Monday, December 30, 2013

Separated at Birth? Cultural Capitalism and New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking

Over the holidays I stayed in a motel where the TV in the breakfast room was set to the TODAY show. You could probably have a whole blog where you just talked about how weird and depressing the TODAY show is -- like, why are they shouting all the time? is it really just a commercial? for what? But here I want to focus on just one thing.

While I was munching some product of an unholy alliance between "continental breakfast" and "real food" and browsing my twitter feed for non-holiday content, a segment came on in which the hosts visited some women who were dreaming of a better life. Because I was only half paying attention I don't know if the narrative was "poor people in the US, once given the proper tools and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!" or whether it was "poor people from some poor country, provided with a little American ingenuity and a kick in the pants, can really make it work!"

But whatever -- it was about how some people could do some things to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become Future Bosses of America.

In this case the women were being interviewed about their hopes and dreams and the means they were taking to get where they wanted to be. As one of them explained that "executive" was her goal, a group of them laughed nervously in that "we're teasing, but we're with you" kind of way. I get what she was saying: her goal was vaguely to have money and be in charge of something and wear nice clothes to work.

The TV people asked the women what steps they were taking to achieve their goals. And one thing that came up was that they'd been encouraged, by some do-gooder, I suppose, to make dream books -- like scrapbooks where they'd paste in the things they wanted. These women had pasted in pictures of smartphones, cars, electronics -- basically all the stuff anyone would want in modern society if they didn't already have it.

And I thought, Wait. Is this a "hard-headed Cultural Capitalist world view" narrative or a "soft-headed New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking" world view narrative?" Because it could be either.

Weirdly, these two are twins, separated at birth, with the same "dreams," "you can do it!" and "rise to the top" motifs.

I think of "cultural capitalism" as the cultural aspects of the range of views associated we might call extreme capitalism. As a political and economic set of ideas, extreme capitalism is for free markets, deregulation, the dismantling of government benefits and protections, rights for corporations and so on and so forth.

But like other political and economic ideas, extreme capitalism comes with a set of cultural aspects. These vary, but often are situated so as to contain some or all of the following: individuals are responsible for their own futures; no matter how poor you are, you're "free" unless someone is actively getting in your way; citizens are customers, exercising choice by spending; people, like mini-corporations, have to self-promote and make deals as a way of providing for themselves.

New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking is more diffuse and varied, but I associate it with three things. First, there's the New Age business. Many forms of this suggests "looking inward": since "it's all in how you look at it," if you're unhappy, you should first consider how things are inside your mind, instead of first considering how things are in your external world. Second, there's Life Coaching as a strategy for life. "You can do anything you set your mind to" is the motto here. And third, there's The Secret. You know, that thing where if you want something you think about it really hard and it happens for you.

I expect many people who find one of these world views attractive find the other one disturbing.

And yet the similarities are surprising. The individual is constituted as a contained entity independent from their surroundings. The person is absolutely responsible for her or his own future. What's "possible" is understood as dependent only on the person's internal state, and not on any features of the person's surroundings. Freedom comes from within.

If You don't like what you got, You can change it: You and only You!

As I see it, there's also something interesting and broader here about the role of kindness in personal relations. When it comes to other people, the New Age Positivity is associated with kindness and an open-heart. Which is fine, but as we all know, kindness isn't justice, and there's a difference between institutional support and charity.

Cultural Capitalism, in its own way, is all for kindness as well: when the state is not there to set rules and help provide for the least able and least well off, it is through acts of kindness and grace that the poor will survive.

You know that website McDonald's made with advice for employees that got people so mad? Check these out:

"Breaking food into pieces often results in eating less and still feeling full."

"Singing along to your favorite songs can lower your blood pressure."

"Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining."

These are Cultural Capitalism: they're advice on how to try to make your life work when you have crappy food, no healthcare, no money and lots of stress. But they'd also fit comfortably within any Best Practices Guide for New Age Positivity/Magical Thinking.

They're both. Just like the advice to deal with poverty by pasting pictures of consumer goods into an album.

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