Who or What is Permanently Embarrassed Billionaires???

 "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

The above quote - often misattributed to John Steinbeck - has been floating around for a long time. Regardless of who actually said it or what their intention was, it's resonance rests in an open secret about American culture and identity: that the US is a vastly unequal society worthy of a revolution that never comes, partially because so many of us non-elites have bought into the lie of the American Dream that wealth is within reach of any person who works hard enough...that the shame of failure and downward mobility are real, but only brief hurdles faced by individuals on their journey to yacht life. Collective action and the commons be damned.

I started Permanently Embarrassed Billionaires after I finished writing my novella-length memoir, Hard Bones, because I did not feel like I was finished saying all I wanted to say on the topic of late capitalism, mental illness, and trauma. One of the major threads throughout Hard Bones is meritocracy - that old American Dream ideology refurbished and sanctified in the fires of neoliberalism. In fact, the introductory chapter of Hard Bones is a meditation on the subject that invites the reader to explore the psychic toll of internalizing meritocratic ideology - a very real, very damaging idea that most of us are not fully conscious of as we grind away wracked with anxiety and guilt over not measuring up (you can read that essay on my blog).

There has been a lot of ink spilled on the topic of meritocracy lately (see the links below), but I wanted to explore how that affects the identity and mental health of the losers. In particular, as someone who survived sustained and inescapable child abuse and then sexual trauma later in life, I was interested in the massive gap between what the therapists, neuroscientists, and Buddhists have revealed about the biophysical nature of trauma, and the reality that the resources necessary to heal - somatic therapies, trauma clinics, safe non-competitive relationships, and a slowing down of life's rhythms - are inaccessible to the people most likely to be suffering the long-term effects of trauma: poor people. In my own life I deeply felt that the chronic self-hatred and unworthiness formed in childhood were co-productive with the very loud cultural message that a lack of success was the result of individual laziness, stupidity, and inability to delay gratification. 

It became a vicious circle: I need specialized treatment to heal --> specialized treatment is expensive --> must get a good job with decent health insurance to access treatment --> educate self and apply for lots of jobs --> years of applying but not succeeding in landing such a job --> guilt, shame, frustration --> self-medication --> spiral --> access Medicaid resources that reinforce how grateful the receiver should be to get any resources at all --> "people have it much worse than you" --> lie about the depth of pain because once-a-month talk therapy only serves to surface painful memories and then leave you on your own --> I need specialized treatment to heal...

I have long thought about the collective trauma of late capitalism, before I had a word for it or found people that wanted to talk about it. Permanently Embarrassed Billionaires is my attempt to finally address it collectively. It is an inversion of that old quote, updated to reflect our 2020's cultural obsession with billionaires, but proudly grabbing the mighty sword of shame back from the clutches of the meritocrats to say that we do not actually desire the world that they are forcing upon us. To that end, PEB functions like a virtual consciousness-raising and support group for people who identify with this struggle, offering a platform for non-professional and gloriously imperfect expressions of our pain and our hope. If you are like one of my acquaintances who took the time to message me saying that "other people had it harder than you in the pandemic" - keep moving. This space is not for you. PEB is a growing community of survivors and fellow travelers holding space for each other's unique pain while contributing to an ecosystem of resistance. We know that there is a lot of healing that comes both from being truly seen, as well as collective action. 

If you are interested in contributing to this project, please get in touch! We are on Facebook, IG, Twitter, YouTube, and via email at contact[at]permanentlyembarrassedbillionaires.com. It is still in its infancy, which means there is tons of space to help shape its direction. I also function as a writing coach and editor for the project, so you don't have to worry if you never thought of yourself as a writer - you will get there. And as excited as I am to share your stories through this project, rest assured that PEB is not about generating content just for content sake: deadlines are not strictly enforced, all writing and art remains the property of the creator, you can use a pen name, and consent is ongoing (meaning you can request to take down your contribution or edit it at any point).

Heather Squire is a writer, artist, survivor, baker, and anti-capitalist student of Muay Thai, Buddhism, and your stories. She started Permanently Embarrassed Billionaires in late 2020. You can find more of her writing at heathersquire.com.