America on the Brink   /   Fall 2020   /    America on the Brink

How Enduring the Promise?

Economic Myths in a Time of Rupture

Andrew Lynn

Photo illustration by CalypsoArt/Alamy Stock Photo.

Thinking about their lives, their livelihoods, and their identities, Americans have long placed great stock in morally charged economic mythologies. The “land of opportunity,” the “American Dream,” the “pursuit of happiness”—all have survived crushing depressions, civil strife, and global wars to give meaning and value to Americans’ daily strivings. While the growing diversity of the American social landscape has made Norman Rockwell–like depictions of faith and family seem almost obsolete, the equally venerable imagery of the disciplined work ethic has demonstrated far more staying power, with only the occupations and demographics of workers requiring updating. The short-lived coworking space startup WeWork drew attention in 2018 for the pro-work messages inscribed on the produce floating in its watercoolers. “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done,” was just one of the exhortations etched into floating cucumber slices, intended to inspire indefatigable “creatives” beavering away at their MacBooks.

Such mythic notions draw on a different dimension of economics from the one presented in most textbooks. Yet this cultural dimension may ultimately be as vital to the well-being of society as all of the projections and prescriptions derived from highly mathematized models of econometric theory. As Max Weber and other social theorists have shown, the fundamental human need to confer meaning on events, particularly those bearing on livelihoods, makes people depend on mythic frameworks and “webs of meaning” not only to ennoble their daily efforts but to ward off the threat of nihilistic randomness or chaotic disorder. These frameworks serve to make sense of economic success, failure, prosperity, and devastation, not just for individuals but for groups as a whole.

In America, these frameworks have undergone gradual but significant changes. Early colonial settlers viewed their trade and commerce as contributing to the commonwealth and a wider covenantal order, subject to religious and civil authorities alike. Likewise, southern planters and others justified their exploitation of enslaved laborers through frameworks of a racialized hierarchical order and Christian paternalism. It was only toward the middle of the nineteenth century, as the American market economy was being transformed by advances in transportation and technology, that a new and more characteristically modern economic mythology took form. This one emphasized individual effort and reward as the basis of a new covenant, this one with sovereign market forces rather than the sacredly ordained hierarchical order. Adherents to this covenant believed they inhabited an economic world that was controllable, predictable, and largely fair. Provided that individuals were committed to working hard and playing by the rules, they were assured at least a fighting chance to survive the “prevailing gales of creative destruction.”11xJoseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York, NY: Routledge, 1942), 82.

The 1843 McGuffey Reader confidently pronounced to millions of American schoolchildren that the “road to wealth” was “open to all, and all who will, may enter upon it with the almost certain prospect of success.”22xWilliam Holmes McGuffey, McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Reader (Cincinnati, OH: Winthrop B. Smith, 1843), 93. This became the “American assumption,” as W.E.B. Du Bois labeled it, which posited that wealth was mainly a result of a person’s effort and that “any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.”33xW.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 182–83. First published 1935. While the relative inequality of American society always left such claims open to doubt and debate, such thinking had at least an aspirational role in the American experience throughout the twentieth century. In his 1992 campaign speeches Bill Clinton would continue to speak of America’s promise, that “if you work hard and play by the rules you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given abilities will take you.”44xGwen Ifill, “The 1992 Campaign: Clinton’s Standard Campaign Speech: A Call for Responsibility,” New York Times, April 26, 1992, https://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/26/us/the-1992-campaign-clinton-s-standard-campaign-speech-a-call-for-responsibility.html.

But problems can result from tying individual and national identities to economic mythologies, particularly in our age of global capitalism, when extensive economic dislocations and disruptions have created uncertainty and precarity among wide swaths of the population. Since the passing of the postwar era’s “Golden Age of Capitalism” (generally pegged as the time between 1945 and 1973, or what the French have dubbed les trentes glorieuses), many Americans have begun to doubt that the economic system is keeping up its side of the bargain. Stagnant wages since the 1970s alongside instability brought on by oil supply shocks and stagflation were followed by the expanded influence of a profit-hungry financial sector and globalized trade that yielded even greater volatility of wages and employment. The disruptive force of the 2008 recession—and the relatively minimal consequences suffered by those leading the responsible institutions—unleashed new fires of anti-elite populism.

Our present moment finds not only workers but also politicians and business leaders seeking to renew the reigning economic mythologies in a manner that can either make sense of the post-2008 mode of capitalism or successfully counter its costly deviations from its earlier mode. Yet this task now confronts the social realities that were papered over in the simpler times of the McGuffey Reader. The growing recognition of institutionalized inequality and the disproportional power of financial elites seem to counter the doctrine that the road to prosperity is open to all Americans.

Writing about cultural systems and meaning, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz suggested that three sorts of events can send a society’s cultural frameworks into a tailspin: bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox.55xClifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1973), 100. It is at these points that the interpretability of life begins to break down, that individuals lose confidence that they can effectively orient themselves. Societies are then pushed to the limits of understanding and endurance, as “chaos” threatens to “break in” upon them.

The last two decades provide ample evidence that conventional American mythologies have now reached such a breaking point. The rhetoric of populist politicians and surveys of the populace as a whole reveal a common sentiment: that the system is “rigged.” This sentiment has disproportionately taken hold among lower-income workers across both political parties, populations struggling to keep their heads above water as they try to cope with rising health-care costs and the disappearance of benefit-bearing jobs.66xJames Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, 2016, https://iasculture.org/research/publications/vanishing-center. This survey, issued in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election, revealed that 73 percent of respondents completely agreed or mostly agreed with the statement “Our economic system is rigged in favor of the wealthiest Americans.” The rate of agreement was higher among black respondents (86 percent) than whites (71 percent). Many workers in publicly traded corporations also see the stagnation of their own wages in sharp contrast with the relative stability and prosperity enjoyed by their employers.

But extending well beyond these populations is a more general skepticism toward institutions tasked with leading the economic and financial sectors and overseeing their well-ordered functioning. The last ten years have seen a growing suspicion that the “invisible hand” of global capitalism does not appear to be disbursing the spoils of free trade in a fair manner. Where the old economic mythologies preached submission to “the system” because of its essential fairness, a new politics of resentment now draws attention to those not-so-invisible hands that seem to have weighted the scales to favor the wealthy few. This has raised the possibility that perhaps the American Dream is not actually dying a peaceful death, the victim of job automation and declining American economic hegemony, but is instead being killed off and replaced with a walled garden of success that denies access to all but a select few.

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