The Painful Collapse of Empire: How the ‘American Dream’ and American Exceptionalism Wreck Havoc on the World
We must tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world.
Whether celebrated or condemned, the American Dream endures, though always ambiguously. We are forever describing and defining, analyzing and assessing the concept, and with each attempt to clarify, the idea of an American Dream grows more incoherent yet more entrenched.
The literature of this dream analysis is virtually endless, as writers undertake the task of achieving, saving, chasing, restoring, protecting, confronting, pursuing, reviving, shaping, renewing, and challenging the American Dream. Other writers are busy devouring, recapturing, fulfilling, chasing, liberating, advertising, redesigning, rescuing, spreading, updating, inventing, reevaluating, financing, redefining, remembering, and expanding the American Dream. And let’s not forget those who are deepening, building, debating, burying, destroying, ruining, promoting, tracking, betraying, remaking, living, regulating, undermining, marketing, downsizing, and revitalizing the American Dream.
We are exhorted to awaken from, and face up to, the dream, as we explore the myths behind, crisis of, cracks in, decline of, and quest for the American Dream.
My favorite book title on the subject has to be Andy Kaufman: Wrestling with the American Dream , which explores the comedian’s career “within a broader discussion of the ideology of the American Dream.” According to the book’s publisher, the author “brilliantly decodes Kaufman in a way that makes it possible to grasp his radical agenda beyond avant-garde theories of transgression. As an entertainer, Kaufman submerged his identity beneath a multiplicity of personas, enacting the American belief that the self can and should be endlessly remade for the sake of happiness and success. He did this so rigorously and consistently that he exposed the internal contradictions of America’s ideology of self-invention.”
As we can see, writers are eager to dive deep into the American Dream to find strikingly original insights, bold new interpretations, previously unexplored nuances. I will take a different approach: I want to skate on the surface and state the obvious. It’s a strategy seldom employed, I believe, because such a reckoning with our past leaves us uneasy about the present and terrified of the future. That strategy leaves us in anguish.
I believe that to be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of a broken world. My anguish flows not from the realization that it is getting harder for people to live the American Dream, but from the recognition that the American Dream has made it harder to hold together the living world.
So, our task is to tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world. Only then can we embrace the anguish of the American Dream and confront honestly our moment in history.
The epic dream
James Truslow Adams appears to have been the first to have used the phrase “the American Dream” in print, in his 1931 book The Epic of America . This stockbroker turned historian defined it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone.” But he didn’t reduce the dream to materialism and emphasized U.S. social mobility in contrast with a more rigid European class system:
“It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Adams was, in fact, concerned about the growing materialism of U.S. life, and he wondered about “the ugly scars which have also been left on us by our three centuries of exploitation and conquest of the continent.” He was writing at the beginning of the Great Depression, coming off the go-go years of the 1920s. So, not surprisingly, his list of those problems will sound familiar to us:
“how it was that we came to insist upon business and money-making and material improvement as good in themselves; how they took on the aspects of moral virtues; how we came to consider an unthinking optimism essential; how we refused to look on the seamy and sordid realities of any situation in which we found ourselves; how we regarded criticism as obstructive and dangerous for our new communities; how we came to think manners undemocratic, and a cultivated mind a hindrance to success, a sign of inefficient effeminacy; how size and statistics of material development came to be more important in our eyes than quality and spiritual values; how in the ever-shifting advance of the frontier we came to lose sight of the past in hopes for the future; how we forgot to live, in the struggle to ‘make a living'; how our education tended to become utilitarian or aimless; and how other unfortunate traits only too notable today were developed.”
Yet for all his concerns, Adams believed that the United States could overcome these problems as long as the dream endured, and that led him into the dead end of clichés: “If we are to make the dream come true we must all work together, no longer to build bigger, but to build better.” For Adams, as the book’s title makes clear, the story of America is an epic, and “The epic loses all its glory without the dream.”
But dreams of glory are bound to betray us, and 80 years later the question is whether the story of the United States is an epic or a tragedy. More on that later.
The dream and domination
Adams’ definition of the dream as the belief that “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone” is rather abstract. One historian’s “short history” of the concept highlights the dreams of religious freedom, political independence, racial equality, upward mobility, home ownership, and personal fulfillment that run through U.S. history, but a concept used by so many people for so many different purposes can’t be easily defined. Rather than try to organize the complexity, I want to focus on what has made the American Dream possible. That much is simple: The American Dream is born of, and maintained by, domination.
By this claim, I don’t mean that the American Dream is to dominate (though many who claim to be living the American Dream revel in their ability to dominate), but rather that whatever the specific articulation of the American Dream, it is built on domination. This is the obvious truth on the surface, the reality that most dreamers want to leave out, perhaps because it leads to a painful question: How deeply woven into the fabric of U.S. society is the domination/subordination dynamic on which this country’s wealth and freedom are based?
First, the American part: The United States of America can dream only because of one of the most extensive acts of genocide in recorded human history. When Europeans landed in the region that was eventually to include the United States, there were people here. Population estimates vary, but a conservative estimate is 12 million north of the Rio Grande, perhaps 2 million in what is now Canada and the rest in what is now the continental United States. By the end of the so-called Indian Wars, the 1900 census recorded 237,000 indigenous people in the United States. That’s an extermination rate of 95 to 99 percent. That is to say, the European colonists and their heirs successfully eliminated almost the entire indigenous population — or the “merciless Indian Savages” as they are labeled in the Declaration of Independence, one of the most famous articulations of the American Dream. Almost every Indian died in the course of the European invasion to create the United States so that we may dream our dreams. Millions of people died for the crime of being inconveniently located on land desired by Europeans who believed in their right to dominate.
Second, the dream part: Adams pointed out that while this is always about more than money, the idea of getting one’s share of the American bounty is at the core of the American Dream. That bounty did not, of course, drop out of the sky. It was ripped out of the ground and drawn from the water in a fashion that has left the continent ravaged, a dismemberment of nature that is an unavoidable consequence of a worldview that glorifies domination. “From [Europeans’] first arrival we have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored,” writes the scientist and philosopher Wes Jackson, one of the leading thinkers in the sustainable agriculture movement. As Jackson points out, our economy has always been extractive, even before the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated the assault in the 19 th century and the petrochemical revolution began poisoning the world more intensively in the 20 th . From the start, we mined the forests, soil, and aquifers, just as we eventually mined minerals and fossil fuels, leaving ecosystems ragged and in ruin, perhaps beyond recovery in any human timeframe. All that was done by people who believed in their right to dominate.
This analysis helps us critique the naïve notions of opportunity and bounty in the American Dream. The notion of endless opportunity for all in the American Dream is routinely invoked by those who are unconcerned about the inherent inequality in capitalism or ignore the deeply embedded white supremacy that expresses itself in institutional and unconscious racism, which constrains indigenous, black, and Latino people in the United States. The notion of endless bounty in the American Dream leads people to believe that because such bounty has always been available that it will continue to be available through the alleged magic of technology. In America, the dreamers want to believe that the domination of people to clear the frontier was acceptable, and with the frontier gone, that the evermore intense domination of nature to keep the bounty flowing is acceptable.
Of course the United States is not the only place where greed has combined with fantasies of superiority to produce horrific crimes, nor is the only place where humans have relentlessly degraded ecosystems. But the United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world, and the country that claims for itself a unique place in history, “the city upon a hill” that serves as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be,” in the words of one of Texas’ U.S. senators. The American Dream is put forward as a dream for all the world to adopt, but it clearly can’t be so. Some of the people of the world have had to be sacrificed for the dream, as has the living world. Dreams based on domination are, by definition, limited.
Jackson reminds us how these two forms of domination come together in the United States when he asserts, “We are still more the cultural descendants of Columbus and Coronado than we are of the natives we replaced.” Citing the writer Wendell Berry, he points out “that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we never knew what we were doing because we have never known what we were un doing.”
Dreams based on domination by people over the non-human world are dreams only for the short-term. Dreams based on domination by some people over others are dreams only for the privileged. As Malcolm X put it, “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”
Justice and sustainability
A world based on domination/subordination is a profoundly unjust world and a fundamentally unsustainable world.
The state of our unjust world: A third of the people on the planet live on less than $2 per day, while half live on less than $2.50 a day. That means at least half the people in this world cannot meet basic expenditures for the food, clothing, shelter, health, and education necessary for a minimally decent life. Concern about this is not confined to radical idealists. Consider the judgment of James Wolfensohn near the end of his term as president of the World Bank:
It is time to take a cold, hard look at the future. Our planet is not balanced. Too few control too much, and many have too little to hope for. Too much turmoil, too many wars, too much suffering. The demographics of the future speak to a growing imbalance of people, resources, and the environment. If we act together now, we can change the world for the better. If we do not, we shall leave greater and more intractable problems for our children.
The state of our unsustainable world: Every measure of the health of the continent — groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the surrounding oceans, accelerating extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity — suggests we may be past the point of restoration. This warning comes from 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists:
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.
That statement was issued in 1992, and in the past two decades we have yet to change course.
These days when someone seeks my support for an idea, project, or institution, I ask whether it makes some contribution to the struggle for justice and sustainability. No one idea, project, or institution can solve our problems, of course, and perhaps even no combination can save us. But I am convinced we must ask this question in all aspects of our lives.
I have concluded that the American Dream is inconsistent with social justice and ecological sustainability. So, I’m against the American Dream. I don’t want to rescue, redefine, or renew the American Dream. I want us all to recognize the need to transcend the domination/subordination dynamic at the heart of the American Dream. If we could manage that, the dream would fade — as dreams do — when we awake and come into consciousness.
That’s my principled argument. Now let’s consider two questions about political and rhetorical strategy.
Strategic considerations I: A radical core
A few years ago, sometime around the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, I got a call from a New York Times reporter who was writing a piece about the anti-war movement’s attempt to rally folks around the idea that “peace is patriotic.” I told him I never used that phrase and routinely argued against patriotism — instead of trying to redefine patriotism, I wanted to abandon the concept as intellectually, politically, and morally indefensible. He was intrigued and asked me to explain. Realize, this was the first, and so far the only, time I have been interviewed by a Times reporter, and so even though I know that newspaper to be a tool of the ruling class, I wanted to make a good impression. First, I pointed out that critiques of patriotism have been made by radicals in the past and that there was nothing all that new in what I had to say. After I explained my argument, he said he couldn’t see a hole in the reasoning but that it didn’t really matter. “No one is ever going to accept that,” he said, and so my position — no matter how compelling — didn’t end up in his story.
Perhaps I can take some solace in knowing that he thought my argument was right. But it’s not enough just to be right, of course — we want to be effective. Is an argument irrelevant if it can’t be communicated widely in the mainstream? Is that the fate of an assault on the idea of an American Dream?
It’s certainly true that the American Dream is a deeply rooted part of the ideology of superiority of the dominant culture, and there is evidence all around us that this ideology is more deeply entrenched than ever, perhaps because the decline of American power and wealth is so obvious, and people are scrambling. But that doesn’t automatically mean that we should avoid radical critiques and play to the mainstream. I believe those critiques are more important than ever.
This conclusion stems from an assessment of the political terrain on which we operate today. This is not a mass-movement moment, not a time in which large numbers of Americans are likely to engage in political activity that challenges basic systems of power and wealth. I believe we are in a period in which the most important work is creating the organizations and networks that will be important in the future, when the political conditions change, for better or worse. Whatever is coming, we need sharper analysis, stronger vehicles for action, and more resilient connections among people. In short, this is a cadre-building moment.
Although for some people the phrase “cadre-building” may invoke the worst of the left’s revolutionary dogmatism, I have something different in mind. For me, “cadre” doesn’t mean “vanguard” or “self-appointed bearers of truth.” It signals commitment, but with an openness to rethinking theory and practice. I see this kind of organizing in some groups in Austin, TX, where I live. Not surprisingly, they are groups led by younger people who are drawing on longstanding radical ideas, updating as needed to fit a changing world. These organizers reject the ideology that comforts the culture. The old folks — which I define as anyone my age, 52, and older — who are useful in these endeavors also are willing to leave behind these chauvinistic stories about national greatness.
To openly challenge the American Dream is to signal that we are not afraid to (1) tell the truth and (2) keep working in the face of significant impediments. This kind of challenge speaks to those who are hungry for honest talk about the depth of our problems and are yearning to be part of a community that perseveres without illusions. That isn’t a majority, maybe not yet a significant minority, but those people have the resolve that we will need.
Back to the patriotism critique: Despite the popularity of the “peace is patriotic” bumper stickers, I have continued to offer my argument against the concept of patriotism, and whenever I speak about it in a lecture, people tell me that it was helpful to hear the position articulated in public. Over and over, on this and other issues, I hear people saying that they have had such thoughts but felt isolated and that hearing the critique in public shores up their sense that they are not crazy. Perhaps these kinds of more radical analyses don’t change the course of existing movements, but they help bolster those who are at the core of the more radical movements we need, and they help us identify each other.
Strategic considerations II: Engagement
Although a radical critique of the American Dream isn’t likely to land in the New York Times , we shouldn’t ignore the ways we can use such arguments for outreach to liberal, and even conservative, communities. Once again, an example about patriotism: I have had conversations with conservative Christians, who typically are among the most hyper-patriotic Americans, in which I challenged them to square that patriotism with their Christian faith. Isn’t patriotism a form of idolatry? I can’t claim to have converted large numbers to an anti-empire/anti-capitalist politics. But as the evangelicals say, we sometimes make progress one by one, from within. Framing questions in a way that forces people to see that conventional politics is at odds with their most deeply held moral principles is a potentially effective strategy. It doesn’t always work — we humans are known for our ability to hold contradictory ideas — but it is one resource in the organizers’ toolkit.
So, we might consider critiquing the American Dream by contrasting it with another widely embraced idea, the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity, which says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. That principle shows up in virtually all religious teachings and secular philosophy. In Christianity, Jesus phrased it this way in the Sermon on the Mount:
 So whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
One of the best-known stories about the great Jewish scholar Hillel from the first century BCE concerns a man who challenged him to “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.”
This is echoed in the repeated biblical command, in the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament, to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” [Lev. 19:18] In Islam, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings was, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” In secular Western philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative is a touchstone: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
On the surface, the American Dream of success for all appears to be an articulation of the Golden Rule, of equal opportunity for all. When I suggest that the two ideas are, in fact, in opposition, it gives me a chance to make the case that the Dream is based on domination and, therefore, a violation of that core principle. How can we reconcile our commitment to an ethic of reciprocity while endorsing a vision of society that leads to an unjust and unsustainable world? How can we face the least among us today, and our descendants tomorrow, knowing we turned away from the moral commitments we claim to be most dear to us? A critique of the American Dream can open up that conversation.
Telling the tale: Epic or tragic hero?
The American Dream typically is illustrated with stories of heroes who live the dream. But the larger story of American Dream casts the United States itself as the hero on a global stage. The question we might ask, uncomfortably: Is the United States an epic hero or a tragic one?
Literature scholars argue over the definition of the terms “epic” and “tragedy,” but in common usage an epic celebrates the deeds of a hero who is favored by, and perhaps descended from, the gods. These heroes overcome adversity to do great things in the service of great causes. Epic heroes win.
A tragic hero loses, but typically not because of an external force. The essence of tragedy is what Aristotle called “hamartia,” an error in judgment made because of some character flaw, such as hubris. That excessive pride of the protagonist becomes his downfall. Although some traditions talk about the sin of pride, most of us understand that taking some pride in ourselves is psychologically healthy. The problem is excessive pride, when we elevate ourselves and lose a sense of the equal value of others.
This distinction is crucial in dealing with the American Dream, which people often understand in the context of their own hard work and sacrifice. People justifiably take pride, for example, in having worked to start a small business, making it possible for their children to get a college education, which is one common articulation of the American Dream. I can tell you a story about a grandfather who emigrated from Denmark and worked hard his whole life as a blacksmith and metal worker, about parents who came from modest circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, about my own story of working hard. That story is true, but also true is the story of domination that created the landscape on which my grandfather, my parents, and I have worked. Pride in work turns to hubris when one believes one is special for having worked, as if our work is somehow more ennobling than that of others, as if we worked on a level playing field.
When we fall into hubris individually, the consequences can be disastrous for us and those around us. When we fall into that hubris as a nation — when we ignore the domination on which our dreams are based — the consequences are more dramatic. And when that nation is the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, at a time in history when the high-energy/high-technology society is unraveling the fabric of the living world, the consequences are life-threatening globally.
Not to worry, some say: After all, other empires have come and gone, other species have come and gone, but the world endures. That flippant response glosses over two important considerations. First, empires cause immense suffering as they are built and as they decline. Second, the level of human intervention into the larger world has never been on this scale, so that the collapse of an empire poses new risks. To toss off these questions is to abandon one’s humanity.
To face this honestly, we need to recognize just how inadequate are our existing ideas, projects, and institutions. Quoting the late geographer Dan Luten, Jackson reminds us:
“[Most Europeans] came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. We built our institutions with that perception of reality. Our political institutions, our educational institutions, our economic institutions — all built on that perception of reality. In our time we have become rich people in an increasingly poor land that is filling up, and the institutions don’t hold.”
Developing new institutions is never easy. But it will be easier if we can abandon our epic dreams and start dealing the tragic nature of circumstances.
The end of the epic, for us all
To conclude I want to return to the words of our first American Dreamer, James Truslow Adams: “The epic loses all its glory without the dream.”
Glory is about distinction, about claiming a special place. The American Dream asserts such a place in history for the United States, and from that vantage point U.S. domination seems justified. The future — if there is to be a future — depends on us being able to give up the illusion of being special and abandon the epic story of the United States.
It is tempting to end there, with those of us who critique the domination/subordination dynamic lecturing the American Dreamers about how they must change. But I think we critics have dreams to give up as well. We have our epics of resistance, our heroes who persevere against injustice in our counter-narratives. Our rejection of the idea of the American Dream is absorbed into the Dream itself, no matter how much we object. How do we live in America and not Dream?
In other words, how do we persevere in a nightmare? Can we stay committed to radical politics without much hope for a happy ending? What if we were to succeed in our epic struggle to transcend the American Dream but then find that the American Dream is just one small part of the larger tragedy of the modern human? What if the task is not simply to give up the dream of the United States as special but the dream of the human species as special? And what if the global forces set in motion during the high-energy/high-technology era are beyond the point of no return?
Surrounded by the big majestic buildings and tiny sophisticated electronic gadgets created through human cleverness, it’s easy for us to believe we are smart enough to run a complex world. But cleverness is not wisdom, and the ability to create does not guarantee we can control the destruction we have unleashed. It may be that no matter what the fate of the American Dream, there is no way to rewrite this larger epic, that too much of the tragedy has already been played out.
But here’s the good news: While tragic heroes meet an unhappy fate, a community can learn from the protagonist’s fall. Even tragic heroes can, at the end, celebrate the dignity of the human spirit in their failure. That may be the task of Americans, to recognize that we can’t reverse course in time to prevent our ultimate failure, but that in the time remaining we can recognize our hamartia, name our hubris, and do what we can to undo the damage.
That may be the one chance for the United States to be truly heroic, for us to learn to leave the stage gracefully.
[A version of this essay was delivered at MonkeyWrench Books in Austin, TX, on February 10, 2011. An audio version, on CD or MP3, is available from Alternative Radio . Video of the talk is online at http://vimeo.com .
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book is All My Bones Shake: Radical Politics in the Prophetic Voice (Soft Skull Press). He is also the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press).