Category Archives: Economy
Last month the Media Ecology Association presented this year’s Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity to Morris Berman, whose work I have referenced so many times here at The Teeming Brain that he’s practically an honorary member of the Teem at this point.
Morris was invited to give an acceptance speech at the MEA’s annual convention on June 22, and he was told that he could speak on any topic of his choice. He ended up delivering a talk that effectively summarizes the overall present shape and tone of his well-known dire but, at root, deeply hopeful diagnosis of America’s malaise, decline, and death. (That’s “hopeful” in the very long view, mind you, not in any sense of holding out a hope that we might forestall or reverse America’s Spenglerian, Roman Empire-esque march into wholesale cultural collapse.)
The talk is titled “In Praise of Shadows,” and Morris’s delivery of it at the MEA convention was recorded. Here’s the video, which in addition to the speech itself includes a half-hour Q & A. It’s all wonderful stuff, and I highly recommend it. Below the video are a couple of choice excerpts that are well worth a few minutes’ quiet reading and meditation.
What American . . . doesn’t buy into the American Dream? Why do soup kitchens and tent cities across the United States fly the American flag above them, in a strange parody of patriotism? As John Steinbeck put it many years ago, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” And as I argue in Why America Failed, the goal of the settlers on the North American continent, as far back as the late sixteenth century, has been capital accumulation — “the pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson subsequently called it. . . . Rich or poor, nearly every American wants to be rich, and in fact sees this as the purpose of life. In this sense, we have the purest democracy in the history of the world, because ideologically speaking, the American government and the American people are on the same page. To quote Calvin Coolidge, “The business of America is business.” Hustling is what America has always been about.
This is why our elected leaders have a vacant quality about them. After all, the American Dream is about a world without limits, about always having More. But More is not a spiritual path, nor is it a philosophy of life. It has no content at all, and this why, when you look into the eyes of an Obama or a Clinton or a Hillary Clinton — probably our next president — you see not merely nothing, but a kind of terrifying nothingness. Unfortunately, this vacant look characterizes a lot of the American population as well: the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, as the medieval alchemists were fond of saying. Once again, this is evidence of a pure democracy: nobodies elect nobodies to office, and then everyone wonders “what went wrong.”
. . . As the consumer society, and the American Dream, continue to disintegrate, many will experience a severe crisis of meaning, inasmuch as prior to the crunch, meaning was to be found in the latest technological gadget or piece of software or brand of lip gloss. I see lots of nervous breakdowns on the horizon. But as one droll observer once put it, the trick is to convert a nervous breakdown into a nervous breakthrough. After all, twentieth-century life offered human beings in the West, at least, a set number of master narratives — communism, fascism, and consumerism, primarily — so that they might be able to avoid that most terrifying of all questions: Who am I? As the I Ching tells us, crisis means danger plus opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great to discover that one was more than one’s career, for example, or one’s car? That opportunity is going to present itself, sooner or later. For many, it already has.
FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: “In Praise of Shadows” by Morris Berman
John Lanchester, writing for London Review of Books, offers a dire warning about the status of Britain’s big banks that likewise speaks loudly to all of us living over here across the pond, since we’re in a similar situation:
As the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, takes up his job, it’s a good moment to reflect on the nature and scale of the work ahead of him. In the rear-view mirror, he can see how our banks reached their current condition — a story full of failure, scandal, greed and incompetence. That, as far as the overall picture of modern Britain is concerned, is the fun part. The difficult thing is looking forward and trying to work out what to do next. That’s because in their current condition our banks are an existential threat to British democracy, a more serious one than terrorism, either external or internal. As Andrew Haldane, director of stability at the Bank of England, put it in a historical overview a few years ago, ‘there is one key difference between the situation today and that in the Middle Ages. Then, the biggest risk to the banks was from the sovereign. Today, perhaps the biggest risk to the sovereign comes from the banks. Causality has reversed.’ Yes, it has: and the sovereign at risk is us. The reason for that is that in the UK bank assets are 492 per cent of GDP. In plain English, our banks are five times bigger than our entire economy. (When the Icelandic and Cypriot banking systems collapsed the respective figures were 880 and 700 per cent.) We know from the events of 2008 and subsequently that the financial sector, indeed the whole world economy, is in an inherently unstable condition. Put the size together with the instability, and we are facing a danger that is no less real for not being on the front page this exact second. This has to be fixed, and it has to be fixed soon, and nothing about fixing it is easy.
More: “Let’s Consider Kate“