[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Host, Ian Welsh:
I picked up Berman’s book with a smile on my lips, amused at the title. Failed. America failed. Not why America is failing, but why it has already failed. At last someone saying it straight up, America’s done.
But for the first few chapters I hated Morris Berman’s book. Loathed it with a sickly passion. Not because of Berman’s thesis, per se, that Americans are bunch of hustlers, in a pejorative sense and always have been, but because of the admiration of traditional societies and of the Middle Ages—societies based on serfdom or slavery, on horrific oppression of women, and whose elites live lives of aristocratic privilege enforced by the ready threat of violence. Oh, there’s more to traditional societies than that, to be sure, there’s a sense of pace, of place, of the primacy of relationships and family and of putting the society above the self which are admirable. There is an acceptance that poverty is not a personal failing, but a result of how society is set up. There are virtues. But there is also, in such society, a dark side, and it is a side particularly repulsive to modern individualistic mores.
To be sure, there is a dark side to our culture, to America’s culture and the West’s in general. There is a profound emptiness we try to fill with stuff. The next iPod, or TV, or car won’t make us more than briefly happy, and so we need another, and another, and another, an addiction, which like all addictions, can never be sated. Or that more money, more “success”, won’t make us happy, a finding which has been replicated over and over again by social scientists: once our needs are met, more money doesn’t make us happier. Which is odd, really, since we keep trying to get more as if it will make us happy.
And so we hustle. We polish our resumes, we make “contacts” as opposed to friends, we look for deals, we dress for success, we get surgery for success. And even if we succeed, and most of us won’t, because the US has less income mobility than any other western country, we still feel hollow, we still aren’t happy.
Berman identifies other strands of American culture than hustling, but makes the case that most of them, including Republican virtue and agrarian craft sensibilities, never stood a chance, and were at best held by slivers of the population. He runs through the opposition to hustling, to materialism, to progress without end, admiring each in turn, and ending his summary with words to the effect that the proponents of each were screaming into a hurricane, and that no one could ever convince Americans not to be hustlers. Oh, Americans would buy the books, and learn the language. They would speak of Republican virtue or the simple life, but in their actions, and in their hearts, they would always remain hustlers, greedy and obsessed with material success above all else.
But the first part of the book felt unfinished in the face of the title: why America failed. I mean, if Americans have hustlers since the beginning, well, why is the US failing now? Because, like it or hate it, the fact is that being a nation of hustlers led to spectacular success for America. And Berman accentuates this problem by noting that Americans have become more isolated from each other, more greedy, bigger hustlers, in the past three to four decades.
Berman’s argument seems to lie in technology. Technology he argues, in the vein of Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman (whose Technopoly everyone should read) is not neutral, it changes not just how we interact with the world (please don’t fiddle with your smart phone while talking to me) but it rewires our very brains. The brain of someone raised on print is very different from that of someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, and the effect of the internet is to reduce our ability understand complex problems and to replace meat-space connections to other people with connections over the net which demonstrably leave us less happy, not more. Television, replacing human interaction with a vegetative state with less brain activity than sleeping likewise led to an increase in loneliness: the anomic society in which we have few friends, no one or almost no one to confide in. A society where we don’t know our neighbors and don’t care to because our brains have literally been rewired so that we have a deficit in empathy, a lack of feeling of connection to others.
The problem of anomie, of the breaking up of traditional communal ties, is an old one and has been lamented repeatedly. Berman’s argument seems to be that of late, this has become even worse, thanks to our refusal to control how we use technology and our willingness to let it shape our societies and our very selves.
The argument is interesting, and I’m sure it’s one factor, but I find it curious that material circumstances get short shrift in the book. There is a brief discussion of slave state economics and discuss of the intellectual moment in the late 60s and 70s where environmentalism was born and limits to growth were considered, but it is brief and treated more as a history of ideas than as reflective of material realities.
One might note that the high point of American power (absolute as opposed to relative, after the collapse of the USSR) coincides with peak of oil production in the US, and that the sudden rise in American pathologies coincides fairly closely with the oil crises of the 70s and early 80s, for example. Hustling, eternal growth, works when cheap energy is readily available, when more, more, more is possible, and when growth is choked, the hustlers, rather than growing the pie, turn on each other in a vicious “war of all against all”. I think parts of this argument are implicit in Berman, especially in his discussion of the environmental critique of capitalism, but my reading is that this is secondary.
Then we come to the part of the book which will enrage many readers: the discussion of the one critique of the hustling ethos that ever stood a chance: the Southern way of life. While admitting the dark sides of southern culture, such as slavery, lynching and a touchy sense of honor which often ended in violence, Berman finds much to admire in a life which was lived not for more, more, more, but with the intention of being gracious to others, of pleasing others, of taking the time to enjoy life. This agrarian tradition, where individuals are rooted in family and community and responsibilities to others before responsibilities to oneself, is the only tradition which offered not just a critique of the hustling tradition, but which for a time provided an alternative.
The question, of course, is whether such a culture could have been possible without its dark sides. Neither in the South, nor the middle ages, nor in Mexico, where Berman now lives, is there a society celebrating traditional values which does not have a dark side, or dark sides.
But then, can we in the hustling culture say different? Of course not. Our society, our very nations, were created on the practice of genocide. We export our miseries to other countries, we make war on nations which did not attack us, and we blame our own underclass for their condition, as if our economy, as much as that of the Middle Ages, does not require an underclass. We offer material prosperity in return for a profound loss of autonomy, for a life following orders, for wage slavery that steals from most people more than the ability to choose who shall be their master.
Berman ends without hope for America. America, as the title says, has failed. It’s done. The final act may still have some time to run, but the point of no return, if there was ever one, once America refused to meld the best parts of northern and southern culture, is past. Individual Americans may be able to either leave America for nations with less physical affluence but whose way of live is more civilized and humane, or if they don’t leave, may be able to build lives in opposition to mainstream mores, but America itself, as we have understood, the colossus astride the world, is done, and done in by the very ethos which built it.
Great nations always rot first from within, and America shall be no different. And the seed of greatness as it flowers, is also the seed of destruction.
And so America has failed.
As for Berman’s book, it too is flawed. In the end, I liked it, and I can recommend it so long as the reader understands it looks at America’s problems almost entirely from a single angle. As with the blind gentleman feeling the elephant, one feeling the trunk and saying it’s like a snake, this book, read on its own, feels very limited. And yet Berman may be feeling the most important problem because ultimately, America’s culture is why America can’t fix itself. What was once perversely adapative, the American character, is now perversely maladaptive.
And that character is that of the hustler.