I got the idea for the book from a number of sources, but one of the most important was a book published in 2004 called Freedom Just Around the Corner
, by Walter McDougall at the University of Pennsylvania, a Pulitzer-prize winning historian. I want to stress that McDougall is a very centrist historian; there is nothing left-wing or radical about him. But in the opening pages of his book he says that what most characterizes America, going back to the late sixteenth century, is hustling. American English, he writes, has more than 200 synonyms or related expressions for the word ‘swindle’, and when two Americans get together, they pretty much understand that the other person has an angle or agenda and is trying to promote it. We are a people relentlessly on the make, we are all encouraged to develop “The Brand Called You” and market it. It reminds me of the comment made by the comedian Chris Rock, that in the United States, when you are talking to someone, you are actually talking to that person’s agent.
We Americans don’t realize what a strange, and indeed perverse, way that is to live, because if everyone is doing it, it just becomes normal. But Paul Fussell, in his book Class
, has a very low opinion of this supposedly normal way of life: “In the United States,” he writes, “everything is coated with a fine layer of fraud.” I suspect most Americans experience the truth of this on some level, and I think it is why we always rate low on international happiness polls: very few of our relationships are real, including our relationship to our work, and consequently our lives are pretty empty. We attempt to fill that emptiness with cars and houses and computers and cell phones, but in the end, it doesn’t work. As one of Jimmy Carter’s advisers put it thirty-two years ago, the United States is “a goal-oriented society without goals.” “More” is not a real goal; it has no actual content.
The original title of Why America Failed
was Capitalism and Its Discontents
. My publisher was afraid that that sounded too academic, and insisted that I change it. Probably a good decision; I don’t know. But Capitalism and Its Discontents
does reflect the thesis of the book: that although there was always an alternative tradition to hustling, with one exception America never took it, and instead it marginalized those alternative voices. The exception was the antebellum South, which raises real questions as to the origins of the Civil War, which were not about slavery as a moral issue, no matter how much we like to believe that. As Robin Blackburn writes in his recent book, The American Crucible
, antislavery ideas were far more about notions of progress than about ones of racial equality. That’s a whole other discussion, however, and I have it out in the book for an entire chapter. But the main narrative here is that from Captain John Smith and the Puritan divines through Thoreau and Emerson to Lewis Mumford and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith to Jimmy Carter, this tradition of capitalism’s discontents never really stood a chance. It never amounted to anything more than spiritual exhortation. Reaganomics, also known as greedism, was not born in 1981; more like 1584. The result is that for more than four centuries now, America has had one value system, and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive. Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich. This ideology is so powerful that we don’t even recognize it as such, but it certainly explains why socialism was never able to gain a foothold here, because the ideology has been the same for rich and poor alike. As John Steinbeck once remarked, in the United States the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In any event, the result is that we are now in a situation of irreversible collapse. The American Dream, as the Cornell University economist Douglas Dowd wrote thirty-seven years ago, is a twisted one. We treat Bill Gates as some kind of national hero, when the truth is that any system that allows one person to accumulate $50 billion, and leaves fully two-thirds of its population living from paycheck to paycheck (assuming they can even find a job, that is), is pretty sick. As many of us know—from Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times
to the Wall Street protesters—in terms of collective wealth, the top 1% of the country owns more than the bottom 90%. This puts our social inequality on a par with Egypt and Tunisia, in fact.
Consider the fact that every religion, and every civilization worth the name, has as its central tenet the notion that you are, in fact, your brother’s keeper. But the ‘hustling’ way of life enshrines just the opposite: it says that virtue consists of personal success in an opportunistic environment, and that if you can screw the other guy on your way to the top, more power to you. “Looking Out for No. 1” is what really needs to be on the American dollar. As Jerry Seinfeld’s lawyer in the final episode of the series tells him: “You don’t have to help anybody
; that’s what this country’s all about!” The problem is that if you live by the dollar, you die by the dollar. That’s what’s going on today. In fact, perhaps the really interesting question is not why we are finally coming apart, which strikes me as being more or less obvious, but how we managed to stay together for this long. Competition cannot be the glue of a society, because by definition it’s an anti-glue. Thus David Ehrenfeld, Professor of Biology at Rutgers University, recently wrote: “A society driven mainly by selfish individualism has all the potential for sustainability of a collection of angry scorpions in a bottle.” There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed
in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless the Wall Street protests manage to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They eat each other” is going to be our epitaph.
Of course, establishment journals and newspapers are going to dismiss Why America Failed
as the ravings of the political Left—that is, if they review it at all. Of this, I have no doubt. Unless you are singing in the chorus, you don’t get to have a voice. As Chris Hedges repeatedly points out, any writer who formulates a critique of the U.S. that goes down to the root of things has been marginalized, rendered invisible. America has very little appetite for self-examination, as our history shows. But there is a good bit of irony in this, in that the line of analysis developed in my book has some very distinguished antecedents, going back way before myself or Walter McDougall. These antecedents include three of the greatest historians that America has ever produced.
1. Richard Hofstadter, in The American Political Tradition
(1948), says that America was a market-oriented society from birth; that it never went through a feudal period; and the result is that all of the country has been united in a common political tradition that is fiercely capitalistic and individualistic. “A democracy of cupidity,” he once called the United States. “America doesn’t have
ideologies,” he added; “rather, it is
2. C. Vann Woodward, in an essay written in 1953, refers to the “Ironic contrast between our noble purposes and our sordid results,” and adds that “economic systems, whatever their age, their respectability, or their apparent stability, are transitory, and any nation which elects to stand or fall upon one ephemeral institution has already determined its fate.” A seer, that guy was.
3. Finally, Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America
(1955), developed the idea of “fragment societies,” ones that, like ours, were founded on fragments of European ones, and that take their entire character from just one of those fragments. America, he says, was founded by the English middle class, a class that possessed a liberal, aggressive, entrepreneurial spirit characteristic of the bourgeoisie. America, he writes, was never really a society at all, but merely the embodiment of a fragment, a specific interest that from the first dominated the entire political landscape. What does the phrase “We the People” really mean, after all? The business of America, as Calvin Coolidge famously put it, is business. In the history of the United States, nothing much else has really mattered, and that chicken is finally coming home to roost. If you can’t or won’t understand your own narrative, then there is no way you can change it, and there exists very little evidence today that we will. “Americans never learn,” wrote Gore Vidal a few decades ago; “it’s part of our charm.”
©Morris Berman, 2011