The American Dream: A cultural theory perspective

I recently got chatting with someone I met on a political forum and found myself in a (surprisingly and pleasantly civil) political discussion. The other person and I tend to come from rather different views, but our discourse has been rewarding. He asked me to put forth some comments on the following question, and thought it was something worth sharing:

“What does the term ‘American Dream’ mean to you? And is it still possible for everyone to achieve it?”

My background is in interdisciplinary Humanities and cultural studies, so I approach these kinds of things from a lot of odd places. In this case, I’d have to say that I see this concept through the lens of Marx, Horkheimer & Adorno, Foucault, and Baudrillard. In a nutshell, the work of these thinkers culminates in the assertion that cultural values, particularly those related to material goods, are created entirely by the interests of industry.

For Marx, it’s the Superstructure; for Horkheimer and Adorno, it’s the Culture Industry ; for Foucault it’s Discourse; for Baudrillard, Simulacra. Essentially, the thesis is that the “Culture Industry,” which refers to not only the ‘oligarchy’ that holds power, but to all industry that produces media, art, and entertainment as well as material culture (everything we buy), cannot survive unless it is ‘powered’ by something. That ‘something,’ of course is we consumers. We MUST be kept not only quietly playing our part in the production of culture (both conceptual and material, remember), but we MUST keep consuming it.

This is, after all, the premise of The Matrix (which was based explicitly on Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra). The ‘machine’ can’t run without an energy source, or ‘batteries,’ in the film’s vernacular. Our day-to-day lives are the distraction, and the rat-race the hamster wheel that keep us happily (or at least busily) producing and consuming. There is a reason that our culture reifies the nobility of sacrifice, and of struggling to get by until the big break comes along, and perpetuates the notion that “hard work and a little pluck can get you anywhere.” It is imperative that the majority of people have no real awareness of how the system works, lest they discover they are, in fact, only slaves to the machine. Though this has been done so well for so long, that most people, even if confronted with the reality, choose to shrug their shoulders and return to their hamster wheel. Like Cypher, we prefer to live in the dream and believe that we are free, independent, and in control of our choices.

THAT is the “American Dream.” It has always been a prescription for consumerism. Get the job, buy the house, have the kids, furnish the house just so, buy a nice car, keep your lawn looking perfect, your family well-dressed, and so on. The American Dream pushed the marketplace into every corner of our lives until there is no place left where we can be citizens and not consumers (see Naomi Klein’s superb documentary No Logo on this idea). The American Dream drove us out of cities into suburbs, and fueled our obsession with keeping up with the Joneses. and gave us a goal just clear enough to inform our consumption while just vague enough to keep us always doubting whether we had ‘made it,’ or if we needed a bigger house, or a newer car before we could consider ourselves successful.

The American Dream kept generations of Americans complacent and complicit in their own imprisonment as cogs in the machine. Our grandparents fought viciously (and many Americans, particularly older ones, still do), to protect the rights of CEOs, tycoons, and the super-rich to not only stay that way but to get richer on our backs because the American Dream promised them they would be numbered among those super-rich someday. They have been so fleeced by the American Dream that they resist taxing the rich because they really believe that will be them someday. We see voters in the poorest areas voting squarely against their own best interests time and again.

The American Dream insists that America is the greatest nation in the world. But that certainty only prevents us from realizing that we are anything but, and thereby makes it impossible to change for the better. Any ideology that questions that notion, or the virtue of consumerism, or suggests that we the people are not free, that we are a commodity, a resource employed to fuel the agendas of industry, is condemned as ‘heretical,’ or, in current parlance, ‘socialist.’

By now I am sure you don’t need to ask if I think the ‘American Dream’ is still attainable; it never was. The pursuit of it has kept us occupied, like a carrot on a stick, rather than offering us a reachable future. We have to radically revise our ideas of what it means to be successful adults, human beings, and members of society before we will have a goal that we can reach. And it can’t be the ‘me first,’ ‘look out for number one’ consumerist dream. It can’t let corporate America make the rules. We have to reject the mall, the superstore, the supersize, the ‘lifestyle brands.’ We must be willing to stop filling our lives and our homes with the latest plastic crap, made in third world countries by little better than slave labor, from toxic compounds that load our air and water with pollutants, and which, once abandoned (as they must be if the machine is to produce and sell still more), will linger in our landfills and our oceans for centuries. We have to be willing to look at windmills in our yards, to walk a few blocks, to embrace public transport that works, to recognize that civic infrastructure HAS to be a priority, as does the health and wellbeing of ALL our citizens. We should be past fearing the consequences of getting sick, past copper wire internet, past fossil fuels, and past going into lifelong debt for education. We should be past arguing about women’s health care, or gay marriage, or whether science is actually a thing.

Other countries are past these things, and they are leaving us in the dust. Our conservative pundits call them godless and socialist and communist, and flog the masses into a frenzy of fear, telling us they are coming for our American Dream. And those other nations laugh at us, as well they should.

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