UC Davis Economics Professor Gregory Clark has crunched some numbers and determined that the American Dream is dead. Hearing this might cause many people a great deal of distress and despair—I must admit to at least some disappointment, despite having concluded this for myself years ago. Growing up as an American, I was always taught—by my parents, teachers, and general media-types—that I could do anything if I just put my mind to it. Now that I am in my mid-40’s, I didn’t really need Dr. Clark’s analysis to tell me that’s bunk. And that sucks.
It’s nice to think that we can overcome whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves (and that is a healthy mindset for short-term problems), but to base our lives on an unattainable brass-ring just breaks our hearts and has undoubtedly led many people to become at best embittered and at worst possibly suicidal. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but that may be the only way to overcome the unrealistic optimism of the belief in perpetual upward mobility. The American system is broken, there is no American Dream (if there ever was). It could be that that was only ever a mindset, but what good has that mindset really done for the vast majority of us?
Happily, there is something we can do about it, individually and collectively: Embrace The Suck. Individually, there is nothing we can do to reform an economic system that is rigged against us by a political system that is openly auctioned off daily to the highest bidder in the lobby. And collectively, we have decided to let this cancer run its course (at least judging from the voter turnout in the November election) to its inevitably destructive conclusion.
It all comes down to how we choose to live. We can either surrender to despair and just wait out our lives hoping that a rigged system will somehow take pity on us and give a merciful retirement—after at least three more catastrophic market failures which will wipe out what little is left of middle-class wealth, or we can choose to take a simpler view of our lives and live happy. This does mean jettisoning the idea that we are all rough individuals that can take care of ourselves (no matter how comforting that mindset may be).
Some communities are already fighting back against the corruption of the centralized monetize-everything-to-feed-corporate-greed economy and have found ways to keep the economic energy where it belongs—in their communities—by establishing local currencies. While this is a very interesting turn of events, I think that solution suffers from maintaining the status quo mindset of never-ending economic growth. Do we really need constant consumption to be happy?
Some people have gone further and established intentional communities, in which they choose their neighbors and accept the responsibility to care for each other. Think about that for a second: Intentionally establishing a community (as opposed to developing a neighborhood for profit). These communities can range from a few individuals sharing an urban building, to several families pooling resources to buy land and setting up individual households. Each community may be founded on different principles (common religious affiliation or veganism, for example), but the one thing they all have in common is they seek independence. For many, this is partly expressed by growing their own food.
A UN Report concluded that industrialized farming cannot feed the world population in the long run. We must change the mindset that self actualization can be bought, because not even survival can be guaranteed when someone demanding profit can shut off the food supply. The key to this is food sovereignty, which “asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat.”
Local currencies may be effectively little more than formalized protest, but they are speaking a language most people understand. Intentional communities are a more radical idea, but the desire to build a community with people of like-mind is not foreign to any of us. Both of these examples are, in their essence, lessons in grassroots economic development: Both seek to create something of a micro-economy in which a larger portion of the economic output created by the community remains within the community, instead of being siphoned off by absentee landlords.
These are not approaches merely intent on withdrawing from a broken system. They are solutions which can result in moving beyond a system that was clearly not meant to benefit the masses. The sense you have of falling behind more and more every day isn’t just in your head: You actually are. The system has been rigged to ensure it. But you can fight back—by refusing to play. Accept that the existing economy has nothing to offer you and work to create a community—and economy—that does. Embrace The Suck. It’s the only way you will be able to let it go and begin living a life with more meaning and independence.