The Suburban Delusion

Jesse Fried • Sep 01, 2017

The conversion of the urban working class into the suburban middle class is one of the great triumphs of the American system. The suburbs are an arrangement that permits the "little guy" to own property. A landowner, however small-time, has a stake in the system, a personal interest in the status quo. In contrast with the working class of industrial capitalism, who rent, live paycheck to paycheck, and are coerced into their lifestyles by the threat of poverty, suburbanites are flattered into compliance. We are handed the American Dream, or a watered-down version of it, on a silver platter known as a federally backed home mortgage, and allowed to believe that we have succeeded in life due to our above-average virtues and the sweat of our brow. If the reader will permit me to be so cynical, it seems like the powers that be noticed that when they throw little scraps of capital to the masses for us to fight over, we start identifying with Great American Success Stories rather than with working people throughout the world.

More than the results or evidence of the economic and social realignment that underpins middle class America, the suburbs are, to some extent, a tool created by the wealthy and powerful to shape and enforce the new system. Sort of like a company town on a massive scale. To use an antiquated but still evocative phrase, the "company" in this case is the entire military-industrial complex.


Our society's characteristics of meritocracy, mass-culture, and everybody-wins/everybody-is-special attitude contribute a sense of entitlement to the suburban delusion. If you do poorly, then of course you have to accept the limits of the conditions of your life - the place you were born, dependence on your family and early connections, an oppressive financial situation, humble expectations, an uphill battle to change these things. But if you do well and go to a "good college," then the world is your oyster. Your intelligence, charisma, drive, and ambition can open any door, and your success is limited only by your imagination. Taking a quick look around at how many people in virtually the same position are given this same opportunity, and how many come to feel that they've succeeded, it becomes clear that something is slightly off balance. I don't think our definitions of success have adjusted to radical changes in our social and economic conditions. Follow the approved route to white collar success and you can rely on your employer and the government rather than your family, afford a certain tier of the nation-wide real-estate market, accumulate a little bit of capital, and somehow feel like you've won the system, or at least played it about as well as it can be played. Most successful middle class life trajectories probably do involve some independent thinking and soul-searching about career path, and some real going out into the world and networking, but many people get so caught up in this personal struggle that they fail to notice the narrowness of the playing field in which we have been permitted to test out our abilities, or the pre-packaged qualities of the victory. What we think of as individual success is too often more of a hollow image of success offered to us by the powers that be. It corresponds more closely to the easiest downhill path in life than anything else, certainly more than the lifestyles most of us are willing to admit to living.

A lot of people, the author included, have a tendency to feel like we understand this sad state of affairs, but can transcend it by virtue of our superior abilities - or by work ethic, moral discipline, and good choices - or by making sure not to give a shit - or whatever. Our sense of our own specialness can play right into the aforementioned "hollow image" of hard-earned victory in society. We see an echo of how mass culture coddles and seduces our sense of uniqueness in how deeply it has incorporated symbols of "rugged individualism" - a home and land of ones own away from the maddening crowd, leaving ones family and community to test oneself in the larger world, self-expression through fashion and other consumption choices. Our search for transcendence is often a corporate hall of mirrors, where the goals we make and the things we desire in pursuit of freedom and a good life actually lead us closer to the role that is expected of us. Where do our values and ideas about the world come from? More importantly, whom do they serve - ourselves, or wealth and power?

For those of us always wary of "conformity," we should be equally wary of individuality. The more isolated we are in the drama of our own achievements and the comforts of monogamous love and the nuclear family, the more divided we are from each other. The ideal role for us is as small, producing and consuming individual floating in the vast warm sea of global capitalism, without any substantial ties of collective identity or means of politically organizing. In this case, we've given up our power and our stake in the world, without getting much of value in return.

This is the kind of capitalism we have these days. Some of the tightest ropes that bind us are the abstract internal ones. Of course the more traditional forms of economic subjugation - the financial system, the courts, the artificial scarcity of resources - are still there in case anyone gets the wrong idea, but in the case of the wealthier suburbanites, they are hardly necessary.