Magical Surpluses

Gabby Bernstein and Marie Forleo

The sub-Oprah world of social entrepreneurs promises techniques to “manifest” abundance, mingling marketing with spiritual practice

“Let this thought remain with you: The Lord is my Banker, I shall not want”  —John Murray, 1918

In a recent online video entitled “How to Use Manifesting to Get Anything You Want,” “multipassionate entrepreneur” and “lifestyle expert” Marie Forleo asks her audience, “Are you only getting a fraction of what you want in your business and life? Are the things you’re looking to achieve taking way too long to come your way?” Presumably, you are watching the video because the answer to both questions is “yes.” And if so, you’re in luck. Marie, along with her interviewee, author Gabby Bernstein, who has been labeled a “zen bombshell” and “Dalai Lama for the Gossip Girl set” by the Huffington Post, are going to hook you up. Not just with some wishy-washy inspirational conversation about life and its struggles—these ladies have “the” answer. No more hoping for change, or wondering what’s wrong with you, or asking why you lack that extra cash or inspiration.

Sitting on a hip-looking couch with their legs tucked up in lotus-like positions, Marie and Gabby are so laidback yet pulled together; so excited, yet focused; so high-fivingly happy that it’s hard not to think, “Ah, okay. Lay it on me, sisters.” And they do. As they talk, the two women lay out the terms of a new reality, where the power to “manifest” your dreams sits in direct relation to your own capacity for “getting clear” about what you want, tapping into the abundance that awaits, and claiming it as your own. For the duration of the video, you are welcomed into the club, where taking part in Marie’s trademarked philosophy of being “rich, happy, and hot” is within your grasp.

Never mind if your bank balance forced you to decide between groceries and doing your laundry, or if you’ve been working so much that showering has fallen to last place on the to-do list, or if the thought of skinny jeans and high heels makes you want to tear the walls down. That’s all cool with Marie and Gabby. Taking their media cues from Oprah, who has mastered the art of making her audience feel she is speaking directly to them, the conversation plugs along, refusing to acknowledge any possible detractors or criticisms of their approach. As far as they are concerned, for as long as you’re tuned in, vibing along to the manifesto of manifestation and abundance, Marie and Gabby are your BFFs. They know your troubles. They’ve been there, girlfriend. And they like you so much, they are going to let you in on the secret of their success.

Women like Marie Forleo and Gabby Bernstein are part of a growing number of female entrepreneurs who are linking together the role of therapist, life coach, and marketer. These are women like author, therapist, speaker, consultant Lori Gottlieb, whose rather bleakly titled book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough became a New York Times bestseller—if not for its content, then for the “controversial buzz” the banal book had generated. Recently, in a New York Times Sunday magazine article, Gottlieb herself lamented the plight of the new entrepreneur, who is pressured paradoxically to expand their services (for Gottlieb, this mostly meant adding the moniker “consultant”) while at the same time soliciting a more narrow clientele, often through the help of new media like Twitter. While Gottlieb ostensibly intends to lament the effect of this branding process with phrases like, “After all, I studied mental illness, not marketing,” in effect her article works as a plug for both her book and her services. This type of self-promotion is a cornerstone of the entrepreneurial project, and to some degree, Forleo and Bernstein are simply keeping pace with the new terrain of the market.

Yet both women are also spokespersons for a contemporary metaphysics of energy, objects, and networked life that exposes itself in the language of abundance and manifestation. Here, abundance is a vague yet veritable élan vital that, if accessed, can inform a holistic, integrated, and evolved self capable of manifesting a new job, a new love, a trip, or even, as Marie suggests in the video, a “new Macbook.” The loose moral catch here is that manifesting abundance must come from a place of ultimate sincerity and a rigorous process of “getting clear.” As Bernstein explains in her video interview, it was only after she had “done a lot of work, cleaned up her own crap,” and come to “believe in herself” that she was able to “co-create with the energy around her” and attract the possibility of working with Forleo, as well as appearing on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday.” To manifest from a less-developed place in your life, or as Eckhart Tolle, the bestselling author of The Power of Now (2004), would say, “to manifest from ego,” is to tarry with the grandmotherly admonition to “be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.”

Rather than being a Santa on demand, the manifestation manifesto is a metaphysical claim that links the development of the personal, private self to an endless and comforting font of cosmic or divine energy that can be tapped through imaginative, meditative practices. In a recent email newsletter from another female marketer, I was asked, “Did you know that everything you desire exists right now and claiming it is as simple as having a different awareness?” By raising my awareness, it would become possible to tap into the “universal supply of unlimited abundance,” and thus I could begin to channel that energy into my own mental life, health, and creative pursuits and business ventures. Here, there is very little, if any, separation between inner life, personal well-being, and financial success. As Forleo writes on her website, being “rich means unlocking your spiritual potential, nurturing your health and happiness and using your unique talents to change the world.”

On the one hand, this metaphysics of self appears to be an extension of the well-documented rise of the therapeutically driven, increasingly privatized, and potentially narcissistic American individual. Indeed, it draws from the same bodies of thought and literature that have long existed in “new age” circles, including Buddhist mindfulness and meditation, the human potential movement, New Thought, and positive psychology, all of which resonate with the narrative of individualism. And, though it is easy to criticize any philosophy™ that links the normative ideals of “hot and rich” with “happy,” what I am interested in here is not the ways in which these women are selling an updated brand of consumerist or materialist spirituality or even that they encourage the “manifestation” of your dreams. Writers such as Nina Power, Eva Illouz, and Barbara Ehrenreich have, respectively, already taken consumer feminism, Oprah and the culture of self-help, and positive psychology to task. Instead, let’s look at the ways in which the seemingly privatized individual is actually an affective laborer who, rather than going “bowling alone,” is caught up in the task of opening the social (both to objects and to media) and looking to connect, contact, and channel its energies. In this regard, the manifestation manifesto is simultaneously an embrace of market logics, labor exploitation, and expropriation while at the same time a form of resilience against the encroaching precarity of the market that continually pressures the possibilities of long-term security for many people. For many women, this paradoxically porous individualism, which situates the self as a mediator of energies and a manifester of objects, offers a sense of power. This power is both abstract and specific. It is the power to “envision” and to have visions, as well as the power to act or make a choice in the face of uncertainty and risk. This is a form of catch-as-catch-can wise-womanhood for a society caught in the throws of economic restructuring.

So let’s turn our attention to what informs the magic that Forleo and Bernstein are selling and look at the notion of abundance. What is this? How does one work with it? And, might it not point us toward a more radical social realization—one that moves us beyond manifestation for personal growth or security— to encourage a collective politics of demand? Emerging from the practices and philosophy of New Thought in the early 1900s, the notion of abundance made its way into the lexicon of American metaphysical religion as a theory of mind that linked external, as well as bodily, conditions to mental practices. The mind, it was conceived, could work as conductor of divine and subtle energies, capable of forging correspondences between the world of human concerns and the universal or cosmic energies of life itself. In this theory of mind, thought itself is a materializing energy that can be directed toward

Ralph Waldo Trine
purposeful intentions or goals. To set an intention is to use the mind as a conduit and magnet capable of calling into being energetic resources that are, to some degree, waiting to be manifested. As Ralph Waldo Trine, a preeminent author of the New Thought movement, wrotein 1910,

He who lives in the realization of his oneness with this Infinite Power becomes a magnet to attract to himself a continual supply of whatsoever things he desires. If one hold himself in the thought of poverty, he will be poor, and the chances are that he will remain in poverty. If he hold himself, whatever present conditions may be, continually in the thought of prosperity, he sets into operation forces that will sooner or later bring him into prosperous conditions. The law of attraction works unceasingly throughout the universe, and the one great and never changing fact in connection with it is, as we have found, that like attracts like. If we are one with this Infinite Power, this source of all things, then in the degree that we live in the realization of this oneness, in that degree do we actualize in ourselves a power that will bring to us an abundance of all things that it is desirable for us to have. In this way we come into possession of a power whereby we can actualize at all times those conditions that we desire.

Via this theory of mind, which linked mind and matter through the law of attraction, a law of abundance was also theorized, which John Murray, founder of the Church of the Healing Christ, explained in his 1918 text New Thoughts on Old Doctrines: “I am living in the inexhaustible abundance of the Holy Spirit, I am not afraid. Depend, upon it, if you do this, you will find yourselves benefited mentally, physically, financially; it will be the beginning of an excellent habit, a habit which will make for the building up of legitimate, honourable prosperity.” In a later text (The Realm of Reality, 1922), Murray would go on to write:

When we learn that there are not two planes—the spiritual and the material—we shall not try to “materialize spirits” nor “spiritualize matter,” for we shall have learned that a thing can never be transformed into its opposite. Money is not, as some suppose, the materialization of spiritual substance; rather is it the visible expression of Invisible Abundance.

While it is true that the law of attraction and its attendant practices work to canalize cosmic energies and encourage a deeply problematic privatization of poverty and hardship on the part of those who have not aligned themselves more correctly with the “Infinite Power” (Murray also wrote in New Thoughts in Old Doctrines, “Challenge the thought of poverty every time it comes to your door. You do not have to admit it to your mental household anymore than you have to admit a tramp of the road to your material household.”), I cannot help but linger on Murray’s formulation of money, which posits that money is not quite real. It is an expression of an immaterial abundance that waits in the wings for humans to call it into existence.

In spite of its troubling emphasis on self-reliance and mental entrepreneurialism, which you might think intelligent people would see through almost immediately, the tenets of New Thought that are re-emerging in the works of women such as Forleo and Bernstein also resonate with the rapid developments of financial capitalism, in which “fictitious capital” seems to rule the day and, in particular, rule the work of Wall Street. As David Harvey has argued, this is a situation “where nobody knows what really grounds it [fictitious capital]. It’s magical, yet it produces this vast rate of return for all the people who are managing it.” In the face of such magical surpluses, much of which has been redirected away from the public and into the hands of private investors, one can’t but help realize that austerity and scarcity are lies. Abundance, it seems, actually seems to describe quite accurately a contemporary state of financial affairs. Now, if we are willing to decouple this “law” from the rather stupid idea that only certain people are able to “attract” it to them via a godly association of thoughts, perhaps we might see that abundance is actually a grounds from which to demand redistribution. Or, as John Murray wrote, the next time those who are peddling poverty to you come to your door, do what you must do and tell them, “Get thee behind me, Satan.”