October 06, 2011

Dumping the American Dream

Many years ago, as an undergraduate at Cornell, I heard about a radical economics professor, Douglas Dowd, who stood out from the pack and gave riveting courses. As a mathematics major, I didn't have much time for social science classes, so I had to miss Prof. Dowd's teaching. I really regret it now, but lately I've been trying to make up for lost time by dipping into his work. The Twisted Dream, published in 1974, is a history of US capitalism since 1776, and makes for fascinating reading.

At one point Dowd quotes from Thorstein Veblen's The Instinct of Workmanship (1914), that "history records more frequent and more spectacular instances of the triumph of imbecile institutions over life and culture than of peoples who have by force of instinctive insight saved themselves alive out of a desperately precarious institutional situation." Dowd goes on to talk about the destruction of the environment and of our cities, stating that "growth for its own sake, production for its own sake, consumption for its own sake, and power for the sake of continuing the rest--these are the drives that have shaped the modern world, whose leader is presently the United States." He continues:

"We can seek to live at peace with our environment, our fellow human beings, and ourselves in an urban and industrial civilization. We can, but not so long as the bulk of Americans continue to strive for profit and power and an overflowing cornucopia of increasingly contrived and expensive consumer goods--strive as donkeys strive for carrots fixed beyond their noses. The bulk of Americans cannot achieve what they seek.

"The time has come to take thought, to reflect on what the genuine needs and pleasures of life are, and to find some symmetry between our ends and our means. Those ends are not mysterious, or the province of a few: we wish ourselves and our loved ones to eat well, to be comfortably clothed and housed, to learn through education what we can become and do, to be healthy, to enjoy nature and the works of the species; to have control over our lives. Each of these ends moves away from us, not closer, with each passing year. We count as our treasures what we have been socialized to count as treasures, though they defile our lives and make robots of us all: the automobile, the TV, the encapsulated suburban existence, the gleaming high buildings, the ever-rising GNP, 'fast' food. [To which we might add: the terrible legacy of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg--"heroes" only in an upside-down world.] We are moving in the wrong direction for human beings."

Nothing like telling it like it is, and I hope that the protesters on Wall St. and elsewhere understand that the proper goal for their movement is not extending the American Dream, but putting it to rest. As for Prof. Dowd: he is 92 years old and lives in Italy. Until very recently he was teaching classes on a p/t basis at the University of Modena. A truly great American figure, who understands what it means to live a genuine life.

(c)Morris Berman, 2011

October 02, 2011

Letter to the New Yorker

Dear DAA-ers,

Below is the full text of a letter I'm about to submit to the New Yorker. Given the size allotted to the letters they print, I'm going to have to reduce it by about 50%; but no reason not to post the pre-cut version here, for you to read. As follows:

As a long-time subscriber to the magazine, I found the issue of September 12, 2011 one of the funnier ones I’ve had the pleasure of reading. First we have an essay by Adam Gopnik, arguing that “declinist” theories of history are misguided and/or illusory (“Decline, Fall, Rinse, Repeat”); then one by George Packer documenting the very real decline of the United States (“Coming Apart”). Packer even writes that after 9/11, “the deeper problem lay in an ongoing decline that was greater than any single event or policy.” But besides taking pot-shots at easy targets such as Oswald Spengler, Niall Ferguson, and Thomas Friedman/Michael Mandelbaum, Gopnik’s argument strikes me as being rather glib and superficial, and mistaken on a number of key points. I’ll cite only three:

1. The notion that for “declinist” historians, the catastrophe never quite arrives. Gopnik makes no mention of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, or Jared Diamond’s Collapse, but it is common knowledge that history is a graveyard of empires and civilizations, and decline and fall is the one thing we can be absolutely sure of. “American exceptionalism” won’t save us now; in fact, it is a major factor in our decline.

2. This mistaken premise leads Gopnik to assert that the most recent declinist book (whatever it is) has to explain why the previous ones were wrong. But in fact, it’s not like predicting that the world will end on such-and-such a date; rather, being large-scale processes, declines take their time. They do not occur on, say, August 4, A.D. 476, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In addition, declinist works that discuss or focus on contemporary America include, inter alia, Andrew Hacker, The End of the American Era (1970); George Modelski, Long Cycles in World Politics (1987); and my own trilogy (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed), for which I certainly did not feel any need to “explain why the previous declinist books were wrong.” They weren’t wrong at all; rather, they can be seen to form one more-or-less continuous argument that the American empire is coming to a close.

3. Gopnik asserts that ever since Spengler, historians have found it necessary to show that the errors contributing to the decline were “part of some big, hitherto invisible pattern of decline.” The “saner” idea, he argues, is that “things were good and now they’re bad, and that they could get either better or worse, depending on what happens next.” Whose definition of sanity? The fact is that the writing of history does consist in finding or mapping patterns; and instead of citing Karl Popper’s “proof” against historicism, Gopnik would have done better to have referred to E.H. Carr’s What Is History?, which made short (and embarrassing) work of Popper’s so-called proof. Indeed, the belief that “history is just one damn thing after another” (Toynbee’s contemptuous characterization of his critics) is about as outworn as the Great Man theory of history.

There is, of course, the question of why Gopnik wants to refute declinism, which I suspect has a lot to do with not wanting to face the very real decline George Packer talks about. Garrison Keillor once wrote that “We have this ability in Lake Wobegon to look reality right in the eye and deny it.” Gopnik’s essay is a good example of this, it seems to me. The author may not be a declinist, but he is, quite clearly, a denialist.