Dreaming Beyond the American Dream
Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Capitalism. Read other perspectives here.
"The American dream is dead and capitalism helped bury it." At first sight, this statement may sound counterintuitive, as capitalism is usually credited for the American dream. The truth is, however, that for more and more people the American dream is out of reach. Social mobility in the United States is worse than in many other countries, including England, a place not known for opportunities to move up the ladder of success. Everybody knows that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Even in the United States, over 20 percent of all children are food insecure, which means they do not have enough to eat.
Defenders of capitalism point out that never before in history have so many people owned so much stuff: more people have color television sets and refrigerators than ever before. This argument, while not incorrect, overlooks several problems. First, hunger remains real, and each day more than 20,000 children die worldwide from preventable causes. The death toll of global capitalism is significant. Add to that increasing ecological destruction and global warming. The tremendous damage done by capitalism can no longer be denied.
The biggest problem with capitalism, however, is not how much stuff people have but how much power. Power is part of the American dream. At the beginning of this dream is a Constitution that promotes the power of the people, subsequently broadened to include men who do not own land, women, and racial minorities. The dream is that people would have the ability to participate in what is important to them and their communities, and that people would have the agency to make positive contributions to the world. Moreover, the dream is that people would have the ability to engage in productive labor according to their gifts and talents and to live with dignity. It is the power of the people, an essential part of the American dream, that has taken the greatest hit as capitalism progressed.
In politics, recent changes in campaign financing allow not only the wealthiest of corporations but also the wealthiest individuals to use more of their wealth to expand their power over others and to push their agendas. In economics, increasing deregulation allows big businesses not only to control their workers and to reduce benefits but also to dominate and to destroy smaller corporations and businesses. Add to that the intentional destruction of labor unions, which empower workers, and the destruction of public organizations like independent school districts, which empower communities. As the power of the people is systematically diminished, the American dream has kicked the bucket.
While the American dream is dead, capitalism appears to be alive and well. Everyone knows that capitalist economies go in cycles, and after the so-called Great Recession of the years after 2007 we have seen another upswing. The truth about this upswing, also known as the jobless recovery, is that, while the economy goes in cycles, fewer and fewer people benefit (Rieger, No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future,2009). Many are concerned that such a system is not sustainable long-term, but even if were, it is increasingly proving disastrous for the majority of the world's population as well as for the climate of a planet that is heating up more than anyone imagined.
Dr. Joerg Rieger is Wendland-Cook Professor of Constructive Theology at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. His work addresses the relation of theology to public life, including reflecting on the misuse of power in politics and economics and the alternative powers that emerge from the bottom up. His books include No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009) and Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements After Long Silence (2013). Rieger serves on the steering committee of the Dallas Area Christian Progressive Alliance and on the steering committee of Jobs with Justice in North Texas. He is co-founder of the Workers' Rights Board in the Dallas area.