Mike Gravel’s recent neoliberalism-themed tweet is flawed in its logic but it resonated all the same, because the phrase “crushed by neoliberalism” is broadly applicable to everybody whose future is evaporating amid decades of broken promises of “progress” and “growth.”
I don’t like calling people “mediocrities,” I don’t think that can be an accurate characterization of anyone. Also, granting that Alger wrote crude, materialistic stories, the “Horatio Alger lie” is a cruelly reductive way of referring to the possibility of improving one’s own lot, even in an unjust world.
But in fact even the most glossily “successful,” such as, say, the software engineers of Silicon Valley, have been “crushed by neoliberalism” right along with the Kentucky public servants whose pensions were stolen, and the Ohio auto workers whose jobs were sent to Mexico after all. Sure, those software engineers may be making $250,000 at Google or Facebook, but they still can’t afford to buy a house near their work—plus which, far from building the internet they may have dreamed of as kids, the internet that once promised to liberate and connect a more egalitarian world, they’ve found themselves the henchmen of a bunch of Drs. Evil, obediently building them their Skynet.
But Gravel is right that very often, those who had real faith in the system by which they set the clocks of their lives running refuse to blame that system for the collapse of their hopes—it’s something else that must have failed—not the policies of a corrupt government, not the churches or the European Union or NATO or the United Nations—not the whole world in which they grew up feeling safe and comfortable, expecting good things to come! That betrayal would be too much to grasp.
This phenomenon of furiously defending the very thing that hurt us isn’t “brainwashing,” not at all, and there’s no particular genius to it. The machinery by which the self-delusion takes place is worth a look; it’s been well understood since at least 1891, when George Bernard Shaw described the Defense of Failure Machine in ultrafine detail.
It’s hard to imagine the furor that Henrik Ibsen’s plays created in London on their debut in the late 19th century. Polite society lost its mind at Ibsen’s naked indictment of its mistreatment of women, the sordid results of having driven sexual activity underground, and the generally festering mess to be found beneath the carpet of its prim conventionality. Does this sound familiar? It should, because Shaw’s The Quintessence of Ibsenism reveals an exact correlation between the crushing effects of Victorian conventionality, and the crushing effects of neoliberalism today.
Ibsen’s debut in London resulted in, on the one hand, wild cheers for the author’s moral leadership from an intelligentsia long starved for the truth, and on the other, hysterical wailing from conservatives suddenly confronted with the true cost of their lies.
The Quintessence of Ibsenism was written as an essay for the Fabian Society and published in book form in 1891. Here, Shaw quotes from the various fits pitched in the conservative newspapers on the occasion of the London debut of Ghosts:
An open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly; a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open… Candid foulness… Offensive cynicism… Ibsen’s melancholy and malodorous world… Absolutely loathsome and fetid. Gross, almost putrid indecorum… Literary carrion… [etc.]
And all that is just from the Daily Telegraph! Elsewhere: “Naked loathsomeness,” “Revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous,” “Repulsive and degrading,” etc., etc.
“Just a wicked nightmare,” squeaked The Gentlewoman, once the smelling salts had been applied and it came to.
So why all the fuss? Well, mainly, Shaw explains, because Ghosts depicts a woman, Helen Alving, who was wrong to have stayed with her gross, debauched drunk husband, and wrong to have struggled so hard to support the pretense of his upright character. Wrong, to conceal the paternity of the “love-child” he fathered on their maid. Wrong again, to keep the truth about the maid’s daughter from their son Oswald, who grew up to become, like his father, a drunken mess. The failure of all Mrs. Alving’s idealistic and dutiful self-denial breaks in on her at the end of the play, when her beloved son is revealed to be dying of the syphilis that he inherited from his father.
Shaw’s first point was that contemporary morality absolutely recoiled at the idea, the possibility even, of a woman’s noble self-sacrifice turning out all wrong. The noble self-sacrifice of women was a favorite super popular theme in English letters, the subject of romance and admiration, as any reader of Dickens, Hardy, or Wilkie Collins knows. To admit that self-sacrifice might sometimes be a terrible idea, a mask for denial and not noble at all, would require a deep and discomfiting reconfiguration of values. But Shaw did more than expose the hypocrisies at the heart of conservative Victorian morality: “the iniquity of the monstrous fabric of lies and false appearances.” He explained exactly how they work, which is the same way they work now.
First, Shaw identifies the Ghosts-hatin’ class of conventional Victorian moralists as “idealists.” These, he says, are people for whom regular family life is not working. Why it’s not working doesn’t matter; an unhappy marriage maybe, never wanted children, whatever. The thing is: not working. Such people also lack the courage to face the fact that they’re “failures” at family life — “irremediable failures,” since they can neither alter the standard-issue morality, nor bring themselves to disobey it. So they set up their masks—stay in the marriage, or have a bunch of kids when really you wanted to leave town; grind through the profession, make partner, get tenure—you have to pretend you meant it, you have to pretend it’s good, though in reality, you know it’s not. This self-gaslighting is everywhere, obviously.
That’s why, Shaw says, anti-Ibsen Idealists have to convince themselves that come what may in their own lives, “the family is a beautiful and holy natural institution.” Otherwise, the horrible sacrifice of disobeying reality itself in favor of a twisted conformity will have been altogether meaningless.
Shaw then contrasts his Idealist, first with the Philistine, who is a person for whom all the conventional stuff works just fine, and so there’s no need to care much about it. Which is most people, Shaw thinks. They’re like hey whatever okay, get in a big lather about religion and duty, it doesn’t really bother me.
And finally he contrasts both of these with the hero of the piece, the Realist, the rare person who cares zero percent what anyone else thinks, and lives according to the truth, and his own personal morality, not the standard-issue one; and Realists, who see, accept and live in the truth, is what he and Ibsen are.
Shaw was not really all that much of a Realist though. He went in for a lot of fads, like teetotaling, vegetarianism and Jaeger woolen undies, for example, and also he was completely taken in by Stalin. Useful as this book has been to me over the years, and much as I admire it, I really doubt there’s such a thing as a Realist IRL.
Anyway. Map the ferocious tendency to protect your own misconceptions onto modern American conventionality, which comes in a lot of different flavors, and you get the Republicans in my family who will never in a billion years concede that their lifelong “family values” are made a mockery of by the vulgar, immoral Trumps, because to admit that would be to admit they were wrong about “family values” ten years ago, twenty years ago, thirty years ago. Fans of Joel Osteen, teary-eyed with their own piety, voting proudly for the adulterer-in-chief.
The same is true of people who believed all their lives in liberal incrementalism, forced now to account for the fact that nobody went to jail for Abu Ghraib, and yet lamenting the loss of Obama, who sent nobody to jail for Abu Ghraib.
This Idealist equivalence is not immediately obvious, but it’s real. The benefit of the doubt, disbelief suspended a mile high for Trump, who means well, they think: Who is (deeeeeep down) a good and simple man, a flawed man. Among other people, who are protecting other illusions, the very same logic obtains, the benefit of the doubt for Obama too: A good and complicated man, a flawed man, the victim of circumstances, more sinned against than sinning.
Seeing what you need to see, disbelieving the evidence of your own eyes in order that your world may remain intact.
Cherished, poisonous Idealism is all over. People who love the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. People who love Apple, and people who love Wall Street, and people who cannot for the life of them admit that Miami is already drowning.
It’s Idealists you’re seeing who can’t bear the thought of progressive ideas like student debt forgiveness, the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, etc.: the possibility of real progress, even the sight of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, threatens their internal house of cards. (Not forgetting, either, that if those ideas or politicians fail, they will attract Idealists of their own. Then again they may partially succeed, as Roosevelt did with Social Security in 1935.) Idealists are also, I suspect, why Facebook and Tesla are failing so slowly. It was nice to imagine we were going to live in the safe clean beautiful Star Trek world at last. It’s very hard to accept the fact that everyone shared adorable cat videos for more than a decade in servitude to a megalomaniacal liar and “digital gangster.”
The shock of a new awareness may have its compensations; Keats was not wrong, truth is beauty—even the most unwelcome truth, is beauty—and its contemplation always results in an expansion of the soul. But to have been wrong is also to be obliged to tear out the roots of the old belief, and that’s such a bloody, raw and wretched business.
The worst part of having been fooled is having to admit it. The tendrils of a long-held idea will have grown down into your deepest parts, parts that do not like to be disturbed. Tearing them out comes with grieving, not just for the lost comfort, but for the estrangement from everyone who shared it with you, for everything that supported and colored the false belief, for the world it made you. Hence the gigantic agita that so frequently keeps people from owning our own folly. (cf. Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, politics in general.) The more wishful the thinking, the graver the truth lying in wait up ahead, the more fiercely one may prefer to hang onto the lie.
[Author’s note: a small part of the foregoing analysis of Ibsen appeared years ago at the much-loved Awl.]