I Miss Calvinism
I recently killed my Facebook page only to realize that LinkedIn is the fresh hell of my life.
Because of grad school, it had come to seem necessary. Last semester a professor said it was the best way to get in touch with her. My school inbox filled up with requests and notifications from my ambitious classmates: So-and-so added connections you may know. So-and-so added a new skill. So-and-so is probably going to get a job soon, and you’re not. It even nags you when you forget to include biographical information, sending reminders to complete this or that section of your profile to your inbox. If Facebook was like a neverending high school reunion, LinkedIn is like a neverending job application. LinkedIn is Facebook with no fun and worse consequences.
I hate them both neverendingly.
Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, says: “Poor people are always looking for work; rich people are always looking for networks.” LinkedIn is the digital Dale Carnegie. How to Win Friends and Instagram People. Or something like that.
Career has superseded policy as my least favorite word in the English language. I am waiting for a new issuance of the DSM to include Careeraphobia to resubmit myself to the care of a therapist. Then everything that’s wrong with my life can officially fit the pattern of a mental illness.
Is it just me or do we seem to be openly discarding the notion of meritocracy in our culture? Privacy, too, is all but dead. The private person will suffer lack of opportunity, and especially the humble person will. Both will be considered obsolete or techno-illiterate or incompetent. Or so we are told. The workforce demands that we compete and by compete it means market. These personal finance gurus — -charlatans and scumbags, all of them — -have got us convinced that we need to engage people in increasingly vast but shallow virtual spheres in order to win…what? A job? A healthy income?
I despise LinkedIn because of the bi-directional flow of the marketing that is going on. Now that I work for a corporation I am more aware than ever that my job is not just a transaction; it’s an everyday laboratory in which I, the subject, respond to the marketing tactics of my brand name employer. Only ecstatic and enthusiastic levels of happiness seem to equal compliance. I am being sold, on my job, on the concept of my job as self-fulfillment, every day. Only it’s a sale that, for the sake of my own economic survival, I can’t refuse, which makes it, paradoxically, not a sale at all, at least, not an honest one. I can’t even negotiate the terms and conditions of the transaction. I use a time clock that takes a digital picture of my right index fingerprint as proof that I am me and that I am a payable entity, but I am supposed to honor some sense of real value and connection with these awful people who put up the time clock. And sing their praises online!
These same awful people have named the section of our employee website where discounts are offered “the Company Store.” These discounts are the result of partnerships with other corporate entities, such as WalMart and AT&T, whom I’d rather not patronize anyway.
There is a saying we lean on in the service industry, “Kill them with kindness.” My manager says it when she treats an obstreperous guest to complimentary gifts and services in order to smooth over their complaints. The same is being practiced on us, with “The Company Store.” Other sections of the human resources web site offer us help on such things as filing for bankruptcy and personal financial literacy courses. I have considered calling the “Business Integrity Line” to complain to corporate overlords about the obvious lack of sensitivity involved in using this term, “The Company Store.” It’s morally wrong to so casually and smugly invoke the industrial exploitation of coal miners who were once coerced into living in isolated patch towns, then indentured through the use of company-owned general stores. People fed their children to these bastards in order to afford the overpriced food at the Company store, and the breaker boys came back with lacerated hands, sallow skin and stunted limbs.
Long before the Holocaust, men were gassed to death when, because of accidents, collapses or improper ventilation, methane vapors infiltrated the underground chambers where the men were trapped, in ten or twelve hour sentences at a time, for the non-crime of being born poor. If they did not burn up, they suffocated. And this was only one of the excruciating variety of death by industrial accident available at the time. But now it’s been turned into a sly joke that’s being pulled on hotel workers at the expense of these dead souls.
In friggin’ Pennsylvania, anthracite central.
It’s like they are daring me to say something.
I used to work on the island of St. Thomas, on a 500 plus room resort. Another instance of spray-you-in-the-face-like-a-tomcat corporate arrogance occurred when the general manager of the resort chose to co-opt Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his inspirational quote of the week on the internal newsletter. Along with the week’s guest satisfaction scores and occupancy stats, the general manager cut and pasted a quote from the civil rights leader about service.
The fuller version of this popular King quote is (my emphasis):
“Everybody can be great….because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
Eighty-five percent of the population of St. Thomas is black, their ancestors brought to the West Indies to slave away in the sugar cane fields of the English, Danish and French colonizers. To this day, Caribbean people are notorious for their Creole and patois, what sounds to the Anglo ear like a defiantly, quixotically ungrammatic and confusing mish-mash of low, broken English or French and pure, joyous linguistic imagination. The slave trade was even more brutal there, as the year-round growing season and the proximity to the high seas routes between mainland America and Africa meant that colonizers could work a slave until he or she dropped dead, then get a fresh-off-the-boat replacement. Enslaved men were as plenteous as fish at a fish market. Their business model therefore did not involve the regeneration of and forming of family networks among the slaves, as in the American South.
The island’s native sons are currently second-class citizens of the United States. They have rights in the territories, but they can’t vote for the President. The wage scale is extremely low, a product of the tourism and hotel industry supplanting the old plantation style domination by non-native interests. People struggle to get their children into clean school uniforms and new shoes, much more to get them into college. Many people native to the Virgin Islands do not know how to swim or how to sail. Thirty to forty percent of children who attend Virgin Islands public schools never earn a high school diploma. Many of them end up in what are called “back of the house” positions on resorts, as groundskeepers, shuttle drivers, janitors and cooks. Non-natives, i.e. whites, have more representation in what is called, without irony or, again, acknowledgement of the historical residue, “front of house” positions. (These dichotomous terms used to apply to the relative rank and physical placement of slaves on large estates, “field slaves” versus “house slaves,” etc.)
I had at this resort a very sweet, grandmotherly West Indian supervisor named Judith. Once Judith pulled out a sepia-toned picture of our CEO visiting the resort that she had saved on her phone. In it, he is an old white man at the apex of a geese-like formation of smiling, crisply uniformed black hotel workers on a staircase. I had told her I had a bad night (the guests were rough, and the service I gave was not smooth), and she showed me this photo as an act of inspiration, as if to say that we are all equally valued on this plantation, err, resort. She has been loyal to this job and this man for almost thirty years, and she was making less money than I was but carrying more responsibility because she was a non-tipped hourly worker. She probably made somewhere around $26,000 annually. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated while he was helping to organize a labor campaign for sanitation workers. By serve he did not mean buffalo wings and pina coladas. He did not mean that at all.
In stealing this quote, the general manager left out the last two parts, the heart full of grace and the soul generated by love part. Not accidentally.
My new manager’s office is strangely decorated with literature and flyers about accountability and personal responsibility — -favorite buzzwords of the Right. One flyer shows different levels and statements associated with these vaunted, good-little-worker traits. At the bottom is “blame, victimhood,” at the top is “problem solving, leadership, etc….” I say strangely because before I had a corporate job, these things were not displayed everywhere in the businesses and newsrooms I frequented. My adulthood was assumed. I say strangely, too, because such condescending psycho-social babble is something I would really more expect to see in a drug treatment center or a halfway house or even a grade school than in a workplace. Such propaganda is common among major retailers, though, and it really serves to make entry level employees feel like their personal situation at the bottom, with wages that do not even come close to cost of living standards, is the result of some personal failing or deficiency. Entry level retardation can be overcome with good character and mental hygiene, according to managers. Talking about or even recognizing systemic unfairness will not advance you here, is the implicit message.
Directly below this flyer, for a couple of weeks now, a stack of flyers on how to reach the Office of Supportive Housing has been sitting on the printer. The Office of Supportive Housing is a local governmental entity designed to get aid to people on the threshold of homelessness. The housekeepers have recently had hours slashed by a new “choice” program, which rewards loyalty program members with extra points for opting out of housekeeping services. The same company that has jeopardized the status of its workers unto the point of dropping them at government bureaucrats’ doors in a state of near homelessness loudly touts the conservative ethos of the self-made scion and of personal responsibility. Everyone on the managerial rungs is not so subtly winking and nodding at and making noises about the Republicans in this premature and overwrought Presidential campaign season.
One of my managers darkly quipped that Hallmark did not make sympathy cards for the victims of drive-by shootings. It’s oh so inconvenient. A “houseman” who lives in a violent neighborhood in West Philadelphia and cannot afford to move had three of his relatives grazed with bullets during a family barbeque. Then he found that he couldn’t safely be at home with his two daughters because he had the nerve to report the incident to the police and was branded a snitch. The managers purchased him a sympathy card, then two weeks later wrote him up for lateness and for bringing his children to work. The lack of shelter, avoidance of expensive childcare and the scrambling he had to do after the incident almost cost him his job because of the strictness of the corporate policies, but the managers, as they were snickering about the awkwardness of it all and signing the card, were self-congratulatory and smug about this act of “kindness” toward the employee.
So when I come home from all that, the last thing I want to do is scout LinkedIn for information from similar corporations on self-fulfillment. It is not leisurely for me to create a separate and strictly professional persona online that I then have to keep refreshed and public. The ultimate Benthamian nightmare is this self-imposed panopticism, where you do the double work of being your own guard and prisoner, censor and performer, at the same time. How many times have you been exhorted to “Google yourself”?
The Internet is full of what seems like uncompensated work for me to do. Surveys and sign-ups and subscriptions and shit I don’t need to buy stacked on top of relevant articles and shit I need to know. Sometimes, I’d rather eat a brownie, throw some kettlebells, and watch old episodes of The X-Files. Unfortunately, I get links to LinkedIn materials at work through our corporate website and email servs, which is how I stumbled across this interview that LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner did with Oprah Winfrey as part of an effort to promote Oprah’s upcoming television series Belief.
That Oprah is doing a television series on religion is skeevy enough as for years now it has been the joke that “Oprah is the official religion of America.” But she seems to have taken the charge literally, almost as a directive to end her career as an actual religious figure. It’s like someone has said to her, “Hey, Oprah, you have a multi-billion dollar a year sales empire, your own magazine, TV channel and …What’s next?”
Apotheosis, of course, then livecast ascension.
In the interview on LinkedIn, Weiner comes close to framing and enshrining Oprah as a prophet. He uses expressly religious terms. Weiner cloaks Oprah’s financial power and wealth in the dishonest lexicon of Law of Attractionists, saying to her that she has her “finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, and you are not only receiving it, you are influencing it.”
She sells stuff, is what he is saying, and because she has sold a lot of stuff in the past, she is more likely to generate megasales in the future, as well as to know what people want to buy before they do. But somehow selling and forecasting are words too mundane to describe Oprah’s material success, so throughout the interview Weiner and Oprah couch everything in these New Age terms of “sending” and “receiving” and “messages” “landing” in the collective consciousness. These abstractions are fine up to a point. Cultural commentators use them a lot, but they are dangerous and offensive when they are slyly hitching viewers to the entire Law of Attraction paradigm, which exalts the rich people of privileged nations, soothes their conscience, excuses class divisions and blames poor people for their own status. Over the course of the interview, it becomes apparent that both Weiner and Oprah are propagating LOA.
At one point, after she shares some of her spiritual insights about working and achievement and female self-actualization, he asks her: “Has anyone ever documented every time you say you had an ‘Aha moment’ or a ‘lightbulb moment’ or when you repeat something twice?”
Weiner is suggesting that someone, a disciple, create a gospel of Oprah. This is important, he says, “because everyone is learning through you. You are a vessel of learning.”
Years ago, I wrote this post on how vile and viral were the Law of Attraction ideas and how upsetting for anyone concerned with social justice in a crisis age. I’m not the only one doing this. Hardcore Christians who are horrified about the way the texts and messages frame humans as creators of the universe are pretty outspoken. They see the parallels between the snake in the garden and Eve’s temptation.
I see the way that young people are today enslaved, indentured by universities, the psychiatric industry, the needs of their parents and the insistence of corporations that they give their whole selves to profit maximizing activity while getting little in the way of pay, respect, autonomy or security in return. All they have is hope, and what a tender, obnoxiously under-rebellious lot they are.
You don’t have to worship a Christian God to see that the Law of Attractionists are supporting the same set of beliefs that led us to vast economic insecurity and inequality. LOA is a thousand times more powerful than its intellectual forerunners, Ayn Rand and the Objectivists she spawned, though, because Ayn Rand was aggressively polemic. In page after page, you can almost hear the axe grinding behind the dry, wooden prose. Some people may think she set the world on fire with her ideas, but she was a flop of a writer. She is the canonical equivalent of a bookend because she never selflessly delivered a character she could not bend to her mammoth, buck-toothed will. She ended up producing as a capitalist ideal a caricatured version of Western, Apollonian masculinity that calls for an equally exaggerated vilification of just about everyone else: poor people, the government, housewives, workers.
LOA, by contrast, whispers and sighs and seduces like Taylor Swift if Taylor Swift floated down from a rainbow-colored spaceship wearing only bunches of trendy kale but smelling of Cinnabon. It carries that viral capacity precisely because of its intellectual lightness. It’s a bluebird. It’s a plane. It’s a yoga class. It’s safe, all-natural heroin. It’s wholesome, but it’s sexy at the same time. It’s ordinary, but it’s magic. It’s ancient, but it’s now. It’s anything you say it is. It’s anything I say it is. You can have everything that you want in this life, just by thinking about it, because you are good. You’re a good person because you want, and if you get what you want, you deserve it because you attracted it with your mind, by wanting it.
These Law of Attraction themes really have metasthesized into American cultural mainstream, distracting us from the American empire even as it falls down around our ears, the class warfare that made Baby Boomers turn on their children, and the concentration of wealth in irresponsible, transnational shadow entities, the corruption of liberal democracy, the violent death the planet is dying and the social unrest that all of the above has provoked by making us focus on our own little bottom line: our “happiness,” our “selves,” but not our real emotions or our real selves. No, our LinkedIn meme-spun avatars of calm, achievement and success.
Ayn Rand’s characters were a defense of the melodramatically drawn rich but self-made man. LOA is a defense of the most vulgar wish-fulfillment fantasies of escape that most of the lower and middle classes harbor as a direct result of their declining status. LOA is a deliberate, calculated sublimation written for poor people by rich people. It is a siren song, a toxic lullaby; it is evil, actually.
To soothe myself I used to watch Fight Club. Now I watch the History Channel documentary on The Dark Ages.
I may have negative net worth, I tell myself, but given the parallels I see between present day America and the collapse of the Roman Empire (actually more like the collapse of the Soviet Empire, really) can my fiscal faults and paper failures really be that significant?
I constantly flirt with the idea of joining the military. I would wade through piss and shit and blood and guts to get out of debt. After years of making straight As and reporting on crime and corruption, I think it is high time that my country serve me, and my only pre-deployment instructions to my family would be that if I did not come back alive that they forever say, “She died of her country” rather than “She died for her country.” Oh, and everyone would have to do a shot to Pink’s “Funhouse” at my wake.
Sure I hate jihadists, and I could put killing one of them on my bucket list. But deep down, I don’t give a fuck. There are people in Oakland living in shipping containers. Real, live boxcar people in 2016. As I watch The Dark Ages, I think: Why suffer from low self-esteem? As a thought experiment, I ask myself over and over: What advice would a time-travelling me have for a random Roman legionnaire? What do you tell an ant living at the base of the Colossus of Rhodes?
Oprah, on the other hand, believes that she can make a pot of tomato soup using only her mind. She shares her first LOA-conversion “manifesting” story with Weiner:
“One day I was at my farm in Indiana. It was a rainy day and I was thinking, “Gee, I sure would like some tomato soup.” Soon after, the caretaker who lived across the street came in with a pot of tomato soup. I asked her: “What made you do that?” She said: “Well, honey, I had these tomatoes. So I thought maybe you’d like some tomato soup.” So I was like, Wow, if you can get tomato soup like that, what else is possible? What else can I manifest? So I started trying it with other things. I have seen it happen over and over and over again. You control a lot by your thoughts.”
Like all LOA promoters, she calls coincidence “manifesting” and believes (or expects us to believe) that all her wealth and comfort are the direct creation of brainpower and feel good vibes. If this is really the way she thinks, I don’t envy her that “power.” I’d rather be butt-fucking broke but brave enough to face reality than serenely, senselessly and selfishly delusional. Furthermore, little notice or gravitas is given here to the chain of thinking that barely pauses in gratitude for the smallest but most basic of gifts — -food — -nor reflects on the many who are without it, before immediately aspiring to more. “Wow, if you can get tomato soup like that, what else is possible?”
What else can I manifest? is code for a common, baseline, but highly individualized greed that shows up again and again in LOA texts and which LOA texts are designed to simultaneously stimulate and absolve.
Sure, later on in the interview Oprah pays lipservice to the fact that sharing makes everything more enjoyable, but it’s astonishing that someone who plugged Anna Karenina, a tract written by a radical Christian anarchist and Russian anti-bourgeoisie, on her book club, could turn around and tell a tale about how a servant on her modern-day estate brought her a pot of soup at the exact moment of her craving as an anecdotal opening to a rather underhanded morality lesson about how the rich get richer and the poor get…to make tomato soup, apparently.
Right now, in the United States, thirty percent of people are in poverty or approaching poverty. Even for those outside the bottom 30 percent, the possibility of prosperity and financial independence is diminishing precisely because earned income is failing to achieve upward mobility. Any kind of (largely mythical) social compact whereby the two had a cause-effect type relationship is broken, has vanished. Instead, the returns on working a job are that you will be available to work your job next week and only next week, and that’s all, across many different levels of income and across many different occupations. In this entirely extractive paradigm, the returns on unearned, i.e. ownership, income are exponentially greater. Yet everyone is still reading volumes on how to get a better job or a better-paying job when almost no one who is currently wealthy or independent in America got so from working a job.
So here’s why LOA is important to people like Weiner and Oprah, to brand makers and to Republican shitheels such as Donald Trump and Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. It makes people comfortable with the metrics, unquestioning of a moral scheme of things in which the old Weberian work ethic is mercilessly repackaged to be the new/old American dream and people are expected to wed their most private ideals, of passion, of dreams, of the raw, primal ingredients of an identity quest, to cleaning hotel rooms, serving lunch, making coffee, to all manner of jobs both menial and flatly unfulfilling.
In her book, Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness, Miya Tokumitsu discusses the dirty schemes and memes of branding as they are practiced on jobseekers and low-wage workers, of being a “team member” as opposed to a stocker or an “associate” as opposed to a “cashier” also comes with the expectation at the outset that ordinary people try to sell themselves as some sort of savant, plugged into the magical realm of self-actualization and psychological growth while performing work for wages which are worse, in terms of real buying power, than the same jobs fetched thirty years ago. The ideal worker must be wholly consumed by their work and wholly dependent on it for self-worth but harbor no expectations about material security or even continuity in exchange. Benefits be damned, I would do this job for free is the obvious refrain toward which job seekers are steered through a series of questions and personality quizzes when applying for jobs at Target, WholeFoods, Starbucks, Wegman’s and so many others. The rank-and-file of these megacorporations are subjected to increasingly repressive, strident and fascistic norms of behavior at work, where obedience to policies that sometimes threaten basic mental and physical health, such as “clopens,” and competent performace of duty is not enough. A subjective ethos of happiness, satisfaction and loyalty to the brand must be reiterated at all times.
In a section titled “The Morality of Lovable Work,” Tokumitsu writes: “How did love, pleasure, fun and constant attention to the self’s desires become the picture of ideal work? How did they overtake self-sacrifice as virtues? Even more fundamentally, how did work become seen as worthy in itself, as one of the widely accepted parts of human existence?” The rest of the book explores how these elevated and propagandized ideals about work actually undermine Americans, trapping them into systems of reduced pay for both skilled and non-skilled labor and shrinking their autonomy while preaching that somewhere, just over the rainbow, they will have access to cool, creative jobs. They will be famous online and set their own hours.
A WholeFoods near where I live has plastered life-size photo cutouts of its bakery employees along with little biographical portraits along the window that allows diners in the café section to peer into the bakery. It’s creepy, and it’s weird because it’s done in such a way as to visually mimic the live worker standing there, looking out from the interior workspace. It’s a little bit of badly done trompe l’oeuill. One of the bakery employees featured at the Plymouth Meeting store is a youngish black man, and he has round features which seem exaggerated because of the angle at which the photograph is shot. He has a giant grin on his face, of course. Every time I see this farcical display I think of hungry, slavering dogs at the pound and hear that song, “How much is the doggie in the window?” in my head and I don’t even want to eat the pastries anymore.
I have been working blue-collar jobs for seventeen years: bagging groceries, cooking, cashiering, working fast food, and waiting tables. Never has it been more incumbent on me to participate in coached marketing about the level of satisfaction that I have with my shit-pay job for a corporation which repeatedly gets glossy encomiums in Forbes and Fortune magazine for being one of “America’s top 100 places to work.” This job, which does not cover even basic rent at 40 hours a week, teaches me to repeat the same marketing schtick back to them as a requisite duty while expecting other corporations to subsidize their low pay by giving me more mind-numbing, part-time work.
The training in this starts before you are hired. A recent job application I filled out for a hotel chain demanded to know: “How often do you feel that you can achieve success at work by focusing on positive things?” Answer choices range from “I am not sure” to “More often than most other people.”
Beware this word positive. It seems that positive thinking and all the pop psychological jargon of LOA has trickled down so thoroughly into the masses that it is teeth-grittingly de rigeur among, of all people, the homeless. Twice a week I steal back my hospitality “talents” and serve breakfast at a day shelter where most of the clients work full-time for places like Popeye’s and Motel 6 and for the contractors who build or landscape or service such places. Quite a few of them are pursuing higher education, taking classes in phlebotomy, pharmacology and human services. They are not all the stereotype of enfeebled, unreasoning mental patients and dirty, drooling drug addicts. They live on the street and cannot afford food because their wages are that low or because there is no support for what they are trying to do with their minds.
The shelter is plastered with the uplifting, anti-self-pity Christian credos that make me want to run screaming home as soon as I take off my apron. “Pray about everything, worry about nothing.” Etc.. The first few weeks I volunteered, I was very depressed at what I saw there. I almost started crying when a woman, the phlebotomy student, told me, unbidden, that in spite of how the nuns at the other shelter had temporarily confiscated most of her clothes and belongings, she was plugging on.
“You have to stay positive, you know? I am keeping my thoughts positive.”
If you ask them how they are doing, most of the homeless clients will give you some sort of response about how they are remaining positive.
It broke my heart, how the woman felt the need to self-censor. She had whined, and now she needed to reflexively redeem herself with this canned message about positive thinking. I looked around and realized that, except for when they were out on the street, there really was no safe space for these people to mourn their situation, to express pain and anger at their degradation or to solemnly reflect on the value of suffering. There is an insidious fallacy in the Christian charity houses and the LOA saturated broadcasts and New Age spiritual retreat centers that holds that a human cannot experience a feeling that is both negative and righteous at the same time.
By the same token, we forget that happiness is just a feeling, an often fleeting and a value-neutral state of mind. Happiness is of dubious utility and has a tenuous relationship with survival if the survival in question is that of your immortal soul. Like, if you are stranded in the woods on a snowy night and you piss on your hands, you might stave off frostbite. You will smell bad, but you might keep all of your fingers. That’s happiness for you.
The same job application also asked me this question: “Most recently when given a positive performance evaluation by your supervisor(s). What did you think determined the evaluations?” The answer choices lay bare the extent to which work and workplace culture have really become the temple whereby we must prove ourselves obedient spiritual pawns. The answer choices are: “1. It was determined by my effort and hard work, which is usually how I succeed in other areas of my life. 2. It was determined by my effort and hard work, but this usually is not how I succeed in other areas of my life. 3. It was determined by other circumstances, which is usually how I succeed in other areas of my life. 4. It was determined by other circumstances, but I feel my effort and hard work generally determine my performance evaluations. 5. I have never been given a performance evaluation.”
Now mind you this application is for a waitressing position. So I have to prove that I own and live the secret to success while beseeching people for a low-status, waitressing job. I have a sneaking suspicion that one of the burdens the working poor would like most to shed is this forced hypocrisy. Really it’s a given that I am not a success. The correct answers are encoding for a pliant personality. It is not the case that the restaurant and hotel industry thrives because wait staff are rigorously self-analytical. The companies have spent much money designing this screening process.
In the heyday of the hippie movement, people attacked the school system for how its rigidly Weberian psychological dogma produced weak, unquestioning automatons, uncritical zombies, willing and mindless consumers. Think Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The new wall is the department store and the restaurant where, after this massive failure of creative capacity, the new working poor of America, college-educated or not, naturalized citizen or illegal immigrant, can go to experience the most vicious vicissitudes of Soviet-style crowd control while participating in the Capitalist Funhouse.
Suze Orman’s series “Young, Fabulous and Broke” makes my blood boil simply because it cons young people into believing that they can escape the service economy through the same-old tropes of exceptionalism and positive thinking. In her addresses, she extols young people to work for low, insufficient wages in order to prove their enthusiasm for their chosen professions, then she tells them that going into debt even further while working slavishly in the hopes of a promotion is a sound financial strategy. She has a handy-dandy success story, of dear little “Loren,” aspiring Millennial shoe designer, whom she advised to wait tables while waiting for the perfect opportunity to open up at a shoe design company, then to work 60 to 70 hours a week for $30,000 in New York, then forego asking for a raise, all in order to get noticed. Loren did what Orman told her to, then had a meteoric rise through to the ceiling of executive leadership at the shoe company. Her long hours and grindingly low pay paid off, in other words. Messages of hope, again disastrously soothing and hope, not grace.
Orman’s exhortations of work harder for less seems to be going over well with Millennials, at least those who attend these Young, Fabulous and Broke seminars, where Orman’s compelling oratorical style somehow makes her messages of outright lying and condescension easier to swallow. She tells them not to ask for more money at work because “that will make you just like everyone else.” She tells them that it’s okay for them to make less than a livable wage and use credit cards to cover basic expenses such as groceries and gas because all of this economic folly is not folly as such it’s an investment in themselves. Orman calls the young people in her audience the most undervalued asset in America to their faces, and they take it. Because they are each already conditioned in the norms of stinking, rotten Weberian capitalist bullshit.
Orman is right. The American worker has been subject to a precipitous devaluation in recent times, making the Millennials by far the most undervalued and least well paid generation to enter the workforce. But never, not once, does Orman or do any of her ilk in the personal finance industry, advise young people to question why or to get angry about this. Instead, she turns the whole situation absurdly on its head, inviting them to participate further in their own devaluation by working harder for less pay and incurring more debt. As if they have a choice in that. Orman’s gift is that, by speaking with confidence and verve and that faux credibility that charisma invokes, she is able to convince her audience that these dilemmas and lack of good choices are fresh ideas of her own making about how to achieve prosperity in a landscape that demands hard work but that is bulldozing prosperity. She is poisoning young people with bad financial advice derived not from any facts but from their own hope.
For a lesson in what Orman’s prescriptions for “Loren” look like when adopted by a whole company as standard operating procedure, read this expose of the ruthless and miserable corporate culture at Amazon.
Tokumitsu warns of the dangers of what she calls hope labor in Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness. She outlines the economic fallout of the shifting dynamics of the reconstituted post-Recession American economy. Young people are in greater numbers taking internships that don’t pay at all, working intellectual type jobs, such as adjunct teaching at colleges, for what amounts to less than minimum wage. Why are we doing this? Because it’s American? Because it’s going to make our country great again? Because it will eventually make us rich?
Answer: 6. None of the above.
We are doing this because we don’t have an alternative. And we continue to make up excuses about how we should not do the hard work of coming up with an alternative.
If the Recession had not been triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis, the CEOs of WholeFoods and other Fortune 500 companies would have made it happen by some other means. They posted record profits in the height of the Recession, 2010 to 2012, because it became an excuse to cut labor costs, and they have maintained or exceeded profit expectations since by holding wages low through the use of layoffs or the threat of layoffs. They are expanding their corporations, rolling out new lines and brands, opening more properties, merging with other companies, all of which means they are expanding their need for labor even at the same time that they are cutting benefits, making full-time jobs part-time and freezing wages. There is no conspiracy here, just free market economics and property and intellectual rights.
The conspiracy is the idea that you can get ahead by being of service to these people. The conspiracy is the idiocy of hope and the way it is captured in LOA texts and their celebrity promoters. The conspiracy is the idea that any of this has to do with your self-esteem, which is itself probably a conspiracy in that you should not worry so much about chasing it; remember the liberating fact that John Calvin introduced, that God, the arbiter of the Universe, might consider you a worthless piece of shit anyway.
Full disclosure: I am a hypocrite. I have crashed and burned on the pyre of Do What You Love, and I am only 34. I was as guilty as anyone else of believing that if I worked hard enough at something I cared about and passionately, that I would, if not succeed financially, be protected somehow from merciless and humiliating poverty. Alas, I was a journalist. I came in early. I worked late. I took frantic phone calls from editors in bed and on the toilet. I worked nights and weekends. My soul’s yen had more to do with the Freedom of Information Act and the public’s right to know, even to know unpleasant or uncomfortable truths, than with the public’s right to fashionable yet comfortable shoes. My best work, my investigative pieces on drug trafficking and medical waste, could not be defended or made virally popular with proper marketing. (Ditto my novel.) They served only a small group of people. They were not mind-blowingly cute videos of pets and children. They resisted marketing and would have required defense in a court of law, as I would have had the paper that had illegally been exploiting me, working me to the point of exhaustion as an exempt and salaried professional, not settled with us for back pay. I earned about $11 or $12 an hour as a reporter, once you factored in the unpaid overtime. There was no way up or out. There was no ladder to climb; there was only more of the same, more brokeness and more degradation, more greedy, shrill and manipulative editors, more deferring of student loans, more risk taking, more hell and stress, more gutless perfectionism, for 60 hours a week.
God, how I miss it. The singular, purposeful life. The hunt.
Because I did love the truth. But the truth was also that I was being defrauded, coerced and intimidated and that my bosses were breaking my back while hypocritically breaking the law in order to do so. The truth is that I earned $3,500 more the year after I quit the paper and was a cocktail waitress. In two-thirds the work hours. And I was mad as hell about that.
Orman’s advice is making others ripe for the same devastating Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow meltdowns.
Oprah thinks she has solved spiritual hunger by endlessly baiting her audience into product endorsements delivered on the heels of elevated and spiritual-sounding advice. She, like Orman, is a false crone. She tells Weiner that her female audience members, middle class, educated achievers, kept expressing a sense of a void at the center of themselves:
“‘I feel like there’s something more. I feel like I’m missing something’” they complained.
I, too, feel like there is something more. But, unlike Oprah, I actually know what that void is. I can name it. On this level, it is justice; on another, it is God.
I am in mourning for Calvinism. Real Calvinism, not that Waspy, postindustrial, I water-my-lawn-just-so, God-loves-men-who-wear-Cardigan-sweaters-and-do-calisthenics crap. The real, honest to Goodness strain of spirituality that says, I might just be going to Hell no matter what I think, feel or do. Nothing is given; nothing is guaranteed. Fate is arbitrary. It means you might not know what you are talking about at all times, but, then again, it also means the same for your clergy, your corporate masters and their government puppets.
The irony of Calvinism is that this level of psychological uncertainty didn’t sit well with the European and colonial populations who first embraced its clean, anti-Church message. This message interrupted the mafialike stranglehold the Catholics had on Europe’s assets, and the extortionary practice of accepting payoffs from people who just wanted their loved ones to get out of Purgatory.
However, it’s a pretty demotivating message, when you think about it, that no matter what you do the law of predestination might send you down the chaff chute at the end of your life, just like some factory byproduct. To counter the potential for mass chaos and liberation that this spiritual ethic might induce, I believe Protestant Americans and Europeans adopted an attitude that is actually the opposite of Calvinism. That attitude is the so-called Protestant work ethic that Max Weber later identified.
Simply put, if Calvinism had been taken to heart, production would have stopped. It would have been a chaos of flagellation and Burning Man-like revelatory assembly, but the ginning mills would have run silent. So, production required a contorted new logic born of new found, New World insecurity and after ages of aristocratic and feudal norms had turned effete as a society-wide organizing principle.
Calvin wrote: “There is no work , however vile or sordid, that does not glisten before God.”
But what is the point in working hard to produce something and to climb the social ladder when it is just completely concealed from us who is good and who is just getting a free ride? Calvin’s ideas of man’s total depravity and utter reliance on the whim of a God are met with the kinds of intellectual perversions and compromises that people like Benjamin Franklin exhalted as necessary for capitalist enterprise. The perverse anti-logic goes something like this: Well, while it is true that no one knows whether they are part of the elect, God’s elect are, we think, favored with wealth and prosperity during their lifetimes as “signs” of God’s grace. These randomly selected people will “manifest” good material outcomes for themselves, because they will be intended to reflect their otherworldly status during their lifetimes. They will naturally work harder than everyone else in order to get their wealth, and so show the evidence of being the elect to the rest of us. So, please don’t get in their way, all you good Christians.
The LOA mindset weirdly echoes the contorted logic of people attempting to cope and to impose social order when no one knows anyone’s status, really.
The first thing they teach people going into sales and marketing professions is to create an anxiety, provoke a need that did not exist before, then offer to fill it.
The Catholics made up Purgatory. It doesn’t exist in the Bible. It provoked an anxiety that only payouts to the clergy could fill. Calvinists made up election. Calvinism provoked an anxiety that capitalism, and only capitalism, offered to fill, as the screeching, quaking, strident profession of faith in God could not be sustained as evidence of election, but earning your own way in this earthly plane, ironically, could.
The problem with me is: I prefer the anxiety to the self-assurance. I prefer the problem with all its sharpness and rawness and liberating, uncompromising, jaw-tightening, knock you off your center of gravity, humility-inducing awesomeness to the false solution. Calvinism is spiritual skydiving.
A Law of Attractionist would say that all of this reveling in poverty is why I am poor. That’s why the Law of Attraction is just an inversion of the Law of Predestination masquerading as self-help.
Still, I say, it is probably a good idea to go spiritual skydiving, if you ever get the chance.
In many ways our Puritan “Founding Fathers” were zealous weirdos and pinched-faced bastards. Some of them had more in common with Jim Jones than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They at least had something more driving them than selling timeshares or getting in on the ground floor of a new market in legal marijuana, however. For their age, they were bracing libertarians and laudably opposed to arbitrary, doctrinaire micromanagement of ordinary people. They rejected spiritual bureaucracy, materialism and Old World greed.
Their grandchildren really failed to maintain this level of reform intensity in the years leading up to the American Revolution, though. They lapsed into the capitalist modes of being that led right up to the artificial and craftily diluted Calvinism that makes much of wealth as a sign of virtue, opening up the horrible Pandora’s box that Oprah and the Law of Attractionists have unleashed, the one that says that wealth is virtue.
In her book, Tokumitsu locates the crass drift away from true Protestant spiritual values right at the very foundation of the United States. She quotes Weber’s observations of Benjamin Franklin’s Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich and Advice to a Young Tradesman:
“In these texts, Franklin urges readers to constantly refine their behavior and habits, and especially, the appearance of their behavior and habits, in ways amenable to the accrual of capital and credit. Weber writes, ‘Now, all Franklin’s moral attitudes are colored with utilitarianism. Honesty is useful, because it assures credit; so are punctuality, industry, frugality, and that is the reason they are virtues.
These virtues shape and are shaped by capitalist enterprise. Weber notes that, although impulses like greed and covetousness transcend time and geography, ‘a state of mind as that expressed [by Franklin], and which called forth the applause of a whole people, would both in ancient times and the Middle Ages have been proscribed as the lowest sort of avarice and as an attitude entirely lacking in self-respect.” pgs. 9–10
The American Revolution was not concurrent with a spiritual renaissance, but followed one, reactively. Most of the laws of the land were written to limits government’s threat, or organized religion’s threat, to individual freedom but here the individual was already the capitalist unit of labor, not a spiritual vessel. The problem even today is that men are not strictly or exclusively either.
In his thoughts on earthly riches, Calvin was actually much closer to the Beatitudes of old Rome than Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson or the exuberant authors of the Constitution were. Calvin wrote: ““All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.” In other words, no, you cannot tell the Elect by their nice clothes and the fatness of their 401Ks. If it sounds all too familiar to you, like a repeat of Blessed be the Poor sentiments that have pacified generations of the working class to their detriment, that’s fine, too. I do not object to hard work and struggle for spiritual aims. I object to hard work and struggle for the wrong people for the wrong reasons at the wrong time, for what would have appeared to Calvin as idolatrous aims.
Thomas Jefferson abhorred Calvinism. He thought Calvin blasphemed in his too literal interpretation of the Trinity and in his insistence on predestination. Finer points of theology aside, it is worth remembering how closely these debates informed the legal atmosphere of the nascent nation. It is worth remembering that people once treated legal problems, problems of work and wages and how taxes should be levied and distributed, as equally important to matters of the soul and of free will.
Calvin was a lawyer by training, and his Institutes on the Christian Religion, are widely considered dry and distinctly unpassionate, but renowned for their “clarity and rigor” — -two things the LOA tracts completely lack and which also are missing from the general intellectual and political atmosphere of the United States today. What it will take to reverse the slide into dunderheaded and self-abasing serfdom is something of an ideological revisioning on par with the Protestant Revolution. By God, people will have to talk about religion and values again in public spaces. It is already happening from Catholic quarters. Pope Francis shakes the leaves on the cosmic trees with his every breath. He is a blessing and a harbinger. Will his influence be enough to stimulate a shift in the evangelical Christian right, who for years now have avoided inequality as a topic fit for discussion? The insistence that right-wing candidates defend this vocal minority from persecution is getting absurdly old. Watching them stir the political pot with their inflamed views on abortion and gay marriage was annoying before the Recession, but now it seems the spectacular moral equivalent of rural necrophilia. Stop fucking your dead horses, please. (Ditto all of you who are hanging on every word of Caitlyn Jenner.)
With each election cycle, the Christian right seem even more out of touch with economic issues and almost erotically clueless about their own time and place, like poor Dylan Roof raving about a race war while executing nine people. Did Roof know there was, about 40 years ago, a War on Poverty declared in America and that Poverty won against black, white and himself together?
LOA is the frontline of an attack on the very notion of grace, which was a notion fundamental to the establishment of the country that once was the United States and which was, apparently, important to Dr. Martin Luther King, a priest by education. Because grace, not hope, is the thing that makes us doubt ourselves but also makes us doubt the rich, the mercantilist usurper of time and the slave-holder, the hollow authority, the classist inheritors of ill-gotten gains and the modern-day kings who preside over the tax codes who protect them. Grace is by its very nature anti-authoritarian and very, very American. Grace, not hope, is so American that it’s pre-American.
The challenge for the Millennial generation will be to balance our secular plurality with such a calling to reform while everywhere a sense of urgency is watered down and flushed away by these New Age progenitors such as Oprah and Rhonda Byrne and her personal finance co-conspirators such as Suze Orman. Millennials won’t have to believe in capital-G God to make social progress, but it might help them break these bad habits of hope and self-affection because when hope is this blind it forces the bearer to stumble and fall.