‘Self-Actualization’ in a World of Exploitation

“The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions and applause of [others]! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!” –Thomas Merton

Until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a total cessation of my activity and direction in life, I was only dimly aware of the true extent of my psychological condition. Not really. I was too lost at sea within my unconscious emotional through-line continuum ever vacillating between sublimated anxiety and terror to grasp it all. I had learned long ago about staying busy to keep one step ahead of it. And anxiety, after all, is the health of the economy and of the state. If I was feeling bad, as many a life-coach in that cottage industry of capitalist folklore would be quick to remind me, it had to be that I just wasn’t working hard enough or smart enough to fulfill my dreams and live up to my potential. An adjustment of “attitude” was all that was required. That’s all. My bad.

On some level, though I’m loath to admit it, somewhere along the way, I had internalized that obscene and distinctly American psychological mythology of meritocratic bullshit. It’s virtually impossible not to absorb it to some degree through osmosis because that thinking is so pervasive and absolutely fundamental to the arrangement of our entire economic order. It is a foregone conclusion that informs an unspoken thematic narrative of our education system, politics, our journalism, our entertainment, much religious instruction and alleged “self-help” culture, and consequently it is the lens through which many have a popular understanding and view of mental health itself.

The capitalist economy conditions people at a very young age to gather their sense of self through “doing”…and especially “owning.” But in the process of learning how to consciously cultivate the essence of one’s life, rather than be held hostage to an abstract perception of merely being a hapless victim of the world’s continuum of mercies, one may discover that there exists a critical distinction between “being” versus “doing”. The postmodern world obscures that truth. Society insists that something is wrong if we’re not busy doing something “to build a legacy,” if even only to selfishly accumulate resources. We’re “wasting time.” The commodification of everyday life and everyone and everything in it penetrates to the core. We are at a time when at the very beginning of summer, the temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are soaring around 110 degrees. After publishing thousands of articles on climate change warning about these conditions back in the early 2000s, there is no doubt in my mind that this is a consequence of that very commodification as manifested in a post-industrialized world.

Now here we are as a result of the relentless, every-man-for-himself push to do and consume in the absence of being. We live in a society that exalts the “dreamers” and the “visionaries” which in itself, is basically wonderful. But less is said about the necessity of measuring and moderating personal hubris. And yet, the folly of desperate ambition is such a pillar of our capitalist mythology. It is a universal theme in storytelling transcending all genres that never gets old, so ideologically fundamental and indispensable to our system of governance and sociopolitical, cultural organization. The curious preponderance of that narrative theme of ill-fated exuberance seems to mainly exist as a palliative reassurance that our economic order is nevertheless somehow organically self-correcting –that such excessive, selfish behavior is aberrational to the status quo which is unquestionably, morally astute and upright, and shall always somehow naturally, reflexively defer back to policing moderation by the twas-ever-thus reliable, unimpeachable credo of “pride goeth before a fall”. But any serious look at much of the political leadership and its primacy of self-centered motivation should quickly disabuse that notion. Nevertheless, the myths of meritocracy and the viability of the American Dream are still somehow resilient and hold sway in the popular imagination even in the face of its monumental fallacies bringing the world to the brink of total annihilation. All within 250 years. The obscene lie of the democratic accessibility of gaudy upper tier treasures and their utility as a means to self-realization are still far too scintillating and tantalizing to put down apparently. Even NOW. Everything is negotiable. Post something about it. There. That feels better –next…

An outgrowth of our economic system is a whole industry of self-help and recovery literature dedicated to the “power of positive thinking,” sometimes incorporating strains of eastern mysticism and distinctively German philosophy, in the hopes of mastering  “self-actualization” in order to “manifest” personal “abundance.” Many of these books and programs, though not entirely without merit, offer a disingenuous and even ethically dubious bargain promising techniques for self-mastery as a form of mental sorcery  –Nietzchean “will to power” formulas that are utterly individualistic, selfishly motivated, and conveniently in service to the larger ideology of a capitalist society that insists you only have yourself to blame for whatever misfortune befalls you. Like snake oil predators, many “self-help” gurus prey upon the innocent naïveté of the less fortunate by offering false promises potentially awaiting them beyond the gateway of the liminal intermediary state of consciousness.

But learning to identify closely with one’s mind carries certain risks of getting carried away with whatever desires are subsequently unearthed, provoked and encouraged. And when one fails to “realize one’s potential” as a consequence of a constellation of social and environmental factors largely outside of their control, and that very likely have little to do with one’s presentation of willpower, the perceived failures can be so much more devastating and psychologically damaging because they have been personalized and internalized, swallowing whole this sad, self-deceptive matrix of meaning as spiritual truth about their personal self-worth. Self-actualization can and does have its limits, no matter how seductively expansive and appealing one’s imagination may be dwelling in Never Never Land. Eventually, unless one is financially and socially inoculated from the truth, material realities will come into conflict with these addictive daydreams–as coping mechanism–as way of life. And if you’re lucky, the bullshit will finally start to stink like it should.

There is so much “Triumph of the Will” in the American discursive atmosphere of rugged individualism, one can be forgiven for absorbing some of it, or getting a smear on their belief system. “Manifest Destiny” is nothing if not a national religion of selfishness and barbaric conquest enshrined. The new age hosannas and exhortations for atomized individuals “to manifest” and bend the sheer fabric of their personal reality to meet their wills have become ever more shrill precisely as the fallacy of the United States’ economic order of meritocracy as advertised decays and collapses in all of its absurdity. The conceit of capitalism is that we live in a spiritually dead universe of limitless material bounty and equitable life chances, and that one need only apply the proper formula of elbow grease to really make it work for you in order to have a good life. A nice, simple, totally fictional, utopian, linear narrative of A+B=C. But as it turns out or may happen, your wedding party might get bombed by a predator drone, wiping out your entire family. You could be born black, female, Palestinian or Uighur. Native American. Anyone not white. Or on the island of Tuvalu as the water rises, along with the plastic and waste from Fukushima and BP oil within it. Or in a “land of the free” in which liberties you long took for granted may be suddenly erased with the stroke of a pen by a cynical minority who would in truth prefer you just go away and drop dead unless you have something tangible for them to take and exploit in some way. Despite what some political forces with vested interests would have you believe, if it still has somehow not been made clear enough, we are not each born onto a level playing field of life chances, choices and limitless resources. The would-be testimonies of fifty-three migrants discovered a few days ago baked to death in a tractor trailer by the Texas heat might beg to differ.

The myth of the invincible, self-made individual who rises up to master and marshal all forces of God and nature still holds sinister sway in advanced stage capitalism even as everything unravels all around us as a result of that way of thinking. In the process of exterminating false consciousness, one may find that this project is inextricably linked to disentangling oneself from that unconsciously adopted, poisonous ideology. For years I thought that was exactly what I was doing as someone who identified as an anarchist. But oh, was the joke on me. No, if anything, that self-conscious, ostentatious bit of shirtsleeve ideology, however genuine and well intentioned, also undeniably expressed a reactionary rage and frustration that was proportionate to just how much I was in fact helplessly in the grips of punitive material self-identification. My stadium-level, amplified rejection of materialist values, however sincere, was to some extent in vain, a statement revealing how much my own lack of self-worth had been penetrated and defined by them.

In the process of self-discovery, while exploring the roots of unquestioned assumptions informing consciousness, it may become apparent on a sublime level how far-reaching this energetic approach to life –how much human activity– has been infused with the absurd and obscene spirit of acquisitiveness and attainment. This is the frantic mentality and spiritual poverty of the addict. Could it even be called a transactional motivation informing behavior and relationships? Because that might imply that the atomized individual is offering something in exchange for something else. No, to live as a fully matriculated member of capitalist society is to have been indoctrinated on some level into the ontological order of the parasite. The consumer. The invasive, selfish preoccupations with risk versus reward composing the spiritual DNA of existence in moment to moment decision-making. “What’s in it for me?” It’s understandable that someone having CPTSD (such as myself) might naturally adapt with this harried, hoarding and craven constitution. But it’s no doubt also underwritten into the very fabric of our capitalist culture predicated as it is on a “power over” versus “power shared” dynamic of social relations. We live in a world in which “self-fulfillment” and “living your best life” is stressed as the single-most, ultimate ambition and purpose for being. At all costs. The credo of “fuck ‘em all” is no longer considered an unseemly, disturbed, and antisocial posture but one to be lauded, venerated and even emulated as bold, “edgy” and audacious, if not virtuous. The poetically apt name Donald Trump should disabuse any skepticism about the significance of this state of affairs. It wouldn’t be unfathomable to redesign the American flag to permanently incorporate “The Punisher” logo as so many seem eager to do.

Again and again, we are bombarded everywhere we turn with impossible, objectified standards of “beauty” and “success” reinforcing the message that most of us are “not good enough” and will never have the hope of being anything other than a lowly prole buying things to ease the pain of “not measuring up,” or living vicariously through the lives of “society’s winners”. We are constantly informed that we are “only as good as our last movie,” our last job, and just whatever exactly accounts for this suspicious gap on our resume. We see how life has been reduced to a public relations game in which it is always in everyone’s interest to “get ahead of the narrative” by obsessing over a presentational, if not completely virtual, discourse with life. Personal photographs are routinely rendered through filters augmenting faces and places not as they are but as we want them to be seen. And all of this is just so banal and boringly ordinary now. Society as a whole has been conditioned to be narcissistically in love with story and narrative, as one look at any social media platform will easily attest. But more specifically, particularly in our popular narrative forms of discourse on TV, films and “news”, we have been taught to expect life to conform to a simplistic, linear storyline of experience and progress, and the societal pressure to produce an easily objectifiable, condensed, large print, reductive myth to present to the world for approval and validation. It is to see the self not as a person but as a brand. A children’s storybook foretold. Yeah, shit ain’t like that. Ask any bird.

But who cares? I need to be able to compete in life. To be seen. What can I do to get people to finally notice me? Who do I have to become to make that happen? Since clearly the person who I am is terminally insufficient. But then, according to reports from that narrow margin of professionals who successfully make it to the other side, it is like an episodic trope of Twilight Zone in which having attained a certain amount of public recognition, everyone treats you as a fictional representation of yourself rather than the person you really are, and therefore you are still never truly seen because you long ago forfeited your soul somewhere in the process of this ritualized prostitution. This is how we are as a people now only a little over 200 years after the invention of the camera.

How many moments of truth are forfeited to these conceits? It is so easy –second nature, you could say with devastating accuracy– to fall into these false meanings of affective realism. Watered down copies upon copies of behavior. Pointless simulacra, the only purpose of which is to fill space and time with empty calories in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings from the unknown. And to some extent, almost everyone seems to do this now, regurgitating the trendy vernacular of pop culture cliches. Because the squeakiest wheels get the grease, and those wheels are what keep the lightrail of capitalism accelerated. And so we talk like prefabricated idiots slinging catchphrases and slang authored by Madison Avenue and Z-grade TV showrunners over brunch al fresco in this or that new city of commercial conquest, comparing consumption notes and reviews, because what else is there to do? Who exactly is suggesting anything else? Except pose at just the right angle for a definitive selfie in order to best emulate someone else doing the exact same thing some other place just like they saw them do a moment ago. Or maybe, if one is so exceptionally inclined, to parrot political talking points within the parameters of acceptable discourse as dictated by the guardians of the economic status quo in the corporate media, all of whom have an unspoken stake in keeping things “meritocratically” imbalanced in their favor. Like the band The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,” we are each made unwittingly deaf, dumb and blind by an atomizing system of necessary alienation fundamentally at odds with love, conscientious spirit, patience and kindness in the service of fodder for the machine of ruthless self-aggrandizement and capital accumulation.

And so here we stand, collectively dispersed from friend, family and foe alike in quite possibly the final death throes of the consequences of a culture that has been based on the exaltation of the individual. Here is the apotheosis of “every person for themselves” and the unquestioned acceptance of the idea that the greatest achievement of self-realization/actualization is to rise above one’s peers. And we find that there is nothing unusual or aberrational whatsoever at all about narcissism. It is who we are. But unfortunately to our collective detriment, it is the ironic, self-seeking instinct of every atomized, alienated narcissist to deny their very entropic nature, to preserve their precious, cultivated illusions….to save face. Back to scrolling.

Happy Independence Day.