Steinbeck never said that Americans see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” but that misquotation is so pervasive because it captures something vital about one version of the American Dream, the idea that anyone can make it in America by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, which means that if you haven’t made it, it’s because of some defect within you, and not because of a rigged system.
In Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, Alissa Quart – director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project – addresses the meritocratic delusion of the “self-made man,” the story that, in America, the rich are good, and therefore the good are rich, and therefore the dwindling slice of the pie shared among everyone else is no more than they deserve.
Quart’s book braids together four strands: a factual account of the reality of social mobility in America; a kind of psychoanalysis of what the myth of being self-made does to your mind; a power analysis of how the self-made brainworm benefits the rich and powerful, and a program for breaking free of the stultifying grip of a belief in the self-made.
Start with the factual: America is not a bootstrap-friendly land. If you have money in America, chances are very good are you inherited it. Gone is the culture of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” where “the first generation makes it, the second generation spends it, and the third generation loses it.”
Instead – as Abigail Disney has described, in a rare glimpse behind the scenes of American oligarchs’ “family offices,” American wealth is now dynastic, perpetuating itself and growing thanks to a whole Versailles’ worth of courtiers: money managers, lawyers, and overpaid babysitters who can keep even the most Habsburg jawed nepobaby in turnip-sized million-dollar watches and performance automobiles and organ replacements for their whole, interminable lives.
But it’s not just that the America rich stay rich – it’s that the American poor stay poor. America is a world-trailing loser in the international social mobility league-table. If you change classes in America, chances are you’re a middle class person becoming poor, thanks to medical costs or another of the American debt-traps; or you’re a poor person who is becoming a homeless person thanks to America’s world-beating eviction mills.
As a factual matter, America just isn’t the land of bootstraps; it’s a land of hereditary aristocrats. Sustaining the American narrative of meritocracy requires a whole culture industry, novels and later movies that constitute a kind of state religion for Americans – and like all religious tales, the American faith tradition is riddled with gaps and contradictions.
Take Horatio Alger, the 19th century American writer whose name is synonymous with rags-to-riches thanks to the enormous volume of stories he wrote about young, male “street urchins” rising to positions of power. There are many problems with Alger’s work and our conception of it. For starters, 19th century American street kids overwhelmingly lived and died in stagnant, grinding poverty. Nineteenth century America was not a country of ex-homeless kids who rose to positions of wealth and prominence.
But even more: Alger didn’t even write self-made man stories. The Alger formula is not a boy who rises above his station through hard work – rather, the Alger stories are universally tales in which young boys befriend powerful, older men who use their power and wealth to lift those boys up. An Alger hero is never self-made.
Even more disturbing: Alger was a pedophile who lost his position as a minister after raping adolescent boys. He was only spared prison when his father – a powerful religious figure – intervened, promising the young Alger’s furious parishoners that Horatio would leave the clergy – which Horatio Alger did, turning instead to writing. Quart notes ominously that Alger went on to adopt two young boys.
That the cult of self-reliance elevated a pedophile who wrote endlessly about how the way for poor boys to get ahead was to move in with older, richer men to legendary status is just…amazing. I mean, I know “every accusation is a confession,” but the fact that the groomer panic set are also giant Alger fans is…wild.
Not all of the self-reliance mythmakers were sexual predators, but they were all liars. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s incredibly popular Little House on the Prairie books recounted her family’s “pioneer” past as a triumph of self-reliance and gumption, glossing easily over the vast state subsidies that the Ingalls family relied on, from the military who stole Indigenous land, to the largesse that donated that stolen land to the Ingallses, to the farm subsidies that kept the Ingalls afloat.
Ingalls Wilder wasn’t just a mythmaker. She was a close literary and political collaborator with her daughter, the far-right ideologue Rose Wilder Lane, who used the Little House royalties to fight the New Deal, and, later, to create a school for oligarchs, the “Freedom School,” whose graduates include Charles and David Koch.
Of course, no discussion of American pro-selfishness mythmaking would be complete without a mention of Ayn Rand, whose ideology and apologists Quart dissects with expert precision, including the absurd take that Rand’s reliance on government handouts was “ideologically consistent” because Rand was just taking back the money the government had illegitimately taxed away from her.
For Quart, all this mythmaking serves two purposes: first, it helps convince the vast majority of Americans – who work longer hours, earn less, and owe more for schooling, rent and education than their peers abroad – that any problems they face are their own, representative of an individual failing and not a systemic problem for which they should seek redress through mass political movements and unions. So long as America is a land of the self-made, then anything you can’t do on your own is your own damn fault for not making enough of yourself. Are you worried about climate change? Well, what are you doing about it? Recycle harder!
The self-made myth serves America’s oligarchs by befuddling people who might otherwise busy themselves building guillotines on the lawns of the nation’s mansions. But the rich depend on the myth for more than safety from others’ wrath – the myth also protects rich people from themselves, from their consciences that might otherwise recoil from the moral injury of having so much when others have to little. The myth lets the richest man on Earth ascend in a penis-shaped rocket, return, thank “every Amazon employee,” adding “you guys paid for all of this,” even as his warehouses maim those workers at twice the rate of his competitors’ facilities.
Quart makes a case that American progress depends on breaking free of this myth, through co-operative movements, trade unions, mutual aid networks and small acts of person-to-person kindness. For her, the pandemic’s proof of our entwined destiny, at a cellular level, and its demonstration of whose work is truly “essential,” proves that our future is interdependent.
Mutualism produces benefits in the here and now – it’s how we get a larger share of the profit generated by our work; how we secure education, health and housing; how we rescue one another from life’s exigencies and the attacks of our social betters. But the money, power, space and peace that we get from looking after one another has another benefit: freeing us up to demand more change, more equality, more democratic accountability.
Quart’s case-studies of organizers and rank-and-file in different movements are prescriptions for systemic changes, while her urgent case for reframing how we think of ourselves and our society present an individual-scale project for all of us.
I read Boostrapped in the audiobook edition with expert narration by Beth Hicks. I got my DRM-free copy on libro.fm, which I loaded into my waterproof MP3 player for my daily physiotherapy laps in the pool, and, as is the case with the best books, Quart’s words and Hicks’ reading made the time fly by.