FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Hucksters of Empire

by THOMAS H. NAYLOR

With the publication of his courageous new book, Why America Failed (John Wiley, 2012), Morris Berman has become one of the very first well-known, left-wing writers to acknowledge that not only is the American Empire in decline, but that it is completely unfixable.  In Berman’s view there will be no rabbit pulled out of the hat at the eleventh hour to save the nation, because “the hat is coming apart at the seams.”

Unlike most of the liberal pundits such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Michael Parenti, Rachel Maddow, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Amy Goodman, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, and Paul Krugman, to mention only a few, Berman has given up on America.

According to Berman the seeds of the Empire’s destruction were sewn in the sixteenth century by the early European settlers who were, above all, into “hustling” – looking out for number one.  Ever since then, “hustling, materialism, and the pursuit of personal gain without regard for its effects on others” have provided the dominant theme of the American culture.  He or she who dies with the most toys wins the game.  Enough never seems to be quite enough.

The hustler’s credo is “Teach me how to be a moneymaking, moneyspending machine.”  Most hustlers are obsessed with having – owning, possessing, manipulating, and controlling people, power, money, machines, and material wealth.  Through having they try to find security and certainty in an otherwise uncertain world.  Their compulsive desire to have leads straight to technofascism – affluenza, technomania, cybermania,
megalomania, robotism, globalization, and imperialism.

In response to their insatiable psychological and sensory needs, those who are into having often exhibit behavior patterns which are aggressive, competitive, and antagonistic.  To have something is to take charge of it or to conquer it.  Robbing, destroying, overpowering, and consuming are all forms of having.  Those in the having mode are afraid of losing what they possess either to someone else or to the government or possibly through death.

As a nation we are so obsessed with hustling that we have lost our ability to be human beings.  Our happiness depends mostly on our superiority over others, our power, and our ability to manipulate others.  Capitalist America may be the most efficient and productive nation in the world, but it extracts a high human cost.  Conspicuous consumption is no longer a sign of our success, but rather of our spiritual vacuum.  America has lost its soul.

To cope with the powerlessness and our fear of nothingness, many of us spend our entire lives pretending we are invincible.  One of the ways in which we try to convince ourselves that we will live forever is through conspicuous consumption.  We think we can spend our way into a state of never-ending self-actualization without paying any psychological dues for our life of unrestrained pleasure.  We live by the slogan, “I’ve got mine, Jack.”

Even though we live in a period of unprecedented prosperity, it is also the time of the living dead.  Many affluent Americans who deny themselves virtually nothing in the way of material satisfaction seem to be more dead than alive.  As novelist Walker Percy once said, “There is something worse than being deprived of life; it is being deprived of life and not knowing it.”

Many of us behave as though we were spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually dead.  The living dead can be found everywhere – surfing the Internet, checking their e-mail, texting, day trading, glued to Fox News hoping for an event in an otherwise uneventful life, driving alone across town to Wal-Mart in search of more low-priced plastic yuck, stopping at McDonald’s for a quick taste-fee meal, feigning interest in a mindless bureaucratic job, and viewing Dirty Housewives of New York on BRAVO.  Our government, our politicians, and the high priests of Corporate America pull our strings.

Our entire economy is driven by our intense psychological need to fill our spiritual and emotional vacuum with more stuff and our illusion that the accumulation of wealth and material possessions can provide meaning to life.  If we feel down and need a lift, we buy a new dress, have dinner in a nice restaurant, or rent a video.  The less meaning we have in our life the easier it is to be seduced by the materialistic work hard, play hard, be happy syndrome – a syndrome that is based on a lie.

As Berman points out, most American hustlers are always in a big hurry.  It is as though they are in a race to nowhere!

Berman devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the “illusion of progress” and the relationship between technology and progress.  He views technology as a kind of “hidden religion” linked to the notion of “unlimited progress” and the “perfectibility of man.”  It supplies the “social glue” which hustling alone is unable to provide.

Flying across the Atlantic in a giant jumbo jet engenders feelings of freedom, power, and control – not unlike the feelings experienced by Apollo astronauts, B-2 bomber pilots, high-speed race car drivers, physicians conducting high-tech medical procedures, and genetic engineers creating designer plants, farm animals, and even babies.  High-precision automobiles, high-tech musical instruments, telecommunication satellites, home computers, cell phones, and the Internet all make us feel like we are in charge.  Although technology may increase efficiency, reduce drudgery, and improve the quality of life, it is also one of the most powerful metaphors for the illusion of control.

For some, technology provides more freedom, more time, and an increased sense of community.  For others it sucks up time, reduces freedom, and destroys community.  Technology makes some of us faster, smarter, and richer.  It makes others more materialistic and contributes to our alienation.  Is technology our personal slave, or are we slaves to technology?

We place infinite faith in high-tech global communication systems, megacomputer networks, communication satellites, international electric power grids, high-speed planes and trains, and high-precision automobiles.  They are our gods!

We don’t just embrace new technologies, we place them on a pedestal and worship them – always in the name of progress.  The automobile, television, nuclear power, the space program, high-tech weapon systems, the personal computer, and the Internet have all been viewed with God-like awe – the next panacea.  It is as though the frontier spirit of the Old West has been reincarnated in the form of high-tech euphoria.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Why America Failed is the one on the American South.  Berman argues that, notwithstanding the slavery and racism (which he abhors) that existed there, the Antebellum South with its agricultural economy and its traditional culture provided the only alternative to the dominant high-speed, high-stress, high-tech, imperialistic, industrial culture found elsewhere in the United States.  Before the Civil War, the Rural South represented a communitarian alternative to the dehumanized, mass-production, mass-consumption, narcissistic lifestyle that was beginning to permeate most of the rest of America – an alternative to the politics of money, power, speed, greed, and progress.  The Antebellum South discovered the joys of simple living long before simple living came back in vogue in the 1990s.

The real tragedy of the Civil War was that it was not possible to find an alternative way to end the scourge of slavery which did not result in the deaths of 625,000 individuals.  It was a classic case of throwing out the baby (traditional culture) with the bath water (slavery).  What was at stake in the Civil War was nothing less than the clash of two radically different civilizations according to Berman.

Throughout its history America has tried to “fix” traditional societies which it perceived to be obstacles to progress.

What the North did to the South is really the model of what America in general did and does to “backward” (i.e., traditional) societies, if it can.  You wipe out almost the entire indigenous population of North America; you steal half of Mexico; you literally vaporize a large chunk of the Japanese population; you bomb Vietnam “back to the Stone Age” (in the words of Curtis LeMay); you “shock and awe” Iraqi civilians, and so on.

Berman’s chapter on the South is the most insightful piece I have ever read about the region where I spent over a half century of my life.  It reads like a tragic Southern novel entitled What Might Have Been, But Could Never Be.

Most books about the decline of the American Empire conclude with a “happy chapter” explaining how some idea such as campaign finance reform, banning corporate personhood, or a return to the Constitution will guarantee eternal bliss.  Berman makes it very clear that his book has no “happy chapter” because the endgame is not going to be very pretty.

Berman describes life in the United States as vapid, utterly meaningless, and without heart.  “The United States has run out of steam.”

In 2006, long before things got really bad, Berman concluded that he had, in effect, “outlived his country,” and fled to Mexico.  Just in case you don’t want to escape to Mexico, almost as an afterthought, Berman offers his readers a long shot alternative, secession.

Thomas H. Naylor is Founder of the Second Vermont Republic and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Duke University; co-author of AffluenzaDownsizing the U.S.A., and The Search for Meaning.

More articles by:
January 18, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Destabilizer: Trump’s Escalating Threats Against Iran
John W. Whitehead
Silence Is Betrayal: Get Up, Stand Up, Speak Up for Your Rights
Andrew Day
Of “Shitholes” and Liberals
Dave Lindorff
Rep. Gabbard Speaks Truth to Power About the Real Reason Korea Has Nukes
Barbara G. Ellis
The Workplace War: Hatpins Might Be in Style Again for Women
Binoy Kampmark
Corporate Sickness in May’s Britain
Ralph Nader
Twitter Rock Star Obama’s Silence Must Delight Trump
John G. Russell
#Loose Lips (Should) Sink … Presidencies … But Even If They Could, What Comes Next?
David Macaray
The “Mongrelization” of the White Race
Ramzy Baroud
In Words and Deeds: The Genesis of Israeli Violence
January 17, 2018
Seiji Yamada
Prevention is the Only Solution: a Hiroshima Native’s View of Nuclear Weapons
Chris Welzenbach
Force of Evil: Abraham Polonsky and Anti-Capitalist Noir
Thomas Klikauer
The Business of Bullshit
Howard Lisnoff
The Atomized and Siloed U.S. Left
Martha Rosenberg
How Big Pharma Infiltrated the Boston Museum of Science
George Wuerthner
The Collaboration Trap
David Swanson
Removing Trump Will Require New Activists
Michael McKinley
Australia and the Wars of the Alliance: United States Strategy
Binoy Kampmark
Macron in China
Cesar Chelala
The Distractor-in-Chief
Ted Rall
Why Trump is Right About Newspaper Libel Laws
Mary Serumaga
Corruption in Uganda: Minister Sam Kutesa and Company May Yet Survive Their Latest Scandal
January 16, 2018
Mark Schuller
What is a “Shithole Country” and Why is Trump So Obsessed With Haiti?
Paul Street
Notes From a “Shithole” Superpower
Louisa Willcox
Keeper of the Flame for Wilderness: Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg
Mike Whitney
Trump’s Sinister Plan to Kill the Iranian “Nukes” Deal
Franklin Lamb
Kafkaesque Impediments to Challenging Iran’s Theocracy
Norman Solomon
Why Senator Cardin is a Fitting Opponent for Chelsea Manning
Fred Gardner
GI Coffeehouses Recalled: a Compliment From General Westmoreland
Brian Terrell
Solidarity from Central Cellblock to Guantanamo
Don Fitz
Bondage Scandal: Looking Beneath the Surface
Rob Seimetz
#Resist Co-opting “Shithole”
Ted Rall
Trump Isn’t Unique
January 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Democrats and the End(s) of Politics
Paul Tritschler
Killing Floor: the Business of Animal Slaughter
Mike Garrity
In Targeting the Lynx, the Trump Administration Defies Facts, Law, and Science Once Again
Thomas Hon Wing Polin
Hong Kong Politics: a Never-Ending Farce
Uri Avnery
Bibi’s Son (Or Three Men in a Car)
Dave Lindorff
Yesterday’s ‘Shithole Countries’ Can Become Classy Places Donald, and Vice Versa
Jeff Mackler
Lesser Evil Politics in Alabama
Jonah Raskin
Typewriters Still Smoking? An Interview with Underground Press Maven John McMillan
Jose-Antonio Orosco
Trump’s Comments Recall a Racist Past in Immigration Policy
David Macaray
Everything Seems to Be Going South
Kathy Kelly
41 Hearts Beating in Guantanamo
Weekend Edition
January 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
George Burchett
Wormwood and a Shocking Secret of War: How Errol Morris Vindicated My Father, Wilfred Burchett
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail