August 29, 2013

Preface to the Chinese Edition of "Why America Failed"

Dear Wafers:

The Mandarin translation of Why America Failedis scheduled to appear in September, and the editors asked me to write a preface for it, directed to the Chinese reader. I take the liberty of posting it a little ahead of schedule, as a Wafer-bonus. Hope you enjoy it, and sheh-sheh(= thank you in Mandarin), as always, for your support.

-M. Belman

Let me begin by expressing my gratitude to the Beijing World Publishing Corporation for undertaking a translation of my book Why America Failed. I am honored by their decision to do this, and excited at the prospect of the book having a Chinese readership. Because this readership is not likely to be acquainted with my work, let me begin by providing a context for this book.

Why America Failedis the third in a trilogy on the decline of the American empire. It was a fairly radical notion when the first volume of the series appeared in the year 2000, under the title The Twilight of American Culture. First, because most Americans did not think of their country in terms of an empire, and second because they certainly didn’t think of it as disintegrating, as being in a state of decline. The comparison I made in that book was between contemporary America and Rome in the late empire period, and I showed that in structural terms, the factors that led to the collapse of Rome were present in full force in the United States. Furthermore, that these dangers were being ignored—in particular, the growing gap between rich and poor. It was for these reasons, I argued, that the American experiment had entered its “twilight” phase, and was now coming to an end.

The second volume in the series, Dark Ages America(2006), focused on U.S. foreign policy, showing how self-destructive it was. In the grip of a strange ideology that America had to be the model for the rest of the world, and that all other nations needed to get on board the ship of laissez-faire corporate-consumer capitalism, the United States had imposed its will on nation after nation, frequently overthrowing democratically elected governments in the pursuit of its commercial and geopolitical goals. What usually followed in the wake of this destabilizing activity was the installation of governments favorable to American capitalism, typically accompanied by the torture and massacre of huge numbers of the population (Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, etc.). The result, to use the jargon of the CIA, was “blowback,” the retaliation of those who had been oppressed by this barbarism (to call it by its true name). American meddling in the Middle East, I showed, had been going on for some time, and it was hardly surprising that rage against the U.S. boiled over into the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001. What then ensued was a “war on terror” that by definition has no end point, is bleeding the nation dry, and has led to the elimination of most of the civil liberties once guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the Constitution). Self-destruction indeed.

The Twilight of American Cultureand Dark Ages Americawere, in effect, waving a red flag, attempting to tell the U.S. government, and the American people, “Stop doing these things; you are driving the country into a ditch.” Of course, I never expected that anyone would pay any attention to me; I’m not a prominent intellectual figure in the United States, and even if I were, it still wouldn’t make any difference. Because the historical record is that no empire that has entered its twilight phase stops, takes stock of what it is doing, and then attempts to reverse its trajectory. In fact, as students of civilization such as Arnold Toynbee have pointed out, the usual pattern is to pursue precisely those actions that will accelerate the decline. In this regard, the U.S. has been depressingly exemplary.

And so, understanding that it was basically Game Over for the United States, in 2011 I published the third and final volume in the series, Why America Failed. This was not intended to be a red flag or warning of any sort; as far as I could see, things were too far gone for that. WAF, as I like to call it, is just a post mortem; an analysis of why the U.S. sank into the ocean, and was swallowed up by the waves. In a nutshell, it’s this: from the very beginning, America had only one idea, or ideology, and that was hustling—making money (what Thomas Jefferson euphemistically called “the pursuit of happiness”). There was, however, an alternative tradition (the original title of the book was Capitalism and Its Discontents), represented by the Puritan divines, various religious-utopian communities, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Vance Packard, Lewis Mumford, and even President Jimmy Carter, to name but a few. But this tradition was ignored or marginalized; it was regarded at best as “quaint.” The problem is that hustling cannot serve as a social glue for a society; in fact, given its essentially competitive nature, it really is a type of anti-glue.

American society is based on the notion of every man for himself; things such as friendship, trust, community, craft, meaningful work, family, and spirituality—the key components of a meaningful life, which the alternative tradition kept arguing for—were (and are) pushed aside in the scramble for money, status, and fame. The result is that nearly one out of five Americans is now unemployed, 1% of the population owns something like 40% of the wealth, and for the most part, our citizens are lonely and miserable (though they try to put a brave face on it). The national debt is now up to $17 trillion and growing by the day. Libraries and bookstores and newspapers close, cities go bankrupt, the educational system is in a shambles, as is the infrastructure, and the prison system incarcerates 25% of the prison population of the entire world. We are less than 5% of the world’s population, yet consume something like 66% of its anti-depressant drugs, and our divorce rates and homicide rates are through the roof. And this is the model, the paradigm, that a dying nation is seeking to export to the rest of the world.

Amazingly enough, the People’s Republic of China have bought into this! Instead of taking a close look at America and saying, “Thanks but no thanks,” the Chinese decided that imitating the United States was what it was all about. And so they couldn’t produce enough cars, enough TV sets, enough washing machines. They couldn’t industrialize fast enough (and to hell with the environmental costs of that). “To get rich is glorious!” (致富光荣—zhìfù guāngróng) Deng Xiaoping supposedly proclaimed in 1978, and the Chinese fell over themselves in the pursuit of wealth. In effect, the country became the United States in Mandarin. As in the U.S., the upper 1% holds roughly 40% of the nation’s wealth. Extreme luxury, especially in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, contrasts with abject poverty, particularly in rural areas, and those urban areas are ringed with slums that get larger with each passing month. A dinner at a fancy restaurant in Beijing can cost the equivalent of a peasant’s six-month income. Meanwhile, you’ve got Foxconn assembly line workers jumping out of windows to their deaths, and the company responding by installing netting outside the windows. The famous “trickle down” theory of Ronald Reagan, which was little more than a scam in the United States, has not panned out in China either: very little has trickled down; and a survey conducted in 2010 by a Beijing research group showed a serious drop in life satisfaction and confidence in China’s future from previous years.

Of course, much of the aggressive pursuit of wealth has been reactive on China’s part. After three decades of Maoism and enforced equality, opening the doors to individual ambition must have come as a great relief. What good is equality, after all, if everyone is going to be poor? But the reaction proved to be an over-reaction, 35 years after Deng’s proclamation: what good is inequality, if the country is run by a tiny, super-rich elite and the rest of the nation has to scramble to survive—as is the case in the United States? What we need to see is that growth, in and of itself, is not only not the answer; it is in fact the problem. Since virtually nothing trickles down, financial growth only leads to greater social inequality; and in addition, the strain on the environment is enormous: we do not live in a world of infinite resources, much as we like to pretend that the gravy train will go on forever. But above all, one cannot create a viable society out of hustling and competition: this is the great lesson that the failure of the United States has to teach the rest of the world, China included. There has to be a deeper set of values than wealth and accumulation, and it has to be spiritually real. The Chinese government likes to talk in terms of wa, harmony—it’s a word that keeps popping up in practically every official document—but what does it really mean? On what is it actually based? If it amounts to nothing more than a kind of obligatory Confucian conformism, so that no dissent or individual choice is tolerated, then this is a very empty kind of spirituality.

At the present moment we live in a multi-polar world, with the United States, China, and the European Union sharing the balance of power. It may not stay that way. Internal U.S. government memos have predicted that China will probably edge out America militarily in the Pacific Rim by 2025; and economically, we are on very shaky ground, with China holding $1.3 trillion in U.S. Treasury notes and bonds. So it wouldn’t surprise me if China will outstrip the U.S. in terms of military and economic strength within my lifetime. But to what end? As an analysis and post mortem of what went wrong with America, Why America Failed could conceivably be a wake-up call for the PRC.

Why do I have the feeling that’s not going to happen?

©Morris Berman, 2013

August 27, 2013

The Huff Post Review of SSIG

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