No wonder we're devolving into a society of a few privileged haves and a vast populace of marginalized have-nots.
American culture contextualizes failure in individualistic terms: the system didn't fail--you failed. Never
mind the system is set up to fail many (if not most) participants: the
cultural narrative is that failure to succeed, failure to get ahead, and
failure to fit in all boils down to personal failure: failure to follow
the rules, work harder, please your boss, transition to a new career,
extricate yourself from dysfunctional situations, and so on.
narrative of individual failure and redemption is the foundation of
thousands of self-help books, seminars, motivational speeches and the
ever-present gung-ho rah-rah: you can beat any odds if you work hard enough, get out there and meet the right people, sell yourself, etc. etc.
culture is a schizoid mix of this "dress/socialize/study for success"
celebration of individual initiative and an equally zealous embrace of
victimhood and self-pity: I made all these ridiculously poor choices because my family was dysfunctional or I was led astray.
No wonder our culture is psychotic. The
way to get sympathy (and rationalize poor choices) is to make yourself
out as even more of a victim than the rest of the self-justifying crowd.
But the ideal turn-around to self-pity and victimhood is the personal
redemption via hard work, discipline, better choices, going back to
inspirational narratives at the heart of American culture serve a
useful purpose, but they ignore the other half of the story: our
institutions have failed us: they have failed not just the failures
but the successful as well. They have failed the nation and every one of
its citizens, but this systemic failure is verboten: speaking of
systemic failure invites ridicule as a loser who blames the system
instead of themselves.
Memo to the motivation-solves-everything crowd: Self-help books and rah-rah speeches won't change failed systems.
can we say about a system that has hired tens of thousands of college
administrators (under-assistant associate deans of student affairs et
al.) at $200,000 each for doing nothing remotely productive in terms
of educating students for the real world, while the system cheers
impoverished students to take on $100,000 in student debt for
increasingly worthless college diplomas?
How can anyone claim a system that glorifies the construction of $100
million student union complexes while loading over a trillion dollars of
debt on students is not part of the success-failure equation?
Instead of shrugging off the systemic failure and pushing every student
to borrow even more and "go back to school" as the "solution" to
marginalization, how about turning our energies on tearing down a failed
system and creating a system of higher education that is 90% cheaper
and 90% more effective?
How can anyone claim a system that charges $22,000 for an emergency room
visit for acute pain in the right side of the abdomen, and misdiagnoses
what turns out to be appendicitis (and charges another $22,000 for the
second visit a few hours later, and $40,000+ for the operation) is not
part of the success-failure equation? (True story.)
As I have noted here before, the system only generates jobs for those whose labor is profitable. Unprofitable
work is paid by the government, and that's how we end up with $500
Pentagon hammers, $800 cotton balls and $100,000 for worthless college
system itself is broken, from the incestuous corruption of Washington
D.C. to every institution that feeds at the federal/state trough. But
it's not just the central state that's broken--the private sector is
broken, too, because profitable work is increasingly scarce.
Though the culture insists everyone is equal not just in civil rights
but in potential to go out and be a sports hero, Steve Jobs clone, etc.,
the reality is many of us will never manage to shoehorn ourselves into
these rah-rah success boxes. It's not that we're not willing to work
hard, or give it our best shot--we just don't have the capacity to do
the stuff that's profitable in this economy.
Everyone that doesn't have what it takes to be brilliant, flexible,
sociable to a fault, etc., is marginalized: their role in the system is
to fill a dead-end job, enlist in the army of Precariats scratching out
an insecure free-lance living, or sink into some variety of state
dependence: "crazy money," disability, early retirement, etc.
But individual initiative and developing new skills and capital isn't going to fix failed systems. That
requires admitting the over-arching systems and institutions of the
nation have failed and need to be completely re-worked from the ground
This isn't a job for a centralized state, for the simple reason the source of the failure is centralization itself, as centralization concentrates wealth that then corrupts concentrated power which then destroys democracy.
We can't magically make all of us equal in ability, bandwidth, or
sociability, and embracing the illusion that this is possible is a core
reason why our culture is toxic and our economy is stagnant. We need a
system that has productive social roles and meaningful work for
everyone, not just the well-connected, the brilliant and the highly
No wonder we're devolving into a society of a few privileged haves and a
vast populace of marginalized have-nots: the system has failed, but we
can't even talk about it.