Noah Brand explores an industry that capitalizes on men’s need to feel successful, even when they can’t afford it.
This post was previously published at No Seriously What About Teh Menz.
We can, at this point, take it as well-established that men are too often considered “success objects” by society, yes? I don’t need to once again explain how, just as women are judged by their perceived adherence to a largely arbitrary standard of sexual attractiveness, men are judged by their material and financial “success”? Good.
Now, being “successful” financially has never been easy, and has only gotten harder in recent decades. Thing is, the narrative that anyone can get rich is built very deeply into American culture. You might even call it one of our founding myths. And while it’s theoretically true, it’s functionally irrelevant, because the real problems are caused by an unspoken corollary to that myth, one that’s murderously false. If anyone can get rich, this assumption runs, then everyone can get rich, and therefore any person who’s not rich has, in some way, failed.
Nobody ever quite phrases it that bluntly, but that basic model informs a great deal of the way Americans think about wealth and class.
The effect of this pernicious myth is that the majority of the population, those of us who live paycheck to paycheck and bite our lips when the utility bills arrive, are considered losers. Sometimes we’re called that to our face, sometimes we just feel it inside, but that’s the result of that model. If you’re not rich, it’s your own fault, because you’re a loser. Our society is, therefore, made up of an overwhelming majority of losers, though naturally nobody likes to say that out loud.
Now, this myth doesn’t stand up to even five seconds of examination. It is mathematically impossible, in a hierarchical economy, for everyone to be on top. The unspoken promise that everyone can get rich remains unspoken because if you say it out loud, it sounds as stupid as making everyone in the navy an admiral. (It would function about as well, too. Someone’s got to actually do some work.) Nor do fanciful notions of economic meritocracy survive so much as a cursory look at the real world. No, the fact is that if you’re struggling to get by, it’s because you’re in a system designed to keep you that way, and you didn’t win any of the various lotteries available.
The genius of it, though, is that the struggling 90% of the population feel like it’s their own fault they’re struggling. As though all those millions of people could have somehow gotten rich if they were better human beings. That’s internalized victim-blaming on a breathtaking scale, and as works of sociological bastardry go, it’s genuinely impressive.
Now, tie that fact in with the “success object” notion, the idea that financial success is the only source of worth for a man. If you don’t win this rigged game, you are a failure and a loser and an entirely unworthy human being. That takes this problem from a normal level of horrible to hideously toxic.
This isn’t to say that women don’t get the short end of the economic stick just as much, but… I think it’s a bit different, emotionally. Women can more easily feel valued for their looks (if they happened to win that particular lottery) or their family and emotional connections. “She’s struggling, but she’s so good to her family” is a narrative that applies more easily to a woman than a man. A man’s contribution to his family is expected to be as breadwinner, and when they’ve changed the odds in the bread game so you can’t win as much… well, that puts you in a bad position, doesn’t it? Combine that with the widely-accepted lie that “normal” women only like men with a thick, swollen… wallet, and you’ve got a way to make almost every man in the country feel, on some level, inadequate and worthless.
There’s something even creepier, though. Just as the women-as-sex-objects narrative has created the fucked-up mess that is the beauty industry, so has the men-as-success-objects routine gotten together with the rigged game of the American economy to create the success industry. And hot damn, are they both ineffably awful.
Feminists have done a pretty good job breaking down how the essential message of the beauty industry is “You are ugly, and therefore worthless. We can fix you if you give us more money.” It’s a pretty solid business model, and supports an enormous industry of (among others) makeup, spas, fashion, diets, gyms, “corrective” clothing, and even self-esteem counselling. Ka-ching. Not to say men are immune to this industry; I’ve bought my share of diet books and paid my share of gym fees. I think we can agree, however, that the core market of the beauty industry is women who’ve been made to feel worthless if they’re not pretty enough.
The success industry has essentially the same central business model. “You’re not rich enough, and therefore worthless. We can fix you if you give us more money.” Every investment scam, every fake sales position or multi-level marketing scheme, every motivational seminar, every phony trade school, every financial self-help book, every slick con-job that claims to offer a way out, a secret trick, a way to achieve your financial dreams, they’re all part of the success industry. They’re all based on that same lie, that everyone can get rich, but they use the blame as bait. You’re a loser, they agree, but you can stop being a loser. Just pay the admission, give us your student loans, buy the tapes, subscribe to the newsletter, buy ten more cases for Senior Distributor status, and you can get rich. You can succeed. You can be a worthwhile human being. You can be a Real Man. Indeed, an actual line “motivational” speakers like to quote is from Ayn Rand, that your monetary worth is a direct expression of how much value you contribute to society.
They’re all fundamentally scams, of course. If any of these things resulted in more money flowing to the people paying for them than to the people charging for them, that would constitute a broken business model. It would mean that the industry was panning for gold at the wrong point in the stream, if you see what I mean.
That doesn’t matter, though, because what they’re selling isn’t actually success. They’re selling a reinforcement of the fundamental lie, that it’s your own fault you’re not rich. Here you just paid $40 (book) or $400 (seminar) or $40,000 (tuition) for “the tools to succeed” and all it got you was two to five digits poorer. Well, that must be your own fault; they gave you the tools, didn’t they?
I think the purest example of these is the motivational speeches and seminars. Check your local listings; there are probably a bunch of these scheduled just today in your city. Speaking as someone who’s paid for both, they remind me a lot of lottery tickets. People joke about lottery tickets as a tax on people who are bad at math, but I don’t think that’s true. Lottery tickets are a carrying charge for hope. Between the time you buy the ticket and the time the drawing reconfirms that you’re a loser, there’s a window where you have this bare edge of hope, this idea that maybe, just maybe, in a few days you won’t have to be afraid or ashamed any more. Sure, rationally you know that one chance in a hundred million isn’t very good, but the sweet taste of that maybe is worth a dollar.
Likewise, motivational speakers provide a dizzying high, the illusion of economic agency. You walk out of a good speech or seminar feeling energized, feeling like you can do anything, feeling like this time, this time, it’s all going to turn around and you’re going to really make it. I’m told that cocaine has much the same effect, but has legal complications and causes nosebleeds. Either way, you’re not paying for the beneficial effect it has on your life, you’re paying for the high. The high always comes with the crash, though, when everything doesn’t turn around, and you compare yourself with that confident world-conquering person who walked out of that hotel conference room and feel like scum. The only cure is another hit of the same stuff, and congratulations, loser, you have a job after all. Your job title is “revenue stream”.
There’s no denying that women are also prey to the success industry, but I feel like men are, again, the core market. Just as the beauty myth damages both sexes but hits women harder, the success myth does the same to men. One of the worst things you can call a man, one of the words that men tend to write in their suicide notes, is “failure”. That word defines, cripples, and destroys untold numbers of men, and if you ask anyone for its antonym, you get the name of the industry that sells it.
Some folks will say that I’m against the free market here, but that’s not so. If anything, the existence of the success industry is a testament to the genius of the free market. Victim-blaming is about as old as victims, sure, but finding a way to charge the victims for the blaming? That’s pretty goddamned impressive.
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