What is the American Good Life?

In Slavoj Zizek’s 2017 book the Courage of Hopelessness, he mentions multiple revolutions that have tried and failed vs the ones that tried and succeeded. In all these cases he is talking about mass worker/communist revolutions, I would include the American Revolution as well. Zizek brings up this idea of the clichés of daily life and society at large and how they hold our system together. The successful revolutions that totally changed daily life for its people were the Bolshevik and Chairman Mao’s takeover of China. The failed revolutions are too many to name, however the tie that binds them is that they sought to stick with old norms in a new system or completely scrap them without creating new ones, according to Zizek. Lenin and Mao were successful at creating new clichés and norms, they asked the question what did daily life look like for the citizens of a communist society? Let’s use this as the start to a thought experiment.

 In America one cliché would be the American Dream “if you work hard, you can have the life you want”, while being very vague it serves as an underlying support for our whole system. Every society has functioning rules, norms, and clichés that give structure to our lives, even if we don’t like them. Zizek highlights some revolutions completely destroying old clichés, when they took power or attempted too, and people had no conception of what values to hold onto, that level of change was utterly shocking. Where Lenin had succeeded was answering the existential questions of his constituents, what is their purpose and role in the larger system. A very tangible example of this is the fact that most men in America die shortly after retiring, no matter their health. They have nothing to hold on too or work towards, their daily purpose is gone leaving a massive longing for meaning and value. This is the same as a revolution without values and clichés.

Hopefully we didn’t lose any conservatives at the mention of Lenin, because this thought experiment is valuable for everyone. Let’s imagine the country decided, today, to start totally over and the candidate of your dreams was the president with both houses of Congress, bringing in sweeping changes and rebuilding the system. Try to go beyond your current partisan riffs and topics, those have been fixed, what does daily American life look like? What really is the true American good life? If you like Trump, what does your ideal society look like? Let’s throw out an example-

An easy one to start with is UBI. More and more we know that we are losing jobs to technology. Technically we are efficient enough to barely require working, our priorities are just not aligned with life satisfaction. Lets picture the world Elon Musk predicts where the majority of people have been replaced by technology and redistributive taxes on those who own the technology provide enough for everyone in society to make $150,000/year(not his number) from the Government. While this sounds beautiful on the surface, there would be extreme challenges. Americans derive value from working, all of a sudden the free time and resources might feel like a prison, no objectives and nothing to achieve- a complete loss of meaning. This is where we would have to bring in new clichés, our society would have to place much more value on creating, traveling, art, cooking, and recreation(just my examples). This is visible comparing America to Latin American countries, the core of our society is work and the core of theirs is family. If we took out work we would have a massive lack of meaning that will need an alternative. 

Let’s walk around in this “future state” for experiment’s sake. Starting at the top, you wake up in the morning, there is no where to go, nothing required. This work gap leaves ample time to focus on your well-being. We could value mental and physical health as life’s primary goal. Spend time finding the routine, exercise, and mental work you need to live a healthy life. Take time to grow your own food. Ok well if you don’t want to garden your neighbor now sells veggies as a hobby she loves. Next we would need to find meaningful work, this is difficult. The parameters of what to do have been blown out, it doesn’t have to make money. Obviously you can’t just lose all of your money, but now profit is pointless. You also can think very creatively, there are no more businesses benefitting from scarcity, so a business like dollar tree or Walmart would just become the shittiest stores out there. No one would be forced to buy shitty things. People would spend their money differently as well. You would likely buy things that added to your lifestyle and not simply things that sustained survival. 

It would be important to change our ideology. Instead of commercial products being advertised as “cool” we would have to make some serious shifts. We would need a population content striving for personal development and creativity. Perhaps TV shows and media would need to appeal to these aspects, instead of selling mind numbing devices, booze, or crappy entertainment they would actually have to sell to a new class of consumers who didn’t know scarcity. As individuals who were previously not getting enough daily food now had the means to buy groceries for their family, this would be an entirely new lifestyle for that individual. There would be a massive need for education, there would have to be a public effort to educate people on how to handle their money, how to eat healthy, purchase a home, and get loans for projects or businesses. 

The other big shift we would need to make is to Re-Glorify the local and small business. Making small business ownership became the bedrock of American society, small towns would see a complete renaissance. Anyone with a skill could now start their own shop and work for themselves. Taking us full circle from complete lack of meaning to a cliché American life filled with purpose, autonomy, and value. 

So, what is your version of the American Good Life? 

Hijacking of American Entreprenuership

There are many entry points to this story, the chronological one being in the 1850’s onward. If we harken back to the early days of America we would find a country of self-employed farmers. In our current age of worshiping the likes of Elon Musk, we completely gloss over some incredible facts in that one sentence. We don’t even register that the majority of the people in the country were self-employed, entrepreneurs. How many people do you even know that work for themselves today? Then a massive shift in the late 1800’s, the country was becoming industrialized, and people had a boss for the first time!

For the first time people had to think about working conditions. How bad can an employer treat an employee? Prior to the factory, questions like this never crossed the American mind. They had never been at the whims of a small group, this was a country of completely self dependent people who rebelled against authority constantly. They were accustomed to deeply rewarding work that put food on their table, and gave them standing in a community. 

Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of small town America. The local bread maker is now the 100th guy on the breadline in a factory. There are no longer small local economies, today we see Walmart instead of small business. Picture a small rural town pre-Walmart, they have a butcher,  bakery, local grocery store, pharmacy,  bike shop, and mechanic. When the butcher buys bread from the local baker, the profit(everything after his cost of business) goes to the baker. That Friday he buys meat from the butcher, and gets his son’s bike fixed at the local store. Picture that profit on each transaction. Now eliminate all of those businesses and picture Walmart. The baker and butcher went from business owner to making starvation wages. Any profit made in the small community is transported out of that town and into the Walmart bank account. Now play this scenario out all over the country with all the other massive chains. This is literally redistribution in reverse. 

Fast-Forward to a different scene- American colleges present day. In any given business class students are looking as case studies of Nike, Coca Cola, Apple, etc. They are told stories about Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, people who bet their whole life on massive all consuming ideas. They are the poster children of entrepreneurship and more importantly- of The American Dream itself. The idea of grandeur has absorbed americans entrepreneurial ambitions. We see the local, service business workers portrayed as morons, uncouth people who just can’t think big enough. The view is great from the college high horse while on campus.

However the fall is painful. Your robotic analyses of an underserved market that you could write a business plan for would cost millions. You don’t have it, you have no credit, loads of debt,  and no experience so no one would invest. Next thing you know, you’re back in your hometown being forced to apply for jobs in some city. 

This is where an interesting breakdown in supply and demand happens. Academic elitist culture has portrayed anyone in a small town, and especially the trade worker as the enemy. These are the “idiots ruining the country”, the scary backwoods characters in movies that say offensive things and harass women. This creates a blind spot for college students with business knowledge and no employment. We don’t even consider a local service business entrepreneurship, it just isn’t flashy enough. The result is all these low-middle class kids who go to college only to find they can’t find “marketing” jobs in their hometown and they are massively in debt. Yet there is a massive lack of people looking to learn skills like plumbing, hvac, roofing, etc. What is causing this mass of educated people to overlook extremely profitable work, with a rewarding self-employed freedom? Who knows, but this idea from Lacan feels like a start.

Our desire is not something innate inside us. Indeed, for Lacan our desires are not even our own – we always have to desire in the second degree, finding a path to our own desire and our own recognition by asking the question of what the Other desires.