Instilling the fear of success

by Rob Horning

26 December 2006


Few people in America experience the direct application of power—in other words, they generally don’t have people telling them what to do without some semblance of a voluntary contract being in place. Instead power seems distributed throughout society and tends to work without anyone being responsible; everyone seems to be getting their orders from somewhere else, forming a never-ending chain, or they are operating by instinct or from what seems like common sense. This can seem like freedom and may perhaps be a necessary precondition for what we understand as freedom: being left alone by our neighbors and our government. But it would be wrong to conflate our inability to perceive the ways in which power circumscribes our lives (or to recognize the forces responsible for these limitations) with autonomy. Autonomy, in a culture that fetishizes independence and individuality, is less an ontological condition than an experiential good. Much of our interactions in consumer society involve our attempts to buy the feeling of control; we shop so that we may exercise our freedom of choice, our consumer sovereignty. This compensates for the ways in which our social mobility is, in practice, limited and how class hampers our judgment and dictates the behavior we then assume complete responsibility for.

Foucault’s historical studies are basically about this process—how power comes to reside in social institutions (hospitals, prisons, universities) and concepts (sexuality, gender, mental health) and then exercise itself with no particular agent directing the process. Reading these works tends to leave me heavy with doom, hopelessly trapped in invisible prisons that no one builds and no one can tear down. However, capitalist ideologues usually portray diffused power positively, locating it in the market, which is then virtually deified as a near-flawless system for aggregating and distributing information about what a society wants collectively. Hayek depicts this as spontaneous order, which has the nonpareil benefit of preventing bureaucrats from telling you what you must think and do. And capitalism yields not a iron-clad status system girded with the additional insult of making your class seem like your own fault, but “creative destruction” that allows each generation to remake the social order new, with nothing but merit and efficiency to guide it. If only. Actually the market can be rigged to conserve privilege, to protect class prerogatives that assure that more of what goods and opportunities society produces go to a select few elites, who then retrospectively justify their rewards with specious claims of merit, tradition or divine right. With the market responsible, the beneficiaries can feel as though they have clean hands, while the victims begin to look in the mirror for who to blame for failure in a quasi-meritocracy.

In The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb delineate this process by looking at the aspirations of working-class immigrants in America in the mid 20th century, concluding that workers are both propelled and held back by an ideology of individualism. Being recognized as an individual is a classic positional good; you can only have it and enjoy it if your peers don’t. But by claiming it, by making a case for why one should stand out from the mediocre mass and assuming dignity can come only from being recognized as such (for Sennett and Cobb this is the essense of how class societies function), one alienates himself from his peers, depriving oneself of the solace of community without really securing admission to another receptive community. Instead social climbers find themselves out on the limb, alienated and isolated in their aspirational nuclear family unit, taking consolatory pride in their apparent independence or self-sabatoging as they try to reconcile the contradictions foisted on them by a hereditary status system that pretends to be egalitarian. As Cobb and Sennett argue this self-sabotage—the feelings of guilt or confusion or insecurity or inadequacy—is how class society manages to wound and cripple the lower orders without anyone higher up in the social hierarchy seeming directly responsible. No one intentionally prohibits you from finding success; we end up excluding ourselves, as this proves easier to live with than a rigged system. (Better to feel like you lost the game than to think the refs threw it.)

One way in which this plays out is in the pursuit of meaningful work, glamour jobs that provide status and allow you to indulge your individual talents. Because these jobs often have to do with generating “original” and “creative” product, it’s easy to imagine they are distributed according to merit—the people who do the best work inevitably get the jobs. But this is obviously false; these jobs are scarce and our educational system generates far too many qualified candidates. (Our educational system is perhaps too egalitarian, or from the other perspective, state-supported schools are diploma mills that perpetuate their own existence and funding by lowering standards and processing more and more students.) When I was getting a graduate degree in English, it became all too apparent to me, going to conferences and seeing all the other eager competitors for those ultrarare tenure track jobs at universities, that there were going to be a lot of unhappy and unemployable PhDs, overqualified for anything but the one job they were acutely trained to perform. It also occurred to me that society almost certainly didn’t need this many literature professors, and something had gone horribly wrong in society’s allocation of educational resources to produce so many people like me. I probably should have been discouraged from my course at a much earlier juncture than two years into a dissertation. Perhaps I should have listened to the inner voices of failure sooner.

One way to disqualify candidates is to require them to work for free in unpaid internships or to live on subsistance stipends while accruing the necessary certifications in graduate school. This rules out anyone who doesn’t have another source of income (inherited from parents, say) to fall back on. Another disqualification method is to require social capital—make sure they know someone who can recommend them and vouch for them. This requires having the kind of connections that elites take for granted, knowing someone in admissions at this elite school or in HR at this elite employer. Or you have to have the wherewithal to be in the pipeline for job openings (or elite unpaid internships) that aren’t publicly advertised but instead are announced through established grapevines. Access to these networks stems from class advantage, and keeping these networks exclusive is how a class polices its borders. But when all that fails to discourage applicants for prestige jobs, society falls back on what sometimes is known in self-help books as “the fear of success”—we sabatoge ourselves because we internalize the belief that we don’t deserve to advance.  Cobb and Sennett argue that in a putative democracy with an open social structure, the makeup of the various classes is more or less preserved by baiting lower class people to engage in a zero-sum game for dignity (never seen as secure, a given by virtue of being human), doled out by higher-ups for reasons we can never fully apprehend (Sennett and Cobb write, “What is in you that commands the approval of others? You can’t know this, but someone can…. Power in the organization, like the God of Weber’s early Protestants, knows about you what you do not know about yourself”). This competition, whose rules continually change and render contestants passive and fatalistic, cripples people with self-doubt and encourages them to remove themselves from the running for high-status positions that are technically open to all, positions they end up feeling they somehow inherently don’t deserve. “The psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self rather than create more power over things and other persons in the outer world,” Sennett and Cobb assert. Consequently, the idea of agency beyond the boundaries of one’s own psyche becomes ever more remote. Passivity becomes common sense, which intensifies the pleasures of spectatorship that make advertising and entertainment function, reinforcing their appeal and the passivity itself in a feedback loop. This passivity spills over into self-doubt, which further fuels the fear of success—the unwillingness to assume greater responsibilities, which seem capable of being met by the application of one’s natural talents but are actually a matter of class habitus, having a familiarity with social mores and conventions and access to social networks. Combine that confusion of means and ends with the contempt other competitors from their class—their former friends—will feel for them if they succeed and you can see why workers disqualify themselves and don’t even try for advancement. Instead they try to deflect attention and struggle along independently, while subsisting as spectators of real life, what is going on in celebrity land or in the pages of the newspaper.

It’s not hard to imagine scarce goods other than prestige jobs being preserved in this fashion—consider health care, which is getting scarcer (more expensive) all the time. Society wants to preserve the illusion of universal care it can’t afford to provide, so it can enlist the class system and the injured dignity it produces to convince lower class people that they don’t deserve the same kind of singled-out attention from their doctors that their betters are accustomed to. Instead they will be treated in second-rate clinics staffed with overworked, underpaid health care providers, and processed as though they were faulty machines in for assembly-line repair. And they will be grateful that they didn’t attract unsavory attention from anyone along the way. If I had more time, I could bring this back to Foucault’s Birth of the Clinic and suggest this self-defeating class strategy masquerades as elusive independence, skirting the repressive mechanisms of power by losing oneself in the margins, but you get the idea.

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