American Dream and Its Indian Vendors

By—Girish Mishra

For many, many years the US official circles, the propertied classes and the media controlled by them have been propagating a myth. It is the myth of the American Dream, which means that in the United States, any person can climb up the ladder of prosperity through his hard work, courage, and determination and secure a better life for himself and his family. This is because the state does not obstruct his activities and the market forces ensure that his talents, zeal and hard work are adequately rewarded. It is pointed out that the immigrants from Europe and elsewhere have been coming there for centuries and realizing their dream of prosperity. Here, it is asserted that neither the family background nor the pulls from influential quarters have ever counted. The American Dream acted as a driving force not only during the gold rush of the second half of the 18th century, but also proved to be a great magnetic power in the case of the impoverished Western Europeans, especially the Irish farmers, escaping the potato famine. Its attraction has not diminished even after centuries and one can see the rush of legal and illegal immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

During the second half of the 19th century, the American Dream was idealized in a variety of literary writings. The novelist Horatio Alger, Jr. was prominent among them. In the beginning of the 20th century a number of industrialists became symbols of the American Dream. Among them were Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. In spite of their very humble origins, they came up to the top, thanks to their talent, intelligence, readiness to work hard and courageously face all sorts of odds. The market forces recognized their worth and rewarded them with fabulous riches. Not only in trade and industry, but in the arena of politics too this phenomenon could be observed. Quite a few politicians reached the White House and the corridors of power from their huts or log cabins.

One finds a number of vendors of this myth in India and other developing countries. They stress that one could rise to higher echelons of the society and economy on the basis of their talents, hard work, courage and enterprise only if the government stands aside and confine itself to the minimum possible roles assigned by the neo-liberals as facilitator for market forces. Market is, said to be, no respecter of family connections and caste and religious background. Hence, now onwards market forces should be the sole arbiter and decide success and failure. A reference is made to the last one and a half centuries when many petty traders and moneylenders rose to become top industrialists of the country with their hard work, daring, talents and foresight.

Looking back, we find the American Dream received a shattering blow during the Great Depression or Great Crash of 1929-33. Market forces plunged not only the American, but also the entire world economy, barring the Soviet Union, in deep despair and the working classes in all sectors and in all continents suffered great destitution. Far away from America, in India, peasants failed to sell their produce and obtain money to pay up their rents. Consequently, landlords tried their best to confiscate their holdings and this led to massive peasant uprisings. A number of industrialists, traders and peasants became bankrupt. John Maynard Keynes who stressed an active role for the state in running and regulating the economy decried the blind dependence on market forces.

Looking back, over more than two centuries of the American Dream, Joseph Stiglitz has found it misleading because it is not possible for anyone possessing talent, foresight and innovative zeal besides the capacity to do hard work to climb up the socio-economic ladder. Almost the same view permeates Arthur Miller’s classic work, Death of a Salesman. Its main character – Willy Loman – comes to the conclusion that his American Dream is beyond realization. It is extremely difficult for the children of the poor to get education, not to speak of the best available one. That is why most poor children drop out after the school. Even if some one struggles and acquires necessary skills, it will be extremely difficult to reach the level of a Carnegie or Rockefeller in the present day world because of one’s inability to mobilize enough resources to compete in the real world. At best, one can become a small businessman.

Ever since the beginning of industrialization, the American Dream has been losing its attraction and, to a large extent, it has been replaced by the philosophy of getting rich quickly by the hook or by the crook. It is not without reason that people today are seduced by gambling, television shows like “who wants to become a millionaire?” lotteries and so on. Obviously, today’s Americans no longer put their trust in thrift and hard work but hanker after the ‘almighty dollar’. The ability to buy a big house and the latest variety of car is a sign of success in life. The values and ideals of the American Dream such as justice, liberty, fairness, democracy and equality have long been forgotten. Even when the American Dream was supposed to be reigning supreme, family and class connections played a very significant in a person’s rise to the top. Adam Bellow, son of the Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, in his book In Defence of Nepotism has not only underlined this, but also defended it.

In the recent times the myth that the American Dream provides a leeway to all those who are prepared to work hard has been fully exploded. It is no longer valid to say that the class system or government does not stand in the way of the talented, hard working and determined persons. In a recent article in Observer (June 8, 2006), Paul Harris has this to say: “Over the past few decades there has been a fundamental shift in the structure of the American economy. The gap between rich and poor has widened and widened. As it does so, the ability to cross that gap gets smaller and smaller. This is far from business as usual but there seems little chance of it stopping, not least because it appears to be government policy.

“Over the past 25 years the median US family income has gone up 18 per cent. For the top one per cent, however, it has gone up 200 per cent. A quarter of a century ago the top fifth of Americans had an average income 6.7 times that of the bottom fifth. Now it is 9.8 times.

“Inequalities have grown worse in different regions. In California, home to both Beverly Hills and the gang-ridden slums of Compton, incomes for lower class families have fallen by four per cent since 1969. For upper class families they have risen 41 per cent.”

The Economist (June 17, 2006) underlines that only 3 per cent of students at top colleges come from the poorest section of the society. “Poor children are trapped in dismal schools, while richer parents spend more cash on tutoring their offspring.” It needs to be added that the government stands aside and looks elsewhere according to the philosophy of free market. It goes on to predict elsewhere in the same issue: “All in all, America’s income distribution is likely to continue the trends of the recent past. While those at the top will go on drawing huge salaries, those in the broad middle of the middle class will see their incomes churned.” One may well imagine the implications for the coming generations in the context of the much trumpeted American Dream.

Ever since the beginning of the Washington Consensus-based globalisation, the Indian vendors of the myth of the American Dream has been very enthusiastically propagating it. They have been asserting that in the place of capitalism, a new system has come. This new system is bazaarwad or marketism where market forces unhindered by state will run and regulate all economic activities. The real worth of each commodity will be truly assessed without any extraneous considerations. Since labour power is a commodity, the person possessing it will be rewarded without any consideration of his family background, complexion of his skin and the region he comes from. Only his ability, training, educational qualifications, capacity to do hard work, skills and efficiency will count. Gone are the days when state enterprises recruited quite a sizable number of people on the basis of pull and push. With privatization gaining momentum and the role of state drastically curtailed, besides labour laws thoroughly rewritten to suit capital, the American Dream will become a reality in the Indian context.

The ground reality, however, is quite contrary to it. Most of the corporate sector is family dominated. Here there is not an iota of chance for an outsider, however highly qualified and talented he may be to occupy a position where he can work according to his own judgment even though it goes contrary to the likings of the family controlling the firm. Take, for example, in the print media, even now editorial staff is treated as doormats. Ever since the beginning of the economic reforms mandated by the Washington Consensus, the gap between the rich and the poor has rapidly increased. Similarly, regional economic disparities are largest since Independence. The new jobs that have been generated require the skills that cannot be acquired by the poor, especially from the rural areas. Most educational institutions in rural areas do not have furniture, proper buildings, teachers, blackboards and electricity. They cannot afford computers even in their dreams. In this situation, the American Dream has no relevance for them. Maybe it can inspire the young people in higher income groups who can think of emulating their counterparts in the USA.

If one looks at a representative sample of the tycoons that have emerged since Independence, one will be surprised to note that a quite number of them have risen by pursuing the path of criminal activities, not by their honest entrepreneurial zeal and hard labour like most industrialists of pre-independence days. “Greed is good” has become the motto nowadays. It is no accident that lotteries, speculation, bribery, smuggling and so on have become more attractive. It is the lure of easy money that made programmes like “Kaun Banega Crorepati?” extremely popular. Whatever the media may say and the vendors may propagate the American Dream no longer remains a global fantasy.

Girish Mishra,