In one of the great American classic musicals “Little Shop of Horrors,” Audrey sings a paean to the American Dream of the twentieth century: “Somewhere That’s Green.” Living in Skid Row, she dreams of escape to life as it ought to be lived:
A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link,
A grill out on the patio
Disposal in the sink
A washer and a dryer and an ironing machine
In a tract house that we share
Somewhere that’s green.
This is the sound of the American Dream 2.o. You can listen to it here.
The twentieth century incarnation of the American Dream wasn’t just a set of ideas about home ownership. It was a way of life: domestic bliss in the burbs. But the differences between the Suburban Dream and the older American Dream based on the single family farm tell us a lot about the problems Americans face now — and help us begin to think constructively about where we need to go next.
Aerial View of Levittown, PA (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The Suburban Dream family separated work and family life in a way that was largely new in world history. Dad worked miles away in the office or the factory. Well into the 1970s the goal was often for Mom not to work at all; if she did, her work also took her away from the house. The kids left home for school, and their educational experience was almost entirely segregated from work of any kind.
This was a culmination of deeply rooted social trends in 19th century England and America. Moral writers and feminists exalted the pure sphere of the home, separated from the corrupt and brutal world of work. Home life, the sphere where Woman with her superior moral instincts reigned supreme, was seen as an ideal space where boys and girls alike could grow up pure and free. Childhood first began to be defined as a time free from the curse of work just as domestic bliss was separated from the brutal realities of the workaday world.
On the farm, everything had all been mixed together. The family was a production unit as well as (at its best) a unit of affection and love. Almost as soon as they could walk, very young children participated in the work of the farm. Mom and Dad were in an economic partnership as well as in a romantic relationship. Mom might do more of the cooking and Dad more of the heavy outdoor work, but their responsibilities overlapped and complemented each other.
In Audrey’s green paradise, Father’s work takes place far away and Mother has nothing to do with it. At home Dad’s ‘work’ is recreational; Mom busies herself more with appearances than with the value-producing work of a farm wife.
He rakes and trims the grass
He loves to mow and weed
I cook like Betty Crocker
And I look like Donna Reed
There’s plastic on the furniture
To keep it neat and clean
In the Pine-Sol scented air
Somewhere that’s green.
In many farm households, Mom was a teacher as well as a parent. In a time when population density was low and people mostly got around on foot, many kids lived too far from school to get there on a regular basis. Home schooling wasn’t an oddity, and even when kids went to school, most of their real learning took place on the farm. Children on the American family farm were growing up to be farmers themselves. Learning to help Mom and Dad around the homeplace wasn’t an obstacle to their education; learning the myriad skills that farming required, from animal husbandry to market strategies to folk doctoring to weather forecasting to making clothes to building a barn was what education was all about. The Three R’s that you studied in school (readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic) were special and useful skills, but learning skills like making soap and folk doctoring took more energy and time. School was not where life’s most important learning went on.
In any case, to work was to learn, to learn was to work. In Audrey’s suburban paradise, learning is only a vestigial part of what kids do around the house. Home is where the family watches television together.
Between our frozen dinner
And our bedtime, nine-fifteen
We snuggle watchin’ Lucy
On our big, enormous twelve-inch screen
I’m his December Bride
He’s Father, he Knows Best
Our kids watch Howdy Doody
As the sun sets in the west.
Family time is leisure time; non-family time is for Real Life.
The process which transformed the family farm into the box in the burbs involved deep changes in the way Americans lived and loved. Huck Finn noted that the Widow Douglas cooked her ‘vittles’ in separate dishes; Huck was used to cooking them all in the same pot. They taste better that way, Huck said; the flavors swap around.
The Widow Douglas was an early exponent of what would become Audrey’s suburban creed. Life was divided into discrete stages and spheres. Women and men lived in separate worlds; so did children and adults. The genteel home had no signs of labor in it; work was done in an office somewhere down the road. Zoning laws would increasingly frown on old style mixed used neighborhoods; offices and stores were banned in many suburban developments.
The old fashioned country farm family relied on home-made canned goods and clothes; the modern family bought canned goods from the store and ordered clothes from the Sears Roebuck catalog. In town schools children learned to sit still in chairs and accustomed themselves to living by the clock. Midwives delivered country babies and your relatives surrounded you at death; modern babies were born and modern grandparents died in the hospital, surrounded by the men in white coats. Farm life was a world of mostly self-sufficient generalists; suburbanites lived by the guidance of professional experts.
Other changes were at work. A nation of family farms is a nation of family firms; suburban America was a land of employees. America’s shift from a nation of entrepreneurs to a nation working for corporations and government was a profound change in national life that even today is not well or fully understood.
The ideal of the independent small farmer was at the heart of early American democratic ideology. Critics of democracy had always asserted in the past that a mass of unpropertied and dependent voters would lack both the virtue and the experience necessary to make good decisions for the state.
Americans like Thomas Jefferson retorted that in the United States, things were different. America, uniquely, was a country in which even the average citizen was a property owner and the master of an enterprise.
The mass of the people could be entrusted with government because the masses owned property. They were not like the penniless rabble of antiquity who traded their votes to unscrupulous demagogues and dictators in ancient Rome in exchange for bread and circuses.
For thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, the American family farm was the essential foundation of American democracy. As they understood classical and renaissance history, republican government can only work when agriculture is dominant and cities are small. The city, with its mass of dependent, unpropertied workers and unemployable riffraff, is the home of the urban mob. The urban masses are foolish; they don’t understand where money comes from and think they can vote themselves infinite government benefits; they are easily misled by populist politicians who promise them the moon. They will sell their liberties for a mess of pottage and, because they lack the military virtues and aptitudes, they are terrible soldiers.
Farmers by contrast not only own property; they are small businessmen with all the skills and habits that entails. The family farm was more than shelter and livelihood: it was the school of character that equipped Americans for freedom.
Currier & Ives Lithograph of 1800s American Homestead (Source: Currierandives.net)
Jefferson’s fierce opposition to the financial plans of Alexander Hamilton reflected his conviction that an urban, mercantile society of the kind Hamilton wanted to build would inevitably fall victim to the mob — and that would be the end of American liberty.
American leftists in the first half of the twentieth century saw the same set of facts, and cheered up. The collapse of the family farm was just what Marx had predicted, they exulted. The small proprietors and petite bourgeoisie were being devoured by big business. The former free farmers of America were being proletarianized — turned into factory workers. Exposed to the naked realities of harsh capitalist competition and low wages, Americans would wake up from their apathy and embrace socialism — the only path to a decent future for the toiling masses.
Neither Jefferson’s nightmare nor Eugene Debs’ hopeful dream came true. The United States became a nation of employees, but those employees were neither a Roman rabble nor a proletarian vanguard. They moved to the suburbs and bought barbecue grills.
The death of the family farm didn’t kill the American republic for several reasons. First, to some degree Jefferson was wrong and Hamilton was right. A strong manufacturing and financial sector can strengthen democracy under the right conditions; ancient, slave-holding Rome was less like modern capitalist New York and London than Thomas Jefferson thought.
But under American conditions there was something else: the end of the family farm did not mean the rise of a propertyless proletariat in the United States. Bankers like A.P. Giannini made the argument that the thirty year mortgage was a weapon against Marx: if the average American family no longer owned a farm, it could still own a house.
Thanks to home ownership, post-agricultural America remained a land of mass property ownership and that experience continued to inform American political and social values. American neighborhoods are still schools of political engagement; it’s clear who keeps up their property, who takes the lead in community activities, who leads the PTA and who coaches the youth league. Property ownership continues to serve as a political tutor; American voters want better municipal services, and they don’t like high property taxes. They have to think about the relationship between the two in every election, and their experience in local affairs continues to inform their ideas about national policy.
At the same time, the fact that most Americans buy their homes through mortgages, and that they have to keep those payments up or lose the old homestead, teaches responsibility and steady habits. If the farmer didn’t get up at dawn to plow the north forty, there was nothing to eat in the winter. If the suburbanite doesn’t get in the car and head onto the freeway every morning, the bank balance sinks and the repo men will come and take the house away. Home ownership also teaches people about investments and compound interest (although lately it has been giving us a painful introduction to bubbles and downturns).
Both versions of the American Dream had this in common: the farm in the valley and the box in the burbs helped the American people develop the skills and the values necessary for successful republican government.
From this standpoint, suburban America looks like a watered down but still potent blend of the original American farmer’s republic. The inherited values and culture coming to us from the old days plus the still potent force of mass home ownership have kept the United States from retracing the steps of older democracies on their slow decline. So far.
But our consumer republic is clearly in trouble. Economically, as I wrote earlier this week, the model is breaking down. The consumer republic is based on debt and depends on high consumption. We are nearing the limits of that kind of economy. The country’s external debt, the explosive growth of federal debt and the weak balance sheets of consumer households are all pointing in the same direction.
The cultural and social weaknesses of the consumer state are if anything more troubling. While suburbia is not the kind of alienating horror show that Marxist critics make it out to be, it is a less effective school for citizenship and character than the family farm. Daniel Bell wrote about the cultural contradictions of capitalism more than thirty years ago; life in a consumer society does not support the virtues and ideas that a healthy society requires.
More broadly, Huck Finn was right and the Widow Douglass was wrong: a holistic life in which family, work, education, leisure and production are all blended and mixed is healthier than an existence in which every sphere of life is rigidly set off from the others. it is not good for children to work long hours in textile mills; it is also not good for them to grow up without participating in and learning about the productive labor that is such a big part of what it means to be human. Family bonds are weaker now that husbands and wives spend so much less time together and mostly cooperate to spend money rather than working together to make it. The family is less of a unit because the real business of each member of the family takes place in some other environment be it the office, the factory or the school.
The special shape of modern and suburban family life is part of the blue social model I’ve been posting about on this blog and the hollowing out of blue society is increasingly felt within as well as around the contemporary American family. The suburban consumption based nuclear family is increasingly under stress; family budgets and time are increasingly on the edge.
More, the very entitlements most under pressure economically are those that have allowed the multigenerational family to yield to the suburban nuclear idyll. Defined benefit pensions, Social Security, home equity and Medicare allowed older Americans to live independent lives and reduced the need for solidarity between the generations. The generations, like the widow’s vittles, were all cooking in their separate pots.
One suspects we may see a return to multigenerational, multiuse middle class houses in the American future. (There look to be plenty of low-price McMansions available for conversion.) Mom and Dad may telecommute as independent subcontractors. Dick and Jane will help Mom and Dad with the family business from the time they are able to refill the printer tray. This isn’t some form of Dickensian exploitation; Dick and Jane are pulling their weight in the family and learning how the world works. Grandma and Grandpa may also help out, and contribute their bit to the family expenses — and to child care. The neighborhood association or some other local group may operate a charter school with the parents of the neighborhood chipping in to teach and supervise the school’s operation.
The one thing I do know is that change is on its way — more fundamental, more challenging, and also perhaps more exhilarating than many of us are ready for. The health of the American economy is going to require us to move away from the credit card economics of the consumer republic. The health of American society and democracy require that we move beyond the life of the last eighty years. We should be looking at new ideals in which domestic partners are enterprise partners, the home is more frequently a place of business, and education moves away from big box buildings and toward forms of community schooling somewhere between home schooling and charter academies.
One way to summarize the kind of change we need. During the farm era the focus of American domestic policy was to create the most favorable possible environment for millions of ordinary Americans to launch flourishing small businesses. Rather that focusing on home ownership, American social policy should probably be looking at small business formation as the key to mass middle class prosperity in the next fifty years.
The American Dream is not in the last analysis a farm or a home and a good job. It is the dream that through hard work and good choices the average American can be prosperous and independent, and that ordinary people with these life experiences can govern themselves wisely and well without the ‘guidance’ of their ‘betters’.
That dream is timelessly valid, and it is still the thing that people around the world admire most about the United States. We are going to have to re-imagine and re-engineer the dream to keep it alive in the decades ahead, but that shouldn’t daunt us. America is a nation of dreamers; building the future by following those dreams is what we do best.