All systems have a doctrine that justifies their existence: their legitimation doctrine. Without a legitimation doctrine, a society could not sustain itself because some doctrine or other needs to bind people together and motivate people to stay within its orbit and operate according to its rules.
Capitalist societies’ legitimation doctrine is that higher class standing equals greater worth and that those who enjoy privileged status do so because they are more meritorious.
The corollary to this notion is that the primary (or exclusive) rewards for greater merit are material, not non-material.
This is how the American Dream operates: hard work and greater talent are supposed to produce greater material wealth. Alternatively, one can pursue the American Dream by buying lottery tickets or spending money at casinos and if you’re lucky, you’ll hit it rich and achieve the American Dream, not through hard work and talent but by luck.
Another path to the American Dream is through criminal activity: criminals crave the American Dream of riches and when successful, they sport all of the trappings of that wealth – big houses, expensive cars and clothes, young, good-looking, expensively attired partners, private schools for their children, and so on.
In any case, happiness is equated with having lots and lots of money. No one can tell you what to do and you are free to do what you want. You no longer have any obligations to others.
This is how lottery tickets are promoted and gambling houses prosper: offering people a chance to hit it big. That one is not more meritorious through the vagaries of luck underscore the fact that the American Dream is really all about the money.
Status, which is how one is perceived by others, is equated under capitalism and the American Dream in particular, with having money: the more you have, the higher your status, and the less you have, the lower your status. That it’s all about the money is also evident from pro-capitalists’ rationale for poverty’s stubborn persistence despite abundance: if we offered people a more generous social safety net then allegedly they wouldn’t have an incentive to work. In other words, the only reason to work is monetary and not due to any of the work’s intrinsic attributes. According to capitalism’s cheerleaders, work does not contain intrinsic satisfactions because if it did, then their rationale about the need to pay elites disproportionately high salaries and on the other end, below poverty wages to those who work at places like Walmart, would no longer make any sense.
If, for example, jobs such as being a TV News anchor or a corporate CEO were seen as having value to those doing it beyond the money they’re paid, then they would have trouble justifying the immense gap between those jobs’ salaries and perks compared to someone who is doing dirty work such as cleaning toilets or very arduous field work like picking strawberries. If the criterion were desirability of the work, then the latter occupations should be paid disproportionately well and the cushier jobs should be paid less because of the higher intrinsically satisfying aspects of that kind of work.
But, our capitalist fans would object, if you don’t materially reward people for the higher status jobs heavily then you will not attract the best people and the whole society would then suffer by not having the best people in the highest posts. This argument assumes, however, that the best people in society are all attracted by money and that these occupations with weighty responsibilities that impact the whole society would otherwise go begging for people to fill them.
This is a surpassingly strange argument if you think about it: the posts that society depends so heavily on would not draw people to them based on the fact that those who do it are doing an important public service. No, according to those who subscribe to the American Dream’s ethic, that cannot be the motivation because the most meritorious people are also very materially acquisitive. In other words, our capitalist acolytes are saying that the best people are also the most selfish and shallow. This does actually match these advocates of selfishness’ own value systems, so I can see how they might project this onto the rest of society.
Imagine the unthinkable: a society organized around filling leadership posts based primarily on attracting the most altruistic and socially aware people who are the most committed to advancing the interests of the whole rather than their own individual material condition. What a novel notion!
Because no system is singularly monolithic and competing and contrasting perspectives co-exist and contend within them, not everyone in American society is driven by the American Dream. We are all impacted by its dominance because it largely determines the fabric of our economic, social and political lives; but we are not all equally moved by it individually. Whole sectors of the society, in fact, have jobs that attract a high proportion of people who aren’t mainly motivated by material rewards. The so-called helping professions such as teachers, for example, draw disproportionately from among those who don’t get their primary motivation by the pursuit and acquisition of material things. Parents don’t sacrifice their time, energy, some of the best years of their lives, and money for their children because they anticipate that their children will someday literally pay them back with monetary riches. They do this for no pay whatsoever. Imagine that!
As a student of mine wrote in his final class paper this quarter, the joy that he gets from watching the high school soccer team that he coaches score on a play that they have gone over and over again in practice cannot be translated into any amount of money.
Classes continue to exist only because at this point in human history, capitalism dictates that human labor shall be exploited for the material interests of the very few instead of labor being harnessed for the interests of the whole. To illustrate this, consider this thought experiment: If everyone were to have the opportunity to go to graduate school and everyone, for the sake of argument did so, and if everyone were to be tied for top graduating spot in their medical school, law school, or other program, what would happen to the US occupational structure? Would everyone be a doctor or lawyer? Obviously not. The occupational structure would remain intact and the only difference now would be that you would have doctors and lawyers picking strawberries in the fields. The fact that all of these doctors would not be satisfied with that kind of work is something that Emile Durkheim was well aware of, which is why he advised against exposing most of the working class to a higher education. Apparently, it never occurred to Durkheim to consider that the existing division of labor in capitalist society is not the best of all possible worlds and that exploitation rather than co-operation are the hallmarks of capitalist economies. Instead of recognizing that the capitalist division of labor is what creates this conflict between those who are exposed to the “vast horizons and fine generalizations” of a good higher education and their actual life prospects, he chose to argue that natural inequality among the people explains social inequality. And yet by acknowledging that exposing working class people to those “vast horizons” would fill them with dissatisfaction at their constrained role in the economy, he was tacitly admitting that the problem was not their talents and abilities but the structuring of capitalism and class society itself.
Classes and status overlap but they are not identical. Status in a generic sense of differential evaluation of individuals within groups is something that will not ever go away, even when social classes are finally eliminated. Why do I say this?
Because individuals and groups are inextricably linked, because individuals will always be different from one another, and because groups function because they have norms which include notions about what is more admirable versus what is less admirable and these notions take concrete form in specific individuals, even when classes are no more, status will persist. For example, in a society that installs the public good in first place, those who contribute to that public good the most will be regarded more highly than those who do not. That is a form of status. It is not an invidious form of status the way having things like Rolex watches are or the snobbery that accompanies having a bigger house than someone else. Being honored for selflessness is not a zero-sum game the way many other forms of status now are in which privilege is sought based on its exclusivity. Selflessness is something that everyone can be part of.
Another example of a kind of status that will not disappear with the elimination of classes would be creativity. In any group of people there will always be those who are more creative and imaginative. The model that they set for the group is something that can be and should be honored and emulated without having to give those individuals necessarily more material rewards for that status.
Yet another example of a kind of status that would not disappear with the passing away of social classes would be the status that individuals have who are the best at what they do, whether that is being the fastest runner, the highest jumper, the best actor, the greatest scientist, and so on. The satisfaction of doing a job surpassingly well is a human attribute that is intrinsically satisfying. One does not need to be paid excessively well to derive tremendous satisfaction from saving someone else’s life as, for example, brain surgeons can do. Those who exceed the average ability to do things will always be models for others.
I once had an argument with a former brother-in-law who had read in the news that someone in China had found a very large diamond and had voluntarily given it to the state. He was extremely agitated that she did this because he believed that the individual who found the diamond should have kept her find for herself and been personally made rich by it. To him this was precisely why he thought that socialism was a terrible system – that the individual, who in this case was lucky to find this diamond, didn’t make a lot of money from it.
In a capitalist system the legitimation doctrine holds that individuals should get materially rich and that non-material riches are worthless. Inherent in this doctrine is the fact that for it to work as a motivator, even assuming that it otherwise has no other flaws, there must be a wide disparity between the rich and the poor. If there is not a wide disparity, then the promise of material riches will not work as a motivator.
Thus, inherent in the capitalist model/American Dream, is the necessity to maintain a sizable segment of the population in poverty and relative want. If you don’t, then the prize of material riches won’t function to motivate anyone. Thus, the promise of the American Dream of riches to be fully truthful would also have to disclose that wealth for some must inevitably mean privation for many and that the many who are being deprived do so not necessarily because they are less worthy but because the system requires that many be deprived so that the few can bask in luxury.
Is that any way to organize society – to make it a game of winners and losers and where the winners think they are just so much better than all of those losers out there? There is a huge difference between applauding those who push the limits of human capacity because this is something that all of us can derive inspiration and satisfaction from, and organizing one’s society along lines that celebrate individualism as if individuals are not part and parcel of groups and lauding the desirability of the “winners” having no obligations to others. It is precisely this stance of ruthless egotism and narcissism that is destroying the planet and tearing the social fabric asunder.