Dialectics at work

From Tony Stephens ‘Conquerors today, vanquished tomorrow’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 05-06.01.02

The American empire of today may be, at least in part, an empire of the mind. It is also an empire of corporate, Coca-Cola hegemony, of CNN, Sex and the City TV culture. It may be a virtual empire, but it’s nonetheless an empire. And many argue that Australia is part of it.

It is hard to imagine the American empire falling but fall it will, unless it defies all of history’s precedents. Morris Berman says in a new book, The Twilight of American Culture: “There is simply no exception to the rule that all civilisations eventually fall apart, and we are not going to beat the odds, or outflank the historical record.”

Berman, an American cultural historian and social critic, says his country’s “comparisons with Rome are quite startling: the late empire saw extremes of rich and poor, and the disappearance of the middle class, the costs of bureaucracy and defence pushed it towards bankruptcy; literacy and Greek learning melted away into a kind of New Age thinking…”.

Berman’s book, published in the United States before September 11, has not been released in Australia. The book argues that factors within American society will bring about its disintegration. Berman has returned recently to the subject, writing in The Guardian that the events of September 11 provided another parallel with the Roman Empire – the factor of external barbarism.

The Goths began pressing against the border of the Roman Empire from the late third century and scored a decisive victory at Adrianople in AD 378. Siege and potential invasion became facts of Roman life after 378. Alaric, the Visigoth leader, invaded Italy in 401 and captured Rome in 410. The Vandals sacked the city in 455 and barbarian mercenaries made the Germanic chieftain Odoacer king of the western empire in 476.

“America, too, now has barbarians at the gates,” Berman says. He sees other similarities – even in one photograph of the shell of the World Trade Centre resembling pictures of the Roman Colosseum. He says the Romans had no understanding of their attackers or their values.

“Similarly, America views Islamic terrorism as completely irrational; there is no understanding of the political context of this activity, a context of American military attack on, or crippling economic sanctions against, a host of Arab nations – with unilateral support for Israel constituting the central, running sore.”

Instead, the enemy is characterised as ‘jealous of our way of life’, ‘hateful of freedom’ and so on. Hence President Bush, no less than the Islamic terrorists, uses the language of religious war: we are on a ‘crusade’; the military operation was initially called ‘Infinite Justice’; and the enemy is ‘evil itself’.

“Along with this is the belief that the Pax Romana/Americana is the only ‘reasonable’ way to live. In the American case, we have a military and economic empire that views the world as one big happy market, and believes that everybody needs to come on board. We – global corporate consumerism – are the future, ‘progress’. If the ‘barbarians’ fail to share this vision, they are ‘medieval’; if they resist, ‘evil’.”

Berman says his book is “for oddballs, for men and women who experience themselves as expatriates within their own country. It is a guidebook of sorts, to the 21st century and beyond”.

Guide Berman seems to rely to some extent on Oswald Spengler, a gloomy prophet who wrote The Decline of the West after World War I. He develops Spengler’s view that every civilisation has its twilight period.

Berman lists four factors present when a civilisation collapses: accelerating social and economic inequality; declining returns on investments in organisational solutions to socio-economic problems; rapidly falling levels of literacy and critical understanding; the emptying out of culture, a kind of spiritual death.

On the dumbing down of America, he quotes a Time magazine poll showing that nearly 70 per cent believed in the existence of angels, another poll revealing that 50 per cent believed in the presence of UFOs and space aliens on Earth, and a US Department of Education survey in 1995 saying that 60 per cent of students had no idea how the US came into existence. Berman says that the US ranks 49th out of 158 United Nations countries on a literacy table. About 60 per cent of adults have never read a book of any kind.

Berman can be glib, with a broad-brush approach leading to sweeping statements based on limited evidence. He also heavily qualifies his theory, sometimes tortuously, regarding a descent into barbarism as “certainly possible, and may even occur to some degree toward the end of the 21st century, perhaps for a short period of time; but the general outlook, it seems to me, is one of slow, rather than sudden, disintegration, for this country seems to be very good at crisis management”.

He says that the dissolution of corporate hegemony is at least 40 years away. What’s more, it might not be a collapse but more of a transformation, even if the United States is a cultural shambles,” an empire wilderness”. If the 20th century was the American century, the 21st would still be the Americanised century.

Then there might be the dawn of a new American culture. This could happen provided the good bits are saved, like the good bits of the Roman Empire were saved during the Dark Ages to re-emerge in the Renaissance.

Berman goes on: “The phrase ‘twilight of American culture’ implies an eventual dawn, and at some point we are going to emerge from our contemporary twilight and future darkness, if only because no historical configuration is the end of history.”

red-star

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