“Just Work Hard and You’ll Make It”: Capitalism’s Lies and the Bootstraps Theory

This essay was written by Celine Qin on the 5th of August, 2021.

The Bootstraps Theory is a concept that lies on one main assumption: If you just work hard, you will reach success. The idea that everyone has the chance to reach success simply by “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” has a powerful grip on the consciousness and internalized beliefs of the greater fraction of the population under capitalism.

Ironically, the original meaning of the phrase does a much better job at conveying the circumstances of late capitalism than the ideas perpetuated by The Bootstraps Theory defined above.

In a literal sense, it is physically impossible to elevate yourself by pulling yourself up by the straps of your shoes. Ever tried carrying yourself? The initial image was meant to express something ludacris, absurd, or conspicuously undoable or unattainable when taking into account one’s conditions. To apply it to situations today, it is indeed near, if not entirely, impossible for the many people facing economic oppression and financial struggles to reach success by utilizing the so-called “fix-all” tool of “working hard” or “saving up” without fundamentally shifting the way society is structured, abolishing the countless obstacles repressing the poor, and addressing the much greater need to dismantle capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

The Bootstraps Theory many of us are aware of today is used to avoid the taboo subject to point out any flaws whatsoever of modern capitalist society. It is the overarching concept encasing Amerika’s crumbling state that acts as the safeguard for neoliberalism against anti-capitalist causes. The concept signifies that whoever is grappling with the products of a failed capitalist society, such as poverty or homelessness, must place the blame on themselves for their negligence to work hard, their “laziness” or “incompetence”, and certainly not the faults of a system built on profit-grabs and class oppression.

There’s much buzz among Amerikan society that if you save up, develop some financial literacy, and be smart with your money, the entire poverty crisis will be alleviated. It is foolish to treat such an issue as solely a moral perseverance problem, especially under capitalism where anything that fails to rack up profit for the wealthy few (i.e. equity) will always be avoided. To put it frankly, there is no way spending $5 on a latte is the root cause of one’s financial struggle, and no way multi-millionaires and billionaires are telling society to “work hard and reach for your dreams’’ without sitting on the contradiction of being neither hard working or self-made.

The truth is, to be able to reach that level of economic and political power, one must confiscate that power from another, and relentlessly exploit those in subordination to maintain that degree of influence.

It is an objective fact that it costs more to criminalize poverty and homelessness, the prevalent aftermath of the failures of capitalism and instrumental components to profit, than it does to completely eradicate those issues. Criminalizing conditions out of one’s control and weaponizing notions such as the Bootstraps Theory against the working class is essential to validating the way our world is currently.

The Bootstraps Theory, among many other arguments in defense of liberalism, helps act as a justification for politicians’ complacency in the face of systemic racism, white supremacy, imperialism, the housing crisis, poverty, debt, and many other interlacing components that are the byproducts of the deadly wealth inequality and global destruction fortified by capitalist greed. Furthermore, it indoctrinates many people of the working class to tear each other apart and scrutinize a wrong enemy. The notion that those who are financially in a worse position than someone else is simply because the poorer person does not want to work hard is ignorant judgement, particularly for proletarians who degrade others of the same class, failing to fight the true oppressor. What matters now is to combat these rhetorics that have been propagated by capitalists and spread class consciousness.

It is another one of capitalism’s scams that has prevented many of the working class from developing proletarian consciousness and continues to defend the monopolistic elites. With the U.S. poverty rate being record high while billionaires make casual stops to outer space, we cannot be serious that this is an individual motivational issue. Ultimately, it does no justice for those who do not succeed because capitalism does not allow them to.

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