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Bye, bye Miss American Pie

Frank Lee finds Morris Berman's obituary* to the United States very close to the mark

'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 prediction.

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 the earth."

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 and authentic."

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 Discontents).

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

January/February 2002