Thursday, August 7, 2014

Book Review: Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture

Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture. W W Norton and Co., New York, 2000. 183 pages, references (incomplete list)

            Prof Berman's book begins with a common observation today: our civilization appears to be failing. The words "crisis", "transition", "End Days" appear often in public and private discourse. We appear no match for the problems we've created and leave to our children to solve: global warming, climate change, overpopulation, increasing disparity of wealth and opportunity within and between nations, energy and resource depletion, endangered species, habitat destruction.. Even the American Dream recedes as the middle class economically stagnates or declines while its children find it harder to advance than their parents (or even grandparents) did. Despite the promises of technology to liberate us from drudgery, techno-utopia - like the American Dream - recedes. American middle class families find themselves forced to work two or more jobs simply to "make ends meets" (lower middle - or "working" - class) or to "enjoy the good life" (upper middle class). 

           Our values seem to have become debased and ignoble. "Worthiness" increasingly seems to mean either pandering to the mob or despising those less "well off" from ourselves. Political leaders and people in general seem increasingly unworthy of trust, respect or commitment. Political apathy is rife; cynicism is the new norm. I recently heard a Japanese student comment in a radio interview that the fastest way for a young person in Japan to make themselves unpopular is to take an interest in politics. The recent scandals  involving pedophile Catholic priests is typical of the Zeitgeist of decadence, decay and drift. Expectedly, fanatical - and increasingly violent - sects and movements have arisen to recruit disillusioned youth, thereby perpetuating further cycles of atrocity / repression / further disillusionment..
               Berman provides a "decadence check list" (page 19), based on centuries of observations by historians and social commentators, against which we can judge our present culture's state of health. We show signs of advanced declines using his criteria:

1- accelerating social and economic inequality

2- declining returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems

3- rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness

4- spiritual death.. the emptying out of living cultural content and  its reduction to dead formulas - kitsch (footnote 1)

           Several questions remain. If our civilization is sick in some way, is there any cure? Is the condition terminal?

            On the latter point Berman waffles a bit. Several times throughout the book he speaks of "inevitable historical cycles" of ascension, decay and collapse. There is, it should be noted, a fair amount of evidence to support such a view.  What is history but the record of the rise, decline and fall of dominant societies? Even the biological world seems to follow this universal (??) pattern: primitive dinosaurs duked it out with other vertebrate contenders (synapsids, reptiles..) at the beginning of the Mesozoic ("Age of Dinosaurs"). Dinos reached their peak in the middle Mesozoic - TRX, aptosaurs, gigantosaurs.. , then went into some kind of not fully understood decline in vigor near the end of the Mesozoic. Finally, a combination of factors - climate change, large sea level changes, vegetation changes, ecosystem readjustment in response to the above changes, an asteroid strike.. created a perfect storm and the dinos died (except for the theropods that had evolved into birds).

            However, writes Berman, all is not lost! If we look to the fall of the Roman Empire and its aftermath, we see that the Christian monasteries preserved much of ancient learning in their libraries and scriptoria (text copying rooms). This preserved wisdom later assisted and accelerated the (re-)birth of a new civilization during the European Renaissance.

           In effect, Berman is asking us to consider a new version of monasticism, adapted to the needs of our current situation. The ancient christian monks renounced and withdrew from a doomed world, waiting for God's Kingdom on Earth to manifest in glory. The doomed secular world of today which Berman wants to renounce is kitsch and the corporate "value" system. Berman equates the latter with cynical, profit driven manipulation of dumbed-down masses. Like myself, Berman feels that Profit has become our de facto god, a moloch to which all must be sacrificed: healthy ecosystems, a sustainable future for unborn generations, nature, dignity, culture (as participatory act), autonomy, the future and even - in extremo - the very life of the earth itself.. Moloch is a Jealous God!

             For Berman, the "New Monasticism" is, above all, humanism, a profound personal dedication to the Enlightenment values which, he feels, lie at the heart of our civilization:

- disinterested pursuit of the truth, 
- cultivation of art, 
- commitment to critical thinking, 
- quest for social justice and equity within and between nations, 
- an educational system designed to transform children into autonomous , self-respecting citizens involved in the collective life of their community, nation and the world.. 

              On the whole, many would feel these are laudable goals..

             My problem. My problem is that Berman's analyses, brilliant and cogent they may be, remain on a purely "cultural" level ("cultural", in Berman's usage, includes the sense of "ethical" or "moral"). In fact he even rejects all attempts to - as he put it - "institutionalize" New Monasticism. To invest public money in alternative schools which try to empower inner-city black kids would, claims Berman, effectively eviscerate the soul of those schools and transform them into parts of the life destroying System. One must truly remain "above" the fray, one must not become "contaminated" by the System's corrupt - and corrupting - values. By taking the System's  money, by working within its rules, all "monastic" efforts at culture building or maintenance are vitiated or negated.

              The real problem, I suspect, is that while Berman's arguments about the decadence of modern technological civilization are, on the whole, correct, they fail to grasp the full measure of our crises. He intellectually seems to grasp what the last Dark Age in European history involved. But he fails to translate this knowledge into concrete physical probabilities when it comes to assessing our current situation.

             Berman's ideals are basically laudable, as I wrote above. We should all cultivate the best of the Enlightenment's values: toleration, universalism, humanism, criticism of authority, personal autonomy, humility before facts.. But such measures are patently not sufficient! Berman ignores - for example - that the early monks withdrew from society into deserts and wild places to contemplate God and live holy lives. They were autonomous: they grew their own food and brewed their own beer and wine, they raised their own wool sheep, produced their own charcoal and even smelted their own ironware.. They were proficient farmers and at times gave substantial portions of their surpluses to aid the poor. Berman also appears to ignore just how socially disruptive the Hard Days ahead promise to be. If we are to weather the storm, if we are to provide seeds of renewed growth for those who follow us, we will need to assure those values Berman treasures have  physical spaces - living communities - in which to take root and flourish.

              In times of maximum danger like these, both precaution and judicious risk are required. We cannot stay where we are - the ship is sinking. We must jump - but we need look before we leap. We need to leap with wisdom.

            The wisest way to prepare for the many great leaps humanity will be forced to take is to build resilient communities. Small, well organized communities capable of weathering the storm and providing haven for the Enlightenment values Berman treasures and wants to preserve. The new shoots must have fertile ground in which to root. The New Monks must have land to till, abbeys to live in..

             I believe that "volitional" communities - consciously organized to promote conviviality and resilience - such as those proposed by Permaculture or Transition Initiatives (TI) offer the best hope we have of preserving Berman's Enlightenment values. In the New Monastic Age I envisage, those values, rather than retreat from the world of economics, of politics, of social organization as Berman claims, must engage the world frontally, full on..

             Consider, for example, the issue of social stability in the difficult transition to a post cheap fossil fuel energy world. We must expect, at the least, economic decline, social and political destabilization, war. By rebuilding community resilience, by relocalizing the bulk of economic activity at the local / regional level - "deglobalization" or "re-regionalization" - movements like Permaculture and TI will provide islands of relative stability in an increasingly chaotic sea. Such stabilized zones, in turn, provide both an economic base and a "stabilized" population in which a Local State can take root. Maintaining a local state as a police force will be necessary in the coming period of transitional turmoil. Otherwise society will simply degenerate into anarchy and the rule of the strongest. Perhaps, as Marx held, in a decentralized world, the state will "wither away" but during the breakdown of large centralized structures (the global economic system, large national economies, megacorporations..), having a cop on your block to prevent the gangs taking over will become a crucial matter.

Prof Berman's socially critical blog, salty, a bit abrasive for some tastes:


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