the American Dream Dead?
Why class mobility is a thing of the past.
By C.J. Polychroniou
The United States is rapidly declining on numerous
fronts -- collapsing infrastructure, a huge gap between
haves and have-nots, stagnant wages, high infant
mortality rates, the highest incarceration rate in the
world -- and it continues to be the only country in the
advanced world without a universal health care system.
Thus, questions about the nature of the US's economy and
its dysfunctional political system are more critical
than ever, including questions about the status of the
so-called American Dream, which has long served as an
inspiration point for Americans and prospective
immigrants alike. Indeed, in a recent documentary, Noam
Chomsky, long considered one of America's voices of
conscience and one of the world's leading public
intellectuals, spoke of the end of the American Dream.
In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Chomsky
discusses some of the problems facing the United States
today, and whether the American Dream is "dead" -- if it
ever existed in the first place.
Polychroniou: Noam, in several of your writings you
question the usual view of the United States as an
archetypical capitalist economy. Please explain.
Chomsky: Consider this: Every time there is a crisis,
the taxpayer is called on to bail out the banks and the
major financial institutions. If you had a real
capitalist economy in place, that would not be
happening. Capitalists who made risky investments and
failed would be wiped out. But the rich and powerful do
not want a capitalist system. They want to be able to
run the nanny state so when they are in trouble the
taxpayer will bail them out. The conventional phrase is
"too big to fail."
The IMF did an
interesting study a few years ago on profits of the big
US banks. It attributed most of them to the many
advantages that come from the implicit government
insurance policy -- not just the featured bailouts, but
access to cheap credit and much else -- including things
the IMF researchers didn't consider, like the incentive
to undertake risky transactions, hence highly profitable
in the short term, and if anything goes wrong, there's
always the taxpayer. Bloomberg Businessweek estimated
the implicit taxpayer subsidy at over $80 billion per
Much has been said and written about economic
inequality. Is economic inequality in the contemporary
capitalist era very different from what it was in other
post-slavery periods of American history?
inequality in the contemporary period is almost
unprecedented. If you look at total inequality, it ranks
amongst the worse periods of American history. However,
if you look at inequality more closely, you see that it
comes from wealth that is in the hands of a tiny sector
of the population. There were periods of American
history, such as during the Gilded Age in the 1920s and
the roaring 1990s, when something similar was going on.
But the current period is extreme because inequality
comes from super wealth. Literally, the top one-tenth of
a percent are just super wealthy. This is not only
extremely unjust in itself, but represents a development
that has corrosive effects on democracy and on the
vision of a decent society.
What does all this mean in terms of the American Dream?
Is it dead?
"American Dream" was all about class mobility. You were
born poor, but could get out of poverty through hard
work and provide a better future for your children. It
was possible for [some workers] to find a decent-paying
job, buy a home, a car and pay for a kid's education.
It's all collapsed -- and we shouldn't have too many
illusions about when it was partially real. Today social
mobility in the US is below other rich societies.
the US then a democracy in name only?
NC: The US
professes to be a democracy, but it has clearly become
something of a plutocracy, although it is still an open
and free society by comparative standards. But let's be
clear about what democracy means. In a democracy, the
public influences policy and then the government carries
out actions determined by the public. For the most part,
the US government carries out actions that benefit
corporate and financial interests. It is also important
to understand that privileged and powerful sectors in
society have never liked democracy, for good reasons.
Democracy places power in the hands of the population
and takes it away from them. In fact, the privileged and
powerful classes of this country have always sought to
find ways to limit power from being placed in the hands
of the general population -- and they are breaking no
new ground in this regard.
Concentration of wealth yields to concentration of
power. I think this is an undeniable fact. And since
capitalism always leads in the end to concentration of
wealth, doesn't it follow that capitalism is
antithetical to democracy?
Concentration of wealth leads naturally to concentration
of power, which in turn translates to legislation
favoring the interests of the rich and powerful and
thereby increasing even further the concentration of
power and wealth. Various political measures, such as
fiscal policy, deregulation, and rules for corporate
governance are designed to increase the concentration of
wealth and power. And that's what we've been seeing
during the neoliberal era. It is a vicious cycle in
constant progress. The state is there to provide
security and support to the interests of the privileged
and powerful sectors in society while the rest of the
population is left to experience the brutal reality of
capitalism. Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the
So, yes, in
that sense capitalism actually works to undermine
democracy. But what has just been described -- that is,
the vicious cycle of concentration of power and wealth
-- is so traditional that it is even described by Adam
Smith in 1776. He says in his famous Wealth of
Nations that, in England, the people who own
society, in his days the merchants and the
manufacturers, are "the principal architects of policy."
And they make sure that their interests are very well
cared for, however grievous the impact of the policies
they advocate and implement through government is on the
people of England or others.
Now, it's not
merchants and manufacturers who own society and dictate
policy. It is financial institutions and multinational
corporations. Today they are the groups that Adam Smith
called the masters of mankind. And they are
following the same vile maxim that he formulated: All
for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. They
will pursue policies that benefit them and harm everyone
else because capitalist interests dictate that they do
so. It's in the nature of the system. And in the absence
of a general, popular reaction, that's pretty much all
you will get.
Let's return to the idea of the American Dream and talk
about the origins of the American political system. I
mean, it was never intended to be a democracy (actually
the term always used to describe the architecture of the
American political system was "republic," which is very
different from a democracy, as the ancient Romans well
understood), and there had always been a struggle for
freedom and democracy from below, which continues to
this day. In this context, wasn't the American Dream
built at least partly on a myth?
NC: Sure. Right
through American history, there's been an ongoing clash
between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming
from below and efforts at elite control and domination
from above. It goes back to the founding of the country,
as you pointed out. The "founding fathers," even James
Madison, the main framer, who was as much a believer in
democracy as any other leading political figure in those
days, felt that the United States political system
should be in the hands of the wealthy because the
wealthy are the "more responsible set of men." And,
thus, the structure of the formal constitutional system
placed more power in the hands of the Senate, which was
not elected in those days. It was selected from the
wealthy men who, as Madison put it, had sympathy for the
owners of wealth and private property.
This is clear
when you read the debates of the Constitutional
Convention. As Madison said, a major concern of the
political order has to be "to protect the minority of
the opulent against the majority." And he had arguments.
If everyone had a vote freely, he said, the majority of
the poor would get together and they would organize to
take away the property of the rich. That, he added,
would be obviously unjust, so the constitutional system
had to be set up to prevent democracy.
Aristotle had said something similar in his Politics.
Of all political systems, he felt that democracy was the
best. But he saw the same problem that Madison saw in a
true democracy, which is that the poor might organize to
take away the property of the rich. The solution that he
proposed, however, was something like a welfare state
with the aim of reducing economic inequality. The other
alternative, pursued by the "founding fathers," is to
so-called American Dream was always based partly in myth
and partly in reality. From the early 19th century
onward and up until fairly recently, working-class
people, including immigrants, had expectations that
their lives would improve in American society through
hard work. And that was partly true, although it did not
apply for the most part to African Americans and women
until much later. This no longer seems to be the case.
Stagnating incomes, declining living standards,
outrageous student debt levels, and hard-to-come-by
decent-paying jobs have created a sense of hopelessness
among many Americans, who are beginning to look with
certain nostalgia toward the past. This explains, to a
great extent, the rise of the likes of Donald Trump and
the appeal among the youth of the political message of
someone like Bernie Sanders.
After World War II, and pretty much up until the
mid-1970s, there was a movement in the US in the
direction of a more egalitarian society and toward
greater freedom, in spite of great resistance and
oppression from the elite and various government
agencies. What happened afterward that rolled back the
economic progress of the post-war era, creating in the
process a new socio-economic order that has come to be
identified as that of neoliberalism?
in the 1970s, partly because of the economic crisis that
erupted in the early years of that decade and the
decline in the rate of profit, but also partly because
of the view that democracy had become too widespread, an
enormous, concentrated, coordinated business offensive
was begun to try to beat back the egalitarian efforts of
the post-war era, which only intensified as time went
on. The economy itself shifted to financialization.
Financial institutions expanded enormously. By 2007,
right before the crash for which they had considerable
responsibility, financial institutions accounted for a
stunning 40 percent of corporate profit. A vicious cycle
between concentrated capital and politics accelerated,
while increasingly, wealth concentrated in the financial
sector. Politicians, faced with the rising cost of
campaigns, were driven ever deeper into the pockets of
wealthy backers. And politicians rewarded them by
pushing policies favorable to Wall Street and other
powerful business interests. Throughout this period, we
have a renewed form of class warfare directed by the
business class against the working people and the poor,
along with a conscious attempt to roll back the gains of
the previous decades.
Now that Trump is the president-elect, is the Bernie
Sanders political revolution over?
NC: That's up
to us and others to determine. The Sanders "political
revolution" was quite a remarkable phenomenon. I was
certainly surprised, and pleased. But we should remember
that the term "revolution" is somewhat misleading.
Sanders is an honest and committed New Dealer. His
policies would not have surprised Eisenhower very much.
The fact that he's considered "radical" tells us how far
the elite political spectrum has shifted to the right
during the neoliberal period. There have been some
promising offshoots of the Sanders mobilization, like
the Brand New Congress movement and several others.
and should, also be efforts to develop a genuine
independent left party, one that doesn't just show up
every four years but is working constantly at the
grassroots, both at the electoral level (everything from
school boards to town meetings to state legislatures and
on up) and in all the other ways that can be pursued.
There are plenty of opportunities -- and the stakes are
substantial, particularly when we turn attention to the
two enormous shadows that hover over everything: nuclear
war and environmental catastrophe, both ominous,
demanding urgent action.
Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
expressed in this article are the author's own and do
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