Bootstrapping your way to success: it’s a cardinal direction on the map of what people consider to be be ‘the American way.’ Success in our society, people are told from a very young age, comes to those who earn it. You have to work for it, struggling your way up from the bottom (shhh, say nothing of the people who are born into wealth and power). Look at the success stories of men like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, who have achieved the pinnacle of achievement in US society with massive multinational companies, incredible amounts of money, and large charitable foundations to offset their wealth and make their power slightly less galling to the rest of us.
This is what we should aspire to, as people living in the United States, and it’s what we market as the lifestyle everyone who comes here should want as well. Immigrants flock to the US looking for this life, wanting to build it for themselves if not for their children, giving rise to the idea of ‘sacrifice generations’ who give everything up in the hopes that their children will succeed in US society.
Rugged individualism: that’s what the US is all about. Survival under trying circumstances, forging ahead without a compass or a guide, living utterly independently and heedlessly pushing forward. But is this really an accurate depiction of how bootstrapping works in the real world? Is it fair to say that bootstrapping is all about pulling yourself up, working hard, doing the right thing, pushing for social recognition? This is the myth that’s repeated to people in the United States, starting at a very young age, where schoolchildren are presented with bootstrapping ‘heroes’ who shaped the United States and cemented this ideal in our consciousness, but is this depiction really correct?
Or is it, perhaps, wishful thinking? A desire to abstract people from the reality of bootstrapping, to push eyes in the other direction, to slap blinders onto the heads of children as they’re indoctrinated with this very capitalistic, individualistic, selfish ideal? What is bootstrapping, really?
When bootstrapping is promoted, there’s much discussion of pulling yourself up and getting ahead; but is it also, perhaps, about trampling others down in the process? In order to succeed, and to be shown in a successful light, presumably others have to fail, yes? ‘Getting ahead’ means that others are left behind; if we all ‘got ahead’ there would be no ‘ahead’ to point to and to celebrate. Likewise, climbing up suggests not only that there is a social ladder (which there definitely is), but that some people will be kicked off the ladder, or simply climbed over, so that others can bootstrap their way up it. Suddenly, bootstrapping looks more like striding over a field of bodies than it does an expression of determined individualism and the desire to succeed.
While people may slyly acknowledge that this is part of the cost of bootstrapping, a rejoinder to the argument that this is grossly exploitative is built right into the bootstrapping narrative. Those people, the fallen and the trampled, they didn’t try hard enough, you see. If they’d wanted the dream and really reached for it, they wouldn’t have become collateral damage. Instead of victims of a capitalist system, they become cautionary tales, a warning that this could happen to anyone who isn’t driven enough. In the process, those who are ‘driven enough’ are celebrated for overcoming.
But what does it mean to be driven in a nation that relies so heavily on the bootstrapping narrative? How much of getting ahead is about working hard and doing the right thing and being dedicated to the dream, and how much is about social privilege and power? This is something that bootstrapping advocates have a harder time countering, so they fall back on tired, dull old arguments; Black people are lazy, and that’s why they don’t ‘get ahead.’ Latinos are either model minorities, hardworking immigrants who ‘make it,’ or they’re gross undocumented people who are too unmotivated to get out of the fields. Women should just try harder. They ought to try leaning in.
The bootstrapping ideal is a significant contributor to the growth of societal violence; not just the literal violence that classifies some lives as lesser, that results in beatings and shootings and other expressions of violence, but also the cultural violence that keeps some marginalised groups in a state of oppression while others rise. Bootstrapping only works because of societal violence, which in turn feeds bootstrapping attitudes and ideals. People succeed at the cost of others and applaud themselves for doing so because that’s what they are taught to do, because they’re trained to talk over members of marginalised groups on their way to the finish line for the ultimate prize, and to keep pushing onwards even over the voices of communities calling for a more functional way of life, one that isn’t rooted in violence and suffering.
For the United States, this is considered the way to a functional society: creating a world in which people are not taught interdependence and cooperation, but fear, hatred, and oppression. The bootstrapping ideal is wrapped through the fabric of our society, creating an environment in which people must either adhere to it, die, or struggle on the margins attempting to model a new way of life in communities that are mocked and belittled because the diverge so far from the ideal.
When people discuss what the founders might have wanted, what independence looks like, it’s worth remembering that this was structured right into the foundational documents and ethics of the United States. This, right here, success built on oppression, for bootstrapping is not in fact about individualism and independence at all: it’s about colonialism and conquering, about imposing suffering to get ahead.
Image: Cat Attack, Eric Hacke, Flickr.