Worker Co-ops and the American Dream, part 5

Keeping the Dream Alive

Despite the data that clearly exposes the shortcomings of the American Dream, it is still a powerful myth that draws thousands of new immigrants to the United States each year. Even those who deny the Dream or expose it do not have immunity to its powers. One could argue that Langston Hughes, given his humble childhood and the success that he garnered, achieved the very American Dream seen to be deferred. Of course, that requires one to see the American Dream as a solitary dream, not a communal one.

Historically, the American Dream’s power exists through championing the individual and their desire to acquire wealth. The 19th century stories of Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger spread the vision that by hard work and a little luck, everyone could grow wealthy. This expression of the American Dream limits any failure in attempting to achieve the dream to the moral failings of the individual rather than a systemic failure or systemic method of accumulating wealth (Porter, 2010). It ignores the reality that wealth accumulates among the wealthy (Pikkety, 2014). The myth of solitary actions of in how we generate wealth has started to change with the Great Recession of 2008 as many started to question the wheeling and dealing that appears to stack the deck against the individual. That sentiment that the game is rigged plays into the Dream. The anger isn’t that capitalism, as a system, concentrates wealth into fewer and fewer hands and extracts wealth from labor and the environment. The anger results from a sense that people with connections cheated to get ahead.

The American Dream exists, then in different states for diverse groups of individuals. It is, in many ways, an antenarrative to the American experience. The antenarrative connects the grand narrative with the living story. For some, this antenarrative expands to create the myth of individual attainment of wealth, for others a life of liberty and pursuit of happiness (in comparison to their home country) and the quest for social justice that liberty and happiness imply. Like the duality of Schrodinger’s Cat, the American Dream can exist as a grand narrative of community-oriented social justice and a grand narrative of individual economic prosperity, both individual and communal. Just as one can only know the fate of Schrodinger’s Cat by opening the box, one can only see the American Dream through the individual story. It is this duality, this multi-modal nature of the Dream that is, at once deferred and achieved depending on the observer that creates the incredible power of the American Dream and keeps the concept of “America” bigger than life.


Pikkety, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-first Century: Harvard University Press.

Porter, G. (2010). Work Ethic and Ethical Work: Distortions in the American Dream. Journal of Business Ethics, 96(4), 535-550.

Next: The Union-Coop as a Pathway to the American Dream

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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