Morris Berman: “A Postmortem For a Dying Nation”

Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse

Interview with author and social critic Morris Berman  who says the fact that we’re a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.

by Nomi Prins/ AlterNet/ March 7, 2012

Several years after the Wall Street-ignited crisis began, the nation’s top bank CEOs (who far out-accumulated their European and other international counterparts) continue to hobnob with the president at campaign dinners where each plate costs more than one out of four US households make in a year. Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream.

This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go. This is the flaw in the entire premise of the American Dream: if we can have it all, it must by definition be at someone else’s expense.

In Why America Failed, noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman’s brilliant, raw and unflinchingly accurate postmortem of America, he concludes that this hustling model, literally woven into the American DNA, doomed the country from the start, and led us inevitably to this dysfunctional point. It is not just the American Dream that has failed, but America itself, because the dream was a mistake in the first place. We are at our core a nation of hustlers; not recently, not sometimes, but always. Conventional wisdom has it that America was predicated on the republican desire to break free from monarchical tyranny, and that was certainly a factor in the War of Independence; but in practical terms, it came down to a drive for “more” — for individual accumulation of wealth.

So where does that leave us as a country? I caught up with Berman to find out.

Nomi Prins: Why America Failed is the third book in a trilogy you wrote on the decline of the American Empire. How did this trilogy evolve?

Morris Berman: The first book in the series, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), is a structural analysis, or internal comparison, of the contemporary US and the late Roman Empire. In it, I identified factors that were central to the fall of Rome and showed that they were present in the US today. I said that if we didn’t address these, we were doomed. I didn’t believe for a moment we would, of course, and now the results are obvious.

After 9/11, I realized that my comparison with Rome lacked one crucial component: like Rome, we were attacked from the outside. Dark Ages America (2006), the sequel to Twilight, is an analysis of US foreign policy and its relationship to domestic policy, once again arguing that there had to be a serious reevaluation of both if we were to arrest the disintegration of the nation. Of course, no such reevaluation took place, and we are now in huge economic trouble with no hope of recovery, and stuck in two wars in the Middle East that we cannot seem to win.

By the time I sat down to write the third volume, Why America Failed, I was past the point of issuing warnings. The book is basically a postmortem for a dying nation. The argument is that we failed for reasons that go back more than 400 years. As a result, the historical momentum to not undertake a reassessment, and just continue on with business as usual, is very powerful. At this point we can no more reverse our downward trajectory than we can turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub.

NP: So you’ve been analyzing America’s decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration for Why America Failed?

MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) and his argument about America being a nation of hustlers. The original working title was Capitalism and Its Discontents, the point being that those who dissented from the dominant ideology never had a chance. The crux of the problem remains the American Dream: even “progressives” see it as the solution — including, I have the impression, the Wall Street protesters — when it’s actually the problem.

In my essay collection, A Question of Values, I talk about how we are driven by a number of unconscious assumptions, including the notions of our being the “chosen people” and the availability of an endless frontier (once geographical, now economic and technological). For a while I had The Roots of American Failure as the title, but more to the point would be The Failure of American Roots — for even our success was a failure, because it was purely material. This is really what the American Dream is about, in its essence, as Douglas Dowd argued years ago in The Twisted Dream.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.

I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.

NP: What do you say to people who don’t believe America has failed; who may just see the country as going through a bad patch, so to speak? What evidence have you compiled for the argument that the United States has failed?

MB: The major evidence is, of course, economic, and there is by now a slew of books showing that this time around recovery is not really possible and that we are going to be eclipsed by China or even Europe. These are books by very respected economists, I might add; and even a US Intelligence report of two yrs ago, “Global Trends 2025,” says pretty much the same thing, although it adds cultural and political decline into the mix. The statistics here are massive, but just consider a single one: in terms of collective wealth, the top 1 percent of the nation owns more than the bottom 90 percent. If we have a future, it’s that of a banana republic. And there will be no New Deal this time around to save us; just the opposite, in fact, as we are busy shredding any social safety net we once had.

NP: How does this relate to the rise of the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement?

MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the US is still number-one, but I believe that on some level they know that this is whistling in the dark. They suspect their lives will get worse as time goes on, and that the lives of their children will be even worse than that. They feel the American Dream betrayed them, and this has left them bitter and resentful. The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.

NP: Most political analysts place the blame for our current situation on major institutions, whether it is Wall Street, Congress, the Bush or Obama administrations, and so on. You agree with them to a great extent, but you also seem to place a lot of emphasis on the American people themselves—on individual values and behavior. Why is that? How do you see that as a factor?

MB: The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.

In addition, all of the data over the last 20 years show that Americans are not very bright, and not even the bright ones are very bright—it’s not merely a question of IQ. A Marist poll released on July 4, 2011 showed that 42 percent of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776, and this figure increases to 69 percent for the under-30 age group. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the United States seceded. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system turned up the fact that 77 percent of the students didn’t know who George Washington was, and the Texas Board of Education recently voted to include a unit on Estee Lauder in the history curriculum, when they don’t have one on the first president. Nearly 30 percent of the American population thinks the sun revolves around the earth or is unsure of which revolves around which. Etc. etc. How can such a population grasp a structural analysis of American history or politics? They simply aren’t capable of it. (Continued)

Nomi Prins is a journalist and senior fellow at Demos. She is the author of Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How “Conservatives” are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted For Them or Not).

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3 Responses to Morris Berman: “A Postmortem For a Dying Nation”

  1. Thanks for reporting this article Arlen! I would have missed it otherwise. I don’t agree with Berman’s analysis and conclusion. America hasn’t failed YET. And his blaming it on American hustling from the git go is off base. America is failing but not at the end stage yet, and the cause is America’s corpocracy. Reform corrupt government and corrupt corporate America and America will recover and thrive. See my newest version of http://www.uschamberofdemocracy.com It lays out what needs to be done. We haven’t reached doomsday yet!

    Best,

    Gary

    • And to think I (mostly jokingly) called you cynical, Gary. Maybe you are an optimist, after all. Berman’s critique of this country rings too true to me. I have never been this pessimistic before, but current trends don’t encourage me. The only way to solve corpocracy and our other systematic ills is for Americans (as in Occupy) going to the streets in large numbers and demanding it. So far I don’t see it happening. I hope your optimism is justified.

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