The myth of the self made man (this is the term used, but is equally applicable to women) is perhaps one of the most insidious ideas perpetuated by the neoliberal ideal. If we are to develop a society that places cooperation over competition and contribution over reward, then we must bust open the myth of the self made man.
What is a Self Made Man?
In researching this piece I came across a ludicrous but typical US website called The Art of Manliness, which claimed:
“The story of the self-made man embodies the goal of every man: to become the captain of his own destiny…Self-made men attain their success through education, hard work, and sheer willpower.”
This is a fairly accurate and pithy rendering of the Self Made Man fairytale: a real man makes his own luck. This chimes in with the neoliberal idea of self reliance. Self reliance as an attitude is actually no bad thing. To approach the world with the belief that you take responsibility for your successes and your failures is actually a fairly constructive way to view life. It is useful to operate that way as it tends to point you to things you can personally take action on to change your circumstances. However, one of the greatest failings of neoliberalism is that it fails to account for moving from the micro to the macro, or from the individual to the society. So whilst it might be anecdotally and experientially useful to take a self reliant view at the personal level, at the societal level it is simply not this clear cut. Policy matters, the context is decisive, and if a person is born into a circumstance where they are underfed, cold, un nurtured, poorly educated, uninspired and hopeless their life chances are worse than if born into circumstances at the opposite end of the scale. This is a fact.
Does this mean it is impossible for anyone born into such circumstances to attain high office or become a world leader in their chosen field? No. But the goal of policy is purported to be to increase social mobility, not to reduce it.
Kicking the ladders away from the people with the least under the language of self reliance is as ridiculous as withdrawing cancer drugs from the market because some people refused treatment yet went into remission anyway, through sheer will power!
The refusal of the most privileged sections of our society to own that privilege as a crucial factor in their success is another symptom of neoliberal ideology. If we deny the role of privilege in attainment of wealth and power then we buy into the myth that success is based on superiority, the ultimate conclusion follows that failure to attain such things implies inferiority. It’s a convenient myth to have for the powerful, ‘we have our wealth and power because we earned it, we deserve it’. Recently, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, a lineal descendant of King William IV, great grandson of a 1st Baronet, grandson of a 2nd baronet, son of a stockbroker and an aristocrat gifted with an Eton and Oxford education (and one might argue his career in politics) through sheer privilege of birth, with a family fortune made in tax havens, bemoaned the ‘something for nothing’ culture of the British working class. Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne, heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy, educated at St Paul’s School and Magdalen College Oxford, has defended his policy to further erode the welfare state as supporting strivers not skivers. In fact, two thirds of the current cabinet are millionaires, when only 1.16% of UK households have assets of over a million pounds. More than half of the cabinet ministers went to fee paying schools, despite only 7% of UK children attending fee paying schools. In the face of all this, David Cameron announced triumphantly that that the Tory party was ‘no longer the party of privilege’ at a £400 a seat champagne ball.
Yet even to point to this obvious disparity in life chances between the ‘have lots’ and the ‘have nots’, one is met by accusations of class envy. The Coalition went one step further recently when faced with public outcry over their Workfare programme, which compels those claiming Job Seekers Allowance to work 30 hours a week for months at a time as shelf fillers for the likes of Tesco or Asda, simply to collect their social security payments. The government of millionaires labelled those opposing the forced labour scheme as ‘job snobs’. The public crying foul that their labour was to be compelled, and a supply of state subsidised labour would undermine their already precarious job security and employment opportunities were called ‘job snobs’ who thought themselves above stacking shelves for a supermarket.
The House Negroes
The refusal to acknowledge privilege is not restricted to those born into wealth and a network of powerful friends and family connections. Malcolm X coined the term House Negro to refer to slaves taken from the fields into domestic labour. The House Negroes were renowned for maintaining discipline over the Field Negroes of their Master’s estate in as equal if not more brutal a fashion as Master himself.
Today’s House Negroes are the so called ‘self made men’ who have come from what they perceive as the bottom of the pile and earned their millions. Some of these then decide to join the Conservative party and insist that they made it on their own, so these people on benefits simply are not trying hard enough.
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first and only woman Prime Minster toasted often to her father the grocer whom she described as a ‘self made man’, and attributed the title to herself as a woman who had grown from a grocer’s daughter, living in the flat above the family shop to the leader of Britain. Thatcher herself was responsible for the launching of this myth on the UK body politic. Members of her cabinet, such as Norman Tebbit, laid assault on the social minded British electorate. One cannot forget the shame laden accusations of laziness and slovenliness he heaped on the British public, suffering mass unemployment as a direct result of neoliberal economic policies of the then Tory government . In reaction to mass riots by outraged working class Brits, Norman Tebbit, Thatcher’s Employment Secretary retorted “I grew up in the 30’s, with an unemployed father. He didn’t riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking ‘til he found it.”
Thirty years later, we haven’t moved on from the warped ideology of Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher. We’ve simply upgraded to Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith.
We are still blaming the poor for their hardship and we are still denying the role of privilege in success. While those born into privilege, and those who gain privilege justify their position by disowning the role of society and factors outside themselves in their outcomes.
There is No Such Thing as a Self Made Man
The fact is, Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher may well have pulled themselves up from their boot straps, but they are still not self made. There is no such thing as a self made human being. Margaret Thatcher might have liked us to believe there is no such thing as society, but this self serving nonsense needs to stop now.
The Republican Party in the US launched a hilarious campaign during the most recent presidential election called ‘We Built It’. Hilarious, because we didn’t. None of us can say we built the world or the circumstances we were born into. We didn’t build the roads, we didn’t build the hospitals, we didn’t educate the teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers and scientists who impacted our birth and our lives, we didn’t discover the vaccines and immunisations which we were injected with as children which meant we didn’t die of now treatable illnesses, we didn’t overthrow the feudal system so we weren’t locked into land peasantry, we didn’t win universal suffrage giving ourselves the opportunity to directly elect our representatives in government, we didn’t establish the national police force which protected our lives and property, we didn’t clean the streets of waste so our environment was clean and sanitary, or build and clear the sewers.
All of these things contribute to us being born at all, surviving long enough to become an adult and having the knowledge and skills to fulfil on our intentions. We are all the result of combined efforts of people we will never hear the names of, many of whom died before we were born, many others who are around us right now. The sooner we own this as a fact, and commit to creating a world that welcomes us each into it offering the same promise, the better. To do so, we simply must dispense with the hideous myth of the self made man.