Economics/Class Relations

The Waning of the Modern Ages – Time to Abolish the American Dream

By Morris Berman


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.

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