“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?


Edited image c/o Tom Woodward on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Ever since #radlib15, I’ve been considering“impostor syndrome” and some of the issues that emerge as a result of its existence (read Andrew Preater’s more thoughtful take if you want to skip to the end of this). First, I want to begin by challenging and reframing the term, because it raises issues around the notion of it being a “syndrome” that, by extension, can be treated. I think the reality is that rather than a “syndrome” it could equally be considered as a form of indoctrination and perhaps should be more appropriately termed “impostor indoctrination”. Indoctrination, because I would argue this is a feeling that is imposed upon us we are supposed to have, rather than something that emerges due to an irrational thought process. It is a constructed state of mind, rather than the naturalised one that the term “syndrome” implies.

During #radlib15 I identified my own personal experience of this feeling. I come from a working class background, was educated in Kent (a county which still has selection at 11), I didn’t go to the grammar school and instead went to the state comprehensive – because, effectively, I “wasn’t good enough” to go to the local grammar school (it was argued in a tribunal that I would probably “struggle” at the grammar school, whereas I would perform well at the state comprehensive). This was followed by average grades at school, followed by below average university (for my chosen field) and several years of working in retail. I then had the fortune to meet my partner, who is a trained medical professional. Through her financial support, I was able to partake in postgraduate study, get my LIS qualification and, now, practice as a professionally qualified librarian.

The manifestations of “impostor syndrome”

My feeling that has emerged from this experience is one of “I do not belong here”. I come from what I consider to be a working class background, and yet I find myself in a professional that appears to be dominated by the middle class. No matter how my career develops from now on, I will always have that sense that I don’t belong here, because I was led to believe from the age of 11 that this is not for me. I’ll come back to this point later.

What was particularly interesting for me in this session is the perspective of someone who self-identified as middle class in the same session. Their sense was not that they didn’t belong, more that they didn’t measure up to some idealised version of a library professional. Their “indoctrination”, if you like, emerged from some marketised ideal of what a professional should do and behave like. The impostor indoctrination had imposed an ideal. You should be here, and now you are, here is the standard you should attain. I should add at this point that this feeling is not restricted to librarianship, it affects all manifestations of labour.

I think this feeling and how it manifests itself varies according to class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. How I as a white male of working class origin interprets this feeling is perhaps different from a white middle class woman and, likewise, a black working class man. There is no single definition of what this feeling is or how it manifests itself. This is also why I feel unifying such different and varying experiences and feelings as a “syndrome” is not quite an accurate representation of the sense that one is an “impostor”.

The Ideological State Apparatus

I would argue that the feeling is part of an indoctrination process, an effort to control and ensure discipline amongst a broad base. Indeed, I think that Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) theory could be used as a framework for understanding how this emerges. Althusser argued in 1970 that the ISA operated as a way to disseminate ideology amongst the general populace. ISAs exist in all aspects of society, but Althusser argues that the education ISA is the predominant one. Althusser argues:

“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).”

Which begs the question, if you are expected to have been one of those “ejected” at 16, ie sent down a particular path which made an alternative outcome less likely (eg to become of the petit bourgeois or a “professional ideologist”), would that not instil a sense of being an “impostor” once you emerge as a member of the petit bourgeois or “professional ideologists”? After all, you were identified as not being suitable material for such a position, so to arrive there regardless of the barriers placed in your way must surely create a sense of unease that you had somehow cheated the system and are at risk of being found out?

Althusser goes on to argue:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

The education ISA is fundamental in schooling individuals in the dominant ideology but also in providing them with the ideology that suits the role they have to fulfil in society. If we then find ourselves in a position that we were not destined to fulfil, ie we were put on a path that pre-supposes you were more likely to be ejected “into production”, that would surely create a tension – a tension that ultimately emerges as a rejection of the indoctrination process thus it becomes a feeling of being out of place that emerges from a condition of indoctrination?

Likewise, there are those for whom  arrival at “the summit” is planned and expected. For this group, certain ideological expectations are placed upon them. They are expected and destined to exist at the summit, to act as “agents of exploitation”, “repression” and “professional ideologists”. Those that reject or do not exhibit the expected behavioural norms of the position, or who do not feel that they measure up to these expectations, are then also subjected to a sense that they are in the wrong place, because they do not feel they can measure up to that standard. Rather than feeling “I do not belong”, there is a sense that they are not fulfilling the expectations of those at “the summit”.

Ultimately, this tension is a desired effect of the educational ISA and ISAs in general. Indeed, this state of tension, of anxiety, the feeling of being an “impostor” is desired because it is a disciplinary technique. So long as people worry about whether they are in the right place or whether they are worrying about the standard/expectations that the educational ISA has inculcated within them, they will not challenge or upset the status quo. A precarious, anxious class is easier to control than one that is confident and assured. They will not challenge the status quo because their concerns are focused on development, on eradicating that feeling of being an “impostor”.

Precarity and anxiety

This feeling, as previously stated, affects us all. A feeling of insecurity is necessary, if not vital, to ensure discipline and maintain the status quo. As Richard Seymour puts it:

“For precarity is something that isn’t reserved for a small, specialised group of people – “the precariat” or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable.”

The impostor indoctrination affects all of us, it ensures a widespread sense of insecurity in a variety of manifestation, all of which ensure discipline and help to maintain the status quo. Late capitalism has made us all “the precariat”, not just in the sense of creating a sense that our jobs our vulnerable, but also in creating a permanent sense of doubt about our capabilities, about our skills and knowledge. This unease, emerging from the indoctrination process through the educational ISA that either sets up an unobtainable ideal or that creates anxiety in those that have somehow cheated the system, ensures order and equilibrium in the system are maintained.

This creation of anxiety to maintain order has been a strategy throughout the history of capitalism. As Esme Choonara notes in “Is there a precariat?”:

“Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.”

To maintain order and compliance, one merely needs to create anxiety. Anxious labour is compliant labour. Compliant labour is, in the eyes of the elite, productive labour. Labour that is confident and engaged is ultimately a threat to the established order, because confident labour will seek to influence and challenge the established order. Better to create anxiety and unease than to risk disrupting the status quo which benefits the elite. Throughout history we find examples of regimes that use anxiety and fear to assert their authority and to ensure labour produces that which the leaders require.

This feeling, impostor indoctrination/syndrome however you wish to define it, is not only widespread, it’s also part of a deliberate tactic to ensure that the dominant ideology is not only maintained, but reinforced. Inward looking anxieties ensure control and discipline. If we are concerned about the precarity of our jobs, or focused on concerns around with whether we should be in a certain place, or whether we are measuring up to a standard that has been defined for us, we are distracted from the structures we exist within. For if we do not believe we are where we should be, or that we measure up to some standard, how can we hope to challenge and change the system? We cannot, and that is exactly what the system is designed to do.


It Was Nationalism Wot Won It

Image c/o Brad Hammonds on Flickr.

It’s taken me some time to process the outcome of last week’s election. A part of me has been in denial ever since waking up that Friday morning and discovering that not only had the Tories garnered more seats than Labour, but had also managed to garner a majority (albeit a fairly slim one). The one small bright spot for me? That UKIP failed to succeed in increasing their number of MPs in Kent, indeed, managing to lose their only MP in the county. Small comfort when their share of the vote massively increased of course.

Of course, in many respects, I shouldn’t be too disappointed. I’m not a Labour voter after all. However, I am “of the left” so whilst I wasn’t a supporter I would obviously have preferred a Labour government to a Tory one, no matter how far to the right the Labour party resides (for all the predictable blather from the right-wing press, they hardly stood on a socialist platform). But the sheer horror of the reality of a majority government is already starting to unfold with the attack on Human Rights legislation and proposed restrictions on freedom of speech (who said the Right doesn’t do authoritarianism?). Whilst I have my issues with the Labour party, and whilst they may have a dubious record on surveillance, I certainly feel like my civil liberties would have been afforded more protection under Miliband than Cameron (again, political rhetoric in general would suggest this runs against what the left and the right stand for).

What is clear to me is that nationalism was the winner in this election. Varying types of nationalism of course, but nationalism nonetheless. A more benign, civic nationalism in Scotland, and a resurgent English nationalism (perhaps fuelled in part by Tory propaganda about the impact of SNP influence in Westminster). I have my issues with nationalism in general, but I understand that, on the face of it at least, Scottish nationalism is at least benign in comparison to its English counterpart. Racism and xenophobia certainly play no part in the agenda of the SNP. The same cannot be said for the English variant of course.

And this is where the problem lies, I believe, for the Labour party if it is to have any hope of forming a government of any description in 2020 (whether in coalition or, seemingly unlikely, a majority government). The 2015 general election seems, to me anyway, to be a classic case of the Conservative approach to limiting the power and influence of the working class. As has always been the case, nationalism seeks to divide the working class, playing on fear as well as evoking a sense of patriotism. It has been a long-held tactic of the right to play on these fears and thus divide the working class, ensuring that any party that represents their interests has little chance of gaining traction.

Indeed, this is evidence of precisely this tactic being employed by the Conservatives and the Liberals between 1918-1922, as Selina Todd explains in her excellent The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class:

“After 1918 both Liberals and Conservatives worked hard to forge mutually beneficial alliances in English, Welsh and Scottish municipal politics. These alliances were, as the historian James Smyth points out, ‘always for one purpose – to keep Labour out of office’. They did so primarily by courting the vote of those electors who swelled the ranks of organisations like the Middle Class Union, and whose anxieties about taxation and working-class independence most Liberal and Conservative politicians shared. But these parties also offered a negative appeal to working-class voters, by promoting an anti-socialist message that stressed its links to ‘foreign’ Bolshevism, violence, tyranny and economic instability. Voting Conservative was, for some working-class men, a vote that marked them out as patriots…”

In this case, whilst there doesn’t as yet appear to be any data to corroborate it, it would appear that playing on the ‘fear’ of Scottish nationalism influencing Westminster led to some voters swinging behind the Tories.

Certainly the decline in the working class vote has been identified as a prime cause for Labour’s failure to turn their expected minority government into a reality. Initial voting analysis provided by the House of Commons Library indicates that the steady decline of the working class vote has continued in this election. According to Jon Trickett, Labour MP for Hemsworth, the figures show that whilst the middle class Labour voter has remained steady, the working class has steadily declined:

2005 – 48% DE voters

2010 – 40%

2015 – 37%

For AB, C1 and C2 voters, Labour actually managed to make small increases on 2010.

As was expected, a Labour failure has brought out the Blairites who argue that a “return to the centre ground” is where electoral success lays. Of course, by “centre ground” they actually mean middle class voters, because that is the demographic New Labour acolytes are most interested in. “Aspiration” is already the keyword in the leadership campaign as the race to become The New Blair starts to take shape. Given Ed Miliband managed to marginally increase the middle class vote, it would appear that the “centre ground” should not be the prime concern for a party that was built to represent the interests of the working class.

For me it seems clear where the fault lines were in Labour’s election campaign. They made the grave error in 2010 of letting the Conservative party seize the narrative about the economic crisis. Whatever the reality of the situation (ie that Cameron and Osborne backed Labour spending and offered no alternative when the crash came), the image has stuck in the mind that Labour, once more, brought down the economy, like they always do (certainly that is a line that I often hear from my parents, both working class). That this was not effectively challenged was fatal and allowed the Tories to point the finger at Labour as a risky bet for a safe economy (of course, the Tories have pursued roughly similar policies since 2010, so not doubt there will be a further economic crash on their watch).

But they also failed to communicate a set of ideas that would alleviate the suffering of those at the bottom end of the income scale, those that have been hit hardest by five years of voodoo economics. The predatory capitalism analysis certainly rings true in terms of how our capitalist system operates in the United Kingdom, but what does it mean to someone being hammered by the bedroom tax, lower living standards, zero hour contracts and alike? It is the very people who the Labour party should represent that have been overlooked which has, as a result, hurt them greatly. It is not that Labour were too far left, nor even that they weren’t left enough, it’s simply that they didn’t manage to communicate effectively with those they were supposed to represent.

It would be, in my view, a fundamental mistake for the Labour party to further abandon the working class vote and chase after the middle class with talk of ‘aspiration’ and ‘wealth creators’. It is an extension of the same fundamental misunderstanding about the election in 1997 in which any Labour leader would have triumphed (I refuse to buy the narrative that Blair was somehow the man who rescued Labour, it was the Tories that rescued Labour). Of course, Labour may well choose this route in a desperate attempt to get to power by being ‘nice Tories’. I’m afraid that if they do, they will have already lost the election in 2020.