About Irrational Utopias or the American Dream as a Nightmare

“The owners of this country know the truth: It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” – George Carlin

“(…) occupiers and protesters seem to have awakened from a “dream” that only privileged a few”

For a European like me, the American dream is often invoked in mainstream Hollywood films and TV series, which portray an idealised picture of individual heroes fighting against a usually hostile world or pursuing epic dreams of material prosperity, fame and fortune from the bottom of society. In popular culture, the American dream is usually described as the hope of anyone who comes to America, the land of limitless space, a land where everything is possible if individuals work hard enough, a land where it is always possible to go beyond, to achieve more, to make ideas infinitely productive and therefore, income generating. Apparently, everyone has the same opportunities to live the American dream so whoever is not able to do so must, apparently, be less fit, less clever, and less deserving of God’s grace. But this is not an article about inequality and the failure of the American dream for many US citizens who simply were not lucky enough to be “successful”,whatever that word means. My intent here is to provide a more historical and philosophical insight into the human implications of an ideology underpinned by a sort of messianic idealism. The American dream is profoundly idealistic in the sense that isolated individuals seem to inhabit a world where material and economic prosperity is permanently possible and can only go upwards; citizens are in permanent competition with fellow citizens. Obviously, not every American citizen is driven by the same values and principles. The history of the US is plagued with struggles for democracy and civil rights scattered throughout the country, a very significant portion of progressive citizens with libertarian and emancipatory values trying to survive in the tsunami of mainstream America. Still, whether it is for the most reactionary or the most progressive segments of American society, the American dream demands a serious reappraisal if we consider how much American society (and the rest of the world) have changed compared to the society that saw the birth of this ideology. The notion of the American dream is idealistic because it is a “dream”, that is, intangible and unconnected to the real, physical world. If we contextualise this idealism in light of the social and environmental problems suffered not only by the US but by much of the rest of humanity, to believe in the ever-growing progress of material prosperity of a society formed by a majority of isolated and atomised individuals pursuing false notions of success, fame, or their own idealised life, then the chances are the American dream becomes a nightmare of anguish and isolation. I am saying this keeping the Occupy movement in mind. Witnessing the terrible consequences of the American dream (or the particular interpretation an elite has made of it) on the American economy in this last crisis, occupiers and protesters seem to have awakened from a “dream” that only privileged a few, and are now beginning to reinterpret their own history in search of new paradigms for social and economic organisation.

“Can the ideals of the American dream, born in a completely different historical and cultural context, hold any validity in the 21st century?”

Having a look at definitions of the American dream in various dictionaries and other sources, the American dream reflects the tenets of this irrationally idealistic ideology. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the American dream as “a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful”. On the other hand, this web page  uses the words of the founding fathers to illustrate how the American dream has been conceived historically; according to Thomas Jefferson, the American dream is that in which “[n]othing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude”. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln sees America as a country where “[y]ou can have anything you want – if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose”. Beyond biased interpretations and historical contextualisations, the previous definitions seem to be sustained on two leitmotivs, individualism and infinite material progress. But this particular idea of how human beings should organise their life as embodied by the values of the American way of life is historically and culturally rooted in an age where what was known about the nature of human beings and societies was quite different from what we know today. However, for a significant number of US citizens, the dream of the American dream still seems to embody the ideals of social cohesion and equality as part of the shared set of assumptions about the moral principles that should guide the nation. Can the ideals of the American dream, born in a completely different historical and cultural context, hold any validity in the 21st century? If not, how can it be rethought so as to suit it to the challenges of our times?

If we want to understand how and why the ideology of the American way of life is ill-suited to provide an ethically and environmentally sound framework for sustainable life in the 21st century, we need to go back to the European Renaissance. The roots of the ideology of the American dream might be traced back to the early puritan pioneers who arrived to the coast of what was going to become New England onboard the Mayflower back in December 1620. But a bigger picture emerges when consider the historical and religious context of the transition from medieval times to the Renaissance, in other words, the advent of modernity, and of the new economic order of capitalism, with its new work ethic. Towards the end of the 15th century, the crumbling down of the oppressive yet well-ordered and stratified medieval society implied a liberation from the shackles of medieval superstition and social immobility. Little by little, the new commercial and capitalist middle class offered a whole new world of commercial possibilities, and ever growing monopolies began to threaten and dismantle the old guilds, which provided a sense of economic and cultural stability in medieval society. However, instead of a true and lasting emancipation, such liberation was experienced as anguishing and isolating as the old certainties of the medieval age disappeared, old ties were cut, and individuals were left to face loneliness and isolation in a world with a new economic scenario. Anguish and doubt in a world bereft of any sense of belonging and stability defined the experience of the European middle class when facing the uncertainty of the world opened before them. This is the beginning of capitalism, when man becomes an instrument of the economic machinery created by himself, as Erich Fromm (1) claims:

“The spiritual liberation of man initiated by Protestantism was taken to mental, social and political levels by capitalism. Economic freedom was the basis for such development embodied by the new middle class. Individuals were not tied anymore to an unmovable social order founded on tradition […] Now men were allowed to put their faith in economic success”.

As Fromm suggests, the religious doctrines of reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin attempted to provide a sense of guidance and stability to the disoriented middle class although their proposal meant to surrender to another form of submission to God. In other words, what Luther and Calvin proposed to alleviate the anguish and powerlessness felt by the middle class facing a threatening and hostile “New World Order” was self-humiliation, which would eventually grant access to the divine world of God. Gone was the medieval world when dignified men and spiritual salvation were ends in themselves. Now, man (the middle class) becomes an instrument for a higher design: economic activity and the accumulation of capital. Thus, the protestant work ethic emerges at this point: incessant and compulsive work appears as a way of avoiding the anguish and fear of their (the European middle class) new situation in the new economic scenario (2). As philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer brilliantly argue, the hopes of freedom and democracy aroused by the collapse of the medieval order and birth of a new economic order (capitalism) were betrayed by the new scientific and religious dogmas of Newtonian atomism and Protestantism. Apart from shaping the cultural climate of Europe that was to be imported to America by Puritans and pioneers, both Newtonian atomism and Protestantism were interpreted to suit the economic needs of the ruling elite. In short, the new world that emerges with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment conceived of man in the image of the philosophical and scientific ideas of the age: man became a commodity “free” to pursue his/her own dreams in a world of terrifying competition for apparently limitless economic opportunities and, likewise, nature became a commodity to be exploited. These are the two pillars of the American dream. But what kind of rationality is embodied by these ideas and principles?

“(the) US economy (…) depends crucially on the assumption that society is formed by individuals pursuing their own self-interest without interference from the state”

It was in this historical context that the Puritan movement appeared, embodying the new zeitgeist as shown by its passion for thrift, their attempt to purify what they perceived as a corrupt and decaying Church of England. In line with Luther and Calvin, the Puritans stripped themselves off the authority of the church and decided to follow their own truth as found in the bible, hence their prosecution and their fleeing to the new world. Fiercely Calvinists, the Puritans enacted the Protestants work ethic which would eventually shape the American dream: work from dawn till dusk and thrift in order to secure salvation. If the concept of reason is defined as the human capacity to question and verify and justify facts through human intellect, then the Puritans’ strong and unquestioning belief in the authority of an unmerciful God contradicts the spirit of reason. As I mentioned before, the Protestant mentality acted like a Prozac; it justified compulsive work and material accumulation as a means to avoid thinking about death, uncertainty and cultural disorientation in a world that did not offer the security and stability of medieval societies.

As the pioneers grew in numbers, settlements expanded and with them, the frontier war with the local indigenous population, the tribes of North America. The frontier war reinforced the protestant ideas and preconceptions that formed the backbone of puritan ideology: the new settlers faced a hostile environment with which they maintained a permanent struggle for survival. But the new waves of immigrants did not cross the Atlantic Ocean with an empty cultural baggage. The philosophical and scientific ideas of the 17th and 18th centuries not only exerted an influenced but also certainly reinforced the individualistic mentality of the pioneers. One of the most powerful ideas holding sway at that time was Newtonian atomism. As part of the cultural framework of modernity, nature and society were conceived as mechanisms, large machines formed by replaceable parts, as Freya Matthews claims (3):

“How’s the natural order of atomism to be imitated in the social sphere? As long as each individual pursues his or her own interest and obeys his or her own ‘law’, viz. the law of self-interest subject to certain, outer, social and legal constraints, then, the Newtonians attest, ‘order’ will automatically establish itself at a collective level […] In this way, Newtonianism gave birth to the idea of a free market economy in which individuals would pursue their own material interests subject only to minimal legal constraints. The intention is to use the Newtonian philosophy to provide a fresh legitimation for the new socio-economic order embodied in the commerce of the middle class”.

Undoubtedly, this socio-cultural framework is the DNA of the American dream, and also one of the most important pillars of US economy, which depends crucially on the assumption that society is formed by individuals pursuing their own self-interest without interference from the state. During the 19th century, the American dream adopted its most extreme form aided by a particular interpretation of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, contained in his book The Origin of Species. As capitalism was beginning to consolidate as the hegemonic economic system both in the US and in the world, so did the idea that society is made of individuals who struggle to survive, condemning the “weakest” to poverty and marginalisation. Thus, it was seen as “natural” that society and businesses adopt a predatory mentality where only the strongest survive. Again, the doctrine of Calvinism seems to be perfectly adjusted to the transformations of North American society: the only way to survive in society is by taking the Calvinist working ethic to justify an extremely opportunistic and materialistic society because material accumulation was seen as the only way of obtaining God’s acceptance in heaven.

“the American dream must confront the sheer fact of finitude”

Finally, the ideology of the American dream found sustenance in psychoanalysis. At the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud discovery that consciousness is internally driven by innate and irrational forces. If social Darwinism exploited what was thought the most “rational” part of human nature during the 19th century (namely selfishness and strength), in the 20th century, the theories of Sigmund Freud were used to promote habits of consumption to suit the needs of consumer capitalism. Freudian theories were adopted by the Public Relations industry to address and maximise the irrational drives for consumption that were thought to exist within human beings. The objective was to sustain capitalism through the creation of a mass of consumers with consuming appetites that could always be satisfied. Again, is this rational? What conception of the world and of human beings is offered by this ideology of mass consumerism? What is the purpose of human beings in life under this ideology?

Luther, Calvin, Newton, Darwin, Freud – whether these religious thinkers, philosophers and scientists genuinely believed in a more emancipatory conception of humanity is difficult to know; they were all part of the socio-cultural landscape in which they were educated and lived. However, in the case of Luther and Calvin, their idea of both human beings and society was filled with fear of an almighty God in front of which humans could only show their humbleness and insignificance as their human nature was, a priori, corrupted. Fear of the world, fear of fellow human beings, fear of death and thus, fear of life; certainly this is a recipe for a society dominated by anguish, repression and isolation, a society where citizens become instruments in the machinery of larger ideologies and economic systems. As in the 16th century, the American dream throws human beings into the void of a world devoid of meaning except for the sterile ideal of mass consumption and unquestioning acceptance of the economic system they are part of. From this perspective, the American dream seems the perpetuation of a Calvinist mentality that seeks in compulsive work and action evasion from the uncertainty and anguish of a threatening and hostile society, just like mass consumption helps us avoid thinking about death.

From an ecological perspective, the American dream must confront the sheer fact of finitude. The “dream” of living in a country (in this case the US though it could be any) of bountiful and infinite natural resources seems nowadays at least suicidal. According to the Energy Bulletin of the Post Carbon Institute, oil, natural gas, fresh water and top soil will start to decline in a few years and it does not take a rocket scientist to observe the increase in temperature of our planet Earth. It is terribly ironic to see how the American way of life has been exported (by force) to other countries and constitutes, at present, the hegemonic economic system in Western societies. And precisely at a time when we need to think differently, to reconsider the way we have been inhabiting the planet, China and the European Union seem to be adopting their particular versions of the American way of life. In a nutshell, at a time when we have the most advanced philosophical and technological resources to create a more humane world, the economic and political elites continue to live in their bubble of abstraction, infinite economic growth, infinite consumption and infinite loneliness and isolation for human beings. At a certain point in its development, capitalism seemed to hold the promise of freedom and democracy, but its economic engine seems to have reached a point in which it will have to absorb and collapse the whole world that, ironically, serves its function.

“It is time for us the people to enact the change now with or without the elites.”

Why do we have to accept this fate if knowledge in the 21st century tells a completely different story of how humans behave and interact with each other and with the world? Why do we have to accept that just when a new and truly enlightening humanism seems to be emerging form the convergence of scientific and humanistic knowledge, political and economic elites seem to be guiding us in the opposite direction? Human beings do not act out of utter selfishness for no reason. Recent developments in neuroscience tell us that babies display signs of empathy shortly after being born. Human evolution is based on learning and learning is a form of empathy, because in order to learn from others we need to, at least momentarily, situate ourselves in the place of others, feel like moving as they do (4). The fittest will survive, yes, but the fittest may not necessarily be the physically strongest but a member of the species showing particular adaptational traits to a particular and changing environment, so each particular environment will demand particular adaptational qualities.

Of course, it is not my intention to paint an unrealistic and idealised picture of human beings as inherently and merely benign and altruistic, this would not be helpful to understanding human nature except for simply placing the emphasis on the opposite aspect of human nature. But human nature is not a matter of black and white opposites. Human beings are not inherently destructive or loving creatures; rather, both impulses to creation and empathy and to destruction are likely to emerge depending on the conditions of the social-cultural context. In other words, human beings do not inhabit an abstract vacuum like the American dream. On the contrary, human beings inhabit a physical world with which they are in constant interaction. In a society that fosters the values of cooperation, empathy and solidarity, such values will probably manifest themselves in more profusion keeping selfishness at bay, although both cooperation and selfishness might be useful for survival in certain contexts. Similarly, societies governed by the principles of selfishness and individualism will naturally tend to see these features govern the cultural climate. In the same line, as professor Enrico Coen suggests, competition and cooperation are two of the seven recipes for life that make it possible, they go hand in hand: “[c]ompetition leads to cooperative spatial units and these in turn provide the assemblies that drive further competition”.8 There is no reason not to believe that a more profound understanding of human nature can emerge from the recent interdisciplinary contributions in several fields of knowledge, and there is no reason not to think that these developments can provide effective frameworks for the maximisation of human and non-human welfare and the creation of a better world. Will the ruling economic and political elites might be in favour of a change of paradigm that might possibly endanger their privileges? If they don’t then people will because cultural change has always gone hand in hand with human evolution. The so-called civilisation of money and mass consumption in a world of individuals in a no-society (which is the core of the American dream) does not and cannot possibly offer reasonable answers to the socio-cultural and environmental challenges faced not only by Americans but by the entire world in the 21st century. It is time for us the people to enact the change now with or without the elites. If it wants to survive, the new American dream needs to arise again from a new conception of modernity that places humans and nature in the centre of a society ruled by compassion, gentleness and knowledge in the service of nature and man.

(1) Erich Fromm, El Miedo a la Libertad (The Fear of Freedom), Barcelona, Paidos, pages 130-131.

(2) Erich Fromm, El Miedo a la Libertad, 107-115.

(3) Freya Matthews, The Ecological Self, London, Routledge, 1991, p. 24.

(4) 7 Enrico Coen, Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life, Princeton University Press, (to be published on May the 27th 2012). Cited by kind permission of the author.

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One Response to About Irrational Utopias or the American Dream as a Nightmare

  1. Reblogged this on aparachutemind and commented:
    As part of my research for the Observatory on International Stability and Conflict (OISC), this article, published in January 2012, attempts to show a larger picture of the current economic crisis hitting the world today. The economic and social model that financial capitalism is trying to force countries Spain, Greece and Portugal into sinks its roots in the American Dream, the dream of individualism, consumerism and social darwinism as a way of life. In this article, I go to the origin of capitalism in early 16th century to argue its values and worldview are antithetical to justice, equality and are rooted in the outdated paradigm of social darwinism and also, I might add, on the idea that natural resources are infinite. It’s not going to be easy for financial capitalists to bend european societies into wild capitalism simply because Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal share an altogether different idea fo what life is about. For us, life is not a matter of accumulating possessions in life that grant our passage into God’s kingdom. Despite the fact that these countries are not free from the imapct of neoliberal policies, there is still a profound belief in public culture, public space, public life and communal life, with all its advantages and disadvantages. The 21st century requires a social, economic and ecological model that puts human beings and nature at the centre of priorities. Capitalism runs fast in the opposite direction of where a majority of the world’s ppopulation is slowly turning to: am ore sustainable, equal, and fair world order.

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