Friday, March 9, 2012
Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse
by Nomi Prins
In Why America Failed, noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman’s brilliant, raw and unflinchingly accurate postmortem of
, 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. America
Author and social critic Morris Berman says the fact that we're a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.
Bottom of Form
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.
So where does that leave us as a country? I caught up with Berman to find out.
Nomi Prins: Why
Failed is the third book in a trilogy you wrote on the decline of the
American Empire. How did this trilogy evolve? America
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
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. US
After 9/11, I realized that my comparison with
Rome lacked one crucial
component: like ,
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 Rome 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
decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration for Why
America Failed? America
MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) and his argument about
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. America
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 inThe 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
has failed? United
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
Wall Street movement?
MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the
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
US . 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 Americanswant 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
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 U.S. seceded. A poll taken in the United
States 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. Oklahoma
NP: So, basically it’s only a matter of time before students are taking courses in the historical significance of Kim Kardashian? What are the deeper, structural obstacles, in your opinion, to the American public accepting your general argument?
MB: It seems to me that it would involve a complete reversal of consciousness. I remember after the publication of the German edition of Dark Ages America, a major
newspaper, the TAZ,
or Tageszeitung, ran a review of the book called “Hopes of a
Patriot.” One of the things the reviewer said was that Berlin might be able to save
itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would
it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and
someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did
the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to
rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America America even the bright are brainwashed—just
check out theNew
Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will. York
Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages
went out and bought her essay, "Capitalism and a New Social Order,"
in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete
reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of
the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic
As a dean, my friend interacts with faculty a lot, at department meetings, cocktail parties, or whatever. He took these opportunities to raise the topic of the rapid redefinition of virtue in colonial
, only to discover that
within 30 seconds, the eyes of whomever he was talking to glazed over and they
would change the subject. Tocqueville said it in 1831, and it is even more true
today: Americans simply cannot tolerate, cannot even hear, fundamental
critiques of America .
IQ has very little to do with it. In an ontological sense, they simply cannot
bear it. And if this is true for the “best and the brightest,” then what does
this say for the rest of us? America
NP: What do you think can be done to reverse the situation? Is there any hope for the American Dream?
MB: At this point, absolutely nothing can reverse the situation. If every American carries these values, then change would require a different people, a different country. In dialectical fashion, it is precisely those factors that made this nation materially great that are now working against us, and that thus need to be jettisoned. What we need now is a large-scale rejection of the American Dream, and an embracing of the alternative tradition I talk about in Why American Failed.These are the “hopes of a patriot,” and they are simply not going to be realized.
NP: Can you mention briefly what some of those alternative traditions are ? You have a chapter that’s attracted some controversy regarding the Civil War – how does that relate?
MB: As I mentioned earlier, the working title of the book was Capitalism and Its Discontents. The reason I liked it (for various reasons, my publisher didn’t) is that it does reflect the thesis of the book: that although there was always an alternative tradition to hustling, with one exception
never took it, and instead
it marginalized those alternative voices. The exception was the antebellum
South, which raises real questions as to the origins of the Civil War, which
were not about slavery as a moral issue, no matter how much we like to believe
that. As Robin Blackburn writes in his recent book, The American
Crucible, antislavery ideas were far more about notions of progress
than about ones of racial equality. That’s a whole other discussion, however,
and I have it out in the book for an entire chapter. America
But the main narrative here is that from Captain John Smith and the Puritan divines through Thoreau and Emerson to Lewis Mumford and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith to Jimmy Carter, this tradition of capitalism’s discontents never really stood a chance. It never amounted to anything more than spiritual exhortation. Reaganomics, also known as “greedism,” was not born in 1981; more like 1584. The result is that for more than four centuries now,
has had one value system,
and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive.
Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the
alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is
what “democracy” always meant in America —the freedom to become rich.
The alternative tradition, in the work of the figures mentioned above, sought
to question the definition of “wealth.” If the dominant culture was following
the template of “they eat each other,” the alternative tradition can be
encapsulated in that famous line from John Ruskin: “There is no wealth but
NP: Speaking of wars, having just undergone
and Afghanistan, the Obama
administration, and actually the Republican candidates as well, have begun to
vilify China, and have amped
up the volume regarding .
You talk about our need as a country to have an external enemy. In what way do
you believe that need will manifest itself in any coming military actions? Iran
MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values.
was founded within a
conceptual framework of being in opposition to something—the
British and the Native Americans, to begin with—and it never abandoned that
framework. It doesn’t really have a clear idea of what it is in a positive
sense, and that has generated a kind of national neurosis. I mean, we were in
real trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed; in terms of identity, we were
completely adrift until the attacks of 9/11 (just think of how frivolous and
meaningless the America
years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we
enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode. Clinton
Hence the saber rattling against
Iran now, or the
foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia
to “watch” .
What bothers me is that we are doing all of this unconsciously, and we always
have. Mr. Obama, like most of his predecessors, is little more than a
marionette on strings (Mr. Carter being the only postwar exception to this
pattern, in a number of significant ways). Once again, true intelligence is
ontological, and as a nation, we are sorely lacking in that department. China
NP: But haven’t we heard all this before? After all, there is a long history of the so-called “declinist” argument, that the country is in permanent decline and has no future. Such books come and go; meanwhile, the country goes on. What makes your book, or books, different from previous assertions that “it’s all over”?
MB: Decline takes time; an empire doesn’t come to an end on August 4, A.D. 476, at two in the afternoon. Similarly, declinist analysis also takes time: the books you are referring to form a continuous argument, from Andrew Hacker’sThe End of the American Era in 1970 to George Modelski’s Long Cycles in World Politics in 1987 to Why America Failed in 2011. And there have been a good number of declinist works in between. These books are not wrong; rather, they are part of an ongoing recognition that the American experiment is finished. Even then, we can go back to before Professor Hacker to Richard Hofstadter (1948), who called the
a “democracy of cupidity”; or to C. Vann Woodward (1953), who wrote that we
were probably doomed because we had put all of our eggs in one ideological
basket, namely laissez-faire economics. During these years the country hasn’t
just “gone on”; what it has done is progressively fallen apart, and these
writers have made it their business to document the process. US
NP: Finally, you moved to
a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to
Mexico ? America
MB: There are a lot of answers to that question, and yes, some of the reasons can be found in the above dialogue. You know, the air is really “thin” in the
, because the
value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and
technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it
exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around United States Europe
in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of
things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the
citizens of other countries,
included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives. Mexico
Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the
; certainly, I never found much
heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the
world. In a word, US
has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply
tired of being a stranger in a strange land. InA General Theory of Love, Thomas
Lewis and his colleagues conclude that happiness is achieved only by those who
manage to escape the American value-system. Well, the easiest way to escape
from that value-system, is to escape from America . America
Nomi Prins is a journalist and senior fellow at Demos. She is the author of Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of
How "Conservatives" are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted For
Them or Not). America