The American Dream Rewards Few, Enslaves Millions
I've been working odd jobs and starting businesses all my life. It's a hustler spirit fitting with my immigrant roots, a key part of my identity. Quintessentially American, even. Self-reliance is something I'm proud of – I've always loved Westerns. For an avowed socialist, it's all a bit problematic.
At dawn, I wake up, put on something sharp and work as the publisher of Jacobin magazine – prominent by the slim standards of the American left – and as a freelancer at more mainstream outlets. I tried my hand at regular wage-labor once. It wasn't for me.
In high school, I stocked shelves at a Key Foods Grocery Store in my hometown for all of nine weeks. My family was middle-class, but there was never enough money, even with two parents working 60-hour weeks. My mother eventually got a job at telemarketing firm. My father, a medical professional overseas, struggled to both support his family and get recertified. His diplomas meant little here. Fresh from Trinidad and Tobago, it was the price they had to pay to keep me and my four siblings in a district with a good public school.
In America, we actually do have something of a social democracy. But it's localized and exclusionary, reliant on high property taxes. I was the youngest in my family, and by the time I was growing up, we were renting a small house in one of those cushy suburbs. I had access to public goods, a safe environment to grow up in, food, housing, books, recreation, and all the other necessities to flourish as an individual.
But my parents were hardly around. Childcare fell to the public library, where I lingered after school until they got off their shifts. My classmates were there for the first hour or so; after that, the stacks became my friends. I picked up Richard Wright, then Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky, and transformed into something of a leftist – connecting lived experience in an unequal society with broader structures of exploitation.
I wasn't the organic intellectual of Marxist fantasies, a proletarian politicized in the factory, but few are. Time not getting bossed around at work, time to read and think, has a knack of actually fostering radicalism. But my family's proud position in the lower middle class was precarious, so embracing more outward displays of rebellion wasn't an option. I had to tuck in my shirt and go to work, building savings so I could afford college, with an eye to cementing my parents' rocky ascent up the American class ladder.
Key Foods was miserable. I had to stock freezers for hours and bring my own gloves. Whenever I forgot them, my hands were numb until I woke up the next morning. My co-workers, some of whom commuted 40 miles to work for $7 an hour, had to suffer worse indignities without redress. Immigrant workers were barked at by younger, white bosses. Female employees faced sexual harassment, from both management and, occasionally, customers. All of us were docked pay for the most minor transgressions.
I was arrogant and privileged enough to have other options, so I quit and started a shady business import/exporting out-of-market software. It wasn't especially lucrative, but I learned life skills: how to manage money, how to be as independent as possible.
A few years later, I was in college – still hustling away, doing whatever: from selling marijuana to small-scale bootlegging. The money would come in handy when I accumulated a ton of medical debt after I got sick in my second year. The skills would come in handy when I married my business talents to my intellectual proclivities and started my own print journal (long after those things were supposed to be dead).
To many liberals, I know, I'm a vindication of the system. It's how American illusions about work function.
The focus is on individual triumph and luck; not collective action and social responsibility. The libraries that gave me books, the schools that gave me education, the activists who fought racism on my behalf, all fade to the background, even in my own narratives of youth. So, something like the hardship of sickness in a country without socialized healthcare is whitewashed into a formative tale about overcoming obstacles.
My parents, who will likely have to keep working well into old age, did get their vindication when I accumulated enough cultural capital through my more poorly-paid, but honorable pursuits to get a few glowing profiles in the mainstream media. And that's part of the disease that keeps American capitalism going.
It's not that everyone can be successful; it's that anyone can be successful. A few token children of the meritocracy keep the rest glued to their machines. Not all in chains, some by choice.
Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine
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