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.
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 Berlin 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 America 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 even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.
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 America. He 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 environment.
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 America, 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?
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 America 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.
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, America 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 life.”
NP: Speaking of wars, having just undergone Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and actually the Republican candidates as well, have begun to vilify China, and have amped up the volume regarding Iran. 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?
MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values. America 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 Clinton years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode.
Hence the saber rattling against Iran now, or the foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia to “watch” China. 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.
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’s The 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 US 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.
NP: Finally, you moved to Mexico a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to 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 United States, 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 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, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives.
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 US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land. In A 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.
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).