Saturday, March 6, 2010

Beyond the 'American Dream' by Morris Dickstein

The Great Depression drew unprecedented attention to the once invisible America inhabited by the poor- to the warped lives in all the suffocating ghettos, past and present; to destitute tenant farmers, cultivating depleted soil; to migrant families and itinerant children, and to their ramshackle Hoovervilles, which caricatured the very idea of home and shelter. In The Invisible Scar (1966), Caroline Bird goes so far to insist, with some hyperbole, that "the Depression did not depress the conditions of the poor. It mere publicized them. The poor had been poor all along. It was just that nobody had looked at them."

But the economic collapse that squeezed the poor also seriously damaged the lives of the middle class and even of the rich, who because they had already enjoyed so much of the promise of the American life, had more to lose, including their self-respect. This is somewhat patronizing, for it underestimates how much the members of the working class had to lose; with long-term unemployment, they had no cushion, nothing to fall back on. Theirs was a dilemma of survival, not status, a fear of homelessness and even starvation. Never-the-less, the specter for the middle class was a pervasive "fear of falling", the humiliation of "coming down in the world." The Great Depression challenged the notion that the United States was an essentially middle-class nation, a land of progress and opportunity in which everyone could become middle class. It challenged not only America's economy and political system, but also undermined the central myths and beliefs upon which the system was founded.

In some ways these beliefs were well founded. Through much of American history, some avenues of progress and opportunity were readily available. Despite racial exclusions, nativist prejudices, and sometimes vile working conditions, there was cheap, abundant land as well a industrial work in an expanding economy. The labor could be backbreaking, the working hours appalling, but the social mobility was real.

In theory (and often in practice too), America was born of the secular pluralism of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary ideal of the career open to talents, not simply birth or wealth. "In the United States", intoned one newspaper editorial in 1937,

...every man has worked who had the ambition and opportunity to do so. There has been no class of idle rich. The average industrialist has put in as many hours as the salaried man or wage earner, and he often points with pride to the number of jobs he has been able to afford for others through the efforts of his own thrift, intelligence and industry.

Abraham Lincoln put it well when he said: "There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer. the hired laborer of yesterday labors on his own account today, and will hire others to labor for him tomorrow."

Here is embodied the true American principle of progress. It is in recognition of such a principle that we built the greatest economic empire ever known to man, in a little more than a century and a half.

It's hard to ignore the defensive tone of this editorial. It belongs specifically to the Great Depression, when this optimistic view of mobility and America's economic destiny was under siege as never before. This and many other similar editorials proceeded from naive professions of faith to attacks on those who would preach class consciousness and the "redistribution of wealth through increasingly high taxes", on the Russian model..

The Great Depression challenged key tenets of the American ideology. Longstanding beliefs were called into question, especially the myth of success enshrined in the notion of the American Dream. The thirties was the first period in which the phrase "the American Dream" was commonly used, just when its premise of limitless opportunity and economic abundance seemed suddenly in doubt. There had been many earlier recessions and even depressions but none had lasted so long or cut so deep- and above all, none exerted the immense psychological impact. The Great Depression weakened many Americans' most common assumptions; that reverses in the business cycle were brief and temporary, that jobs would always be available to those willing to work, that businessmen were the oracles and seers of society, that the younger generation would always be able to come up in the world and do better than their parents.

The roots of these convictions have been studied exhaustively by cultural historians. The success myth goes back to the Puritan belief in work as a secular calling and in wealth as an outward manifestation of inner grace. In his widely read Autobiography, and in works like Poor Richard's Almanack, "The Way To Wealth," and "Advice to a Young Tradesman", Benjamin Franklin secularized this notion of calling even further, moving towards the ideal of the self-made man.

But Franklin was was not the sole inventor of the self-made man. Its growth in the nineteenth century, when hundreds of writers, preachers and lecturers expounded the gospel of success, was deeply rooted in American individualism, in popular religion, in highly simplified versions of Emersonian "self-reliance," and, above all, in the realities of a growing capitalist economy. A nation shifting from an agrarian to an industrial economy, from a rural to an urban society- a nation whose class lines were fluid and whose official faith was populist and democratic- provided a material base for an ethic of competitive individualism.

The notion of the self-made man was originally a democratic ideal, a dream of social mobility- and even of Kultur- not simply for a small elite but for the common man. The "poor boy who made good" was a powerful weapon to fight a haughty European air of social and artistic superiority. The Jeffersonian concept of leadership based on an aristocracy of virtues and talents was beaten down by a Jacksonian belief that anyone could rule. This common-man, log-cabin-to-White-House ideal reached its apogee in the career and the subsequent mythology of Abraham Lincoln. It was only after the Civil War that the self-made man became virtually synonymous with the businessman. As the political and cultural aspects of this ideal- the model of the great statesman, the great writer, the great orator- began to diminish, the myth took on a strongly conservative, even philistine coloring; it became a defense of the status quo, a way of blaming the victim, the loser. This was the heyday of Social Darwinism and the influence of Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "the survival of the fittest." In the ruthless, competitive climate of the Gilded Age, the idea of success hardened into a Darwinian formula that condemned the poor as either lazy or inferior...

The dissipation of confidence of American's in their Dream and the rise of fear- reached a climax in the virtual collapse of the economy in the four months between the 1932 election and FDR's inauguration in early March, culminating in the bank crisis, which had been building for two years and today is considered the linchpin of the Depression, even more than the stock market Crash. An apt psychological analogy was made by one observer in the New York Times in 1932. who likened the mood of the time to the depressive phrase of the manic-depressive cycle, marked by hopelessness, panic, listless activity and deep apprehensions about the future or, as Roosevelt put it in his inaugural address: "nameless, unreasonable, unjustified terror."..

As serious writers began to emphasize the limitations and distortions of the American Dream, popular artists became obsessed with fantastic, even magical images of success. In the first category were writers like Clifford Odets, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, James T. Farrell, John Steinbeck and John Dos Passos. Buoying up the popular culture were gangster films and backstage musicals that reinvented rags-to-riches fantasies in terms the Depression audiences loved and needed.

Meanwhile, many New Dealers and radical intellectuals were trying to redefine American individualism in communitarian terms that played down individual effort and competitive achievement. They insisted on a new ideal of mutual welfare just when the New Deal was priming the capitalist pump and creating federally funded make-work jobs to restore individual self-worth.

At the heart of the New Deal was a tension between individualism and community, between private initiative and public planning. Out of this conflict capitalism was saved, in the modified form of the welfare state; the success ethic survived, but the federal government began to take a more active role in most American's lives. A new ethos took hold, not to be seriously challenged until the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan set out to convince Americans that greed was good, wealth was no embarrassment, and government itself was the problem.


  1. Source for the posting:"Beyond The American Dream", intro. to Chapter Seven, "Dancing in The Dark; A Cultural History of The Great Depression" by Morris Dickstein W.W. Norton, 2009

    The comment is mine.

  2. Today, some economists maintain that the banking crisis that began in 2007-8 has not been contained. The bulk of their "toxic assets" in home mortgage finance remain on the books, further de-valuations in the commercial real estate sector loom on the horizon, little has been done to correct or regulate damaging speculative practices in investment banking and the capacity of the Federal government to ameliorate widespread deterioration of the economic prospects for as much as half the American people has been severely damaged both by the bail-out and the continuing burden of our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. As in the 1930s, politicians and the media tend to regard the root of the current problems as being one of "confidence" and seem to underestimate the depth and persistence of the crisis, the travails of the poor remaining largely invisible. The middle class clings to the age-old tenets of 'The American Dream" as rejuvenated under the administration of Ronald Reagan.

    Global competition from states with much more carefully constructed social welfare systems- primarily in the field of Health Care- practical and political obstacles to long term expansion of growth in the GDP, trade deficits and other structural difficulties in the American economy mitigate against the a lineal reconstruction of the kind of recovery of 'capital enterprise' that pulled America out of the Great Depression in the 40s and 50s.