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The American Dream As We Know It Is Obsolete

Why progressives need to think beyond the mantra of creating a "middle class America."

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The post-World War II ideal makes liberals like Paul Krugman mush-brained. He writes in  The Conscience of a Liberal: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation’s history.”  Krugman gets downright loopy when reminiscing about postwar America: “ It was a society without extremes of wealth or poverty, a society of broadly shared prosperity.” Apparently there were no Rockefellers or Mississippi sharecroppers in his day.

It’s only time and a decayed vision that makes 1950s America seem like paradise. To be sure, the working class benefited from rising productivity with rising wages, incomes rose across the board, many African-Americans landed good-paying factory jobs and social welfare expanded under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Yet the 1960s youth and counterculture rebellions were precisely in reaction to the banality of the middle class. The New Left critiqued a society where basic material needs seem to have been satisfied by American capitalism, European social democracy and the Soviet’s “bureaucratic collectivism,” but work was alienating, racism institutionalized, community nonexistent, sexual mores repressive, and daily life atomizing, meaningless and suffocating.

Youth also revolted against the foundation of the middle-class lifestyle: the warfare state that spawned the terror of imminent nuclear war and U.S.-backed assassinations, coups, dictators and wars in the developing world that forced down the cost of commodities – copper from Chile, bananas from Guatemala, sugar from Cuba, oil from Iran, rubber from Indonesia and tin from Bolivia – so as to subsidize American businesses and the middle class. (Or to use a blunt term often employed in colonial studies, the United States was engaged in plunder.)

Liberals conveniently forget that the unions which gave birth to middle class were a full partner in the Cold War. The AFL-CIO worked with the CIA through the American Institute for Free Labor Development to destroy independent labor movements in the Third World.

Organized labor has mostly left behind this sordid past, though it did play a role in the  2002 coup against Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela. Plus, it remains reluctant to confront the military-security state that consumes about $1 trillion in public spending even as public sector unions scrap for a few more pennies.

Perhaps U.S. labor leaders realize the Pentagon, with its  thousand-odd overseas bases, still serves a useful role in ordering the world. After all, today’s middle class benefits as much as ever from depressed wages and commodity prices in the developing world that keep low-cost consumer goods streaming from factory to port to big box to McMansion.

By the 1960s the promise of prosperity for all, which defenders of the middle class today harken back to, seemed within reach. Yet the consciousness of workers as workers was being sapped by consumption. No longer was the goal to transform social relations and bring forth the “New Man” (and Woman), it was to get a new Pontiac, an in-ground pool, a bigger house, a color television. When we identify as consumers, it leaves little space for workplace solidarity or worker identity. Today, it is almost impossible to find working-class culture or life beyond the market and corporate media.

Ultimately, the concept of the middle class is inherently anti-political. It is defined by consumption: a mortgage, multiple cars, stylish clothes, furniture and electronics, and affordable luxuries. We can’t have a yacht, but we can go on an annual cruise. We can’t buy a villa in Tuscany, but we can holiday in one. We can’t afford a private chef, but we can visit Le Bernadin on a special occasion. Many luxury goods makers – from Prada and LVMH to Mercedes Benz and Tiffany – have even aggressively expanded their businesses by creating lines of downscale luxuries for the middle class.

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