Sunday, August 12, 2012

Our American Empire versus Morris Berman

This weekend I have watched several videos about Morris Berman (hat tip to Jesse’s CafĂ© for reminding me of Berman) who is a student of American culture and, some would say, one of its harsher critics.  For more about him see here and here.  Berman’s work is important because he summarizes much of the basic underlying narrative of American culture.  Unfortunately, he chooses to believe that the crass side of it is always dominant.  Thus, his description and forecast is a negative one.  I am in agreement with 90 percent of his analysis except I believe we a have a chance of a positive outcome.  We can have a better America and it doesn't have to be excessively crass and stupid.

Here are two versions of his recent lecture that he seems to be giving frequently called The Way We Live Today but is typically referred to as Why America Failed, the title of his most recent book.

Berman’s message is a dark one.  He sees America as a failed culture filled with hustlers; his recent book of that title is a “postmortem” on the culture.  The end is here.  When asked if it can be corrected he basically says no, that the process has to play out.  It is a fatalist view.  For individuals, you can leave, as he did by moving to Mexico, or you can live a “monastic” life by finding solace and community locally, live small and tough it out.  Another option, which he thinks is unlikely, is that the culture will be turned upside down and will improve.

Berman has taken a narrow view of the American character.  I think we are more than simple hustlers.  This hustler idea comes from historian McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner.  However, in that same book, McDougall also described the “betterment ethic” that is so deeply embedded in the American, and Western, psyche.  And, that ethic is not tied solely to crass materialism but also to spiritualism and empathy.

Berman decries the decline of empathy in America, and argues that more cruelty is coming.  He may be correct but that does not mean that empathy will never rebound.  To me, Berman is manifesting those qualities and ideas that mark the crisis era and that develop out of the unraveling era.  In the four part cycle of cultural high, awakening, unraveling, and crisis, ideas about the end of the world (end of culture) seem to be present.  In fact, as each part of the cycle turns there are often anticipations of the end of something.  In 1987 the band REM released a song called It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) that enjoyed much success.  The song was a manifestation of the end of the Fourth Awakening (1960-1990), a recognition that a phase of American culture was over, and a new one had begun.

Now, to be clear here, I do believe that our crisis gets much darker before it ends and I have written of this previously, here and here.  And when this crisis is over, there will be a new America.  I for one, think it will be a much stronger entity and much larger.  Our current “decline” is a step back before a leap forward.

One of the things I haven’t seen from the various Berman videos is any discussion about the life cycle of empires, the rise and fall of empires.  Certainly, Jared Diamond has gotten much attention along that line but when one argues that the US has failed I think that the empire discussion is relevant.  Berman is against American empire.

My understanding of empires comes from a little known political sciencist from UC Irvine, Rein Taagepera.  I met him when I was a student there, and sat through some of his lectures.  His main essays on empires are:

(1968), Growth curves of empires, General Systems 13, 171-175.
(1978), Size and duration of empires: Systematics of size, Social Science Research 7,108-127.
 (1978), Size and duration of empires: Growth-decline curves, 3000 to 600 BC, Social Science Research 7, 180-196.
(1979), Size and duration of empires: Growth-decline curves, 600 BC to 600 AD, Social Science History 3, 115-139.

All of which I read in the late 1970s - early 1980s but continue to use because of the strong cyclical empahisis.  I accept America as an empire and assume there will be a strong public desire to continue it.  The gist of Taagepera's argument is that successful empires that have long durations tend to develop slowly and expand geographically.  Empires that expand too fast will decline quickly (Nazi Germany, Alexander the Great).  Empires that grow slowly can continue for many centuries (Rome, Great Britain).

The American empire has been developing slowly since the 17th century, first as a child of Britain, then on its own.  This empire continued to grab up new territory until the early 20th century at which point it stopped geographically expanding (Alaska and Hawaii being the last states added to its list) and switched to an economic-military extractive posture.  Through most of the 20th century and into the 21st it has used its extensive military bases around the world to project its power and to extract resources from allies/partners/the third world without actually colonizing them.

For the American empire to continue it must periodically expand geographically, or break up.  And, since the first priority of any superpower is to remain one as long as possible, it is time for America to expand geographically.

This can come about in many ways:

1.      Peacefully; the US can announce to the world that it will accept more states.  Invite other nations to join the US.  I assume there will be takers.  This is a empathetic path.

2.      Violently; America conquers another nation and chooses to colonize (oil nations of Africa and South America come to mind). This is a non empathetic path.

3.      Out of economic necessity; a political Union of North America comprising Canada, US, and Mexico is created and politically merged. This offers the possibility of an empathetic union.

4.      WW3 with China creates the opportunity to incorporate Taiwan and or South Korea into the US empire.  This is a non-empathetic path.

The point here is that empires require LAND not pseudo colonies based on economic exploitation.  I hope for versions 1 or 3 or some combination.

The above options require a mindset, an ethos, that helps rationalize the expansion.  Can it be done with harmony and a sense of doing good and bettering society?  Or, must it be a surge of American crassness?

I think that 40 years of run amok crassness and materialism is about to end and the pendulum will swing the other way, toward increased empathy.  Americans could also be shamed into this position.

In one video Berman spoke about how he did not believe that Americans can change from their hustling ways.  We are not like the violent Norse who became the socialist Scandinavians.

Berman offers no options but I think there are plenty.  The Norse did change; and many Germans are embarrassed about their Nazi past; and the Japanese are no longer samurai warriors.  Americans can become Saints living peacefully on a hill if they chose to do it.  They can turn their world upside down (remember the song from Yorktown).