Just Friends

image by imp kerr

When it comes to friendship, self-help is no substitute for politics 

The practice of friendship is not politically neutral. The theory of friendship is not transhistorical. Friendship today exists in conflict with capital, and that conflict has an unwritten history. Yet among modern political thinkers in liberal and Marxist traditions, few have had anything to say about it. Carl Schmitt’s politics of the friend-enemy division marked him as an outsider to those traditions, and their enemy. Jacques Derrida wrote about friendship 20 years ago, Hans-Georg Gadamer before that, and both remarked on its displacement from political theory in modern times.

The absence is strange, because friendship was once a central political concern. For the ancient Greeks, it could be the source of virtue necessary to the state, embodying common interest and self-sacrifice among citizens, or it could be the source of factional power and the engine of civil strife, or the source of joy that diverted a citizen from his duty to others. Whatever the case, it was worth taking seriously. But some time around the end of the 16th century—between Michel de Montaigne and Thomas Hobbes—friendship went out of fashion. “What fills two books in Aristotle’s Ethics,” as Gadamer put it, “occupies no more than a page in Kant.”

Ancient Greek cities were small places, especially when you don’t count women, slaves, or other noncitizens, who made up the bulk of the population. So one thing that helps explain the conceptual shift is a change in the scale of political organization. The modern state was one that could no longer be run by a gang of friends. The liberal tradition recast the fundamental political relationship as that between each individual man—each head of household—and the state itself. At the same time, the commercial economy promised vast new possibilities for individual wealth and power.

Self-interest seemed a much better conceptual tool than friendship for grasping and ordering this modern social world. Still, most liberal thinkers, including Adam Smith, assumed commercial society would make people more sociable, not less. After all, merchants had to have a basic level of mutual trust in order to do business with one another. To succeed in commerce, it was better to be friendly. Friendship thus drifted into a subordinate status—a by-product of self-interested rational behavior.

Enter, a century and a half later, Dale Carnegie. Beginning in 1912, Carnegie built a public speaking and publishing empire that became the model for the contemporary self-help industry—and he built it on the failure of the commercial sociability hypothesis. Rather than cultivating friendship and openness, it turned out, capitalist modernity fostered alienation. Carnegie found that people couldn’t deal with others; they wanted to be taught, and what they needed was “a practical, working handbook on human relations.” In 1936, he gave them How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Carnegie didn’t frame his book as a cynical guide to manipulation. His audience wasn’t composed of sociopaths. When he advised his readers to smile, offer honest compliments, and talk about what interested other people, he wasn’t suggesting they should do so only for what they might gain. He was advocating a better world, a friendlier world, one where things ran more smoothly and pleasantly for everyone. That fantasy sold to the tune of 15 million copies  and counting. It’s just that his vision of friendship—really, a vision of friendliness—couldn’t escape the bounds set by mid-century corporate capitalism, and those were narrow bounds indeed.

We remember the world Carnegie imagined whenever we satirize the nostalgic aesthetic of postwar bonhomie, with its bright pastels and painted-on grins. Films like Pleasantville and The Truman Show ask us to fall for, and then disavow, scenarios where friendliness is everywhere but nobody is really friends. By contrast, sitcoms with pointed titles like Friends and Community portray edgy, nuanced friendships that involve a lot of falling out, making up, and making out. If those shows offer richer conceptions of friendship, though, it’s in the context of a utopian abundance just as shallow as any 1950s suburban fantasy.

The centrality of friendship in those shows was a response to postmodern anxieties about stability and authenticity. In sitcoms, a certain comforting portrayal of friendship is built right into the format: No matter where your wacky antics took you, certain relationships were the unchanging backdrop of your life. Your friendships were your situation. Friends made things cohere when all the clichés said the center couldn’t hold. But all those shows featured improbably comfortable lifestyles, with no hint of material, financial instability. Your friends were there for you, sure, but so were your apartment and your credit card.

Girls tested that concept but didn’t really break it. The same goes for Sheila Heti’s novel of female friendship, How Should a Person Be? Both works center on stalling processes of personal self-fashioning, tied up with thwarted artistic desire. In the language of self-help, they are about the struggle to unlock inner potential. Both heroines are drawn in the end to the idea that they will achieve this self-realization through their platonic relationships. For readers and viewers, as well as for the artists and characters themselves, this trajectory raises the same question as Carnegie’s book: Is friendship an end or a means? Is it, in fact, another form of self-help? Or is that just how it starts to look under the alienating conditions of capitalism?


Friendship remained a central theme of narrative art even while it all but disappeared from political thought. But removing friendship from the realm of politics makes it only more difficult to understand. The comedy and agony generated by artists’ struggle to reconcile friendship with the modern self are symptoms of a broader antagonism between friendship and capital. Another symptom is the way creative technological disruption, in the form of social media, has tried to make friendship just another platform for self-fashioning consumption.

There could be another side to this antagonism. In The Meaning of Friendship, Mark Vernon writes that “friendship might actually be destabilizing of the representative democracy we enjoy now.” For Vernon, that’s a threat that should limit our commitment to friendship as a political category. But for those with different judgements of the present system, it might be a kind of promise.

Vernon has links with the School of Life, a flashy intellectual enterprise founded in London by Alain de Botton. Like the Dale Carnegie Institute, the School of Life is in the business of self-help. It runs public lectures and evening courses, and publishes a series of books that includes Life Lessons from Kierkegaard and How to Stay Sane. Other titles indicate an unmistakeable emphasis on acquiescence to capital: How to Worry Less About Money, for example, and How to Find Fulfilling Work. Yet Roman Krznaric, the author of that last one, is working on a new book with a more inflammatory premise, called Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. He outlined his theory in a recent talk:

 Empathy is ... about social change, radical social change. A lot of people think of empathy as a nice, soft, fluffy concept. I think it’s anything but that. I think it’s actually quite dangerous. Because empathy can create revolution. Not one of those old-fashioned revolutions of new states, policies, governments, laws, but something much more fiery and dangerous, which is a revolution of human relationships.

Krznaric suggests “Museums of Empathy” where visitors can learn about labor conditions in sweatshops and coffee plantations, or borrow someone from a “human library” for an enlightening conversation. He asks us to foster “outrospection” as an antidote to the 20th century’s “age of introspection.” But that outward gaze is predicated on an inward transformation of the individual. We won’t need to alter or erase states, policies, governments, or laws because we can just change our attitudes. The vision is strikingly similar to Carnegie’s. An empathy revolution? Just another form of self-help.

If only we could revolutionize human relationships without touching political-economic structure! If only we could all be more friendly! Those are capital’s desires, not ours. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie quoted John D. Rockefeller: “The ability to deal with people,” he said, “is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee ... and I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” What Carnegie knew is that friendliness doesn’t come naturally under capitalism. He supplied that valuable commodity not so much to his readers as to their bosses. A century later, capital has managed to reduce the price of friendliness to nearly nothing. If you want to keep your job in an age of affective labor, you’ll serve that coffee and sugar with a smile.

For capital, friendship is a resource to be bought, packaged, and sold, like everything else. Inasmuch as it can’t be subordinated to that process, friendship is inimical to capital, and as such, like everything else, it is under attack. Friendship, which requires time and freedom, is increasingly the luxury commodity of the powerful rich, for whom it serves as a means to acquire more power and wealth. Yet it remains tantalizingly accessible to all, a site of potential authenticity and joy, or at least of respite and solidarity. Getting access is the task claimed by self-help.

In different ways, Carnegie and Krznaric want to help their readers bridge the gap from reality to a better world. The problem is, a better world isn’t somewhere else: It starts in the ruins of the old one. Self-help is no substitute for politics. When the constraints of political-economic structure are confused with the restraint of awkwardness or lack of empathy, when the emancipation of society is replaced with the transformation of the self, then what set out to be the friend of friendship is only a party to its betrayal.