Cory Doctorow reviews “Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream,” a book by Alissa Quart.

Quart addresses “the meritocratic delusion of the ‘self-made man,’ Doctorow says. He adds: “America is not a bootstrap-friendly land. If you have money in America, chances are very good you inherited it.”

… as Abigail Disney has described, in a rare glimpse behind the scenes of American oligarchs’ “family offices,” American wealth is now dynastic, perpetuating itself and growing thanks to a whole Versailles’ worth of courtiers: money managers, lawyers, and overpaid babysitters who can keep even the most Habsburg jawed nepobaby in turnip-sized million-dollar watches and performance automobiles and organ replacements for their whole, interminable lives:


But it’s not just that the America rich stay rich — it’s that the American poor stay poor. … If you change classes in America, chances are you’re a middle class person becoming poor, thanks to medical costs or another of the American debt-traps; or you’re a poor person who is becoming a homeless person thanks to America’s world-beating eviction mills:


As a factual matter, America just isn’t the land of bootstraps; it’s a land of hereditary aristocrats. Sustaining the American narrative of meritocracy requires a whole culture industry, novels and later movies that constitute a kind of state religion for Americans — and like all religious tales, the American faith tradition is riddled with gaps and contradictions.

Horatio Alger is remembered as the 19th century author of many stories about “street urchins” who raised themselves from poverty to wealth and power. In reality, “19th century American street kids overwhelmingly lived and died in stagnant, grinding poverty.” And Alger’s stories weren’t about self-made men; “the young boys befriend powerful, older men who use their power and wealth to lift those boys up.”


Alger was a pedophile who lost his position as a minister after raping adolescent boys.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books “recounted her family’s ‘pioneer’ past as a triumph of self-reliance and gumption, glossing easily over the vast state subsidies that the Ingalls family relied on, from the military who stole Indigenous land, to the largesse that donated that stolen land to the Ingallses, to the farm subsidies that kept the Ingalls afloat.”

Wilder collaborated with her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane,

… who used the Little House royalties to fight the New Deal, and, later, to create a school for oligarchs, the “Freedom School,” whose graduates include Charles and David Koch:


All this mythmaking convinces the vast majority of Americans that if they’re struggling, that’s their problem, and they should not “seek redress through mass political movements and unions.” And the myth keep rich people from listening to their consciences.

Quart makes a case that American progress depends on breaking free of this myth, through co-operative movements, trade unions, mutual aid networks and small acts of person-to-person kindness. For her, the pandemic’s proof of our entwined destiny, at a cellular level, and its demonstration of whose work is truly “essential,” proves that our future is interdependent.

Mitch W @MitchW