Who amongst us, here in America, was not fed the American Dream with our mother’s milk? “Work hard, young man, and you’ll get ahead.” “You can do anything if you set your mind to it.” “Succeed in school and you’ll succeed in life.” “There’s a piece of the pie waiting for you. You just have to reach out and take it.” “Slow and steady wins the race.”
In a word, bullshit.
The more I think about this, the more outraged I become. America isn’t a meritocracy. Most of us are not going to get out of this country as much as we put in. Even though we hate to really see it, this is a very highly class-structured society. It’s very hard to break out of your class and claw your way into the next one. When it happens, it’s the exception, not the rule.
Yes, we love to hear those rags-to-riches stories. We’re highly susceptible to Ponzi schemes and get rich quick scenarios because, hey, this is America, and we’re all supposed to get rich quick! How come I’m not walking on one of those gold-paved streets everyone promises us are just around the corner? Perhaps because I’m too busy trying to avoid the potholes, here.
I’ve been working since I was 10 years old. I graduated at the top of my class every single time. Using the American Dream yardstick, I ought to be a gajillionaire. But no. I’ve only managed to poke my head into the middle class in my early 50’s, and even now, I’m one major medical catastrophe away from bankruptcy, as are most of us.
My mother assumed I’d be the CEO of a fortune 500 company by the time I was 25. She totally overlooked the fact that I would have been miserable in that atmosphere, and I would have felt like an imposter for my whole life. Yes, I wound up doing much better than she ever had, but when you set the bar that low, it’s not that hard to jump over. She worked hard all her life, and she passed her work ethic on to her children. She was also desperately poor all her life.
Much of my success, I’m sorry to admit, has had to do with dumb luck. Being born white. Choosing a partner with similar goals and aspirations who understands the value of teamwork. Being in the right place at the right time. Moving from a right to work state to a union state. Having a loved one who was willing to loan me money at critical points in my life. Being able-bodied and intelligent.
Capitalism, as a system, is not designed to benefit the vast majority of us. In order for it to work, most of us have to be content to be cogs in a giant wheel that then rolls over the top of us with annoying frequency. There has to be a lower class. There are roadblocks in place to make sure you stay in it. Substandard schools, crippling student loans, expensive health care that keeps you just sick enough to be compliant, glass ceilings, unequal pay, good ol’ boys clubs, and only being able to get ahead based on who you know are all part of the bigger picture. There have to be a certain number of people desperate enough to do the dirty jobs. It never pays to examine too closely what it takes to make this economic sausage of ours. Not if you want to maintain any sense of contentment.
And because we all buy in to the American Dream, most of us, whether we realize it or not, walk around feeling like a failure. If the American Dream really works, the theory goes, then I must have done something wrong to not be a part of it. I didn’t study hard enough. I didn’t please my boss enough to get that promotion. I picked the wrong major in college. I didn’t put in enough hours. I didn’t socialize with the right people. I’m not pretty enough, thin enough, tall enough, white enough, male enough, strong enough. I shouldn’t have had children so soon. I should have saved more money. I didn’t buy the right stock. I don’t properly manage my time.
We are all so busy pursuing the almighty dollar that many of us harbor deep resentment and frustration because we don’t feel that we have meaningful jobs. We’re making widgets on an assembly line so that other widget makers can buy those widgets. Job satisfaction is at an all-time low.
There are ways that we can get off this treadmill of ours. First of all, we need to stop this love affair we seem to have with Capitalism. It has gotten us nowhere. Next, we need to stop voting for politicians that simply exist to prop up the 1 percent. We also need to stop teaching our children that money will buy them happiness, and that the only measure of their worth is the size of their bank accounts.
We also need to prioritize activism over complacency, critical thinking over passivity, collectivism over isolation, unity over division, strength in numbers over every man for himself. We need to start demanding a better world instead of hoping for the best. We need to hold people and corporations accountable rather than assuming they have our best interests at heart. It’s not about me (or you for that matter), it’s about us. We need to stop being divided and conquered.
More than anything, though, we need to dismantle this myth of meritocracy. It pits us against one another. It requires that most of us lose so that some can win. It’s a soul-sucking fantasy.