The myth of the self-made man is American culture’s own special heart of darkness, helping to explain both its infectious optimism and its ruthless greed. The idea holds enough truth and seductiveness to make it easy to forget its delusional dangers. To reprise Marx’s famous formulation, individuals, like humankind, do make their own personal history, but not under conditions they choose. But in America, we choose to ignore the caveat about conditions at our own peril.
For the past three decades economic inequality has grown in the United States, even as the country has made some ambiguous strides toward greater gender and racial equality.
While the official poverty rate has inched upward and the middle class has shrunk, the most important fact about the growth of inequality is that the super-rich have made out like, well, bandits. While the real income of the bottom 90 percent of Americans fell from 1980 to 2002, the income of the top 0.1 percent—making $1.6 million or more a year—went up two and a half times in real terms before taxes. With the help of the Bush tax cuts, the gap between the super-rich and everyone else grew even larger.
The American people accept this, it is argued, because they think that there’s more social mobility than there is. As recent studies demonstrate, there is less social mobility in the United States now than there was in the ’80s (and also less than in the ’70s) and less mobility than in many other industrial countries, including Canada, Finland, Sweden, and Germany.
But perversely, many Americans don’t understand that their chances—or the chances of their children—to rise significantly in the economic pecking order have declined. They also believe that they’ll personally get rich. Indeed, a poll in 2000 indicated that 39 percent of Americans thought they were either in the wealthiest one percent or would be “soon.” Five years later, another poll for the New York Times was slightly less exuberant: 11 percent thought it was very likely they would become wealthy, another 34 percent somewhat likely.
“It is OK to have ever-greater differences between rich and poor, [Americans] seem to believe,” David Wessel wrote last year in the Wall Street Journal, “as long as their children have a good chance of grasping the brass ring.”
This view is problematic. First, the greater the inequality, the less likely the possibility of mobility. Increased inequality worsens the large disparities in resources that families can devote to education, which is increasingly important for entering many careers and for social mobility. A college degree, it should be stressed, is important not just because of the knowledge acquired, but because college serves as a class-biased sorting mechanism for entry to certain jobs. In contrast, the record suggests that countries with greater equality also have greater mobility. Substantive equality creates more equality of opportunity.
But even if there were mobility, such inequality would be problematic. Is it fair that society’s wealth be divided so unevenly? Isn’t there a decent standard of living—rising as economies become wealthier—to which everyone who “works hard and plays by the rules,” in the Clintonian formulation, should be entitled? Great social disparity means that the financially well-off use their money and greater political leverage to protect their privilege rather than to design policies for the common good.
In defense of the rich getting richer, former Bush economic advisor Gregory Mankiw argues that the richest increased their share when the economy boomed; so if we want prosperity, let the plutocrats prosper. Of course, that doesn’t mean that enriching the very wealthiest caused the boom or was even necessary for the boom to occur. In any case, the economy grew faster in the first three decades after World War II—when equality was increasing—than in the next three decades, when equality was decreasing. In any case, if the income from growth is captured by the very rich, as it largely has been for a couple of decades, this path to prosperity offers little to most people. Also, with high inequality, even the pretense of community declines, social conflict increases, and society functions more poorly. Individual mobility is not the only way to improve one’s lot. Social solidarity and working together can improve everyone’s lot.
This brings us back to the self-made man. Despite our national self-delusions, it is clear that class matters—just as race, gender, and other accidents of history matter—in shaping the opportunities and life experiences of Americans. The social class into which someone is born largely defines one’s class as an adult. That class position makes a difference in how healthy or how long-lived the person will be, especially in the absence of universal health insurance (though inequality literally kills and maims, even if society provides the best of care to everyone). It also influences access to education and to jobs.
Sign up for our free newsletter
Subscribe to the NPQ newsletter to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
The myth of the self-made person, however, encourages the person who succeeds to think his good fortune is due entirely to his work and genius. For this reason, businessmen in the United States have historically been more anti-union and hostile to government than their counterparts in Europe. And the myth makes those who fail blame themselves.
According to recent polls, American workers—worried more about job insecurity, rising costs of education, health care expenses, the availability of insurance, pension failures, and social security privatization—are increasingly looking for stronger social action to provide security. They are deeply skeptical about the globalization that has increased inequality and insecurity, believing that big corporations and the rich are the winners from globalization.
But according to the self-made man mythology, unleashing the free market to dominate every sphere of life is supposed to provide individual freedom. The irony is that taking responsibility as a society to guarantee more stability and equality—by regulating the global economy and establishing universal guarantees of health care, education, and retirement security—could provide citizens with more individual freedom.
For now, the realm of freedom for most Americans remains constricted to the shopping mall, where they can buy their identities—using their credit cards to compensate for stagnant earnings. Former United Auto Workers official Frank Joyce even sees the rise of credit cards as undermining workers’ interest in unions. Income, earned or borrowed, obviously greatly differentiates people’s lives, even if a working class consumer can only indulge in a box of luxury chocolates or a sub-luxury car. And the growing differences in income are exacerbated by growing but unmeasured differences in health insurance, as well as various business perks such as free cars or expense accounts.
But the focus on income ignores the even greater inequalities of wealth. Wealth provides security. As a New York Times series on class last year illustrated, the better-off consistently talked of making choices while working class individuals talked about feeling trapped. Kids from wealthy families can take unpaid internships, spend a year abroad, or experiment with careers; kids from working class families are likely to stick with a summer job that pays the bills and provides health insurance, thus failing to finish college.
More important, wealth and class are issues of power. But most Americans—including many well-meaning individuals concerned about poverty—rarely think in those terms, at least until they feel the effects directly. Last year I talked with Aaron Kemp, who lost his job when Maytag closed the factory he worked at in Galesburg, Illinois, and moved production to Mexico and Korea. “I never remember even thinking about what class I was in until after the plant closing announcement and layoff,” Kemp said. “And then you begin to think about what class you’re in.” Rather than manners or fashion, class ultimately has more to do with who has the power to make such decisions and the powerlessness of the majority.
That class power is partly sustained and legitimized by the narrative of the self-made man. In their book, Death by a Thousand Cuts, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro recount how the super-rich worked with ultra-conservatives to demonize and come close to eliminating the estate tax, which they renamed the “death tax.” People who would never be subjected to the estate tax and who would indirectly lose financially if it were eliminated nevertheless often saw the estate tax as unjust. But as William Gates, Sr., father of Microsoft Bill, often argued on behalf of the tax, the very rich accumulate their wealth not simply because of what they did but because of the society in which they lived, and they have a debt to that society. And the heirs of such wealth are the antithesis of self-made men.
The rich used their political power, their money, and the right’s shameless, mendacious hucksters to protect their riches, at the expense of society. But belief in the myth of the self-made man—abetted by the feckless incompetence of Democratic opposition—made many ordinary people suckers for the right-wing pitch.
Class matters, but so does consciousness of class. It makes little sense to be working on community well-being or other social justice issues without an understanding of the structural realities of class in this country and of the mythologies and other dynamics that support continuing and worsening divisions of wealth and influence. Class consciousness allows you to make better decisions on strategic and financing questions by clarifying your own analysis and identifying problems of conflicting self-interest with potential partners. As nonprofit leaders and organizers, class consciousness is a critical component of good practice.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times, a national monthly newsmagazine. This article was adapted from one previously published by In These Times which is available at www.inthesetimes.com/site/main/article/2175.