“What stage of capitalism is this?” It’s a meme that resurfaces on Twitter when a pizza chain repairs potholes with branded patches, or when the chair of an economics department at an actual university suggests that Amazon bookstores replace public libraries. There’s something farcical about these events. The news reports read like parodies, send-ups of capitalism’s vagaries, humorous exaggerations of what a world where everything is privatized might look like. Except it’s really happening. The concept of the public good is eroding to nothingness in the U.S.
Wide-scale privatization and austerity budgets have squeezed plenty of countries. Libraries have closed due to lack of resources, and roads go unrepaired. Nevertheless, outside of the United States, most government officials, pundits, and academics seem to recognize the odious vulgarity of suggesting that multinational corporations take over absolutely everything. Appearances must be kept, after all.
Meanwhile, diabetes patients in the world’s wealthiest nation are being price-gouged when buying insulin and dying from lack of access when their crowdfunding attempts fail. Simultaneously, people are crowdfunding so a multimillionaire heiress cum reality star cum cosmetics magnate can join the billionaire club. Workers at Amazon warehouses are under so much pressure to produce that they urinate into bottles at random locations in their workplace; their boss, meanwhile, has become the richest human being in modern history.
Sleep when you’re dead.
These are the grim taglines of Toxic Ambition Twitter and Entrepreneur Influencer Instagram. Before all the hit dogs start hollering, let me state clearly: Hard work is good, it is character-building, and there’s a reason it’s exhorted in every culture. That’s not what this is, though. This is a particular form of blinkered hypercapitalism — one with all the context removed, one where externalities (positive or negative) are never considered. It’s about amassing wealth and being paid attention to for it. It’s the attention, the likes and retweets, that drive the culture.
But while the naked covetousness and writhing insecurity underlying much of #RiseAndGrind culture is extremely gross, what I really can’t stand is the way economically exploitative structures — particularly regarding employment — are exalted by it.
Those workers peeing in corners of Amazon warehouses are working hard. They’re grinding. They’re hustling so hard they can’t find the time to take care of their bodily functions. Some are so overworked, their mental health deteriorates to the point that they begin to contemplate suicide. The necessary labor they’re performing to get products shipped isn’t valued. It’s not sexy enough for The ’Gram. The announcement of Bezos’ wealth ballooning up over $150 billion, though? That goes on the vision board.
Instead of criticizing this structure where workers are abused and one man hoards most of the wealth being generated, workers pushed to the point of mental breakdown will be encouraged to start a side hustle and denigrated as “soft” if they’re unable to. Bezos’ villainy will not only be excused as “just capitalism” but held up as something to admire, because “Bezos built a business from nothing!” Not really. His parents invested nearly $250,000 in Amazon when he started the company. Having parents who can kick in a quarter of a million dollars isn’t starting from nothing.
Get-rich-quick schemes are as American as Mom and apple pie, but I don’t know if they’ve ever been as weaponized as they are now.
There is grit jamming up the moral gears of #RiseAndGrind culture. Most of the people posting to this and related hashtags are closer in origin and fortune to an Amazon warehouse worker, but their allegiance is to the Jeff Bezoses, Elon Musks, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. It’s not enough to aspire to a nice vacation a couple of times a year anymore. It’s not even enough to fly there first class. Nope. It’s fly private or bust.
This is being taken on as a real, achievable ambition by average people with average talents and no family wealth to use as a safety net. They firmly believe they can do it. They just have to “outwork” everyone else. Those poor schmucks racing through Amazon warehouses trying not to sob in despair or wet themselves have only themselves to blame. They don’t want “it” badly enough. The dignity of earning a living wage in exchange for hard work done for a man who can more than afford to pay it never even enters the argument.
The lens through which the average person sees themselves has shifted profoundly. Social media, Instagram in particular, has somehow managed to pin down and calcify the notion that every American is indeed a temporarily embarrassed millionaire.
Yes, this social dysmorphia has always been there, lurking in the background of American society; upward mobility has long been sold as the American Dream. This is something else, though, something new. Working and saving to buy a house in the suburbs and two cars is light-years away from flying private to Dubai to stay in the Burj Al Arab, all on your own dime. These fantastical expectations are arising while the ability to attain that suburban lifestyle is slipping further out of reach for most Americans. It’s a secular prosperity gospel — the promise of riches if you plant the seed and invest.
Unsurprisingly, scammers and con men are everywhere. “Like” the wrong inspirational post, and they slither out of the digital woodwork to oil up your mentions and DMs. They’re nearly always offering courses that cost thousands of dollars and promise to teach you the secret to becoming a millionaire.
Get-rich-quick schemes are as American as Mom and apple pie, but I don’t know they’ve ever been as weaponized as they are now. The field of self-help is also frequently used as a Trojan horse for charlatans — and, as with many other industries, the internet has all but eliminated the barriers to entry. Anyone can claim to be a “life coach” or an “influencer” or whatever the next hot-button, self-bestowed title will be. They’re everywhere, firing on all cylinders, using Facebook and Instagram ads to target anyone who sets foot (inadvertently or otherwise) near their online ecosystem. Everything is turned up to 11, including the familiar bootstrap narrative.
This is the most dangerous element of #RiseAndGrind culture — the notion that anyone who isn’t willing to (at least performatively) half-kill themselves in service to striverism is a loser.
The language of #RiseAndGrind is very much about overcoming struggle and hardship. College-educated people from two-parent households in the suburbs talk like they came out of the hardest ’hood. They exhort their hard work and repeat glib phrases like, “Everyone has the same 24 hours,” without applying even cursory analysis.
Does someone who has a four-hour commute both ways have the same 24 hours as someone who has a half-hour commute? Does someone who has to provide childcare have the same 24 hours as someone who doesn’t? Does someone who is chronically ill and struggles with pain or fatigue have the same 24 hours as someone who isn’t and doesn’t? Does someone who is poor have the same 24 hours as someone who has access to the conveniences of being middle class?
Co-opting the language and posture of people who have been poor intergenerationally is one of the giant red flags that #RiseAndGrind culture is fugazi. There is a performative masochism at work — this pretense that struggle and suffering are a measure of worthiness. The narrative has to stretch beyond talent and hard work. Nearly everyone has a tall tale of scratching and clawing up from nothing.
There is a slippery conflation of being broke with being poor. Most college students are broke — they have campus jobs that don’t pay well and have to scrounge for money from time to time. How many of them are really poor, though? Poor as in: There’s no one to supplement their income when their check is lighter than expected? Poor as in: They are the ones sending money home from those slim paychecks? Poor as in: They are food insecure when the dining halls close for break, and can’t afford to travel home? Most of the #RiseAndGrinders aren’t from rich families, but they’re not from poor ones, either. They’re pretending to be, and it’s a disgusting minstrel show.
Poverty isn’t ennobling or virtuous. It is stressful, frightening, and has lasting deleterious effects on people’s physical and mental health. It strains relationships, frays family bonds, and puts people in early graves, robbing their loved ones of precious time together.
Lifting yourself out of poverty in the U.S. is an uphill battle. Nothing major can go wrong in your life when all your social safety nets are riddled with holes. How many people are lucky enough not to have anyone in their family fall seriously ill, or get hit by a car, or slip and fall and break something that prevents them from working? Even if they manage to avoid being bankrupted by medical bills, how many workers have bosses that wouldn’t replace them under these circumstances? How many families are being shattered by substance abuse? How many families have been irreparably damaged by a racist, draconian criminal justice system? There are too many potential catastrophes to list.
And if you are the descendant of the enslaved Africans who built America’s wealth, your family will almost certainly have been locked out of every social program that allowed ordinary Americans to accrue wealth through home and business ownership. Telling these people they just need to work harder isn’t reality-based advice.
Secular prosperity gospel — is there any other way to describe this system of beliefs?
Are there a handful of people who are truly from dirt-poor backgrounds who are rising and grinding and will someday become fabulously wealthy? Of course, but they will also have to be fabulously lucky. Plenty of other people will work just as hard, but the stars won’t align for them. The stars don’t align for most of us. Pointing to the exceptions to formulate the rule is a recipe for disaster. It creates a society where, not only do the cracks in which you can slip become yawning canyons, but systems and institutions have no problem forcing you to the edge and shoving you in. Some 43 million Americans live in poverty. It’s not possible that they’re all lazy good-for-nothings who don’t want to work.
This is the most dangerous element of #RiseAndGrind culture — the notion that anyone who isn’t willing to (at least performatively) half-kill themselves in service to striverism is a loser. It embraces a society that throws regular people away.
Perhaps the most bizarre element of #RiseAndGrind culture is the widespread belief that “sometimes, you just have to work for free.” It’s one thing to grit your teeth as you’re exploited at an unpaid internship that may lead to a paid position. That’s not what happens down in the #RiseAndGrind hashtags, though. Anyone who asserts that workers deserve to be paid for their labor is decried as “lazy” and “wanting handouts.” So, what stage of capitalism is this? It’s the one where workers believe their wages are handouts. College-educated people can’t see that their free labor is subsidizing millionaires’ businesses. They believe that on the other side of their suffering is a heaven on Earth where they will be rewarded with great wealth and comfort.
Secular prosperity gospel—is there any other way to describe this system of beliefs?
The United States is approaching a climax. Income inequality is approaching Gilded Age levels. The ethos of #RiseAndGrind culture is keeping a lot of people oblivious to what’s happening. What happens when the rafters cave in, and their loyalty to hypercapitalists hasn’t been rewarded? When the “broke” strivers faking poverty learn what it’s really like to have no bootstraps?
What is going to happen when all these people realize the invisible hand in the sky isn’t going to choose them, because all the wealth is calcified at the top? Where will all that bitterness and disappointed anger go? What violence will erupt? We’re seeing the precursors of what’s to come now with the surge in white supremacist terrorism. It will get worse before it gets better. Fortunately, there is a growing left-wing socialist movement to act as a counterbalance. I just hope it’s not too little, too late.