Democracy, Liberty, Philosophy, Politics

The Quiet Tyranny of High Expectations: Thoughts on the American Dream

If you work hard and you are not lazy and you really believe in the American Dream, then you too can have everything you ever need. Preferably you will be a business owner and “job creator” and not a worker drone who is a leech on society. We must be a society of owners and managers and bosses. Everyone can be a millionaire, and if you end your life below market expectations then you have no one to blame for this except for yourself and your lack of drive and hard work.

Or so we have been told for over 100 years in this country.

Before there was a cohesive labor movement in this nation there was just labor: often for your own family or for a small mill or a farm owned by your landlord. Life was hard and often work was harder, and the rewards were unfairly apportioned. But, you worked and nothing more was expected of you by your kin and your fellow workers. Surviving was thriving, and most people hung onto the very edge of both. The rich were the rich by virtue of birth or by force, and they had an almost deity like influence on the lives of the poor workers who never really knew their presence as fellow human beings. There was no tease, no promise of “this can be you if only”…There was work and there was death. The former led to the later while at the same time holding it off for as long as it could. If there was a dream it was not an “American” one…it was a workers dream, a dream of surviving to enjoy some of the fruits of your labor. Not much was excepted of the working and poor classes, so when they were able to have relatively happy lives it was seen by the community and the society as a bonus, and as an example of how luck can play as much of a role has skill and hard work in making a “successful” life. And this was only if you were not born a chattel slave!

Things began to change with the shift from overtly slaved based feudal proto-capitalism to the modern industrial verity. People no longer had the ability to take care of themselves the way the once did; populations were growing and the strain on each and every family was getting greater and more unbearable. There were other pressures as well: pressures from a newly emerging consumer market that began to suggest, quietly at first but with increasing urgency and rhetorical violence that your life was not worth living as it was. Capitalism promised a better life, a life more full of possessions and promises of yet more lavish and expensive possessions later on. There were new things to eat, new things to wear, new pieces of ephemera with which you could adorn your simple and oh so pathetically inadequate life. So it was time to leave the confines of subsistence and sustainable expectations, as meager and as unfair as they were, in order to pursue a new life in the bosom of industrial capitalism.

There we find the sons and daughters of slaves and farmers, men and women used to the smell of manure and the aroma of backed bread and wild flowers. They are now stuck toiling, choking on the industrial effluvia that passes for air in the factories and steel mills and slaughter houses and breweries. The worked far beyond their natural capacity; they shortened their lives, ruined their health, and filled their days with mind numbing repetitive action. They also rarely saw their families anymore. Of course industrialization led to amazing advancements in culture, technology and even medicine, but for the poor and the working classes you caused these things to come into existence they might as well have been the peacocks and gold plates of the old Liege Lord’s table: entirely unattainable. There is a special kind of cruelty in being forced to manufacture and ship objects, products, foodstuffs and tools that you cannot ever possibly afford. That cruelty though was beginning to be offset by a new incentive, a capitalist incentive. It was no longer appropriate to outright enslave people as chattel. That was far to uncivilized a system. Something was needed that was far more palatable to the blasé bourgeoisie Christian guilt that was now in fashion. Something like a pious servitude, a system that could bring in hordes of men, women and children who would gladly sacrifice themselves for some greater reward to come. Something like a dream.

You toil, you fall ill, you are treated like a piece of the machinery you work with, but hidden within you is an upper class gentleman or gentlewoman! Why subsist when you can indulge and grow in wealth and status forever! That nice rented home you have? It is a token of the lowly failure that is your life. Don’t you want your children to be better? And their children? And theirs? The American dream of perpetual advancement seemed to be a material Fibonacci sequence that was self-sustaining and self-justifying. Why do you need these new things? Why do you need to own a house you cannot possibly fill? Why do you need to own a car that only serves to get you where the capitalists want you to shop? Why do you need products to make you more appealing? Because you must show off your wealth and status and shame your neighbors and their failure. Because those things that you are told you want to buy the rich already have and look how happy and moral they are! Because your lower class stink is overwhelming and the grim of the factory and the farm still colors you as a lesser being.

Work! The dream becomes even more appealing, and even more unattainable. The promise of the next generation being better off than the last, as impossible and unnatural as that promise was, became the motto of the working classes: work and you will become better than who you are! For if working towards more material and capital success makes you a better person, then being poor is of course a lesser sort of existence for a lesser sort of humanity. How to explain away the nasty little fact that out of millions who work themselves to the bone only a relative handful ever achieve anything remotely approaching comfort, let alone the relative affluence of the American Dream? Well that is where the mentality of the old order, the feudal order, comes in handy. Some are lazy and meant to be poor, some fail themselves and their communities by daring to fall on hard times. If an American fails at his chosen (or chosen for him) profession then there must be something wrong with that American, or with his work ethic. And what is a work ethic but red badge of conformity and fealty to a mode of production and acquisition that creates the potential for infinite growth? The value of hard work is no longer just valued for its ability to keep a family and a community alive and possibly comfortable. No, that is not enough in the new world where everything MUST have a marketable value: Working hard means that you are given your all to the masters of industry, to the people who bless the lesser elements of humanity with the left-overs from the great feast that is made from the fruit of their indomitable genius. For surely no man who is rich can be rich without a reason? No man is rich who does not deserve it, and not man is poor without his deserving that state as well. Wealth is self-justifying, and above reproach. The American dream is a creed, and the “successful” (by standards created by and for the successful) are the prophets and the priests of that holy edifice that is the American Free market.

So they found themselves slaves again, only this time it was a more spiritual and emotional kind of slavery, and many, many more people found themselves in chains. Fortunately for the fragile and hypocritical values of “society” this slavery was an acceptable sort; they type of servitude where the slave can be blamed for his own condition because he chose to become a part of that system of his own free will. You cannot be a slave if you choose your own chains! And the trappings of wage labor…Well salaries can be cut or “negotiated” down with the token Unions we allow them. The hours can be cut because we will just invent new modes of working that force more activity and seeming productivity into every second. And if all else fails we can just blame the government for coddling and spoiling those brats of the working class. When your worth is work it follows that when you are not working, even if it is not of your own choice, you have no worth. The Dream must be preserved, and it is the new standard of what it is to even be a worthwhile human being. Everyone can be a success…if by everyone you mean everyone who is a success. It is easy to round out the math when you drop the lowest common denominators: everyone who was not lucky enough to be born into wealth or lucky enough to come upon it through the random turn of events that define life.

But, if any man can “luck” upon wealth, then that means there is nothing morally superior about the American Dream. That cannot do…The workers will not toil for an ethos that has no eternal and intrinsic value to it. So therefor there must be no luck…Luck is just another word for success, another word for hard work. Luck is just another merit in the mind of the worker to be anything but a worker: abandon all hope all those who do not succeed. And what is success? If you have to ask you are already a drain on the system. The value of capitalism and the market is in that intangible feeling that you are getting away with something. If the bar is set high enough only those born in mid jump have a real chance. Or else they must happen upon a benefactor who cares enough to give them a boost. This is a tyranny of high expectations, a system based on the idea that if you do not succeed you were never meant to succeed in the first place. The American Dream is just that; and it is not even a dream of the working or poor classes.

It is a reverie made up out of whole cloth by those who have wealth and wish to acquire more by leveraging the work and sweat of others into gold they can wear about their necks and on their little fingers. And the most insidious thing is this: the rich and the powerful do not even need to expend the energy bringing this message to the lower classes: every poor mother sings the lullaby of great expectations to their children as the drift off to sleep. Every working man works for a future that could be his if only if he toils just one minute more. There is no need for a lash or a bludgeon if you have a dream that seems real but is not. The mind of a man is the cruelest tool of the oppressor  because that very mind can persuade itself that they too can be better than who they are. And better still if they can work themselves into the graves for the future of their children! Children are the future, and the future always seems to offer more potential, at least in the minds of the men and women who live stuck and toiling in the present.

For that is the most insidious part of the American Dream…It is infectious and thrives on the hopes and dreams of the naïve and the innocent. In the eyes of a child his parents can do no wrong, they cannot be working for nothing because…well because then there is no reason for them to leave them the way they do. There must be a dream! There must be dream that justifies the sacrifice of the family and the community upon the alter of progress and the market. It cannot just be for a rare shot at riches…There must be a pot of gold to find! And indeed the act of working hard and leaving the family must be a virtue. Or else…What is the point? And that is a possibility that the rich and the powerful cannot allow to be ruminated upon: what if there is no point to hard work? What if the riches of the world are apportioned largely at birth and after that mostly at the fickle whim of luck? What if it is not better to work hard for someone else? What if it is indeed ok to settle for “less”, if that less means that you are happy and able to know the family and community we are told to value? What if success is just a word, just a dream unto itself, a concept that has no objective meaning and no inherent value? What if we do not need all that we are told we need?

But that is just a lie, the sentiment of losers and failures and freeloaders who do not want to be part of the most perfect system the world has ever known: The Market! So strive you workers! Toil and slave and sacrifice for the good of the company and the shareholders! It is in their hands that your fate resides, in their hands and yours…If you continue to work them raw.

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3 thoughts on “The Quiet Tyranny of High Expectations: Thoughts on the American Dream

  1. Great essay. It is much easier to enslave people who mistakenly believe they are free. Our modern values system is out of whack. I’m not even “religious” in the traditional sense, but we Americans would do well to remember 2 wise sentiments from the Bible (and the teachings of people like Buddha, Gandhi, etc.).
    “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
    But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
    For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
    and
    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

    • nme16 says:

      It is always easy to forget that our founders were informed, as Enlightenment Era Philosophers, by many of the world’s philosophies and religions and thinkers, atheist, theist and otherwise. Thank you for reading and for commenting. I am going to take a look at your blog as well 🙂

  2. Pingback: Politics of Abnegation | Hieronymus Bosch | The Nahmias Cipher Report

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