A Justifying Myth for Millionaires: The Self Made Man?
George Monbiot‘s remarkable political analysis of the myth of the self-made millionaire jumped into my email box thanks to a friend who’s been tracking my leadership blog.
In “Mitt Romney and the Myth of Self-Created Millionaires,” Monbiot writes:
“We could call it Romnesia: the ability of the very rich to forget the context in which they made their money. To forget their education, inheritance, family networks, contacts and introductions. To forget the workers whose labour enriched them. To forget the infrastructure and security, the educated workforce, the contracts, subsidies and bailouts the government provided.
Every political system requires a justifying myth. The Soviet Union had Alexey Stakhanov, the miner reputed to have extracted 100 tonnes of coal in six hours. The US had Richard Hunter, the hero of Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches tales.
Both stories contained a germ of truth. Stakhanov worked hard for a cause in which he believed, but his remarkable output was probably faked. When Alger wrote his novels, some poor people had become very rich in the US. But the further from its ideals (productivity in the Soviet Union’s case, opportunity in the US) a system strays, the more fervently its justifying myths are propounded.
As the developed nations succumb to extreme inequality and social immobility, the myth of the self-made man becomes ever more potent. It is used to justify its polar opposite: an unassailable rent-seeking class, deploying its inherited money to finance the seizure of other people’s wealth.”
Leadership myths blur the growing gap between rich and poor
Monbiot’s progressive perspective is clear here. Whether you agree with his poltics or not, it’s worth looking at the myth he’s identified, and its connection to the deployment of the bootstrap-recovery rhetoric reflected in the presidential race.
The ridiculous “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mythos of American individualism is at the core of every Republican attack on the government safety net, part of every corporate bail-out designed to “create jobs” to hook our bootstraps onto, part of every “hard working American” candidate’s identity raised in the election.
The myth is in our American blood, burned into our brains and hearts. And it keeps us from seeing the truth about what’s happening. Our crisis in leadership is, to a great degree, caused by this myth which is no longer true (if it ever was). Because our presidential candidates and government representatives, by and large, come from the upper classes, they believe this myth.
After all, most of them have worked hard to get where they are, building on the solid economic foundation of privilege they inherited, yes, and also on their own ambitions and dreams. So the myth of individualism rewarded is partly true — our leaders have succeeded based on their efforts. What’s hard to acknowledge is how deeply they depend on the support received at and beyond birth. Without that support, they might be smart carpenters, or invisible although important leaders in their neighborhoods or small communities. (This assumes they’d have leadership qualities wherever they were born.)
Monbiot summarizes it well: “In 2010, the richest 1% in the US captured an astonishing 93% of that year’s gain in incomes. In the same year, corporate chief executives made, on average, 243 times as much as the median worker (in 1965 the ratio was 10 times lower). Between 1970 and 2010, the Gini coefficient, which measures inequality, rose in the US from 0.35 to 0.44: an astounding leap.
As for social mobility, of the rich countries listed by the OECD, the three in which men’s earnings are most likely to resemble their father’s are, in this order, the UK, Italy and the US. If you are born poor or born rich in these nations, you are likely to stay that way. It is no coincidence that these three countries all promote themselves as lands of unparalleled opportunity.
Equal opportunity, self-creation, heroic individualism: these are the myths that predatory capitalism requires for its political survival. Romnesia permits the ultra-rich both to deny the role of other people in the creation of their own wealth and to deny help to those less fortunate than themselves. A century ago, entrepreneurs sought to pass themselves off as parasites: they adopted the style and manner of the titled, rentier class. Today the parasites claim to be entrepreneurs.”
A call for shapeshifter leaders!
It’s ironic how the myths that shape our national pride become smokescreens to hide our national problems. A shapeshifter leader sees through the haze, and finds ways to debunk the myths hobbling our development, either by making us laugh or teaching us to see ourselves as we really are. A shapeshifter leader isn’t chained to the myth or his/her role as an individual, so s/he can do the hard work of sustainable, strategic leadership based on what’s happening now, not what s/he wishes were true.
From that flexible space, with a range of strengths and skills available, a shapeshifter leader chooses roles and takes responsibility for strategies to help followers and organizations bring unexamined private and public myths into consciousness. It’s hard to do; we fight to stay unconscious, to keep our myths comfortable, close. But it must be done.
“Romnesia” isn’t limited to the Romneys of this world. Its shadow can be seen in the futile hopes of impoverished and working class people who regularly injure themselves tugging at tattered bootstraps.
What can we do? Raise leaders who have the courage to shapeshift out of the trance of heroic individualism and its ingratitude, offering true empowerment for followers in the context of what’s really going on in the world.