on November 8, 2011
When the author of this work, Morris Berman, was once asked how he could go on living knowing what he did about the state of the United States, he responded that the truth makes him high. Many would-be readers of Why America Failed will be disquieted by the facts laid out in this book, but what is the alternative? Ignorance or delusion, it would seem, are the only other options. That choice will have to be left up to the individual. The truth, however, just like the hustling and accumulation Berman writes about, is addictive. And for those resolute enough to pursue it, is extremely rewarding, not to mention downright fun at times. Who among us does not know the euphoria felt upon grasping a hard sought answer or insight? These epiphanies of insightful smiles are many in Berman's latest book. He has the talent to present detailed analysis of profound intellectual study in a casual and accessible manner while still having fun and entertaining the reader. It is not often that you read a passage of incredible insight all the while chuckling at the delivery. Why America Failed is an impressive and entertaining work in this regard. My personal evidence is that I read this book in one day, and am at best an average speed reader. Some may find the high volume of quotations in this book distracting, but I have simply taken them as leads on additions to my ever-expanding "to read" list. The truth, after all, is addictive. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Morris Berman for being the pusher who turned me on to this high.
on November 4, 2011
If you have read the first two books of Morris Berman's trilogy (The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America), Why America Failed reads like a kind of post-mortem. While the first two books survey the deplorable state of our culture in the present, Berman, in his third volume, takes a more historical view, in a forensic sense. What were the causes? What led to where we are now which is going nowhere fast? Why America Failed is a kind of "signing off." Not so distant future reporting of America's imperial decline can only be that of an unrecognizable dystopia: a politically crumbled and fractured Unites States into a collection of post'empire neo'fiefdoms.
Berman distills the dystopia down to its most elemental basis: defined and driven by the hustler mentality with technology as its delivery system.
Chapter Four, "The Rebuke of History," presents an unusual (to me, not an in-depth student of history) of the not commonly discussed causes of the American Civil War and how they shaped the "techno-hustler" culture which was to engulf the entire country and ultimately be our undoing, though its roots extend back to our beginnings.
Berman writes "In contrast to the zeal for money that characterized the North, the South was guided by ideals of honor, courage, amiability, and courtesy." This of course is recognizable everywhere in America today, right?
This is a diametrically opposed culture compared to the drive for material progress of the North. This was the essence of the clash: two different ways of life. Not just slavery, an abomination by any standards of course. Not just preservation of the Union (which was Lincoln's driving objective).
I hope any detractors of Berman's portrayal of the antebellum South do not make false associations about him supporting a culture which embraced slavery, employing the logic of those who label Mark Twain a racist for using the "N" word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Speaking of Twain, isn't Tom Sawyer quite the little proto-predatory capitalist even before the Civil War as he persuades the neighborhood kids to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing his fence? Twain knew what a hustler was. What Tom, the playful rapscallion, did is hardly different than Bank of America's idea (recently abandoned) to charge customers a $5 monthly fee to use their debit cards (their own money), this in the light of their recently reported third quarter profits of $60 billion as well as looming layoffs. This is one common symptom of decline and dysfunction: "corporate psychosis" They're not just hustlers, they're psychotic hustlers (abuse your employees and customers). If you're not a hustler, you're a "witch" and historically we know what you do with witches. Incurious George put it best: "You're either with us or against us."
So, is this "Goodbye, Farewell, Amen?" Open the gates and flee the realm? Berman does address "the question of where contemporary `Southerners' can go to escape [the] dystopia..." Near the end of the book, Berman discusses pockets of civility and community in Europe and even Mexico where considerable adapting would be necessary. For those who know the reality and stay, there is the monastic option he introduced in The Twilight of American Culture. Step off the hustler grid and carve out a little corner, do something meaningful, and even in a small way make a difference. "If you want a non-hustling life," Berman writes, "you are definitely better off hitting the road."
In chapter five, "The Future of the Past," Berman does not offer a light on the horizon, which as he says books of this sort are expected to provide. The culture of the hustler demands that the citizenry remain mired in the fantasy that prosperity is around the corner no matter what. Berman will not pander to that. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville from 150 years ago: "I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America." This is the milieu in which we exist. The accuracy of the description applied to our present is chilling to say the least.
on October 30, 2011
Morris Berman's conclusion to his trilogy on America (Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America are the first two) penetrates even more deeply than the earlier books into the roots of our current national and cultural malaise. As another reviewer noted, Berman's book gives us much to reflect upon in connection with debates over the Occupy movement and the likely future of America. But unlike any other treatment of these issues I am familiar with, Berman looks into the historical and philosophical underpinnings of American decline and offers an unflinchingly honest assessment of how we got here. The answer Berman offers is as unsettling as it is persuasive: character is destiny. According to Berman, the American Dream has always been a twisted fantasy premised on a narcissistic Lockean individualism and an unquestioned faith in a notion of progress bound up with technological advancement, the dream of the techno- huckster. The book could probably also have been titled Why America Triumphed, as long as we keep in mind that in this case to triumph is a disaster and the dream was always destined to end in self-destruction. The world is flat because we flattened it. Berman also considers the case of the various "alternative visions" and internal criticisms of America's huckster culture, but concludes (again persuasively) that none of them really had a chance. I found the chapter on the Civil War to be particularly illuminating and powerful in this regard, as it forces us to reflect more deeply on what was lost there (the traditional agrarian culture of the South as an alternative to Northern hucksterism) as well as what was won (the end of slavery). This is probably the trickiest section of Berman's book, and the one most likely to be misunderstood, but Berman handles this material with great skill, insight, and compassion. The contradictions and paradoxes of American history have a tragic dimension that is well articulated here and elsewhere in the book, and one is led to the conclusion that the American way of life was fated to self-destruct from the beginning. This is the book we should all be reading now; a Moby Dick for the 21st century. That we didn't read that one either until it was too late only serves to confirm Berman's bleak vision of American decline.
Morris Berman concludes his America trilogy with this superb volume, a clear-eyed & incisive examination of our nation's fatal flaw, one that was there from the start. He shows that the American propensity for "progress" was always about sheer naked material gain, not moral or spiritual advancement -- although we've certainly paid lip service to those ideals over the centuries, at least for public consumption.
"Consumption" -- that's the key, the lodestone, the guiding light of our national character. It's so thoroughly ingrained in our thinking that we don't even pause to wonder why simply buying more & more & more unnecessary & often soul-destroying trash is the only value of our lives. After all, where would our economy be without constant consumption? Where would we be? Even more importantly, what would we be?
Nothing, as it turns out. And it's our terror of confronting that nothingness within, that gaping black hole where a vibrant, meaningful national character ought to be, that keeps us busily buying, consuming, excreting trash. Not just tangible trash, like Hummers & 80-inch HD TVs & the latest cellphone, but cultural trash, like Me-First-&-Only-Me, Money-Money-Money, Destroy-Anyone-Who-Doesn't-Accept-US-As-Number-One. We know these mantras. We breathe them, we ingest them, we dream them, we embody & live them.
And this is at the core of Berman's book. While he provides ample economic, political, historical, and cultural evidence for his thesis of America the Hustling, what comes through at last is the moral & spiritual chasm that's swallowed what might have been a very different & much better nation. The alternatives were always there, voiced by countless Cassandras who were derided, dismissed, ignored -- or else co-opted once they were safely dead. Voices in the wilderness ...
Berman doesn't leave us with the illusion of hope for an 11th-hour turnaround, either. As any former addict will testify, once you're addicted to something, you seldom break free of it before hitting bottom -- which is often nothing less than death. How many readers will nod their heads sagely at Berman's words, but go on living as before, because it's the only thing they know?
All too easy to dismiss Berman as a curmudgeon & gadfly then, yelling at those kids to get off his academic lawn. Indeed, Berman fully expects that response, as he states more than once. But beyond his anger & disgust is sorrow & grief for the terrible waste of what we could have been, if only we had chosen something better than greed & power as our ultimate goals. Now it's too late for anything but the inevitable decline & the post-mortem of America.
Sure to be ignored by those who most desperately need to read it, but urgently recommended!
on November 12, 2011
America, according to Berman's analysis, was born a blind, capitalistic hustler and that is why it is in decline and there is no hope for either recovery or redemption - quoting Melville, "Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's been immutably decreed." He does indeed equate America to the "Pequod". Ironically, if Berman is right, many Americans are sure to reject this dark and pessimistic analysis. The fundamental problem is that a culture based on hustling for money and material goods will be blind to the counter culture of the traditional society where the community comes before self. Drawing upon numerous of innumerable analysis of the American Civil War, Berman argues that the war was not principally about slavery. It was a clash of Northern industrial culture and Southern agrarian culture; different lifestyles that made the clash, the war, inevitable. He says, "In its flawed and tragic way, the Old South stood for values that we cannot live without if we are to remain human."
He laments over the illusion of technology which he says Americans mistake for progress. Drawing on works such as Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows", he describes the changing functionality of the technological mind - one that is constantly interrupted and distracted by a "TD" (telecommunication device) so that multi-tasking replaces analysis which requires "a continuous, linear thread of attention". He, like Carr, condemns the Net as delivering "repetitive, intense, and addictive stimuli, promoting very superficial understanding." Citing Google's corporate policy as one that had no intention of letting its users linger on the screen, and Carr, "The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought" he agrees with the latter that "Google is in the business of distraction". Against the America of techno-addicts, where "people touch their portable devices like rosary beads" the traditional society seems to them "backward". Noise, movement, and "the suppression of silence" (George Steiner) is the culture of modernity in technology terms.
It is customary today to blame the ills of America on its corporate elite. Berman does not spare them. The criticism of this segment of America is not new because the failure of Wall Street is too well documented. He issues the reminder that in six years under Reagan American turned from the world's largest creditor nation to the world's largest debtor nation. In economic terms, a nation to succeed and survive must accumulate and distribute. Agreeing with John Rapley, the political scientist, Berman notes that Russia was good at distribution but poor in accumulation while America was good (for a while) at accumulation but poor in distribution. He believes that Obama does not know how to reform Wall Street and probably doesn't want to. Here, Berman notes, the "moral depravity" of the bankers "took advantage of the panic in 2008 to take from the public purse to enrich their own." "Why" he asks, "would anyone think he needs a $9 million bonus on top of his already gargantuan salary?" The tragedy, Berman says, is that the bankers and people like Bill Gates are the epitome of the American Dream - people adore Bill Gates because they too want $50 billion in their bank account.
The alternative exists but it is closed to America. Berman does not think that the European model is the alternative because it is, at the moment (though may not be for long) merely a more successful model of the same capitalistic society although the Europeans know how to pace themselves and enjoy a slower, more reflective life. The real alternative is Islam, but Berman wryly concluded, Americans will say "If that is the cure, we'll rather have the disease." So, how does Berman find his personal solution? He now lives in Mexico, where he says the people are gracious and traditional.
I read this book some months ago and have refrained from reviewing it because I have very conflicted feelings about it. On the one hand, I'm a little distrustful of monocausal explanations for complicated historical processes like civilizational decline. Simply saying that the USA is a "hustler nation" and that ultimately we are being gutted from within as a logical result of that dominant ethic is very neat, elegant, but it obscures a lot of complexity too. And while I don't really have the same problem with his fourth chapter on the American South that so many others do, it's such a counter-intuitive example that it does provoke more uncertainty about his argument that, say, using New England communtarian traditions (Emerson, Thoreau) would have. Berman clearly doesn't endorse slavery; but to say that the South offered a preferable alternative tradition that was, nonetheless, predicated on slave labor is to beg the question - what kind of better world does Berman envision?
To those objections, however, I must say that this book is one of the most provocative and well-researched social critiques I've read in a while. Even if I would have preferred a somewhat more complex discussion of America's commercial ethic (cf. Victoria de Grazia's "Irresistible Empire" where she shows that business organizations have promoted a social ethic of service), the evidence he assembles about the hollowing-out of our institutions and the all-too-evident pervasiveness of greed and short-sightedness in our official life is compelling. Moreover, as in his other books, he demonstrates a thorough understanding of American history and social theory: his endnotes are invaluable. If for no other reason, "Why America Failed" will encourage a reader to investigate some of the alternative traditions and thinkers - writers like Thoreau and Lewis Mumford - that he highlights. (Although his efforts to rescue Jimmy Carter's historical reputation seem to me, at least, to be a bridge too far).
Berman's "Dark Ages America" (2006) is still his most accomplished book. Yet, "Why America Failed," even though it has numerous problems, compels you to look at the USA in a different and radical way - as a failed civilization where any chance of social improvement is a foregone conclusion. The Dream Is Over, folks. In that respect, it encourages you to consider the Big Picture of American history and the character of our civilization: no small accomplishments in themselves. You can disagree with Berman's methods, but his overview of the life and death American Idea is one that cannot be waived away.
on November 12, 2011
The first thing the reader has to deal with is the book's provocative title. Berman has said that his original title was "Capitalism and its Discontents" with emphasis on the discontents; the publisher made him change it to something they felt would sell better. I feel both titles are unfortunate, because they might serve to drive away those who would best benefit from this book, while attracting those who are probably already aware of the gist of the argument - although the latter could certainly gain from Berman's well-supported historical survey of the issue at hand. What is the issue at hand? I think it could be summed up by an alternate title: "Hucksterism Against the Commonweal."
Berman here traces the history of the US and finds that our core founding principle wasn't freedom but hucksterism. We're always selling something to someone -- even our bodies and minds -- and we're always buying. This all comes at the cost of the common good, eroding communities and leaving only the war of all against all.
Extensive footnotes support his argument, and he makes it clear that he's not the first to argue so. Many have gone before him, from Emerson and Thoreau to Lewis Mumford to Vance Packard to Jimmy Carter. In the end, when we're about nothing but the individual pursuit of material wealth, we're about nothing at all. It's the lopsidedness of our behavior that's unique - it's not just that some of us, or even most of us, are hucksters. It's that we all are. We have to be, to make it in America. While there are good aspects to this, the bad aspects destroy the foundations of any commonweal that might mitigate those bad aspects. Without community and values beyond getting rich, we're just going to get lonelier and more withdrawn into illusions - such as the persistent illusion we tell ourselves that we actually have communities and values.
Berman believes that, since hucksters are all we have ever really been (despite the "alternative tradition's" attempts to get a foothold, outside of books), that's all we'll ever be. Since this is not a sustainable culture, we're due for collapse, and this is becoming more and more obvious of late, to elements of both the Right (Tea Party) and the Left (the Occupy movement). Unlike some chroniclers of American doom, Berman doesn't believe we're going to rally and rescue ourselves at the final hour. His book is a history of what went wrong, not a recipe for how to make it right. And yet... there is still that alternative tradition, the call for community and non-material values. It hasn't gone away. When the great edifice of empire comes crumbling down, there will still be something towards which to look to get it right the next time.
on April 9, 2012
Morris Berman's Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline, a third in his trilogy, offers a postmortem on a failed society, where the mechanisms of internal self correction to avert decline cannot function due to the unreflected attitudes and expectations not only of the ruling classes and institutions but also of the people themselves make any such ameliorative prospect impossible. The strength of Berman's analysis is his integrated approach: he does not separate out certain groups, classes, or institutions as much as he cites them as examples reflective of the disastrous trajectory of the larger society.
This is why his fourth chapter "the Rebuke of History" is so deeply problematic. He abandons his integrative approach here, and, for the sake of making a contrarian point, sets the implications of the institution of slavery aside to conceptually pose a noble, non avaricious, leisurely Southern culture as a counterpoint to the supposed rapacious capitalistic ethos that he perceives in the North. To do so, he has to look the other way from the most vicious, extensive, and corrupt "hustle" of American history: not just the expropriation of labor value from a brutalized, enslaved population to support the supposed noble, leisure society of the southern ruling, plantation classes but to expand this hustle into territories. He is right that the war was not sparked upon slavery as a moral issue: it was sparked by south's insistence of asserting its "property" rights to expand slavery into the territories and the Republican agenda to curtail that. Compromises and solutions had broken down, regional rivalries had already spun out of control by 1861, and smaller scale civil wars were ongoing in Kansas and Missouri.
Other points can be made. In spite of his superficial stereotyping, both the North and the South were overwhelmingly traditional, agrarian societies prior to the civil war, so his proposed regionalization of associated, traditional values to the south is not at all persuasive. It appears that Berman lacks any historical perspective on the values and culture of ante-bellum America North and South, but I do not perceive that he has conducted any serious study of the times. He simply had a point he wanted to make and fished about quotes to make it. Unfortunately, muddled, ill informed analysis cannot be hidden behind a pretense of nuance.
For an author who uncompromisingly refuses to give the American people a pass for their corrupt and destructive political, economic, and technological institutions, his giving the southern ruling class a pass for the cruel economic hustle of slavery to further accumulate wealth and leisure is, at best, puzzling. At worst, it challenges the intellectual and moral integrity of his entire work.
To be fair, he is sympathetic to the cruel American exploitation and dehumanization of Native Americans and Mexicans. That happening within the plantation culture of the South to African Americans I suppose gets in the way of making his point. Still, the Trail of Tears was hustling the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations out of the deep south to make room for settlements and slave based plantation expansion, and the Mexican war was strongly supported by Southern Democrats to take that project even further. Details, details, I am trying to make a point here, people...
on May 9, 2012
It took me awhile to get through this book, more because of its subject matter than its size. At 246 pages, it looks like a fairly quick read but do not be fooled; this is not light summer reading. This book is DENSE and well sourced; the endnotes are a solid 38 pages if you're into that sort of thing, which I most certainly am.
Published in 2012, Why America Failed seems to be the denouement to Morris Berman's trilogy;the first two books are The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. I have not read those books, as I honestly think I couldn't handle them. This particular book is a fairly brutal portrait recounting the origins of the United States as a nation and the mentality (psychopathy?) that led to its rise, and will lead to its inevitable fall. Fun stuff!!
The main thesis of the book is that American culture is (and always has been) based on a "hustling" mentality. You know, the "I gots to get mine Jack" kind of thinking. Berman's theory is that America's "can-do, expansionist mentality" along with its addiction to technology and its narrow definition of progress as "strictly material" and "what is tangible" has created the perfect storm for imperial collapse. And that's not such a hard sell really. Capitalism is the fuel that drives this country and capitalism is all about competition and bigger, better, more. There's no need for me to rant about capitalism, but the "business of America" has always been the Business of America(tm). There was never a "City on a Hill" and in the end, bigger, better, more is not sustainable. What goes up must come down and you can't go infinitely up when you're planted on the ground.
Berman makes the case that any historical push back towards this "hustling" lifestyle, any thought or show of an alternate style of living (less acquisitive, more family/community orientated, less competition more cooperation) has been scoffed at and marginalized. Berman believes wars have even been fought against more "traditional" styles of living, oftentimes wrapped in the guise of ridding the world of "communism" or "terrorism." To illustrate his point, Berman uses the domestic example of the "clash of civilizations" that occurred between the North and South during the Civil War. Berman posits that the Southern way of life (before slavery ended) valued traits that were not conducive to the spread of northern capitalism, and were in fact a potential hindrance and threat to the spread of northern capitalism. It was this "threat" that served as one of the causes of the War Between the States.
The theory could be discomforting to some, but only, I think, if you cling to some American mythology. No one ever wants to hear the South during slavery was anything but evil. I'm certainly not keen to wax poetic about the genteel south and it's lost manners and priorities, but there is a point there. There was a lifestyle being led by people in this country in direct opposition to a fully capitalistic mechanistic society. And that way of life was destroyed, the bad and the good. In its place is where we find ourselves today.
While the whole book was just one uncomfortable truth after another, it was Berman's parting question to the reader that resonated: "If you are an American reading this, let me ask you: aren't you tired of it all? The endless pressure and anxiety, the awful atmosphere at work (that's if you can get work), the constant one-upsmanship that passes for friendship or social relations, the lack of community or of any meaningful connection with your neighbors."
For me, that was a wake-up call. As Americans, we want to believe that things in this country will get better. We want to believe that the halcyon days aren't in the past, that we will once again be the world leaders in whatever makes a country a world leader. But I don't know if that's true. I think it's apparent to most people that things don't seem to be getting better in the U.S. Things don't seem to be moving in the right direction. There are too many examples to enumerate here, but pick an institution and I can almost guarantee it's crumbling. But who wants to be a Cassandra?! No one wants to be a harbinger of bad news, and I think we all want to believe that the country we grew up pledging allegiance to is still worthy of that allegiance.
Ultimately, I think, the book serves as a warning. It asks us, as Americans, to take a hard look at this country and our lives within it, and to really think about whether or not it's a culture we want for ourselves (and our children, if we have them.) Obviously for a lot of us, the devil we know is far less scary than the one we don't, but I appreciate the author's honesty and candid disdain for, what passes as, American culture. I may not 100% agree with him, but I heed his warnings and continue to look for jobs in Costa Rica.
on January 13, 2012
"Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline" is Morris Berman's latest installment in a trilogy of books by one of our most prescient and important social and cultural critics. As he's been doing for over a decade, Dr. Berman looks at America at this particular juncture and offers a diagnosis that isn't a pretty one. Believers in the American myth of never-ending progress and technology's capacity to save us will be sorely disappointed, if not downright angry. They'll dismiss Berman as a crank, or perhaps worse for someone like Berman that cares about his subject--ignoring him and his work altogether. That would be a tragedy in my opinion, not heeding what Berman has to offer.
In his prior two books on America's decline as an international power, Berman carefully and methodically made the case that our country had descended into a place of cultural ignorance that was affecting our ability to function as a nation. In "Why America Failed," Berman picks up where "Dark Ages America" left off and picks up on the continuing debate among certain kinds of historians about America's trajectory as a nation.
While the book begins a bit slowly in my opinion, with Berman citing multiple sources, once things get rolling, they move quickly. Berman doesn't dilly dally around, but quickly makes his point, drawing on the work of a multitude of respected sources and writers. This allows him to make a strong case that America's been a nation of "hustlers" since the get-go, which Berman comes back to regularly throughout WAF.
Chapter 4, titled, "The Rebuke of History" is the book's strongest and most compelling, in my opinion. Berman knew he'd be misperceived and wrote about it on his blog. The chapter deals with the Civil War, what Shelby Foote called the defining event in American history.
"Why America Failed" is the book that all Americans should be reading. It would help them understand the nation that they proudly hail as something that it's not, and a national period of self-reflection might cleanse our culture of its hubris. Now I know I'm delusional for even thinking what I just wrote. One can dream, however, right?
Berman ends the book with what I think is a very honest assessment. He again mentions what led him to leave the country. He also discusses how most writers, when completing a work like this one, contradict what they've written by pulling a "rabbit out of the hat" at the eleventh hour. Berman does no such thing and he discusses why he doesn't.
Berman concludes with a reflection on what he sees as the hows and whys of America's collapse. This collapse, according to Berman, won't be immediate, or dramatic, but a slow, but steady demise. He calls this Act III (a), where the alternative tradition, existing on the margins, may gain followers and provide some solace for a fraction of Americans. This would be a type of "monastic option." Politically, it may take the form of an OWS protest movement. Individually, it might mean learning to grow your own food, embracing the best of the "appropriate technologies" that were promoted by E.F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, which came out in 1973 and highlighted technologies that were appropriately scaled, and sustainable. Maybe learning and beginning to use skills that your grandparents possed 50-60 years ago.
These are things that those on the fringes recognize from the direction the wind is blowing and will begin taking steps in preparation for a future that will be vastly different.