Addicted to Failure

Neoliberalism foists on career-minded millennials a self-relation which resembles that of alcoholics in the throes of addiction


A friend of mine is in a program now, and she’s doing much better. Underearners Anonymous (UA), a 12-step program founded in New York City in 2006, is a program for people who have trouble pursuing their personal “vision,” a term which appears seven times in the brief “About UA” pamphlet. In one sense, “underearning” is simply what its name implies: an “inability to provide for one’s needs.” But it’s not just about earning a higher salary. It is also about “underachieving, or under-being, no matter how much money we make.” Underearners cannot bring themselves to do exactly that which is meaningful for them. Often self-employed, they fail to charge enough for their services, or they give them away for free. They also take on debt, hoard, and waste time. These symptoms converge in a profile of typical UA candidates: freelancers who are called upon to play the role of both manager and employee and fail at both. And they fail precisely because, as much as they’d like to take an entrepreneurial approach to their careers, they fear the very the market they must venture into in order to do so.

Patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the original 12-step program, UA may be thought of as a protocol for personal change. My aforementioned underearning friend has shelves that are lined with self-help books on everything from intimacy and closing sales to workspace organization, personal finances, and proper eating. She has read about how to meditate, learn to let go, care for herself, be present as well as brave, manage her time, and unleash her creativity. Yet the endless proliferation of the self-help field, with its books, workshops, therapists, groups, and programs, is evidence that its object is something essentially intractable. “These are the ways I’ve tried and failed to manage my life,” my friend says to me. Her bookshelf of dusty self-help books is proof that even the most eager of self-helping selves isn’t fully under its own control.

This paradox becomes even more pronounced under the conditions of freedom and flexibility characteristic of late 20th- and early 21st-century capitalism. In the late 1970s, the French theorist and historian Michel Foucault presciently identified the subject of late capitalism not as the man of exchange, but as the entrepreneur. There had occurred a “multiplication of the ‘enterprise’ form within the social body,” he writes. In other words, individuals — and families, schools, communities, etc. — came to view themselves as enterprises and think of their activities in entrepreneurial terms. Getting an education, owning a house, or raising children came to figure as investments toward future prosperity. And in the working world, this means that individuals are less interested in contributing toward the aims of big companies than in using key positions as leverage in their own careers. Bosses and employees have been replaced by clients and vendors, contractors and principals. Each is pursuing her own interests, even if many participate in larger institutions. Job security is a thing of the past, aspirants for work have come to be regarded as dispersed economic units within the field of the labor market.

Each unit forms, dissolves, and re-forms functional networks from moment to moment. Governing her actions in these networks is a “way of behaving in the economic field” that manifests as “competition in terms of plans and projects, with objectives, tactics and so forth,” Foucault writes. These correspond to the current societal obsession with resume building, career coaching, and retirement planning. Under what has since come to be known as neoliberalism, which is fundamentally a philosophy that favors the application of the logic of market competition to nearly every area of human activity, individuals are regarded as ever-unfinished projects that can be pursued or abandoned. This unexpectedly recalls the 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of man. In his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” (1946), Sartre writes that man is “nothing else but what he purposes.” Also, he “exists only in so far as he realizes himself” and “is no other than a series of undertakings.” He is, in short, an enterprise.

Thanks to neoliberal enterprise, a lucky elite have managed to escape meaningless office work. They now contribute to the endless production of capital through the pursuit of their creative vision. For them, the vast field of possibility that is the neoliberal marketplace appears almost as validation of Sartre’s declaration, “Man is free, man is freedom.” And underearners want in on this self-determined prosperity. Also wanting in on it are millennials, a generation born between the 1980s and the 2000s or so. Millennials were raised to believe that they could become whoever they wanted. Yet this is actually a frightening prospect, because where an individual’s latitude for self-determination is widest, the pressure to govern the self is most crushing, as is the failure to do so. On the 13 to 16 daily UA phone meetings (with US and international access numbers), you’ll find people with big dreams who are struggling to carry them out: actors who don’t learn their lines; entrepreneurs who abandon business plans; writers who go to law school because it’s practical, and then, having grown miserable, fail out anyway.

Millennials are known for their special mixture of entitlement and insecurity. As an Urban Dictionary entry puts it, they think they’re special because mom and dad told them they were. This means they’re constantly looking for teachers, bosses, and Facebook friends to prop up this belief. Their parents’ financial well-being has allowed them to pursue their passions, and yet now they can’t understand the fixation on job security and pension plans characteristic of the generation that raised them.

Of course, the term “millennial,” inasmuch as it’s valid, applies only to a privileged subsection of the generation it’s supposed to describe. That is, characteristics attributed to millennials really only belong to white kids from affluent families — those who are poised to become the neoliberal creative elite, specifically. Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of the HBO series Girls, which has received criticism for the scant attention it pays to less privileged girls and girls of color, is perhaps the embodiment of this cultural figure. In the first episode, Hannah’s parents have taken her out to dinner in order to tell her they won’t support her financially anymore. Among her protests is that she’s “busy becoming who I am!” In fact, since she graduated from college, she has been living in New York on their dime doing an unpaid internship at a literary magazine. An aspiring writer who after two years has only produced a thin sheaf of pages of her “memoir,” Hannah says in another bid to keep her family funding her, “I think I may be the voice of my generation!” That her parents should forego the comforts of middle age so that she can leisurely pursue her art seems to her to go without saying. And her parents might even have agreed to that deal if it had seemed like a good investment. But Hannah’s combination of lofty ambition and crippling self-doubt — which keeps her, a writer, from actually writing — doesn’t promise a good return on principal. So her parents don’t cut her off only because they want to use the money to go on luxurious vacations. They also regret enabling her all these years, and are hoping being forced to fend for herself will humble her, will help her hit rock bottom.

12-STEP programs have attracted tortured narcissists like Hannah since AA was founded in 1935. In fact, cofounder Bill Wilson, who in 1939 also authored Alcoholics Anonymous (known simply as the “Big Book” of AA), himself identified as one, having worked as a Wall Street speculator before he underwent a “spiritual awakening” and turned his will and his life over to God. He returned from military duty in World War I harboring great personal ambition. “I fancied myself a leader,” he writes in the Big Book’s first chapter: “For had not the men of my battery given me a special token of appreciation? My talent for leadership, I imagined, would place me at the head of vast enterprises which I would manage with the utmost assurance.” Wilson wished to become a high-capitalist tycoon, steady of hand, discerning of judgment. He was, in other words, an entrepreneur.

Wilson became convinced that complete knowledge of the market was all that was needed to secure total power over the economic activity therein. “I had developed a theory that most people lost money in stocks through ignorance of markets,” he writes. To test his theory he and his wife packed their things — “tents, blankets, a change of clothes, and three huge volumes of a financial reference service” — and embarked on a reconnaissance mission throughout the Eastern Seaboard to investigate the companies he was considering investing in. “Our friends thought a lunacy commission should be appointed. Perhaps they were right.”

Wilson’s distilled the intelligence he gathered into reports to Wall Street, and these won him a job. “For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way,” he continues. “I had arrived. My judgment and ideas were followed by many to the tune of paper millions.” He’d proven himself by demonstrating his command of the market. And yet, Wilson writes, “My drinking assumed more serious proportions, continuing all day and almost every night.” After the stock market crash of 1929, he “was finished, and so were many friends.” But he “wobbled” back to the brokerage office and started again. “As I drank, the old fierce determination to win came back.”

In recounting his life story, Wilson makes it clear that his drinking is not something tangential or unrelated to his ambition. Though it may have served as a solace when his efforts failed, it also spurred him to greater risks. In retrospect, he understood his alcoholism as just another symptom of that pride that drove him to seek his fortune on the stock market. Part and parcel of this was Wilson’s belief that he could gain such a total view of the market — an omniscient view — which could allow him to control it. Others’ losing on the stock market from ignorance simply meant he had to know more. Indeed, he had to know everything. There’s a saying in AA that an alcoholic is an “egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” Wilson’s ego drove him to be the god of the market; his discovery that he couldn’t be made him feel inferior, and this drove him to drink.

Like underearners and millennials, alcoholics don’t react well to the market. They respond to its unknowability with a mixture of overconfidence and fear. Sartre’s existentialist — the man who “is free,” who “is freedom” — would react better. Sartre answers Wall Street–prodigy Wilson’s rational atheism, which informed his desire to become the god of the market, with an existentialist’s committed atheism. A Sartrean existentialist operates according to a “stern optimism” that stems from the understanding that “there is no God and no prevenient design, which can adapt the world and all its possibilities to my will.” He thus acts freely but also “without hope.” That is, the existentialist reacts to uncertainty in utter serenity, an affect which underearners cannot duplicate. If, in order to better reproduce capital, neoliberalism exploits individuals’ very freedom and entrepreneurial spirit, then underearners are those who flinch in the face of that freedom, become paralyzed by the infinite openness of the market. Whether heroically indifferent to all that is beyond his control or sternly determined to act despite the inadequacy of his own powers, the Sartrean existentialist personifies that which underearners ask for when they recite 12-step programs’ signature Serenity Prayer, namely, “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can … and the wisdom to know the difference.”

If underearners would like to act serenely in the world, their first concern is more reflexive; it is that of changing themselves. Sartre holds the individual utterly responsible for his whole being. What horrifies existentialism’s critics, he writes, is that “the coward as we present him is guilty of being a coward. What people would prefer would be to be born either a coward or a hero … Whereas the existentialist says the coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always the possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero.” By the same token, it seems Sartre would say that the underearner should simply give up earning too little. If underearners haven’t consciously willed what they have become, it owes only, as Sartre insists, to a “manifestation of a prior and more spontaneous decision.” This may be so. But if Sartre holds individuals responsible for this prior decision, he does not reveal how they might access or change it. In that sense, the 12 steps of UA may be thought of as a protocol for dealing with that “prior and more spontaneous decision.” This decision involves the unconscious, seemingly alien, and opaque part of the self, that part of the self that is as uncontrollable as the world — and market — outside it.

MODELED on an egalitarian Christian movement called the Oxford Group, AA rid itself of that movement’s religious trappings while continuing to reject membership lists, hierarchies, temples, endowments, and any institutional ties. AA presents alcoholism as a compulsive disease of both body and mind. As such it cannot be overcome by willpower alone. Instead, alcoholics must awaken spiritually as they work the program. They begin by admitting total personal powerlessness over alcohol and move toward total submission to the will of a “higher power.”

But what does it mean to need a higher power or to submit to one? In an essay in his 1972 collection Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 20th-century British anthropologist Gregory Bateson argues that the turn to a “higher power” in the steps of AA “is not a surrender.” Rather, “it is simply a change in epistemology,” that is, a change in the alcoholic’s fundamental view of the world. Bateson argues that it aligns with his systems theory, which redefines “mind” as any sufficiently complex system of “causal circuitry.” These are systems that react dynamically to changes in situational variables. A human mind, an ecosystem, an economy all think. “The mental world — the mind — the world of information processing — is not limited by the skin,” he writes. If Freud reclaimed the unconscious processes of body and mind for the “self,” Bateson counters: “What I am saying expands the mind outwards.” And this greater thinking system, though immanent in the smaller and larger processes of the world, “is perhaps what some people mean by ‘God.’”

If Bateson’s “greater Mind” is God, then the surrender involved in the first two of AA’s 12 steps may be thought of as an acknowledgement of that mind, of what may be called the greater world’s subjectivity. If, like a human individual, the world thinks, and it moreover does so with perfect information, so to speak, then the scope of human rationality comes into question. In fact, Bateson sees the source of mankind’s ills as what he considers the Western conception of the self: a sovereign, purposeful consciousness exercising its will on the world. And though this self believes it thinks, acts, and decides, it is in fact only a “false reification of an improperly delimited part” of a larger mind. Because individuals “arrogate all mind” to themselves, the world around them appears “mindless,” as theirs to exploit. Wilson was driven to dominate the market because for him, it was a senseless object that, were he to know it well enough, he could twist to his purposes.

Along with the arrogance displayed by Wilson in his relationship to the market often comes purposefulness, which is a second evil of consciousness according to Bateson. A habit of thought which oversimplifies the relationships between variables, purposefulness occurs in the mind of an individual who says to himself: If I only plant vast fields of wheat, I can grow it more efficiently than if I diversify. Then I can feed more people. This logic ignores the complex, circular networks of causality that had hitherto maintained a thriving variety of species. If the world is a mind, when human beings change it, they tamper with a system whose complexity rivals that of the endlessly mysterious human brain. The world is a subject, too.

Bateson sees these original sins of consciousness as the root of human evils: violence, racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and so on. “If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured,” Bateson implored during a 1970 lecture at the Institute of General Semantics in New York City: “This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in.” In order to change the world, Bateson says, humanity much change its thinking. “The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way,” he continues. And yet Bateson’s theory falters exactly at the point of this change: “Let me say that I don’t know how to think that way,” he admits.

Intellectually, I can stand here and I can give you a reasoned exposition of this matter; but if I am cutting down a tree, I still think “Gregory Bateson” is cutting down the tree. I am cutting down the tree. “Myself” is still an excessively concrete object, different from the rest of what I have been calling “mind.”

That which structures Bateson’s thought in such a way that he thinks himself as “Gregory Bateson,” as an “I” is nothing conscious, nothing immediately accessible to his “reasoned exposition.” It’s that “prior and more spontaneous decision” that seems always to precede our conscious encounters with ourselves. It’s the thing alcoholics and underearners try to reach by following the 12 steps.

AA’S 12 steps are a protocol for change that begins with a total relinquishment of the power to change. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol,” the first step goes, “that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is the central enigma of the program: that the first step to controlling an addiction is to admit your utter lack of control over it. This is because your addiction itself, your unconscious self, is, like the market and the world, another mind. Whereas Sartre’s hero is utterly alone in his responsibility for acting without hope in a foreign world, AA brings individuals face to face with the foreignness of their very selves. Even in the realm of self-help, there is no room for unilateral action.

In a sense, UA is simply an attempt to allow its followers to function under conditions of neoliberalism. Millennials have infinite possibilities for personal change. They can take up yoga, join an improv group, found a start-up and then sell it to a multinational corporation. They’re free enterprises. But in doing this, they only exercise a freedom determined by the logic of the neoliberal market. UA does not attempt to change the structure of this market by, say, guaranteeing its justice, mitigating its effects, or socializing it. It attempts to make us better capitalists. And yet the logic of the 12 steps themselves address a dialectic between personal and systemic responsibility in a way that other personal or political philosophies do not. Marx’s communism involved a self-conscious proletariat, a collective, yet unitary, self that would become the subject of the revolution. This ended in a compulsory ideology and the totalitarian will of a single party. AA, on the other hand, is sensitive to the dissonance within individuals, and to the dissonance between individuals and the larger world. “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” the second step reads. With this step, AA outsources change. The conscious self is no longer the subject of the revolution.

According to Bateson, this surrender is already the change the alcoholic seeks. This is because AA changes an individual’s relationship to change by democratizing it. If a change is to come, it will come from somewhere else. The self is no longer the hero. And yet this surrender does not absolve those looking for change — the underearner, the alcoholic, the leftist — of responsibility. If we would like a God to save us, if we would like unleash a process of change that is greater than ourselves, that represents the workings of Bateson’s “greater Mind,” the steps must be followed and the program worked. As they say in AA, “It works if you work it.”