Final Paper Assignment
The American Dream told through
C. Wright Mills and Karl Marx Theories
What is it about the American Dream that is so appealing, so enticing, so alluring? As one of the most iconic phrases used and known around the world, it has established itself in the hearts and minds as an obtainable goal that should be pursued at all cost. This concept has been personified unlike any other goal in our society to an unhealthy level. It has transformed into a beguiling set of values that is now crossing the line into an insidious mindset for our youth, causing them to take drastic measures to ensure their own dominance, and success. So, how would C. Wright Mills and Karl Marx, 2 of the most influential sociologist in history, interpret this notion of anything is possible if you try hard enough.
Although these two-famous theorists were born almost a century apart from one another, they actually share some common perspectives and ideas on society and culture. As the founder of conflict theory, Karl Marx believes that life is a constant battle between the rich and poor. To him society has created the economic system of capitalism in order to ensure the rich are getting richer and the poor are staying poor. There are 2 class types he coined as the Bourgeoisie (rich) and exploited Proletariat (poor). The Relations of Production was the basis for manipulation of the working lower class. Both of these theorists approach any major phenomena from a conflict theory stand point. Mills has a similar viewpoint that he calls the power elite. This group is of people is extremely small and represents a concentrated power in America broken up between three subgroups, military powers, the executive powers in the White House and Wall street. These groups will make decisions that ensure and protect their power even when those decisions are bad for the society as a whole.
Naturally, as conflict theorists they share similar views on society, the individual, and also what change needs to take place. They both view and characterize society as tensions and struggles between groups. Individuals are shaped by power coercion and authority and consequently order is maintained through tough force and intimidation. Marx explains this in his Communist Manifesto saying, “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another” (Longo 2017. Communist Manifesto).
Although there are many parallels between the works of Mills and that of Marx, the areas that they differ are quite drastic. Mills wrote his book The Sociological Imagination which outlines the changes that can and need to come from the individual. In order to do this, he says one must be able to imagine things from a broader perspective, called “quality of mind” which allows one to grasp the interplay between your own personal self and biography and how you fit into the bigger picture, history and society. Mills states that “the promise of social sciences is to bring reason to bear on human affairs. To fulfill this requires that we avoid furthering the bureaucratization of reason and of discourse.” This process of educating the individual is a bit different approach to the views of Marx. He takes a materialistic approach to the conception of history and uses it as an underlying approach to social life and change. In The German Ideology he says that life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life… consciousness is therefore, from the very beginning, a social product.” (Longo 2017. The German Ideology).
In short, Marx believes that in conflict theory, groups must work together to change the Division of Labor, relations of production and at all cost avoid alienation of labor. Mills sees social problems as social ills that arise from contradictions or strains. Mills can see that conflict comes from the social structure. In truth, Mills was able to revive the conflict perspective that Marxist wrote on decades earlier that was being replaced by functionalistic views from sociologist like Merton.
So, what would each of these theorists have to say about the American Dream and false narrative that it come with. Marx would be keen to say that due to the rise of capitalism and the previously discussed influence of bourgeois, that concept of the American Dream has all but deteriorated. The elite business owners have been able to capitalize on our society’s obsession with status and accumulation of wealth. The obvious end result has been our substantial disparity of wealth between the elite and everyone else. (Edles 26). The American Dream places a false hope among the working class of our society. Accumulating capital has now become such a large value of significance that an obsession has overtaken the original ideas and values. At its conception it was truly based on creating a better future and opportunity for your family. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and Marx would argue that any capitalist society would fall to these conventions due to the bourgeoisie making decisions that solely benefit and protect their power which naturally disregards and hurts the rest of society. The elite will always be able to exploit the working class at high levels, extracting what Marx calls “free labor” (Longo 2017. Karl Marx) which prevents the working class from amassing any wealth or capital due to poor dynamics in the means of production.
The natural tendencies of capitalism are boom and bust which cannot ever protect or promise the working class the small compensation that they receive from such a flawed system. Only the upper class can maintain the high level of capital to profit in a boom or bust economy. The proletariat on the other hand can never gain enough capital at one time to capitalize on this style of economic growth. Marx warns that this will inevitably lead to alienation within the working-class. The large scale altruistic decisions the elite make simply do not allow the American dream to be obtained by everyone that works hard and has grit and determination. (Edles 39). A clear result of this is going to be alienation from all aspects of the production process. The product they are actually producing, their natural ability or processes of producing, and most importantly individuals become alienated with each other and themselves. Immobility on the ladder of success is quickly realized which creates an intense class struggle that mark believes is a direct consequence of capitalism.
Every theorist would look at this problem differently and take a diverse stance on this perspective. Durkheim would say that the American dream is still very much thriving, and he would see the division of labor in terms of organic solidarity in our society, which allows the individual to each specialize in their own act of labor according to their personal skill set. Max Weber would most likely disagree with both theorists, putting the blame for the deterioration of the American dream on increased emphasis on rationalization. C. Wright Mills would want to use The Power Elite and The Sociological Imagination to explain the current state of the American dream and what lead to this change.
The power elite are politically, militarily, and economically dominant in our society. Mills would argue that more political democracy than a democratic social structure would be detrimental to the development of democratic institutions. Institutions are necessary to obtain or gain power and only the elite have access to this change of power. Similar to Marx views the Power Elite will make grand decisions that have negative impact on the working class but maximize profit and ensures longevity for their control of power. Mills would attribute what he calls false consciousness to this new mass society. A systematic misrepresentation of dominant social relations in the consciousness of subordinate classes. (Longo 2017 C. Wright Mills). Mills states that “We have moved a considerable distance along the road to the mass society.” Far fewer people express opinions now than receive them which leads to public opinion being directly and easily manipulated by the power elite. Where Marx and Mills would differ the most on their opinion of the American dream is how to change it for the better. Marx would suggest a group effort to force the hand of the bourgeoisie, where Mills would look to the sociological imagination to show how the individual is making their own history and can decide for themselves how to change society by looking at the bigger perspective.
Although these theorists have similar approaches to dealing with and answering social problems I believe that Marx’s ideology fits better in tune with the current state of the American dream. Their analysis of the American dream does deliver a personalized perspective of how and why things occur in our society, and what goes into shaping them. The claims made by Mark almost 2 centuries ago have been very accurate in describing the flaws of capitalism and why, similar to the American dream, there is a false hope for the individual, of financial success obtainable by anyone. Marx is clear that capitalist driven economic societies are crisis prone causing powerful and dirty class conflict. In almost every circumstance the elite are able to out as the winner as they hold all the power in a society. Marx warned of a long term weakening effect in a culture that hold such values and history has proved him to by correct.
Is the American Dream a myth? Is it realistic to believe and accept that it is functional and beneficial to a society in the 21st century? I don’t think that we can. There is an argument to be made that it is necessary for the stability and sustainability of the core values, social order and beliefs of in our country but is it obtainable for all? No, I think that why it is called a dream, not everyone can obtain it but having a healthy mind set towards it can benefit the individual. The obsession that has taken over our country for money and success however is extremely toxic and damaging to our society and consequently our economy. Despite this, it is our job, and obligation as sociologist and criminologist to, in the future, create change through policy that allows for more individuals to realistically strive for and achieve the American dream. Mills would agree that as sociologist our goal should be to create a better society through education especially at the college age because that is who will create change in the future.
Edles, Laura Desfor, and Scott Appelrouth. 2015. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era: Text and Readings. Los Angeles: SAGE.
Longo, Stephano. 2017. Lecture. Theories of Social Structure