With the publication of his courageous new book, Why America Failed (John Wiley, 2012), Morris Berman has become one of the very first well-known, left-wing writers to acknowledge that not only is the American Empire in decline, but that it is completely unfixable. In Berman’s view there will be no rabbit pulled out of the hat at the eleventh hour to save the nation, because “the hat is coming apart at the seams.”
Unlike most of the liberal pundits such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Michael Parenti, Rachel Maddow, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Amy Goodman, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, and Paul Krugman, to mention only a few, Berman has given up on America.
According to Berman the seeds of the Empire’s destruction were sewn in the sixteenth century by the early European settlers who were, above all, into “hustling” – looking out for number one. Ever since then, “hustling, materialism, and the pursuit of personal gain without regard for its effects on others” have provided the dominant theme of the American culture. He or she who dies with the most toys wins the game. Enough never seems to be quite enough.
The hustler’s credo is “Teach me how to be a moneymaking, moneyspending machine.” Most hustlers are obsessed with having – owning, possessing, manipulating, and controlling people, power, money, machines, and material wealth. Through having they try to find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain world. Their compulsive desire to have leads straight to technofascism – affluenza, technomania, cybermania, megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism.
In response to their insatiable psychological and sensory needs, those who are into having often exhibit behavior patterns which are aggressive, competitive, and antagonistic. To have something is to take charge of it or to conquer it. Robbing, destroying, overpowering, and consuming are all forms of having. Those in the having mode are afraid of losing what they possess either to someone else or to the government or possibly through death.
As a nation we are so obsessed with hustling that we have lost our ability to be human beings. Our happiness depends mostly on our superiority over others, our power, and our ability to manipulate others. Capitalist America may be the most efficient and productive nation in the world, but it extracts a high human cost. Conspicuous consumption is no longer a sign of our success, but rather of our spiritual vacuum. America has lost its soul.
To cope with the powerlessness and our fear of nothingness, many of us spend our entire lives pretending we are invincible. One of the ways in which we try to convince ourselves that we will live forever is through conspicuous consumption. We think we can spend our way into a state of never-ending self-actualization without paying any psychological dues for our life of unrestrained pleasure. We live by the slogan, “I’ve got mine, Jack.”
Even though we live in a period of unprecedented prosperity, it is also the time of the living dead. Many affluent Americans who deny themselves virtually nothing in the way of material satisfaction seem to be more dead than alive. As novelist Walker Percy once said, “There is something worse than being deprived of life; it is being deprived of life and not knowing it.”
Many of us behave as though we were spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually dead. The living dead can be found everywhere – surfing the Internet, checking their e-mail, texting, day trading, glued to Fox News hoping for an event in an otherwise uneventful life, driving alone across town to Wal-Mart in search of more low-priced plastic yuck, stopping at McDonald’s for a quick taste-fee meal, feigning interest in a mindless bureaucratic job, and viewing Dirty Housewives of New York on BRAVO. Our government, our politicians, and the high priests of Corporate America pull our strings.
Our entire economy is driven by our intense psychological need to fill our spiritual and emotional vacuum with more stuff and our illusion that the accumulation of wealth and material possessions can provide meaning to life. If we feel down and need a lift, we buy a new dress, have dinner in a nice restaurant, or rent a video. The less meaning we have in our life the easier it is to be seduced by the materialistic work hard, play hard, be happy syndrome – a syndrome that is based on a lie.
As Berman points out, most American hustlers are always in a big hurry. It is as though they are in a race to nowhere!
Berman devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the “illusion of progress” and the relationship between technology and progress. He views technology as a kind of “hidden religion” linked to the notion of “unlimited progress” and the “perfectibility of man.” It supplies the “social glue” which hustling alone is unable to provide.
Flying across the Atlantic in a giant jumbo jet engenders feelings of freedom, power, and control – not unlike the feelings experienced by Apollo astronauts, B-2 bomber pilots, high-speed race car drivers, physicians conducting high-tech medical procedures, and genetic engineers creating designer plants, farm animals, and even babies. High-precision automobiles, high-tech musical instruments, telecommunication satellites, home computers, cell phones, and the Internet all make us feel like we are in charge. Although technology may increase efficiency, reduce drudgery, and improve the quality of life, it is also one of the most powerful metaphors for the illusion of control.
For some, technology provides more freedom, more time, and an increased sense of community. For others it sucks up time, reduces freedom, and destroys community. Technology makes some of us faster, smarter, and richer. It makes others more materialistic and contributes to our alienation. Is technology our personal slave, or are we slaves to technology?
Passengers on board Swissair Flight 111 bound for Zurich from New York on the evening of September 2, 1998, thought they were in control of their destiny, when their MD-11 plunged into the Atlantic near Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia even though the pilot and the co-pilot spent the final minutes of the doomed flight arguing over whether to fly the smoke-filled plane by the book or by instinct. John F. Kennedy, Jr., may have thought he was in control of his high-tech, Piper Saratoga when he dove it into the sea off Martha’s Vineyard. In reality, they were in control of nothing – nothing at all. Swissair filed for bankruptcy three years later.
We place infinite faith in high-tech global communication systems, megacomputer networks, communication satellites, international electric power grids, high-speed planes and trains, and high-precision automobiles. They are our gods!
To assuage their existential pain caused by the human condition, many are easily seduced by technology – particularly big technology. Still others use technology such as the electronic media, computers, computer software, and the Internet to manipulate millions of adults and children alike. “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” sang Janis Joplin in “Me and Bobby McGee.”
We don’t just embrace new technologies, we place them on a pedestal and worship them – always in the name of progress. The automobile, television, nuclear power, the space program, high-tech weapon systems, the personal computer, and the Internet have all been viewed with God-like awe – the next panacea. It is as though the frontier spirit of the Old West has been reincarnated in the form of high-tech euphoria.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Why America Failed is the one on the American South. Berman argues that, notwithstanding the slavery and racism (which he abhors) that existed there, the Antebellum South with its agricultural economy and its traditional culture provided the only alternative to the dominant high-speed, high-stress, high-tech, imperialistic, industrial culture found elsewhere in the United States. Before the Civil War, the Rural South represented a communitarian alternative to the dehumanized, mass-production, mass-consumption, narcissistic lifestyle that was beginning to permeate most of the rest of America – an alternative to the politics of money, power, speed, greed, and progress. The Antebellum South discovered the joys of simple living long before simple living came back in vogue in the 1990s.
The real tragedy of the Civil War was that it was not possible to find an alternative way to end the scourge of slavery which did not result in the deaths of 625,000 individuals. It was a classic case of throwing out the baby (traditional culture) with the bath water (slavery). What was at stake in the Civil War was nothing less than the clash of two radically different civilizations according to Berman.
Throughout its history America has tried to “fix” traditional societies which it perceived to be obstacles to progress.
What the North did to the South is really the model of what America in general did and does to “backward” (i.e., traditional) societies, if it can. You wipe out almost the entire indigenous population of North America; you steal half of Mexico; you literally vaporize a large chunk of the Japanese population; you bomb Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” (in the words of Curtis LeMay); you “shock and awe” Iraqi civilians, and so on.
Berman’s chapter on the South is the most insightful piece I have ever read about the region where I spent over a half century of my life. It reads like a tragic Southern novel entitled What Might Have Been, But Could Never Be.
Most books about the decline of the American Empire conclude with a “happy chapter” explaining how some stupid idea such as campaign finance reform, banning corporate personhood, or a return to the Constitution will guarantee eternal bliss. Berman makes it very clear that his book has no “happy chapter” because the endgame is not going to be very pretty.
Berman describes life in the United States as vapid, utterly meaningless, and without heart. “The United States has run out of steam. ”
The culmination of a hustling, laissez-faire capitalist culture is that everything gets dumbed down; that all significant questions are ignored, and that every human activity is turned into a commodity, and anything goes if it sells. What we have is domination by corporate media, politics via poll-driven sound bites, a foreign policy based on unilateralism and preemptive strikes, a failing newspaper industry, a poorly informed citizenry, the unemployed winding up destitute, weak (or no) mass transit system, and a health care system that ranks thirty-seventh in the world.
In 2006, long before things got really bad, Berman concluded that he had, in effect, “outlived his country,” and fled to Mexico. Just in case you don’t want to escape to Mexico, almost as an afterthought, Berman offers his readers a long shot alternative. But for that you will have to read the book.
Thomas H. Naylor
January 10, 2012
Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of Affluenza, Downsizing the USA, and The Search for Meaning.