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.

What are the alternatives? Do we have to choose between capitalism and the American dream? Our Abrahamic faith traditions help us put things in a different perspective, correcting the most blatant failures while allowing us to appreciate what has been achieved. The good news is that our faith is neither in capitalism nor in the American dream.

While capitalism is failing because it concentrates more and more money and power in the hands of a few, the Jewish roots of our faith remind us that a focus on material well-being is not a bad thing. The common critique of capitalism that it is "too materialistic" hides the fact that the alternative cannot be to give up concern for material things. Our problems will not be resolved by switching from a focus on material things to a focus on spiritual things. Abrahamic faith is deeply concerned about the material well-being of people. The question is, what is our material vision?

The American dream holds a material vision of wealth and power that is attainable to more than just the elites. Although this points in the right direction, faith in the God of Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus broadens this perspective. Here, the power and the wealth of the people is taken so seriously that the "first become the last and the last become the first" (Mt. 20:16). Democracy is no longer a matter of the elites, as it was in Ancient Greece and Rome and some continue to practice it today through campaign financing and voter registration laws; democracy is now a matter of all, including the "least of these" (Mt. 25:40; Rieger and Kwok Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, 2012).

Ultimately, the judgment on whether capitalism has failed or not depends on the value put on the well being of our communities and of the globe. Here, the Abrahamic faith traditions have a contribution to make, as they train our attention to all of humanity and creation. Do we believe that the well being of all matters? And, just as important, do we value the contributions that all of us are able to make to our communities and to the world?