Death of an American Dream: Or, The End of the World as we Know It.

Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.

—Cormac McCarthy, The Road

For the vast majority of Americans – and, for that matter, all those around the globe who have cherished it, the promise of the American Dream is over, the utopian desires of the Good Life and Society are crumbling into an Oligarchic cesspool of Global War and Strife. There was a time when the American dream was the dream of human possibility, of a society in which all persons would be encouraged to do their best, to achieve their most, and to have the reward of a comfortable life in exchange. It was the dream that there would be no artificial obstacles in the way of such individual fulfillment. It was the dream that the sum of such individual achievements was a great social good—a society of freedom, equality, and mutual solidarity.1 It was the dream of America as the shining beacon to a world that suffers from not being able to realize such a dream. It was the dream of an American Utopia that people without hope hoped for, a dream that has turned sour and become for many both in America and around the world a toxic wasteland full of poisonous nightmares.

The dream didn’t fail us, but we did.

September 11, 2001 brought a wake up call to those who had fallen into complaisance, who believed that American was impregnable, a realm of secured freedom and justice, place of hope and economic, political, and religious liberty. In that moment all the animosity of those from the outside and inside who had realized long ago that the dream and the reality would never coexist in the same space turned away from it disgusted by the lies and deceit of those who had sponsored such a dream in the first place. The dream was a lie, a carefully scripted myth that was part of a colorful if indolent fiction. In that moment as Immanuel Wallerstein in The Decline of American Power remarked, the dream faded and was replaced by five realties about the United States:  the limits of its military power; the depth of anti-American feeling in the rest of the world; the hangover from the economic binge of the 1990s; the contradictory pressures of American nationalism; and the frailty of our civil liberties tradition. (Wallerstein, KL 131)

As Chalmers Johnson in Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope comments, the failure to begin to deal with our bloated military establishment and the profligate use of it in missions for which it is hopelessly inappropriate will, sooner rather than later, condemn the United States to a devastating trio of consequences: imperial overstretch, perpetual war, and insolvency, leading to a likely collapse similar to that of the former Soviet Union.2

The Fanny-May debacle of 2007 would be a second wake up call, one even more devastating for many U.S. citizens. What we discovered then was that the systemic failure of the system, the collapse of our economic, political, and social mechanisms was something no one was prepared for and everyone was in denial of. As Joseph A. Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies would reminds us, “collapse today is neither an option nor an immediate threat”.3 Why? In his opinion any nation vulnerable to collapse will have to pursue one of three options: (1) absorption by a neighbor or some larger state; (2) economic support by a dominant power, or by an international financing agency; or (3) payment by the support population of whatever costs are needed to continue complexity, however detrimental the marginal return. A nation today can no longer unilaterally collapse, for if any national government disintegrates its population and territory will be absorbed by some other. (Tainter, 213)

In many ways all three of these options has happened to the United States, and even though many would deny it the good old U.S.A. is a thing of the past. The Federal Reserve which is held in trust by private or anonymous banks, the Chinese government and many other nations all absorbed the debt of this systemic failure. We were also bound to our international partners and financial agencies who would seek remuneration for the crises. And, finally, the American people themselves paid for this economic collapse out of their taxes and other austere measures. In this sense the American Dream collapsed before our eyes and will probably never return. As Tainter argues, next time is not an option, for collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner. (Tainter, 214) For better or worse the world-system is now meshed in a world wide network society that cannot fail. If it does then civilization as we know it is over, and chaos and hundreds of years of war and strife will ensue. As another astute observer concludes “as civilizations collapse, there is a tendency to adhere to the very practices that are doing them in, and to values that no longer make sense. In short, the rule is that they prefer death to compromise, and we are seeing that today.”4

Here in America our leaders promise to “Make America Great Again!” as if by some magic of economic and political wand waving they could once again summon the American Dream out of its Black Box. The reactionary and populist sentiment has arisen once again seeking to turn the clocks back, to reforge the links to imaginary pasts and traditions, to the myths and dreams of our forefathers as if such a resurrection were possible. As if we could build a time-travel machine to the American Dream. Problem is that those imaginary pasts were full of the same issues we have now, only that they were local not global and systemic collapse. Who could say they’d love to return to the 1930’s depression era, or any number of other era’s throughout American history? There has been no time when the vast majority of citizens was not enveloped in war or civil-strife. There has always only been a few who ever held onto that utopian desire, and they were the one’s who stole it from the rest. One need only return to the 19th Century and the derogatory age of the “Robber Barons” to understand that most Americans then as now were excluded from the American Dream.

Even now most of the world turns a blind eye to the collapse of the world-system that is brining drought, famine, disease, economic crisis, global warming, and many other systemic catastrophes to most of the continents. A few years agon Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism would tell us that it was none other than the ill-famed economist Milton Friedman who would father what she termed the Shock Doctrine:

[Milton Friedman] observed that “only a crisis— actual or perceived— produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”  Some people stockpile canned goods and water in preparation for major disasters; Friedmanites stockpile free-market ideas. And once a crisis has struck, the University of Chicago professor was convinced that it was crucial to act swiftly, to impose rapid and irreversible change before the crisis-racked society slipped back into the “tyranny of the status quo.” He estimated that “a new administration has some six to nine months in which to achieve major changes; if it does not seize the opportunity to act decisively during that period, it will not have another such opportunity.”  A variation on Machiavelli’s advice that injuries should be inflicted “all at once,” this proved to be one of Friedman’s most lasting strategic legacies.5

Everyone has seen the end product of the 2007 crises, the vast majority of citizens of the U.S.A. went bankrupt, lost their pensions, insurance, and livelihoods while the fat-cat bankers and investors who caused the debacle to begin with were not only bailed out but began to prosper and reenter the toxic wastelands of their financial empires without a thought for the welfare of the nation or their responsibility as the purveyors of its demise. As Philip Mirowsk in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown summarizes it the neoliberals have triumphed in the global economic crisis because:

  1. Individual neoliberals reacted to cognitive dissonance precisely in the ways that social psychology has suggested they would. Contrary evidence did not dent their worldview.
  2. Far from withdrawing from the intellectual agonistic field, after brief disarray they redoubled their efforts to influence and capture the economics profession, which has also benefitted economists in weathering the crisis. The preemption of the breaking up of the financial sector in reaction to its insolvency in almost every country has been the single most important event that has bolstered both the transnational orthodox economist profession and the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Absent the maintenance of the previous leisure class and the further subsidy of the wealthy, the politics of the situation would potentially have been strikingly different. The relationship between the immunity of finance and the imperviousness of change in economic ideas has been direct.
  3. Since economists were caught off-guard during the onset of the crisis, both journalists and the general public had initially to fall back on vernacular understandings of the disaster, as well as cultural conceptions of the economy then prevalent. Hence the prior decades of “everyday neoliberalism” that had taken root in the culture provided a bulwark until the active mobilization of the Neoliberal Thought Collective could mount further responses.
  4. The thought collective has resorted to industrial-scale manufacture of ignorance about the crisis, based upon the time-tested model of the “tobacco strategy.” The excuses generated by economists for defending their profession were a major component of this activity. This in turn deems that the burgeoning resistance to doing anything substantive about global warming should be paired as symmetric with the burgeoning resistance to doing anything about the global economic crisis, with orthodox economists playing a comparable role in each, for purposes of strategic analysis. Agnotology has proven an effective and cheap short-term strategy to paralyze political action.
  5. The neoliberals have developed a relatively novel way to co-opt protest movements, through a combination of top-down hierarchical takeover plus a bottom-up commercialization and privatization of protest activities and recruitment. This is the extension of the practice of “marketing” to political action itself. Pop fascination with the role of social media in protest movements only strengthens this development.
  6. Finally, the Neoliberal Thought Collective has displayed an identifiable repeating pattern of full-spectrum policy responses to really pervasive crisis, which consists of short-run denialism, medium-term imposition of state-sponsored markets, and long-term recruitment of entrepreneurs to explore scientific blue-sky projects to transform human relationships to nature. Different components might seemingly appear to emanate from different sectors of the thought collective, and often appear on their face to contradict one another, which helps to inflate characteristically neoliberal responses to fill up the space of public discussion during the crisis, pushing other options to the margins. Furthermore, the different components often operate in tandem (in time, in co-opting opponents) to produce the ultimate result, which is to allow the market to come to its own inscrutable accommodation to the crisis.6

Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution remarks of Neoliberalism’s mission and power over the American Mind, saying “as a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus…”7

For the neoliberal politics not economics was the enemy, and during its emergence and take over of the world-system it would instrumentalise and divorce economics from politics to the point that the system of governance in the EU is the model of capitalist efficiency and debt economics which is at the core of the neoliberal economic strategy for Global Capitalism in the future. The impersonal and indifferent forces of numbers and algorithms shape and guide policy decisions now across the majority of nations. The complexity of economics and the world-system it supports have given birth to a new sense of the technocratic state, one that is no longer bound to politics or any one nation but is global in its reach and outside the control of any one nation or its political measures or dissent.

Most of the world’s wealth is controlled by the Fortune 500 corporations that have each circumvented the nation state and gone global in their legal and economic structures to the point that monopoly laws have little effect on their production or practices. Even if one nation enacts legislation there is the rest of the planet to work. And, for a nation to subtract themselves from the product lines of these major entities is not an option unless they seek utter collapse of their own economies. This is why Brexit and Trump isolationism seems superfluous in today’s network society. It’s too late to return to older forms of productivity, the decentralization of production over the past forty year has led to a no return path. The cost of trying to bring the older forms of Fordist centralization back would in the end bankrupt the nation that tried it. Collapse would be inevitable. So that many of the campaign promises by Trump were just that fantasy and will never see the light of day.

Of course all this is conjecture and assertion on my part (opinion and doxa), not argument. For who would truly be able to predict the future? Nonsense. Even trends such as the pattern seekers like Wallerstein in his systems view of the global economics system know that much of this is the blind leading the blind. No one can know the outcome, only generalizations and models, simulations, projections. As Brown admits “even if many neoliberal economic policies were abandoned or augmented, this would not abate the undermining of democracy through the normative economization of political life and usurpation of homo politicus by homo oeconomicus. (Brown, 201) And, yet, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy tells us in Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith, the “menace that hangs over the world today is that economic life as we know it may have no future. Economy now finds itself haunted by the dread of its own demise.”8 As Dupuy remarks further, an economy functions by projecting itself into a future that does not yet exist, but that it brings into existence by allowing itself to be pulled forward in time, as it were, until it reaches the very moment when the future it has imagined becomes real. This conundrum belongs to the category of so-called bootstrapping paradoxes, of which the imaginary exploits of Baron Münchausen supply a pleasing and striking instance. (Dupuy, KL 267)

This sense that the future is already working in our past and present, drawing us toward its own existing world has been discussed by me on this blog a few times. Many term it accelerationism or the power and intelligence of the future pulling us toward a singularity in which time and the speed of light cross over into each other and the future invades the present dissolving forever any return to the past. A time-loop that short circuits the world system causing an occasion in which the past, present, and future collapse into each other. In his notes on accelerationism Nick Land would ask: What can the earth do? “There is only self-quantification of teleoplexy or cybernetic intensity, which is what computerized financial markets (in the end) are for. As accelerationism closes upon this circuit of teleoplexic self-evaluation, its theoretical ‘position’—or situation relative to its object—becomes increasingly tangled, until it assumes the basic characteristics of a terminal identity crisis.”9

Scott Bukatman commenting on George Lucas’s award-winning 1965 student film (THX 1138 4EB), subtitled “Electronic Labyrinth,” tells us that the diegesis of this earlier work was experienced entirely through the mediating sources of surveillance cameras and videophones, and presented an interiorized, imploded world.10 As if already predicting the Algorithmic Governance of economics and society in our Acclerationist Age, Lucas in this film describes an adolescent narrative that involves the title character rebelling against his totalitarian programming and asserting his individuality, but the aesthetic of the film works against its ostensible moral. Technology comprises and delimits the world without exception or respite. The space within the computer is dramatized by bold pans across microcircuits and flashing lights, but the actual mechanics are redundant against the film’s white-on-white, NASA-inscribed environment. A cybernetic, computer-defined reality exists for the citizens, as overlaid graphics and low-resolution images present what Baudrillard calls “a hyperspace without atmosphere.” (Bukatman, 116)

This sense of suffocation, of our world imploding as the gases from the ocean floors begin to release greater and greater amounts of helium in the next few hundred years and the global conveyor belt that has cooled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years churns to a standstill and the cycles of rain and moisture across the vast continents stops and the world begins to topple into human extinction… well that’s one scenario… there are others, but this would take us beyond the American Dream and into the American Nightmare.

For many of us the knowledge that we live we live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind, that we live inside an enormous novel filled with meaningless red herrings is not the point, rather for us it is less and less necessary for us to invent the fictional content of our novelistic lives it’s ready-to-hand all around us, in the pain and suffering of other people we meet daily as we walk the streets of the American wastelands of decay and rusting iron, the backroads of meth induced psychosis in our rural towns, or the cocaine infested skyrises of our volatile 24/7 megacities. The task for us now is to invent the reality. For too long we’ve sought the illusion of a dream American and world, what we need now is seek out in the ruins of the present the reality of a world worth living in. If the future lies in ruins around us, in the dark shadows of our memories, then the secret is to remember the future, to discover the fragments of that broken mirror of time and put the world back together in such a way that the curse is lifted and we suddenly see ourselves not as we might wish to be but as we are in our becoming present. Accelerate the dream into reality.

  1. Immanuel Wallerstein. The Decline of American Power (Kindle Locations 71-73). The New Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Johnson, Chalmers. Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope (American Empire Project) (p. 183). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
  3. Joseph A. Tainter. The Collapse of Complex Societies (p. 213). Kindle Edition.
  4. Berman, Morris. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline (Kindle Locations 4014-4016). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.
  5. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (pp. 7-8). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
  6. Mirowski, Philip. Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Kindle Locations 7020-7046). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  7. Brown, Wendy. Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. Zone Books; Reprint edition (February 13, 2015)
  8. Dupuy, Jean-Pierre. Economy and the Future: A Crisis of Faith (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 250-252). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. “Teleoplexy: Notes on Acceleration” (2014), in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p. 513
  10. Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (p. 116). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition

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