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Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse

Author and social critic Morris Berman says the fact that we're a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.

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MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values. America was founded within a conceptual framework of being in opposition to something—the British and the Native Americans, to begin with—and it never abandoned that framework. It doesn’t really have a clear idea of what it is in a positive sense, and that has generated a kind of national neurosis. I mean, we were in real trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed; in terms of identity, we were completely adrift until the attacks of 9/11 (just think of how frivolous and meaningless the Clinton years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode.

Hence the saber rattling against Iran now, or the foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia to “watch” China. What bothers me is that we are doing all of this unconsciously, and we always have. Mr. Obama, like most of his predecessors, is little more than a marionette on strings (Mr. Carter being the only postwar exception to this pattern, in a number of significant ways). Once again, true intelligence is ontological, and as a nation, we are sorely lacking in that department.

NP: But haven’t we heard all this before? After all, there is a long history of the so-called “declinist” argument, that the country is in permanent decline and has no future. Such books come and go; meanwhile, the country goes on. What makes your book, or books, different from previous assertions that “it’s all over”?

MB: Decline takes time; an empire doesn’t come to an end on August 4, A.D. 476, at two in the afternoon. Similarly, declinist analysis also takes time: the books you are referring to form a continuous argument, from Andrew Hacker’s The End of the American Era in 1970 to George Modelski’s Long Cycles in World Politics in 1987 to Why America Failed in 2011. And there have been a good number of declinist works in between. These books are not wrong; rather, they are part of an ongoing recognition that the American experiment is finished. Even then, we can go back to before Professor Hacker to Richard Hofstadter (1948), who called the US a “democracy of cupidity”; or to C. Vann Woodward (1953), who wrote that we were probably doomed because we had put all of our eggs in one ideological basket, namely laissez-faire economics. During these years the country hasn’t just “gone on”; what it has done is progressively fallen apart, and these writers have made it their business to document the process.

NP: Finally, you moved to Mexico a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to America?

MB: There are a lot of answers to that question, and yes, some of the reasons can be found in the above dialogue. You know, the air is really “thin” in the United States, because the value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around Europe in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the citizens of other countries, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives.

Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land. In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues conclude that happiness is achieved only by those who manage to escape the American value-system. Well, the easiest way to escape from that value-system, is to escape from America.

 
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