Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline-Morris Berman
It took me awhile to get through this book, more because of its subject matter than its size. At 246 pages, it looks like a fairly quick read but do not be fooled; this is not light summer reading. This book is DENSE and well sourced; the endnotes are a solid 38 pages if you’re into that sort of thing, which I most certainly am.
Published in 2012, Why America Failed seems to be the denouement to Morris Berman’s trilogy;the first two books are The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. I have not read those books, as I honestly think I couldn’t handle them. This particular book is a fairly brutal portrait recounting the origins of the United States as a nation and the mentality (psychopathy?) that led to its rise, and will lead to its inevitable fall. Fun stuff!!
The main thesis of the book is that American culture is (and always has been) based on a “hustling” mentality. You know, the “I gots to get mine Jack” kind of thinking. Berman’s theory is that America’s “can-do, expansionist mentality” along with its addiction to technology and its narrow definition of progress as “strictly material” and “what is tangible” has created the perfect storm for imperial collapse. And that’s not such a hard sell really. Capitalism is the fuel that drives this country and capitalism is all about competition and bigger, better, more. There’s no need for me to rant about capitalism, but the “business of America” has always been the Business of America™. There was never a “City on a Hill” and in the end, bigger, better, more is not sustainable. What goes up must come down and you can’t go infinitely up when you’re planted on the ground.
Berman makes the case that any historical push back towards this “hustling” lifestyle, any thought or show of an alternate style of living (less acquisitive, more family/community orientated, less competition more cooperation) has been scoffed at and marginalized. Berman believes wars have even been fought against more “traditional” styles of living, oftentimes wrapped in the guise of ridding the world of “communism” or “terrorism.” To illustrate his point, Berman uses the domestic example of the “clash of civilizations” that occurred between the North and South during the Civil War. Berman posits that the Southern way of life (before slavery ended) valued traits that were not conducive to the spread of northern capitalism, and were in fact a potential hindrance and threat to the spread of northern capitalism. It was this “threat” that served as one of the causes of the War Between the States.
The theory could be discomforting to some, but only, I think, if you cling to some American mythology. No one ever wants to hear the South during slavery was anything but evil. I’m certainly not keen to wax poetic about the genteel south and it’s lost manners and priorities, but there is a point there. There was a lifestyle being led by people in this country in direct opposition to a fully capitalistic mechanistic society. And that way of life was destroyed, the bad and the good. In its place is where we find ourselves today.
While the whole book was just one uncomfortable truth after another, it was Berman’s parting question to the reader that resonated: “If you are an American reading this, let me ask you: aren’t you tired of it all? The endless pressure and anxiety, the awful atmosphere at work (that’s if you can get work), the constant one-upsmanship that passes for friendship or social relations, the lack of community or of any meaningful connection with your neighbors.”
For me, that was a wake-up call. As Americans, we want to believe that things in this country will get better. We want to believe that the halcyon days aren’t in the past, that we will once again be the world leaders in whatever makes a country a world leader. But I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s apparent to most people that things don’t seem to be getting better in the U.S. Things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction. There are too many examples to enumerate here, but pick an institution and I can almost guarantee it’s crumbling. But who wants to be a Cassandra?! No one wants to be a harbinger of bad news, and I think we all want to believe that the country we grew up pledging allegiance to is still worthy of that allegiance.
Ultimately, I think, the book serves as a warning. It asks us, as Americans, to take a hard look at this country and our lives within it, and to really think about whether or not it’s a culture we want for ourselves (and our children, if we have them.) Obviously for a lot of us, the devil we know is far less scary than the one we don’t, but I appreciate the author’s honesty and candid disdain for, what passes as, American culture. I may not 100% agree with him, but I heed his warnings and continue to look for jobs in Costa Rica.