But what I want to see above all is that this country remains a country where someone can always get rich. That’s the thing that we have and that must be preserved.
Of course we need the rich. We always have: to ogle and envy and imitate. They are our spectacle and our joy because in the head of every American lies the thought That could be me. The rich constitute our mythos, after all, our fairy tale, our hymn to success.
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Why is it that the wealthiest nation in the world finds it so hard to keep its promise and faith with its weakest citizens?
Throughout this chapter it has become evident that the myth of the self-made man strongly affirms an ideology of expressive individualism as well as individual achievement and success that conceptualizes the “pursuit of happiness” (cf. the Declaration of Independence) as the pursuit of property. By claiming that self-making also contributes to the greater common good, hegemonic versions of this powerful myth - or fairy tale - of social mobility still very successfully obscure its role in legitimizing and perpetuating immense structural social inequalities.
In the age of global capitalism and the new social media, corporate success on a grand scale has once more become concretized and personalized in ‘selfmade’ individuals such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg (again, self-made men), who are turned into celebrities and high priests of the American civil religion of success, albeit with a new global dimension. In The Road Ahead (1995), Bill Gates fashions himself as such a high priest of the new age by using the semantics of a “peaceful revolution” to describe the effects of the computer and the internet on US society (and the world at large) and by affirming his company’s supposedly democratic commitment to making it affordable for people to have “a computer on every desk and in every home” (4) - which, of course, is only in the corporate interest and need not necessarily be a blessing for humanity. Based on the success formula of the self-made man, Gates’ develops a notion of “friction-free capitalism” (ibid. 180):
Capitalism, demonstrably the greatest of the constructed economic systems, has in the past decade clearly proved its advantages over the alternative systems. As the internet evolves into a broadband, global, interactive network, those advantages will be magnified. [...] I think Adam Smith would be pleased. (207)
It is telling that Gates invokes Adam Smith, whose The Wealth of Nations is a key text of laissez-faire capitalism, rather than Thomas Jefferson and The Declaration of Independence, which constitutes a key text of a very different kind even if both were published only a few months apart, in March and July of 1776, respectively. Gates’s reference to Smith attests to his own global neoliberal capitalist vision (exceeding the nation state and the national market) in which there are supposedly only winners, as everybody profits from the new ‘democratizing’ technologies and the workings of Smith’s proverbial invisible hand. Gates thus romanticizes the conditions of consumption and the role of consumers and entrepreneurs while obscuring the conditions of production and the economic vulnerability of those involved in it. In Steve Jobs: Life Changing Lessons! Steve Jobs on How to Achieve Massive Success, Develop Powerful Leadership Skills and Unleash Your Wildest Creativity (2014), William Wyatt similarly taps into the tradition of idolizing self-made men in a quite narrow ideological framework and regardless of Apple’s numerous manufacturing and tax scandals and its dubious labor policies abroad (condoning for example deplorable working conditions at its suppliers in China). In spite of somewhat critical representations of his personality and entrepreneurial strategies for example in The Social Network (2010), Mark Zuckerberg’s achievement also has been much applauded in biographies and advice literature such as George Beahm’s Billionaire Boy: Mark Zuckerberg in His Own Words (2013) and Lev Grossman’s The Connector: How Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Rewired Our World and Changed the Way We Live (2010).
These more recent embodiments of the self-made man indicate that the myth has weathered the storms of capitalism’s periodic crises and may have in fact even been instrumental in providing the ideological glue which maintains the quasi civil religious belief that upward mobility can be achieved by all. In turn, in the logic of this myth, financial and economic crises are not considered as part and parcel of a dynamic that is built into the increasingly globalized capitalist US economic system, but as somehow random and contingent or caused by outside economic influences. Nancy Fraser has called this false attribution of responsibility for structural inequalities “misframing” (“Post-Polanyische Re- flektionen” 103); according to her argument, the intrinsic problems of a market economy are often credited to adverse outside factors allegedly skewed against the self-made man as object and agent of American exceptionalism. In view of a transnational perspective, scholars have also pointed out that many other societies are much more permissive and less socially deterministic than the US, which however has not lastingly affected specifically American notions of the self-made man and competitive equality. Even more fundamentally, sociologist Pitirim A. Sorokin has asserted that an “unstratified society with real equality of its members is a myth which has never been realized in the history of mankind. [...] The forms and proportions of stratification may vary, but its essence is permanent” (qtd. in Potter, People 99). Like so many aspects of American exceptionalism, the myth of the self-made man is as unrealistic as it is powerful. As we have seen in this as well as the preceding chapters, the foundational mythology of the US - Margaret Mead describes it as “our compensatory mythology” (And Keep 50) - creates a usable past and a hopeful future by bypassing the manifold discrepancies between mythic text and lived reality. Closing this gap is the ideological function of myth and the ongoing cultural work it performs.