The Decline of the American Empire
by Kirkpatrick Sale: Reflexive
Patriotism, Last Refuge of a Scoundrel Nation
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:
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:
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.
and the empire, have no clothes.
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.
Sale [send him mail] 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.
2012 Kirkpatrick Sale