'There is simply no exception to the rule that all civilisations
eventually fall apart, and we (America) are not going to beat
the odds, or outflank the historical record.' (Berman)
It is often the case that at the very moment a civilisation
reaches its apogee the downturn of the great cycle of history
begins. Triumphal ascendancy is followed by a period of decline
leading to eventual extinction. This is the present conjuncture
which American, and, by implication, western civilisation
has now reached. So argues Morris Berman, an American academic,
in this well-written and thought-provoking new book.
At the outset let us not dismiss American culture out of
hand. Europeans do have an unfortunate penchant for ridiculing
anything American with a claim to culture or cultural innovation;
but a civilisation which has produced Saul Bellow, Noam Chomsky,
John Coltrane, Aaron Copeland, Miles Davis, John Ford, Billie
Holliday, Arthur Miller, C Wright Mills, Eugene O'Neill, Jackson
Pollack, Martin Scorcese, the Smithsonian Institute, John
Updike and Tennessee Williams can't be all bad. Nevertheless
Roman civilisation - with which Berman compares the United
States - had its Cicero, Juvenal and Seneca. The worthy, and
therefore lasting, cultural artefacts of any society simply
outlast the society itself.
At present the United States is the sole global super-power.
During the period (1989-2000) America has without question
enjoyed a long period of economic success. Of course the whole
thing was unsustainable, being underpinned by massive foreign
capital inflows and record levels of private indebtedness.
Moreover, for most Americans the boom never actually happened,
and many saw their wage levels fall. The boom was generally
experienced by the already prosperous. The rich simply got
richer, whereas everybody else either stayed where they were
or got poorer. Nonetheless, the 10 years before the millennium
bore witness to strong growth, low inflation, low unemployment
and productivity increases brought about by the new technologies
and also by the intensification of the work process. Not having
any serious rivals America was able to use her considerable
financial, diplomatic and military prowess to further her
interests around the world. (This process is sometimes referred
to as 'globalisation'.)
Berman argues, however, that beneath the outward appearance
of unassailable power and unprecedented prosperity, there
are the unmistakable symptoms of decay; surface indicators
of pathological processes operating deep in the interior of
American society. In comparing the decline of America with
the decline of Rome Berman lists the four factors which he
believes were/are present in both - whether as cause or effect.
'(a) Accelerating social and economic inequality. (b) Declining
marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational
solutions to social and economic problems. (c) Rapidly dropping
levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual
awareness. (d) Spiritual death ... the emptying out of cultural
content and freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas -
kitsch in short."
He states: 'What reader of these pages is not aware that
the gap between the rich and poor has increasingly widened
since the 1970s? That entitlements such as Social Security
are under threat , or that we incarcerate more people per
capita (565 per 100,000) than any other country in the
world. That millions of our high school graduates can barely
read or write, and that common words are often misspelled
on public signs. That community life has become reduced to
shopping malls, and that most Americans grow old in isolation,
zoning out in front of TV screens, and/or on anti-depressant
drugs? This is the nitty-gritty, daily reality, that belies
the glitz and glamour of the so-called New World Order."
Of course the growing economic and social polarisation of
America is no longer a matter for discussion. It is a brute
empirical reality. The top 1% of the nation saw its income
grow 78% between 1977 and 1989. Federal Reserve figures reveal
that this elite group owned 40% of the nation's wealth in
1989. By 1995 this figure had reached 47%. Worse (or better)
still, the top quintile (20%) of American society owns 93%
of the nation's wealth. According to the Census Bureau the
bottom quintile of American families in 1970 received 5.4%
of the national income and the top 5% received 15.6%. By 1994
the corresponding figures were 4.2% and 20.1 Of course this
data makes a mockery of the land of freedom and equality rhetoric.
Since the Reagan era America has changed from a functioning
democracy into a corrupt, money-based oligarchy.
Turning to point (b) and using figures from American government
departments Berman suggests that 'we shall be in serious trouble
by mid-century.' That is to say that both the Social Security
programme and Medicaid will be insolvent by this time. Although
he admits that this is only a guesstimate; there are simply
too many variables involved - for example birth rates, economic
growth rates - over too long a time period to make any accurate
Regarding the collapse of educational standards and public
intelligence Berman is of course on very strong ground. Specification:
'Roughly 60% of the adult population (of the US) has never
read a book of any kind, and only 6% read as much as one book
a year, where book is defined to include Harlequin
romances and self-help manuals. Something like 120 million
adults are illiterate or read no better than fifth grade level.
Among the 21-35 age group, 67% regularly read a newspaper
in 1965 as compared with 31% in 1998." Berman elaborates:
'In October 1995 a poll of American adults was conducted which
showed that 63% of the respondents believed that early man
lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, 53% said that the
earth revolves around the sun in a day or a month, and 91
% were unable to state what a molecule was. A further telephone
poll showed that 21% believed that the sun revolved around
This tendency is of course not restricted to the United States.
My own experience as a teacher for 18 years more than confirms
Berman's findings. For example, a group of second year A-level
sociology students did not know where Northampton was (in
relation to London). When asked to name any one city in Eastern
Europe they came up with - Madrid! What was disturbing, however,
was the fact that they seemed mystified that I had expected
them to know. Of course the Anglo-Saxon civilisations have
always been notoriously anti-intellectual, but at present
we are witnessing the emergence of a militant and aggressive
ignorance. As Berman argues: 'The celebration of ignorance
which characterises America today can be seen in the enormous
success of a film like Forrest Gump, in which a good-natured
idiot is made into a hero; or in the immensely popular TV
sitcom Cheers, in which intellectual interest of any
sort is always portrayed as phoney and pretentious, whereas
outright stupidity is equated with that which is warm-hearted
The demise of intelligence is of course closely related to
the demise of culture. Culture has been supplanted by what
has been called 'the society of spectacle'. This involves
an endless churning out of media representations and of the
corporate values embedded in those representations; the projection
of an unrelenting farrago of kitsch, involving the apotheosis
of money, celebrity and success. The vehicles for this corporate
message are game-shows, soaps, football, reality TV, plastic
sex, consumerism and estuary English.
At a more disturbing level a type of everyday psychosis is
seeping into our lives. That is, the inability to recognise
that human societies operate on the basis of moral reciprocity,
and that others have legitimate rights even when they might
conflict with ours. It is becoming increasingly commonplace
to see fellow citizens, not as citizens, but as obstacles.
In Mrs Thatcher's words, 'there is no such thing as society.'
This creeping psychosis may express itself at the level of
vandalism, graffiti and general boorishness, all objectionable
enough in themselves; but more sinister than this are the
savage episodes of violence, murder and mayhem which have
become part of our cultural landscape. According to Berman
this can be ascribed to the century long assault on what Freud
called the 'super-ego.' Civilisation is not possible without
behavioural constraints. The super-ego consisted of moral
imperatives and taboos inculcated in childhood and youth (socialization).
Its function was to contain the anarchic impulses of the 'Id'
and in so doing make society possible. The weakening of this
social control mechanism has opened up a Pandora's Box of
nihilistic propensities which are making civilised society
increasingly untenable. But constraint or repression has traditionally
been seen by the left as bad and undesirable. Freedom and
liberty have been the rallying cry of the radicals from the
18th century onwards. However, as Freud pointed out 'The liberty
of the individual is no gift of civilization. It was greatest
when there was no civilization ... The urge for freedom, therefore,
is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization,
or against civilization itself.' (Civilisation and its
All very conservative I suppose. Maybe, but is it right?
Might the left have just got it slightly wrong about human
capacities and the human condition? Cultural conservatism
is not the prerogative of the right. Left-wing commentators
including Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, (the celebrated Frankfurt
School) and lately Jurgen Habermas, as well as Richard Hoggart
and Raymond Williams in England have been long-time critics
of mass culture. Sometimes it's radical to be conservative.
In this respect none of what Berman is saying is anything
new. These ideas have been common currency among writers,
intellectuals and generally intelligent people for centuries.
He is probably right in his hypothesis that should the continuation
of the corrupting trends which he has identified continue
unabated, then American civilisation will meet its Nemesis.
Certainly capitalist civilisation has been written off before
and has bounced back showing a resilience that has often confounded
its critics. In the long-run, however, history suggests, pace
Fukuyama, that all societies are ephemeral.
As for significant political praxis in this post-democratic
age, forget it. ''I have no quarrel with grassroots activism
... but let's not kid ourselves. The ability of these sorts
of approaches to significantly deflect the juggernaut of global
corporate capitalism in a decade or two is non-existent ...
The dissolution of corporate hegemony, when it does occur
will happen because of the ultimate inability of the system
to maintain itself indefinitely. This type of breakdown ,
which is a recurrent historical phenomenon, is a long-range
one and internal to the system."
Berman's vision is one of a new dark age. In this scenario
the only consequential type of political activity is what
he calls 'the monastic option.' Just as the monks and the
monasteries kept the finest aspects of learning and culture
alive during the last dark age, then our historical mission
is to do the same in preparation for the next upturn. This
reads a bit like Voltaire and makes even me look like a frenetic
activist! It seems a rather bleak and minimalist message.
But let's end on a positive note: at least you won't have
to go to any more boring meetings of your local Labour Party.
*The Twilight of American Culture by Morris
Berman is published by Duckworth £9.99