Pathways for Transformative Economics and Politics

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Predatory Optimism

by Mary Wrenn

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This article forms part of Rubric 7
Predatory Optimism

Neoliberalism has proven to be resilient to criticism and counter-movements, particularly in the United States which is home to a deep and troubled history of can-do optimism and rugged individualism. Self-care through consumption, 'perseverance porn', and corporatized feminism offer striking examples of neoliberalism neutralizing all resistance. Despite neoliberalism’s durability, community has been and continues to be the key to humanity’s survival.

“The basis of optimism is sheer terror”  

– Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

The US is pathologically positive. From its foundational myths of scrappy, underdog revolutionaries battling against an established Old-World empire to the chimeric garage origin stories of Silicon Valley, US-Americans are socialized to believe that any obstacle can be overcome, and any goal can be achieved through grit, hard work, and belief. Far from utopic visions of a better future, US optimism is relegated to visions of financial success and ascension up the financial hierarchy; the locus of this optimism is the individual rather than a collective optimism of social progress. Failure is the fault of the individual while success is entirely meritocratic: the natural result of hard work and a positive attitude. This unflagging optimism is at once the social inheritance and congenital disease of the US. 

While stories of perseverance and determination serve the socio-cultural purpose of teaching resilience, once its futility is exposed through lived experience and material lack, the insistence on relentless optimism turns predatory. A large part of the blame for this exhausting optimism is that effigy of corporate malice and conspiracy of elites: neoliberalism. While often serving as the catch-all sin-eater in popular press, neoliberalism is the well-defined yet often misunderstood ideological overseer of US capitalism since the 1970s. The misapplication and hazy interpretations are understandable, for neoliberalism relies on a rhetoric that is pushed widely and loudly yet executed selectively. Calls for a small state and a hands-off approach to markets are belied by bespoke regulations which ensure bank bailouts and business tax breaks. Privatization of public goods and services results in government spending being locked into contracts with private corporations, and the latter protected from public scrutiny by the Fourth Amendment right to privacy. Public welfare is undermined and denigrated while corporate welfare is lauded and valorized. These contradictions seem plain, and yet as social safety nets unravel and as market protections are fortified, neoliberalism persists, and the ideology of the atomized individual metastasizes. 


The micro-capitalist

In a 1960  interview, John Steinbeck opined that US-Americans are all, “temporarily embarrassed capitalist(s).”1 Nothing better encapsulates the working experience in the US than the idea that each individual is a micro-capitalist, in sole possession of and solely responsible for their own human capital development and ability to sell their skill set in the career marketplace. Higher education is a return-on-investment calculation as student debt pushes the pursuit of human capital acquisition further out of reach. Degree disciplines are subjected to the logic of narrowly defined proficiencies and take on the armature of job training. Education is not pursued for life enrichment but for financial enrichment alone. 

Under neoliberalism, every individual is encouraged to think of themselves as an entrepreneur. Within the workplace, employees are to act as micro-capitalists, proactive and innovative in their approach to work. This management approach ostensibly entrusts the worker with their own ability to perform, their own ability to problem-solve, and their own self advocacy. The veneer of autonomy and self-determination obscures the intent: the responsibility of success or failure is placed on the worker who must engage in hyper self-regulation and monitoring regardless of the structural and administrative constraints within the organization itself.

And attitude is everything. The Protestant work ethic which characterized early capitalism morphs into rise-and-grind, hustle culture under neoliberalism. The neoliberal micro capitalist must submit to the capitalist logic of constant growth of their productivity, their focus and ambition, and self-improvement. We can trace the neoliberal emphasis on overwork through cultural expression beginning in the 1970s “Me” generation, continuing into the 1980s young, urban professionals: the “yuppies.” In the wake of the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s and 90s, such naked ambition was frowned upon as hollow and overly self-serving. In its place, however, we’ve seen a variety of cultural trends which maintain the impulse of greed, softened and sanitized with a kind of social awareness. In the new millennium, hipsters became the next iteration of yuppies in an awkward entanglement of ambition and nonchalance. Channeling the Beatniks and their post-World War II rejection of conformity and suburbanization, hipsters replaced the Beatnik disdain of materialism with disdain for anything mainstream, thus perpetuating the “greed is good” grind from yuppies. The rise of the “boss babe” likewise coated the rapacious ethos of neoliberalism with a sparkly, feminist, candy pink gloss which exhorted women to build their empires. Whether it is the more subtle optimism of the hipster rejection of convention and embracing of individuality or the more overt optimism of the empowered boss babe, the optimistic and optimizing micro-capitalist remains at the core of the neoliberal individual’s identity.

In addition to the amplification of the Protestant work ethic under neoliberalism, we can also see the transmogrification of the can-do, optimistic narrative. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories embody the valorization of the individual work ethic foundational to 19th century capitalism. These bootstrap success stories mutated under neoliberalism into what journalist Adam Johnson refers to as “perseverance porn,” media stories of individuals struggling against systemic failures and the ruthless, no excuses drive of neoliberal capitalism.2 Here we find stories of individuals forced to spend several hours of their day walking to and from their workplace or working while injured or inventing side-hustles to pay for college or healthcare. The overwhelming odds through which these individuals work serve as fluffy, optimistic tales of inspiration which contain (within the unspoken) sharp and unforgiving cautionary warnings that excuses will not be tolerated. 


Perilous counter-trends

No ideological movement can survive without a healthy counter-movement to absorb the frustrations and vent the hostility that could otherwise be channelled into demands for reform and change. Those counter-movements which inadvertently reinforce the primary ideology pose less of a threat and therefore persist longer; viable counter-movements provide an outlet rather than an opposition. Any genuine counter-movement that survives long enough will eventually be co-opted and subverted. In the case of neoliberalism, counter movements of care are mitigated and transformed into coping mechanisms and consumerism.3

Self-care is a perverse edict to the individual that they are responsible for their own mental health

In 1988, Audre Lorde wrote about the necessity of self-care within the context of political activism: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”4 To Lorde, self-care was an integral part of political struggle, a necessary tool to enable one to survive and continue the fight. Against the neoliberal grindstone of relentless optimism, however, self-care has been smoothed into the innocuous consumerism of ‘retail therapy’ where short-lived doses of dopamine can be purchased, and credit card debt justified. In the US, where healthcare is rationed and mental health care is a luxury few can afford, self-care is a perverse edict to the individual that they are responsible for their own mental health. The neutralization of Lorde’s invocation of self-care into consumerism and as an emaciated substitute for genuine healthcare epitomizes the dilution of counter movements against neoliberalism; twisting institutions to instead reinforce and contribute to its survival. Rather than an inoculation against neoliberalism, self-care is an invocation to the self-generative optimism on which neoliberalism thrives.

Alongside self-care sits the (much more profitable) wellness industry. Discouraged and disempowered from profit driven healthcare, towering medical debt, and—if an individual is lucky enough to have both insurance and free time—endless pleading with insurance companies, it is unsurprising that individuals turn to do-it-yourself alternatives. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, the wellness industry expanded exponentially. From relatively benign meal plans and fitness programs to exorbitantly priced supplements and wellness retreats, and further afield into invasive procedures like blood transfusions and IV infusions, wellness entrepreneurs have yet to find an upper limit on the health optimization they might offer. The allure of the wellness industry as a means of care untainted by the greed of big Pharma and the futile fight for insurance coverage is clear. The wellness industry also offers the individual a path to prosperity which taps into the self-made mythos upon which the US was founded: piecing together one’s bodily and mental wellness outside of the tyrannical institutions of US healthcare is the quintessence of bootstrapping. In the optimism of overcoming, domination of the self is the natural precursor to success: self-cured begets self-made.

The tradwife movement is an attempt to reestablish the communal through family, church, and a community which at its core is threatened by the potential of equality and loss of privilege

The tradwife (or traditional wife) movement is a revanchist call to an imagined past of traditional gender roles within the heteronormative, nuclear family of 1950s suburbia. A fairly recent cultural phenomenon of the past decade, scholars have yet to pin a specific taxonomic definition to the tradwife apart from their shared ultra-conservativism.5 With reactionary politics and Christianity as their unifying principles, tradwives reject modernity after the post-World War II boom—a wholesale rejection of the Civil Rights movement, second wave feminism, and neoliberalism. Within that rejection is a gendered, racist call back to the “rugged individualism” of the first century of the US, when white European families fended for themselves on this nascent country’s expanding Western frontier. Some tradwives boast of living this literal homesteading ethos while others embrace the June Cleaver housewife model, but all attempt to reject febrile neoliberal individualism in order to return to the traditional family dynamic. It is an attempt to reestablish the communal through family, church, and a community which at its core is threatened by the potential of equality and loss of privilege. False hope isn’t the only by-product of predatory optimism; the disenchantment wrought by predatory optimism can prompt some to seek liberation by following even more destructive paths. In the case of tradwives, that path is white supremacy.


Reclaiming care and the communal

Predatory optimism lubricates the friction between the mythology of self-madeness and the reality of the intensifying precarity wrought by neoliberalism. When self-recrimination wears too thin, scapegoating, moral panics, and the bread-and-circuses of political cycles absorb the overspill of blame and revitalize the individual’s self-worth. To speak of structural constraints, institutional barriers, systemic failures or the social diseases of racism, sexism, and the enduring legacies of colonial holocausts is heresy, but such sacrilege is critical in order to destabilize the narrative of market supremacy over the atomized individual.

In the US, each individual is cast as both the protagonist and antagonist of their own reality. Succeeding by their wits alone and foiled by none other than themselves, the individual is thus also the author of their reality, entirely in control of their story. Caring for others is not a moral imperative if one’s fate is solely determined by the choices they made along the way.

Even the most talented learn from others, are supported by communities of similarly talented people, and all at some point drew upon the resources of the state

At the rotten core of neoliberalism there sits the withered and fantastical rendering of an individual who is completely self-sustaining, self-reliant, self-governing. Predatory optimism embodies the myths and repeated refrains that the neoliberal individual self is capable of what has never been done in the history of humanity – surviving alone. But human survival is a communal activity. Medical advancements, technological innovation, cultural expression, revolutionary overthrow of an oppressive power are not solo achievements. Contrary to the hagiographies of once-in-a-generation geniuses and leaders (whatever that means), even the most talented learn from others, are supported by communities of similarly talented people, and all at some point drew upon the resources of the state. 


Footnotes and References

1. Steinbeck, John. 1960. A Primer on the 30s. Esquire. p. 93.

2. Johnson, Adam. 2017. “Media’s Grim Addiction to Perseverance Porn.” FAIR.

3. Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Book Collections on Project MUSE. Zone Books.

4. Lorde, Audre. 1988. “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer.” A Burst of Light: EssaysFirebrand Books.

5. Darby, Seyward. 2020. Sisters in Hate: American Women of the Front Lines of White Nationalism. Little, Brown, and Company.

Klein, Naomi 2023. Doppelganger: a Trip into the Mirror World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Wilde, Oscar. [1890] 1913. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Company Limited, and Olde Paris Booke-Shoppe.

Wrenn, Mary V. 2022. “Overcoming Optimism (and Moving toward Hope).” Journal of Economic Issues, 57:2, 376-388.

Wrenn, Mary V. 2023. “Multi-Level Marketing: A Neoliberal Institution.” Journal of Economic Issues 57:4, 1043-1061.


Mary Wrenn is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of the West of England Bristol. She is an internationally recognized scholar and prolific researcher on the topic of neoliberalism. Wrenn is particularly interested in exploring the ontological dimensions of neoliberalism as expressed and experienced through personal agency, identity, emotions, and care.

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