One of the reasons Mad Max: Fury Road is so good (umm spoilers if you’ve been chained to a bed in a Misery-type scenario and haven’t been able to see it) is that it dramatizes ideological constraints.
No-one can see past their prejudices.
Not the chalky henchmen, not the escaping women, not the old crones in the desert, not Bad Teeth Joe who crashes his empire for no reason.
One of the defining characteristics of centrism is ignoring and denying the structural factors that constrain individual action.
Unemployed? Move to where the jobs are! Or get more education and skillz!
Face sexual discrimination at work? Lean-in and do what the boys do!
Oprah is a consummate centrist entertainer, emphasis on the first syllable. Featuring self-help gurus, spiritualists, vision boards, and other self-improvement claptrap by the truckload, she rigorously advances individual responses to social problems.
Nicole Aschoff, in a compelling excerpt printed in the Guardian from her recent book New Prophets of Capital, documents a number of these ridiculous piece of advice, including becoming an “out-of-the-box thinker” to lessen back-pain at work and reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles to lessen stress when you can’t pay your rent.
Obviously, an obsessive focus on individual-level solutions to broad structural factors prevents people from organizing to change those factors. Macroeconomic policies that depress wages and boost unemployment while siphoning resources to the rich are not in peril from people learning to become out-of-the-box thinkers, or reading Murakami.
But Aschoff goes deeper: the kind of relentless individualistic remedy Oprah promotes is centered on a specific idea of what a person is.
It’s simple. Anyone can become anything. There’s no distinction between the quality and productivity of different people’s social and cultural capital. We’re all building our skills. We’re all networking [. . .]
The way Oprah tells us to get through it all and realize our dreams is always to adapt ourselves to the changing world, not to change the world we live in. We demand little or nothing from the system, from the collective apparatus of powerful people and institutions. We only make demands of ourselves.
A necessary part of Oprah’s vision being a specific kind of person. Attributes of this person, besides being willing to buy homeopathic remedies because a Turk is wiling to wear scrubs on TV:
- She is not too poor to acquire new skills
- She has a social circle she can leverage
- She is not too physically isolated, due to geography or illness or personality
But more generally, and more importantly, she is the type of person that doesn’t look for collaborative, communal organizational activity to solve broad social problems. She has to be psychologically comfortable with not changing the situation she finds herself in through collective action. She has to be willing to cope without rocking the boat.
The centrist tropes Oprah relies on are a narrative that creates this type of person.
Success in life means that you earned it; failure means you did something wrong.
Finding fulfillment is finding the right self to fit your environment, not in finding fulfillment in the struggle to change your environment.
Saul Bellow once wrote: “That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” The tragedy of this centrist story is that it tries to turn this quote on its head: the struggle is recruiting versions of your self to fit what others define as real.
That’s partly why I’m making an effort to write this shitty blog again. Too many of my friends, family and co-workers are falling prey to this centrist narrative. I want to get it to stop.
And if it ever does? Oh what a day. WHAT A LOVELY DAY.