November 16, 2010

The Age of Austerity

The current issue of Foreign Affairs has a remarkably sobering article by Roger Altman and Richard Haass entitled "American Profligacy and American Power" that seems, if I read it correctly, to spell out the death knell of the United States. In a word, they argue that we are going broke. The Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, they point out, will reduce federal revenue by more than $2 trillion over ten years. This, and federal spending, make the Bush years the period of "the largest fiscal erosion in American history." (Note that Haass, who is President of the Council on Foreign Relations, was Director of Policy Planning at the State Dept. during 2001-3.)

It gets worse. The deficit for fiscal year 2009 was $1.6 trillion, or nearly 12% of the GDP--the largest in US history. The federal debt itself went from 35% of the GDP in 2000 to 62% of it in 2010. Given the corresponding rise in interest rates on all this, annual interest expense will begin to dwarf all domestic discretionary spending (including infrastructure, education, energy, and agriculture), requiring the Treasury to borrow $5 trillion annually to finance it. "Yet the real outlook for deficits and debt," the authors write, "is much worse than these forecasts." In fact, "The post-2020 fiscal outlook is downright apocalyptic." The Congressional Budget Office projects that official federal debt, excluding government-sponsored enterprises, could hit 110% of the GDP by 2025 and 180% by 2035. China is the biggest lender--i.e. purchaser of our debt--but it and the other lenders "have no strategic reason to continue holding US dollars." True, they would suffer losses if the dollar fell, but the consequences would be much worse for us.

The authors make it clear that US politicians have the choice of being proactive, moving to soften this scary trajectory to the extent that they can; or--more likely--fail to act, in which case the solution to the US out of control will be "a solution imposed on the United States by global capital markets." Things may be calm today (really?! I had the opposite impression), write Altman and Haass, but this "will not last in the face of the United States' disastrous financial outlook." Whether we act or don't act, in other words, there is no escaping a rather bleak fate. The only issue is the intensity of that fate, its degree of darkness. Either we attempt to manage our "transition into austerity," they say, or we don't; but either way, austerity is our future. We can expect smaller budgets, with major cuts in entitlements and domestic discretionary spending. The American citizen is going to suffer, and in a major way.

So far, so good; I mean, bad. But in terms of really understanding what has happened to us, it's at this point that the authors drift into a kind of doublespeak, while being oblivious to it. Consider the following two paragraphs:

"A related cost of the United States' debt has even greater consequences [than the transition to austerity]: the diminished appeal of the American model of market-based capitalism. Foreign policy is carried out as much by a country's image as it is by its deeds. And the example of a thriving economy and high living standards based on such capitalism was a powerful instrument of American power, especially during the Cold War, when the American model was competing with Soviet-style communism around the world.

"Now, however, the competition comes from Chinese-style authoritarianism: a top-heavy political system married to a directed and hybrid form of capitalism. The recent stellar performance of China's economy in the midst of Western economic troubles has enhanced the appeal of its system. Reinforcing this trend is the reality that the US approach (one associated with a system of little oversight and regulation) is widely seen as risk-prone and discredited after the recent financial crisis. If the United States is unable to address its own debt crisis and a solution is forced on it, then the appeal of democracy and market-based capitalism will take a further blow."

So the authors don't say that there is something fundamentally wrong with our (sham) democracy and market-based capitalism, of which our massive debt crisis is the proof. No, it's rather, in their eyes, that the fact that we somehow went off the rails will tarnish the reputation of this way of life. There is a failure to grasp that the American Way of Life, the dream of unlimited economic expansion, was a mistake and an illusion even in the heyday of its supposed success. We were never living in reality; we thought infinity was a reasonable goal. We also defined the good life purely in terms of money, of material accumulation--really, our only value--and this, more than any other single factor (in my view), has brought us to our knees.

And of course, the American public went along with all this, and with the notion that any form of socialism was evil. Indeed, it regarded any kind of social safety net as equivalent to communism, and regarded those who saw it differently as traitors. But in fact, the Soviet Union was hardly the only alternative model around; and here the authors make their second big mistake, for they put Europe into the same category as the US, and say that America's fate will be Europe's as well. But as Steven Hill shows in his book Europe's Promise, the European socioeconomic model--Scandanavia's in particular--is very different from America's, and Europe is doing fairly well with it. Thus the authors fail to connect the disintegration of our way of life with the inherent nature of that way of life, and in classic Cold War style, seem to believe it's either us or the Reds. As I have said over and over again on this blog, it's not just the man in the street who has been brainwashed. The "best and the brightest," to borrow an old phrase from David Halberstam, don't really understand the base-line problem of America, what America finally is, and that it did itself in by being precisely what it is. ("Character is destiny"--Heraclitus) The brightest, in short, are not really very bright at all (an argument most recently made, for US foreign policy, at least, by Derek Leebaert in Magic and Mayhem).

In a word, the authors seem to be blaming Bush Jr. for our no-exit situation, when the groundwork was laid with James Madison ("Extend the sphere," he wrote, and "you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." In other words, any demands for a more equitable type of economy could be defused by opening up "surplus social space.") Historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) locates it nearly 200 years earlier, describing a commercial hustling mentality on the American continent that can be dated to the late sixteenth century. And because Altman and Haass have no understanding of the dialectical nature of history, and seem to believe that "a system of little oversight and regulation" is a recent phenomenon, they treat our current economic failure--basically, our collapse as a nation--not as the consequence of our very "success" (which turned around and bit us in the ass), but as something that descended accidentally, as it were--practically came out of nowhere; as a big surprise. The point, as the historian William Appleman Williams repeatedly made, is that we could have had a different type of nation, a social democratic one; but we made choices early on that precluded that, and then sit around wondering why we're screwed.

But we can nevertheless give credit where credit is due. Altman and Haass make no attempt to pull a rabbit out of a hat at the eleventh hour, as so many other pundits do; to paint a rosy picture that the American public is always so desperate to have. No: it's pretty obvious we are doomed, on a downhill slide of increasing suffering and austerity with only some type of "crisis management" possibly acting as a modifying influence. Nor do they think that we shall act in a proactive, intelligent way. Rather, circumstances will force us into austerity against our will, they suggest, and it will not be a pretty picture.

Kurt Vonnegut summed it up pretty well, some years ago: "There's a shit storm coming." Get out your umbrella.

88 Comments:

Blogger WCS Minor Circuit said...

Sometimes I wonder if certain writers know that the System (i.e. America's version of democracy, capitalism, etc.) in fact never worked, but are too afraid to confront it in their work lest their peers and/or audience disown them as fringe intellectuals. It seems they rather sugar coat the facts, choosing to write about the "derailed America" rather than about the America that's been a ticking time bomb since its inception centuries ago. These [Altman and Haass] are smart men who are talking about important things, and they are totally right about the US's future, though they get the "why" wrong.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

WCS-

Maybe smart is the new dumb; except that it's been around for quite a while now.

mb

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

I ran across this (you may need to go to a library to access it, I used JSTOR)

"The Trajectory of the United States in the World-System: A Quantitative Reflection"

Christopher Chase-Dunn, Andrew K. Jorgenson, Thomas E. Reifer, Shoon Lio

Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Summer, 2005), pp. 233-254

I hadn't thought of comparing the United States to 17c. Dutch hegemony, but it seems apt ... just replace "Tulipmania" with "Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis" and "South Africa" with "Afghanistan" (think corporate warmongering) there you go.

Jason

1:48 PM  
Blogger James said...

Yep. Massive structural flows are at root here, not just a couple of decisions made during a few recent mandate periods.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wonder if Socialism could work with an ethnically diverse country like the U.S. We are really a patchwork of tribes: whites, blacks, Jews, Latinos, etc. While there is some mixing in big cities, people don't feel much affinity to those outside their group. Hell, there isn't much feeling for those in your sub-group either. This is just a fact of life. I've lived in Denmark, and the Danes do feel a closeness to each other (ethnically as well as culturally) There is more a feeling of "we are all in this together, and the man with the widest shoulders (richest) carries the heaviest burden (taxes)for all. This is starting to fray with all the Muslim immigrants, etc. There is now more violent crime in Scandinavia, and people there are starting to get more suspicious of one another. Where have I heard this story before? Liberal media around the world keeps this hushed up. It doesn't fit into their multicultural dream. Human beings are just too tribal to want to share with those vastly different from themselves. Also these sub-groups have vastly different work ethics, value of education, maybe even inherent intellectual abilities, etc. Also, people came to America to get rich, not share their wealth. There is a big difference.

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Mr. D said...

Austerity -- I'm curious as to what that will mean in terms of the actual day-to-day felt experience of average American citizens. Presumably our standard of living and general comfort will degrade. And since our civilization has no more memory of it's own history, everything will feel meaningless, or groups of people will cast around and assign arbitrary meaning to events and conditions. MB, can you point to a time or place that might be comparable? How did people cope, to the extent that they could?

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Mark Sadler said...

Hello Dr. Berman,

I just ordered a copy of your latest essays on Amazon. It should arrive sometime within the next few days. I am looking forward to reading your views on the wonderful system we have here in the United States. There was just a little note of sarcasm in that last statement just in case anyone missed it;)

I actually just came back from LA (i live in Washington DC). The party that i'm a member of (The party for socialism and liberation) just had our annual conference and it was quite well attended. Here is a link to our website.
http://www.pslweb.org/site/PageServer?pagename=homepage

We are getting ready to do an update to the site so the link might change. I got involved after you posted one of their videos.

I'm actually breaking a little rule by adding a fourth paragraph but i had to respond to 'Anon'. Denmark is not a homogeneous country any more. Like a lot of european countries it has become very diverse over the last 20 or 30 years. Here is a group of Danish people singing 'Happy Birthday' to their local bus driver. Everyone looks pretty happy to me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgOyTNtsWyY

11:27 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon-

You make a lot of good pts, the last being your best, and one I deal w/at length in vol. 3 of my 'America' series (coming out next yr). C. Vann Woodward once remarked that on a world scale, the US is downright peculiar, and I have to agree. Rhetoric aside, it is about money, and it always was, going back 400 yrs. Not that money has not been important in Europe, Asia, etc., but the US is a uniquely one-dimensional society: it has only one value, and when you get down to it, money is not a value; so the US has never really had any values. The air is 'thin' here, is one thing I noticed when I first began traveling around Europe in 1969. Those other societies have layers, they are dense. We are breathtakingly shallow. To answer your question, social democracy requires complexity of thought and effort, nuance and finesse; these are things we are not esp. known for. In general, the whole Anglo-Saxon world view is based on private property and possessive individualism. Yes, you're right: the Brits colonized this continent to get rich, and the legacy is that if u stop any random American in the street today and ask them what would make their lives better, they would say--more money. (Of course, with 1 out of 5 unemployed, they are probably correct; but the response was the same prior to 2008.) Woodward said we were 'peculiar', but 'pathetic' might be closer to the mark.

Mr. D-

End of British empire, perhaps...When I first got to England in 1968, the hype was 'swinging Carnaby Street', but the reality was budget and trade deficits and balance of payments talk and devaluation of the pound talk etc.--and they've been in an economic stranglehold since that time. At least in the major cities, it's a dog-eat-dog world, with little to hope for; people just scrape along, and spend a lot of time in pubs. Another model is late Roman empire, with such widespread desperation that it was a literal hive of cults and ersatz religions...out of which, of course, Christianity was born. It was very much a time of magic and superstition (compare our belief in markets and globalization--zombie economics, as Paul Krugman once put it--even after unregulated capitalism crashed). And finally, it was lights out (monastic life excepted).

mb

11:29 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mark,

I don't remember posting a video for the party for socialism and liberation, but maybe I was asleep when I did it, who knows. Glad u had a gd time, in any case.

mb

11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

-Edward Abbey

10:07 AM  
Blogger ScuzzaMan said...

I am highly allergic to the notion that it couldn't have been any other way. Mr Berman notes correctly that "choices were made early on" but it is a big accountability loophole that follows immediately after: "that precluded that" (social democracy).

Real choices with real consequences are being made all day and every day. Today is no different, and nor was the day after the choices alluded to above were made. They could, and can, be unmade.

I agree, they very probably will not be, but I can see no value in perpetuating the notion that they cant be, unless it is to perpetuate the refusal to unmake the calamity that we have made by those choices.

One further point: many people have decried the blind mendacity of the ruling classes and wondered if perhaps they're deliberately de-powering the USA while stripping it of its wealth (the source of its power).

Yes, there has been, since the birth of the United States, an international acknowledgement on the part of certain power blocs that the mythology of managed utopia cannot succeed in the face of an obvious example of wealth and prosperity.

In other words, in order to make the "State as Father Figure" look more appealing, liberty must fail. It must forever be associated in the global monoculture with chaos, rampant criminality, ungoverned greed, callous indifference, and vicious penury.

That job is, as Altman and Haass note, all but completed.

11:44 AM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

Dr. Berman,

My wife and I just finished Super Sad True Love Story...simply amazing. We loved every moment of it, although in a chilling kind of way. I talk frequently with my parents about decline and my mother always reminds me not to get trapped in the negativity of it all. I usually "assure" her (i don't know if she feels any assurance) that this is not negative, just reality, and I'd much rather live in a outwardly bleak reality than a upbeat illusion (thanks to Chris Hedges for his wonderful explanation of that empire).

Anyway, I recently asked if you thought the economic decline would be more Roman or Soviet in speed, and you went with Roman. Do you still see it ending this way? If China stopped buying treasuries, or even slowed for that matter, wouldn't we monetize the debt via the central bank and it'd basically be over as we know it? Almost none of our politicians, as this article noted, have the guts or intelligence to take on these issues. Since our economy is so dependent on others' lending, won't that well dry up pretty quick once further signs of trouble arise?

rgk

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Ray said...

On a theoretical - not moral - level, it's really too bad that two nineteenth century Western states - The Confederacy and the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy - did not survive the ninety-year window of maximum danger from mass industrial West-on-West warfare 1860-1950. With both around today, we might have had an opportunity to evaluate more carefully the exact role of ethnic solidarity in the success of social democratic welfare states. On the one hand, the Confederacy and the hierarchical/agrarianist, anticommercial elements of its leadership elite might have achieved the strange and terrible vision of a paternalistic white folks' social democratic welfarism....wait! In essence that is how ALL European social democracies started following Bismarck's example, and they are becoming increasingly unstable as the assumption of ethnic homogeniety reluctantly fades from those cultures. On the other hand, Austria-Hungary was well on the way toward implementing its own version of a Bismarck-style paternalist welfare state (with socialist cooperation) but in this case benefitting about 13 to 14 subject nationalities. The experiment met an untimely end in 1918. Austria-Hungary seems to be the great missed opportunity of European-style social welfarism to prove that it could work with a multi-ethnic society from the get-go. We will never know how well it would have succeeded in the long term, but the whole world is poorer for its demise. It certainly did not have the materialist-individualistic capitalism obsession that the only other multiethnic state to have a go at social democracy (US in the period 1933-1974)had to contend with.

11:51 AM  
Anonymous paul said...

I've been following up on Sacvan Bercovitch's work on Puritan New England which really spells out an interesting framework for how and why things got the way they did. The fragmented and dimwitted American I think is no accident. (not when you consider them part of 'cult Americana')

Check out: "The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America"

There are a few preview pages on Amazon.com which outlines a pretty good picture of how we got such a confused, anxious, and disconnected population we see today. (I'm convinced it's always been like this and will continue to remain so). 'Dolts' maybe, though it might be more like people born and raised in a cult. The cult of "America". Keep people distracted, frightened, while at the same time united in a common purpose (through a veneer of religious piety and patriotic fervor) by giving them what they think they want. Cotton Mather was brilliant. A cult of self with the mission of converting the 'wilderness' (however broad you want to define that) into the Puritan concept of 'heaven'. (Private ownership) American exceptionalism at the core. Also the reason religion in America is not Christianity but Wall St. The boundless frontier as 'Manifest Destiny'. Madisonian democracy (Puritan saints) as rule by 'the wealth(y) of the nation'... contempt for the the poor as being nothing more than beggars. No social conscience beyond 'help yourself'...

Sound familiar?

Also interesting how 'dissent' is allowed to the extent that it is self regulating as it's true purpose only to 'stir the pot' of discontent which keeps people fighting amongst themselves. The whole idea of American vs unamerican as largely an ideological construct.

Why dems vs repubs = joke

Fascinating stuff and I'll be adding this one to my xmas list as well...

9:12 PM  
Blogger Neb said...

Anon, that cancer quote echoes a story of More from my past.

I loaned a friend money for his real estate biz in the early 2000s. He made money and was on his way to making more. Somewhere in all of this he bought a boat. Then a yacht. By this time he was well beyond the ground stage where he left me in the financial dust. The friendship was, then, still intact.

So here he is flush with make believe cash. He asks, "how much money do you think you need to say its enough?"
I said immediately, "I already make enough."
"You make enough? Can I have your future added earnings?" he replied.

I remember this conversation because I almost shocked myself with my response. Because I knew right then there was no There to get to. While I didn't tell him, I thought his yacht was grotesque and that's where part of my answer came from. But I did explain a little further that what I longed for was what I saw in Europe in the 80s. People in city, suburban, spaces, indoors, outdoors, hanging out with each other knowing each other till whenever hour. Being in the company of friends and spouse was quite good though I never saw that European life replicated here. I said this and the topic was changed quite suddenly.

But don't get me wrong; I am no saint, I am admittedly materialistic. But I discovered life is easier without the stuff he's fond of.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I suppose that the only way such an artical could have been published in Foreign Affairs is for the editor (Haas) to pen it. Afterall, Foreign Affairs is the white collar version of the School of the Americas that trains all kinds of right wing death squads. The publication is all about Empire,American Exceptionalism,and the need for full spectrum dominance (control of land, sea, and air including space).
And I suppose it is refreshing that they don't end on some "but America has been through tough times before and will surely overcome this time as well" crap.
Now we will see not only the upper 2% continue to get its tax breaks but at the same time deny 2 million people a continuation of unemployment insurance. Could that injustice wake the American people up to what joke this country has become? Of course not.
I like Hedges' piece this week. He makes the point that since socialism and communism are no longer a part of American political discourse, liberalism is the Right's punching bag. You say the air is thin in the USA, Dr. Berman. I smell the air too and it smells more like fascism everyday.
Hey, Palin will be your next President by the way. Lasy night her daughter defeated an extraordinary talent named Brandy on "Dancing with the Stars" TV show. Brandy received perfect scores from the 3 judge panel on Monday and yet was voted off by the public last night proving again the old political adage: The masses are asses.

9:28 PM  
Anonymous Mark Sadler said...

Hello,

I have a question. Could the US have been setup any differently at the beginning? I guess what i'm trying to think about, is could this country have been started without slavery and rapid expansionism. Or would the end result still have remained the same?

10:36 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thank u all for your interesting reflections; lots to think about. I often wonder whether the much-maligned Lamarck was entirely wrong, about the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Biologists say nothing gets across the Weissmann barrier (soma vs. germ plasm), but there was some talk, yrs ago, of 'neo-Lamarckian mimicry', whereby even if acquired characteristics cd not strictly be inherited, organisms cd sometimes behave as tho they cd. My reason for discussing all of this is the remarkable continuity of values, attitudes, and behavior of the American population for 400 yrs now. It's as though habits get so ingrained that Weissmann barrier or not, it sure as hell *looks* genetic. The single-minded vision of our countrymen (which is surely a type of stupidity) just goes on and on. Yes, I know it's in the environment, and permeates the air we breathe, and that is a more likely explanation; but it really does feel like all of this stuff is sewn into our DNA. Along with that, I honestly believe that anyone who thinks we are going to turn things around, alter the downward trajectory of the US, has rocks in his/her head. If the expression "the fix is in" ever had any validity, it's rt here and rt now.

As for the ref to Europe in the 1980s...I flashed back to a road trip I was making with my German publisher in 1983 from Munich down into Italy. Around 5 pm, one day, we pulled into Bologna, to discover that the central square was absolutely mobbed. We parked the car somewhere and walked into the crowd. National holiday? Major event? No...this was what the Bolognese do every day at 5. They go into the central square and drink and talk and kibitz with one another for 2 hrs, then go home and eat, then go back to work for a while. Since, given my skin coloration, I can pass for Italian in the North (once I hit Napoli it was a different story), strangers would come up to me and just start talking in Italian, thinking I was a paisan. And I thought: this is what life is supposed to be about. Can u imagine such a thing in Dallas, or Pittsburgh? What a collection of (genetically-based?) shitheads we are. We trash city centers, flee to suburban wastelands, and then instead of talking w/one another, contemplate our (now evaporated) stock portfolios, sure to keep us warm at night.

Read my new book, "A Gathering of Buffoons."

mb

10:43 PM  
Blogger Tuan said...

Just saw a commercial that perfectly illustrates the brain washing that occurs in ameria and the reasons for its eventual downfall. It was a jewelry commercial. It showed a father in the military somewhere across the world talking to his beautiful wife and 2 kids over the webcam. It conveyed much sentiment. The end of the commercial showed the wife opening her christmas present on the webcam. It was a beautiful necklace… everything is now wonderful and the whole family is happy. Now, lets translate the brainwashing into reality: The father is on the other side of the world risking his lower-middle class life for the economic elite to become richer and have more control over him and people like him. The entire family has been brainwashed to believe that when the father spends what little money he has on some shiny rocks everything becomes wonderful. Reality, however, is that the economic elite become wealthier because of the sale of rocks, they have more control over the masses because the father must work harder to buy more rocks and because he is killing muslims to expand their emplire. I think that corporate america has taken propaganda to new historic levels. God bless America.

5:37 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Tuan-

Thanks for the example. If the majority of Americans saw thru that kind of b.s., we'd obviously have a different country. Good luck, I say, to that.

mb

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Jason said...

Mr. Berman, I just ordered your book along with "The Whale and the Reactor" which was recommended to me by a nature/environmental author, has anyone on the blog read it?

10:14 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Here's another example:

Little boy is with his friend, who joyfully runs to greet his father arriving home in a brand-new car. First little boy slinks away in shame, hiding behind a hedge where his own father is waiting with some clunky piece-of-crap old car.

Luckily, little boy convinces his father to buy a new car just like his friend's dather did, and all is well with the world. Announcer intones warmly, "Just because you're a parent doesn't mean you have to be lame."

And there it is: Buy the latest to ensure complete happiness & fulfillment. (Until next year's model comes out.) Not only that, but adults should judge the world by a child's standards of what's lame or not, and live by those standards themselves.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Rob T. said...

The soldier in the advertisement should have given one of these to his wife, instead:

https://www.americanchia.com/flare/next?rtag=chiaobama&.

Notice, in particular, the Chia Statue of Liberty figure, with "it's" arm outstretched.

Presidential Chia figures are far more representative not only of lower-middle-class American taste (cf. Paul Fussell), but really, in many ways, representative of the essence of what this country is all about.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Jason-

In general, I like Langdon Winner's stuff. For the opposite argument, see David Noble. I shd add that my forthcoming bk (ie next yr) has a long chapter on technology as ideology in the US.

mb

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

Maestro, excellent post. I, too, have wondered how the values and ugliness of our culture can so effectively be passed on from generation to generation without there being an American genotype. I know that our culture rewards these behaviors; and from a behaviorist standpoint that should be enough. however, the process just seems too efficient to lack a genetic predilection for greed, anger, near-sociopathic lack of empathy, and of course stupidity. It certainly would be interesting to research this. Can you imagine applying for a grant with the aim of proving that there is a gene for American narcissism?

Your experience in Italy is so moving and so saddening because in
America, I have no chance of experiencing that in the public square. I have mentioned it here before, but I had a very similar experience abroad. We walked through the city square in the evening and countless people were outside cooking barbecue style, playing music, talking and drinking. I was with my brother-in-law, who is a native of the country, and he approached several people throughout our walk, embraced them, spoke like he knew them well, shared drinks, etc. I commented to him later that he knew so many people and he said he hadn't met them before. I inquired about the festive atomosphere, and asked what was the occasion, and he didn't understand the question. It was simply what they did on friday evenings.

It was so painful for me to realize that I had been deprived of that type of human interaction for my entire life. The poverty was obvious and everywhere, and the people could not have seemed any happier to me. I didn't see a cruel act.

If I were to travel to the public square of the city I live in, I would not only be afraid for my safety, but if I approached a stranger to simply visit, he would think I was insane and respond with hostility. I need to get out of here.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Joe-

The sooner the better. Meanwhile, you might wanna post these acronyms on your bathrm mirror, just as a spur to action:

MD (Moron Density)
DI (Dolt Index)
BRE (Buffoon-Rich Environment)
GOD (Get Outta Dodge)

Readers are encouraged to contribute their own...

3:00 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Joe--

The only place I've ever seen people gathering spontaneously in a public place is the food court at malls. Seriously. But I wouldn't recommend trying to talk to any of them (or hug them) as they have security forces there and explaining friendly behavior could prove difficult.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Today's letter to Cary Tennis at Salon, and his response to it, is quite apropos:

http://www.salon.com/life/since_you_asked/
2010/11/1/unhappy_having_everything/index.html

Part of Cary's response:

It is not hard to figure out why the life you have chosen does not make you happy. It was not designed to make you happy. It was designed to maximize your purchases.

Naturally, you are unhappy living a sterile, isolated, useless life in a big house full of nice things.


And:

... vast technologies of persuasion and manipulation have grown in sophistication and power. By now we have seen two whole generations succumb to the enticements of this system of consumption and destruction.

Now the system groans under its horrible burden.

Yet still it cranks out its feeble inducements: Come, live in eternal comfort and luxury. Come, be admired for the quality of your possessions. Come, be beautiful and carefree and happy. Come, eliminate pain. Eliminate worry. Come, sleep with us. Come snuggle up close. Come, be happy like a child. Come.

And still, hypnotized, we follow. We buy. We fill our boxes with boxes.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Ray said...

From the Tampa Bay Online:
A check of the calendar shows the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday is still a week away. But don't tell that to Lorie and Ryan Davenport of St. Petersburg. On Wednesday, they set up a large blue tent at the Best Buy store near the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, prepared to camp out for more than a week to snag some electronic deals. "We've been doing this for six years now and we got beat out by the same guy for the last six years," said Lorie Davenport. "So this year, we said, this might be our last year, it might be our last hurrah, so we're coming extra early if we have to because we are gonna be first if it kills us."

What is the matter with us? Last hurrah indeed. It will kill us.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Ray-

This is it in a nutshell. These folks are true Americans, and I mean that quite literally. They are exactly why the country is going down the toilet. I jus' hope they get some great electronic deals.

Sorry to be a broken record, but read my next bk.

mb

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Kinda reminds me of that George Carlin skit on finding a place for his 'stuff'.

"we got more places for stuff than we got stuff... we gotta go out and and get 'more stuff'".

Or how about the one on people "spending money they don't have buying things they don't need... maxing out their credit cards then spending the rest of their life paying off something that cost $12.50...not too f**king bright folks!"

George got that one right!

There are choices... like turning off the TV for one. Stop buying junk you don't need. Stop participating in a political system that doesn't have your best interests in mind. Stop investing in a corrupt financial system - deal in cash or tangible goods.
Stop cooperating wherever possible!... it may not win you friends (at least shopping buddies)but you'll feel better about yourself and your life will be less cluttered and chaotic. The thing is I think most people feel like they'd want to have more control over their lives but give in so soothe their low self worth and lack of willpower. Opting out isn't easy... I feel it's like living in that Beatles song "Nowhere Man". Considering the shafting we've been getting I can't understand why more people don't get it but it is 'Americans' we're talking about. Another thing is I may have to pay taxes for this sideshow but my personal imprint is shrinking more and more which as a result I really feel like I've got more than I could ever want. It just sucks to watch the unravelling and pain in people's lives but considering it's really all just one big freak show - in a way I've got to think I've got the best seat in the house. It beats prozac...or banging my head against a wall.

4:39 PM  
Anonymous Ray said...

If I may with a bit more on this, Morris,

On one level this is just this year’s version of the Over-The-Top Consumption Story with which the demos entertains itself around this time of year. In previous years the Story has featured people being crushed in the fight for discount DVD players, etc.
But if you actually check out the story in its original framing, so much more stands revealed………

http://www2.tbo.com/content/2010/nov/18/191455/st-pete-couple-in-line-a-week-early-for-black-frid/

Not just the further narrative details, but the entire context …the photos, the unbelievable reactions from readers in the comments section, the Idiocracy atmosphere hanging over it all…bestows a kind of fascinating meta-awfulness over this whole story (and the artifact of the story itself) that elevates it from the realm of the merely deplorable/representative to the Platonic - if this thing did not exist, it would have to be invented.

Instead of the usual gift cards to reward early birds, Best Buy apparently was so impressed that it gave these waiting people two free I-Pads as the "first family of Black Friday." Best Buy are now cast in the role of nurturing supporters of these heroes. (DID IT SET THE WHOLE THING UP AND FEED THE STORY TO THE PRESS? AM I NOW A TRANSMITTER OF BEST BUY’S MESSAGE?) In return, these people waiting in tents outside a big box store proceed to enact a kind of inverted, zombified black mass-type burlesque of human community."`We're so thankful for the iPads but we'll probably only go on them when were alone waiting….The whole purpose is to get caught up so we do things together like talk, play chess and play cards’…After getting an OK from Best Buy management, the Davenports are now in it for the long haul.”

And to your wishes for their shopping success, Morris…….

“Although the couple say they're not sure what they'll buy when the doors open at 5 a.m. next Friday, they are hoping for a good deal on a large-screen TV or perhaps something from the Apple Mac line. From past experience, they know some items will be in short supply, and that means they have to be on guard for people who stretch the rules….”

After this affirmination of their pioneering, can do spirit of initiative…..THEN the impacted mendacity, the Russian-Matrioshka-dolls-within-Matrioshka-dolls-finally-revealing-a- -grinning-Stalin-at-the-core squalor and dishonesty of the whole thing finally stands revealed……”Lest you think the Davenports plan to stay every hour of the day, there is a small detail you should know. They stay in line by day but another family spells them at night. The families are saving spots for a total of 10 people. It appears stretching the rules may be open to interpretation”

Creative cheating in the service of out of control consumption…but wait, it gets better!.....READ THE READERS’ COMMENTS! ………a black hole of absurdity doesn’t come close.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Ray,

I can just see that story appearing as the "amusing human interest story" at the end of the evening news. And most viewers probably would find it amusing, fun, or even (God help us) heartwarming, rather than pathetic & insane.

And we all know that Black Friday will include more than one trampling, fight, and almost certainly a death or two.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

Susan,

you made me laugh...sad, but true. Food courts ARE the only spontaneous gathering you'll find. But you should mind your business and eat quickly, as you expressed.

Oh, and black friday sales, apperently. Great example, Ray. "we're coming extra early if we have to because we are gonna be first if it kills us". Wow...if it KILLS us? Camping out for a week for a goddamn sale on electronics? True Americans, indeed.

Tim, from your citation: "come, be happy like a child"...that makes sense...Americans seem to seek perpetual adolescence (or pre-adolescence) and do a pretty good job attaining it. Not frolicking- and-being-carefree adolescence...I mean the bad parts of adolescence. Narcissism, lack of responsibility, lack of maturity, infatuation with others, aversion to any sort of commitment, instant gratification, and most of all, egocentrism.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Ray-

Thanks for yer contribution. I do ask that people try to keep it short, like maybe 1/2 page or so. So perhaps in future you cd compress just a bit--thanx.

Paul-

I try ramming my head against a wall at least once a day; it's really very relaxing. Also very effective for opening the nasal passages.

mb

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

... a kind of fascinating meta-awfulness ...

Ray, thanks so much for the link, the added background, and your witheringly precise analysis of the whole thing. "First family of Black Friday" -- what satirist could possibly top that!

Sometimes I think the only way to process all of this without going crazy is to approach it from an anthropological angle. The sight of a culture devouring itself as its collective IQ spirals downward is horrifying yet strangely compelling ... can people actually live like this, and think it's desirable?

The question is purely rhetorical, of course, and the answer painfully clear.

Paul,

I can't count the number of times I've heard people say they "need" Crap Product X, Y, or Z. Or that that can't live without it. Again, that calls into question their definition of living. I wonder if they could even explain it?

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Rob T. said...

"I try ramming my head against a wall at least once a day; it's really very relaxing."

Or you should buy a presidential chia figure. Seriously, folks, if you missed or ignored the link I posted earlier, you are really cheating yourselves--of a good laugh, at a minimum.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Interestingly, the CBS evening news began with the uproar about the TSA patdowns at airports. It seems the pervs are having a field day patting down 6 year olds and nuns under their habits. Still, the piece did say that the overwhelming majority supports this since as one interviewee said, it's necessary since "we are at war" signifying how unperturbed people are giving up their 4th admendment rights to unreasonable search and seizure (as if the morons know that there is a 4th admendment). I mean 700 million people fly every year in the US and not one terrorist has been found. Still, the perv patdowns continue which only shows how amazingly successful brainwashing is here with regard to terrorism.
So fellow writers, do not sound so amazed about consumer brainwashing. That was quite easy to accomplish given how near effortlessly it is for Americans to give up their basic civil rights.
The 2nd story tonight is NATO's decision to develop a weapon's shield against a first strike by Iran. Of course it's designed for NATO to launch a first strike against China. But see how many American morons can see through that ruse.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dan-

I've given it a lot of thought, and I think I know what the US needs to do rt away:

1. Forget TSA pat-downs; they should shake people violently to see if anything falls out. We're at war, after all.

2. And speaking of war, we should launch a first-strike against Iran and China simultaneously, and also San Francisco. Well, OK, perhaps just Berkeley.

mb

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Dear Morris,

You really made me laugh! As I said: American violence and emptiness = enterprise!

2:03 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Kel-

Note that the word 'entrepreneur' literally, in French, means someone who comes in and takes. Sound like anybody (or any nation) u know?

mb

ps: I do like the idea of Tea Party members walking around w/signs saying "Nuke Tehran and the East Bay" (except they'd misspell Tehran).

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Joe--

Glad I made you laugh--might as well!

Ray--

My favorite saying about consumerism is: we spend money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, to impress people we don't even like. The story of the Tampa Bay couple is a good example of how insane behavior is accepted (and rewarded) as normal. Just b/c junk is labeled "bargain" we gotta have it; if snack bars are labeled "health food" we believe it; if NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN declare themselves fearless outlets for news we look no further for the truth. I won't buy anything on sale anymore--nothing. I'm sad to admit my IQ drops by the same percentage of the discount and I can't be trusted with cash.

There's an interesting article in Der Speigel about the effects of two decades of deflation on Japan. The Land of the Setting Sun: Can Japan Reverse Its Long Decline? It addresses not only the economics but also the effects on the social fabric. It seems so strange to me why these smart people aren't questioning the system itself. Japanese farmers are some of the best in the world and the country has a long tradition of producing beautiful craft work but they peg their fortunes on industrialization. There's got to be a better way.

9:40 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

You accidentally stumbled across a topic that is dear to my heart, and which I am working on rt now (shd take me abt 10 yrs to publish), namely the tension between industrialization and the craft tradition. Consider Ruskin vs. the Industrial Revolution, Gandhi vs. Nehru, and Kyoto vs. Tokyo. There are, however, some Japanese who are speaking out against the commercial direction. See Norihiro Kato, "Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging," NYT, 21 Aug 2010 (go to nytimes.com).

Pls keep me posted on Spiegel articles; sad to say, I can't be aware of everything.

mb

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Friends,

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond... My local newspaper ran a photo of Stonehenge yesterday. The caption read: "Visitors to Stonehenge are dwarfed by the monument in England in 2007. The whole tourist area--surrounded by busy roads and with only one refreshment stand--will be modernized with the help of a grant from the British Heritage Lottery Foundation."

Imagine, only one refreshment stand? Let's hope the new version has a food court to gather around!

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

UBDA (United Brain Drain of America)

GFOD (Get the Fuck Outta Dodge)

BONZA (The opposite of MENSA -- an organization for people with inferior IQs = Bozos)

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

AI (Asshole Index - What do assholes do with their index finger?)

AI (Artificial Intelligence -- Bozos are panting after this one not realizing that they've already arrived)

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Answer: Poke their eye out
Question: What do assholes do with their index finger? That explains their cyclopian vision.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Kel-

I always try to apply the stick-in-the-eye test. E.g., "Can you imagine Sarah Palin being president?" Ans.: "Hey, it's better than a stick in the eye!" Readers are invited to suggest similar comparisons.

mb

6:50 PM  
Blogger Neb said...

Re: Dancin Palin

So the professionals speak and the masses vote and delight in the smack down of informed thought. These vote'm off the island shows seem to subscribe to a wider narrative of disrespecting scientists and intellectuals of various stripes that offers informed thought especially if counter to popular view. Except now its reached the game show format. What's even more fascinating is that the so called bright hold fast to their beliefs as MB shows in this Austerity article. I've personally experienced this myself with folks I once thought were bright, refusing the facts staring them down.

Despite Austerity, the wars must go on as well as these expensive TSA devices otherwise, you too will be saying, "...don't touch my junk.." But know this; they may not shake you violently, they've got something better - a probing cavity search. (Wonder what they're saying about that in La Journada, Der Spiegel, etc).

1:18 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Neb-

Richard Hofstadter kicked off the discussion of the American resentment of intelligence decades ago in "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." But what he didn't deal with was the snowjob of literally everybody, the very intelligent included. How the US managed to pull this off--well, politically speaking, it's no small accomplishment. I remember, just a few yrs ago, living in Wash DC and being a member of a so-called 'anti-empire salon', about 120 of us who got together once a month. This group, excepting yours truly, was the creme de la creme of writers, journalists, political wonks, etc.; the average IQ must have been around 150. And most of them loved Reagan, for example; thought that a guy who probably had Alzheimer's while in office, and was arranging his app'tment schedule based on his wife's astrologer, was a Great President. Any fundamental critiques of the US, by myself and 2-3 other misfits, were simply ignored, as tho someone had farted at a cocktail party.

I recall one clown came to give us a lecture about how the US had once been an 'empire of ideas' and had recently become an 'empire of force'. He was from the Brookings Institute, and spouting utter nonsense (meanwhile, I couldn't have gotten a job as a janitor at Brookings). He finished, and I pointed out (what Steven Kinzer of the NYT later documented in "Overthrow") that we were *always* an empire of force; that we raped Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Vietnam, etc. etc. The speaker got redder and redder, then announced that he had another lecture apptment and had to leave (it was by now nearly 10 pm). But I suspect the audience was more embarrassed by my remarks than his. Meanwhile, I recently read that he was just awarded an ambassadorial appointment--!! In the US, having a high IQ and being a dolt are hardly mutually exclusive, and being a smart dolt is certainly good for one's career. (Obama--who has also praised Ronald Reagan as a 'great president'--is just a chic version of Bush Jr., for example; or consider 'the best and the brightest' who gave us the crash of 2008, and then got app'ted as economic advisers!) And then we all sit around wondering why the country is going down the tubes. Duh!

mb

4:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I visit this site from time to time. I am very sympathetic to the prevailing diagnosis of the US as an empire in irreversible decline, one now manifesting advanced symptoms of social and political morbidity – examples of which, of course, are profuse enough to fill the pages of book after book, including those written by Berman, Hedges, and others. And I’m by no means averse to Berman’s more recent argument that there is something inevitable in the US’ trajectory, rooted in its deep history of settler colonialism, possessive individualism, and so on.

But there is one unstated premise that runs through many a thread here which I must take issue with: the notion that today, the pathologies of consumer capitalist culture are uniquely pronounced in the US. (Perhaps it is because I am living in a country, South Korea, where brand worship, cosmetic surgery, information technology fetishism, and insane overwork – if not everyday stupidity – are even more rampant than in the US.) Yes, consumer capitalist culture got its start in the US in the 1920’s and 1950’s, and the US was especially fertile terrain for its incubation, but it is a truly global phenomenon now. And its globality is not simply the consequence of the US exporting its “way of life” via Hollywood, Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, and so on. To subscribe to this idea would be to subscribe to the myth of the omnipotence of US power, a myth with less basis in reality with each passing day. Rather, the worldwide spread of moronic and shallow consumer culture is inherent in the logic of global capitalist development – and because its spread and penetration is not specifically tied to US dominance, is all the more ineradicable, unfortunately.

(It would be unfair of me to accuse Berman of missing this point altogether, because his comments on China as the US’ likely hegemonic successor – among other comments – betray an awareness of it. But the point tends to get lost in the cascade of fully justified US bashing.)

6:38 AM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

"These vote'm off the island shows seem to subscribe to a wider narrative of disrespecting scientists [...]"

Au contraire. A relatively small number of loud paleo-fundamentalist, Stegosaurus-saddling types aside, I think we can safely say that there has never been an age that genuflects to scientists and the religion of Scientism more than our own. To me, The Re-enchantment of the World remains a very timely and original work, much more so than any number of declinist tomes, including our esteemed host's.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

MB,

Isn't that what people like Roszak & others before him have called Scientism? It's the worship of technology & the power that comes from scientific knowledge, rather than a respect for the search for knowledge as a worthwhile end in itself. It's not enough to simply understand -- the point of Scientism is to control & wield power, with a priesthood of experts running the show. Often these don't tend to be scientists themselves, but those who control monetary access to research. Sound familiar?

Mind you, I'm grateful for many of the comforts that science & technology have brought. I wouldn't be alive today if not for scientific advances in medical science, for instance.

But there's more to life than simply being alive & being comfortable, or at least there ought to be. And more gadgets certainly can't be the answer to the meaning of life ... or can it? For many, it is!

I came across a saying yesterday that applies here, apparently from Laos: "The more you want to own, the more you will die."

11:06 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon-

This is an important point, and just looking around at countries such as S. Korea, China, and Japan, you wd seem to be rt. I even discuss the voracious consumerism of China in DAA, citing the bk "China Pop," for example, in defense of this argument; and I have often said, in public lectures, that China is merely the US in Mandarin (which I now believe is wrong; it's a very different type of capitalism, as pointed out in this particular post, and in my essays on China in "A Question of Values").

It's also the case that the issue of out-of-control consumerism is something all human beings are susceptible to, and here we get into the earlier stuff I did, on the basic fault and the Void, which is part of the human wiring system. Anything that is potentially addictive can be used to stuff that emptiness, and consumerism is an obvious candidate for this.

However, on closer look, the US is implicated in ways that other countries aren't, so let me elaborate on this. (I need to put this in a separate message, the system tells me.)

11:08 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Moving right along...

1. We were the first in this regard, going back to the late 16thC. This became known as the American Dream, and via what is called soft power, we were very adept at exporting it around the world. Despite the fact that Nokia is in Finland, for example, globalization is identified w/the US, and rightly so. Victoria de Grazia documents this 'overtaking' of Europe by America in her bk "Irresistible Empire," for example, and there are numerous other works on the phenomenon of US projecting soft power around the globe. (In the case of Europe, the Marshall Plan was a trojan horse for getting American-style capitalism in the door, and it was hugely successful.)

2. The universality of American (soft) power is thus no myth, even as it is losing the ability to fight wars, its economy is crashing, and it has lost political clout in a major way. The reason is--and this is part of the mad genius of America--at the very same time all of this is going on, its cultural influence is actually increasing. Guess what the
#1 TV show is in Gaza: "Friends"! Here is a people that loathes the US, and they sit around watching American sitcoms. The very countries that hate us walk around with iPods, cell phones, Big Macs, blue jeans, and Mickey Mouse T-shirts, and crowd into their cinemas to see Hollywood films. This is not about something inherent in their own cultures, or in globalization; it has more to do with American marketing genius.

3. Often, foreign susceptibility to the American Dream came about via American force (hard power). A dramatic example is provided by Japan. Commodore Perry showed up in 1853 with his ships, making it clear to the Japanese that remaining closed to US trade was not an option. This precipitated a crisis between 'nationalists' and 'internationalists' in Japan, leading to the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Westernization blew thru Japan like a hurricane--this is well documented--and of course was dramatically accelerated by the dropping of atomic bombs in 1945 and the Occupation under Gen. MacArthur. But starting from 1868, Japan was busy tearing out its own roots; no nation modernized/westernized in such a short time as this one country. Thus we have the Kyoto School of philosophy, led by Keiji Nishitani, who writes of the resulting Void in the Japanese soul, the huge crisis of identity represented by the difference between insanely commercial Tokyo and the Zen gardens of Kyoto. For most of the country now, the latter is just 'quaint', out of it; but the result is one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a workaholism that is off the charts, and a bunch of Nobel prize winners who either pack it in or say, This is not a country where you want to think abt things very much. The fact is that when Perry arrived, enuf Japanese politicians realized that unless Japan cd compete w/the US on its terms (technological-commercial), it would get colonized like much of the rest of Asia.

4. Even so, a case can be made that the pathologies of the consumer culture *are* uniquely pronounced in the US. Despite what de Grazia describes for Europe, for example, it does remain a different culture(s), one that still has non-commercial values. You see this in small towns in France, for example. This is even true for England. I remember a British friend visiting me some yrs ago, and commenting on the sheer # of TV sets that were omnipresent in America (my former dentist in DC had one in every single consulting rm in his office, and not a single magazine). There is an awareness of other ways of life, and even in Japan, even beyond Kyoto, you can find small craft shops with long traditions--even in the by-ways and alleys of Tokyo. These countries are not one-dimensional; the US is, I'm afraid.

Anyway, lots to think abt.

mb

11:08 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Nocti-

Well, obviously the creationists wd disagree, and last I checked only 1/3 of the American public put any credence in Darwin. In fact, polls show that 59% are sitting around waiting for Christ to return and rapture them up to heaven. And then consider the huge percentage who don't believe in global warming, even tho more than 99% of American scientists do. There is also a huge percentage who go to faith healers and holistic practitioners of various types, as opposed to regular MD's. I could go on in this vein, but the pt is that in many ways this is a very religious, anti-scientific society, with very little respect for rational/intellectual thought. Sometimes I feel that with the Reenchantment bk, I was a kind of pre-Reformation Loyola, arguing for the importance of participating consciousness (or tribal consciousness, as I called it in one essay I posted on this blog), as opposed to Enlightenment consciousness, when nearly the whole of the country was already wallowing in the former and hated the latter. As one commentator once remarked, the real problem with the Enlightenment is that it never even got tried.

Nevertheless, there wd seem to be an ambivalence re: science on the part of the American public, which equates science itself with applied science and technology. And man, they want their iPods and their cell phones like nobody's business. And of course, law courts and the gov't and the university system are all rational-scientific; they don't have too many shamans on staff, last time I checked. In a word, it's a complicated, and even schizophrenic, picture. When it comes to reason and scientific thinking, America would seem to have multiple personalities.

mb

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

Morris,

Thanks for the detailed reply. I'll try to do justice to it, while respecting your strictures on response length.

While I agree with your basic points about the irrationalist strain in American culture, I think it is equally obvious that traditional American values of vulgar materialism, "common sense", practicality, and antipathy to "mere" theory have offered science and technology a very welcome reception in this most developed of countries.

More anecdotally, I've noticed that Americans love to parrot little "scientific facts", especially those that relate to pragmatic and materialistic concerns, such as medical health, or how a carburetor works. Even a person who used to post here seemed to take inordinate pride in his ability to master the technology of toilet repair. I gathered he felt that his abilities conferred upon him a superiority to the "mere intellectuals" who also post here.

As you say, though, it is a very complex issue, and oversimplification from either side fails to do the matter justice. I still believe, however, that, among the American middle-classes and upward, and certainly throughout much of the world, science and the cult of "expertise" (really "specialization", but that is another matter) enjoys more prestige now than it ever has. For that reason Re-enchantment still has a lot to teach us--or, perhaps more precisely, to remind us.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

P.S. to my last post:

Perhaps where we can agree is that the chief features of the U.S. seem to embody the worst aspects of both participating and non-participating forms of consciousness?

5:17 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Nocti-

Gosh, this is loads o' fun!

1. Re: US consciousness: that's an interesting way of putting it; you cd be rt. Perhaps we cd call it "Buffoon Consciousness," leave it at that. Obviously the vulgar participating consciousness of just thinking whatever in front of you is real (a kind of adolescent consciousness, really) is hardly the part. consc. of, say, Wm Blake. But as for analytical, critical, non-part. consc.: I just don't think most Americans have it, understand it, or respect it (which is why they watch TV and basically, don't read).

2. Maybe ROW still has a lot to teach us; I'm just no longer sure of who the 'us' is, exactly. As for my buddy Dave, his skill, if I remember correctly, was toaster repair; with a hefty dollop of shamanism tossed in (somebody did, yrs ago, write a bk called The Technology of Ecstasy, so maybe that's what Dave had in mind, I dunno).

3. As for factoids, yes, what other country would publish a newspaper (USA Today) that prided itself on colored pie-charts of How many people brush their teeth with their left hand, etc.?

Apropos of participation vs. non-participation, there is a story of Yehudi Menuhin visiting a high schl in Japan yrs ago, and asking to have the students play for him. One teenage girl performed some short piece by Bach, I think it was, in a mechanically perfect way. Menuhin took the violin from her and said, "OK, now I'm going to play the same piece, and you tell me the difference." He played, and chords of emotion filled the room; it was no mechanical rendering. He looked over at the girl, and tears were streaming down her face. She got the pt.

mb

7:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MB,

Anon @ 6:38 AM here. Thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. A lot of what you wrote is implied in what I wrote, although we do have some differences regarding facts and the interpretation of those facts. Like I said, I concur that consumer capitalist culture evolved first in the US, and not by accident. And if you took me to say that the global diffusion of consumer capitalist culture has little to do with the exercise of US imperial power, in both its hard and soft forms, then I guess I did not express myself clearly, or comprehensively.

However, the unfolding advance of consumer capitalism worldwide has increasingly less and less to do with US predominance – and I would argue, increasingly less and less to do with the hegemonic appeal of the US culture industry. Your tales from Gaza are well-taken, but I’m not sure how representative they are anymore. The South Korean culture industry exports its domestically-made bubblegum pop-rap “music,” imbecilic game shows, ultra-materialistic soap operas, and boneheaded reality programs all throughout East and Southeast Asia, to great fanfare. As for plasma TV screens occupying commercial and public spaces, the US is light years – light years! – away from South Korea. Virtually every restaurant has a plasma TV in it. Almost every taxicab does. Many plazas do. Lobbies and elevators in many university buildings do. On the subway, a high percentage of twenty-somethings carry and watch mobile mini-televisions that haven’t even penetrated the US market yet, as far as I know. (Of course, all this is largely because South Korean economy and society are fully-owned subsidiaries of Samsung and Lucky-Goldstar. Japan is not as bad, and China is well behind because its GDP per capita is still much lower than that of South Korea, despite China’s hothouse growth.)

I’d like to expound more on this, but time is running shy…

7:41 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon-

I don't doubt what u say, but I still think (a) that the template is an American one, and (b) culturally, it still has a lot of clout. We wd have to go back to the Korean War and its aftermath, but the most powerful export the US had in those days was its values--commercial capitalist ones. It's impressive that Korea has managed to out-US the US, so to speak; but (and I may be wrong) the ghost in the machine is still an American one, I think. No denying the talent of Tokyo and Seoul, of course...they did take the ball and run w/it.

mb

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon from South Korea, one last time.

No furthering of the debate/discussion here, just two quick nods of appreciation.

1) Dark Ages America was a wonderful text for me to use when I taught a course in Japan on "Social Problems in the US." Standard critical and left-liberal English-language texts would always rage on about the terrible class/race/gender (blah blah blah) inequalities in the US, but made it sound as if equally distributed SUV's and Playstations in every domicile would amount to some kind of utopia. Your book provided the most incisive indictment of the entire culture, which most cautious academic sociologists are loath to do, except in the prescribed "identity politics" way. (Also part of the inanity of the US.) So I thank you for that.

2) The New Monastic Individual concept has been a key to helping me survive the absurdities and alienations of metropolitan capitalist South Korea, and will surely prove valuable should fate soon dictate that I end up in a similar locale elsewhere. So I thank you for that as well.

Absent any kind of inspirational and worthy mass movement, intellectual resources for mental and emotional coping are truly life-saving.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon-

Well, I dunno if we resolved anything in our discussion, but I thank u for the input on Korean Kultural Kraziness over electronic toys etc. It certainly is a world-infection by now, whether of US origins or not. Am glad DAA cd be of help. There are very few authors, I'm guessing, who try to grasp America as a whole, from the outside, as it were; the academic establishment is pretty timid. (I've met the identity-politics crowd; they think they are such rebels, when their 'heroic' analysis just covers up the real issues.) Wm Appleman Wms, for example, was called a communist by Arthur Schlesinger. I never even made it onto the radar screen, beyond a distorted and rabid review in the NYT. America is actually quite frightened of looking at itself...which oughta tell us something. NMI's are much stronger, truth be told.

mb

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I think a great many Americans are afraid to look in the mirror because they'd see no reflection.

8:03 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Dr. Berman and Nocti,

I doubt that Dave is still reading this blog, but I think he would get a kick out of being called a technician; I remember him as more in the line of the Kyoto craftsmen.

"Buffoon Consciousness": Is this more or less the same as the "Dullardism" you mentioned in the introduction to WG?

11:15 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Art-

Well, Dave is no Dullard, that's fer sure. Isn't he the author of "Zen and the Art of Toaster Repair"? I tell ya, that bk changed my life.

mb

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

Art,

Just by way of clarification: I wasn't calling the Great Enlightened Toaster Repairman a technician. I was merely indicating that his brand of inverse anti-intellectual snobbery lies very firmly within the American grain.

By the way, for those who need it, here's a link to an excellent guide to toaster repair:

http://home.howstuffworks.com/how-to-repair-small-appliances1.htm .

12:54 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Friends,

I don't know anything about toaster repair, but Chris Hedges sorta brings up the appropriate use of tools in his latest Truthdig article:

"We must take to the street. We must jam as many wrenches into the corporate system as we can. We must not make it easy for them. But we also must no longer live in self-delusion. This is a battle that will outlive us. And if we fight, even with this tragic vision, we will lead lives worth living and keep alive another way of being."

Sounds like a more activist version of the NMI.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear All:

Just a couple of comments:

1. See Steven Hill for a somewhat different p.o.v. regarding Japan. For example, the suicide stats are sad, but need context (i.e., it's already an established honor practice going back centuries, etc.). One question is what are the immediate and proximate causes of it (i.e., how much can be attributed to loneliness, and so on). In a culture as tightly bound as Japan was, the Putnam et al. studies need to be conjugated for East Asian culture (not saying that we'd nec. end up w/ a different conclusion, but the point is nuance, etc.).

2. Following on from above, I don't think we shld make fun of Dave. I don't see him as anti-intellectual in the sense Susan Jacoby, e.g., documents. Rather, he is "anti-intellectual" in the conceptually sophisticated Ch'an Buddhist and ancient Taoist sense. Chinese (and Indian) cultures have a strain that is radically opposed to the Jacoby-style American anti-intellectualism.

3. Rest in peace: Chalmers Johnson.

Regards,
Mike.

2:54 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Mike-

Well, I can't agree w/u abt Dave, but that's neither here nor there, ultimately. I'm sure he's a decent guy.

Art-

Actually, my NMI examples were pretty activist; Michael Moore was even one of them (this prior to his international fame, of course). I think some people read Twilight and thought I was saying, Head for the hills. Which may not be a bad idea, if the hills are Europe, Latin America, etc.; but the folks I named were/are certainly out there, doing their thing. Hedges actually sounds a lot like Mario Savio (as well as MB).

-MB

mb

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

One more word about science and contemporary Americans.

Keep in mind that my initial post addressed a very specific observation by another contributor; namely, that Americans have disrespect for scientists. I think, on the contrary, that Americans, being herd animals, defer almost by reflex to scientists, or to anyone they perceive as an "expert".

On the other hand, the herd defers until scientists question its deepest emotional values. When scientists challenge the ethos of the herd, such as primitive Xtianity, then that is when the herd bleats in protest. As Morris says, it is a complex, even schizoid, situation.


Note to Mike:

While I am sure that Dave would like to believe he fits into the category you ascribe to him, a perusal of his past posts supports my interpretation, I think. Anyway, he's of no importance, to me; he's merely a useful example of anti-intellectual snobbery, as I mentioned.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Nocti-

Yes, that was my take on Dave as well, but now I think it's time for all of us to leave the poor guy alone. I'm quite sure he meant well. As for respect for science, you'll undoubtedly get a kick out of "Idiot America," by Charles Pierce.

mb

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

I certainly didn't mean to encourage any piling on to poor Dave! As I mentioned, he just serves as a useful example.

Pierce's Idiot America definitely exposes one side of the coin, regarding the American attitude to science and expertise. Morris E. Chafetz's book The Tyranny of Experts addresses the other.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I haven't read the Chafetz bk, but the irony is that w/a title like that, it cd have been written (well, ghostwritten; she has fried rice in her head) by Sarah Palin! In other words, a rage vs. scientists and point-headed intellectuals who want to tell all of us ordinary folk what to do.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Morris-

You'd think that if the authors would've read McDougall's book they'd have eschewed recourse to double-speak. What kinda blinders do they have on?

Perhaps one reason that they espouse an accidental philosophy of history is that it exculpates one of them (Haas) for confronting his part (2001-2003 as an office holder) in bringing us to the fiscal brink that the authors now assess.

On the other hand, Marx would've lampooned an "accidental" philosophy of history although I'm not sure how to articulate the content of that imagined squib.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Kel-

This is why I say that in the US, even the smart are dumb. Sure, these guys cd have read McDougall, as well as Wm A. Wms, Walter Hixson, Sacvan Bercovitch, et al., but--they probably aren't even aware that such authors exist, and they don't wanna hear that message anyway. Everything's recent, everything's an accidental turn in the road, Vietnam was just an 'unfortunate mistake', the budget crisis is due to Bush Jr. (they don't even go back to Reagan!), and on and on. A European donkey is smarter than the 'best and brightest' in America. Nor are the authors bullshitting us or themselves, imo; no, they really believe that sorta thing--they think that what they are doing is deep, goes to the heart of the matter. I can't say it often enuf: THERE IS NO HOPE. If you haven't the foggiest idea of how we wound up in this mess, how could we possibly get out of it? At least, they say that we won't. Let's be grateful for that.

Opposed to the 'recent-events' theory or the 'accidental-history' theory is the structural analysis of who and what we are as a nation. I go into this in some detail in "A Question of Values," the essay entitled "The Structuralists." Since I'm guessing that many people reading this blog don't plan to buy the bk (shame on you guys, an' w/Xmas coming and all!), I'll probably post that essay here w/in the next couple of weeks. It provides, I believe, a different way of looking at the national dilemma from the Altman-Haass variety. But their foolishness gets published in "Foreign Affairs," after all, and anything seriously different is relegated to the shadows--blogs read by 42 people, books self-published on Amazon, etc.

Hopefully, a Palin presidency will change all that. Sarah, I love you! Have my children! We'll go moose-hunting together!

mb

8:49 PM  
Anonymous Jason said...

I do not know if this is the correct place for this story, yet here you go. AQoV arrived in the mail today and I brought it to the bar after work. I sat there reading, but since this is one of my usual haunts, this was nothing unusual. However … my bar stool neighbor was unusual. He was an Irish ex-pat and needless to say, he had an affinity towards the arguments of AQoV and applied them quite easily to the so-called Celtic Tiger which is as endangered as the real thing. Sorry MB, but he had never heard of you, but a quick (and not very good … sorry but by then I had 3 beers) summary of a Monastic Individual and Dark Age America brought him over to, some sort of side. Which one, I’m not sure, but he promised to look at the blog and the books. The real question we contemplated was; who is really worse off. I said I would love to move to Ireland, but I work in the Museum/Library field and it is hard enough to get a job in that in the US, let alone Ireland where I would need a work visa of some sort.. He said he came to the US for his lady, but that didn’t negate the Irish financial difficulties that made it much easier to think the US was a better place. Alas, at his point he was ready to leave, but good news, AQoV now has an international influence, Minneapolis AND St. Paul as well as the US AND Ireland.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Morris-

Suitably shamed. Will certainly get QAV (damn my Catholic penchant for confession!)

Are you inscribing yr xmas copy of QAV for Sarah, from the guy who wants to have your children and hunt moose with you...?

9:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Kel-

QOV. Sarah, baby, let's copulate in the snow together, amongst the meese, I can't live w/o/u, etc etc.

Jason-

It's seems unbelievable that this gent never heard of me, given my 3-hr nightly TV show etc. Well, what can ya do. Let's hope he buys the book, infects Eire w/it. Top o' the mornin' to ye, etc.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Yes. I belatedly caught my mistake. I'm sorry. (I will free associate QAV and get to the bottom of this. Freud's joke books will set the rules of this game. Already, does A = anus?)

Q.E.D. QOV

9:59 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

On an earlier point, runaway consumerism was recognized early on by the stoics, who called it "hedonistic adaptation"...you want more and more, and when you get it, it gets old. Doesn't this describe us now? Everything from cars to houses to wives. The stoics understood this part of human nature and suggested ways to counteract it. Marcus Aurelius felt that one needed very little to be truly at peace. Imagine selling that idea to the average American. One of the biggest threats to tranquility is desire, stated Marcus. Men become slaves to desire and in seeking to fulfill it, tranquility is gone.

Somehow I think Americans are much worse than just "un-tranquil" seekers of what they desire. There is more negative emotion involved than that...obviously, all pleasure and happiness is thought to lie outside of the person, and when the average american gets all the junk and still is not pleased or happy, he is a very angry person.

There is just such an emptiness about my countrymen. "zombies" definitely comes to mind. No pleasure, no enlightenment, no attempt at reaching a higher moral and ethical place. If one reads Kohlberg, it would seem that about 0% of Americans even reach the postconventional level of morality.

Better relationships and human interactions are what I loved most when I was outside America. That, perhaps, is what fills the void.

10:33 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

"[A] rage vs. scientists and point-headed intellectuals who want to tell all of us ordinary folk what to do".

Chafetz is an M.D., which places him about as far from the Palin spectrum of intellect as it is possible to be.

Chafetz simply critiques the tendency of Americans to venerate mindlessly the country's so-called "experts". He is especially critical of those who exploit this tendency by exceeding the limits of their specializations, in an endeavor to influence public policy.

7:58 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Nocti-

Sorry, I meant to say pointy-headed intellectuals.

Sure, I believe you; I haven't read the bk. I'm just saying that given the title, it cd ostensibly fall into the anti-intellectual category of the political rt, of hatred/suspicion of experts who claim they know better than us ordinary folk, and want to organize things based on their superior knowledge. Sarah cd easily agree w/an argument that wants to curb the experts, it seems to me.

Politics makes strange bedfellows. A couple of yrs ago there was that trial in Pennsylvania, a school district that wanted to make the teaching of creationist 'science' a requirement. It got sued, and brought in, as part of its defense, postmodern/deconstructionist types who presented the case that everything was a text, and that one text was as good as any other. I.e., there is no truth, only 'stories'. This flopped as a strategy, but here we have a case of anti-Darwinian rednecks reaching out to pointy-headed intellectuals for support!

mb

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

Morris,

I just wanted to clarify, re. Chafetz, but your point about pointy-headed intellectuals is well taken. "Murricans" have a very ambivalent-- as you say, perhaps even schizoid--attitude toward science, expertise, etc.

The anecdote about the Post-Structuralists' being enlisted to ride to the rescue of Creationism is hilarious. I don't suppose it occurred to the Creationists that the proposition "everything is just a text" applies to their views, as well.

As for the Post-Structuralists, we all know that, from their perspective, there is at least one type of text that isn't just a text: The text they happen to be writing.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Yeah, this is why I get such a kick out of the postmodernists. They do have a subtext, after all: it's, "Read our texts."

2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

En España, particularmente en Andalucía, el socialismo y la transición democrática solo han sido una perpetuación del viejo sistema latifundista, con el señor propietario de las tierras, y los jornaleros.
Franco dejó todo atado y bien atado. Por eso, en España mucha gente desconfía de los valores del socialismo.
¿Democracia? Tampoco en España hemos tenido verdadera democracia, sólo oligarquía camuflada por una "partitocracia", es decir: la opción del bipartidismo, donde es indiferente votar a un partido u otro.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Anon-

It's not that socialism in particular is the solution, but rather that *reality* is the solution. You know what Lenin said about politics: It's the study of who does what to whom. The particular label of the political formation--socialism, bipartisanism, anarchism, etc.--is neither here nor there. What counts are the actual social and economic relations. Obviously, the devil can quote scripture, and fascists can talk of love.

In any case, I was sorry to learn of the situation in Andalucia. The legacy of Franco has indeed been a tragic one.

mb

9:01 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Hailey brought home a magazine the other day on crafts and I wanted to pass on the information to you in case you hadn't heard of it. The magazine is Hand/Eye and their web site is www.handeyemagazine.com. She's interested in working with indigenous people to help them protect their integrity and bring their crafts to market so they can survive financially. There's a craft fair in central Mexico we might go to in April if she's in the country.

10:09 AM  

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