of Amazon workers.
Agar explains that these manifesters are asking:
What if I could make my own life as certain as the supply chain is? Which, you know, sort of obfuscates the fact that your life is not secure because of the supply chain, because of the conditions that cause people to be desperate enough to pee in bottles in order to get Amazon deliveries to your doorstep.
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Thanks for this. I had been waiting for someone to say it but in my case did not want to attract the hoopla and v*olence it could cause. Manifestation always gives Manifest Destiny to me. I would prefer a world where we are village- / community-made, where we are thriving with no wage slavery, but people who are able using the skills they want to use. It's what I work for in my capacity, and I write about it in my publication. Cheers, really appreciate your writing!
Social media manifesting has been frustrating me, but I wasn't able to articulate all of the reasons why. This connected so many dots for me.