It’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him
“Society has a kind of Catch 22. It delivers confidence to people it has successfully socialized to employ their capacities within society’s dictates. It delivers self doubt – let’s call it – to people more likely to use confidence, if they can achieve it, against the system. You need confidence to accomplish many things. Some of those things, however, are such that if you want to achieve them, it will mean an enormous effort went into ensuring you do not have confidence.”
That got me thinking about conventional notions of “success”: how whether or not your life is deemed “a success” often hinges upon what kind of institutional role you play within society. Our friends the gatekeepers of public opinion and common decency basically define “a success” as someone that can “employ their capacities within society’s dictates” (as per Michael Albert’s comment). For example, perhaps some of you sat through some manner of university graduation speech, maybe from a “successful” big-shot entrepreneurial alumnus about “following your dreams” or some such. Just so long as those dreams involve your being extremely comfortable with today’s institutions and their attendant ideological justifications, that is.
If “following your dreams” instead involves asking any hard questions and seeking to put a stop to the violence and pillage of those same institutions, forget it. That’s not what being “a success” is about. Those of us who agree with Karl Polanyi that a self-adjusting market “could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness” and see today’s approximation to a self-adjusting market increasingly doing just this, are unlikely to find ourselves “successful” (through either accident or design) within that system.
Seeking “success” in society’s marketplace also forces damaging conceptions of self-worth upon us. Erich Fromm writes in Man For Himself:
“Since modern man experiences himself both as the seller and as the commodity to be sold on the market, his self-esteem depends on conditions beyond his control. If he is “successful,” he is valuable; if he is not, he is worthless. The degree of insecurity which results from this orientation can hardly be overestimated. If one feels that one’s own value is not constituted primarily by the human qualities one possesses, but by one’s success on a competitive market with ever-changing conditions, one’s self-esteem is bound to be shaky and in constant need of confirmation by others. Hence, one is driven to strive relentlessly for success, and any setback is a severe threat to one’s self-esteem; helplessness, insecurity, and inferiority feelings result. If the vicissitudes of the market are the judges of one’s value, the sense of dignity and pride is destroyed.”
Interpersonal relationships are likewise compromised. Fromm goes on to say that
“The way one experiences others is not different to the way one experiences oneself. Others are experienced as commodities like oneself; they to do not present themselves but their salable part. The difference between people is reduced to merely quantitative difference of being more or less successful, attractive, hence valuable.”
We may yearn for salvation through romantic relationships, where people might present their whole selves to one another and not merely their “salable part”. But Fromm does not expect us to find real love there either (at least, not to the extent we allow our behaviors to be guided by “the marketing orientation”):
“The superficial character of human relationships leads many to hope that they can find depth and intensity of feeling in individual love. But love for one person and love for one’s neighbour are indivisible; in any given culture, love relationships are only a more intense expression of the relatedness to man prevalent in that culture. Hence it is an illusion to expect that the loneliness of man rooted in the marketing orientation can be cured by individual love.”
There are further psychological costs to “success”. On top of denying our love for humanity, cognitive dissonance implies we must learn to “love big brother” instead – otherwise the beliefs “I am a good person” (“a success”) and “I am deceiving myself and others” remain irreconcilable. And so, becoming sanctioned as “successful” necessitates our buying into various flimsy justifications for both the rapidly escalating extermination of the natural world and the culmination of state capitalism’s protracted asphyxiation of the human spirit. The justifications collapse upon examination, so the trick is not to examine them. The purpose of “a good education” is to teach us “the trick”. Knowing what is safe to question and what must be left alone is a vital matter of psychological survival, at least for those who aim to be “successful”. 2 + 2 = 5.
Such psychological pressure to conform to the dictates of government can all but annihilate individual free expression and interestingly the danger of this is perhaps greatest under “kinder” and more “reasonable” forms of governemnt such as the liberal democracies. Oscar Wilde writes in his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism that:
“All modes of government are failures. Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things. Oligarchies are unjust to the many, and ochlocracies are unjust to the few. High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. It has been found out. I must say that it was high time, for all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised. When it is violently, grossly, and cruelly used, it produces a good effect, by creating, or at any rate bringing out, the spirit of revolt and Individualism that is to kill it. When it is used with a certain amount of kindness, and accompanied by prizes and rewards, it is dreadfully demoralising.
People, in that case, are less conscious of the horrible pressure that is being put on them, and so go through their lives in a sort of coarse comfort, like petted animals, without ever realising that they are probably thinking other people’s thoughts, living by other people’s standards, wearing practically what one may call other people’s second-hand clothes, and never being themselves for a single moment. ‘He who would be free,’ says a fine thinker, ‘must not conform.’ And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of over-fed barbarism amongst us.”
To aspire to “succeed” as something more than a mere “petted animal”, to have some personal, dissident concept of “success” found outside of state capitalist values and to strive to actually achieve this, is to be branded by all and sundry as “unsuccessful”. It’s something that most of us, caught out by Michael Albert’s Catch 22, can’t manage anyway. It takes a lot of self-confidence (even bloody-mindedness) to maintain your own definition of success in the face of a cacophony of voices (often including family and friends) saying “What the hell are you doing? Just do what you’re supposed to.” They can bash you over the head with that particular rock every day of your life. No wonder most people comply. You’re not supposed to have ideas of your own. A man that lives in a clay tub is not “a success”.
This seems to be a particular problem for the “well educated” amongst us (recall the purpose of “a good education” was to learn “the trick”). It goes thusly: work hard; get “a good education”; have “a good career”; become “a success”. We were breastfed on that crap and most of us never got weaned off of it. Almost every facet of our “good education” reinforced it. I hope a lot of my generation (and others) are ready to call bullshit on the whole mythology; are recognizing that pledging their allegiance to this system is destroying our futures. Radical environmental activist Derrick Jensen lays out his reaction rather bluntly:
“I’m incredibly privileged. And it’s my responsibility to use that privilege to bring down the whole system. Otherwise I’m not worth shit.”
But what might help others to declare likewise? Perhaps it will be solidarity with fellow disenfranchised humanity? Turn off your TVs and talk to your friends – really talk to them (and please, God, not on facebook!) – and perhaps you’ll find that most of us don’t really buy into the bullshit, despite the never-ending stream of the stuff elites dump onto our psyches ever day. Perhaps the outcome of those conversations could be what Bill Hicks described: confirming your voice of reason?
“You can’t put out puerile crap twenty-five hours [a day] ‘cos eventually there’s gonna be chaos in the streets, which there already is, because people are frustrated not having their voice of reason confirmed. And everyone has that voice of reason that goes, “This is bull man. What I’m watching is bull”. And yet the media does not confirm it, so after a while people get… they begin to think they’re insane. And that’s the bummer about it, but that’s why I love non-mainstream stuff, because you actually hear honest emotions, and that’s what you won’t hear on mainstream TV ever, is honest emotions.”
That’s an important insight, I’d say. Let’s agree that things are fucked up. Let’s remind each other that we aren’t insane. Let’s hear honest emotions expressed. That should help develop our confidence – the courage of our convictions. Move notions of “success” away from some horrifically skewed definition, where it equates to destroying the futures of future generations, towards a new definition where it equates to saving that future from the insanity of the present – particularly the actions of some of today’s most “successful” people.
Success is not about pleasing other people then. Particularly not when those other people are acting like psychopaths. Success is about finding out what it is you truly, individually value and trying to live up to this and bring it into the wider world. Perhaps that’s part of what Bob Dylan was driving at in his song It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)? So I’ll give him the last word:
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying.
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.
Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
That you’d just be
One more person crying.
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.
An’ though the rules of the road have been lodged
It’s only people’s games that you got to dodge
And it’s alright, Ma, I can make it.
Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.
You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.
A question in your nerves is lit
Yet you know there is no answer fit to satisfy
Insure you not to quit
To keep it in your mind and not fergit
That it is not he or she or them or it
That you belong to.
Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to.
For them that must obey authority
That they do not respect in any degree
Who despise their jobs, their destinies
Speak jealously of them that are free
Cultivate their flowers to be
Nothing more than something
They invest in.
While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him.
While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society’s pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he’s in.
But I mean no harm nor put fault
On anyone that lives in a vault
But it’s alright, Ma, if I can’t please him.
Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.
While them that defend what they cannot see
With a killer’s pride, security
It blows the minds most bitterly
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Must get lonely.
My eyes collide head-on with stuffed graveyards
False gods, I scuff
At pettiness which plays so rough
Walk upside-down inside handcuffs
Kick my legs to crash it off
Say okay, I have had enough
What else can you show me?
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.