The Land of Utopian Denial


Steve Fraser

Every American politician, including, emphatically, Donald Trump, swears fealty to the “American Dream.” Whether Democrat or Republican, don’t bother running for office unless you take that oath. It may seem exquisitely preposterous coming out of the mouth of “The Donald.” After all, he’s the billionaire’s billionaire (taking for granted he is really a billionaire, which is more than a bit dubious). That for him the business of America is big business is hardly in doubt. Yet the three presidents that preceded him – Clinton, Bush, and Obama – presided over a country that grew ever more unequal in its distribution of wealth and income, during a span of decades that earned the sobriquet of America’s “second Gilded Age.” Nonetheless, all purported to be loyal defenders of the “American Dream.”

The late comedian George Carlin once cracked that, “They call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.” That siesta has lasted a very long time; if we back-date it to the earliest era of colonial settlement in the New World we are really talking about four centuries. That astonishing record of longevity is hard evidence that this dream-state is inherent to the central nervous system of the nation.

Trump’s braggadocio derives some of its force by invoking a belligerent version of “the dream.” Muscling up to make “America Great Again” is his way of invoking a time when, allegedly, those millions who now, with good reason, feel left out and left behind were once the heart and soul of the American homeland, the core of a middle class so vast it left no room for other classes. However much at odds with Trump’s actions (tax reform for the rich, for example, or all the executive orders deregulating business and finance), however much the day to day nepotism, favor-trading, and kleptomania of his administration may seem to belie its populist heavy-breathing, the dream of a land where no man is another’s master still gains traction.

Reality Bites

How can that be? We know it’s a lie. Everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class. Who lives longest and who dies soonest, who goes to jail and who is free, who is healthy and who sickly, who learns and who lives in ignorance, who gets bailed out and who goes under, who pursues happiness and who goes off to fight and die, who lives with rooms to spare and who six to a room, who breathes clean air and drinks clean water and who is poisoned, whose children thrive and whose barely survive, who looks to the future and who lives moment to moment, who is secure and who in peril, who rules and who obeys? Answers to these and other life and death questions depend to a very considerable degree on just which niche in the class hierarchy you inhabit.

Even without the help of investigative journalists and social scientists, we know. How could we not? Social life is mapped with this knowledge. A restaurant – fast food or gourmet – is wallpapered with compulsory deference and the suppressed resentment of its wait staff. Emblems on our cars tell where we stand on the highway to preferment. Driving may entail driving through or avoiding the wrong neighborhood. Logos on pants and T-shirts brand us as belonging to some distinct inner or outer sphere of the social cosmos. Skin color darkens the closer we venture down to the bottom of the economic pecking order. Disembodied voices from the telecom recite sales messages to dial tones while in the drear warehouses the messengers are surveilled, disciplined, and live in fear. Lush landscapes are tended by intimidated immigrants who daily line up at Home Depot, eyes averted. Window shopping, on and off-line, in magazines or TV dramas, excite our admiration and our secret envy of those who have reached the summit of wealth and power. The houseoleums and helipads and private islands of the one percent are the insignia of both their super-ordination and our frustrated desires. Others get by in trailer parks, row houses, or in the back seat. Children “race to the top” or fall by the wayside. Passengers fly with ample leg room or are vacuum sealed. We are reminded over and over again at the sports arena or theater, in the “hood”, at the mall, on the links, or on the pockmarked asphalt of inner city parks that we are travelling through life either in business class or coach. Blue collar workers fend off contempt. We genuflect before “winners” and show the back of our hands or a piteous sneer to the “losers.” Workers don’t produce, they serve. We are a servant society that demands. The demand is that we respond to every nuanced prompt that tells us America is after all intensely rooted in the deference, jealousies, resentments, and aspirations given life by the combustible energies of social class.

Still, the dream abides. Even if we grant that class hierarchies may have now and then come into existence – that they may be present nowadays – ­the faith is that in America they are always going out of existence, dissolved in the soothing bathwaters of national abundance and the purported openness of American society to all who begin life in more humble circumstances (once, we note parenthetically, a set of regrettable racial stigmata were legally done away with).

America the Exceptional

“American exceptionalism” is the name of the dream. That nomenclature is world historic, utopian, and a delusion. It claims a unique status in the realm of global or at least modern, western history: that the New World came into being and has managed to remain free of the class hierarchies and inequalities that disfigured the Old World. The “land of the free” was, first of all, free for that reason and so provided a nourishing climate for the democratic way.

Standing before the bar of history like that is a utopian pronouncement. The story is part fable, part history. Vast territorial expanses, extraordinary natural resources, a virgin land settled by voluntary exiles from monarchial Europe with its steeply graded societies of ranks and orders, allowed for history to begin de novo. More than that, America constituted an exit ramp from history. If it weren’t so perverse to say so, we might describe this dream as the American version of communism. The New World was new precisely because that’s where classes and class conflict went to die. Utopia indeed! George Carlin is hardly the only or the first person to notice that this is not true. But it is also more than a lie. It is a delusion. Delusions are far more dangerous than lies. They are not so easily subject to the antisepsis of the truth. Their staying power is lodged deep in the tissues of desire. Their consequences can be far more toxic and crippling. A utopia crafted for the purposes of denial might be one, darker way of characterizing the national credo.

The Undeniable

Denial is sometimes simply insupportable. While the American Dream always abided, the century or so running from the Gilded Age through the era of the New Deal challenged its tensile strength. The Gilded Age was overrun with fears of a new civil war between the haves and have-nots, fears that the nation might be becoming “two nations.” Violent incidents of class conflict appeared with appalling regularity from coast to coast. A Populist rebellion across rural America decried the rule of Wall Street. Anarchists, socialists, syndicalists and other revolutionary grouplets exerted real influence beyond their own sectarian borders. We only need invoke the Great Railroad Uprising of 1877 or the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, or the bloody Homestead strike at Carnegie’s steel works in 1892 to recall how tenuous that native denial of class had become. Even presidents denounced “malefactors of great wealth” and “the Money Trust.”

Nor did this sense of a society on the verge end with the end of the century. The Ludlow massacre at Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company in 1914, the uprising of immigrant proletarians, especially women, under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) in Lawrence, Massachusetts and Paterson, New Jersey in 1912 and 1913, the Great Steel Strike of 1919, to cite only the more notable insurgencies, caused ruling elites and ordinary middle class folk to wonder if the United States might have caught the Bolshevik contagion then overrunning postwar Europe. All of this culminated in the uprising and unionization of the industrial working class during the Great Depression when FDR felt compelled to denounce the “money-changers” despoiling the temples of American civilization and to decry the “tories of industry,” going so far as to welcome their Yet rolling out this record of social antagonism is apt to create a false impression. Through it all, like “the Dude,” the dream did abide. One of my favorite “tells” about how true that turned out to be was the spectacular success of the newly designed board game Monopoly during the depths of the Great Depression. Here was capitalism shaken to its bootstraps, facing what many believed was its terminal crisis, assaulted on all sides by infuriated workers and farmers and the unemployed and homeowners and sharecroppers. Yet the fantasy beloved by legions of Monopoly players was not so much to grow rich – which after all is not the object of the game – but to drive everybody else into bankruptcy. How savage the dream could be.

Whether in the realm of fantasy as entertainment or fantasy as a substitute for real life, the sense that America was consecrated to that originating notion — the one that allegedly crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, that envisioned a classless society where all might achieve an independence denied them in the Old World — has continued to run through the arteries of our public and private lives.

Take as the most recent example our own Gilded Age of the last decades. For much of that time news that the country had achieved spectacular levels of inequality, that millions had suffered de-industrialization and the evisceration of whole ways of life, that other surplus millions lived in more or less permanent incarceration, did little to spoil the fun. This was the world of Wall Street R’Us, where titans of finance were heralded as heroes and where “everyman” imagined him (or her) self a speculator. If Monopoly had a near monopoly on the business of celebrating business in the depths of the Great Depression, the closing decades of our recently departed last century witnessed a bumper crop of such games. Indeed, every outlet of the mass media, even the most sober-minded, perpetuated the legend. In America class did not matter: the utopian denial.

Nowadays that conceit faces rougher weather. There is not only Bernie Sanders, after all, but also Donald Trump. Both, in their starkly different ways, have paid attention to the heart of darkness, recognizing that class does matter, a lot, no matter how much it is denied.

But the American myth is diamond hard, hard to penetrate and crack. You can cite all the instances of social antagonisms from the past or more recent times as refutations of its core beliefs and still make no dent. However acrimonious or even violent, these eruptions are often dismissed as exceptions to the rule, as temporary interruptions in the dream’s saga, either as dead-ends or moments that were in the end transcended. Only when we look more closely at the mythic undercarriage of “American Exceptionalism” can we plumb down to the roots of denial.

Class Matters

That’s what my book Class Matters tries to do. It probes six iconic stories that I think most would agree are central to the reverie about American Exceptionalism: the earliest colonial settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown; the writing and adoption of the U.S. Constitution; the Statue of Liberty; the cowboy; the “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev; and finally Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech.”

Plymouth and Jamestown are supposed to be the places where people, fleeing the oppressions and social hierarchies of the Old World, first established the rudiments of democracy and liberty. These settlements were as well supposedly constituted as societies where rank, along with the wealth and power that often accompanies it, was levelled or at least truncated. There is truth to this.

But these were also commercial undertakings, sanctioned by the Crown and invested in by great landlords and merchant/bankers back home in England. They were expected to make a profit. Ships like the Arabella exported to the New World the same social hierarches among their passengers as had been customary in the lands they left. Compacts signed aboard ship were designed to quiet rather than abolish incipient social divisions.

Moreover, and more profoundly, these first settlers were not the first settlers. Instead they entered into complex and commercially lucrative and deeply exploitative relations with those who had been living in the “New World” for ten thousand years. If a degree of democracy was present, if each man might have the chance to be “a master and owner of his owne labour and land,” as Captain John Smith (briefly the commandant of Jamestown) put it, it was also the case that America was born as a world riddled with class antinomies.

Legend has it that the men gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 were dedicated to form “a more perfect union” that would, forever after, protect the cherished liberties and the democratic form of self-government won in the Revolutionary War. Like many a legend this one contains a core of truth - once one excises the existence of slavery and the axiomatic exclusion of women and people without property more generally from the arena of active citizenry. These excisions notwithstanding, the document that begins with the famous phrase “We the People” is commemorated for providing a template for an evolving story of freedom and democracy, a document both wise and flexible enough, so that over time it could embrace everyone.

Yet the fifty-five men who assembled in the Pennsylvania State House and met in secrecy were also there to reign in an excess of local democracy and an onrush of social egalitarianism that characterized life under the Articles of Confederation, the government that preceded the new Federal one, a government the founding fathers were determined to overthrow. Celebrated for its system of checks and balances, the framework erected by “We the People” was explicitly designed to check assaults on the prerogatives of private property coming from indebted farmers and others, especially those in the small villages and the rural hinterlands pressing up against the Appalachians. Debt moratoria, tax relief, and even armed uprisings against the commercial and financial interests that dominated the seaboard cities and larger towns had alarmed the “framers” long before they met in Philadelphia to frame a prophylactic against that kind of behavior.

Two worlds faced off against each other. One was eager to expand market relations, to encourage rudimentary manufacturing, to insure the safety of investments in government securities, to fend off attacks on land and other kinds of speculation, to in general welcome in the modern world of commercial transactions and the individual liberty to pursue those objectives. The other was more strictly agrarian, more self-sufficient, less subject to the impersonal dictates of supply and demand if they ran up against traditional notions of communal well-being, less inveigled in the networks of domestic and global trade. This world was apt to assert its democratic rights over local and even state governments, ready to ignore or discharge officers of the law, when their decisions and actions offended the customary prohibitions that had protected integrity, rough social equality, and a sense of moral justice.

The Constitution is many things, and was, its birth, a business plan. One might think of it as the original IPO (initial public offering), announcing to the rest of the world that America was open for business. And for that very reason, the acrimony that greeted its drafting continued at a high pitch for months afterward during the ratification process (ratification itself a very near-miss thing) and even beyond that into the early years of the new Federal republic. Nonetheless, its sacrosanct status in national memory derives from its only half-deserved reputation as a work of political genius in which class did not matter. It is taken as a promissory note, a guardian, for ages to come, of liberty for all. Liberty for some, perhaps, but not for others living on the wrong side of a great social divide.

In much of my work I’ve labored to uncover similar surreptitiously sequestered secrets about the mythos that keeps the “dream” alive. The Statue of Liberty, it turns out, was not conceived as a beacon welcoming the “huddled masses” (Emma Lazarus’ poem didn’t get inscribed on the Statue’s pedestal until 1903, 17 years after it was erected in 1886), nor as a monument to some classless nirvana. Instead both its French originators and its less than enthusiastic American benefactors (among them some of the nation’s more prominent robber barrons) were profoundly alarmed by class unrest both abroad in places like France (the Paris Commune) and here at home. So the Statue’s aesthetic deliberately stripped it bare of earlier intimations of emancipation which had long accompanied ancient and more recent depictions of “lady liberty.” Newspaper cartoons of the Statue appearing for years after it was unveiled visualized bedraggled immigrants up to no good, purveyors of alien ideologies affirming the class struggle, clinging to the Statue’s robes, dragging her down into the muck of New York harbor.

No figure perhaps better captures the American romance with individual freedom, steely self-determination, and manly valor than the cowboy. He is an American archetype whose essential independence belies any notion of social hierarchy. Yet cowboys in real life were rural proletarians whose work and life were often harsh and short-lived. Indeed, the cowboy’s elevation to a privileged place in the pantheon of American cultural heroes is a form of denial. The myth functioned (and still does) as a repudiation in the realm of fantasy of a society increasingly defined by the dependencies that accompanied the spread of industrialism, wage labor, and urban anonymity.

When Vice President Richard Nixon faced off against Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 in a model kitchen in a model ranch-house at the Moscow World’s Fair, he laid claim to what had always been the Communist promise: that it was in the United States, not in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that a society free of classes had emerged.

Nixon pointed to the American suburb where classes vanished amidst an all-consuming devotion to mass consumption, a new, new world open to all that would soon reconfigure the nation from coast to coast. Putting aside for a moment the irony of a man who had built his political career by the most unscrupulous acts of red-baiting, Nixon’s assertion was a widely held belief and form of national self-congratulation (and, although in a more sickly state today, remains so for many who belong or dream of belonging to that suburban arcadia, the land of the great middle class , the class that is no class). But even as that party was underway, suburban life was fissured by profound divisions of class and race. Soon enough the featureless, surface calm cracked wide open as rebellions on campus, in the streets, on factory floors, and especially in the rural and urban ghettoes of Afro-America called to account this mid-century act of utopian denial.

Racial division and racial concord both find their apotheosis in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” When it was delivered in 1963 it was part battle-cry, part hymnal to national unity, a coming together re-consecrated around the egalitarian promissory note first issued in the Declaration of Independence. In the decades since, it has become an essential reiteration of the nation’s credo.

Today this holiest of holy speeches is no longer a site of controversy. Instead, it is subscribed to as a universally acknowledged piety, which none but the lunatic is prepared to challenge. That is because it rests its case on the belief in formal equality, on equality before the law, and the commitment to upholding every individual’s right to what is often characterized as “equal opportunity.”

What goes unchallenged, and has always escaped censure by the American credo, is the structure of power and authority that inheres in the division of labor and wealth in any capitalist society. The speech presumes—although King did not always do so—that racial justice and social justice more generally may be secured without taking on those extra-legal, extra-Constitutional forms of power. Yet at one time, not long before its inspiring delivery, especially during the Great Depression and the two decades that followed, it was widely understood by civil rights and labor movement activists that race and class injustice were inextricably entwined and needed to be dealt with together.

It would be wrong-headed to argue that the six iconic stories I’ve cited (or any of the others that might serve that role) can be reduced to their class dimensions. But until we come to grips with the utopian denial that lies buried deep in the heart of the “dream,” class will continue to function as the unseen, the unacknowledged, the impenetrable barrier to a “new world.”