Friday, November 16, 2012

The Individual, The Self-Made Man & Other Enduring American Myths

American Folklore

All happy families resemble one another, 
each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


He is a self-made man, 
very much in love with his creator.”
Benjamin Disraeli
With apologies to Tolstoy and a nod to Disraeli, all stories of self-made men resemble one another, and include elements of conquering, persevering and working hard and diligently, and rising to the challenge that few dared or could. The stories are imbued with self-love and self-congratulations. Such describes one of the enduring myths of America, which for long has under-girded the American Dream. It's Benjamin Franklin, Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie rolled into one. "I not only did it my way, but without any help, especially from the Government."

Movie voice-over: Here was a man who was once living on the street "hand to mouth"; and now he's a multi-millionaire overseeing a vast empire of businesses. Who would have thought that Jimmy Dean, the high-school dropout, would become the king of real estate. Perhaps the Lord spoke to him; perhaps it was another voice; perhaps it was being at the right place at the right time. Only in America.

It is the business axiom of hard-core Rightists, Conservatives and Libertarians, that what America always needs and desires is rugged individualism, which dovetails with the narrative of the "self-made" man. Both are loved and adored by those of the Right, and if you ask why, it becomes clear. The chief reason is that the traits of individualism and aloneness are about the Self and how the Self alone, without any aid from outside sources, can achieve success. Truly, this is a formula for the few and it speaks of exclusivity, snobbishness and elitism.

It also breeds narcissism, indifference, arrogance and, of course, selfishness. In such individuals, it's chiefly about winning and losing, and about neatly dividing the world into "winners" and "losers." Such an attitude also breeds clear-cut ideas of right and wrong, and allows no shades of grey in terms of moral, economic cultural questions. Of course such individuals appear decisive, sharp and unwavering. They are; but they're also not caring, compassionate or thoughtful. Who would you rather share your life with? Who would you want as a friend?

I for one have often thought that both narratives are not only false, but also boring and badly written, for the same reason that derivative biographies of "successful" businessmen put me to sleep. Here's what Frederick Douglass, the American abolitionist, wrote about the self-made man in 1859:
It must in truth be said though it may not accord well with self-conscious individuality and self-conceit, that no possible native force of character, and no depth or wealth of originality, can lift a man into absolute independence of his fellow-men, and no generation of men can be independent of the preceding generation. (549)
Although it's part of American lore, it's a myth that totally and completely false. In a Salon article ("Self-made men, debunked"), Sara Robinson writes:
Brian Miller and Mike Lapham have written the book that lays out the basic arguments we can use to begin to set things right. “The Self-Made Myth: The Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed” is a clear, concise, easy-to-read-and-use summary of government’s central role in creating the conditions for economic prosperity and personal opportunity.

Miller, the executive director of United for a Fair Economy, and Lapham, a co-founder of UFE’s Responsible Wealth project, argue that the self-made myth absolves our economic leaders from doing anything about inequality, frames fair wages as extortion from deserving producers, and turns the social safety net into a moral hazard that can only promote laziness and sloth.They argue that progressives need to overwrite this fiction with the far more supportable idea of the “built-together reality,” which points up the truth that nobody in America ever makes it alone. Every single private fortune can be traced back to basic public investments that have, as Warren Buffett argues in the book, created the most fertile soil on the planet for entrepreneurs to succeed.
A point to note: Many of the so-called self-made men benefited from not only education at excellent public institutions, but also from acquiring large business concerns and natural-resources companies at a cheap price; obviously it pays to have the right connections. The myth prevails, and predatory capitalists love the myth because it acts as a barrier to entry into their private exclusive club.

Equally important, the super-wealthy suffer from amnesia, forgetting how much of their wealth was actually acquired. For example, an article ("Mitt Romney and the myth of self-created millionaires") by George Monbiot in The Guardian intimates as much:
Rich lists are stuffed with people who either inherited their money or who made it through rent-seeking activities: by means other than innovation and productive effort. They're a catalogue of speculators, property barons, dukes, IT monopolists, loan sharks, bank chiefs, oil sheikhs, mining magnates, oligarchs and chief executives paid out of all proportion to any value they generate. Looters, in short. The richest mining barons are those to whom governments sold natural resources for a song. Russian, Mexican and British oligarchs acquired underpriced public assets through privatisation, and now run a toll-booth economy. Bankers use incomprehensible instruments to fleece their clients and the taxpayer. But as rentiers capture the economy, the opposite story must be told.
Scarcely a Republican speech fails to reprise the Richard Hunter narrative, and almost all these rags-to-riches tales turn out to be bunkum. "Everything that Ann and I have," Mitt Romney claims, "we earned the old-fashioned way". Old fashioned like Blackbeard, perhaps. Two searing exposures in Rolling Stone magazine document the leveraged buyouts which destroyed viable companies, value and jobs, and the costly federal bailout which saved Romney's political skin.
Self-interest rules the mind of many of the purveyors of the Myth. So, it's easy to understand why the Rightists and hard-line conservatives will defend an illusionary myth that has no bearing on reality. Of course, if you are one of the super-wealthy, it is to your decided benefit to defend the stories of Horatio Alger, Benjamin Franklin and the Tooth Fairy. The rest of us don't have such luxury.