Cultural collapse

This book is prompted by a paradox.

At a time when American culture has never been more pervasive and at a time when America itself has become the hyperactive hegemonic power, Morris Berman nonetheless argues that as a civilisation, and even as a state, it is showing signs of die-back. On the surface, all points to a kind of renewal but ‘a superficial vitality’, he writes, ‘is hardly the same thing as a healthy culture. A false dawn is not a real one’.

There are four particular characteristics of contemporary America that feed Berman’s pessimism. The first is the increasing social and economic inequality. We are becoming used to statistics like those which point to the fact that up till 1973, all levels of society benefited, more or less, from a rise in real wages; since 1973, it has only been the highest quintile. The bottom 40 per cent has actually experienced a decline in real income. And whereas in 1973 the typical CEO of a large company earned about 40 times that of a typical worker, today it would not be uncommon for that figure to be 400 times as much.

Less well known is that since 1979, some 43 million jobs have gone in America. The squeeze is on. Desperate for any work at all, the underclass glumly accept worsening conditions and wages knowing that Third World people may take their jobs, either by coming to America, or by staying at home, where the jobs are increasingly outsourced. Meanwhile America itself, with its increase in gated communities and visibly entrenched privilege, takes on more and more of a Third World aspect.

The second factor to be noted—and one that is now in evidence here—is the increasing incapacity of the state to handle support programs and manage growing socioeconomic problems. In America, predictions more alarming than Peter Costello’s, warn that Social Security will become insolvent by 2004, with the hospital insurance part of Medicare going bust by 2015. Partly this is due to the problem Costello identified here: life expectancy is rising, fertility rates are falling. This is not helped by an American national debt that continues to accelerate, or by an electorate which doesn’t want taxes to
increase—but isn’t happy about lower benefits, either!   

Berman’s next factor is perhaps the most devastating, ‘the collapse of American intelligence’. There are many horror stories here, of a kind more or less familiar already. But the sheer weight of this culture-lite, a smothering in doona feathers, makes depressing reading. There are high school kids who can’t name the three branches of government, but can readily come up with the names of the Three Stooges, and so on. Educational institutions in many respects have been hollowed out: students, at all levels, expect infotainment. Berman shows how colleges and universities in the United States have been happy to oblige, as knowledge has become commodified. Daringly he likens their position to that of the church in the late Middle Ages, selling indulgences (now diplomas or degrees) so that people can get into heaven (i.e. a well-paying job). The real problem is that faith in their own enterprise has been sapped, exacerbated by the effect of postmodernist dogma. Berman quotes a French philosopher: ‘Once hating culture becomes cultural in itself, the life of the mind loses all significance.’

The fourth and final factor to be noted is spiritual death. The rise of superstition and newer, shoddy forms of Christianity is one aspect of it, another is New Age faddism (much more pronounced in America). Berman is perhaps least satisfactory here, lunging about as he only half-proves his case. Yes, a lot of common courtesy has been lost. Yes, there is a constant slagging of ‘elites’ (which doesn’t mean, as it should, the people who actually run the country). And yes, as Paul Fussell writes, ‘Nothing will thrive [in America] unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud’. So it is hard not to agree with Berman’s proposition, but only later does he make it clear what he’s driving at. ‘Civilisation is impossible without a hierarchy of quality’, he states, ‘and as soon as that gets flattened into a mass phenomenon, its days are numbered’.

Not only civilisation will go, though, but also freedom. Berman’s first epigraph is a quote from Jefferson: ‘No people can be both ignorant and free.’ Third World status for all is coming, he is certain, for ‘democracy has traditionally depended on the existence of high literacy, a large middle class, and a flexible hierarchy’. These are all going under. The masses are becoming more indifferent, the elites less accountable—and more nepotistic. As in Rome, spectator sports provide ever greater mass diversion.

Berman engages in a comparison with the decline of Rome, and makes some useful points. The growing division between rich and poor was evident there, too, particularly when it came to the landowning class; and one of the reasons why the Eastern Roman Empire survived much longer, he claims, was that there a peasant proprietorship was much more entrenched. Turning to state incapacity to meet financial commitments, he cites the immense growth in standing armies and the spectacular instances of currency debasement. Spiritual and intellectual debasement also occurred, with dumbing down evident in the decline of sophistication in surviving Latin texts.

The Twilight of American Culture is, then, a pessimistic book. Globalisation will surf along on the integration that has occurred between the expanding industrial, technological and new corporate culture. Already it can be said that of the world’s 100 largest economies, 51 are those of corporations; the 500 largest account for 70 per cent of world trade. Berman can only see the situation getting worse. The present century will be a write-off: after the American twentieth century, the Americanised twenty-first. But the one after is likely to be different, given the nature of trends and counter-trends in history.

The real question is, how to survive the present—and how to ensure that many things of value in it are preserved in some way or other, so that when there is some sort of swing back to critical and humanist values, not all will have been lost. Rather like Don Watson advocating that each of us should take on managerial language when we can, so Berman speaks of NMIs—New Monastic Individuals, who, whether Michael Moore with his films, or a woman who organises chamber music concerts on a Manhattan barge, resist corporate values and the conglomerates. This sounds defeatist—a bit like the forest-dwellers in Farenheit 451, committing whole books to memory.

But there may be something in it, particularly given the acceleratingly consumerist bent of an increasingly corporatised publishing industry. Non-conforming ideas are going to find it harder to get an airing. One early indication of that is the surprising gratitude many American notables express on being questioned intelligently on Radio National—they have nothing like it at home. All the more reason why we should fight hard—as many country people will, amongst others—against any managerial talk of abolishing it.

Jim Davidson is Professor of History at Victoria University, Melbourne.

The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman.
Norton, 2001. isbn 0 393 04879 9, rrp $26.95

 

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