Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Restoring The American Dream: Give me a break.

Posted Jun 12, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, No Comments

Moveon.org has begun a campaign to restore the American Dream as a way of moving citizens to become engaged in progressive politics.  In spite of their good intentions, I think this campaign creates more problems than it solves.

Isn’t the American Dream more about independence than interdependence?  In this dream, the security we all need is achieved by owning one’s self and one’s property.  Instead of promoting common membership in a civic life, the American Dream promotes getting what you want by and for yourself.  In fact, the best sign of having achieved the American Dream is home ownership.

Some of the people who caused the financial crisis clearly used this aspect of the American Dream.  Everyone should own a home.  Rates were lowered, credit ratings were ignored, and standards were erased so banks could get more debt to package as commodities for financial markets.  While homebuyers were realizing the American dream, Fannie May and others were gaming the system for their advantage. Why would someone want to revive a “dream” that can be so easily manipulated as the recent financial crisis indicates?

Furthermore, the American Dream has always ignored the misery of the providers of wealth that make the dream (the ownership of property) a possibility.  In this dream of America, there is no place for the story of slavery in American economic history, or the seizure of land from Native Americans.  There is no place for the exploitation of immigrants from other parts of the Americas or Asia.  It turns American history into a dream of gaining ownership without any awareness of the price others have paid.  Restoring the American Dream, in other words, continues the legacy of splitting off from consciousness the misery of the real providers of wealth and then being optimistic about acquiring it for one’s self.

America was the most “successful” group of British colonies.  Even Adam Smith recognized this.  What he did not point out, however, was that the early success was largely due to slavery.  In 1776, 40 percent of Virginia’s population were slaves.  How could people tolerate this?  The reasons are complex, but at the center of it all is the face that slave owners had bought their slaves.  They were property.  You could own them.  The slave story, in other words, belongs to the story of the ownership of property.

Ownership of slaves, of course, is no longer included in the American Dream, but why try to restore anything that has this legacy?  We need to stop dreaming about an America based on ownership, even if we think that such a campaign has pervasive power today.  We need to tell the truth about our past, and to have a vision of the future that includes everyone instead of a dream that relies on the exploitation of many for the optimism of the few.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit workingethics.com for more information.

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