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The Decline of Imperial America
Those reading Morris Berman’s Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline needn’t be told that the USA is ruled over by a distinct minority and is becoming an ever more harmful and dangerous society: economically, politically, and militarily. Berman shows how we got here and will soon be stuck with something worse, unless “We the People” organize to reverse the ongoing trends and put decency and safety in their place.
Berman begins with the colonial era, and notes that although self interest and the pursuit of wealth were common in colonial outlook, they were also restrained:
The ideals of enlightened material restraint and public service were certainly in the hearts and minds of our Puritan foregoers; the colonists were attracted to the New World for both idealistic and materialistic reasons; opposed to avarice, not to prosperity per se. The Constitution refers to a republican form of government, but leaves the exact meaning up in the air. Thus, John Adams famously referred to “republican” as meaning “anything, everything, or nothing… There is no more unintelligible word in the English language.”
The “ideals” of the founders had a mixed history up through the decades leading to independence, but already in its first years the new nation was on its way to becoming dominated by business aims more than political idealism. By 1820 the USA had the most banks and insurance companies in the world.
During 1800-1850 the total production of the nation had increased sevenfold; by 1860 the basic outlines of the modern U.S. economy were already visible: mass consumption and production, and capital intensive agriculture, and 10 years later the world’s largest economy: 25 per cent of the whole… soon to be followed by corporations, banks, department stores, chain stores….. Advertising, brokering, and mass production made the USA the world’s “culture of consumption.
As those developments strengthened and spread over the nation they brushed aside …. they carried with them what – already in 1899 – had given birth to what Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.” Back then, and qualitatively much more in our time, that new “ideology” carried with it what Pres. Woodrow Wilson decried in 1912: “We are all caught up in a great economic system which is heartless.”
That devolution did not take hold without its critics, of whom Veblen was among the earliest (with his Theory of the Leisure Class.1899). Soon after, others would join his view. Most effectively of those was Lewis Mumford who, for decades after 1920 was the main voice damning what was portrayed as “progress.” He vigorously and frequently proposed that “the country slow down the pace of industrialization” and “turn society from its feverish preoccupation with money-making inventions, goods, profits, and salesmanship to the deliberate promotion of the more human functions of life.”
However, as the 20th century took hold, the critics were a distinct minority, their voices drowned out by U.S. capitalism’s most spectacular triumph in the 1920s. The triumph ended with a loud bang in 1929, and paved the way for some effective constraints in the 1930s for a while: the New Deal. FDR presided over the nation from 1932 until his death (and 4th election as president). He had progressed from being a friend of Wall Street to becoming its enemy. However, as Berman points out:
New Deal thinking increasingly saw consumption as central to the nation’s economy. By moving in that direction Roosevelt was only being realistic: but no amount of legislation or uplifting speeches were going to remake the American psyche…. It was the American people who killed the New Deal; that seems clear enough…..With the end of World War II the U.S. population exploded in a frenzy of indiscriminate buying.
As the public was “indiscriminately buying” the business world was “discriminately” hiring expert organizations to work through the best means to keep the public on that track and off any political track which would strengthen themselves and weaken the business world. Their efforts along that line began to take hold in the 1970s; strengthen and spread in the 1980s, and triumph in the 1990s. A summing up of the presidencies from the 1970s until 2000 is in order here:
Socio-economic Hell began to heat up in the Nixon presidency (1969-1974) (He had to resign in 1974 when he was caught in some of his – minor –dirty tricks). Carter’s presidency in the 1970s was decent in its socio-economic thinking, but he was tricked by his advisor into a military mess in Iran. The next president was the clown Ronald Reagan….big business and militarists had their way, our postwar militarism sped up and took us toward Hell’s Gate and our endless wars.
The Reign of Wall Street
For present purposes the gist of our story is to be found in the 1990s but, as will be seen below, the basis for those swinging capitalist years had been created together earlier with the anything goes years of Reagan. Everything went wild in the last years of Bush Sr.and the eight years of Clinton. Here a long quote from Berman:
The “neo-liberal state is what the USA became in the Reagan years, and what the country decided to export to the rest of the world – by force if necessary (thence the largest peacetime military buildup in American history….) In this vision, the basic purpose of the state apparatus is capital accumulation, such that “freedom” and “free enterprise” become one and the same….What you eventually got was more crime, sex trafficking, and even slavery (the return of sweatshops, even in New York) The mooed became one of helplessness and anxiety…..The 1990s saw no letup in this pattern.. By 1995, 1 per cent of the American population owned 47 per cent of the nation’s wealth, and during 1995-99 86 percent of market advances went to the richest 10 percent of the population. Between 1998 and 2001…., 1000 corporate executives awarded themselves $66 billion in salaries and bonuses….Meanwhile, real wages declined: workers were much worse off in the 90s than they had been in the 60s and 70s.
It was in the years of Reagan to the end of the century that the USA’s economy managed to become Number One in the realm of production; but it also transformed itself from having been its largest lender to becoming its record-breaking borrower. A key figure in that process was Lawrence Summers, and the Wall Street giant which presided over this dangerous trip was Goldman Sachs. Now a closer look at the games they played and which created the basis for our financial dominance and its associated dangers.
Lawrence Summers got very rich from his combined financial advising to Wall Street individuals and firms and Obama’s White House, making good money in both realms and doing considerable damage along the way. As Berman puts it: “Summers, a major proponent of deregulation was apparently taking kickbacks; mostly lavish fees from the very banks he later helped to bail out.” He served the White House during the 1990s and then again President Obama (as have several other Wall Street big shots in both Bush presidencies).
Then, high in the realm of dangerous White House doings are the political achievements of Wall Street, the champion of which has been Goldman Sachs (“GS”)
GS has essentially packed the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve with its alumni, such that we’ve now got Wall Street policing Wall Street – and the government….The fox is guarding the henhouse: Henry Paulson (GS CEO, Treasury Secretary, 2004: Lloyd Blankfein succeeds him at GS and gets raised by Pres. Obama as a “savvy businessman” for awarding himself a bonus of $9 million.” Robert Rubin, a former GS CEO who served as Treasury Secretary for Clinton, managed to get Obama to pick two of his protégés, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, as senior economic adviser and Treasury Secretary, respectively. Geithner then selected Mark Peterson, a former GS lobbyist as his chief of staff, and Gary Gensler, a former GS partner, was chosen by Mr. Obama to head the Commodities Future Trading Commission.
Thus the stage was set to mock the “Crash of ‘29” and the depression which followed. The housing and stock market crash of 2008 wiped out upward of $14 trillion in household wealth; official statistics had it that 10 per cent of the population was unemployed; in reality, it was probably closer to 20 per cent. At the same time that Wall Street continued to award themselves huge bonuses, the former middle class was lining up at food banks and soup kitchens.
Will there be a depression? Has it, perhaps begun? Answer: It is worth noting that it was not until 6-7 years after the 1929 crash that it was officially acknowledged that the USA was in a “depression.” Nor is it irrelevant that the “world economy” of the 1920s-1930s was a midget compared to today’s gigantic global economy.
Our Obsession with Technology
In the modern world the notion of “progress” have gone hand in hand with technological progress, in all social realms. Berman writes:
If the goal of American life is to accumulate as many objects as possible prior to death, then technology lies at the center of that life, because those objects exist only by virtue of technology and applied science…. Less obvious is the role that technology has played in fueling “the hustling life,” which is as much a social phenomenon as an economic one…….This expanding technological frontier keeps class antagonism at bay in the same way that an expanding geographical frontier once did. The purpose of life is thus to keep hustling, but since there is no end to innovation there is no end to hustling, which like technological expansion, becomes its own purpose.
He quotes Borgmann:
“Inequality favors the advancement and stability of the reign of technology. The unequal levels of availability represent a display of affluence that many people can hope to pass through. What the middle class has today the lower class will have tomorrow….The peculiar conjunction of inequality and technology….results in an equilibrium that can be maintained only as long as technology advances…. As long as this arrangement remains unquestioned, politics will remain without substance.” (A. Borgman, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (2006) (pp. 73-74)
Berman concludes Chapter 3 with this grim observation:
Progress hardly, in the United States, has much to do with the quality of life. Rather it is just about “impertinent dynamic of more,” of anything, of everything. There is no point to it at all, on this definition; it’s basically mindless. “Hustling,” fueled by the religion of technology, has taken us to an impoverished place devoid of meaning. The critics of this way of life are completely ignored; the airwaves are filled with exhortations to keep doing what we are doing. Yet underneath the frenetic activity is a great sadness, which hustling and technology are deigned to repress – which do, but they probably won’t be able to do it forever; the façade is already breaking up.
That little breath of hope on his part is encouraging, if we assume that the “breakup” will be followed by a better society; an assumption which will be correct if and only if our old friend “We the People” get to work very soon to reverse what is presently likely: Hell on earth.
The Rebuke of History
Berman takes the position that the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War was also a tragedy because the social values of the South – except for slavery — were fundamentally superior to those of the North. That “exception” requires a discussion.
Like the rest of us authors, Berman can wander off the track. In this chapter (and in my judgment) Berman has done that. The assertion that an established social analyst such as Berman could wander off the track of common sense requires an explanation. I trust it will be found in the following examples and comments. Before I provide that, I wish to make my own comment upon the South and Berman’s position.
It seems clear to me that “the South” Berman admires was both before and during the Civil War and that he had the pre-war South in mind when he wrote: “The South had an intellectual tradition that was quite rich; and that had a virtue all its own -– one that in some ways superior to the supposed virtue of the North, slavery notwithstanding. He goes on to argue that “slavery as a moral issue was not a fundamental factor in bringing about the war. I agree. However, I cannot agree with his position in what follows. I quote:
We need to see beyond the slave issue, if we can; to realize that the South was trying to hold off the coming tide, the destructive forces of capitalism, especially in term of what it does to human relations. The slaveholders saw how bourgeois social relations dissolved family and community ties and made the market the ultimate determinant of human life…. In its flawed and tragic way, the Old South stood for values which we finally cannot live without if we are to remain human.
Having said that, the author concludes the argument with what seems to me – and I cannot see how did not seem to him – a contradiction of his position (as quoted above) concerning the South’s “rich intellectual tradition.” I cannot comprehend as “rich” any outlook which also enslaves people in order to make money and indulges in violence (including rapes, beatings, and killings) to have its way.
I read through Chapter Four many times, and I remain puzzled how the author could have been so angry with the North and its subsequent capitalism – an anger I share – that he could let it obscure his thoughts about those who enslaved and their victims: millions of human beings cruelly harmed, ruined, their lives shortened and distorted.
Berman’s focus in this chapter is upon the South before and during the Civil War. I was there in the 1960s in the borderline area of Tennessee and Mississippi, for three summers. Along with 50-60 students of Cornell University (where I was teaching) we worked with the Negroes of Fayette County who were seeking – simply — the right to vote. In the process, two of our young men joined those working in Mississippi and, along with one local Negro, were murdered. None of us were killed, but many were beaten, and/or roughly jailed. It is easy to say, “Well, those Southerners were not the same whites admired by Berman in an earlier era.” Correct. But those admired by Berman, although they often had decent relationships with their slaves, more often than not treated them as “things”: to be beaten, raped, worked to death and enslaved, by themselves or whoever.
I repeat that this book is seriously useful for all who wish to know what’s wrong with the USA and do something about it. The farmers and merchants of the 19th century South surely included some who treated their slaves decently; but if their slaves didn’t do just what the whites wanted, their owners – or others — were free to do whatever they wished: with at least some of the more decent looking on.
A personal note: When our 1960s group was in Fayette County, the local Negro who had prompted our coming was always close. He had a small grocery store and gas station for his people. While we were there in the 1960s, in the first of our summers his wife gave birth to a baby girl. In the 1990s, my telephone rang and it was a woman’s voice. She asked for Prof Dowd. When I asked who she was, she replied that she was the daughter of the Fayette County grocer. When she called she was a professor at the U. of Tennessee. Can’t win ‘em all, but……
The Future of the Past
As his book concludes, Berman provides several gloomy statements:
Most books on “Troubled America” end optimistically because their authors believe this or believe that this is what the public wants to hear. This is true for the most part. Having lived in fantasy all of their lives, most Americans want it to continue even if they are out of work, have had their homes foreclosed, see plainly that the government is doing very little for them or anybody else (except the rich and well-connected), watch helplessly as the country is bogged down in meaningless wars it cannot win, understand on a gut level that their lives have no real purpose, etc…. I can’t write such a book….I have to write about what is likely to occur, but that probably guarantees a readership of at most a few thousand people, if that…… American life is many things, but ultimately it’s a life without a heart, not a really a life for human beings – something I suspect many or most of us feel, if only on an unconscious level. The sensation is one of being haunted, and the core of this is the vapidity, the utter meaninglessness, of this way of life. A country whose purpose is to encourage its citizens to accumulate as many objects as possible, or to export “democracy” at the point of a gun, is a ship without a rudder. Meanwhile, the ship is slowly sinking out of sight.
He goes on and then quotes Alexis de Tocqueville:
‘I know of no country in which there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America. One might suppose that all American minds had been fashioned under the same model, so exactly do they follow along the same paths: ‘a new despotism.’
I doubt that there are two hundred thousand people in the whole of the USA who could grasp an argument which sees through the skeletal structure of American history: the Puritan legacy, the frontier savage/civilized dichotomy, and the enemy-other narrative so central to our identity: After all, what does it say when we butcher three million Vietnamese peasants and torture hundreds of thousands and the American public is more upset about what antiwar protesters are doing than about what the U.S. military is doing…. Most of American society is wallowing in trash; it has no interest in questions of this sort; doesn’t even know they exist.
A U.S. intelligence report of 2008 predicted a steady decline in American dominance over the coming decades, with U.S. leadership ending “at an accelerating pace in political, economic, and cultural arenas” …..And collapse could be a good thing, if not fun to live through. The entire premise of America was a mistake from the beginning. A meaningful human society is not about endless hustling and technological progress; these can be part of the good life, but they are hardly equivalent to the good life, and the attempt to make them so has had some untoward consequences.
The foregoing takes me to my conclusion. Those reading the above (or the whole book) might well find themselves wondering why one as gloomy and disgusted as author Berman would bother to do all the hard work it required if the U.S. and its people have been and remain so dangerously hypnotized. I will answer that question for the author, although he might be less pleased than irritated.
The answer has two sides to it: historical and personal. First, some history: If we examine U.S. history from its beginning, the first point to be made is this: Few if any of those living in the British colony of America would have thought in, say, 1750, that Great Britain, then most powerful nation, could have a society with the riches of the colony taken from it. But it was. OK, that was long ago, when the colony was very far away; when transportation was powered by wind. So, what about the modern world? Who, in the 1920s would have thought that in the not so distant future, over a hundred colonies would become independent; even for a while.
What about the “personal?” How can any of us think even for a moment that the “sick and dangerous society” of the USA can be made to become a nation “of the people and for the people”? Surely to join those seeking to achieve that fine result is to fail and even to be harmed in the process. “Surely?” No. “Probably?” Yes.
Let me examine the “probably.”
This is written in December, 2011, three months after the OWS took place in Manhattan, multiplied over the nation, and is now on the edge of two developments: Those in power will probably find ways to curtail and defeat the (up to now) movements in cities. Whether or not the existing powers succeed do or not, the city movements must become national movements. In doing that, we should see to it that in the November elections of 2012, all elections –local, state, and those for the presidency and Congress are fought for. We may or may not succeed; if not, we are surely doomed for a future much worse than the present.
In short: there is much to be learned from this book, and it it’s up to us to add that to what we already know and will learn as we fight.
I add this personal note: I will have entered my 93rd year when you read this. I became politically involved in the early 1930s and even more after World War II, most deeply in “The Mobe” (Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam). We seldom “won,” and more than a few (my son included) went to prison. But that political work was worth it (even for those who were imprisoned: ask them), and in some degree successful. For example, in a visit to North Vietnam we were told that so long as we kept up our resistance they knew the USA would be defeated, unless it used atomic bombs (which the peace movement also blocked). They were right; they won. And I add something else: My best friends in my long life have been those I worked with politically. Would I do it again? Of course. Did we win? A little. Would I do it again? You bet.
So let’s get to work, and never stop: win or lose.