Bill Bridges's Reviews > Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

Why America Failed by Morris Berman
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's review
Nov 07, 2011

really liked it

The first thing the reader has to deal with is the book’s provocative title. Berman has said that his original title was “Capitalism and its Discontents” with emphasis on the discontents; the publisher made him change it to something they felt would sell better. I feel both titles are unfortunate, because they might serve to drive away those who would best benefit from this book, while attracting those who are probably already aware of the gist of the argument – although the latter could certainly gain from Berman’s well-supported historical survey of the issue at hand. What is the issue at hand? I think it could be summed up by an alternate title: “Hucksterism Against the Commonweal.”

Berman here traces the history of the US and finds that our core founding principle wasn’t freedom but hucksterism. We’re always selling something to someone -- even our bodies and minds -- and we’re always buying. What we especially like to sell and buy is bullshit. (That’s my term, not Berman’s.) This all comes at the cost of the common good, eroding communities and leaving only the war of all against all.

Extensive footnotes support his argument, and he makes it clear that he’s not the first to argue so. Many have gone before him, from Emerson and Thoreau to Lewis Mumford to Vance Packard to Jimmy Carter. In the end, when we’re about nothing but the individual pursuit of material wealth, we’re about nothing at all. It’s the lopsidedness of our behavior that’s unique – it’s not just that some of us, or even most of us, are hucksters. It’s that we all are. We have to be, to make it in America. While there are good aspects to this, the bad aspects destroy the foundations of any commonweal that might mitigate those bad aspects. Without community and values beyond getting rich, we’re just going to get lonelier and more withdrawn into illusions – such as the persistent illusion we tell ourselves that we actually have communities and values.

Berman believes that, since hucksters are all we have ever really been (despite the “alternative tradition’s” attempts to get a foothold, outside of books), that’s all we’ll ever be. Since this is not a sustainable culture, we’re due for collapse, and this is becoming more and more obvious of late, to elements of both the Right (Tea Party) and the Left (the Occupy movement). Unlike some chroniclers of American doom, Berman doesn’t believe we’re going to rally and rescue ourselves at the final hour. His book is a history of what went wrong, not a recipe for how to make it right. And yet… there is still that alternative tradition, the call for community and non-material values. It hasn’t gone away. When the great edifice of empire comes crumbling down, there will still be something towards which to look to get it right the next time.
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Reading Progress

November 7, 2011 – Started Reading
November 7, 2011 – Shelved
November 7, 2011 –
page 86
November 10, 2011 –
page 154
November 11, 2011 – Finished Reading

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