The American Dream in our society places a large emphasis on hard work and determination, which can then lead to economic and social success. This success can allow individuals to create a home and provide a better future for one’s loved ones. This notion of the American Dream has been promoted ever since the establishment of the United States, creating a sense of meritocracy in our society. However, due to the rise of capitalism and the influence of “bourgeois ideology”, that notion of the “American Dream” has all but deteriorated. Elite capitalists in our society have attempted to capitalize on our society’s obsession with the accumulation of wealth, in which the end result has been a substantial disparity of wealth between the elite few and the rest of society. Karl Marx an influential political economist believed that capitalism and its effects would create a massive class struggle that would eventually lead to large-scale crisis.
Karl Marx would conceptualize this notion of the American dream as a product of “bourgeois ideology”, one that places false hope among the working-class of our society. The American Dream’s current emphasis on home ownership has a direct correlation with the rise of capitalism in our society. Capitalism places an emphasis on borrowing capital in order to amass more capital; this emphasis however has created an influx of debt to increase substantially, allowing individuals to invest their life savings and future income into a home. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie shapes this obsession of accumulating wealth and home ownership, principles that the elite class holds in high regard. The upper class’ values and ideals in a capitalist society tend to become that society’s hegemonic values as well. Since the bourgeoisie own the means of production, their best interests are always prioritized. Therefore capitalists (bourgeoisie) make decisions that will solely benefit them, neglecting the well being of others.
Amassing capital has become a value of large significance in our present society. This obsession with the accumulation of wealth has created a shift in our American Dream. It was once truly based on creating better opportunities for one’s family and creating a better future. Unfortunately this has completely changed to one of owning property, and amassing as much capital as possible. This has allowed capitalists to try to extract as much surplus value from their workers in order to gain as much profit as possible. This extraction of “free labor” as Marx called it has created high levels of exploitation towards the working class. The working class in recent years has not been able to amass wealth due to their poor relationship with the means of production. The Proletariat class has had to deal with stagnant wages while the amount of labor expected from them rises exponentially.
Capitalism and its boom and bust tendencies cannot even promise the working class the small compensation that they receive from such a flawed system. This creates alienation within the working-class according to Marx. These individuals are not able to achieve their “American Dream” mainly because the elite capitalists make large-scale decisions with only their best interests in mind. As a result, the working class becomes alienated with the process of labor, the product they are producing, their natural ability to produce, and most importantly they become alienated with each other. The working class has started to believe according to Marx that they are not able to truly move up the social ladder based on their hard work and achievements. This creates dissension amongst classes and further intensifies the class struggle that Marx believes is a consequence of capitalism.
This dissension and exploitation creates class-consciousness for the working class, in which they notice that their hard work is not accounted for anything since they are not the owners of the means of production. This consciousness is heavily prevalent in today’s society, as various forms of protest throughout the world have been ignited due to the exploitation that many individuals have had to deal with due to the poor decisions that our elite capitalists and leaders have made. This class-consciousness is what ignited the “Occupy” movements throughout the United States and now throughout the world. Individuals around the world are now fed-up with not being able to achieve their own dreams since this disparity of wealth has created worse economic and social conditions for the rest of society. This specialization within individuals has only intensified this class struggle, further developing this division of labor.
Emile Durkheim would reject this notion that the division of labor has ruined the “American Dream”. Durkheim sees the division of labor as a means of organic solidarity in our society, allowing individuals to specialize in acts of labor according to their skill set. Durkheim would believe that the “American Dream” is very much alive, but that debt has become criminalized in our society. Too much emphasis is being put on the influx of debt, and not much is being used on how organic solidarity can perhaps allow us to help each other and relieve one another from such dire conditions. Credit according to Durkheim would be something sacred, as it can allow individuals to amass more wealth. This wealth can allow the business cycle to continue, further injecting the money supply and creating a positive chain of economic events. Durkheim would not agree with Marx in that the American Dream is just an injection of “Bourgeoisie ideology”. The American Dream is something sacred that can be achieved through collective means. Owning a home creates social solidarity amongst individuals according to Durkheim, allowing individuals to have a common objective.
Max Weber would disagree with both theorists, as he would blame the deterioration of the “American Dream” on increased emphasis on rationalization. This emphasis on rationalization has made efficiency the most important aspect of amassing wealth. Capitalists are being inclined to making decisions on what is in their best interests, neglecting the values and beliefs of the workers and the citizens of that country. This often creates an iron cage in which decisions are being made to benefit one’s likeliness in succeeding. This rationalization along with the rise of the protestant ethic, has led to this obsession with the accumulation wealth and owning a home in the United States. The Protestant ethic would be Weber’s main reason as to why the “American Dream” is so important, but would not provide answers as to why its likeliness to be achieved is continually fading.
Although each theorist is subjective in their analysis of the “American Dream”, each does provide their own unique perspective in terms of explaining why things occur in society, and what shapes these events. As a scholar, I truly believe that Marx’s ideology fits the deterioration of the “American Dream” better. Marx in his Economic Manuscripts of 1804 and through the words of Stuart Easterling, believed that “capitalism is an economic system that is inherently crisis-prone. It is driven by forces, which cause it to be unstable, anarchic, and self-destructive” (Easterling). Karl Marx’s Economic Manuscripts of 1804 and The Communist Manifesto, give us a foreshadowing of capitalisms flawed nature, and how it can ruin things in society such as individuals hope to achieve an “American Dream”.