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The Painful Collapse of Empire: How the "American Dream" and American Exceptionalism Wreck Havoc on the World

We must tell the truth about the domination that is at the heart of the American Dream so that we may face the brokenness of our world.

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Second, the  dream part: Adams pointed out that while this is always about more than money, the idea of getting one’s share of the American bounty is at the core of the American Dream. That bounty did not, of course, drop out of the sky. It was ripped out of the ground and drawn from the water in a fashion that has left the continent ravaged, a dismemberment of nature that is an unavoidable consequence of a worldview that glorifies domination. “From [Europeans’] first arrival we have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored,” writes the scientist and philosopher Wes Jackson, one of the leading thinkers in the sustainable agriculture movement. As Jackson points out, our economy has always been extractive, even before the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated the assault in the 19 th century and the petrochemical revolution began poisoning the world more intensively in the 20 th. From the start, we mined the forests, soil, and aquifers, just as we eventually mined minerals and fossil fuels, leaving ecosystems ragged and in ruin, perhaps beyond recovery in any human timeframe. All that was done by people who believed in their right to dominate.

This analysis helps us critique the naïve notions of opportunity and bounty in the American Dream. The notion of endless opportunity for all in the American Dream is routinely invoked by those who are unconcerned about the inherent inequality in capitalism or ignore the deeply embedded white supremacy that expresses itself in institutional and unconscious racism, which constrains indigenous, black, and Latino people in the United States. The notion of endless bounty in the American Dream leads people to believe that because such bounty has always been available that it will continue to be available through the alleged magic of technology. In America, the dreamers want to believe that the domination of people to clear the frontier was acceptable, and with the frontier gone, that the evermore intense domination of nature to keep the bounty flowing is acceptable.

Of course the United States is not the only place where greed has combined with fantasies of superiority to produce horrific crimes, nor is the only place where humans have relentlessly degraded ecosystems. But the United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the history of the world, and the country that claims for itself a unique place in history, “the city upon a hill” that serves as “the beacon to the world of the way life should be,” in the words of one of Texas’ U.S. senators. The American Dream is put forward as a dream for all the world to adopt, but it clearly can’t be so. Some of the people of the world have had to be sacrificed for the dream, as has the living world. Dreams based on domination are, by definition, limited.

Jackson reminds us how these two forms of domination come together in the United States when he asserts, “We are still more the cultural descendants of Columbus and Coronado than we are of the natives we replaced.” Citing the writer Wendell Berry, he points out “that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we never knew what we were doing because we have never known what we were  undoing.”

Dreams based on domination by people over the non-human world are dreams only for the short-term. Dreams based on domination by some people over others are dreams only for the privileged. As Malcolm X put it, “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.”

 
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