Killing You Softly With Her Dreams

Arianna Huffington’s war on sleep…

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Arianna Huffington wants to put you to sleep.

In her new book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Huffington dramatically announces that we are in the middle of an unacknowledged sleep crisis. There is a problem in our society, Huffington tells us: we have forgotten how to sleep. Fortunately, sleepless readers need not fear: Huffington’s handy little book is here to show you how to combat sleeplessness.

Sleep Revolution is written in classic Huffington style: part Deepak Chopra, part Oprah, and strung together with quotes from everyone from Persian poet Rumi to art critic Jonathan Crary to even (bafflingly for a self-described progressive), the anti-immigrant, Brexit-enabling, racist former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

The writing, it should go without saying, is bad. A chapter begins: “From the beginning of time, people have struggled with sleep.” In fact, from the beginning of time, sophomore English teachers have been taking red pen to any essay that starts with “from the beginning of time.” Her phrasing is often corny and uses too many exclamation points.

Sleep Revolution is less a book than a business plan, a typical product of the can-do inspiration industry made popular by the likes of Andrew Weil and Suze Orman, the snake oil salespeople of the 21st century. Like them, Huffington first tells you that you have a problem, one you were unaware you had. She then generously reveals the many products that can help alleviate your symptoms, suggesting plenty of expensive solutions. Huffington has learnt her trade from the best hucksters. She absorbs the techniques of assorted rich people’s gurus, like cult leaders Bhagwan Rajneesh and John-Roger, combining new age verbiage with sly admonitions to give up one’s material wealth (into their outstretched hands, of course).

Huffington undoubtedly possesses a kind of brilliance. It lies not in the quality of her thought or writing, but in her ability to understand and exploit the zeitgeist. The ideas in Sleep Revolution, such as they are, are mostly bits and pieces about sleep deprivation and the problems thereof cribbed and culled from a range of sources (likely the product of several intensive hours of Googling). To be sure, they are banal. And yet Huffington’s book is perfect for our moment in time: it arrives just as capitalism is making many of us more sleepless than ever.

Huffington is never so impolite as to mention that capitalism, which has done well by her and made her a multimillionaire, may be to blame for keeping people working long, sleepless hours. She prefers proposing solutions to diagnosing causes. She tells you to leave your smartphone outside your bedroom, to have warm baths, to disengage. Don’t tackle work emails after a certain time.

Her solutions have the convenient consequence of making you a better worker for your employers, without actually raising your material standard of living. After all, she writes, “it would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.” Her advice to her fellow bosses is purely expedient: if the worker drones rest, more labor can be wrung out of them.

This approach to sleep is common in the discourse of “self-care,” in which people are constantly admonished to heal themselves with candles, self-affirmation, and long baths but not told that they can actually revolt against the systems that create their exhaustion in the first place. According to a massive amount of sleep literature, the worst thing we do is not sleep enough, yet that same literature never bothers to wonder what might be keeping us up at night.

Yet many people know full well why they can’t sleep. Many of us juggle multiple jobs to cobble together our livings, and the problem of sleeplessness cuts across class barriers. While those with little or no money battle exhaustion as they travel from job to job, even wealthier people are frequently like hamsters in their wheels, constantly working against the clock to hold on to and add to their fortunes. No matter who you are, under competitive capitalism the rule is the same: you sleep, you lose. Marx once pointed out that capital is vampire-like and feeds on dead labor. But that’s somewhat unfair to vampires. After all, unlike vampires, capital never sleeps.

Capitalism has never slept much, and has always relied on the lack of sleep of millions of workers to be as efficient as possible. In fact, until the invention of the eight-hour day and the weekend (both startlingly new ideas, for which workers had to fight hard) “work” as such simply carried on day by draining day. Even the idea of a legally mandated lunch break is astonishingly recent.

Among all of the Huffingtonian pro-sleep, self-help guidance, there is no discussion of the fact that people are compelled to walk around like zombies, without sleep. Take, for instance, the website Everyday Health which poses the question: “Why Don’t Americans Sleep Enough?” The answer: “Reasons why we’re not getting enough sleep abound, but one of the biggest changes behind the sleep decline is the availability of electricity and technological advances that allow us to work and play 24/7.” Note the phrasing: allow us to work 24/7! Yet most people don’t actually have a choice.

Consider that even something as simple as the lack of good transit systems can effectively ruin your chances of a good night’s sleep. In Chicago, where I live, and where the city’s segregation is enforced through its transit system, it can take two hours or more to get from the mostly white north side to the mostly black and brown south and west sides, and the trip usually involves multiple buses and trains. That’s a commute performed daily by many poorly-paid workers.

And that’s Chicago, a place with relatively good infrastructure. The situation is much worse for those living in cities and towns with little or no public transit (which is most of the United States). Researchers point to the economic consequences of rough commutes, but there are also substantial health costs involved when people spend so much of their lives traveling to and from their jobs and have little energy or time left to recharge or fully rest before the next day’s work. The sheer stress of getting to work can, in the long run, literally kill you. But work we must if we are to survive, and those on the bottom rungs run themselves ragged even before they start their workday.

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Huffington is willfully oblivious to all of this, evading questions about workplace conditions even when they are most obvious. She writes that a “2015 Stanford University study of Chinese workers found that those who worked from home saw their productivity go up by 13 percent.”  Only Arianna Huffington could so blithely use the words “Chinese workers” and “productivity” together and not even offer the slightest hint that, perhaps, the rise in productivity is due to factors like the grinding exploitation they are likely to experience. Examples of such obtuseness about the exploitation of capitalism abound in the book, including her glowing praise for Goldman Sachs banning summer interns from staying overnight. Quartz’s sarcastic response to the news puts it best: “A rule that may be obvious to those of us in normal people jobs, this apparently was not clear enough to the aspiring bankers entering the intense Wall Street working environment for the first time.” Praise for such global and rapacious corporations makes it clear that success for Huffington is defined at astronomical levels; it’s not at all about ordinary workers, whose only job is to buy the products she and her friends sell.

Instead of discussing the larger context surrounding sleeplessness, Huffington wants, instead, to remind you of different consequences. Wrinkles, for instance.  She cites a UK experiment that showed that a lack of sleep resulted in a 45 percent increase in fine lines and wrinkles in women, and a rise in blemishes by 13 percent. She is also concerned that sleeplessness can cause “bad decisions,” and explains away Bill Clinton’s most indefensible presidential decisions as a possible result of a lack of sleep, for example “his inept handling of the issues of gays in the military — now widely considered to be one of the low points of his two-term presidency.” Here, as everywhere in the book, she simply ignores political ideology in favor of a diagnosis that locates acts and consequences entirely on the plane of personal problems.

Huffington is an inveterate name-dropper, and that’s no surprise given that her biggest project so far, Huffington Post, relies on the appearance of many of her celebrity “friends” to supply free labor.  “My friend Nora Ephron” makes an appearance, and she describes how “at a lunch for Jennifer Aniston, her manager took me aside,” and the time “when I interviewed [the Dalai Lama],” Oh, and we must not forget the time when “for my Thrive e-course on Oprah.com, I invited basketball great Kobe Bryant…” (That last one is a small masterpiece of economy, rolling her business enterprise, the planet’s most famous woman after the Queen of England, and a sports legend all into the same sentence.) Huffington’s desire to suck up (there is no elegant way to put this) to powerful and famous people requires her to be spectacularly clueless at times. Following up on the wrinkles theme, she writes effusively that “Jane Fonda credits her age-defying looks to sleep.” In fact, Fonda has gone on record as having had plastic surgery, a fact confirmed by no fewer than three aggregated stories on the Huffington Post itself.

Ultimately, Sleep Revolution tells us very little about what we need to know to get more sleep. Huffington’s slender thesis (“Sleep more so you can make more money”) is covered fully in her 4-minute TED talk on the subject, and solutions to sleeplessness are available in innumerable resources on the internet. The book is less important for what it says and more for what it reveals about Huffington’s place in enabling a particularly rapacious form of capitalism, one which first deprives people of sleep and then sells them the methods by which they might regain some of it.

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Arianna Huffington likes to tell her life story as follows: once, a middle-class 16-year-old Greek girl saw a picture of Cambridge University and decided to study there. Against all odds, and with the help of a determined mother, she entered the august institution and quickly made a name for herself, even becoming only the third female president of the 200-year-old Cambridge Union. She became a well-known conservative author and public figure in England, and eventually left for America where she gained spectacular amounts of both wealth and fame.

But the story’s reality is somewhat more complex, and reflects her alliances with two particular powerful men. At the age of 21, Huffington, whose maiden name was Stassinopoulos, met the famed and influential British intellectual Bernard Levin, 22 years her senior, on a game show. Huffington wrote books in which she insisted that feminism could only appeal to “women with strong lesbian tendencies.”

Not surprisingly, it was in England, still replete with class snobbery, that she earned her most infamous put-downs, being labeled “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus,” as well as “the Edmund Hillary of social climbing.” They’re good lines, though they’re also sexist. No one calls Bill Gates a social climber, and women seem to be the only ones subjected to such snide comments as they make their way upwards. That said, it’s true that large parts of Huffington’s social and financial capital have come about because she was the consort of two powerful men, and she does make much of her immense network of famous friends.

Huffington remained with Levin till she was 30, and then embarked on the next step of her journey, to New York. Only six years after her arrival in America, having ensconced herself in a social circle that included Barbara Walters and Henry Kissinger, she married the oil billionaire Michael Huffington. Levin had given her access to enormous intellectual and cultural capital; Huffington provided her with massive amounts of financial capital.

They divorced in 1997, when their two daughters were eight and six. She would go on to tell an interviewer that she doesn’t believe in marriage, just very good divorces. (Her settlement reportedly gained her $25 million.) Soon after, Michael Huffington came out as bisexual, and Arianna turned into a blazing liberal (whether or not those two facts are connected were the subject of speculation). She began working with Al Franken on Air America. (Remember Air America?) Explaining her sudden right-left shift, Huffington insists that she had always been socially liberal, and simply saw the light. A different hypothesis can be found in a friend’s observation that in famously liberal Los Angeles, to which Huffington returned after her divorce, her conservatism “would not have gotten [her] invited to a lot of parties.”

Huffington’s rapid geographic and ideological shape-shifting also meant additional scrutiny of the contradiction between her politics and her lifestyle. In 2003, the same year she ran unsuccessfully against Arnold Schwarzenegger in a gubernatorial campaign, she launched an incendiary ad campaign linking SUV owners to terrorists, despite having driven a Lincoln Navigator until the previous year. Huffington has complained about big money corroding democracy, but was a pivotal part of her husband’s unsuccessful campaign against Dianne Feinstein, in which he spent a then-unprecedented $30 million of his personal wealth. Whenever she has been challenged on these inconsistencies, Huffington has simply claimed to have subsequently seen the light.

In a 1995 Mother Jones piece designed as a Guide to Republicans, the comedian Paula Poundstone wrote, “It’s hard to pin down Arianna’s species. If only her ears drooped forward.” It’s a sharp assessment of Huffington’s innate tendency to switch positions. Poundstone also described what was then the celebrity’s fourth book, The Fourth Instinct:  “[S]he says we should be nice. She says it in 248 pages, using her own nice thoughts as a standard toward which we all should strive.” Clearly, the ability to expand a few scant phrases into hundreds of pages has not left Huffington.

But when it comes to discerning what species of political animal Huffington represents, the most striking and truthful description may come from an anonymous source, quoted by the Washington Post, speaking about her then-husband’s disastrous second campaign:

[O]ne person who knows the couple makes a particularly unflattering analogy. It is to the movie a while ago in which a creature would suddenly spring out of a human’s chest.

“I think of that thing in John Hurt in ‘Alien,’ “ he says, “but with better hair.”

“In Michael,” he says, “she’s found a host.”

In the mythology of the Alien films, the central figure (the aforementioned “thing”) is a vicious space species that exists purely to breed and take over every terrain it encounters, whether a ship or an entire planet. Its method of self-propagation, enabled by a gigantic queen, is to implant eggs in any available host. The egg eventually and quickly gestates and finally emerges as a fast-developing creature, mutating in the process and eventually becoming more human-like. By the fourth film in the series, Alien: Resurrection, the creature has developed a womb and gives live birth to its progeny, which proceeds to eat its mother alive.

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In the films, alongside the titular, rapacious and monstrous being, there exists another equally deadly force: the ubiquitous Weyland Corporation. All through the series, it becomes clear that Weyland is, if not the only one left, at least one of the biggest corporations in the known universe. Its interests extend from the petty junk-harvesting of space debris and old ships to dreams of universal domination. Its intense desire to harness the Alien itself comes from the corporation’s ambition to use the creature as the ultimate biological weapon. The alien is a perfect killing machine, with acid for blood, blood so toxic it can melt thick steel and spurts out at even the slightest injury, causing massive harm to its adversaries. In the first film, the robot Ash describes the creature with admiration as a “[p]erfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility….I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Washington Post’s source should be reminded of the Alien franchise when asked to analyze Huffington.

Yet the Alien comparisons are striking not only for their insight into Huffington personally, but as a means by which to understand her enterprise and the larger formations of capitalism that she has helped to create and cement.

In August 2016, Huffington announced that she was leaving the Huffington Post to focus on her new startup, Thrive Global. The venture, according to the Wall Street Journal, will “work with companies to improve the well-being of their employees.” Set to launch in November, Thrive describes itself as a “corporate and consumer well-­being and productivity platform.” At Thriveglobal.com, the visitor is led to understand that “By reducing stress and exhaustion, we can improve people’s health and increase productivity for both companies and individuals around the world,” and that “Thrive Global is a corporate and consumer well-­being and productivity platform.”

The point of such an enterprise, wrapped in such transparently vacuous new age verbiage, remains a mystery. For all their pretense otherwise, it’s clear that Huffington and her commercial partners care very little about the effects of sleeplessness on those who are not their target audience. In April 2016 a sleep-deprived Uber driver, too tired to continue driving, asked his passenger to take over, and woke up to find the car embroiled in a high-speech chase with police. A Huffington Post reporter, Sarah DiGiulio, was prevented from “writing” about the story. (At the HuffPo, “writing” means “linking to.”) Post senior editor Gregory Beyer told DiGiulio that they wouldn’t be linking to it because Huffington Post was currently “partnering with Uber on our drowsy driving campaign.” In other words, Huffington’s policy was to ignore or actively censor any story that actually proved that sleeplessness is a function of capitalism, and to protect her financial partner from being implicated in any resulting damage. In response to the story, Uber suspended the driver, then issued a statement about the dangers of sleeplessness (which predictably cited the company’s link up with the HuffPo and Toyota “to raise awareness of the issue and help save lives.”)

“I cried to dream again,”

—Caliban, The Tempest

The great irony of Huffington’s new enterprises, which promise both sleep and thriving, is that the Huffington Post itself feeds off the sleeplessness of its writers, people who are compelled to stay up all night in order to read and repost pieces about how sleeplessness is ruining their lives. The Huffington Post is notorious for paying not a single cent for most of its contributions, paying writers solely in illusory “publicity.” By building a hugely popular website on unpaid labor, HuffPo played a major role in establishing the pitiful compensation structure currently faced by online writers. If writers can’t sleep, it’s because they make HuffPo rates, i.e. nothing.

The Sleep Revolution is therefore a work of extraordinary gall. There is no consideration of the structural problems with sleeplessness, no critique of the systems which drive people from their beds toward jobs where they nod off to sleep in exhaustion. Arianna Huffington did not invent the web, but she is among those who created the news that never sleeps, in turn created by aggregators working around the clock, so that you might wake up at midnight or three or four in the morning, entertained by yet another set of links about Kate Middleton in a red dress or a hammock for your head so you can sleep on the train on the way to work.

In the Alien films, the Weyland Corporation sends its workers across the universe, millions of light years away in search of material and profits. But travel across the cosmos is time-consuming; workers would inevitably age along the journey, dulling their efficiency. Weyland’s solution is simple: Sleep pods that hold the bodies in suspended animation. Here all natural bodily functions cease, and the workers are reduced to nothing more than bodies. Once at their destination, the ship, a machine that possesses complete control over them, wakes them up and they continue their work. Everyone is a freelancer; everyone is put to sleep till their next gig. In the first film, when Captain Dallas hacks into the ship’s computer to discover the mission’s operating mandate, he discovers a chilling command stating that capturing the alien is the first and only priority. “Crew expendable,” it reads.

On her Twitter feed, Huffington retweets yet another famous billionaire, Melinda Gates, wife of Bill Gates: “Make sure to be gentle to yourself. Take time for yourself. Make sure that you’re taking care of yourself in order to be the best person and do your best job.” Ultimately, that’s all that matters to Huffington and her ilk, that the workers remain at their most fit, churning out content when awake, then suspended in pods until their labor is next required. And should these freelancers prove too costly, well, “crew expendable.” In space, no one can hear you cry in your dreams.

Illustrations by Chris Matthews

Author: Yasmin Nair

is a writer, academic, and activist in Chicago. She is a co-founder of the radical queer editorial collective Against Equality and the Volunteer Policy Director of Gender JUST.