by Nicole Aschoff
[Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from the new book “The New Prophets of Capital” by Nicole Aschoff.]
At a time when the American Dream seems more out of reach than ever, Oprah Winfrey’s message resonates and replicates through all avenues of life. Her helping, healing, self-empowerment message turns up on college campuses, has been adopted by legions of internet entrepreneurs, and is echoed in the vision of organizations like the Freelancers Union. But by emphasizing individual strategies for success, Oprah and other prophets of the empowered self downplay the real structures of power and inequality in our society. They place the burden of success on the individual, in the process disguising societal shortcomings as personal failures and blinding us to collective visions of change that challenge alienation and inequality.
Oprah’s success and charisma undergird her core message that anything is possible. Her story is a real-life, rags-to-riches tale that inspires a belief that wealth and success are achievable if we open our minds. She tells us over and again that “the boundaries and limitations that prevent us from living our Utopia are those we have created in our own mind and have made a part of our own reality.”
It’s a Cold World Out There
Oprah’s popularity stems in part from her message of empathy, support, and love in an increasingly stressful, alienating society. Three decades of companies restructuring their operations by eliminating jobs (through attrition, technology, and outsourcing) and dismantling both organized labor and the welfare state has left workers in an extremely precarious situation. Today, new working-class jobs are primarily low-wage service jobs, and the perks that once went along with middle-of-the-road white-collar jobs have disappeared. Flexible, project-oriented, contingent work has become the norm, enabling companies to ratchet up their requirements for all workers except those at the very top (jobs that in the past required only a high school education now require a college degree). Meanwhile, the costs of education, housing, childcare, and health care have skyrocketed, making it yet more difficult for individuals and households to get by, never mind prosper.
…Oprah credits her success in life to “being excellent” at everything she does and drawing strength from God and spirituality. Echoing the remedy of Rhonda Byrne (author of The Secret) for a hard-knocks life, Oprah attributes her billions to getting back what she puts out into the universe:
What I recognize now is that my choice to, in every way, in every example, in every experience, do the right thing and the excellent thing, is what has created the brand . . . So doing the right thing, even when nobody knows you’re doing the right thing, will always bring the right thing to you. I promise you that. Why? Because the third law of motion is always at work. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In 1994, Oprah declared that she was done with “victimization” and negativity: “It’s time to move on from ‘We are dysfunctional’ to ‘What are we going to do about it?’” Oprah credited her decision to her own personal evolution: “People must grow and change” or “they will shrivel up” and “their souls will shrink.” In an appearance on Larry King Live, Oprah admitted that she had become concerned about the message of her show and so had decided to embark on a new mission “to lift people up.” Themes of spirituality and empowerment displaced themes of personal pathology. For Oprah the transformation was total: “Today I try to do well and be well with everyone I reach or encounter. I make sure to use my life for that which can be of goodwill. Yes, this has brought me great wealth. More important, it has fortified me spiritually and emotionally.”
An episode with Marianne Williamson (a spiritual/self- help guru made famous by Oprah) demonstrated the transformation of the show and Oprah’s worldview. The show featured a depressed, unhappy mother on welfare. Williamson encouraged her guest to let go of her “victim mentality,” embrace the idea that “I have within me the power to break through these constrictions,” and realize that God is more powerful than welfare or depression. A different episode featured a young, single-mother named Clarissa who had recently lost her job, but who, after seeing an episode of Oprah, realized that instead of anger she should feel gratitude for being fired. According to Oprah, “Any time you get fired, you should say thank you,” because “it obviously means you’re not supposed to be there.” Now that Clarissa was able to focus on “gratitude” rather than anger at losing her job, she could find her true calling in life and use her newfound freedom to go back to school. Oprah says that “opportunities, relationships, even money flowed [her] way when [she] learned to be grateful no matter what happened in [her] life.”
A stream of self-help gurus like Williamson, Rhonda Byrne, Eckhart Tolle, John Gray, Suze Orman, Deepak Chopra, and Sara Ban Breathnach have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.
Oprah channels the message of the gurus through her own story, having learned that everything in life happens for a reason, including failure. “Failure is just a way for our lives to show us we’re moving in the wrong direction, that we should try something different.” When bad things happen to us, it ’s because we ’re drawing them toward us with unhealthy thinking and behaviors. “Don’t complain about what you don’t have. Use what you’ve got. To do less than your best is a sin. Every single one of us has the power for greatness because greatness is determined by service—to yourself and others.” If we listen to that quiet “whisper” and fine-tune our “internal, moral, emotional GPS” we too can learn the secret of success.
Oprah & Neoliberalism
O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.
In December 2013, O devoted a whole issue to anxiety and worry. The issue “conquers a lifetime ’s worth of anxieties and apprehensions,” an apt subject given rising levels of anxiety across the age spectrum. In the issue, bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin present a list of books for the anxious, prescribing them instead of a “trip to the pharmacy.” Feeling claustrophobic because you’re too poor to move out of your parent’s house? Read Little House on the Prairie. Feeling stressed because your current project at work is ending and you don’t have another lined up? Read The Man Who Planted Trees. Worried that you won’t be able to pay the rent because you just lost your job? Read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. “Instead of feeling depressed, follow the lead hero Toru Okada, who, while jobless, embarks on a fantastic liberating journey that changes the way he thinks.”
If you’re still feeling anxious, remember “that you can’t control the job market, but you can shore up your future prospects by networking.” And stop comparing yourself with other, more successful people. Instead, Nilofer Merchant (Silicon Valley corporate director and speaker) advises you to “try to harness your ‘onlyness’”: “Admire your own kick-ass individuality” and don’t engage in “comparisonitis” or “you’ll miss your true value.”
Keep the inspiration flowing by putting one of O Magazine’s card-stock “quotables” up on the fridge, like this Kurt Vonnegut gem: “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘it might have been.’” Not a Vonnegut fan? Flip the card over. On the back is a Wholly Guacamole advertisement reminding you to “start your day off on the guac foot!”
The ads in O are the other half of the feel-good formula. Fill up that hole inside you with spirituality and really nice stuff. In the special issue on anxiety, the nine-page feature story on “how to worry productively” is followed by a ten- page segment on boots and a seven-page spread on makeup. O tells us what to buy to “live our best life” in the O list of “must-haves.” Rain getting you down? Buy some cheeky ($168) rain boots because “the wrong footwear makes bad weather even gloomier.” There’s even a special “Why It’s Worth It” section in each issue, explaining why you should buy things like a $250 Anne Fontaine “timeless button-down” shirt. (After five years it will cost you only $1 per wear!) Oprah’s personal journey finds its way here as well: “I remember when I finally had enough money to splurge, I went out and bought a stack of Ralph Lauren towels. I still remember how soft they felt.”
Spirituality, self-actualization, and stuff are inseparable. Including the pages in which O presents readers with Oprah-approved products, 70 percent of the anxiety issue is advertising. There ’s no contradiction here, though, because, as Oprah says, God is abundance:
God—however you define or refer to Him, Her, or It—is for us. The forces of nature are for us, offering us life in abundance. Every day and every breath is magic—if we can only see it for what it is. . .I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that the little girl from Mississippi who grew up holding her nose in an outhouse now flies on her own plane—my own plane!—to Africa to help girls who grew up like her. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
Oprah recognizes the pervasiveness of anxiety and alienation in our society. But instead of examining the economic or political basis of these feelings, she advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.
“Do What You Love”
Oprah’s reach extends beyond the maligned imaginary of housewives who spend their days going to spinning classes, helicopter parenting, writing in their gratitude journals, and popping Lexapro. Sociologist Heather Laine Talley and Monica Casper, head of the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, argue that “all Americans consume Oprah whether they realize it or not.”
In her Cotton Mather meets Norman Vincent Peale commencement speeches, Oprah exhorts students at Stanford, Duke, Spelman, Howard, and Harvard to follow her example:
When you’re doing work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid . . . So, I say to you, forget about the fast lane. If you really want to fly, just harness your power to your passion. Honor your calling. Everyone has one. Trust your heart and success will come to you.
Millennials have internalized this message: A recent study found that young people believe that adulthood “should be a journey toward happiness and fulfillment, meaning and purpose, [and] self-actualization,” one “marked by continuous development, discovery and growth.” Identity and work are inseparable in this equation, not because people identify themselves by their occupation, but because more and more of our lives are spent working, networking, and building up our personal brand. We spend years acquiring social capital (connections, access to networks) and cultural capital (skills and education) so we can find a job we love and hopefully keep a roof over our heads.
The “do what you love” message is at the heart of the work-identity fusion. It advises you to follow your passion. If you’re unhappy, it’s because you’re not following your passion. If your job sucks, you’re at the wrong job. Video blogger and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk’s famous TED Talk is a “shot in the arm” for those pining for a more fulfilling life:
There are way too many people in this room right now that are doing stuff they hate. Please stop doing that. There is no reason in 2008 to do shit you hate! None. Promise me you won’t . . . Look yourself in the mirror and ask your- self, ‘What do I want to do every day for the rest of my life?’ Do that! I promise you can monetize that shit . . . Whatever you need to do, do it . . . Stop crying and keep hustling. ‘Hustle’ is the most important word ever. And that’s what you need to do. You need to work so hard.
The message is that if you make the right choices and build up enough social and cultural capital you can achieve personal and professional success simultaneously in a virtuous cycle that reproduces itself (with constant exertion).
Reconsidering the American Dream
Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. Instead of examining the interplay of biography and history, they eliminate it, making structure and agency indistinguishable. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals. For some people the American Dream is attainable, but to understand the chances for everyone, we need to look dispassionately at the factors that shape success.
The current incarnation of the American Dream narrative holds that if you acquire enough cultural capital (skills and education) and social capital (connections, access to networks) you will be able to translate that capital into both economic capital (cash money) and happiness. Cultural capital and social capital are seen as there for the taking (particularly with advances in internet technology), so the only additional necessary ingredients are pluck, passion, and persistence— all attributes that allegedly come from inside us.
The renowned French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was very interested in the nature of capital. He saw the social world as a web of social relations whose dimensions were the result of “accumulated history,” so that the social relations that constitute society do not appear and disappear spontaneously, nor are they random or equal. Instead, the social relations of society are shaped by power, and in particular, by the accumulation of capital. Bourdieu argued that capital accumulation
is what makes the games of society—not least, the economic game—something other than simple games of chance offering at every moment the possibility of a miracle. Roulette, which holds out the opportunity of winning a lot of money in a short space of time, and therefore of changing one ’s social status quasi-instantaneously, and in which the winnings of the previous spin of the wheel can be staked and lost at every new spin, gives a fairly accurate image of this imaginary universe of perfect competition or perfect equality of opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity or acquired properties, in which every moment is perfectly independent of the previous one . . . and every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything.
Bourdieu rejected this roulette image of social relations. He argued that the unequal ability of people from different socio-economic backgrounds to accumulate capital— economic, social, cultural—shapes their life chances profoundly and ensures that some will succeed while others will not. Though our society professes to be a competitive meritocracy—a “universe . . . of perfect opportunity, a world without inertia, without accumulation, without heredity, or acquired properties”—Bourdieu argued that, in nearly every instance, one’s access to economic, cultural, and social capital determines success, not gumption and grit.
Social and cultural capital are forms of capital just like economic capital. They can be achieved as an end in themselves (for fun or edification or both), but their historical purpose has always been to protect wealth, help in the competition for wealth, and identify insiders (the rich) and outsiders (the riffraff ). The American Dream is premised on the assumption that if you work hard economic opportunity will present itself and financial stability will follow, but the role of cultural and social capital in paving the road to wealth and fulfillment, or blocking it, may be just as important as economic capital. Some people are able to translate their skills, knowledge, and connections into economic opportunity and financial stability, and some are not—either because their skills, knowledge, and connections don’t seem to work as well, or they can’t acquire them in the first place because they’re too poor.
Today, the centrality of social and cultural capital is obscured (sometimes deliberately), as demonstrated in the implicit and explicit message of Oprah and her ideological colleagues. In their stories, and many others like them, cultural and social capital are easy to acquire. They tell us to get an education. Too poor? Take an online course. Go to Khan Academy. They tell us to meet people, build up our network. Don’t have any connected family members? Join LinkedIn. It’s simple. Anyone can become anything. There’s no distinction between the quality and productivity of different people’s social and cultural capital. We’re all building our skills. We’re all networking. All types of social and cultural capital are equally translatable into economic capital (and happiness), and social and cultural capital will retain their value no matter how many people acquire them.
This is a fiction. If all or most forms of social and cultural capital were equally valuable and accessible—as the hegemonic narrative tells us they are—we should see the effects of this in increased upward mobility and wealth created anew by new people in each generation rather than passed down and expanded from one generation to the next. The data do not demonstrate this upward mobility. The United States, in a sample of thirteen wealthy countries, ranks highest on inequality and lowest on intergenerational earnings mobility. Wealth isn’t earned fresh in each new generation by plucky go-getters. It is passed down, preserved, and expanded through generous tax laws and the assiduous transmission of social and cultural capital.
The mind-cure stories that people like Oprah tell us say this isn’t the case. Social and cultural capital are there for the taking if we want them and try for them. The real barriers are inside us, so we should focus on the inside stuff, be grateful for adversity, give back, and, most important, learn to think differently about the world so we can seize the opportunities waiting for us. But in a system stacked against everyone but the wealthiest, the inside stuff is often all we are left with.
Jennifer Silva, a sociologist at Harvard, studies working- class youth and their coming-of-age experiences. Working- class youth today are cut off from the markers of adulthood expected by their parent’s generation. Most of them will never enjoy the traditional rites of passage (house, steady job, family) essential to the American Dream. Silva finds that, nonetheless, they have internalized the therapeutic, self-actualization, inside-stuff narrative, just like their middle-class counterparts. The narrative helps them deal with their shattered dreams and “ascribe meaning and order to the flux and uncertainty of their lives.” However, “this alternative, therapeutic coming of age story ends not with marriage, home ownership, and a career, but with self-realization gleaned from denouncing a painful past and reconstructing an independent complete self.”
The way we are told to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves. We are the perfect, depoliticized, complacent neoliberal subjects.
And yet we’re not. The popularity of mind-cure, inside- stuff strategies for alleviating alienation and achieving autonomy and success rests on our deep, collective desire for mean- ing and creativity in the face of overwhelming structural odds against achieving self-actualization. Literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson would say that the Oprah stories, and others like them, are able to “manage our desires” only because they appeal to deep fantasies about how we want to live our lives. This, after all, is what the American Dream narrative is about—not necessarily a description of life lived, but a vision of how life should be lived. When the stories that manage our desires break their promises over and over, the stories themselves become fuel for change and open a space for new, radical stories. These new stories must feature collective demands that provide a critical perspective on the real limits to success in our society and foster a vision of life that does fulfill the desire for self-actualization.
About the Author
Nicole Aschoff is a writer and currently the managing editor of Jacobin magazine. She received her B.A. in History from Rutgers University in 2002 and her Ph.D. in Sociology from the Johns Hopkins University in May 2010. Her research interests lie at the intersection of labor, global political economy, development, and comparative/historical sociology.
Underlying Nicole’s research is a deep appreciation for the challenges posed by capital restructuring, globalization, and financialization for both workers and developing states.
She lives in Cambridge Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters.