Speaking of the “death of the American Dream” these days takes one squarely into cliché territory. The various social and economic crises of the United States are so well-documented, and so obviously non-transitory, that it is hard to imagine there are all that many real dreamers left. More fundamentally, the country is probably too fractured to be able to sustain one dream that everyone recognizes and pays cultural tribute to.
Rather, it seems to me that the United States has gone the way of pretty much every Western country—indeed, Americans led the developed world into this place: where dreaming about a better sort of future is a matter of “entrepreneurship of the self,” as much for social democrats as for neoliberals and neoconservatives.
When the former leader of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, Mona Sahlin, claimed that it doesn’t matter where you are born, only where you are moving to, she was riffing on this mode of dreaming: a vision of the “startup nation,” where venture capitalists and “digital nomads” are assigned mystical, almost spiritual power, and the goal of every person is to uproot his ties to old soil and fully assimilate into the cyber-millennium.
From Sweden to Germany to France, the citizen is evaluated according to his ability to conform to the Silicon Valley model of the future: a dreamscape populated by app designers visiting trendy coffee shops and artisanal-hot-dog vendors in urban centers while spending their days “revolutionizing” the “internet of things.”
But it seems that even that dream is now about to die. Layoffs in the tech industry have recently exploded; even Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg is warning of job losses. Meta’s so-called Metaverse—the bête noire of some on the right—is losing almost $1 billion a month, while being widely panned by gamers and content creators on YouTube. Far from a harbinger of a dystopian, Total Recall-style future, where physical space is replaced by virtual reality under totalizing control by the world’s progressive elites, the Metaverse is now looking like a perfectly ordinary dotcom dud. Even Silicon Valley nightmares, it seems, are slowly coming to an end, unceremoniously drowned in the cool water of a general economic crisis.
If the 1970s ended up destroying one aspect of an older American Dream—the idea that one could, through honesty and hard work, make a comfortable and decent life for oneself on one salary, without necessarily having to go to college or work in the financial sector scamming fellow Americans—then the early 2020s looks likely to see the destruction of the tech vision that increasingly came to replace it.
This new dream promised far less justice, and far starker division between “winners” and “losers,” but it was still a vision in which if you hustled, moved to the right city, and befriended the right people, you, too, could work an email job “in tech,” enjoying a smorgasbord of perks and subsidies along the way. I still remember an ex-girlfriend waxing poetic about the new fruits of this late-2010s economy: DoorDash, Uber, all the rest of it, available on-demand through various new apps for people with the fortune and good sense to live in the hip inner cities of the West, rather than the rural hinterlands.
But this entire world had long been backstopped by completely unsustainable subsidies from venture-capital firms and, by extension, through the federal money printer. The crisis of the ’70s would come to devastate Main Street. But the people who benefited from this, those who would come to replace the likes of a stodgy Archie Bunker as the model American, now find themselves the proverbial deer in the headlights of another massive economic contraction and restructuring.
In the Trump years, we debated the anger of globalization’s losers, and whether the winners bore any responsibility for that anger. But in the Biden years, we will increasingly have to debate the rage that is sure to brew among the erstwhile winners themselves, as the app economies and tech boom are crushed. Where will that anger end up leading?
In the end, America might quite soon find itself in a situation where no broad socioeconomic group feels any loyalty or has any stake in the political system. Instead, anger at having their lives upended and their standards of living destroyed will be the order of the day, from Boise to Bushwick.
Gen. Mark Milley infamously testified before a congressional hearing that he wanted to understand “white rage.” But who right now is prepared for progressive, multiracial, demisexual rage, as the core social groups driving progressivism in America are hit the hardest by layoffs and the end of Silicon Valley subsidies? That rage is coming, and it may have no brakes.