Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

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by Morris Berman

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During the final century of the Roman Empire, it was common for emperors to deny that their civilization was in decline. Only with the perspective of history can we see that the emperors were wrong, that the empire was failing, and that the Roman people were unwilling or unable to change their way of life before it was too late. The same, says Morris Berman, is

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During the final century of the Roman Empire, it was common for emperors to deny that their civilization was in decline. Only with the perspective of history can we see that the emperors were wrong, that the empire was failing, and that the Roman people were unwilling or unable to change their way of life before it was too late. The same, says Morris Berman, is true of twenty-first century America. The nation and its empire are in decline and nothing can be done to reverse their course. How did this come to be?

In Why America Failed, Berman examines the development of American culture from the earliest colonies to the present, shows that the seeds of the nation's "hustler" culture were sown from the very beginning, and reveals how the very tools that enabled the country's expansion have become the instruments of its demise.

At the center of Berman's argument is his assertion that hustling, materialism, and the pursuit of personal gain without regard for its effects on others have been powerful forces in American culture since the Pilgrims landed. He shows that even before the American Revolution, naked self-interest had replaced the common good as the primary social value in the colonies and that the creative power and destructive force of this idea gained irresistible momentum in the decades following the ratification of the Constitution. As invention proliferated and industry expanded, railroads, steamships, and telegraph wires quickened the frenetic pace of progress—or, as Berman calls it, the illusion of progress. An explosion of manufacturing whetted the nation's ravenous appetite for goods of all kinds and gave the hustling life its purpose—to acquire as many objects as possible prior to death

The reign of Wall Street and the 2008 financial meltdown are certainly the most visible examples today of the negative consequences of the pursuit of affluence. Berman, however, sees the manipulations of Goldman Sachs and others not as some kind of aberration, but as the logical endpoint of the hustler culture. The fact that Goldman and its ilk continue to thrive in the wake of the disaster they wrought simply proves that it is already too late: America is incapable of changing direction.

Many readers will take exception to much of Why America Failed—beginning, perhaps, with its title. But many more will read this provocative and insightful book and join Berman in making a long, hard reassessment of the nation, its goals, and its future.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this provocative and passionate polemic, Berman (The Twilight of American Culture) explores America’s embrace of free market capitalism, which he says has been the dominant U.S. narrative since the country’s inception. Ever since the British touted the strategic advantages and lush bounty (timber, fish, furs) that England would gain by colonizing North America, an ever-expanding economy coupled with “endless technological innovation” has been our trademark, turning us into “a nation of hustlers” and marginalizing any alternative, such as Transcendentalism, the traditional Southern agrarian society, and the environmental movement of the 1970s. Berman takes to task the reign of Wall Street and the worship of technology, arguing that relentless consumerism has left us anxious, rudderless, and spiritually bereft. Although this is a lively and thought-provoking study of a complex topic, Berman sometimes presents a one-sided version of events—for instance, he links our high level of violent crime to selfish individualism, omitting evidence showing that crime rates have steadily declined in the past 15 years. Despite cherry-picking data, he presents his argument with verve and vivid examples. (Nov.)

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Distinguished cultural historian and social critic Morris Berman has spent many years exploring the corrosion of American society and the decline of the American empire. He is the author of the critically acclaimed works The Twilight of American Culture, a New York Times Book Revie w "Notable Book," and Dark Ages America.

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Why America Failed 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ladaysandnights More than 1 year ago
Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline-Morris Berman It took me awhile to get through this book, more because of its subject matter than its size. At 246 pages, it looks like a fairly quick read but do not be fooled; this is not light summer reading. This book is DENSE and well sourced; the endnotes are a solid 38 pages if you’re into that sort of thing, which I most certainly am. Published in 2012, Why America Failed seems to be the denouement to Morris Berman’s trilogy;the first two books are The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. I have not read those books, as I honestly think I couldn’t handle them. This particular book is a fairly brutal portrait recounting the origins of the United States as a nation and the mentality (psychopathy?) that led to its rise, and will lead to its inevitable fall. Fun stuff!! The main thesis of the book is that American culture is (and always has been) based on a “hustling” mentality. You know, the “I gots to get mine Jack” kind of thinking. Berman’s theory is that America’s “can-do, expansionist mentality” along with its addiction to technology and its narrow definition of progress as “strictly material” and “what is tangible” has created the perfect storm for imperial collapse. And that’s not such a hard sell really. Capitalism is the fuel that drives this country and capitalism is all about competition and bigger, better, more. There’s no need for me to rant about capitalism, but the “business of America” has always been the Business of America™. There was never a “City on a Hill” and in the end, bigger, better, more is not sustainable. What goes up must come down and you can’t go infinitely up when you’re planted on the ground. Berman makes the case that any historical push back towards this “hustling” lifestyle, any thought or show of an alternate style of living (less acquisitive, more family/community orientated, less competition more cooperation) has been scoffed at and marginalized. Berman believes wars have even been fought against more “traditional” styles of living, oftentimes wrapped in the guise of ridding the world of “communism” or “terrorism.” To illustrate his point, Berman uses the domestic example of the “clash of civilizations” that occurred between the North and South during the Civil War. Berman posits that the Southern way of life (before slavery ended) valued traits that were not conducive to the spread of northern capitalism, and were in fact a potential hindrance and threat to the spread of northern capitalism. It was this “threat” that served as one of the causes of the War Between the States. The theory could be discomforting to some, but only, I think, if you cling to some American mythology. No one ever wants to hear the South during slavery was anything but evil. I’m certainly not keen to wax poetic about the genteel south and it’s lost manners and priorities, but there is a point there. There was a lifestyle being led by people in this country in direct opposition to a fully capitalistic mechanistic society. And that way of life was destroyed, the bad and the good. In its place is where we find ourselves today. While the whole book was just one uncomfortable truth after another, it was Berman’s parting question to the reader that resonated: “If you are an American reading this, let me ask you: aren’t you tired of it all? The endless pressure and anxiety, the awful atmosphere at work (that’s if you can get work), the constant one-upsmanship that passes for friendship or social relations, the lack of community or of any meaningful connection with your neighbors.” For me, that was a wake-up call. As Americans, we want to believe that things in this country will get better. We want to believe that the halcyon days aren’t in the past, that we will once again be the world leaders in whatever makes a country a world leader. But I don’t know if that’s true. I think it’s apparent to most people that things don’t seem to be getting better in the U.S. Things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction. There are too many examples to enumerate here, but pick an institution and I can almost guarantee it’s crumbling. But who wants to be a Cassandra?! No one wants to be a harbinger of bad news, and I think we all want to believe that the country we grew up pledging allegiance to is still worthy of that allegiance. Ultimately, I think, the book serves as a warning. It asks us, as Americans, to take a hard look at this country and our lives within it, and to really think about whether or not it’s a culture we want for ourselves (and our children, if we have them.) Obviously for a lot of us, the devil we know is far less scary than the one we don’t, but I appreciate the author’s honesty and candid disdain for, what passes as, American culture. I may not 100% agree with him, but I heed his warnings and continue to look for jobs in Costa Rica.
Pat_I_Am More than 1 year ago
why does this happen so often with the books I want and how can you honestly provide a link that lets readers request that the publisher make the book available as an e-book when it already is?????