Off the keyboard of Morris Berman
Published on Dark Ages America on February 27, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
Let’s begin with Professor Bailyn. The book is called The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America, and deals with the settlement of this continent during 1600-1675. The review, by Charles Mann, appeared in the 6 January 2013 issue of the NYTBR, and describes a very different Bernard Bailyn than the one I’ve been used to. The Bailyn of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) argued, contra Charles Beard, that the colonial rhetoric of liberty and freedom was real, not a cover for economic motives. The American Revolution was, in his view, an idealistic revolution, one of “transforming radicalism.” A similar “triumphalist” portrait of the Revolution is central to the work of his student Gordon Wood, who has had a huge impact on the popular (including textbook) conception of the foundation of the Republic. Yet this rosy interpretation can be seriously questioned with the aid of historians such as Joyce Appleby or Richard Hofstadter (who once referred to the American Republic as “a democracy of cupidity.”) As I quote Appleby in Chapter 1 of Why America Failed:
“If the Revolution was fought in a frenzy over corruption, out of fear of tyranny, and with hopes for redemption through civic virtue, where and when are scholars to find the sources for the aggressive individualism, the optimistic materialism, and the pragmatic interest-group politics that became so salient so early in the life of the new nation?”
As I argue in that book, all of these things were salient on the American continent from the late sixteenth century on. The core of the American experience from that early point, according to historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner), was hustling: competing, getting ahead, expanding your individual economic position in an opportunistic environment. One doesn’t have to wait until the Jefferson presidency for this to become obvious.
Much to my surprise, Bailyn’s latest work seems to be an indirect confirmation of my, and McDougall’s, thesis—something I would never have imagined possible. As Charles Mann says, The Barbarous Years is not yet another mainstream tome celebrating the greatness of the Founding Fathers; far from it. Rather, Bailyn’s book gives us “a group portrait in tones of greed, desperation and brutality.” In the case of Jamestown (founded 1607), for example, the “colony was a commercial enterprise, started by the Virginia Company with the sort of careful financial evaluation that in the more recent past was the hallmark of the dot-com boom.” (I’m assuming heavy irony here, on Mann’s part.) Mann continues:
“Ship after ship of ill-equipped migrants…went out, each vessel intended to fulfill some new harebrained scheme: wine-making, silk-making, glassmaking.” As for tobacco growing, “Thousands of migrants were willing to risk death for the chance to cash in on England’s squadrons of new nicotine junkies.” And then came the Dutch settlements, such as New Amsterdam (later New York), created by the Dutch West India Company: “Unaware of and unconcerned about prior treaties or contracts, individuals spilled willy-nilly into the land, constantly setting up new ventures in ever more remote areas.”
Hustling, in a word. Surely, this is a very different America from the one Bailyn started out with, nearly half a century ago. Could it be that at age ninety, Professor Bailyn had something of a conversion experience, took off his rose-colored glasses, and chose to give us a much darker—and more accurate—picture of colonial America? At the very least, it suggests a greater continuity with later developments.
Which brings me to the essay by Jill Lepore. Let us fast foward four centuries to the American military establishment, as described by Lepore in “The Force” (New Yorker, 28 January 2013). Here’s what she tells us:
•“The United States spends more on defense than all the other nations of the world combined. Between 1998 and 2011, military spending doubled, reaching more than seven hundred billion dollars a year.”
•“Around the world, ‘power projection’ is, in fact, a central mission of American forces.”
•“In the nineteen-fifties…military spending made up close to three-quarters of the federal budget.”
•“On September 8, 2011, when Buck McKeon convened the first of his House Armed Services Committee hearings on the future of the military, no one much disputed the idea that the manifest destiny of the United States is to patrol the world.” (Howard McKeon is chair of the HASC, the largest committee in Congress.) Nevertheless (she goes on), John Garamendi (a Democrat from California), read aloud from “Chance for Peace,” Eisenhower’s first major address as president, which he delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1953:
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This is a world in arms. This world in arms is not spending money alone; it is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children….This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”(Italics mine)
•Lockheed Martin, whose contracts with the Pentagon amount to $30 billion annually, was the single largest contributor to Buck McKeon’s last election campaign. In all, LM contribute d to the campaigns of 386 of the 435 members of the 112th Congress, including51 of the 62 members of the HASC.
•The U.S. sells more guns than any other country. “At home and abroad, in uniform and out, in war and in peace, Americans are armed to the teeth….Much of the money that the federal government spends on ‘defense’ involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the U.S. military enforces American foreign policy.”
•On 13 October 2011, at the fifth of Buck McKeon’s hearings on the future of the military, the HASC heard testimony from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “But the moment Panetta began to speak a protester interrupted. He identified himself as an Iraq War veteran.‘You are murdering people!’ he shouted. ‘I saw what we did to people. I saw.’ He was escorted out of the room.”
I’m not sure there is a lot more to say, beyond res ipsa loquitur—the thing speaks for itself. I mean, could such a development have been an accident? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the fullness of time, the hustlers of the 17th century evolved into the thugs and murderers of the 20th and 21st. And when you think about it, how could it have been otherwise? If you start out with a “group portrait in tones of greed,” where else could you wind up?
©Morris Berman, 2013
Off the keyboard of Morris Berman
Published on Dark Ages America on November 22, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasboard inside the Diner
Dear Wafers and Other Friends:
As we are approaching the 200-message mark on the previous post (god, you guys have been engaged these days!), it is with some regret that I must leave the topic of Mittney (Rom! Can you forgive me?), and move on to other topics. I’m not really ready to talk about Japan, since I’m still reeling from my trip and need time to process the whole thing, but for now let me say a few words about one thing I observed there that forced me to rethink a basic premise I’ve had about the history/sociology of technology. This is mostly thinking out loud, if you guys can tolerate something only partially digested (to mix metaphors).
Actually, it involves two premises. One, technology is not, as is commonly thought, value-neutral. In other words, the conventional wisdom is that you can use an axe to fell a tree and thus build yourself a house, or you can chop off your neighbor’s head, which would not be very polite. Virtually all Americans (not the sharpest ‘race’ on the planet, I grant you) believe this, the president included. But as so many scholars have demonstrated, perhaps beginning with Marshall McLuhan, this just ain’t so. Technologies are the bearers of culture, and if you introduce any particular technology into a society (print medium into the oral culture of medieval Europe, for example), you eventually transform that society into something else. The introduction of vaccines for cattle into rural Mexico, many decades ago, led to the marginalization of the ‘sacred’ culture of the curandero, and thus to a different concept of man’s relationship to the cosmos. The vaccine cannot be isolated, in other words; it carries with it the world view of modern science and all that that entails (in particular, a ‘disenchanted’ world).
Second premise: Japan is a hi-tech society and people there are walking around with iPads, cell phones, and whatever stuffed into every available orifice. But it proved not to be so. The Japanese are fascinated with the new, that is true; but technology is not their ‘hidden religion’ (see Why America Failed, ch. 2). Yes, there is some degree of zombification operating there, to be sure, but much less than I anticipated; maybe 20% of the population is awash in Finnish and Korean (and Japanese) techno-crap. So you do see folks (the young, esp.) walking down the street staring into electronic screens, for example; but only about 20% at most. Tokyo aside, Japan is not a ‘loud’ country. Even then, I was amazed to ride the subway in Tokyo and see signs showing a cell phone with the word OFF (in English) in block capitals superimposed on the image. Occasionally, an electronic voice comes over the air and says, “Please make sure your cell phones are turned off.” You look around, and people are busy texting, but not making any noise. When I took the express bus out to Narita Airport en route to returning to Mexico, an electronic voice also added, “It disturbs your fellow passengers.” This bowled me over, because in the U.S., who gives a damn about the people around them? You can sit in a restaurant in LA or NY with some woman three feet away, literally yelling into her phone about her recent gall bladder operation. Y’all can identify with this, I’m sure.
The only exception I found to this was the lounge in the hotel I stayed in in Hiroshima. It was terribly American in design, very un-Japanese: formica tables, fluorescent lights, a completely sterile environment. There, people would sit and yak away loudly on their phones, and to hell with anyone else. So what the heck is going on?
Try this: if the ‘hidden religion’ of the United States is technology, as well as an extreme form of individualism (which I discuss in A Question of Values), the hidden religion of Japan is interrelatedness, or group consciousness. In fact, it’s hardly hidden: everybody knows this about the Japanese, including the Japanese. Nor is it always a positive thing, as it can stifle personal expression and creativity, and some Japanese scholars have argued that it was the root cause of the Pacific War (1931-45), during which time it was impossible to speak out against the military direction of the nation. Whistleblowers have a hard time in Japan. Well actually, they are practically nonexistent, and the 2011 disaster at Fukushima is only the latest example of this. Maruyama Masao, in the postwar period, blamed the war on a “system of irresponsibility,” and recently one courageous critic (although I believe he lives in New York) said that Fukushima was the product of Japanese culture itself.
To return to the subject of cell phones, then, what we see is not the introduction of a new technology and the subsequent transformation of the culture. No; the culture of Japan is strong enough to resist the negative effects of this technology, by a factor of something like 80%. I remember sitting in a luncheonette in a subway station and seeing a woman receiving a call on her phone, and actually taking out a small towel and putting it over her mouth, and the phone, so as to mute her voice while she was talking. More often, the Japanese will leave the space, and conduct the conversation out of earshot of those around them. Whereas Americans live like they were individual atoms, bouncing around with no civic responsibility whatsoever (and certainly as it concerns technology, since it is the hidden religion), the Japanese live in society, in community, and in relatedness to other people, and therefore are acutely sensitive to the potential impact they have about those around them. Despite the negative aspects of the group mentality mentioned above, I found this institutionalized, semi-conscious courtesy quite refreshing. So while in the US, technology combines with the ideology of extreme individualism to create a race of obnoxious techno-buffoons and zombies, in Japan the culture of public respect limits what technology can do–even though, as I said above, the Japanese tend to love the new. In a word, Marshall McLuhan doesn’t apply to Japan. Or one might say, it is the cultural medium that is the message there, not the technological medium. I had to rethink my basic assumptions regarding all this (always a good thing, if somewhat disorienting).
In that regard, I was fascinated by the recent comment James Howard Kunstler made on his blog, which got reported in the comment section of the previous post here:
“Finally, I have one flat-out prediction, one I have made before but deserves repeating: Japan will be the first society to consciously opt out of being an advanced industrial economy. They have no other apparent choice really, having next-to-zero oil, gas, or coal reserves of their own, and having lost faith in nuclear power. They will be the first country to enter a world made by hand. They were very good at it before about 1850 and had a pre-industrial culture of high artistry and grace – though, granted, all the defects of human psychology.”
Could Japan be the model, the cutting edge of a post-capitalist or post-industrial society? Is a kind of “back to the future” logic operating here, in which it is the craft tradition, rather than the latest piece of technological garbage, that might create a viable culture, and thus a viable model for the rest of us? Think of the Renaissance, during which time cultural renewal depended on a return to Classical civilization (“reculer pour mieux sauter”–step backwards in order to better jump ahead). As Gary Snyder once said to me, when I teased him about having a ‘romantic’ vision: We may have to return to the used-parts bin, and discover that some of the stuff we threw out in our zeal for progress is not so obsolete after all.
Well, I said I was thinking out loud. Food for thought, in any case, eh wot?
Off the keyboard of Morris Berman
Published on Dark Ages America on November 7, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
Ay, Mittney, Mittney!
Who were you, anyway? You streaked across the dark, Obamaesque sky like a comet, and then just as quickly–you we’re gone. A nation weeps.
You were, like the man who defeated you, an empty person, a Nowhere Man. Basically, a shmuck with a haircut. But there is one crucial difference: whereas your rival stands for nothing at all, and thus got filled up with Wall St. and the Pentagon–in other words, wound up as a corporate shill and a war criminal–you did have a philosophy. True, it wasn’t much–warmed-over Reaganism, really–but you believed it. You believed that 47% of the American public were worthless layabouts; that the government is there to promote the rich and grind the poor into the dust; and that we should project American power to every corner of the globe, just for the hell of it. You probably think trees cause pollution, that ketchup is a vegetable, and that the homeless are homeless because that’s what they really want for themselves. Pretty thin gruel, intellectually speaking, but at least it was something.
Of course, your rival has done enormous damage to America in four short years. He shredded the Bill of Rights, institutionalized kill lists and destroyed thousands of civilian lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, increased hatred and bitterness toward the US, funneled $19 trillion into the pockets of bankers while the real unemployment rate stood at 18%–man, the list goes on and on. He even murdered American citizens on a whim, and has probably implemented the torture of many more. But what bothers me about your defeat, O Great Mittney, is that you could have done more, you could have made things even worse, and faster, too. And that’s what America really needs, O My Mitt: to just fucking get it over with, instead of dawdling around with social/economic and cultural disintegration. So we’ll continue slouching towards Bethlehem, committing suicide in piecemeal fashion, where you might have put us on the fast track to hell. This is indeed a sad day for our great nation, as you sat in your hotel room eating meatloaf, and composing your concession speech.
Who will remember you, in a month’s time, O Mittney? Who remembers John Kerry? Who the hell was John Kerry? You get my point. Ay, Mittney: we hardly knew ye!
Off the keyboard of Morris Berman
Published on Dark Ages America on September 28th 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
I fly to Japan early Monday morning, and will be there for six weeks. I don’t know what the Internet cafe situation is there, esp. since I’ll be spending two weeks in the wilds of Northeast Honshu; plus, I’ll need to concentrate on my research while I’m there. So as of Monday, things will be kind of iffy on this blog, touch and go. I’m telling you this so you know that messages might not get posted for a while. But never fear: I’ll be back, and hopefully everything sent in will get preserved.
Meanwhile, I wanted to ramble a bit about how I got into this project, and what my thoughts are about it at this point in time.
One of my early books (1981) was The Reenchantment of the World–the only best-seller I ever had. I guess it hit the market at just the right time, when there was a lot of interest in holistic healing and nonscientific systems of thought. The book generated a lot of interest because of its central, radical thesis: that in their own terms, these nonscientific thought systems were true; that they described a world that did, to a great degree, exist. And that if the scientific world view was also true, it was so in its terms, i.e. the parameters of the modern world. This didn’t mean that I believed (for example) that arrows fell to earth in a straight line (Aristotle) prior to the Scientific Revolution, and that they changed their trajectory to a parabola around 1600 (Galileo). (Man, wouldn’t that be a hoot.) Rather, that in the rush to modernity, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater: a whole world of learning, an alternate sensibility, got lost. This, I still believe, and I believe that we are much poorer for it, despite the very real benefits of the modern world. (A theme, I should add, that is echoed in Ursula Le Guin’s brilliant novel, The Telling.)
(Much to my surprise, I still get letters from folks out there saying, “That book changed my life.” This not from folks who took too much acid back in the 60s, but from philsophers, therapists, and people who have their critical faculties very much intact.)
I wouldn’t call it my best book, and if I were to rewrite it today, I certainly would change a lot of what I originally wrote. As Noam Chomsky once remarked, if you are a professor and are giving the same lectures 20 years on from the same yellowed notes, it might be time to start thinking about retirement. Any scholar worth his or her salt is not going to agree with everything s/he wrote 31 years ago. And yet, there are a few themes that remain more or less consistent within the body of my work, and one of these is the costs of modernity. Modernity certainly has its blessings, and these are continually celebrated both in academic works as well as in the popular press. The costs of modernity, on the other hand, the aspects of the premodern era that were really valuable (as well as true)–well, these are things that most writers are not terribly interested in; and in the US, of course, at least 99% of the population is not even aware that there is an issue here.
My interest in Japan was born many years ago out of a fascination with its craft tradition, which is one of the most breathtaking the world has ever known. I remember my high school English teacher, Harold Sliker–this around 1960, when teachers were dedicated and students paid attention in class, and were still able to read–talked about the Japanese tradition of sword making, and how the artisan would fast and meditate for three days before beginning the work, and then would forge the hot steel by repeatedly folding it over, and tempering it, until the result was a brilliant blade. I was fascinated by this, but never followed it up. Well, not as a teenager, at any rate. Years later, however, when I was writing the Reenchantment book, I found the same sort of dedication in the Western alchemical tradition. Care, dedication, tradition, craft, community, infinite patience–this was the baby that got thrown out with the bathwater.
Of course, I realize that there is a socioeconomic and political context here that makes the whole subject tricky. It is perhaps not an accident that Heidegger joined the Nazi party, and that the Nazis got involved in a weird amalgam of tradition and modernity that the historian Jeffrey Herf aptly calls Reactionary Modernism. Or that the world of the medieval alchemist was one of feudal-organic hierarchy; or that the samurai tradition, including the mingei, or folk craft tradition, got cleverly channeled into the militarism of the 1930s, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor. And as far as contemporary Japan goes, young people are for the most part interested in landing a job with Mitsubishi, making a ton of yen, and sticking the latest iPhone up their noses. Things like the tea ceremony, in their eyes, are for squares and tourists. Which is not all that surprising, given the impact America has had on that nation.
The first impact came in the form of Commodore Perry, who sailed into Edo Bay in 1853 and threatened to blow the place to kingdom come if the Japanese did not open themselves up to commercial trade with the US. This was the catalyst for major turmoil within Japan, culminating in the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868 and what is known as the Meiji Restoration. While England, e.g., had more than a century to adjust to capitalism, Japan had to turn itself on its head in the space of a single generation. The result is a society that is extremely neurotic, still torn apart by issues of tradition vs. modernity. I wrote this recently to a Japanese friend, an anthropologist of about 50 years of age, who wrote back: “I struggle with all of this on a daily basis.”
The second impact came in the form of General MacArthur, and the Occupation of Japan during 1945-52. The Americanization was fairly relentless, and the Japanese got on the bandwagon in a hurry: Coca-Cola, jeans, American movies, the whole nine yards. “Irresistible Empire,” Victoria de Grazia called it for the case of Europe being steamrolled by the US, and one can say that it was even more irresistible in the case of Japan. (Check out Oe Kenzaburo’s Nobel acceptance speech, 1994.) In any case, the land of green tea and ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) is still reeling from the double whammy delivered by the United States. (By the way, this does not mean that I think Japan should have won the war; I don’t. I’m just vainly trying to head off that accusation, like the one that surfaced in the wake of Ch. 4 of Why America Failed, in which because I said that the antebellum South had certain nonhustling characteristics that were admirable, a whole bunch of readers took this to be a defense of the Confederacy and of slavery. Man…my mother told me I should be a plumber instead of a writer, but did I listen? I keep saying on this blog that Americans are not very bright, and I have no doubt that when my book on Japan appears, the same crowd will be jumping up and down and screaming that I want Japan to have been the victor in WW2. Too many people in this country with lobotomies, apparently.)
Anyway, all this by way of saying that Japan and what it represents, historically and culturally speaking, is a very complex subject, and that whenever one asserts X about it, there is always a non-X or anti-X that needs to be taken into consideration. That being said, let me return to Harold Sliker, Japanese sword makers, and the significance of the craft tradition. On craft in general, Octavio Paz wrote in 1973: “Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time.” Or to quote Alan Watts (The Way of Zen), “people in a hurry cannot feel.”
Here is Watts on Zen art:
“The aimless life is the constant theme of Zen art of every kind, expressing the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment. All men have these moments occasionally, and it is just then that they catch those vivid glimpses of the world which cast such a glow over the intervening wastes of memory—the smell of burning leaves on a morning of autumn haze, a flight of sunlit pigeons against a thundercloud, the sound of an unseen waterfall at dusk, or the single cry of some unidentified bird in the depths of a forest. In the art of Zen every landscape, every sketch of bamboo in the wind or of lonely rocks, is an echo of such moments.”
(If you want to get an idea of what Watts is talking about on film, check out Enlightenment Guaranteed and Cherry Blossoms, both by the German filmmaker and Japanophile, Doris Doerrie.)
Bernard Leach, England’s greatest potter (who lived in Japan for many years), says that shibui is an aesthetic ideal in Japanese craft, referring as it does to the austere, the subdued, and the restrained. This element, he remarks (A Potter’s Book), gave the work a religious and psychological basis–something quite different from the hi-tech products being turned out by Japan today. During its integrated periods, adds Donald Richie (A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics), Japan presented the spectacle of a people who made art a way of life. All of this got lost in the rush to modernize, to Americanize. Yet one wonders whether any society, be it ours or the Japanese, can sustain itself without this kind of religious or psychological foundation. In this regard, the Japanese reaction to the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, when it was released in 2003, is rather instructive (I need a stronger word here). The film is not really historically accurate; it is a romanticization of the last samurai rebellion, led by Saigo Takamori in 1877 (a folk hero in Japan to this day)–a shorter equivalent of our own Civil War, and fought, perhaps, for similar reasons (see the infamous Ch. 4 of Why America Failed). On blogs, newspapers, radio programs and whatever, there was this huge outpouring of emotion in response to the film, to the effect of: “This is us; this is the real Japan.” Shades of Ursula Le Guin, once again: a corporate-commercial reality had been rammed down their throats, pasted over a deep, spiritual reality, and suddenly, the Japanese came out of the closet and declared: We’re not having it; modernization tried to destroy our soul, but ultimately that soul still exists, and it will have the final say.
Well, I don’t know how real (i.e., lasting) that outpouring of emotion was; everybody eventually went back to Mitsubishi to put in 14-hour work days, I’m guessing. But it does seem to me that there is a kind of ‘magical’ substrate that simply won’t go away, and that we should be grateful for that. Can human beings really live without meaning? Japan tried to do it since the Meiji Restoration, and it hasn’t worked out very well. America tried to do it since the late 16th century, and it seems to me that that is why it failed. In the last analysis, meaning is not a luxury.
Still, the US, as well as Japan, are too far gone to embrace the substrate voluntarily; this much seems certain. But the modern world will pass, as I’ve suggested in previous writings, and as we transition to a more austere world–by necessity, not by choice–certain things may come to the surface once again. I’m thinking of my earlier post on Ernest Callenbach, and his posthumous essay, in which he wrote the following (please pardon my duplication of part of that post):
“All things ‘go’ somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi–the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.
“There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn…to put unwise or unneeded roads ‘to bed,’ help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth.”
Mono no aware, the Japanese call it: the somewhat melancholy awareness of the impermanence of things. There will be something of great value on the other side of the Great Watershed we are facing, I’m convinced of it. Perhaps, Japan offers a clue to what it might be.
Off the keyboard of Morris Berman
Published on Counterpunch on September 20, 2012
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner
La longue durée —the long run—was an expression made popular by the Annales School of French historians led by Fernand Braudel, who coined the phrase in 1958. The basic argument of this school is that the proper concern of historians should be the analysis of structures that lie at the base of contemporary events. Underneath short-term events such as individual cycles of economic boom and bust, said Braudel, we can discern the persistence of “old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic.” An important derivative of the Annales research is the work of the World Systems Analysis school, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, which similarly focuses on long-term structures: capitalism, in particular.
The “arc” of capitalism, according to this school, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular (mis)fortune to be living through the beginning of the end, the disintegration of capitalism as a world system. It was mostly commercial capital in the sixteenth century, evolving into industrial capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then moving on to financial capital—money created by money itself, and by speculation in currency—in the twentieth and twenty-first. In dialectical fashion, it will be the very success of the system that eventually does it in.
The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In his classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion—like our own age, not much fun to live through. One reason for this is that the world is literally perched over an abyss. What lies ahead is largely unknown, and to have to hover over an abyss for a long time is, to put it colloquially, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire as well, on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose.
I was musing on these issues some time ago when I happened to run across a remarkable essay by Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine. It was called “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” and was published last November in The Nation. In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes—correctly—that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure. Thus Larry Bell, in Climate of Corruption, argues that environmental politics is essentially about “transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution”; and British writer James Delinpole notes that “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, [and] regulation.”
What Ms. Klein is saying to the Left, in effect, is: Why fight it? These nervous nellies on the Right are—right! Those of us on the Left can’t keep talking about compatibility of limits-to-growth and unrestrained greed, or claiming that climate change is “just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention,” or urging everyone to buy a Prius. Commentators like Thomas Friedman or Al Gore, who “assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution”—corporate green capitalism, in a word—are simply living in denial. “The real solutions to the climate crisis,” she writes, “are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.”
In one of the essays in my book A Question of Values (“conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History”), I lay out some of the “unconscious programs” buried in the American psyche from our earliest days, programs that account for most of America’s so-called conscious behavior. These include the notion of an endless frontier—a world without limits—and the ideal of extreme individualism—you do not need, and should not need, anyone’s help to “make it” in the world. Combined, the two of these provide a formula for enormous capitalist power and inevitable capitalist collapse (hence, the dialectical dimension of it all). Of this, Naomi Klein writes:
“The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits….These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress.”
(This is exactly what I argued 31 years ago in The Reenchantment of the World; it’s nice to see it all coming around again.) “Real climate solutions,” she continues, “are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Hence, she concludes, the powers that be have reason to be afraid, and to deny the data on global warming, because what is really required at this point is the end of the free-market ideology. And, I would add, the end of the arc of capitalism referred to earlier. It’s going to be (is) a colossal fight, not only because the powers that be want to hang on to their power, but because the arc and all its ramifications have given their class Meaning with a capital M for 500+ years. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters—if there are any left at this point; I’m not sure—need to tell the 1%: Your lives are a mistake. This is what “a new civilizational paradigm” finally means. It also has to be said that almost everyone in the United States, not just the upper 1%, buys into this. John Steinbeck pointed this out many years ago when he wrote that in the U.S., the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The Occupy movement, as far as I could make out, wanted to restore the American Dream, when in fact the Dream needs to be abolished once and for all.
Naomi then provides us with a list of six changes that must occur for this new paradigm to come into being, including Reining in Corporations, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich. I found myself writing “good luck” in the margins of much of this discussion. These things are not going to happen, and what we probably need instead is a series of major conferences on why they won’t happen. But note that part of the answer is already embedded in her essay: vested interests, in both the economic and psychological sense, have every reason to maintain the status quo. And as I said, so does the man or woman in the street. What would our lives be without shopping, without the latest technological toy? Pretty empty, at least in the U.S. How awful, that capitalism has reduced human beings to this.
In terms of recommendations, then, Klein’s essay is rather weak. But it offers something very important by way of analysis, and also by implication: Everything is related to everything else. Psychology, the economy, the environmental crisis, our daily mode of living, the dumbing down of America, the pathetic fetish over cell phones and electronic gadgets, the crushing debt of student loans, the farce of electoral politics, Mr. Obama’s rather rapid conversion from liberal hero to war criminal and shredder of the Bill of Rights, the huge popularity of violent movies, the attempt of the rich to impose austerity measures on the poor, the well-documented epidemics of mental illness and obesity—these are ultimately not separate spheres of human activity. They are interconnected, and this means that things will not get fixed piecemeal. “New civilizational paradigm” means it’s all or nothing; there really is no in-between, no diet cheesecake to be had. As Ms. Klein says, it’s not about single “issues” anymore.
What then, can we expect, as the arc of capitalism comes to a close? This is where Naomi shifts from unlikely recommendations to hard-nosed reality. She writes:
“The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations. Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. ‘Free-market climate solutions,’ as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets. And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks….As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, and that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed.”
To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the current system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, it was true at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today. In the case of the Roman Empire, as I discuss in The Twilight of American Culture, there was the emergence of monastic orders that began to preserve the treasures of Graeco-Roman civilization. My question in that book was: Can something similar happen today? Naomi writes:
“The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” She believes that the Occupy Wall Street movement—remember, it was quite vigorous last November—embodies this; that they have taken “aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis, while embodying…radically different ways to treat one another and relate to the natural world.”
Is this true? Four things to consider at this point:
1. I personally never visited Zuccotti Park, but most of what I saw on the Web, including very favorable reportage of the Occupy movement, seemed to suggest that the goal was a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream, as I indicated above. In other words, the basic demand was that the pie be cut up more fairly. I never had the impression that the protesters were saying that the pie, in toto, was rotten. This reminds me of an anecdote about Martin Luther King, who apparently said to Harry Belafonte, just before he (i.e., King) was assassinated, that he thought he might have been making a big mistake; that he sometimes felt like he was herding people into a burning church. This is a very different insight, quite obviously, than the notion that black people should be getting a larger share of the pie. After all, who wants a larger share of a rotten pie, or to live in a church that is burning down?
2. The Annales historians, along with the World Systems Analysis thinkers, have been accused of projecting an image of “history without people.” In other words, these schools tend to see individuals as somewhat irrelevant to the historical process, which they analyze in terms of “historical forces.” There is some truth to this, but “historical forces” can become a bit mystical. Just as it is forces that motivate people, so it is people that enact or manifest those forces. I mean, someone has to do something for history to occur, and at least the Occupy crowd was trying to throw sand on the wheels of the machine, so to speak, as have their counterparts in Europe. But I confess that for a number of reasons, I was never very optimistic about the movement; at least, not as it existed in the United States. As many sociologists have pointed out, America has no real socialist tradition, and it is no surprise that the serious maldistribution of wealth that exists in the U.S. is no issue whatsoever in the forthcoming presidential election. In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it—which takes us back to the quote from John Steinbeck. My own prediction, several months ago, was that OWS would turn into a kind of permanent teach-in, where the disaffected could go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that would indeed be taught. This is basically the “new monastic option” I wrote about in the Twilight book. On one level, it’s probably innocuous; it hardly threatens the power elite. But that may not be the whole story, especially in the long run—la longue durée. After all, as the system collapses, alternatives are going to become increasingly attractive; and you can be sure that 2008 is not the last crash we are going to live through. The two sides go hand in hand, and ultimately—I’m talking thirty to forty years, but maybe less—the weight of the arc of capitalism will be too onerous to sustain itself. In la longue durée, one is far smarter betting on the alternative worldview than on capitalism. Thus the biologist David Ehrenfeld writes: “Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social, and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.”
3. What, then, is that alternative worldview, that “new civilizational paradigm”? In Why America Failed I lay out, unsurprisingly enough, the reasons for why America failed, and I say that it was primarily because throughout our history we marginalized or ignored the voices that argued against the dominant culture, which is based on hustling, aggrandizement, and economic and technological expansion. This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others. In England it is particularly associated with John Ruskin and William Morris, who argued for the need for organic communities with a spiritual purpose, for work that was meaningful rather than mind-numbing, and who did manage to acquire a large number of American disciples. In a forthcoming book by a colleague of mine, Joel Magnuson, entitled The Approaching Great Transformation, the author states that we need concrete models of a post-carbon economy, ones that break with the profit model of capitalism—and not in cosmetic or rhetorical ways. He gives a number of examples of experiments in this vein, ones that I would term elements of a steady-state or homeostatic economy: no-growth, in other words. After all, writes Magnuson, “permanent growth means permanent crisis.” Or as I have put it elsewhere, our job is to dismantle capitalism before it dismantles us. Again, this does not mean taking on Wall Street, which I don’t believe can succeed. But it does mean leaving the field: for example, seceding. (Movements for secession do exist at this point, Vermont being a prominent example.) And if that’s not quite viable right now, there is at least the possibility of living in a different way, as David Ehrenfeld suggests. My guess is that “dual process”—the disintegration of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of an alternative socioeconomic formation—is going to be the central story of the rest of this century. And I suspect that austerity will be part of this, because as capitalism collapses and we run out of resources—petroleum in particular—what choice will we have?
4. This does not, it seems to me, necessarily mean a return to some type of feudalism; although that could well happen, for all I know. But we are finally talking about the passing not only of capitalism, but of modernity in general—the waning of the modern ages, in effect. In her interesting biography of the Hegelian scholar, Alexandre Kojève, Shadia Drury writes: “Every political order, no matter how grand, is doomed to decay and degenerate.” As for modernity in particular, she goes on:
“[M]odernity’s inception and its decline are like those of any other set of political and cultural ideals. In its early inception, modernity contained something good and beguiling. It was a revolution against the authority of the Church, its taboos, repressions, inquisitions, and witch burning. It was a new dawn of the human spirit—celebrating life, knowledge, individuality, freedom, and human rights. It bequeathed to man a sunny disposition on the world, and on himself….The new spirit fueled scientific discovery, inventiveness, trade, commerce, and an artistic explosion of great splendor. But as with every new spirit, modernity has gone foul….Modernity lost the freshness and innocence of its early promise because its goals became inflated, impossible, and even pernicious. Instead of being the symbol of freedom, independence, justice, and human rights, it has become the sign of conquest, colonialism, exploitation, and the destruction of the earth.”
In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said before, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Of this, the poet Mark Strand remarks: “No need to rush; the end of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.” For some odd reason, I find that thought rather comforting.
Off the Keyboard of Morris Berman
Posted originally on the Morris Berman Blog on May 9, 2012
Cross Posted on Counter Punch and Tikkun
Strange things are happening in the United States these days, and every day seems to bring additional scary news. The similarity to the erosion of civil liberties in Germany during the 1930s is a bit too close for comfort. Many will regard this statement as hyperbole, and, to some extent, it is. But let’s take a close look at what is going on before we dismiss the comparison out of hand.