No version of an American dream was ever a reality for marginalized Americans. Ava DeSantis writes why the decline of the fictional American dream might give way to a real, socialist one.
Young people lucky enough to attend high school and college with relatively little financial hardship for them or their families often never experience the dismantling of the fictional ‘American dream,’ often experienced at a young age for members of marginalized communities.
Millennials, however, will be the first generation not to exceed the wealth or job status of their parents. They have lower homeownership rates than previous generations, especially Black and Latino Millennials.
David Grusky, a sociology professor at Stanford, argued that the end of generational improvement in living standards is a failure of the American dream. “A big part of the American dream is that each generation will do better than the one that preceded it. That has been part of what’s supposed to make this country special and distinctive. When it’s just a coin flip, we’re not living up to that commitment. It’s a pretty fundamental part of what we say this country can deliver, and we’re not.”
I disagree. This is not the death of the ‘American dream,’ which under capitalism promises Americans they will move up within the existing socio-economic hierarchy, this is an opportunity to create a non-fiction American dream. Socialism, an idea of recent interest to many young Americans, is a system of political economy under which the workers would control the means of production, as opposed to selling their labor to a capitalist class. To embrace socialism in America would allow all citizens to prosper without relying on the oppression of other citizens, and would bypass the major negative externalities of the profit motive–most importantly, climate change.
To clarify: socialism has many different meanings to many different leftists. Since Das Kapital was published in 1867, the left has debated which form of socialism or communism is preferable. Many conservatives critique proponents of socialism by citing examples like Venezuela, Maoist China, or the Soviet Union, saying these failures are evidence that socialism can only lead to “little or no economic growth, hunger, authoritarian government,” and “people risking their lives to flee.” In these cases, they confuse state capitalism with democratic socialism. State capitalism is an economic system under which private capitalism is modified by an increased amount of state ownership and control of resources. Simply put, under state capitalism the state owns the means of production. Under socialism, the workers own the means of production. It is true that state-capitalism can lead to tyrannical ends, like private, free capitalism because a small number of powerful individuals control the majority of resources and wealth in the nation. It is exactly this power dynamic that socialism overthrows.
On social mobility and freedom from oppression
For working-class people, the economic success story of ‘rags to riches’ or ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ was always false. 70% of Americans born into poor families will never make it to the middle class. Less than 10% of people born poor will ever make it into the top economic quantile. Even for middle-class Americans, with more access to basic necessities and adequate schooling, upward mobility is still unlikely. Only 20% of the middle-class economic quantile will make it into the top quantile. This is not a new phenomenon, as Harvard economist Raj Chetty explains “social mobility is low and has been for at least thirty or forty years.” Real mobility for most Americans can never be a reality under capitalism because the wealthy are invested financially in the oppression of working people. So, it’s no surprise that cases of mobility are individual incidents of working-class people hitting the jackpot, with an idea, a successful career, or the literal jackpot.
At least, for the working-class white family, a less ambitious version of the American dream might mean freedom from direct government oppression, like obscene restrictions on bodily autonomy or freedom of speech, or uncalled-for violence. For Americans of color, even this marginal freedom was always a myth.
As Black Lives Matter activists repeated for years, Black men in America are 3.5 times more likely than whites to die at the hands of law enforcement, statistically, 1 in every 1,000 black men will die due to police force. Black Americans are not free from direct and violent state oppression.
A shift in public opinion
49.5% of Gen Z and Millennial Americans say they would prefer to live in a socialist country, as opposed to a capitalist one. 73.2% believe the government should provide universal health care, and 67.1% believe the government should provide tuition-free college.
The negative association with the word ‘socialism,’ which American education and political forces upon young people, is beginning to fail as well. According to a 2019 Harris Poll, 61% of 18 to 24-year-old Americans have a positive association with the word socialism. Of these same respondents, only 58% said they had a positive association with the word ‘capitalism.’ 39% of the general population support socialism, making Gen Z and Millennials a notable change in attitude towards social democracy and socially democratic policies. This shift in public opinion demonstrates the real possibility of a new American dream, soon we will be the biggest voting bloc in the country.
Climate change: the last straw
An Amnesty International survey of 18 to 24-year-olds asked respondents to identify the most important issue from a list, 41% said climate change. The majority of our generation will not be 30 by the time the global temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius. That is a figure which scientists estimate is the highest increase in temperature which might not cause ecosystem collapse but will cause severe ocean acidification, mass desertification, and all coastal cities becoming flooded and uninhabitable. Only 100 profit-seeking, corporate or state-owned entities, are responsible for 71% of the devastation we begin to face. There is an “absolute tension” between short-term profitability, which capitalism encourages us to seek, and the need to reduce emissions. Fossil fuel companies choose profit over the common good every time. This reality is exemplified in the combined 2 trillion dollars these companies have invested in coal, oil, and gas projects which would be worthless if serious international action were taken to combat climate change.
Why are fossil fuel companies so confident their investments will be profitable? Capitalism stunts government action. As Phil McDuff wrote for the Guardian, “This is reality v the vested interests of capital. Any meaningful policy has to upset the established power base and the political donor class.” In other words, as long as the political class has an interest in fossil fuels, and receives donations, and support from others who are similarly invested in the success of this industry, the crisis will continue.
The end of predictable upward mobility for the abstract ‘middle-class’ American encourages young people to seek answers beyond capitalism in a system appealing only to those who currently own or are soon to own capital, not to those who remain, workers, all their lives. The climate crisis, by contrast, demands that young people abandon capitalism.
The American dream, for most, was a fiction. Now, many of those who may profit from the system see this future disappear. Maybe, this is the basis for the formation of a real, social-democratic American dream.