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Masae Yamashiro

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Looking at America through the “American Dream”

- the Future of the “Dream”

Masae Yamashiro
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: American culture, mass culture, and comparative culture

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The current state of the “American Dream”

The phrase “American Dream” is relatively well known even outside the United States and it is an extremely important phrase in the field of American cultural studies. It has become a very wide-ranging concept, covering everything from “using your God-given talents to achieve as much success as possible” to “whatever you dream can come true,” as well as the objects of the “American Dream” (house, car, fame, etc.). At essence, however, it is based on the philosophy that “people are given equal opportunities in America and anyone who is diligent and hard-working has the potential to succeed.” This has been regarded as the spirit that has characterized the society and nation of “America” even since the colonial era before the nation’s founding. The “American Dream” has been continuously reprocessed, particularly in mass culture, and has been an interesting influence and addition to the everyday image of the American people. However, in recent years the phrase “American Dream” is used in combination with negative phrases that has stood out in the United States. An online search for “American Dream” in newspaper or magazine articles or books shows that it has been used in association with words such as “end,” “decline,” “hopeless” or alongside a simple question mark. It goes without saying that the idea that the American Dream is a “nightmare” or “fabrication” has been pointed out before, particularly in the fields of art and academia. However, a slightly different picture emerges from the attachment of these negative prefixes to the American Dream in mass culture. The changed perception in recent years has been affected by an undercurrent of increased awareness of economic injustice and a crisis of democracy.

America as “utopia”

The concept of “America” is one of a utopian “classless society,” and America has a history of referring to itself in this way. On a personal level, when I first heard this expression I was shocked at the huge gap between America’s self-image and the reality. However, it would appear that the meaning of this phrase is not that “America does not have inequalities or classes,” rather, that “there may be some differences between people but unlike the old world America does not have a feudal system and your class is not fixed by birth,” or “America is a society consisted of a single mass class” and “in this equally open society you can become anything you want to through self-development and training.” If you consider even for a moment America’s colonialistic and anti-democratic history in respect to Native Americans and blacks, it is clear that the closed nature of this “single class” makes its very logic bankrupt. However, America can also be considered an “unfinished project” that is still seeking to achieve its philosophy by moving towards a “classless society” in a way that includes all people in a single class as the logical endpoint of abolishing discrimination and promoting democratic initiatives, such as the New Deal of the 1930s and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. From this viewpoint, the “American Dream” and the democratic conditions that guarantee social mobility become indispensable to an American-style “utopia.” According to the America Dream, if you work hard to improve yourself you can obtain an education and employment that will lead to a better life without being hindered by economic position, religion, race, ethnic group, gender, sexuality, birth, family background or any other artificial barrier. Despite taking on a variety of different forms throughout history, at the core of the American Dream lies a sense of pride that it is both the yardstick and fruition of a highly democratic society and that it is a “dream” that throughout the world can only be seen in America.

The end of the “dream”

The reason why the end of the “dream” has started to be widely expressed in a country that has claimed to be unique in there being “no barriers to success” is because it has become tangibly clear in recent years that there is increasing inequality between rich and poor and that social mobility is disappearing. Examples of this include the runaway increase in the income of the super-rich and stagnation of the incomes of other classes over the past 40 years, the huge increase in the ratio of America’s total assets held by the super-rich, declining incomes and employment among college graduates, a reduced middle class, the loss of opportunities to make an economic recovery, an expansion in the size of the working poor, an ongoing increase in poverty rates, a reduction in social mobility rates between generations, and negative results in opinion polls on living standards of the next generation. In the many articles, essays and books of recent years that have sought to provide concrete numbers and data to explain this situation, the causes and background to the situation appear to be largely the same. The rapid increase in corporate lobbyists and series of neo-liberal policies (amendments to the tax system that have favored the wealthy classes, the dismantling and privatization of social welfare tools, deregulation and liberalization of financial markets, etc.) pursued by American governments from the 1970s onwards have created a transfer of wealth to the wealthy classes. What’s more, discourse in the increasingly conservative-controlled media promoting government policies and economic globalization has penetrated the thinking of the general public and helped to accelerate these trends. Policies have been decided by those with financial resources, democratic mechanisms have been held in check, and political and economic inequality has increased, so many people now feel. While the wealthy build gated communities and independent cities enjoying their own “utopia,” the majority are surrounded by a sense of hopelessness and impotence and are unable to envisage even trifling “dreams.” What the Occupy Wall Street movement starting in 2011 tried to show was that America, which is supposed to be a democratic society, has been a hereditary system that may as well have been described as a “neo-feudalism.”

America as “dystopia”

“Dystopia” is a genre of novels and films. As a genre, it is particularly compatible with science fiction and a variety of themes have been tackled (including regulated societies, thought control and police states). Recent dystopian films have been characterized by the assumption of a “society with a huge gap between rich and poor.” Films such as In Time (2011), Elysium (2013), the remade Total Recall (2012), The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) were all set in worlds polarized between divided classes of wealthy and poor. In 2014, NHK show Today’s Close-up broadcast a program entitled “Dokuritu-suru Fuyuso” [Wealthy Classes Going it Alone]. In the program, wealthy Americans who objected to their taxes being used for the benefit of the poor were shown attempting to establish a new local municipality by removing their own neighborhood from the surrounding area. The story had a big reaction. As pointed out in many articles and essays, excluding “different” communities and refusing to carry out exchange is closely linked to a loss of “public” awareness. Perhaps the recent succession of science fiction films depicting as two sides of the same coin a “dystopia” encompassing the utopian lives of the super-rich and the slums of the majority are a subconscious reflection of this increasing division within America society.

Will the “dream” be reborn?

As the possibility of social mobility is lost, the “American Dream” has become more of a “fairy-tale.” What will the impact be on future government policy of the anger felt at the loss of what people once considered to be a given? Is it possible to reverse the flow of free market policies that have continued for the past 40 years as the result of lobbying activities by huge corporations and recover the “dream”? At the same time, it is important to remember that it is the very phrase “American Dream” that has been one of the most effective ways of promoting these policies in the first place. Similar to other concepts that have been described as founding philosophies, the “American Dream” has generally been a very convenient slogan for economic conservatives. The American Dream does have a social aspect. However, as seen in its most basic concepts, historically it has possessed a strong inference of individualism and it has served to reduce the problem of “poverty” to one of each individual, and in doing so restrict any questioning of society’s systems and structures. Moreover, the fixation with the objects of the American Dream (land, homes, wealth, fame and the consumer goods that symbolize them) has created excessive interest in consumption levels along with the marketing strategies of a consumer society. It has also led to the self-awareness of workers being replaced with a weaker class consciousness as “consumers” or “the general public.” The labor unions and labor movements have been diminished as a result. In this sense, the rebirth of the “dream” requires more than a simple restoration; instead, an internal transformation that allows it to break free from its current fetters is essential.

Conclusion

I have focused on America here, but as the issue includes the important element of the globalization of the economy and labor markets, it is unlikely that the above problems will apply only to the United States. It has been pointed out that the super-rich are made up of multinational companies and an international elite that do not seek to build communities with any region’s workers. In other words, underpinning the international organizations set up after the Second World War under America’s guidance, such as the World Bank, the WTO, the IMF and the rules of these organizations, are the same trends that have brought about economic imbalance within the America of today. In Japan, the waves of “liberal trade” and “market opening” can be felt in the form of the TPP. Incidentally, the setting for the classic science fiction dystopian film Metropolis (1927), which also tackles the theme of an ultra-stratified society, is the 21st century (2026 according to some sources). When the world depicted in a classic film becomes strangely but undeniably similar to the world of today, what is at stake regarding a “dream” that is relevant not only to the people of America but to all of “us” in the sense of all people? Surely it is the imagination that is the driving force behind the dream, especially the ability to continue envisaging a community in which we can live alongside diverse “others” without losing sight of the “dream.”

Masae Yamashiro
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Studies, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: American culture, mass culture, and comparative culture
Professor Yamashiro was born in Okinawa. She completed her doctoral program at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of Language and Society and earned a Ph.D.
After assuming various posts including a part-time instructor at the Center for Liberal Arts, Meiji Gakuin University, she took up her current position at Chuo University in 2013.
Her books include: Mapping Pop in America/Warhol and Okinawa [Pop-no Kosaku suru Chisei] (Gakujutsu Shuppankai, 2013), The Current State of Media and Literacy [Medeia Literasi no Ima] (co-authorship, Nakanishiya Publishing, 2013), and Listening to History [Jidai o Kiku] (co-authorship, Serica Shobo, 2012).