“The American Dream”™ is crumbling in spectacular fashion in a way that is uniquely observable and felt now for the first time in recent years to millions of Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. (This is not to say however, that this is ahistorical or a particularly unusual period of time in American history. The creation of this country would not be possible without the genocide of Native American peoples and the enslavement of African peoples- the lasting consequences of which both communities still bear the burden of, and from which the spiritual core of this nation is still decaying.)
This past year was especially painful as millions of Americans contended with surviving a global pandemic with little to no external support, the heightened visibility of police brutality against Black Americans, a furious resurgence of white nationalism, endless wars abroad, all accompanied by a constant march towards climate catastrophe. In an increasingly fast-paced world defined by a seemingly unending churn of difficult headlines such as these, the issues at hand very quickly appear disjointed and therefore too complex to understand all at once.
While all of these issues both deserve and require individual attention, the existence of nearly all of the issues that we endure as individuals and as a society are part of a single, larger problem.
It must be acknowledged that all wage laborers (those that rely on selling their labor power as a means of survival) are inherently exploited under the current economic system. All we need to do to confirm this is recall our understanding that it would be economically unfavorable for an employer to employ a worker who was incapable of creating more economic value for them than the worker would take home in wages. This is to establish that the system itself is reliant on exploitation to continue, however it was proceeded with particular ruthlessness in recent years.
According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), hourly wages since 1980 have dramatically diverged.
Ninety-five percent of the lowest-earning workers experienced modest gains over the last four decades, during three of which wages were all but stagnant. Over the same time period however, the top 5% of earners not only saw a steady wage increase throughout, but saw a hefty increase of 63% up from 1980 levels. This significant wealth gap persists despite significant increases in both educational attainment and worker productivity throughout the labor force.
Meanwhile, C-level executives are making hundreds of times more than the average worker (320 in 2019 versus 20 in 1965) and historically effective labor unions have been systematically stripped of their power at the federal and state level over the same time period.
Many conservative pundits and their supporters acknowledge these troubling numbers to a degree, but by and large they point to the existence of class mobility as a viable means to avoid the threat of poverty altogether. The data however tells a different story.
According to the results of a report prepared for the U.S. Census Bureau on economic mobility, class mobility across all income levels was found to follow the same near-linear profile across all studied races despite observable trends in racial disparities, specifically among Hispanic, American Indian, and Black children. However what is notable is that for all races at nearly all income levels, average household income percentile fell markedly in the second generation making a difficult case for upward economic mobility.
Despite the increase in wealth for the billionaire class, the poor has become even more impoverished and vulnerable, highlighting an important reality: extreme wealth cannot exist independently from extreme poverty. Knowing this along with the insistence from the wealthy that the system is working as intended, we can only conclude that the system itself is predicated upon inequity and the reproduction of inequity.
The Material Utility of Bigotry
The word “class” is typically used solely to communicate information about economic means of one group relative to another. Social identities however, usually along lines of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and ability/disability, are typically left out of this definition of class despite being highly intertwined.
This has been the case since the early beginnings of American history, during which non-white peoples have routinely been exploited for their bodies and their labor. Most notably Native Americans for their expertise on agricultural cultivation and Black Africans for their labor to build the early American agrarian economy as well as critical infrastructure. Neither reaped the economic benefits of their knowledge and labor, but are rather continuously violated and subjugated to this day.
Similarly, the American government relied upon immigrant Chinese workers to build the Transcontinental Railroads in the 1800s while denying them full citizenship and starting in the 1980s on immigrant populations of workers educated abroad to supplement a lagging domestic workforce, only to treat them and their descendants as perpetual foreigners.
The history of non-white labor in this country is one marked by persistent violence and second-class citizenship. This history is often conveniently depicted as merely an unfortunate consequence of racism.
However, this analysis obscures an important material consequence. If subgroups of laborers can be socially valued as lesser in society— either through criminalization, impoverishment, or even insistence of inherent inferiority — not only can the average cost of labor to the economic elite be driven down, but it also incentivizes less marginalized subgroups of workers to participate in this devaluation. Unfortunately what is not obvious, is that participation in this devaluation is also against the best economic interest of more privileged subgroups of the working class.
(This devaluation also extends beyond the oppression of non-white peoples. It also includes the subjugation of women and queer people by way of control of the reproductive means to create cheap labor, and the marginalization of the elderly and disabled as an extension of their unprofitability.)
Subscribing to a belief in one’s superiority over any subgroups of one’s economic class conveniently works on behalf of the economic elite as it leaves the working class fragmented, unorganized, and made collectively powerless by its own hand.
In their aspiration to join an overwhelmingly white millionaire/billionaire class that is becoming increasingly inaccessible, white working class Americans blight themselves also. Although they understand correctly that capitalism has its preferences, they fail to recognize that it has no loyalties— not even to them.
The Exploitation of All: Human and Non-Human
It becomes very easy to see and feel the commodification of the working class when one is a member of it. However, it is more of a challenge to see the commodification of the natural environment as an extension of our own exploitation.
Once we can accept that our current world is reliant on the continuous exploitation of human beings to sustain itself, it is not much of a leap to acknowledge that any society that exploits the marginalized will most definitely leave no consideration for the most defenseless of all — the natural environment.
Our relentless approach to climate disaster is therefore logical. Land, crops, water, air, and animals are also simply a means to an end for the benefit of a few at the expense of many.
Perhaps the even greater tragedy, is that there are plenty of resources to go around to sustain all of us and then some. It is merely our allocation of these resources to those who we believe are worthy of survival and those who are not that makes the difference.
The moment we can recognize our survival as intertwined with each other and with our ecosystems themselves is the moment we can begin to be effective.
A Critical Turning Point
Even the most amateur of gardeners like myself know that when you want to remove a weed, it will not be enough to remove only the leaves that are visible at the surface. The whole root must first be identified and discarded, or it will grow back again and you’ll have to do the work all over.
Similarly, we must all do more to ask ourselves of the common threads of our material struggles and be highly suspicious of those who try to convince us that our problems are caused by people fighting the same, or even more difficult battles.
Rather, our ultimate objective is made crystal clear when we ask ourselves who we have been conditioned to idolize and emulate on one hand — and on the other, who to remain separate from, to think of as inherently lesser and therefore worthy of our disdain, and who we have been convinced in-turn despises us . If we will not for the principle, then we certainly must at least for our collective survival. In this pursuit, we will find both our allies and a bright path forward to a world that is truly for the people, by the people.
Note: This article is a byproduct of my lived experience as a woman of color of moderate financial means and educational attainment living in the Southern United States. As such, I experience the effects of white supremacy on a regular basis and see its effects in my community first-hand, however I possess a degree of socioeconomic privilege that darker-skinned individuals, Black people, Indigenous people, people with less financial means, and lower levels of educational attainment do not possess. While I believe in the accuracy of this piece, I recognize that due to these differences my perspectives on American racism and poverty will have its blind spots, and therefore do not intend to present my conclusions as final, and instead strongly encourage readers to rely on the knowledge of even more marginalized members of society to supplement this analysis.