Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse
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NP: So you’ve been analyzing America’s decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration for Why America Failed?
MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall ( Freedom Just Around the Corner ) and his argument about America being a nation of hustlers. The original working title was Capitalism and Its Discontents , the point being that those who dissented from the dominant ideology never had a chance. The crux of the problem remains the American Dream: even “progressives” see it as the solution -- including, I have the impression, the Wall Street protesters -- when it’s actually the problem.
In my essay collection, A Question of Values , I talk about how we are driven by a number of unconscious assumptions, including the notions of our being the “chosen people” and the availability of an endless frontier (once geographical, now economic and technological). For a while I had The Roots of American Failure as the title, but more to the point would be The Failure of American Roots -- for even our success was a failure, because it was purely material. This is really what the American Dream is about, in its essence, as Douglas Dowd argued years ago in The Twisted Dream.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.
I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.
NP: What do you say to people who don’t believe America has failed; who may just see the country as going through a bad patch, so to speak? What evidence have you compiled for the argument that the United States has failed?
MB: The major evidence is, of course, economic, and there is by now a slew of books showing that this time around recovery is not really possible and that we are going to be eclipsed by China or even Europe. These are books by very respected economists, I might add; and even a US Intelligence report of two yrs ago, “Global Trends 2025,” says pretty much the same thing, although it adds cultural and political decline into the mix. The statistics here are massive, but just consider a single one: in terms of collective wealth, the top 1 percent of the nation owns more than the bottom 90 percent. If we have a future, it’s that of a banana republic. And there will be no New Deal this time around to save us; just the opposite, in fact, as we are busy shredding any social safety net we once had.
NP: How does this relate to the rise of the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement?
MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the US is still number-one, but I believe that on some level they know that this is whistling in the dark. They suspect their lives will get worse as time goes on, and that the lives of their children will be even worse than that. They feel the American Dream betrayed them, and this has left them bitter and resentful. The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.