Americans are in love with the idea of celebrity. Fame, power, doting fans and perhaps the most appealing of all — fortune. For most of us, we’re at least in the slightest sense incarnations of Jay Gatsby. And why wouldn’t we be? From the time we’re young, we’re exposed to the faces who have “made it.” We’re told that those in the limelight who have a life of luxury in the palm of their hand are the ones living out the American dream. At least, that’s what we’re expected to believe.
We have too many rags to riches stories to count, reality TV shows that make you wonder why we even care about this person in the first place (I’m looking at you, Kardashian family) and social media outlets that can turn anybody with a smart phone and an idea into a Vine celebrity.
The romanticization of the American dream has transformed over generations as a means of finding success and happiness in life by working hard and supporting your family, to becoming the next big thing.
As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argue, these ideas are proliferated by the wealthy elite. In context of the time in which they wrote during the mid-1800s, this meant the bourgeoisie.
Today the dominant idea of wealth and success, particularly gaining it through fairly instantaneous means, is a product of the ruling group with the most influence on a large scale. This isn’t necessarily someone with political authority anymore. As we mentioned in class, public policy is more and more driven by corporate power. Many of the top contributors to the 2012 presidential election to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were the same for both parties. So who is it that really has the power? On the one hand, we have the political sphere, and on the other, corporate business. The two are seemingly intertwined. Not to mention, it doesn’t hurt to have a star or two on your side for voting power.
In her book Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society, Suzanne Infeld Keller studies how Marx and Engels’ previous work also didn’t do much by way of defining who the dominant ruling class is in society.
“Had they lived long enough they might have seen that they were recording the rise of a highly specialized, not a comprehensive, elite,” she said. “Ultimately, this elite would cease to create and accumulate wealth for its own sake, and would be compelled to assume larger social responsibilities, thereby transforming its social role, its public image, and its public style.”
From the two sociologists’ writings, she says that they define six potential candidates to pinpoint who the wealthy elite are comprised of. They include business owners, consumers, political authorities, any group that exploits others, anyone exempt from productive labor, and those who gain power through inheritance and familial ties.
In this analysis, Keller shows that maybe the wealthy elite wasn’t really so easy to pinpoint, and it doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier today. What we can see, however, is the way that entertainment industries use mass media to create means of escapism.
In current terms, this means more rags to riches success stories to detract from the reality that domestic and global income inequality continues to rise. A while back during the buildup of the financial crisis, The New York Times reported a special section of their news site dedicated to looking at class throughout the country. These stories pop up at NYT every so often, and last summer the outlet published more about the ties between location and social mobility. These are the views of the American dream that we don’t often see, that is until a new dominant group takes charge of a different set of ideology.