Book Review: Why America Failed

Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline Morris Berman, John Wiley and Sons, 2012. Available at the Benton-County library.

Failed. Not: “going through an economic downturn.” Not: “experiencing some technical difficulties.” Not: “in decline.” Failed.

The answer as to why Morris Berman thinks that America has failed lies in one of the hundreds of great quotes he delivers in his slim (188 pages), articulate, and ultimately damning portrait of America.


“Character is Destiny,” Heraclitus said some 2,500 years ago, and Berman’s thesis is that America’s character—originally and irrevocably—is that of a hustler. The hustling way of life, combined with industrialism and a vast country rich in natural resources may have brought us high, but the hustling way of life will eventually destroy us, just as it’s already crippled us as a culture.


Hustling has led us to “empathy deficit disorder,” “emotional malnutrition,” “autistic hostility,” “moral nihilism,” the “cult of the self,” being “addicted to more,” and “celebrations of solipsism.” It’s created an America where “progress” is equated solely with modernization and technological innovation—with no consideration of true social or individual improvement. Where “freedom” is synonymous with “free enterprise.” Where affluence, not public good, is the highest cultural value. Where “private interest is virtue;” where, like drug addicts, we “maximize a single variable”—wealth; where, in a “fanatical devotion to technology,” we fill our emptiness with gadgets or with self-help books that proclaim that the answer to our problems lies even more within our own individualism.


This is Berman’s failed America. In a country devoted to “unrelenting commerce and pursuit of affluence,” his “humanist ideals” of a commonweal, of social cohesion and community bonds, of cooperation, non-violence, and solidarity are nowhere to be found. “You cannot have any sort of commonwealth in a situation where human survival was based on competitive success.”


There is another America, an “alternative tradition” to the mainstream culture’s “acquisitive life.” This is the American character as espoused by Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, and Martin Luther King Jr. It is a culture that has lifted voices and ideas in opposition to the “emptiness and destructiveness of American consumerism.” Unfortunately, this alternative tradition has been “marginal and exhortatory.” It’s failed because it has never been recognized as legitimate.


Whenever an “alternative tradition” was perceived as a real threat to mainstream America’s pursuit of capital—the antebellum South, the VietCong, the Unabomber— we cast them as ideologically evil, as sinful lunatics, and attempted to destroy them.  We even dismiss modern Europe—unabashedly capitalist, but with a strong social safety net—as “Socialist.” Bloated on a fairy tale of social mobility and American individualism, we refuse to learn a single thing from these alternative traditions.


And we’re proud of it.  For every “spiritual malaise” Jimmy Carter there are a million fairy-tale spinning Ronald Reagans. For every Vance Packard (The Pyramid Climbers) there are a million Dale Carnegies (How to Win Friends and Influence People). And so on and so on.


Why America Failed may seem like a bitter book, but it’s not. It’s an honest book.  There are moments of wry humor, as when Berman, in summing up the hopeless future of America, describes his book as though it were laid out in three acts: “The Steamroller,” “The Steamroller Destroys the Opposition,” and “Eventually the Steamroller Self-Destructs.” He quips: “It is simply not possible for Act Three to be “The Steamroller Has an Identity Crisis but Emerges New and Improved.” And that sums up the tone of the book as well as the content—it’s a bleak and unflinching portrayal, but not so depressing that you put it down in misery and move to France. What keeps you reading is the range of his historical documentation and analysis—he stretches from Rome to the “Founding Fathers” to the Civil War to today’s headlines of Goldman Sachs and the Greek debt crisis. All his analysis is backed up by his formidable scholarship, including a seven-page footnote on the economics of Southern slavery.


There were a few things that gave me pause, or that I disagreed with or didn’t think Berman was being quite fair about, but on the whole, he presented an accurate and convincing portrait. So much so that maybe the only thing wrong with the book was the title: maybe America didn’t fail. If America was founded on and historically dedicated to a hustling, money-grubbing, every-man-for-himself ethos, then, in fact, we haven’t failed but succeeded.  In terms of obesity, gross income inequality, environmental degradation, unhappiness, anti-depressant use (2/3 of global market), homicide rates, and recurring economic meltdowns, America has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams.


By  Nathaniel Brodie