Since the 1990s, there has been a lively debate among sociologists and anthropologists about the global flow of consumer goods and cultural products. While early studies focused on visible American exports like Coca-Cola and popular music, and the literature was often polarized between globalization and localization stories, recent contributions have expanded the range of topics and perspectives. Daniel Fridman’s recent book Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina (Stanford UP, 2017) takes up an important, understudied cultural product: financial self-help books. This fascinating genre provides a window into the ways in which financial ideologies help construct identity in contemporary consumer capitalism and inculcate particular political orientations. His ethnographic research shows considerable “local adaptation” in Argentina but also reveals a great deal about American culture. As someone who studies working time, I have always found people who aspire to “financial independence” in order to quit their jobs a particularly fascinating group.
– Juliet Schor
How American financial self-help travels around the world: an Argentine story
By Daniel Fridman
How cultural products travel around the globe from sites of production to sites of consumption is an important issue for sociologists of consumption. Due to the U.S. hegemonic position in the world and Latin America’s rocky relationship with the U.S., this is especially true for U.S.-made cultural products received in Latin America. Ambivalence towards US-imported culture is a core part of Latin America’s cultural history. To give but one example, McDonald’s had to cease operations in Bolivia, the same country in which hundreds of teenagers marched demanding that a TV station reinstates The Simpsons in prime time.
Growing up in Argentina I only had to turn on the TV to watch dozens of American shows and movies dubbed in Mexico in which one has to imagine what on earth a fraternity is or why the prom is so important (so important that Argentine high school students couldn’t resist performing its exotic dances). All over the world, consumers have to understand American cultural products outside their original context of production. (On a side note, Latin American TV stations that couldn’t afford new shows kept broadcasting reruns of American shows for decades, which means my generation in Argentina has often more knowledge of American retro TV culture than Americans my age).
For my recently published book Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina (Stanford UP, 2017) I studied fans of financial best-sellers that teach you how to become “financially free”, particularly Robert Kiyosaki’s famous Rich Dad Poor Dad. In a nutshell, Kiyosaki exhorts people to work on themselves to overcome their financial limitations, with the goal of obtaining cash flow from their investments and eventually quit their jobs. Readers in both countries get together to learn about investment techniques, encourage each other, or to play Cashflow, a board game to learn about your financial self.
When I first read Kiyosaki’s and other financial self-help books, it seemed obvious that there was something profoundly American in the ideas, actual examples, and financial advice, yet they somehow managed to travel successfully to countries that had little to do with the U.S. economy. Kiyosaki’s translated books are as popular in Argentina as they are in the United States, yet at first sight they don’t seem to speak to Argentina’s economy and financial system.
For good reasons, Argentines are famously distrustful of their economy and financial system. Devaluing currencies, recurrent inflation, and confiscations of bank savings mark an existential relationship between Argentines and finance that forces them to be distrustful of sophisticated long-term investments. Having had the rug pulled from under them so many times, millions of Argentines often rely on a primitive form of savings: dollar bills “under the mattress.” Always wary of the advent of the next crisis, ordinary Argentines are often more worried about losing the value of their savings than about the kind of long-term financial calculation financial self-help books advocate.
It is not surprising then that fans that I interviewed and with whom I played Cashflow in Argentina were initially skeptical about American financial self-help, and their reaction was “this is not for our country” or “this is too yanqui.” While several fans told me that they strongly felt that a book like Rich Dad Poor Dad was written “for them,” they also noticed that it was written for Americans.
Interestingly, that’s not the end of the story.
The books teach people that becoming rich or not has little to do with economic contexts or with what sociologists call “structural variables.” Your financial success or failure can be traced back to you, your fears and how you deal with them, as well as your “financial intelligence” and what you have done to increase it. For Argentine fans, discarding American financial self-help because of the Argentine economic context would amount to an “excuse” to avoid taking charge of one’s financial life and seek financial freedom. How can they blame the economic context if stopping doing so is precisely a core prescription of financial self-help literature?
To solve this problem, they disentangle “the philosophy” that the books promote from the specific financial advice or types of investment American authors push. Local fans fill the gap by rescuing the core ideas while figuring out local investments to realize their dreams of financial freedom. One fan told me that
“The problem is that people want everything to be easy, they want to be told exactly what to do. And there are things that you can do there [in the US] and not here. But the central philosophy, the central idea to me is the same. […] These people, all they want is to be told exactly what to do and how, perhaps be given the money to do it, and also to have the revenues delivered to their door! Really, a lot of people are like that.”
“How to apply it in Argentina” is therefore an important part of local fan groups. In a strange twist, Argentine fans also say that the advice of financial self-help books is even more relevant in a rollercoaster economy like Argentina. Just like political economists, Kiyosaki says that large financial crises are an opportunity for large transfers of money between sectors of society. What better context, fans reason, that a country like Argentina, where people expect a crisis sooner or later? Those with “financial intelligence” will be prepared to profit from crises. Fans reinterpret their context of economic volatility and turbulence as more favorable and more relevant for the philosophies they gather from the books and board game.
Fans contribute to the globalization of financial self-help through their active engagement in local groups that transform books and other resources into local tools. Ironically, those tools, which are literal translations from the originals in English, contain some of the ideas users can mobilize in order to make financial advice more relevant to their local contexts.
Daniel Fridman is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Freedom from Work: Embracing Financial Self-Help in the United States and Argentina (Stanford University Press, 2016).