Welcome Morris Berman (DarkAgesAmerica), and Host Ian Welsh (TheAgonist.org).

[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]

Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

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.

151 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Morris Berman, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline”

Watt4Bob November 19th, 2011 at 1:57 pm

I’ve always thought that the one ‘real’ opportunity that America offered was to work for oneself, to be self-employed.

It requires that one take risks, but the possibility that one might make a go of it, and own one’s own time, to be one’s own boss is, or it once seemed to me to be the one real promise that Americans can believe in.

From what you’ve described of Mr. Berman’s book, I fear reading it would wreck the one small kernal of hope that I have hung onto, that someday, I might get free of the corporations and be master of my own fate.

To be clear, in the past, I spent a period, over 16 years working for myself, and I have often descibed that experience as hustling, so in a way I was ready to understand Berman’s description of our culture, but I’m still disappointed to feel the glimmer of understanding dawning in the back of my mind that a culture of hustlers is not necessarily something to be proud of.

I’ve been working for someone else no for going on 20 years, and was hoping that in a couple of years I could go back to working for myself, now I’ve got questions bouncing around in my head?

BevW November 19th, 2011 at 2:01 pm

Morris, Welcome to the Lake.

Ian, Welcome back and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

Elliott November 19th, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Welcome to the Lake Morris

And nice to see you Ian.

So you both think it’s all over for America, no hope? I knew it was bad…

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:08 pm
In response to Watt4Bob @ 1

Dear Bob,

It was the boast of Abraham Lincoln, just prior to the Civil War, that something like 60% of Americans were self-employed. Eric Foner comments on this, that this was surely inaccurate: at most 1/8 of the population were. And as time went on, of course, fewer and fewer were; most were employed by others, esp. by large companies; hence the Southern charge that Northerners were simply “wage slaves.” The stats, in fact, are that free-lancers don’t typically make it; that most Americans die in the class into which they were born; and that the myth of the self-made man is just that–a myth. But the myth does keep the system going, because the illusion is that if I hustle just long enough, I’ll be free. Yes, a few do beat the stats; but most don’t.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:10 pm
In response to Elliott @ 3

Dear Elliott,

Well, Ian will have to speak for himself, but as for me: yes, we’re finished–irrevocably. If you go to my blog (morrisberman.com) and click on the link for The Seattle Talk, I give a brief (13 items) list of examples of why this is so. But I cd have been there all night w/that audience, if they had been willing to stay (they were smarter than that, of course).

Elliott November 19th, 2011 at 2:13 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 5


I see a lot of superficial similarities to other failed empires. Where do we bottom out?

maa8722 November 19th, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Imperial decline has occurred so often before. Do you see at least a few consistent consequences among all of them?

I’m thinking. . . is the end result usually more of a beneficial leveling of society, or a more equitable sharing of misery for all for a long time? How long do you think the process will take for the US before that dilemma seems clear (if it isn’t already)?

Doesn’t it seem likely we will suffer a comparitively severe adjustment mindful of how dependent we are upon unnecessary conveniences, skewed wants versus needs, etc.? Is this always how it is?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:18 pm
In response to Elliott @ 6


“Why America Failed” is the 3rd in a trilogy (which means that after this I move to Eastern Oregon and devote myself to growing rhubarb). In the 1st, “The Twilight of American Culture,” I compare contemporary US structurally to late-empire Rome, and show how the factors that did the latter in are present in the US today (ie in 2000, when I wrote the bk). These similarities are not superficial, as it turns out. But the “bottoming out,” as u put it, is not a one-time event. Sure, there are nodes, such as the sacking of Rome by the Vandals (or was it the Visigoths?) in A.D. 410; but the collapse of Rome didn’t occur at 4 p.m. on August 4th or whatever. It was a process, like the one we are engaged in today. We too have nodes: 9/11, or October 2008, for examples. And there will be many more of them, worse ones, in the yrs to come. But the bottoming out is all around us now; daily life in the US shows this. When 77% of Oklahoma public schl children cannot identify George Washington, and when the TX Bd of Ed has no study units on Wash/Adams/Jeff, but does have one on Estee Lauder, u know it’s all over.

Knut November 19th, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Mr. Berman,

I haven’t read your book and therefore must rely on Ian Welsh’s summary of it. That summary raises several issues which might be worth taking up. One is whether the failure was, so to speak, there from the start, or happened at some determinate point in time. Is American history a ‘feu de paille’ (fire of straw) combusting what seemed to be inexhaustible natural resources, or something that can be related to particular historical events, like the 1946 election, which provided the basis for the reversal of the Labor movement via the Taft-Hartley Act, or the construction of the Interstate Highway system and the democratisation of the automobile, which destroyed much of the fabric of the older communities?

There is a case to be made for both views. The difference is that original sin is always with us, whereas events, though they can’t be undone, leave open the possibility for other events that change historical direction.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Ah, Ian, so very good to “see” you, back at the lake.

And welcome to you, Morris.

I agree, America is finished, quite and truly done …


Kelly Canfield November 19th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Hmm. I hope the language of the book is more precise than the broad brush “we” I see used in the introduction by Ian.

Certainly there are failed institutions, failed modes, but the entirety of Americans themselves are not failed. If that were true, there would be no Occupy/99% movement.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:22 pm
In response to maa8722 @ 7

Dear maa-

See the reply I just gave to Elliott, wh/I think covers this ground, pretty much. But as for a common core of results of imperial decline…good question, and off hand, I really don’t know. I suspect it has been different in each case. Most scholars have studied the causes of decline rather than the effects; but if we take the Roman model, as I did in the Twilight book, we get the ushering in of the Dark Ages, and not a whole lot of intellectual activity (except for the monastic orders) for many centuries. Plus, when the urban renaissance did occur in the 12th century, it was in Northern Europe, not in Rome. I suspect in the American case, revival will not take place on home soil either.

Kirk Murphy November 19th, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Mr Berman, I haven’t read your books, but now that I’ve seen Ian’s review, I will. Would you possibly be willing to discuss what moved you to write this trilogy: it sounds like you’ve devoted many years to the (worthy) effort? Thanks!

And Ian, welcome back to FDL!

emptywheel November 19th, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Welcome Morris, thanks for hosting Ian.

I got just into the beginning of your book–I confess not that far. But even that far in I was struck by your sense of feudalism. Because that seems to be where the US is headed–to most people owing rent of some sort (probably to three different corporations) they’ll never be able to pay, but sticking with it because only the affiliation with a corporation will offer security.

But I get the sense that’s not where you think we’re headed?

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 2:23 pm
In response to Knut @ 9

Great question, Knut!

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 2:25 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 8

Yes, we are “bottom” dwellers, now. The question is, shall we, “the people”, now become mere serf-like wraiths in a neo-feudal dark-age, as well as nasty, brutish, and very short of genuine possibility?


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:26 pm
In response to Knut @ 9

Dear Knut,

I cover a fair amt of that territory, esp. the car culture and so on, in the 2nd vol. of the trilogy, “Dark Ages America.” But in WAF, at least, I make the case that the seeds of our coming apart were buried in our very origins, and dialectically, they eventually did us in. We were a hustler culture from 1584, when colonization of the continent began; and the problem with a hustling society is that by definition, there is no social glue: it’s every man for himself. In fact, the Founding Fathers took note of this; many wanted a return of the monarchy(!), to act as a social glue. But of course that was not possible, and so we went our merry way. This resulted in huge material accumulation, and concomitantly, the eventually erosion of everything human.

Elliott November 19th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Is there anything one should do to prepare for the future, for their children’s future? Or is all too nebulous?

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Mr. Berman,

I have not had the opportunity to read your book, but am very interested in your work. My question is this, since our similarity to Rome is so prevalent, is there any way that we can stop the empire/war expansion and recoup?

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Hi Morris,

One of the things that I found most compelling about Why America Failed is that nearly every one of our major American institutions/entities, in some capacity, works against the American population as a whole, yet is somehow entitled to do so, because Americans steadfastly hold onto that dream of materialistic attainability. can you maybe go through a few of the institutional examples (the education system producing states where the majority of students don’t know who Washington is just a small dose)…?


veganrevolution November 19th, 2011 at 2:28 pm

It’s so much that America failed, per se, but the limits of capitalism have been reached. This applies to all Western nations. Unless we are able to convert to a sustainable way of living, without the imperative of endless growth and resource deletion, we are headed for very bad times.

Phoenix Woman November 19th, 2011 at 2:28 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 14

Indeed, it looks like the transnational corporation, whose sole loyalty is to its CEO and COO and other key officers, but with a feudalistic “great chain of being” structure, is where we’re headed globally as well as in the US. (And China isn’t doing too well, either.)

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:30 pm
In response to Kelly Canfield @ 11

Dear Kelly,

No, I fear I do mean ‘we’, and I think it’s almost all of us. Yes, there is an OWS, but we have to ask how many people are involved, and what their real goal is. I can’t be sure, because I haven’t been down to Zucotti Park, but the impression I have is that they want a fairer distribution of the pie, the American Dream; they are not saying, the whole Dream/pie is rotten, a big mistake. Very few Americans have escaped the lure of the next iPod, the next object to acquire–the hustling life, in short. What I call the alternative tradition in the book was always very small, and never really had much of a chance. How easy it was, u may remember, for Wall St. and Madison Avenue to co-opt the sixties.

Knut November 19th, 2011 at 2:35 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 17

I raised the question in part because I have just finished reading an essay by the economic historian Gavin Wright, who points out that even in the nineteenth century Americans put in longer hours at work than Europeans. He suggests that this was due to the fact that the extra work on farms was motivated by the hope of a capital gain (something not possible in Europe) and that in the factories, the long hours reflected the preferences of immigrant workers (most of whom expected to return home) to make as much money as fast as possible to make the stake they needed to establish themselves back home. The preferences of these marginal workers determined the contractual terms for all workers.

The broader point is that it may be the case that exceptional income and social mobility in America until recently created incentives for self-exploitation and a kind of individualism and high mobility that is harmful to the sense of community and commitment to producing and paying for public goods. That era may be coming to an end. There is now very little social mobility, and the OWS sit-ins are a manifestation of the growing consciousness of the end of that important piece of the American dream.

veganrevolution November 19th, 2011 at 2:36 pm

OWS is full of anarchists, so I think it’s atypical. The 60s was overrated because of hierarchical nature of the movement. The kids now are way smarter than the boomers.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Dear Dr. M-

Good question! I never trained professionally in American History, and had no intention whatsoever of writing a bk on the subject. In the 1990s, I was working on an anthropology bk (also the 3rd of a trilogy) entitled “Wandering God,” published in 2000. But around 1995 I began to notice that the US was falling apart–things like government signs being misspelled, for example (tip of the iceberg); I also began to notice that I seemed to be the only one noticing it. And so when I did the research on the Twilight bk, I studied the Roman empire, and lo and behold–same factors were involved. 2nd vol.–also had no intention of writing it, but after 9/11 it was clear to me that in a comparison w/Rome, I had left out a rather obvious factor: Rome was attacked from the outside. So “Dark Ages America” (2006) dealt with US foreign policy, and how absolutely self-destructive it was. And then, in 2011, I published WAF, because I felt it was time for a post-mortem. It was/is clear to me that we shall do 0 to fix our situation; indeed, as scholars from Toynbee to Jared Diamond pt out, in the declining phase an empire tends to exacerbate precisely those beliefs and behaviors that have been doing it in (Tea Party, GOP candidates, Obama sends troops to saber-rattle vs. China, and so on). I was curious as to *why* we had collapsed, and this rounded out the trilogy. Take a look also at a collection of essays I did in 2010, “A Question of Values,” which explores the unconscious programming Americans have in their heads, that has turned us into marionettes on strings.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 2:36 pm

In your excellent chapter, The Future of the Past – you refer to the particular American aspect of hustling – as a three-part combination of the pursuit of affluence, technology and ‘progress’ – a steamroller going off the edge of a cliff – made worse by our blind optimism that if we can just shift a few things here and there, we can keep from going over the cliff – yet, by definition once something goes over a cliff, it crashes – it doesn’t stop mid-way and re-trace, to me that’s the most visual explanation of Why America Failed. What keeps us holding so tightly to the notion we can really shift a colossally hustling mentality that stuffs the pockets of the 1% ever-faster, and screws everyone else even quicker?


econobuzz November 19th, 2011 at 2:37 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 10


GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 2:37 pm

Morris and Ian, thanks for being here.

And a couple of questions – what do you see in America’s future and what can we do about it?


DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 2:39 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 23

Of the co-opters, which includes the political class (which, further, includes the media) it may well be said, “Had their sole and arbitrary power not been disguised under the forms of ancient liberty they would never have held it long.”

Which line, of course is from Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius”.


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:39 pm
In response to emptywheel @ 14

Dear Wheel,

Hard to say where we’ll be in 50 yrs, of course. I suspect b4 that we shall go thru some kind of neo-feudal configuration, just a deepening of the current plutocracy, with 1% owning more than 90% of the wealth, and the rest of us scrambling to survive. 200 million Americans now live from paycheck to paycheck–that’s if they even have a job. Most jobs will turn into service industries for a very tiny upper crust; not a pretty picture. But in the long run, I predict a crack-up of the society; specifically, secessionist movements that lead toward a very decentralized situation. Such a movement already exists in VT, for example. And this may provide some local control over people’s lives–hard to say.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 16


I think my response to emptywheel may have covered that, I’m not sure.

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 2:43 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 31

This reminds me of what myself and some friends have been discussing regarding a sustainable life. A more Pioneer, Farm, or Homestead way of living in order to survive. Many of us are trying to learn skills that our grandparents and great grandparents took for granted.

Phoenix Woman November 19th, 2011 at 2:43 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 31

Except that the resource wars — particularly the water and rare-earth wars — will signal an end long before your dream-vision can reach its logical conclusion. (Hell, if the European Central Bank refuses to act like a central bank and bail out Italy, the whole structure could collapse inside of a year from now.)

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:44 pm
In response to Elliott @ 18


If u can, I’d suggest getting out. I.e., emigrate to Europe or Latin America or wherever. Things can only get worse here; our children will have no Soc Security or Medicare or any social safety net, and meanwhile the US, which has to have an enemy to feel OK abt itself, will be making war on some small country on the other side of the planet and spending trillions of $ on it. If you can’t escape, as it were, then I recommend the “New Monastic Option” I discuss in the Twilight bk, namely a kind of “inward migration” in which you do your best to live a decent life, resist the dominant culture, and try to preserve what was best in American civilization.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 2:44 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 32

Yes, Morris, thank you.


Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 2:45 pm


In your chapter, The Reign of Wall Street – you contrast the sheer accumulation of money by the top Wall Street CEos and collusion with major appointed power-men like Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner with the ‘America – where we all live and to varying extents, who we all are’ as our disintegration continues daily. That money, for people like Lloyd Blankfein is an addiction, and thus satisfaction will never be attained by him – or any of his type .They are in effect sociopaths. Do you believe any of our destruction will blow up in their smug, sociopathic faces, ever?


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:45 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 19

No; not a hope in hell. (sorry)

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 2:49 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 35

It’s so scary as you’ve discussed in Why America Failed, and elsewhere – I particularly like how it was covered in your book of essays, Question of Values – our need for an enemy. I got chills this week when I heard NBC news report on how Obama was building up a troop base in Australia to keep China in check, this after the commander-in-chief debate debacle where everyone except Ron Paul was China-bashing. Rather hypocritical too given so many Fortune 500 AMerican companies operating there, with no strings to keep more operations in the US.


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:50 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 20

Hi Nomi, gd to hear from u-

I’d suggest to anyone interested in this to go to my blog, morrisberman.com, and click on The Seattle Talk link, in which I enumerate these sorts of things. But just to take a few:

I already mentioned that 77% of Oklahoma students don’t know who Geo Washington was. Other data of this sort: 42% of American adults don’t know that the US declared its indep. in 1776, and 25% don’t know from which country we seceded. 45% of American college students haven’t learned anything after 2 yrs of schl, and 36% haven’t learned anything after 4–esp. not critical reasoning skills. As for inequality: 1% of the pop. has more collective wealth than the bottom 90%, and the wealthiest 400 people have more $ than the bottom 50%–we are doing worse than Egypt and Tunisia, in short. It’s a long list; thanks for asking.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Dear Vegan,

I think u mean, It’s *not* so much that America failed…This is a long discussion, but I think yr rt on the money. Check out the World Systems Analysis people–Immanuel Wallerstein et al. The ‘arc’ of capitalism runs from A.D. 1500 to 2100, w/the US being in the vanguard during the later phase (20C on). That world system has run its course: it cannot generate sustainability–just the opposite. So it’s starting to implode, eat itself alive. Hence, what’s going on in the US and Europe rt now is rather inevitable, I’m thinking.

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 2:54 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 31

Oh, ouch. That answers my questions.

Scarecrow November 19th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Can you discuss why the title is America failed, and not Western Civilization, or human species, failed? What’s peculiar about America that leaves others less doomed? And what’s preventing us from adapting to whatever it is that makes them less doomed?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:55 pm
In response to Knut @ 24


Yes, I think that’s rt; altho often, superstructure influences the base. That is, from Day 1 the ideology was one of extreme individualism, and this provides a powerful motor for personal economic expansion. Benjamin Rush (ca. 1790) remarked that the US wd finally end in “an orgy of selfishness”; he was correct, just a bit early in his prediction, I guess.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 2:57 pm


I hope yr rt, but I doubt it. The Boomers actually read bks, and were capable of in-depth intellectual analysis. Young people today, who have largely been raised on screens, can’t do that as well, as the stats show. Screens have had a great impact on brain chemistry and synaptic connections, and young people today typically have very short attention spans.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:01 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 27


Yeah, gd pt. But it’s like Toynbee and Jared Diamond both pt out: in the final disintegrating phase, the civilization tends to do the worst things possible. My own guess is that it’s out of fear: really switching gears, doing something truly different, is like staring into the abyss; nobody knows what lies in that direction. And so the tried and (un)true get exacerbated. Rom Mittney is now praising American ‘exceptionalism’ and calling for a resurrection of American dominance in the world. Gd luck w/that, I say. This is exactly what drove us into the ditch, and he wants to do more of it. Nor is Mr. Obama out of this mold, either (troops now in Australia; oy!). As I argue in WAF, the alternative voice just never gets a hearing, and even less so when we are plunging into the abyss.

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 3:03 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 43

Or more generally – what do you see as the future of the human race?

(I tend to divide the future into the fifty years while I may be alive and then what happens until the eventual heat death of universe.)

My wife and I just had this “debate” and she thinks that evolution will move on after humanity has failed, I keep hoping that humanity realizes the necessity of expanding into our solar system to grab more resources to survive which is an impossibility if we continue to strive to create a society devoted to making a couple of super ultra wealthy people and everyone else is a serf.

Got any opinions?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:04 pm
In response to GlenJo @ 29

Dear GlenJo-

See my response to Elliott, #35; I think that answers yr question.

Scarecrow November 19th, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Ignorance of Americqn history, as we might have learned it in the 1950-60s is sad, but I wonder if what’s relevant about our history doesn’t change a lot. Eg, maybe It’s more important to know who Alan Greenspan is than Madison or Hamilton. Is Washngton more important than Petraeus in defining who we are now. This seems like a debate about what the classics are to include in the English major. How do you see that?

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 3:05 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 48

Thanks. Ouch.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:05 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 40

I agree that the historical ignorance of Americans is appalling and everywhere evident, Morris.

However, how long a time do you imagine it shall take before the vast majority have some appreciable understanding that “things” are deliberately made “unfair” (realizing that it took three years before Anmericans stopped blaming themselves for “causing” the Great Depression) and that such notions as the Rule of Law, and the fundamental rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights and the Ammendments to the Constitution are but quaint and absurd, mere fables which have no genuine meaning?

When that sufficient “understanding” is broadly and generally grasped, how much further do you speculate that official violence will be ramped up, and do you forsee the use of military or private militas, such as Xe basically being turned loose upon the masses to crush dissent as thoroughly as possible?

I regard these things as likely and an unfortunately necessary part of developing the will, the conscience and courage, within the populace to, ultimately, successfully resist and finally overthrow the co-opters, the sociopathic elite.

Frankly, I think that OWS will have a role in shortening the time of the Great Learning by a decade or so … but I think we face a nasty ten years of severe repression and abject misery.


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:06 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 34


Yes, u cd be right; altho frankly, I think that will be part of it. In other words, I’m not really thinking in terms of a ‘dream’ vision. Rather, we shall probably make a virtue out of necessity; become ‘sustainable’ because there’s no other choice.

Dearie November 19th, 2011 at 3:08 pm

Mr. Berman, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. Do you have dual citizenship yet?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:08 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 37


I have this horrible feeling that that crowd will remove themselves to Tahiti, or the Cayman Islands, long b4 it comes to that; which is a shame, because I regard them as financial terrorists who need to be tried in The Hague, at the World Court. Historical record is that these folks often skip out, and the rest of us suffer–unless there’s a full-scale revolution; which is not likely in the US, at least.

Scarecrow November 19th, 2011 at 3:08 pm
In response to GlenJo @ 47

Well, I just saw Hawkings said our survival depends on space travel, so I wondered if the aliens get a vote.

Phoenix Woman November 19th, 2011 at 3:10 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 43

That’s what I want to know. Mr. Berman’s thesis seems to be that America alone is afflicted with and will succumb to the capitalism/”hustle” virus, yet we’re watching what’s likely to be the fall of Europe occur (and which will trigger chaos here and elsewhere) because the ECB is too greedy/selfish/scared of inflation to do what needs to be done. Running away — to Europe, Canada (which itself is in the hands of hustlers like Harper et al), New Zealand, etc. — is not an option, even if it was one most of us could afford.

Dearie November 19th, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Adding to #53: I recently spent time in Colombia, SA…..and many, many of the people I met had dual citizenship; many with Italian visas/Euro cards, some with Mexican dual citizenship, many with USA passports. I found that quite interesting and ‘wordly’.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:11 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 39


Yes, this is why I say Americans (politicians especially) are basically marionettes on strings. Here’s what I wrote on my blog just the other day (not exactly a pretty picture):

What are the chances that NPR or the US government or virtually any American walking down the street will one day say, “Oh, I get it: we really don’t have a soul, a center of gravity; we never did. Instead, we created an identity in opposition to someone or something else, and as a result our history is one of endless chronic war. The truth is we are empty; we don’t know who we are. So we fill the Void with the American Dream (the next iPod, or other piece of junk), or a supposed ‘American exceptionalism’, or saber-rattling at nations who have no interest in going to war with us. We puff ourselves up to hide what is in fact an inferiority complex, a profound insecurity. We might have a chance as a nation if we collectively woke up to this, but that would literally take an act of God; it’s just not going to happen. Our remaining fate as a dying empire is thus to act out a charade, which is what daily life in the United States has finally become. And which is why Americans are so lonely and unhappy, because on some deep and unconscious level they really do know all this; they just can’t face up to it. This is why they are less than 5% of the world’s population and take 67% of the world’s antidepressants, or have to be constantly on their cell phones (or massaging their Blackberries like rosary beads). They ache for love, for truth, for reality, but they just…can’t…quite…get there, because their culture is based on a denial of those things. And now they cannot even sedate themselves with work, because there are no jobs to be had. So they live out a dulled existence of repressed rage and pain, die wondering what the fuck it was all about, and all the while shouting,’We’re No. 1!’”

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:11 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 54

Yeah, it’s my personal belief that Ken Lay never really died, but somehow worked out a deal for witness (criminal?) protection and is living somewhere in Turks and Caicos…..meanwhile, the rule of law has arrested over 4200 OWS protestors in the past month or so, and no CEOs or even their foot soldiers – another reason Why American Failed?

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:12 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 55

One does wonder, Scarecrow, what “neighborhood” … out “there” … would welcome a species which could not manage to come to grips with reality on its own planet, which, according to the genuine needs of that species was as close to paradise as may be imagined?


billfdl November 19th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Two criticisms:

1) As bad as the educational system is, people were so poorly educated in the last century that one of a few US census questions asked was whether could the household occupant read/write (many could not). There are many trend lines that have improved in the last 200 years (civil rights, desegregation, minority voting rights). Are your statistics as meaningful placed on a trend line? Wasn’t science knowledge lacking in particular until the 1950s when sputnik scared the US?

2) I believe it was Iceland in the film Inside Job that was doing well with their form of capitalism (had good stats in education, healthcare, etc.) until the bankers got in there and ruined the country. Is there no difference between capitalism and capitalism run under bad actors? Some countries seem to be able to operate a benign form mixed with socialism.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:14 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 43


As I already mentioned in a previous reply somewhere, yr rt: this is the ‘arc’ of capitalism coming to an end, it’s run being A.D. 1500-2100. But the 20th C was “the American century,” as many have (correctly) called it; we have been the cutting edge of this sociopolitical formation, and thus we are the cutting edge of its failure–I think. But Europe is clearly following suit, as we see today. BTW, the original title of the bk was “Capitalism and Its Discontents,” which is a much more exact description of the contents of the bk; but Wiley wdn’t let me use it as a title, inasmuch as that wd result in a total sale of 6 bks, they claimed.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:15 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 56

I think he’s saying that America is particularly good at existing in the Hustler capacity – in Europe – yes, things are falling apart, but it’s in large part because of the American banks that pushed their accelerated speculative practices onto European countries, not that their government were innocent, they weren’t, they’re not – but a large part of America believes the right when it says regulating is akin to socialism is akin to evil, so as a nation, we’re more quickly sealing our doom – is that more along the lines of your these, Morris?

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:17 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 58

Supremely well said, Morris.

And that is precisely the realization which must be embraced, or there is not even the remotest possibility of a sane and civil society for those crazed beings who “believe” they are Gawd’s “chosen” and possessed of a profound “exceptionalism”.


seaglass November 19th, 2011 at 3:17 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 23

I agree, Zpark and the Occupations are not about ripping the whole society apart. There not about materialism per se. They are definitely however about a sense that many of us have that we’re being dealt out of the game and millions of “others” ( AKA the poor,) are being thrown under the wheels of the remaining folks sport cars on the way to another caviar and champagne brunch at the country club.

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 3:18 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 55

Hawkings concern seems to be that we are pretty much going to go he way of the dinosaurs if we get a big a big meteorite strike. Humanity has the conceit that we’re “special” and “smart” and therefore this will never happen – it really is just a matter of time before something of this nature does happen.

Therefore Hawkings real problem is that he hasn’t bought into the philosophy that Berman covers in his book – it’s all about hustling for today (our lifetime) and screw any long term thinking.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:18 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 49


I don’t really agree, tho obviously a knowledge of contemporary events is v. impt. But check out the essays in “A Question of Values,” where I talk abt the ‘unconscious programming’ Americans carry, that begins at a very early pt in our history (City on the Hill, Chosen People, Endless Frontier, Self-Made Man, etc.). We still operate out of this mish-mash of misguided fantasies. For ex, Reagan referred to City on the Hill in 1983, as did Obama and Palin in 2008. And it pushes American buttons; we get all worked up about ‘freedom’ w/o even knowing what it is.

blackbeary November 19th, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Hypothesis: Empire is the natural progression of a society with the surplus to build large cities. But the city gradually consumes resources in the hinterland and so must extend its supply line, leading to resource wars and empire. The wars become more expensive than benefits obtained and with specialization and hierarchy, as a dynamic of civilization, wealth is concentrated, in a positive feedback loop, exceeding available carrying capacity and leading to collapse.

This does not have to happen, though, if there is an ethos of ecological balance.

Adams November 19th, 2011 at 3:20 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 49

“…Americqn history, as we might have learned it in the 1950-60s…”

Arthur Silber, as always, has a radically different take, suggesting that what we learned in the 50s & 60s was already a dead-wrong, candy coated fantasy

“What killed “democracy” in America? What gave the government over to the wealthy and powerful?

The Constitution. Of course….

The Constitution created a government of, by and for the most wealthy and powerful Americans — and it made certain (insofar as men can make such things certain) that their rule would never be seriously threatened. The most wealthy and powerful Americans were the ones who wrote it, after all.

Yet all our problems would be solved if only we returned to “real” and “true” Constitutional values. I suppose it’s a blessing of sorts that I enjoy comedy so much.

“What we have today is the rule of law — the rule of law as conceived and implemented by the ruling class. As is true of the State itself, the law will always be conceived and implemented by someone — and those who conceive and implement it will be those who have the most power. This should not be a difficult point to grasp, certainly not for those who regularly write political commentary.”

Interesting read.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:21 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 58

so basically, we’re talking supreme denial and any form of distraction possible to aid with that – like Kim Kardashian or the latest about Demi Moore’s divorce?

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:21 pm


Do you think that OWS scared the 1% Masters of the Universe when they had the day of action to move your money to a credit union?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:22 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 51


Great question, but if we are relying on the ‘awakening’ of the American people, we are indeed doomed. Americans are like the fish in McLuhan’s argument, that the last thing a fish sees in its environment is water. And Americans live underwater, so to speak, led around by these unconscious programs I spoke of above. How many could read the works of, say, Sacvan Bercovitch, or Walter Hixson, which talk about mythic narratives that direct American behavior? I’m not even sure Mr. Obama cd even understand such an analysis, and I’m guessing that more than 90% of the American public doesn’t even know what a ‘narrative’ is. You see what we are up against. This is NOT a bright, aware, self-critical nation, and the data on American ignorance is colossal (29%, e.g., think that the sun revolves around the earth, or is unsure which revolves around which, and 72% don’t believe in evolution–etc.).

Scarecrow November 19th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 58

I’m not convinced, though my limited evidence is from the privileged areas around Cambridge. But it’s very different from Berkeley decades ago, at a time of civil rights struggles for the most basic rights. In this cosmopolitan area, that’s all taken for granted, and it’s not color blindness I see, but color indifference, the recognition by the young that we are all one species. Notions of American No. 1, or American exceptionalism would be laughed at, seen as absurd relics. And it’s not just Americans who communicate on iThings, it’s becoming everyone . . .see Tahir.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:23 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 64

Condoleezza Rice was on Fox recently promoting her new book – and I think she said something akin to, or equal to, American exceptionalism a dozen times…followed by – we need a President that understands this…

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:23 pm

What do you think of Pinker’s new book that the world is becoming a more peaceful place with violence declining? How does the U.S. fit into that hypothesis?

Elliott November 19th, 2011 at 3:25 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 59

I’ve always thought that too about Ken Lay – he had so many close friends in the right high places.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:25 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 59


Sure: speculate in commodities futures that causes massive famine and starvation around the world, and you get a fancy lecture fee to come to Harvard or Goldman Sachs and talk about your ‘success’. Struggle w/a cop in the street, in an effort to stop that (de facto) genocide, and you get hauled off to jail. That makes sense!

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:26 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 59

According to my friend in Houston financial community, Key Lay knew he had a bad heart and had no tension to live to see the day of reckoning.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:30 pm
In response to billfdl @ 61


Question #2 is easy: yes, there are better forms of capitalism than the casino-cowboy capitalism we’ve got here. As for #1: this is a complex issue, but in general, we seem to actually be doing worse now than in the 19th C. I produce some of that data in the Twilight bk, but it wd be difficult to recap it at this pt. Lawrence Stone did a bk yrs ago, for example, showing that literacy was higher in the colonies than it was in the late 20th C. Also, we’d have to go city by city: Detroit has something like a 46% illiteracy rate; and when we compute ‘functional’ illiteracy–i.e., being able to read instructions on a coke machine, for example–it’s quite high in the US. Unfortunately, I don’t have my rolodex of facts, figs, and sources handy rt now.

Dearie November 19th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

And, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t his family get to keep the ill gotten gains because of his “tragic” demise?

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:30 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 78

I think he hooked up with Cheney’s doctor, got fixed up, and slithered away to a remote location. He probably had some facial surgery as well.

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 3:32 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 72

I’ve often thought that humanity doesn’t respond until reality hits it with a 2X4. It’s why I’ve come to almost welcome the collapse of the Euro, or the collapse of the Wall St TBTF banks. How else do we get change?

Obama’s big failure in 2009 was propping up the existing financial system rather than having the balls to bear the pain of real change. That was the 2×4 that was never swung. What Obama’s regards as Geithner’s “success”, ultimately dooms us to an even larger failure.

I suppose this falls into the “never waste a crisis” mode of thinking.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:32 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 63


Yes, there is a bk by Victoria de Grazia at Columbia U a few yrs back, showing how US consumerism overwhelmed Europe. Same is true of our mkt economy, that forced Europe into cutting maternity leave, 4-day work wk, 2-mo vacations, and all that great stuff. Capitalism is nothing if not a vortex that sucks everything into it.

Dearie November 19th, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Mr. Berman, my question about your having (or not) acquired dual citizenship was no idle curiosity. If you recommend to us that we should move on, I would wonder if you have made such plans for yourself and your family?

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:32 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 81

Gotta link for that?

Watt4Bob November 19th, 2011 at 3:33 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 67

…we get all worked up about ‘freedom’ w/o even knowing what it is.

As I have been dreaming of once again working for myself once the kids are in college, it has become more and more clear that I must plan for the possibility, most likely the inevitibility, that what I’m facing is a return to a sort of Bohemian life style, the sort enjoyed by a lot of us in our student years.

When I was in college, I was once actually looked around my apartment, and assessd my life, and told myself out loud, that I thought I could live like this forever.

Of course I didn’t think at the time that I would ‘have to’ live like that forever.

I do feel at the moment, that being able to face, and accept the reality that my standard of living, along with every one elses, is most likely going to trend downward for the rest of my life, might turn out to be an important survival skill.

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:34 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 85

LOL! :-P

Nope. Call it intuition!

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:35 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 70


I’m personally so excited abt these developments w/Kim! I tell u, I’m glued to my computer full-time, learning what she did next. As I said in my Seattle-LA talk, I plan to write the TX Bd of Ed, suggesting the units on Lincoln and FDR get dropped, and one on Kim put in. Whee!

Mauimom November 19th, 2011 at 3:36 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 23

One question that crossed my mind when reading your book was whether OWS might be [or become] an attempt to “define who we are.” You make the point that Americans are so busy hustling that they never stop to ask the “commonwealth” questions. Maybe this could be that opportunity.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:36 pm
In response to Dearie @ 80

Not sure, but apparently there’s a KenLayisAlive group that is part of OWS.

But related to Why American Failed – not only are these people able to keep/hide/augment their ill-gotten gains, but it keeps getting worse every year – Countrywide’s Mozilo bagged nearly $450 million over the fraudulent mortgage years, and in a settlement against them brought about by investors (not people, they don’t get these kinds of settlements), Bank of American paid $8.5 billion – I mean, even BofA didn’t go after Mozilo for some of it.

Morris, I know you believe we’re done and in final curtain time, but do you think the effect is actually accelerating?

RevBev November 19th, 2011 at 3:37 pm

TX was definitely your best pick….

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:37 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 71


Gd question! I wonder how many did do that. But u know, Chris Hedges has a recent “Handcuffs” article abt being arrested down there, in front of Goldman Sachs, and how the GS employees laughed and pointed and took pictures of the demonstrators. No,amigo; these folks sleep well in their beds.

Mauimom November 19th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
In response to Dearie @ 84

i also wonder if you have specific recommendations about “getting out” of the US.

The research I’ve done has led me to conclude that emigrating somewhere else — legally anyway — is NOT all that easy.

And I can’t imagine there are too many countries that want Americans who are fleeing in the search for decent, affordable health care.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:38 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 72

I share a portion of your despair, a lot of it, actually, however, Morris, I think that “narratives” which might allow people to feel what a better society would “BE” like may yet have the chance of reaching through the hubris and the profound emptiness. I have been in this struggle for fifty years, since I was fourteen and became involved with Civil Rights, and I have to say that the national dialog has come a very long way in that time. This very site, FDL, is a testament to how far it and we have come. Like you, for many decades I was convinced that very few others perceived what concerned me, what I could see, everywhere around me … but even as you have put together the clear and crisp narratives which are your books and other writings, you encourage my sense, not hope, not dreams, but my sense that consciouness DOES evolve.

I know that those of us who do understand have encouraged others to dare to understand, and my journey through life has convinced me that the greatest changes MUST occur one person, one mind and one heart, at a time.

My sense is that you agree, despite your reasonable and considered perspective, you are not wholly pessimistic … or you would not bother to teach and share.

I am more than willing to admit that I shall never see the world, the better world which both you and I envision … however, if I may, I suggest that we both keep sharing our visions of better possibilities.

You happen to be rather good at that, despite what you may otherwise imagine.

First we delineate the problem and then we suggest the possibility.

I look forward, Morris, to those books of yours, even if I do not live to see them, for I imagine that you will, very likely, think about and then … write them. And they shall be read and cherished.


eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:39 pm


Would appreciate any consideration on my Q at 75.

How do the 2010s compare to the 1930s. It seems for all the wringing of hands and the prophesies of doom, living standards of the median American are still a lot better than in the 1930s. Unemployment at 9%, even if undermeasured by 10 percentage points, is still less than the 25% of the 1930s. While illiteracy of some is rocketing, the U.S. has never had a pop with this % of college grads. As just a few examples.

And so on.

Morris, could you please discuss the part of the evidence that is contrary to your thesis?

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to Scarecrow @ 73


Some may laugh, but I suspect they still believe in it, on some level; it’s bred in the bone. As for iPods and Tahir: far overrated, as Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the New Yorker after the event. (And even then, beyond hosing Hosni, it’s not clear what was finally achieved.) Revolutions are about bodies, about being face-to-face; the French and Russian ones didn’t need electronic toys.

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 87

Your intuition against my gossip. :-)

GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 3:39 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 88

I suspect if you say Kim’s a$$ is too large and Demi’s choice in men are somewhat “difficult” in the right venue that your book sales would jump.

I personally think Kim’s a$$ is a bit large and am preparing for my 15 minutes of fame as we speak – uh, blog.

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:41 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 92

Ditto Gilded Age robber barons, after sending the Pilkertons in to raid & murder strikers. Related to my Q at 75.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:41 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 75


This is a long discussion, but I think Pinker is terribly off base. See the New Yorker review by Elizabeth Kohlbert: what Pinker had to leave out of his discussion of the 20th C, to make his progress argument, finally renders the argument specious. Even just on the level of # of civilian deaths in the 20th C, his thesis has gotta be wrong.

Mauimom November 19th, 2011 at 3:41 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 33

I was also wondering, as I read your book about “communities,” if there might be an opportunity to “occupy” the many foreclosed, abandoned homes, and indeed, abandoned cities [Detroit, for example] and use them to establish the sort of communities of which you speak.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:44 pm
In response to Dearie @ 84


I haven’t bothered w/dual citizenship because the only thing it wd give me in Mexico is the rt to vote here, and frankly, the diff between the PRI and PAN is abt the same as between Dems and GOP. As one stays here, one moves up a kind of ‘ladder’ toward the equiv. of a green card, and I have no problems w/that at all. Frankly, I have no problems w/dual citizenship either; it’s just that you don’t really need it to live here, and I personally hate paperwork.

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:45 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 97


Just hard for me to believe that anyone that was a big tentacle of the Vampire Squid would pass away just before jail time.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:47 pm
In response to Watt4Bob @ 86


You know, I really think it’s a question of inner richness. “There is no wealth but life” (John Ruskin). I tend to spend very little, myself; travel by invitation or on freq flyer miles; and I really don’t have expensive tastes. But I’m absorbed in my life, my work, my friends, and the joy of every day; wh/makes me one of the luckiest people alive. And I do believe lots of us can do it; just cancel yr cable TV subscription (ha ha)(I don’t even have a TV).

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:48 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 100

I haven’t read his book but heard him on book-tv. He did a very thorough discussion of 20C deaths, and his main argument is to scale them against the size of the population. I will read the article you suggest, but I doubt Pinker (as authoritarian as some have recently claimed he is) would make such a simple error.

I would use another ominous development to strengthen Pinker’s POV. U.S. drones are a plague on the earth and they kill far more innocents than guilties (even if you take U.S. PTB for ‘guilt’). Yet drones kill innocents in the tens at a time, and WWII Allied bombing killed thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands (firebombing of Tokyo) at a time.

Though both acts are despicable, seems like outcomes are of an entirely incommensurate order of magnitude.

Kassandra November 19th, 2011 at 3:49 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 31

I see that happening now. The states do what they will and the federal government just sits there, irregardless of the laws of the land.
The most glaring case in point ( to me) are the new “Jim Crow” voting laws being promulgated by the Republican governors.
Funny this should be here today. I’ve been thinking along these lines for quite some time.
I tell my friends that I think we might have been able to make it and turn this car around, if we weren’t in such denial over what we’re doing to the planet. I call it “terminal denial”

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:50 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 89

Dear mom-

I do wonder what OWS is finally about, to tell u the truth. Matt Taibbi recently did an essay in Rolling Stone saying that it was *not* about spreading the American Dream around, but about a whole different type of society. Problem was, he had no evidence for this–no on the ground testimony from OWS people to that effect. So I cdn’t help wondering if this was wishful thinking on Matt’s part. But these is the crucial pt: will we ever allow the alternative tradition, as I describe it in WAF, to have a real voice? Or will it continue to be hidden and marginalized?

Dearie November 19th, 2011 at 3:50 pm

i didn’t realize you lived in MX. Thanks for your answer.

Petrocelli November 19th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 104

Ian ! Thanks to you & Morris for doing this.

Morris, if you’re ever in Toronto please let me buy you & Ian a few Beers …

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 3:51 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 107

What is so puzzling about 1%ers vs. 99ers?

Mauimom November 19th, 2011 at 3:52 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 107

I do wonder what OWS is finally about, to tell u the truth.

I do too. I was just trying to imagine an optimistic possibility.

BevW November 19th, 2011 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Morris, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book.

Everyone, thank you!

If you would like more information:

Morris’ website and book

Thanks all, Have a great evening.

Sunday – Arne Kalleberg / Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s; Hosted by June Carbone

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:52 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 90


Hard to say. Regardless of who’s in the W.H., I think we are going to be in ‘crisis management’ mode for the next 20 yrs or so. But after that, it’s anybody’s guess, because that mode is going to be strained to the breaking pt, and will break. I can’t imagine the US doing this ridiculous dance for more than 30 yrs more; and I may be way off here–cd be in 10, for all I know.

tomallen November 19th, 2011 at 3:54 pm
In response to PeasantParty @ 19

Well, the Roman plebeians invented the general strike (secessio plebis), where (via Wiki):

In 494 BC, in response to the harsh rule of Appius Claudius Sabinus Inregillensis, the plebeians seceded and fled to Mons Sacer (the Sacred Mountain) and threatened to found a new town. (The mountain was not the Aventine Hill where they gathered in 449 BC [see below], thus giving its name to the Aventine Secession in the 20th century AD). In response, the patricians freed some of the plebs from their debts and conceded some of their power by creating the office of the Tribune of the Plebs. This tribune was the first government position held by the plebs. The powers of the tribunes changed over time. At their zenith, the plebeian tribunes exercised the power of veto (Latin: “I forbid”), by which they could forbid or invalidate any decision or action of a magistrate, including a consul or praetor, or indeed of the whole Senate, that he deemed harmful to the plebs.

(Obviously it didn’t solve things permanently for the Roman plebeians. But it worked for a while.)

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:54 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 104

You speak of the contagion, the sense of now, of being centered in your life as you feel it unfold, gloriously, around you. Ah, Morris, you truly understand and it is that joy which illuminates your work. You live real and actual connection, not with the phantoms in the tubes, you need not opulence to bask in the wonders, the true magic of life … and living.

These are the things that you will share, evermore powerfully, with those who find resonace with your words and ways.

Great good on ya, Morris.


PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:55 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 107

I invite you to spend more time here at the Lake. You will find out about OWS, their ideas, and their plight against Cops gone Wild.

A Particular section here at FDL, “The Dissenter” has been there at many encampments and live blogs the actions.

Nomi Prins November 19th, 2011 at 3:55 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 113

This is why I really admire you for telling it like it is in all your books, and for following your own philosophy and moving to Mexico to engage in a less materialistic, more social, lifestyle…

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to tomallen @ 114

I’ve often thought about that scenario here in the US. In other countries the people broke into groups under a religion sector, or lineage sector. Actually, the Italians and Greeks did the same.

Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 95


I did answer yr Q re: Pinker. As for economic comparisons: it’s not a question of absolute wealth, but of relatively, what one’s money can buy. In addition, as many studies have show, past a baseline pt, money doesn’t influence happiness at all. It’s a gd bet we are a lot more miserable today. As for literacy: what are all these college students learning? There are so many studies now that say, basically, Nothing! Having bodies in classes doesn’t prove all that much. Again, the difference lies in intangible factors, that I believe finally are the crucial pt.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 3:58 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 113

I’d say ten … plus a little, but then I think things are accelerating a wee bit faster than I had imagined that they would.

Thank you, Morris, this has been a most enjoyable Book Salon.

Thank you, Ian, always appreciate your perspectives.

Thank you Bev, as always.

And, thank you, everyone, its been …


Ian Welsh November 19th, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Well, far too late, but my apologies for missing this, both to Bev and to Morris Berman. Glad to see the conversation did more than fine without me.

Watt4Bob November 19th, 2011 at 3:59 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 104

Sounds like we agree on a lot, hope for the best, plan for the worst, and don’t count them chickens ’till they’re in the pan.

Hopefully, those of us who are capable of letting go can find a sustainable way of life, and won’t be terrorized too much by those who will insist on going crazy as the dreams collapse along with the empire.

Petrocelli November 19th, 2011 at 4:01 pm
In response to Ian Welsh @ 121

Dude !

Pls note my open invitation @109 …

PeasantParty November 19th, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Thank you all for this Salon. Morris, the discussion was great. Naomi, so glad you came and asked those great questions!

eCAHNomics November 19th, 2011 at 4:03 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 119

Your answer is all opinion and no fact. Noted for the record.

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 4:05 pm
In response to Ian Welsh @ 121

Despite what you may imagine, you were missed.

I kept thinking, “Where in hell is Ian Welsh?, Did I, somehow, miss his comments?”


stewartm November 19th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Well, not having read your book, and relying on Ian’s take on it, I can’t say I agree with you.

France has been around for over 1,000 years. Britain? Depends on what you call the start of Britain, but at least as long. China? India? Even longer.

At any time in the troubled history of these countries, you could have said “they/their system has failed”. All have enjoyed periods of glory and suffered bloody interregnums and horrible civil wars. Even where there countries that suffered a distinct end, like Byzantium, said “end” took a damn long time. I can’t see the US collapsing tomorrow.

So–we must temper our judgments, given that long view of history. This particular combination of government and economic structure may have failed. It certainly has failed to produce a better life for most of its people. Its “freedom” and “liberty” certainly were constrained, as Edmund S. Morgan has pointed out, at its very inception by a contempt of the non-white and of the poor. The reason why some European countries developed into social democracy and we did not was that opponents of aid to the poor could always paint a non-white face on the problem, and appeal to the institutional racism that still exists.

And, more to the point, the American way has yet found a way to live with limits and the planet. That is simply due to capitalism, pure and simple. The current way cannot be sustained.

But–none of this means that a different way, a different America, can replace the old. Just like different combinations of government and economic structure have replaced one another in the other countries and places I mentioned. Americans are human beings no different than anyone else, and there is no mysterious power driving them to be the way you say they are. On the contrary, history/anthropology is full of startling reverses when the infrastructural requirements are present.

Lastly–don’t hold up an agrarian society as a model. There is only social one model that is humane, only one model that has existed long enough to influence our genes, and that’s hunter-gathering (the most egalitarian, democratic, societies ever seen). Population densities alone prohibit us from going backwards without catastrophic human cost. We have to look forward; technology is not necessarily the evil that you paint it out to be and it must be humanely utilized if we are to stand a chance.


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Just want to thank u all for participating in this, and hope u enjoyed it as much as I did. Also to remind you to stop by my blog, morrisberman.com, where we are a tad more outrageous (discuss my plans to marry Sarah Palin, where the honeymoon will be, that sorta thing).–mb

Petrocelli November 19th, 2011 at 4:07 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 126

DW !

I also scrolled thrice, thinking I had missed Ian’s comments … *g*

DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 4:07 pm
In response to Petrocelli @ 123


Always great to “see” you.

I would have said something earlier, but it takes me so damned long to type (and then correct the fractured spellinks in) my garbled comments that the chance eluded me.


DWBartoo November 19th, 2011 at 4:08 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 128

“Looking forward”, Morris, ya betcha!!!


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 4:08 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 125


Not true at all. However, if u want data-rich material, check out my books. WAF has 40 pages of closely argued ftnotes, sources, and the like.

stewartm November 19th, 2011 at 4:08 pm
In response to Petrocelli @ 123

Man this feels like a reunion at a different locale.

(Hi Petro!)


Morris Berman November 19th, 2011 at 4:10 pm
In response to stewartm @ 127


Yr quite wrong, on almost all counts, but this wd be a very long discussion, and we’re basically outta time. For the anthropological overview, u might wanna check out my book “Wandering God”; that wd be a gd starting pt 4u, I think.

Petrocelli November 19th, 2011 at 4:11 pm
In response to stewartm @ 133

How ya doing ?

The Late Late Nite gang still have lots to fun, despite all the ridiculous things going on in Washington and around the world.

Ian Welsh November 19th, 2011 at 4:15 pm
In response to Petrocelli @ 123

Petro, feel free to drop me a line at admin -at- ianwelsh-dot-net

stewartm November 19th, 2011 at 4:32 pm
In response to Morris Berman @ 134

Yr quite wrong, on almost all counts, but this wd be a very long discussion, and we’re basically outta time. For the anthropological overview, u might wanna check out my book “Wandering God”; that wd be a gd starting pt 4u, I think.

I might do that, but I’m reading the editorial reviews and I’m objecting right away. For one thing, my take on technologically primitive cultures is that they’re a lot more practical and commonsensical and “worldly” than are state level cultures. Mysticism and otherworldlyness is a state-level response, not just because existence for commoners in such environments requires some form of escape, but more because it’s in the interests of elites to divert attention away from their own exploitation and to create narratives that say (in essence) “this is what you’re stuck with, no other or better social life is possible”.

To overlook the role of infrastructure is a terrible mistake. I would like to point out the example of The Farm in Tennessee. Because they have adopted a lifestyle that mimicks that of the Amish, their social mores have started running parallel to the Amish–i.e., babies good, homosexuality bad, premartial sex bad, marriage good (with monogamy replacing their earlier polygamy), gender roles good, etc. This is not my perspective of what the good society looks like, nor do I think it meshes with most of those here.


GlenJo November 19th, 2011 at 5:13 pm

Ian, Morris,


Keep your mind free and your a$$ safe.

Lorraine Watkins November 19th, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Well. I am late to this and likely just as well. There are so many provocative notions I would challenge, but will settle for the description of the gentile person/socially oriented culture of the deep south is IMO way off base. I would describe it instead as a palatable stylistic manner that conceals the hateful dark evil nature of the lives these people lived/live. Much as we see in the arts and games, doing violence with style somehow makes it OK. I love the mansions and the horses and the ancient live oak trees with a julep offered by a so solicitous handsome man. Forgetting that he has likely just exercised the privilege of primogeniture raping a pubescent black girl.

I will say arising from the same geographical region the one and perhaps the greatest gift any culture may endow is the concept of grace. A gift from the African Americans.

PierceNichols November 19th, 2011 at 6:17 pm

The ‘Southern way of life’ was that of a slave-holding quasi-feudal aristocracy. Despite the fact that chattel slavery was ended as such by the Civil War, Southern whites were allowed to impose a system of peonage on blacks that differed from the previous slave system primarily in the fact that blacks were now free to starve. Aristocratic societies are hell for anyone not born into the aristocracy.

Lorraine Watkins November 19th, 2011 at 6:24 pm
In response to PierceNichols @ 140

Yes. I find it somewhat less than the best of possible worlds. — sigh–

Lorraine Watkins November 19th, 2011 at 6:27 pm
In response to stewartm @ 137

I am so impressed with the extreme parochialism of mountain and forrest people. I have no doubt this is related to the generations of separation from the larger body of the population.

mrsanfran November 19th, 2011 at 6:38 pm
In response to Nomi Prins @ 59

I agree Nomi, that was just too quick and convenient. He disappears prior to any final judicial veridict and I understand his estate was hands off because of this. Bush hustled the Bin Laden family out of the country, maybe Kenny Lay is with them. Love your work.

speakingupnow November 19th, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Unfortunately, I missed this discussion. However, I suggest listening to the following interview with Morris Berman.


PierceNichols November 19th, 2011 at 8:59 pm
In response to mrsanfran @ 143

I don’t see how an overweight 64 yr old man dying of a heart attack in a community hospital (Aspen Valley, for the curious) is suspicious.

iconoclast November 20th, 2011 at 5:45 am

I never thought I’d have the opportunity to say this to you. However, based on the precedent of Eric Alterman receiving an extremely harsh reception during a previous Book Salon, I do think there is precedent for my response remaining here.

I also doubt that you have any intention of listening to me, but I’ll say it anyways.

I think that you are a disgrace and you have done a gargantuan disservice to liberalism and leftism in this country. Mostly, your work has exacerbated the already ludicrously massive tendencies towards fatalism and political withdrawl of your readers to the point where much of leftism in this country seems to be more about escapism or looking backwards-whether to monastic communities, or to a hunter-gatherer stage that most people will never see a shred of actual benefit from, or to anything else before actually helping anyone alive right now.

While our chances of success towards doing anything positive are infinitesimally small, I do think that they will grow slightly more significant once you and your school of thought is ignored.

Lorraine Watkins November 20th, 2011 at 1:47 pm
In response to iconoclast @ 146

Hoorah! Thanks for saying what I was to shy to say. This man’s “theories” are just plain medieval if not primitive tribalism.

You shame me for my reticence. I only hope had I come in earlier I would have been braver.

fairleft November 21st, 2011 at 6:47 am
In response to iconoclast @ 146

I get where you’re coming from, and that’s my initial take on Morris Berman too. I’ll listen to more and read his blog and so on, but …

Didn’t the U.S. have a golden age from the mid-30s to the mid-70s, roughly, when the hustler culture was dominated by a much more communitarian capitalism? And the very popular Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy in the late 60s were the vanguard of pushing that in an even better, less hustler, more communitarian direction. But for an assassination, who knows where we would’ve gone, how thoroughly the hustler culture would’ve been smashed?

I understand the hustler mentality from close personal experience (as do all Americans, I guess) and see it as an aspect of most Americans that’s often absent in foreigners, but as usual Americans like all people have many aspects, and the sides of our inner selves compete, and media-induced social norms aid one side or another. This in part means that people’s ‘real’ natures can change rapidly, at least on the outside where it matters, when real reality gets as bad as it has recently and overwhelms the b.s. produced by big media.

Not that Berman might not ultimately be right, but the confidence is unwarranted. And it’s not a matter of this or that % degree of certainty regarding a predicted future ten or twenty years from now. No, it’s instead “I don’t know.” Period. So, Morris and acolytes, get on with making the future as egalitarian and social democratic as possible and stop pretending you ‘know’ what’s gonna happen.

OTOH I could be wrong, like I say, and I’ll check out a bunch more of his stuff.

Lorraine Watkins November 21st, 2011 at 9:51 am

If you want to recreate the Old Confederacy or Medieval Feudalism Berman is right. /s

Most of us seem to be driven by the notion that there was a perfect society/culture sometime in the, usually, remote past. It must have to do with dreams of a world as we saw it as children. Be that as it may, the past is not the place to look for anything other than the warnings of all the errors in paths taken. Why bother to live if we learn nothing?

PierceNichols November 21st, 2011 at 11:18 am
In response to TalkingStick @ 149

I’m old enough, or at least have spent enough time with the history books, to have been completely disabused of the notion that there was some ideal time in the past. It’s always a lie.

Most of my recent historical reading has been around the 30 Years War. My memory of it from HS history boiled down to “three dudes got tossed out a window, Catholic and Protestants slaughtered each other for three decades, and the Peace of Westphalia created the modern nation state, the end.” If the history of that war and the period leading up to it isn’t enough to make you hate hereditary aristocrats with a fervor that would put Robespierre to shame, I’m not sure what would.

One might way the same about essentially all of Continental history from the death of Charlemagne to the end of WWI.

stewartm November 21st, 2011 at 2:52 pm
In response to iconoclast @ 146

Mostly, your work has exacerbated the already ludicrously massive tendencies towards fatalism and political withdrawl of your readers to the point where much of leftism in this country seems to be more about escapism or looking backwards-whether to monastic communities, or to a hunter-gatherer stage that most people will never see a shred of actual benefit from, or to anything else before actually helping anyone alive right now.

Ok, I differ with Berman too (see above) but that’s a bit harsh and overblown.

Comparisons between us and other societies, be they societies separated from us by distance and/or time, are perfectly valid and useful. They are valid and useful for two reasons:

1) one of the chief conservative responses to any progressive proposals for a more humane society and a better world is based on the false historical narratives (myths, really) that are in essence a restatement of Dr. Pangloss of Candide: that the existence we are currently in, as sorry as it is, is the “best” of all possible worlds. Conservatives have always been fond of saying things such as:

a) political equality won’t work.
b) the welfare state won’t work.
c) socialism won’t work.
d) gay service in the military won’t work.
e) gay marriage won’t work.
f) women’s equality won’t work.
g) children having rights won’t work.

A knowledge of history and ethnography shows that such contentions are empirically false, that these *can and indeed have worked*. Historical and cross-cultural comparisons show us more of what is possible.

2) Cross-cultural and historical comparisons also should give us insight to the mechanisms to how we achieve our goals. They do this by showing us some of the basic rules under which human beings basically interact, given certain conditions. In the case of hunter-gatherers, whose society is the only one which lasted long enough to affect our genes, it shows us what prerequisites are necessary for us to build a society which best re-obtains (to the degree possible) the combination of personal freedom, material equality, and social safety net that their societies achieved. But no one I know of seriously proposes that we can go back and “escape” to that existence per se, that mode of existence requires a very low population density.

The latter point is my difference with Berman, as my limited knowledge of his work pegs him. You cannot, as many 1960s counterculture types insisted, create a new and more just society just on the basis of “ideas”. “Ideas” do not drive what a culture becomes, infrastructure (the interaction between technology and environment) is what is key. The Farm in Tennessee,despite its hippie origins, has begun to adopt some of the social and sexual mores of the Amish because they have aped their lifestyle and mode of production.

So the trick is–if you think that another society gives people a better deal–to figure out the essential rules why it operates like that and then to use that understanding to create something like that in a new guise which incorporates current technology. That’s remaking the world, not escaping from it.


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