A Potentially Lethal Myth

I’ve just run a YouTube video and been subjected to an advert, as you often will be on YouTube. This one was a guy – I presume he’s someone fairly well known and sounds American and talks about driving round in the Hollywood Hills – showing us his new Lamborghini, which he’s keeping (quite sensibly) in his garage.

But then he says he’s more proud of his bookshelves, and shows us same, standing full of books along the wall of his garage.  Odd place to keep books, perhaps, but who am I to judge?

He says that “the more you learn, the more you earn”, and points out that he keeps the Lamborghini not to show off, but as a reminder that “dreams are still possible”.

And then I skipped on because, you know, there’s a ‘Skip Ad’ button after the first few seconds. I already watched this ad longer than I normally would.  Generally I end up not even knowing* what I’ve been watching an ad for, but I’m sure the marketing industry knows what it’s doing.

In a way, I’ve ended up wishing I watched for longer, to see what the thrust of the ad was going to be, because from what I saw, it was heading in the direction of “You Too Can Have A Flash Car If You Just Work Hard Enough”.

From my viewpoint over here in Europe, that seems to have become the foundation of the ‘American Dream’: that if you work hard, you’ll be successful.  That’s presented as a guarantee.  That’s what America is all about.  So we’re told by media and movies.

It’s one of the most socially and individually damaging lies there can be.

Because hard work doesn’t guarantee success – if we’re measuring success in terms of the cost of the car we keep in the garage.  If we measure it in terms of personal satisfaction that you’re working hard, then perhaps.  But let’s be honest: when we say ‘successful’, for the most part what we mean is ‘rich’. And that’s certainly how people are encouraged to understand the “hard work will bring success” platitude.

The reason it’s dangerous is not just because it isn’t true, and that it’ll lead people to misery, working themselves to death and wondering why they’re not getting the money they were essentially promised.  It’s not just that.  It’s dangerous because it undermines the very structure of society itself. It does that by leading others – mostly those who have been fortunate to achieve greater success – to assume that because someone isn’t successful, it can only be because they haven’t worked hard enough.

“What, you’re poor?  You’re struggling to feed your family?  Your house is being repossessed?  Well, you should work harder, then.  Get another job to go with the three you’re already juggling.  Stop slacking.”

Can there be a more heartless, callous response to a person’s troubles?  Sure, there are people who are in the cacky because they slacked off, or didn’t take their responsibilities seriously.  Of course there are.  There are people who simply choose to drop out, and expect everyone else to take care of them. Perhaps it’s understandable that we would resist the idea of helping such people.

But the truth is that those people are nowhere near the majority.  They barely even register.  Most of the people who get into trouble are just like you and me.  They don’t want to be there, and they don’t want to have to ask for help.  In a decent society our response to someone in trouble would be, “Let me help you”.  Our society would be built around the idea that it exists to support all its members: all the more so if they’re in a time of need.

Socialist?  Sure.  Absolutely.  While that term is often used contemptuously, the truth is that if we believe in the concept of society, then we should be socialist – at least to an extent.  No, I’m not just conflating two words that sound similar.  I believe that the mutual support I’ve described above is the single point and purpose of a society. If a society isn’t going to work collectively to support all its members then shut it down; call it off. It’s denying the very reason for its existence, and we needn’t waste our time pretending we have a society.

(For that matter: Communist?  Probably, in an idealistic sense, and again to an extent – as long as we bear in mind that there has never been a single large-scale communist society in the entirety of human history.  Like true democracy, true communism remains an entirely hypothetical construct.  No country that has yet claimed to be communist has actually been so, or in fact come anywhere near.)

“Work hard and you’ll get rich” is a potentially lethal myth.  “Work hard and you’ll maximise your opportunity to be successful but it’s no guarantee” is probably more honest.  “Work hard and be lucky and you’ll get rich” is nearer still.  “Be lucky and you’ll be rich” is pretty much spot on.

[* I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged by not knowing, though.]


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