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Why The American Dream Never Was
The first great period of American development (and progress) came during chattel slavery.
From the time children are born in America there is this narrative about the “American Dream” and “American Exceptionalism.” Drilled into the minds of impressionable youths in classroom civics courses, this drumbeat of how the system of capitalism is a socio-economic phenomenon and miracle that “lifts all boats,” - if you work hard, play by the rules, and apply yourself. But I contend that this is a hollow myth, a created social hologram fix that is tinkered, embellished, and re-crafted over time to hoodwink and bamboozle (I’m borrowing from Malcolm X here) people into thinking that somehow Americans are born better, blessed by God, and are unique among mortal homo sapiens.
In these series of articles, I want to submit a different viewpoint. I want set the premise by saying that there was no “American Dream” and the facts that I’ll present here point to a system that is predicated on exploitation, never adapted to changes in the society, that has left the American economy, and thus the society and nation, lurching from crisis to crisis. The system is also characterized by economic boom and bust, an endless cycle that now entrenches unparalleled inequalities, national disenfranchisement, and endemic and systemic poverty, across all classes and groups in America today.
For the purposes of this series of articles, I’ll divide America’s progress and development over 200 years into three distinct periods. These periods were highlighted by economic institutions and systems that drove social and political developments and cultural norms and behavior. The first great period of American development (and progress) came during chattel slavery [See definition below] that was characterized by the forced and compelled appropriation of the labor of enslaved Black African slaves – the legal property of white Americans. Slavery was an economic system that helped drive ALL aspects of American life. But the most enduring fact of American chattel slavery was that the economic, social, political and cultural gains of the society were realized at the expense of sustained, ruthless, and unrelenting exploitation of a helpless group of humans at the hands of white Americans. This system was legendary for its record of immoral and unjust human suffering that it encouraged, sustained, legalized and spawned.
And when slavery became economically untenable, the underlying reason for its abandonment as the driver of the American economy, American politicians and staunch advocates that supported owning “human property,” developed a new system of slavery called segregation. This is the second system of American socio-economic historical development. I will deal with that in another article in the series. Suffice to say here that segregation was little different from chattel slavery in that it was quite literally “segregation with slavery benefits.” This period was characterized by state-sponsored terrorism and brutality meted out to these “former slaves” by “white is might and right” organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The result was that segregation created a large army of unskilled, unemployed (and in some cased unemployable) labor that was easily exploited, while at the same time dealing out unbelievable repression as a by-product.
It was these two previous systems, driven by and built on the exploitation of unpaid slave labor and brutality that set the stage for the third period of American progress that we’re in right now. The problem is that an economy that was built on racism, repression, discrimination, and brutality found it very difficult to adjust once slave labor was not a factor. In fact, the American economy jumped from slavery to segregation and finally to STAGNATION. Officially, American segregation ended in 1964. Between 1964 and 1971, when wages for workers tanked, the social and economic upheavals were undergirded by a political leadership unable to stem the drastic rise in unemployment, social friction, discontent, and an economy going from one crisis to another.
So if you can point to the so-called “Golden Era” of American life and when, pray, did this thing called the American Dream ever was a reality, I sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. But Americans are told about this in civic classes, history books, and just about every politician wrapped in the flag and reeking pseudo-patriotism. America skipped feudalism; the country went from slavery to segregation to stagnation. There was nothing in between. This exposes and highlights the fact American progress, ALL of its progress, depended (and still depends) on the total exploitation of entire groups, discriminated and oppressed, to produce goods and services for the benefits of “the others” – whites in the society.
But that’s ultimately unsustainable. What a prudent, forward thinking leadership should have done was to move expeditiously to reform and revolutionize the economy and society in a more humane, just and fair manner. What did the American political class do? Unable to appropriate the labor of white people for free and not tap into the large army of former slave labor by coercion (as in Jim Crow days), also given that the level of skills in this labor force was at low levels, (it was a crime to educates slaves), America first wooed immigrants from Europe (the Irish, Polish etc.) to fill out its growing labor force. But even though they were also exploited, there were opportunities available to these immigrant laborers that were not there for Blacks. And they too soon faced the kinds of discrimination and racism that Blacks endured during segregation.
Old habits die hard. These social, economic, cultural and production relations have changed very little since the first African slave was brought to America in chains. Today, America has a broken economy that is controlled by the uber-rich and not working for the average Joe. Wealth disparity and the yawning income gap is the greatest in a generation. College tuition is beyond the reach of millions of families and over 47 million Americans live in poverty. Thousands will die for want of proper healthcare as medicines and life-saving drugs are way, way beyond the reach of most Americans.
No, there was no “Golden Age” or American Dream. Its a myth perpetuated by the ruling class to keep “we the people” in check.
[Chattel slavery is what most people have in mind when they think of the kind of slavery that existed in the United States before the Civil War, and that existed legally throughout many parts of the world as far back as recorded history. Slaves were actual property who could be bought, sold, traded or inherited.]