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The Decline of the American Empire

Why America Failed, which this book is not about, is nonetheless a devastating and eviscerating critique proving convincingly that America has failed, and abominably, even tragically.  That makes it a very important book that I hope will find an attentive audience, particularly among those of the media and intelligentsia who need to understand its truths and rid themselves of the increasingly common idea that there is some kind of palliative that will reform and restore American government to some imagined efficient and democratic past. (Please copy, Occupiers, Tea Partyers, Tenthers, and all Democrats,etc.)

I cannot overemphasize how essential this wisdom is to any comprehension of America today, or tomorrow, or how powerfully Morris Berman (an academic historian who has emigrated to Mexico) makes his case.  It is not a long book (196 pages, plus backmatter), but it is replete with overwhelming evidence to support the thesis, as he puts it on his first page:

The principal goal of North American civilization, and of its inhabitants, is and always has been an ever-expanding economy— affluence—and endless technological innovation—“progress.” A nation of hustlers, writes [Walter] McDougall, a people relentlessly on the make.

From the very start, from the Puritans’ shining “city on a hill” and the Jamestown settlement’s conquest and exploitation of Indian lands, this country has been about making and taking, a business culture with a commercial orientation, devoted to growth and power, wealth and property, private advancement and profit, militarism and materialism, expansion and empire. John Adams saw it at the beginning: the U.S. was “more Avaricious than any other Nation that ever existed.” Or as de Tocqueville was to say later: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Let it be acknowledged that, given this as its goal and ideal, this nation has done pretty well.  It is in most terms rich and powerful (let us discount the fact that we are $16 trillion in debt and wiped out $14 trillion in household wealth in the last crash), full of comforts and conveniences, food and shelter and plumbing and heat for most, high-tech gadgetry and systems, a developed (if crumbling) infrastructure coast to coast, the largest military in the world, the world’s fall-back currency, an unmatched service industry, and all the rest of what makes up a modern industrial capitalist nation.

But what Berman shows, in fascinating detail, is that with all that concentration on hustling, which makes up our entire lives for our lives, is that we have lost a sense of the public good in the face of private interest, an understanding of community in the face of aggravated individualism, a sense of spiritual well-being in the face of material pressure and stress, an appreciation of the simple life in the face of technological complexity, even a true sense of republicanism and the political commonwealth in the face of manipulative and intrusive oligarchy and political individual wealth.  Much of what we still think of as in some way valuable—stability rather than progress, face-to-face instead of on-line, family and friends instead of networks and “friends,” craftsmanship instead of mass production, virtue and tradition and honor and simplicity rather than egotism and modernity and self-interest and multi-tasking, gemeinschaft instead of gesellshaft—much of that has been quite lost in the dominant hustling culture.

Not only that, but we have acquired a host of evils and sorrows along with material prosperity.  Berman compiles a whole raft of rather depressing facts that show what the downside of the technocommerial society is: mass unemployment, foreclosures, increasing poverty for the many (with corporate bailouts and bonuses for the egregious few); a criminal culture with the highest rate of homicide in the world and a corrections system that contains 25 per cent of all the world’s prisoners; a high incidence of violence throughout the culture, including crime, domestic violence, and warfare, along with movies, TV, and video games; a social numbness and clinically diagnosed “empathy deficit disorders”; consumption of two-thirds of the global market in antidepressants with at least 164 million users; a rank on the worldwide Happy Planet Index in 2009 of 150th; fully 25 per cent of American households had only one person, a rate of aloneness probably the highest in the world. Or, as Berman puts it at one point:

The culmination of a hustling, laissez-faire capitalist culture is that everything gets dumbed down, that all significant questions are ignored, and that every human activity is turned into a commodity, and anything goes if it sells. What we have is domination by corporate media, politics via poll-driven sound bites, a foreign policy based on unilateralism and preemptive strikes, a failing newspaper industry, a poorly informed citizenry, the unemployed winding up destitute, weak (or no) mass transit systems, and a health care system that ranks thirty-seventh in the world.

The emperor, and the empire, have no clothes.

Berman spends a good deal of time talking about the “alternative culture” to all this, including “a commitment to craft, community, the public good, the natural environment, spiritual practice, and the ‘simple life,” and he shows that its adherents and champions have existed all along, though of course overwhelmed by the dominant culture.  He cites, for example, Thoreau, Melville, Henry Adams, Veblen, Sinclair Lewis, Henry Demarest Lloyd, Ruskin and Morris and the craft movement, Eric Fromm, Lewis Mumford (on whom he justly spends many pages), the Southern Agrarians, Robert Redfield, Vance Packard, William A. Williams, Marcuse, Ellul, Roszak, Schumacher, Lasch, Wendell Berry, and more recently Jerry Mander, Langdon Winner, Neil Postman, and somewhat surprisingly Ted Kaczynski. This is a distinguished bunch, and they are known today because the work they did was careful and trenchant and exposed powerfully the ills of a material society, but, as Berman notes when talking about Mumford, in the end “you can’t get taken seriously if you point this out.”  How well I know.

And so the alternative culture, though it has always existed on the fringe, and still does even now, has never seriously derailed the steamengine of the hustler civilization nor in fact even slowed it down perceptively.  In fact that civilization will always take steps to marginalize it, even destroy it if necessary, a fact that Berman illustrates in a chapter on the antebellum South.  He shows how the South was “the one example we have of an opponent of [the dominant] ideology that had real political teeth,” and blatantly opted for a life premodern (indeed “neofeudal”), agrarian, slow, conservative, and honoring tradition, honor, chivalry, and hospitality more than making a buck or inventing a gadget.  This ultimately the increasingly industrial and expansive North could not stand and so began a war to destroy it. “The treatment of the South by the North,” Berman says, “was the template for the way the United States would come to treat any nation it regarded as an enemy: not merely a scorched earth policy, but also a ‘scorched soul’ policy’” that it would use in Hawaii, the Philippines, Cuba, Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else it could achieve it.

Which is why in the end Berman concludes that nothing will ever change our hustling civilization and all attempts at trying to replace it are fruitless: “I regard the fantasy of a recovered future as pure drivel.”  He sees, instead, that it is headed toward inevitable collapse, and not too many decades away.  He quotes a U.S. intelligence report from the Washington Post that predicts “a steady decline” in American dominance in the coming decades, the country eroding “at an accelerating pace” in “political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas,” to which he adds, “Nothing could be more obvious.”

In a rare moment of optimism he goes on to say, “Collapse could be a good thing” if it could ultimately “open the door to the alternative tradition,” a process he admits is “a long shot.”  And here he suggests, and wins my heart as he does so, that one means to that is secession, which holds promise precisely because it has given up on trying to change the industrial society as a whole, across the nation, and picks instead smaller places (such as Vermont) where some version of the alternative tradition might be realized.

At the present time, he says, “this project doesn’t have a hope in hell,” but “in thirty or forty years, it may not seem so far-fetched.”

Well, it may take a generation, but I don’t think so.  The collapse will come sooner than we realize—I   have predicted within a decade—and  it will open up secession (or some equivalent such as city-states or medieval walled cities) as the only possible opportunity for a new society with new human-scale alternatives.  I’m not predicting it, mind you, I’m just saying it’s the only way to go.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of a dozen books, including Human Scale and Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, and is the Director of the Middlebury Institute for the study of separation, secession, and self-determination.

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Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of twelve books over fifty years and lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.

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