Book Review: Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power
Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s been said that the hardest language to speak is the truth. I would add that it’s also the hardest to hear.
In Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky directs his fierce intellect onto the utopian ideology of neoliberalism, which is the absurd idea that markets should dictate all aspects of human society.
Each chapter is informed by Chomsky’s deep understanding of American history and each in turn helps to build a damning case against the entrenched forces among the nation’s economic elite as having deliberately sowed a “vicious cycle” that increases wealth at the top while shrinking opportunity for everyone else at the bottom.
The book is organized around Chomsky’s “Ten Principals of Concentration of Wealth and Power” that have created, not only the rapid growth of income inequality we see today, but a myriad of related social and economic problems, all of which include, reducing broad democratic participation in governance, shifting the nation’s economic base from manufacture to the finance games of stock market and credit, shifting the tax burden to relieve the well-off, deregulation, election engineering (crowned by Citizens United, the masterstroke in empowering corporate influence on and within government), eroding the power of organized labor, promoting the mass distraction of frivolous consumerism, and “marginalizing the population” by splitting them into impotent factions angry at each other (rather than those at the top), a tactic spectacularly evident in our current political climate.
While such efforts have been present from the time of the Founding Fathers Chomsky argues that there’s been a concentrated, well-orchestrated if largely stealth pushback in their direction since the successful social-justice movements of the 1960s greatly alarmed the keepers of the status quo.
Sociologist Loïc Wacquant argues that, “The invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of the state combine and complement each other to make the lower classes accept desocialized wage labor and the social instability it brings in its wake.” By contrast, he adds, “Neoliberal policies are extremely lenient in dealing with those in the upper echelons of society, in particular when it comes to economic crimes of the privileged classes and corporations such as fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, credit and insurance fraud, money laundering and violation of commerce and labor codes.”
Several scholars have actually linked the rise of neoliberalism to the unprecedented levels of mass incarceration of the poor, found especially in the United States. “After a long eclipse, the prison has thus returned to the frontline of institutions entrusted with maintaining our social order.”
Neoliberal policies do nothing except promote a social Darwinist ethic which elevates self-interest over social needs. Instead of citizens, what it ends up producing is consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result, as Robert W. McChesney has said, “is an atomized society full of disengaged individuals who feel not only demoralized but socially powerless.” David Harvey, geographer and anthropologist, has even described neoliberalism as a class project, which is to say it’s designed to impose class on society through the mechanism of liberalism.
John Dewey, the leading social philosopher in the late twentieth century, argued that until all institutions - production, commerce, media - are under participatory democratic control, we will not have a functioning democratic society. As he put it, “Policy will be the shadow cast by business over society.”
Chomsky does conclude the book with a bit of optimism stating that, “there is a lot that can be done if people organize, and struggle for their rights as they’ve done in the past.” However, I do get the feeling that given all the challenges he lists, that he no longer quite believes that. And to be honest, I’m not sure I do either.