Climbing to utopia
The other day, while I was opening at work, a talkative customer approached, inquiring as to my ethnicity (apparently he had overheard me speaking to a previous customer and detected an usual “accent”). I informed the gentleman that I’m of northern Spanish descent, which delighted him as he claimed to possess some amount of Iberian ancestry as well. After a brief exchange regarding Spain’s cultural diversity, we drifted into a conversation about the company I work for. The customer was curious if they offered stock options to employees or any other benefits beyond basic health care packages or 401(k) plans. They don’t, of course, and in my response the man could sense that I harbored pessimism regarding the economy in general, and dissatisfaction with my corporate employer in particular. He assured me “ethical” companies exist, citing a few popular examples, and encouraged me to seek employment with them, if I was genuinely discontent where I was. Such proposals are of no interest to me, but I didn’t want to come off as unappreciative of his empathy by dismissing his suggestions out of hand, as it were.
The conversation then took something of a biographical turn. Judging from his tattoos and choice in apparel, in addition to the slang terminology he occasionally employed in the course of our conversation, I conjectured the customer with whom I was speaking was of a lumpenproletarian background. My suspicion was soon confirmed when he admitted to being a former convict. He claimed his criminal past has been an obstacle for him when seeking employment, and, assuming (perhaps erroneously) his crime was non-violent, I expressed sympathy for his predicament. But the prideful man would accept no pity. From his perspective, this impediment had motivated him to improve himself, which will ultimately serve to make him a more attractive prospect to employers seeking applicants in the future. The depth of this individual’s false consciousness was becoming more apparent with each sentence.
Anecdote after anecdote of successful entrepreneurs who began from positions not dissimilar to his own, and nevertheless went on to attain massive fortunes in the market, were adduced. The customer was of the opinion that one’s educational attainment, familial connections, and/or brute luck were simply immaterial to success under capitalism; a positive mental attitude and solid work ethic are all that’s necessary. I asked what the man’s current employment status was, in an effort to see if I could push back against some of these fantasies. He responded that he’s currently involved in construction labor, but aspired to becoming a haute bourgeois (not his words). After gathering this information, I attempted to see if I could prompt the man to evaluate matters from a strictly class perspective, but it was to no avail. Every piece of counter-evidence I cited was met with another bromide. His immediate material interests would simply not take priority over his dreams of wealth and status. I could have approached the issue from an ethical standpoint, to see if it would yield superior results, but I had neither the time nor inclination to do so.
I’m certain the lumpenproletarian environment he was reared in, as well as his peculiar personality, account for much of the man’s inability to evaluate these subjects rationally, but it would be a mistake to ignore the significance of bourgeois ideology here. The brilliance of the latter lies in its astonishing ability to effectively persuade the toiling masses that they can extricate themselves from the indignity of wage labor through tireless effort alone. There are enough rags to riches tales circulating in our society to render the myth of capitalism’s meritocractic class hierarchy plausible to many, causing working people to utterly ignore the exploitation and alienation they endure on a daily basis, in the naive hope they too can one day climb to a position of relative authority and wealth.