Mon 16 Apr, 2012 10:48 am
Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline
by Morris Berman
Publication Date: November 1, 2011
Why America Failed shows how, from its birth as a nation of "hustlers" to its collapse as an empire, the tools of the country's expansion proved to be the instruments of its demise
Why America Failed is the third and most engaging volume of Morris Berman's trilogy on the decline of the American empire. In The Twilight of American Culture, Berman examined the internal factors of that decline, showing that they were identical to those of Rome in its late-empire phase. In Dark Ages America, he explored the external factors—e.g., the fact that both empires were ultimately attacked from the outside—and the relationship between the events of 9/11 and the history of U.S. foreign policy.
In his most ambitious work to date, Berman looks at the "why" of it all
Probes America's commitment to economic liberalism and free enterprise stretching back to the late sixteenth century, and shows how this ideology, along with that of technological progress, rendered any alternative marginal to American history
Maintains, more than anything else, that this one-sided vision of the country's purpose finally did our nation in
Why America Failed is a controversial work, one that will shock, anger, and transform its readers. The book is a stimulating and provocative explanation of how we managed to wind up in our current situation: economically weak, politically passe, socially divided, and culturally adrift. It is a tour de force, a powerful conclusion to Berman's study of American imperial decline.
From the Inside Flap
During the final century of the Roman Empire, it was common for emperors to deny that their civilization was in decline. Only with the perspective of history can we see that the emperors were wrong, that the empire was failing, and that the Roman people were unwilling or unable to change their way of life before it was too late. The same, says Morris Berman, is true of twenty-first century America. The nation and its empire are in decline and nothing can be done to reverse their course. How did this come to be?
In Why America Failed, Berman examines the development of American culture from the earliest colonies to the present, shows that the seeds of the nation's "hustler" culture were sown from the very beginning, and reveals how the very tools that enabled the country's expansion have become the instruments of its demise.
At the center of Berman's argument is his assertion that hustling, materialism, and the pursuit of personal gain without regard for its effects on others have been powerful forces in American culture since the Pilgrims landed. He shows that even before the American Revolution, naked self-interest had replaced the common good as the primary social value in the colonies and that the creative power and destructive force of this idea gained irresistible momentum in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution. As invention proliferated and industry expanded, railroads, steamships, and telegraph wires quickened the frenetic pace of progress—or, as Berman calls it, the illusion of progress. An explosion of manufacturing whetted the nation's ravenous appetite for goods of all kinds and gave the hustling life its purpose—to acquire as many objects as possible prior to death
The reign of Wall Street and the 2008 financial meltdown are certainly the most visible examples today of the negative consequences of the pursuit of affluence. Berman, however, sees the manipulations of Goldman Sachs and others not as some kind of aberration, but as the logical endpoint of the hustler culture. The fact that Goldman and its ilk continue to thrive in the wake of the disaster they wrought simply proves that it is already too late: America is incapable of changing direction.
Many readers will take exception to much of Why America Failed—beginning, perhaps, with its title. But many more will read this provocative and insightful book and join Berman in making a long, hard reassessment of the nation, its goals, and its future.
From the Back Cover Praise for Why America Failed
"Morris Berman is one of our most prescient and important social and cultural critics. He marries a laser-like intelligence with a deep moral core. His writing is as lucid and crisp as it is insightful.His newest book, Why America Failed, rips open the dark and dying carcass of empire.His analysis is sobering and often depressing .But the truth at this stage in the game is depressing, very depressing. Those who refuse to face this truth because it is unpleasant, because it does not inspire happy thoughts or offer false hope, are in flight from the real. The collective retreat into self-delusion has transformed huge swaths of the American populace into a peculiar species of adult-children who live in aPeter Pan world of make believe where reality is never permitted to be animpediment to desire. It is too bad Berman, who sees and writes about all this with a stunning clarity, lives in Mexico.It gets lonely up here."
—Chris Hedges, author of Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion
"Morris Berman's masterpiece is a brutally honest, wonderfully crafted,exceptionally well-documented treatise on how America was spawned, several hundred years ago, to devour its offspring—financially, socially, and technologically. Why America Failed shines a harsh, unavoidable light upon the cunning business mindset at the core of America's creation, expansion, and devolution. Berman describes with stunning clarity how and why the 'hustler'mentality, upon which our country was predicated, eviscerated alternative moral or social doctrines, and thus incorporated the seeds of our self-destruction from its very inception. This book is as uncomfortable to read as it is impossible to miss."
—Nomi Prins, author of It Takes a Pillage and Other People's Money
"Morris Berman noticed that it's not morning in America anymore. His message may wake up the millions who are oversleeping while the late-day storm cloudsgather over this land."
—James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency
"As the decline of America's empire becomes both starker and graduallyevident, nothing is more important than accessible analyses of the causes of that decline. Far too few such works exist because of the taboos against writing them. All the more welcome then is Morris Berman's clear, bluntly but cogently written work. Sensitive to the contradictions of U.S. history and how they arenow playing themselves out in a changed world, this book will challenge and provoke in all the best senses of those words. Genuinely important to read and to think about."
—Richard D. Wolff, Emeritus Professor of Economics,University of Massachusetts Amherst
By Jerome Langguth
Morris Berman's conclusion to his trilogy on America (Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America are the first two) penetrates even more deeply than the earlier books into the roots of our current national and cultural malaise. As another reviewer noted, Berman's book gives us much to reflect upon in connection with debates over the Occupy movement and the likely future of America. But unlike any other treatment of these issues I am familiar with, Berman looks into the historical and philosophical underpinnings of American decline and offers an unflinchingly honest assessment of how we got here. The answer Berman offers is as unsettling as it is persuasive: character is destiny. According to Berman, the American Dream has always been a twisted fantasy premised on a narcissistic Lockean individualism and an unquestioned faith in a notion of progress bound up with technological advancement, the dream of the techno- huckster.
The book could probably also have been titled Why America Triumphed, as long as we keep in mind that in this case to triumph is a disaster and the dream was always destined to end in self-destruction. The world is flat because we flattened it. Berman also considers the case of the various "alternative visions" and internal criticisms of America's huckster culture, but concludes (again persuasively) that none of them really had a chance.
I found the chapter on the Civil War to be particularly illuminating and powerful in this regard, as it forces us to reflect more deeply on what was lost there (the traditional agrarian culture of the South as an alternative to Northern hucksterism) as well as what was won (the end of slavery). This is probably the trickiest section of Berman's book, and the one most likely to be misunderstood, but Berman handles this material with great skill, insight, and compassion.
The contradictions and paradoxes of American history have a tragic dimension that is well articulated here and elsewhere in the book, and one is led to the conclusion that the American way of life was fated to self-destruct from the beginning. This is the book we should all be reading now; a Moby Dick for the 21st century. That we didn't read that one either until it was too late only serves to confirm Berman's bleak vision of American decline.