Nathalie Olah's debut non-fiction book sprouted from a few years of rumination. As a 'culture' journalist, she felt frustrated by having very little culture of merit or political dynamism to engage with. "The upper-middle-class turn that our pop culture has taken over the past decade has been stark. There's now a hundred foppish Cumberbatches for every one Hugh Grant that we had back in the 1990s," she tells VICE. "If Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss were the great beauties of that decade, then they've been largely replaced by private school girls who went to Bedales or Wycombe Abbey. Properly unabashed writers who dealt in class issues – like Julia Davis or Caroline Aherne or Ruth Jones, for example – have been replaced by actual aristocrats."
This is a problem, and Steal As Much As You Can: How To Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity gives normal people affected by austerity and Tory policies a framework in which to challenge these new cultural norms. Think of this book as a set of instructions on how to exist in the workplace and wider society as a working class citizen. It's a how-to guide for creating things of worth and truth when upper middle-class pop culture has dominated, and affected British politics in a very real way. Or, as Olah calls what you are about to do, carry out 'acts of theft'; playing the system before it plays you.
Since realising and embodying the thievery she describes in the book, Olah tells VICE that she has become more confident as a person. "You're not mad or psychologically deficient for feeling inadequate in a system that undervalues who you are, your community and the people you love. A system that is designed to make you feel inadequate," she says. "But you can start to reject the logic that makes you feel that way. I'd like it if people stopped feeling deferential to the middle-class gatekeepers of power, and the systems that keep them there."
Read an extract of Steal As Much As You Can, on imposter syndrome, below:
Imposter syndrome – described by Time magazine as a feeling of fraudulence or inadequacy in the workplace – has enjoyed a large portion of column inches and airtime. But while naming this tendency is said to go a long way in helping many of us to achieve more at work, when we start to interrogate its definition, we also begin to appreciate its wholly natural occurrence given the many ways in which capitalist societies and their value systems function. Much like the objects in the gallery, the modern workplace reduces human beings to a system of equivalence, and in order for participants from working-class and minority backgrounds to be valued at the same level as their white, middle-class peers, they’ll be required to temper the way they speak, dress and behave. For many, this won’t be considered a huge loss – after all, social mobility is often driven by a desire to join the ranks of the well-dressed and the cultured, but in as far as it is a necessity dictated by the modern workplace, it also constitutes a vast amount of unremunerated and uncredited labour.
This is the phenomenon referred to by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “code-switching”. By automatically favouring the powerful, and by extension perpetuating the status quo, neoliberalism has thereby succeeded in supplanting the behaviours and values of the middle-class incumbent power-keepers onto our most deeply-held perceptions of what constitutes professionalism, quality and even sound mental health. Rather than debunking this mechanism and exposing its highly rigged and troubled origins, the media has overwhelmingly subscribed to the pathology of imposter syndrome, administering advice to working-class people on how to better conform and “iron out” any divergent aspects of their character and outer appearance in order to succeed. This represents a woeful ineptitude for critiquing the power structures that govern society, being complicit in a value judgement that ascribes deficiency and even mental derangement to anyone who now diverges from the very narrow set of middle-class signifiers approved by the modern workplace.
My advice to anyone reading this is to resist this line of reasoning. While it might go against the ideas peddled by most self-help and management books, I would suggest that rather than internalising the structural shame imposed by the corporate workplace, as well as by certain seats of learning and certain social circles, it is important for all of us to remain vigilant to the many ways in which it dehumanises and strips us of our identity. To lose sight of this, and to attribute that feeling to some psychological shortcoming, is to internalise capitalism and to lose sight of our essential identity – and, by extension, our creativity too. Fraudulence within a system that is itself fraudulent, rigged and insincere is essentially a misnomer. Conversely, that sense of fraudulence might just be the guiding light we need to navigate neoliberalism’s wild west of corrupted symbolism, meaning and truth.
This sense of imposterdom is based on a refusal to be grateful for the opportunities that others were afforded at birth. Crucially, this shouldn’t encroach on our most deeply-held, spiritual, religious or otherwise fundamental sense of gratitude, which is paramount to any sense of contentment, or peace, but in the very specific way that we relate to the professional, corporate and capitalist world.
In this sense, what I am advocating for is a radical redistribution of opportunity, not just along financial lines – which I believe will come as a result of, and work in tandem with, these goals – but of cultural output and in the self-determination of working- and lower-middle-class communities. What I am advocating for is the chance for real people to share real stories, tell real jokes and share real music in a vernacular that is understood by the majority of people alive in this wild west of a free-market economy and under the auspices of a governing class that hasn’t the first idea how to relate to it. Unlike the radical redistribution of wealth that will require new policies and new taxation laws, we already have all of the necessary tools for creating a radically new culture, and now simply have to dispense with whatever residual prestige we hold for the old cultural institutions that serve as gatekeepers to the mainstream, and which continually exclude any challenger.
To do this, it’s essential to remember that in the market economy, you – your body and your mind – are no more than a commodity in the eyes of your employer, and that any attempt they might make to improve your wellbeing is for the sake of securing profit. Your boss is not your friend. Guilt and any obligation besides turning up and serving your designated time are not emotions that your employer has bought the right to.
Retain that sense of imposterdom, and through it watch the many ways in which the corporate workspace and its attendants dismiss the legitimacy of you and your culture. Watch how your manager talks to the cleaners who attend to his desk. How he speaks to tradespeople on the phone and complains about the transport staff who assisted his journey into work. Watch him try to cultivate friendships with his employees for the sake of ensuring a smooth working relationship, and in spite of all the quiet ways in which he will exploit them at the first given opportunity, like insisting on overtime that is never remunerated and sending them halfway across the world to traipse the hallways of soulless conference centres and laugh at the very idea that this could ever be presented as a perk.
Watch as your boss tries to be more relatable by lampooning a black culture that he otherwise fears in his day-to-day life spent in the sterile, white-washed environs of his twee Victorian terraced house; as he ironically, and drunkenly, delivers renditions of hip-hop and R&B songs during the annual Christmas party, his go-to numbers being Wu-Tang’s “Pinky Ring” or Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop” – songs he pretended to enjoy during his three years of fun at university. Watch him with a coolness and a distance that allows you to keenly exploit him in the same way that he is exploiting you. Take your money and run, is what I’m saying, without ever getting sucked into the softer parts of the corporate culture that are really nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to make the process of abasement necessitated by the modern workplace more amenable and friendly. This will be particularly relevant to the kinds of workplace emerging in the tech and creative industries, whose “crew-neck capitalism” belies a more dehumanising kind than the earlier suit-and-briefcase version.
With this approach, you will be able to better navigate a system that most of us are sadly all forced to partake in, using the experience as a way of learning the systems of capitalism in order to dismantle them. With that money and in your spare time, find ways of putting that experience as an imposter to good use: writing about your experiences, harnessing the dynamics you witness to mount political movements and build shared communities with a view to creating a more empowered workforce; working with journalists to expose illegal and exploitative behaviours. Join a union and work with their teams to establish what you can and can’t say in the public domain; and keep donating part of that money to your socialist representatives in parliament, whose assumption of power will be the quickest and most reliable way of ensuring that justice for all of us who are dehumanised by these corporate entities is finally brought to bear.
'Steal As Much As You Can' is published by Repeater Books in the UK with a release date of 8th October 2019 and available to order here.