The “Slave Morality” of the Working Class Promise and the Domination of the American Dream

The “Slave Morality” of the Working Class Promise and the Domination of the American Dream


The “American Dream” and the “Working Class Promise” are ubiquitous ideologies in American culture. For this paper, I will argue these ideologies are social constructs which contribute to the discrimination, and thus the domination, of the working class. I will begin by defining the key concepts of this paper: ideology, stereotyping, domination, discrimination, the American Dream and the Working Class Promise. Next, I will argue these ideologies, as defined by communication professor Kristen Lucas, contribute to the discrimination of the working class. I will argue the Working Class Promise is an example of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “slave morality,” where a lower status group attaches positive values to themselves which only serves to perpetuate discrimination against them. Further, I will argue domination arises from such discrimination by examining a study by psychologists Shannon K. McCoy and Brenda Major. Next, I will argue, using sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, both the Working Class Promise and the American Dream are structured and structuring social constructs which contribute to discrimination and domination through exclusion. In line with Bourdieu, I will use social philosopher Louis Althusser’s arguments to show how the Working Class Promise and the American Dream reproduce the roles of the social hierarchy through discrimination. I will support this demonstration with evidence from McCoy and Major’s study showing how various forms of discrimination are reproduced in society when individuals believe in the American Dream. Having accepted the social insights of these scholars I will propose, based on the arguments of philosopher Immanuel Kant, the solution is for Americans to reject these ideologies[1]. (Hereafter is only an excerpt of the paper.)

Putting the Scholars’ Theories Together

While there is no evidence ideology is being dispersed in America for any malicious or conspiratorial purpose as Althusser claims, one can see how movies, music, politicians, families and schools all espouse the AD and WCP ideologies. Althusser, McCoy and Major’s arguments show how such ideologies, as subtle cues, can reinforce the belief in the ideologies and when individuals believe in the ideologies they will justify their positions in society based on, and act in accordance with, the ideologies. Belief in the WCP and the AD causes individuals in both higher and lower status groups to act in system-justifying ways, which contributes to exclusion, discrimination and domination of the working class by the working class complacently accepting and justifying their disadvantages while the privileged class justifies their advantages.

Lucas, Nietzsche, McCoy and Major’s arguments demonstrate how the working class has created a value system as a reaction to the privileged class, placing themselves at the moral end of the value system and the privileged at the immoral end. It is a “herd” like morality, meant to ease the pain of existence and serve society, where hard work and humility are valued, despite such values keeping people inferior. The admirable values allow the working class to feel good about themselves while at the same time keeping them from advancing by positively justifying their place in the social hierarchy.

In line with Bourdieu, the WCP creates conditions for the exclusion of the working class. Individuals in the working class structure their perceptions of society, thus their place in society, based off of these values but are also structured by these values. The values serve as distinctions between the working class and the privileged which gives the working class a sense of their place in society. Once the identity of the working class individual is determined and their place in society is defined, the individual’s values reflect in their mannerisms and tastes, which then act as a filter, either through self-exclusion or exclusion by the privileged, keeping the working class in their place.

The ideology of the WCP, in line with Althusser, reproduces working class roles in society. The four core values, passed down to working class children, act as rules, teaching them not only their place in the social hierarchy, but how to fulfill their predetermined roles in the hierarchy. Employers love hardworking, humble employees who don’t step outside of their roles and who find dignity in their lower level, lower pay jobs. Companies love consumers with a sense of provider orientation, who will spend more to be good providers for their families.

The AD, as McCoy and Major note, implies society has given the working class every opportunity to succeed, but they failed to work hard enough (McCoy and Major, 341). For members of the privileged class, the AD implies they deserve it, based on their own merit (ibid.). In line with Althusser, social institutions, by promulgating the AD, are teaching individuals their failings or successes are not the work of society, but of their own. The AD reproduces domination because individuals adopting the ideology act in ways to support the ideology, such as complacently accepting their perceived failings or successes. Belief in the AD disguises and transforms the inequalities in the conditions of existence, using stereotyping and discrimination, into natural consequences of personal failing or success.

Bourdieu argues the class to which one is born and raised not only gives the individual inherited forms of capital and power, but also instills in the individual mannerisms and tastes, which distinguish the individual as being a part of that class (Bourdieu, 41-56). Distinctions of class filter individuals into different social categories and create exclusions. Inequalities in conditions of existence are inherent in society, however, people perpetuate this by structuring themselves based on the structured class distinctions. The AD is structuring in that people structure their identities and relation to society based on their perceptions of how they fit into the ideology, which then structures society. It is structured in that it objectively structures society by classifying people. Internalized external classifications contribute to the discrimination and domination of the working class.

Adams said the AD was a two part dream: one part emphasizing the dream of a place where anyone with enough hard work and talent could have a better life, the second part emphasizing equal opportunity. Adams’ dream as how America ought to be is in no way objectionable. However, too many social institutions have forced on society the AD ideology not as how America ought to be, but as how America is, and this is just false. Numerous scholars and professionals, including Nobel prizing winning Columbia economics professor Joseph Stiglitz, are now showing how income inequality and social immobility are facts of American life (Stiglitz, online). Nietzsche, McCoy and Major have shown how positive discrimination leads to domination. Althusser, McCoy and Major have shown how belief in an ideology reproduces domination in the social hierarchy through discrimination. Bourdieu has shown how structuring and structured elements within society create exclusions, and thus domination. Together, all of these scholars show how social inequality is legitimized via ideology. The values of the WCP may be admirable individually, but together in combination with the AD, the ideologies create the social conditions for people to be used instrumentally.


Summary and Conclusion

Inequality is a fact of American life. The inequality of conditions of existence leads to members of different status groups assigning values and/or distinctions to themselves and other groups based on those conditions of existence. The WCP and the AD are socially constructed ideologies which assign values and/or distinctions to people based on conditions of existence. Discrimination arises when the values and/or distinctions assigned create exclusions resulting in disadvantages, disadvantages which create further exclusions. Discrimination treats people as inferior. Social constructs are dominating when they treat people as inferior, in a way which serves to manipulate or influence their actions. The WCP and AD are social constructs which create exclusions resulting in disadvantages and treat people as inferior, in a way which serves to manipulate and influence their actions. Therefore, the WCP and the AD lead to discrimination which contributes to domination. The WCP and AD are socially constructed ideologies which discriminate against and dominate people. Discrimination against and the domination of people is not respecting them as rational beings with intrinsic value. No one should accept socially constructed ideologies which do not treat people as rational beings with intrinsic value. Therefore, Americans should reject the AD and the WCP.

Works Cited

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Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard

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Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for Metaphysics of Morals. In Rethinking the Western Tradition.

Edited and Translated by Allen W. Wood. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2002. 45; 47.

Lucas, Kristen. “The Working Class Promise: A Communicative Account of Mobility-Based

Ambivalences.” Communication Monographs 78.3 (2011): 347-369. Digital Commons @ University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Web. 10 Oct 2012. < cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1010&context=commstudiespapers>.

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Justification of Inequality.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43. (2007): 341-351. Science Direct. Web. 10 Oct 2012. < /pii/S0022103106000904>.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. In Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Edited and

Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. 300-01; 395; 397.

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[1] Cf. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Rawls combines liberalism and socialism under Kantian deontology to preserve both liberty and equality. However, as far as I understand, Rawls does not approach the issue of ideology, which is the focus of this paper. Cf. also Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference. Young discusses ideology, discrimination and domination at a much more in depth level than is the scope of this paper, but as far as I know, does not discuss the specifics of these particular ideologies. The intent of this paper is to be an examination of American ideologies which can be seen a further evidence supporting Rawls’ and Young’s work.