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Is Substack a Neoliberal Hellhole?
“We think the internet's powers, married to the right business model, can be harnessed to build the most valuable media economy the world has ever known,” Substack declares, “an economy where value is measured not only in dollars but also in quality, in good-faith discourse, and in creating an internet that celebrates and supports humanity.”
That all sounds great! Substack connects readers to writers allowing the latter to build “livelihoods and communities. There are no editors; there are no gatekeepers. It’s just me and you here; creating unfiltered knowledge and genuine connection, together. Sounds cool, right?
It does sound cool. It also sounds like a lot of other sales pitches which frame empowerment as self-direction, flexibility, and liberation from the tyranny of bosses and guaranteed healthcare. Substack, in short, is speaking the language of neoliberalism.
Bootstrap Your Own Definition of Neoliberalism
Neoliberalism is a term that gets used and abused a lot. Originally it was coined to describe the pro-market policies of Reagan and Thatcher in the 80s, especially deregulation, union busting, and lowering trade barriers. Sometimes now though people use “neoliberalism” as a slur against identity politics or antiracist organizing or just to sound studious while they’re insulting someone they dislike.
Neoliberalism though is also used to mean something like, “current capitalist systems.” In particular, anthropologist Ilana Gershon argues that capitalist ideology has shifted from focusing on, and defending, capitalism as a class, and instead sees every individual as their own capitalist. Neoliberalism, Gershon says, “presupposes…a self that is a flexible bundle of skills that reflexively manages oneself as though the self was a business.”
Rather than working for some stuffed suit who monitors our work minute by minute to ensure maximum productivity and obsequiousness, we are all emboldened and free to manage our own work second by second. We’re all drive-share entrepreneurs, with one eye on mileage and the other on our own positivity, leveraging our own manufactured cheer for better tips and more upvotes. Self-discipline, self-focus, self-promotion, self-monetization translate directly into success. You are your own resource to exploit.
Which Self Is Empowered?
Neoliberalism promises freedom. As a self-starter, starting for yourself, you don’t need to answer to a boss, or to anyone. You do your work for you. No one’s looking over your shoulder.
Of course, no one needs to look over your shoulder because you’re expected to look over your own shoulder. And since you are in a better position to monitor your shoulders and your thoughts than anyone else, your self control and self manipulation can actually be more oppressive than that of some overworked middle-manager.
Feminist philosopher Kate Manne touches on this at her substack, where she’s been talking about her forthcoming book on fatphobia. (Preorder here.) “My concerns about weight have intruded on some of the best moments of my life,” Manne says, and then admits that she knows how much she weighed the day she was married, the day she defended her PhD dissertation, the day she gave birth to her daughter. The demand for self-improvement via self-shrinking leads to an all-encompassing self-monitoring, a deadening tabulation of one’s own virtue.
Fatphobia…instils in many of us minute self-surveillance: increasingly we know better than to try to shrink ourselves down to size, since diets don’t work in the long term to induce weight loss (and neither does exercise, despite its many health benefits). But we are gaslit into continuing to try to make our bodies smaller—and, with it, our selves more acceptable, more palatable, more pleasing. After all, the weight-loss and so-called wellness industries stand to profit, to the tune of over 50 billion annually, from convincing us of our physical inadequacy.”
Meritocracy: The Myth as Manager
Manne points out here how capitalism has an interest in cultivating the compulsive comparison of bodies and selves as a way to sell people shit. But the policing of bodies in the name of “health,” “wellness,” and conformity is also an important buttress for capitalist neoliberal ideology.
Fatphobia is so pervasive, and often so vicious, because it gives people an excuse and an opportunity to see virtue embodied, and as embodiment. Neoliberalism assures us that if we just have the discipline and marshal our own resources effectively, we can reap financial and social rewards, extracting our own excess value as workers for the benefit of building our wealth as capitalists. Body shape is one way that people can publicly see this drama of discipline and virtue enacted before their eyes; you can (supposedly) assess everyone’s self-management by the dividends of absent flesh. Thus Marianne Williamson in her fatphobic treatise A Course In Weight Loss insists that fat is "a repository of twisted, distorted thoughts and feelings.” Internal failures are visible as external ones.
This is the myth of meritocracy; the idea that you get what you deserve. In particular, it’s the idea that you get what you work for—you reap, unproblematically and without intermediary, the benefit of your labor.
Of course, the myth of meritocracy is a myth. As Manne’s post discusses, the relationship between health and weight is tenuous at best, and dieting doesn’t actually work—the idea that you can or should discipline yourself into thinness has little empirical basis.
More broadly, income mobility in the United States is virtually nonexistent, which means that no matter how intensely and obsessively you manage yourself, you’re not going to vault yourself into fame, success, and triumph. The capitalists still control all the capital, except even more so. You aren’t going to get rich by working harder and harder and harder and ruthlessly eliminating your own bathroom breaks. It’s all a lie.
A guy who was born rich. Image Remy Steinegger CC
Lies can have powerful effects, though. And the self-help assurance that the right mindset, the the right marketing strategy, or the right one neat life hack will vault you to success is hugely appealing to everyone who feels like they’re being chewed up in a capitalist industrial process over which they have little or no control. “You’re working for this rich asshole and he’ll always be rich and you won’t” is not very motivating. “You’re working for yourself and if you work hard enough you’ll be rich!”—that’s the stuff that will make you work till you’ve ground your fingers to broken little stubs. It’ll even make you get out that tongue and lick the boots of any rich person who offers a tip at joining the exclusive club, or who just proves, by existing, that rich people exist.
My Personal Success Journey
It’s probably already clear at this point how this kind of neoliberal mindset applies to substack. Substack promises writers that if they work hard and monitor their productivity and engagement, they too can be (say) Matt Yglesias or Ted Gioia, with hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars in paid subscriptions a year. Write, look at your metrics, promote, look at your metrics, adjust, and look at your metrics again. No manager tells you what to do; you don’t have to pitch. You are in charge of you.
Of course, Matt Yglesias had a huge following before he joined substack, built on family connections and the notoriety he gained by being aggressively wrong about Iraq early on. Some people—generally people who started out with certain kinds of resources and privileges—are always going to be successful. But again, that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be successful. Indeed, the whole point of success is that it’s individual accomplishment that vaults you above your peers. Without failed substacks, successful substacks wouldn’t exist, by definition.
Before two weeks ago, one of those failed, or at least not very successful substacks was mine. I made a little money here, but it didn’t look like I was ever going to make a going concern of it, where I could actually turn down other gigs, or expect at any point for it to be fully self sustaining.
Then Notes launched, and I doubled paid and free subscribers in a week. I vaulted past 100 paid subscribers, and got a little orange check—a visible confirmation of my virtue and importance, displayed for everyone to see. I must work hard! I must have a key to success!
Some folks on Notes have in fact asked me what that key to success might be. What did I do that made me stand out from the less successful? How did I manage myself and my resources to deserve this (small, but measurable) bout of capital?
And the answer is…there’s no secret. The algorithm chose me, and I still don’t know why. Maybe because I tend to write a lot on social media, maybe because I wrote a post about Notes that captured the zeitgeist, maybe because who knows? I don’t.
But of course it’s impossible not to speculate, and to try to figure out how to repeat it. Which posts did well? Can I offer sales to spur growth? Should I post even more on Notes?! Do I dare include weird movie posts still or will I lose my audience? How can I manage my business and my self to keep the money rolling in?
When I’ve expressed some of these concerns on Notes, people have very kindly weighed in to say that I should just be myself. As long as you’re authentic, they say, people will stay signed on. They signed up for you; be you!
Again, I appreciate these comments, and they’re very well-intentioned and kind. The thing is, though, that neoliberalism is about constructing and managing a self. The work of being yourself is work—it’s a marketing endeavor. Even if I’m choosing to post some weird movie reviews, it’s still a business decision, because substack is set up where everything’s a business decision. That’s the point. I’m the marketer, I’m the product. I’m the small capitalist in my own skull, urging my workers on to greater effort and more comprehensive self-evaluation. The content, it does not write itself.
I’m not saying get off Substack. Obviously I’m here! I am saying, though, that we should be skeptical of utopian promises and the techbro burble about freedom and empowerment. Substack will be very good to a handful of people; it’ll help some others (like me) generate some income for some longer or shorter period of time. But it’s not meaningfully changing capitalist relationships, it’s part of the current nightmare journalistic landscape of precarity, not a solution to it.
If we actually want a better world for working writers, we need a better world for all working people. That means more and stronger unions, free healthcare for all, free college, much more generous unemployment, universal basic income, the decriminalization of poverty—all the boring stuff that requires political solidarity and for which you don’t generally get celebratory check marks. Workers of the world, fucking unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. And maybe your stat counters.
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