US V. THEM
Middle class complacency and the spiritualization of acquiring wealth
If you’re devoted to positive thinking, this might anger you.
I opened my email recently to find an invitation to an online event that claimed 50,000 participants, and promised to teach me the following:
The #1 most common anti-success mental programming that’s mercilessly forcing society’s hard-working folks to earn only a modest income while others succeed so effortlessly — and a dynamic action plan to reverse it for extreme abundance.
It was the final straw.
Mental programming is responsible for low income, and conversely, for abundance?
Has it really come to this?
The all-pervasive mass adoption of the “law of attraction”- style wealth manifestation is grossly misconceived. It is at most, one half of the story, and it has dangerous implications for how the middle class and policymakers respond to issues of poverty and privilege.
I should know. I went through a pretty awful time struggling to survive myself (more on that later), which blew open the lid of middle class complacency. Not to mention, I have a Ph.D. economics, and I work in the alternative holistic therapy space, which means that I straddle both worlds: I am realistic and practical and educated, and I am fervent believer in human potential via non-mainstream approaches. I actively help people change their beliefs in order to transform their lives, and it works, but only when you have privilege, a fair chunk, and are not in a state of perpetual stress fighting to survive — which hey, is the increasingly common status quo even in the so-called ‘comfortable’ middle classes, as housing affordability declines, employment is less secure, and so on.
I refer to the mismash of ‘law of attraction’ and the larger positive visualisation tradition whose basic tenet holds that your reality is a product of your thoughts and beliefs, and that if you change your attitudes and beliefs around abundance, your finances will flow.
The Secret, which popularized this particular brand of wealth creation, has sold more than 19 million copies worldwide and has been translated in 46 languages, spawning entire spin-off industries in self-help and defining the next decade of cultural attitudes about the link between material security and individual beliefs.
Can it work? Yes. It is actually very powerful for some people. It is amazing what can be achieved with visualisation and belief. But it only works with a small percentage of the human population. Therein lies the danger.
This all-pervasive thinking perilously ignores the enormous influence of personal inherited privilege, very real policies, economic traditions, infrastructure, and sheer luck and circumstance.
Moreover, even with all the inherited privilege, education and means in the world, positive visualisation alone is not enough. It must be paired with strident action, taken consistently, over time, despite inevitable setbacks.
In short, not only is it not a solution to poverty, it’s also not a justification for passing the buck to individuals and denying collective responsiblity.
Yes, I’m calling it. Beliefs do create reality, especially when they are the beliefs of the privileged classes who through wealth and education control the economy, politics, and more. And right now, the belief that it’s all down to an individual’s positive visualizing-abundance-attracting mojo is devesting our society of collective empathy and contributing to a destructive middle class complacency, cultivating the mass neglect of structural solutions to global poverty and increasing middle class impoverishment, including infrastructure, housing affordability, small business support, employment laws, and a moral response to humanitarian crises.
Here are 5 hugely problematic aspects of this widespread wealth creation belief, my own story, and a fervent plea.
1. It’s not a spiritual law. It’s commonsense.
The pseudo-scientific theories speaking to the energetics of reality and like attracting like — may well be true. Who am I to say? But it’s hardly a huge secret and sacred mystical truth of reality.
Yes, obviously, a person may have a ‘blockage’ in their belief system which limits their conception of success, and therefore prevents them from achieving the actual thing.
When you have positive beliefs about your ability to experience abundance, you are much more likely to notice opportunities, because for one thing, your chin isn’t scraping the sidewalk as you bemoan your lot in life.
Not to mention, if you are really, really believing in your potential, you are more likely to formulate goals and stick to them, as well as to persist through setbacks.
2. This perspective equates to a moral judgement that robs us of empathy.
Its acceptance as a spiritual truth has morphed into a moral judgement which damns the unsuccessful and justifies unsympathetic behaviour and a lack of moral systemic response.
The message out there is clear. Poor? Struggling? Your attitudes are wrong. Your beliefs are wrong, ergo, it is your fault. You’re not thinking/believing/releasing enough.
Those boat people, the war-torn refugees, the Untouchables in Mumbai, that homeless guy, and your neighbor George who was retrenched and lost his house — their attitudes about wealth are holding them back. Donald Trump, Bill Gates, the guy with the Bentley who owns an eight bedroom mansion — their beliefs are in alignment. In other words, they kinda deserve it.
3. It denies the existence of privilege
Let’s be real. There is such a thing as being born disadvantaged, and being born privileged. There is such a thing as sheer bum luck, either good or abysmally bad. Shit happens. No one asks to be born a discriminated against minority, dying of AIDS, in a refugee camp, to get cancer and lose their house in order to fund medical bills, etc..
I don’t care if you believe in reincarnation and think that at some soul-level people choose their lot in life, that’s no excuse for standing by in your glass houses whilst reciting wealth mantras and insisting that others must do the same. With power comes responibility. If anyone is going to change the world for the better, it’s those who have the better in their bank account, which translates as economic and political currency that can be wielded compassionately.
4. It completely ignores the reality of how bodies and brains respond to stress.
Clearly those who propogate this spiritualised wealth creation stuff have not actually themselves existed in materially stressful conditions, or else they would know that it is not, in that state, physiologically or psychologically possible to be in a state of positive visualisation and self-belief.
What happens when one is constantly struggling to survive at a material level is a certain surrendering of control to the primal or reptilian brain, that part of our brain that manages, coincidentally, survival responses.
Essentially, the entire nervous system goes into hyper-alert. The abdomen clenches in anticipation for flight or fight; blood rushes to the extremities in preparation, draining from the brain. The neo-cortex, that creative, critical part of the mind (the part that finds solutions to problems), does not stand a chance. The body yo-yos from a soup of cortisol, the stress hormone, to a stew of adrenalin, the ‘fight’ hormone. One’s emotional life tends to devolve to black and white, emotional shutdown or outbursts (tears or anger). There is also social isolation, bouts of anger and depression, and there can be a terrible, biting loneliness.
According to Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being:
Among wealthy nations, the rate of mental illness correlates very closely to the level of economic inequality across society as a whole, with the United States at the top. The nature and availability of work plays a crucial role in influencing mental well-being, as do organizational structures and managerial practices. One of the most important findings in happiness economics is that unemployment exerts a far more negative effect on people psychologically than the mere loss of earnings would suggest.
Remember this compassionately when you consider the behavior of those living in poverty — there are physiological and psychological realities under such conditions.
5. It actively discourages a healthy cultivation of our collective responsibility around issues of wealth and privilege, because it perpetuates selfish individualism.
This wealth creation caper is a spiritualised continuation of the Western tradition of individualism. Each to his own, prosper or perish.
It is nothing new — this cultural trend is part and parcel of America’s Protestant work ethic and rugged individualism, all in the tradition of Milton Friedman’s free market capitalism. This form of capitalism originally puts the burden of economic success on a ‘market’ which self-regulates, rather than looks at how structures, norms, and especially the government, contributes to poverty or alleviates it. Now we put the burden of success squarely on the shoulders of the individual, according to that person’s ability to believe well.
The wealth creation belief has become so mainstream that we, the public, no longer question the reasons for poverty.
[this] study, published earlier this year by Shai Davidai and Thomas Gilovich … suggests… a distinctly American cultural optimism. At the core of the American Dream is the belief that anyone who works hard can move up economically regardless of his or her social circumstances. According to Pew Research, most Americans believe the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy, but 60% believe that most people can make it if they’re willing to work hard.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The wealth creation belief could be a positive, world-transforming thing if we used it to change our collective, human beliefs around rich versus poor, privilege versus disenfranchised. If we all promoted the belief that sometimes, a leg up is the first step towards re-believing potential, and if we then used that belief to build systems, structures and policies to lift humanity up.
(*There is a groundswell of this happening, via online mass petitions that hold policymakers accountable, and via viral content, such as published in Medium about everything from boat people, to social justice. The more the better!)
On that note, I want to speak about my personal experience of struggling to survive at a material level day by day — because we do not speak of our own difficult experiences in polite company, not in the gilded middle classes, amongst those who take vacations, own a family home, and drive cars with Bluetooth and heated seats. And we should talk about it, because if we desire for humanity to improve its collective lot, it is perilous to be mere spectators to the common experience of struggle from a position of complacency.
After my marriage ended, as half do, and following my ex’s unemployment, I found myself entirely financially responsible for three children without another household income earner. I arrived at this disaster with no assets and no savings. As I had been home parenting my three children up until that time, I was not immediately employable. Despite my academic kudos, definite skills, and vague-if-untapped confidence, scrabbling for work in a state of increasing despair became my daily nightmare. I rescued furniture other people had left on the road for Council Cleanup, collected government benefits, and many a time, burst into tears when handing over cash at a supermarket, crushed by the grim reality of having to make choices like, do I buy all the healthy food I need for my kids or shoes for constantly expanding feet?
Nothing in my life could have prepared me for this.
Not knowing if I would be able to pay my rent month to month put me in a permanent state of anxiety and fear that affected every other area of my life (see number 4 above). Bizarrely, I was blocked from receiving government grants for entrepreneurship because I was receiving government benefits — essentially I was told that I had to exchange the certainty of my payments to feed my children for the uncertain off-chance that I would receive funding to start my business and support my family.
In other words, I was not allowed to be poor and have ambitious goals. I was only allowed to have ambitious goals if I could prove I wasn’t poor.
Yes, I did it (am doing it) myself with bloody hard work, three jobs and sacrificing sleep, health, and a large chunk of sanity, fighting off depression and anxiety. I am up for the challenge partly because of my belief that I can succeed, yes, but also largely because I have some definite privilege: education, race, networking skills, some family support when the shit really hit the fan, better-off friends who loaned me money to pay rent, not to mention the confidence that comes with my inherited privileges.
It was when my experience alienated me from my middle class social circle that I really woke me up.
Online, in person, in groups, at classes, professionally and more, all my middle class brethen oozed the message that the key to my transformation was to believe, to be positive, to think differently — because in the middle classes, in a place of privilege, the law of attraction is blindly adopted as the solution.
That’s when I realized that we, as a society, have a very, very big problem, when the people who have power and privilege can no longer see past their circumstances to the structural, systemic, practical hurdles that come with poverty.
On planet Earth, half of humanity lives on less than US$2.50 per day. Eighty percent of the world’s population live on less than US$10 per day. Most people on the planet experience all of what I did, but do it knee-deep in rivers of shit, without sewerage, suffering from dysentery, malaria, thirst, hunger, with no access to education or jobs, and often in a war-torn country.
According to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), in Australia 13.9% live below the poverty line.
Without at a minimum, sufficient infrastructure and times of peace (i.e. no war), and without access to clean water, food, education, transportation, jobs and capital to start a business, there is no ‘process,’ no list of positive affirmations, that is going to ensure material security.
Meanwhile, the self-help culture continues to promote economic abundance as a product of motivation and self-belief when it is more about privilege, inheritance, infrastructure, and luck.
Policymakers, being overwhelmingly property-owners and economically at a gross advantage, are in a culture saturated by this brand of rugged individualism, the wealth-creation/positive visualisation paradigm, so it reasonable to question if they have any incentive to think more practically and strategically.
That oft-quoted statement by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor is really not heeded enough: “To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”
A Fervent Plea
Share this article and promote the debate. Awaken yourselves from this toxic slumber of extreme personal responsibility, and consider how you might help. Become a youth mentor. Be honest with yourself about privilege. Lend a friend money, and don’t tell struggling people to change their ideas about wealth when they are struggling!
With every single positive visualisation you have about your goals, take 3 action steps at a minimum. Be persistent. Deal with setbacks constructively and don’t beat yourself up if you fail. Feel lucky that you have the resources, internal and external, to pull yourself up.
Pressure policy-makers to improve infrastructure, particularly in impoverished areas, to incentivize entrepreneurship as a means of economic independence, to take serious measures to address the absolute unaffordability of housing (particularly in Australia!).
Don’t become complacent if you find yourself wealthy one day, or if you already are.
I’m taking my own advice. I have been a youth mentor. I have pro bono clients who otherwise couldn’t afford me. When I conceived of my startup, I ensured that there was a paragraph in our company’s Constitution stating that we will donate money and or resources to charities that constructively support global solutions to poverty. I will be damned if my success and that of my company does not automatically contribute to the collective good. My personal ‘law of attraction’ is that abundance must aim to be inclusive and widespread, as a matter of human rights.
With some honesty and awareness, we can all foster a compassionate and informed culture rather than a largely complacent one.
Let’s please be part of the solution, rather than perpetuate the problem.