“Americans are increasingly attracted towards fundamentalist religion not because it explains the world, but because it explains their suffering.”
Marx’s claim that history tends to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, sums up nicely Morris Berman’s employment of the motif of cultural disintegration to describe the current state of American empire.  The historical reference point for Berman’s thesis is Oswald Spengler’s account of the decadence of modern civilization in The Decline of the West, which Spengler wrote during the First World War, and published in 1918 (a second volume was to follow in 1922).  If Spengler’s invocation of spiritual decline captured a latent cultural pessimism that proved ripe for exploitation by European fascism, Berman describes a social order that seems blissfully unaware of its impending disintegration. This is a society that seems intent on enjoying itself to death. But while Berman makes every effort to dress up his thesis as a narrative of cultural exhaustion, the suspicion lingers that this is a familiar complaint about a trivialized politics and an infantilized mass culture, couched in terms of a decline of civilization. One way of putting this is to say that Berman does not go far enough in his diagnosis. The book fails to convince as a thesis about spiritual decline, and it does not prove fully satisfactory as an analysis of the pathologies of the present-day United States. I am not qualified to judge the historical argument Berman presents about the conditions of the decline of Empire. I leave that to the historians. What I am interested in (which I think is the philosophically interesting question here) is rather the use of the idea of spiritual decay in a social-critical diagnosis. More specifically, I am interested in asking whether the use to which Berman puts this idea really helps us to understand the present politics and culture of the United States.
The Politics of Resentment
Much of the rhetorical force of Berman’s book comes from its invocation of a society with increasingly aggressive imperialist tendencies, mobilized on a permanent war footing to the benefit of private interests (the military-industrial complex that is inexhaustible in its demands for fortunes and favors from the new Caesar), and a population kept in a state of unquestioning ignorance by the continued supply of panem et circenses, by way of the infantile popular culture that is the modern day equivalent of bread and circuses. But Berman evidently has larger fish to fry than the mere political power grab of a Christian fundamentalist cabal. The United States, he claims, is an empire in irreversible decline; there is ‘no way out of this way of life short of a total breakdown of it’ (DAA, 24). What, then, is this way of life? For Berman, it is a life characterized by the emptying out of the bonds and attachments of community in the commodifed and technology-driven lifestyles of late modernity. Berman borrows liberally from a range of theorists here, including Zygmunt Bauman, Robert Putnam and Albert Borgman. Whether this generates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts is doubtful, particularly if the conclusion is supposed to be the predictable statement that we have lost a language ‘for the life of craft and commitment, for the long-lost world of civic responsibility’ (DAA, 75).
A significant deficit of Berman’s explanatory frame is that he does not apply this problematic to the understanding of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. Berman is content is subsume this whole issue under the theme of the triumph of Religion over Reason (DAA, 3-5). Whilst it is perfectly true that the brand of Christian fundamentalism that has taken over the levers of power in the United States is describable as hostile to reason, at the same time it is impossible to understand this movement without grasping that it is, in cultural terms, a reaction to certain destructive features of global consumer capitalism. What it is a reaction to, in fact, is precisely those experiences of anomie, meaninglessness, and the loss of control over impersonal forces that Berman wants to depict with Zygmunt Bauman’s phrase ‘liquid modernity’. Christian fundamentalism’s opposition to intellectual reasoning and scientific inquiry is in reality a response to the complicity of what is perceived to be secular reasoning in driving the destructive force of capitalist modernization. It is interesting that Berman, in the context of a discussion of relations between the United States and Islamic nations, suggests that the latter ‘do have one thing that we seem to lack’, namely, a ‘spiritual center, a mode of guidance (focal practice) that is deeper than the world of commodities and the device paradigm’ (DAA, 78-9). But doesn’t this also explain the domestic attraction of a form of fundamentalist Christianity that conceives itself as in a war against encroaching secularization (at the hands of scientists, gays and lesbians, educated women, artists and film-makers)?
Instead of trying to comprehend this destructive dialectic, Berman too often seems content to sneer at those who fall for this explanation, berating their lack of intellectual sophistication. Americans, Berman tells us, exhibit a ‘lack of intellectual suppleness or curiosity, [a] distaste for ambiguity’ (DAA, 7). So many Americans possess a kind of ‘life stupidity’, we are told (DAA, 323). Indeed, compared to their (presumably very sophisticated) European counterparts, ‘Americans come off looking like a collection of buffoons’ (DAA, 295). As an explanation, of course, this does nothing except feed a psychological sense of superiority. Berman is certainly not afraid of the accusation of elitism, which need not be such a bad thing. But in this context it simply disguises the intellectual Left’s lack of an alternative narrative for making sense of common life experiences that might compete for attention with a regressive religiosity. This, in a nutshell, is why intellectuals are forced to settle for a sneer rather than an explanation.
A much more promising approach, I think, is suggested in Arlie Hochschild’s poignant description of the successful right-wing attempt to mobilize blue-collar ‘fear, resentment and a sense of being lost’.  This would involve an understanding of how that resentment has been redirected towards an alleged external threat to American values and way of life, in the process, as Hochschild hypothesizes, winning the support of the working class for the business of empire. Faced with a choice between a liberal narrative that has no place for resentment, and a right-wing narrative that nourishes, harnesses, and then re-directs their anger, it is unsurprising that the modern day Republican Party has become the default choice for white working class men. Whilst, of course, the Right wing strategy of ‘Let Them Eat War’, or perhaps even better, ‘Let Them Eat Capitalism’, does nothing to take away the conditions that feed this resentment, this is to some extent beside the point. As in the case of the ascetic priest described by Nietzsche, the present day manipulator of working class resentment knows that he or she only has to combat the suffering, the discomfort of the sufferer, ‘not its cause, not the actual state of being ill’.  Every sufferer, for Nietzsche, searches for a meaning in order to make sense of his or her distress. The ascetic priest, whom Nietzsche refers to as the ‘direction-changer of resentment’, anaesthetizes pain by finding a focus for the release of anger and emotion. The result, in the case of the white working class, is a toxic construction of self-identity, where the pivot of individual self-respect as an ordinary American is the construction of an internal (minorities, gays, immigrants etc.) or external (Islamists, Communists, or some combination thereof) threat to this identity, and which serves as a focal point for popular rage. This is why politics, for the majority of the white working class in the United States, has become a channel for the collective expression of ressentiment. It does not matter that the very idea of a ‘war on terror’, or the proposal for amending the constitution to ban gay marriage, are nonsensical on the model of politics as rational problem solving. What they provide are affirmations of self, cathartic rituals in which one can feel good about oneself by externalizing the threat to self, which then becomes a target of rage. What we are dealing with here is not working class stupidity. It is a form of politics as resentment that still remains a complete mystery to left-wing intellectuals.
In the central chapters of his book, dealing with United States foreign policy, Berman sets out to give us the true story of the role of the United States in the post-Second World War world. Whilst I don’t want to get into disputes about Berman’s scholarship, nor indeed to challenge his assertion that the events of September 11th were ‘the tragic but inevitable outcome of [United States] foreign policy in [the Middle East]‘ (DAA, 159), I do however want to question the operating assumption of this analysis. Berman takes himself here to be giving us the truth, telling us what would be self-evident to the average American if only the scales of ignorance would drop from their eyes. Once again, this is framed in a sneer of intellectual superiority, expressed in the statement that ‘most of the American people’ have not yet ‘figured out the laws of cause and effect’ (DAA, 199). This shares with other analyses of the Left intellectual sort the deficit of a marked naivety about the mechanisms of political belief formation, the most extreme manifestation of which is a Chomsky-like fetishism of facts. I don’t want to say that such an approach is bereft of any worth. But the reeling off of historical sequences of cause and effect – as a political act – does little but provide a modicum of psychological comfort in being smart enough to ‘know the truth’. What I am saying is that a rationalist explanation of ‘why they hate us’ is simply no match for a narrative that lances the boil of resentment. It is not enough for an explanation to be true, it also has to be satisfying. The intellectual’s causal explanation is satisfying only to the intellectual, since it allows him or her to assume a mien of superiority. But, to this intellectualized view of politics, the statement that ‘they hate freedom’ is incomprehensible because it is not intended to be a causal explanation that presages a prescriptive solution to an objective problem. It is rather a form of self-assertion, making the self feel secure by giving body to an external threat. This is the Nietzschean insight that is absent in the world-view of the American left. It is important for the latter to learn the lesson that the Right has adopted as its own, namely that there is an essential psychological dimension to politics. Until intellectuals like Berman learn this lesson, they will forever be shaking their heads at the stupidity of the working class, unaware that, in doing so, they are feeding the very resentment they are continually unable properly to diagnose.
If Berman makes the typical mistake of misunderstanding the sub-rational nature of politics, the same can be said of his treatment of religious discourse. Again here, the rational problem-solving perspective is one that takes American religiosity to comprise commitments to a set of beliefs about the world. From this perspective, it is fairly easy to rustle up scare stories that nourish the satisfaction of intellectual incomprehension. Berman cites a Time magazine poll that 59% of Americans believe that the faithful will be taken up to heaven in the “Rapture”. He also finds it worth noting that one in eight Americans read trashy novels based on the Book of Revelations (DAA, 4). But satisfying though these intellectual descriptions of belief are, they add little to comprehension. Do we really know why 59% of Americans answer this question in the affirmative? Are we really sure what they are affirming? And can we know for sure what they are getting out of those novels? My point again here is that the attempt to shoehorn religiosity into the frame of factual explanation leads to a profound misunderstanding of its underlying psychological role. Historical proof, as Wittgenstein put it rather starkly, ‘is irrelevant to belief’.  This is not because religious belief is ignorant of the facts, but because the facts are irrelevant to the psychological problem to which fundamentalist religious discourse answers. What is needed here is an understanding of the growth of fundamentalist Christianity as a response to the undermining of the social-cultural bases of self-respect through the destructive consequences of consumer capitalism. Americans are increasingly attracted towards fundamentalist religion not because it explains the world, but because it explains their suffering. The failure to understand this point is symptomatic of the Academic left’s disconnect from the working class in the United States.
The Problem of Spiritual Decline
This attempt to graft a rightist pining for a lost world of meaning and belonging onto a leftist analysis of the destructive force of consumerist capitalism is nothing new, of course. A considerably more intellectually sophisticated analysis of this sort occurs in Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.  Berman in fact follows MacIntyre in arguing that the institutions of modern capitalist societies are intellectually and morally bankrupt. The comparison with the fall of Rome is invoked explicitly at the end of After Virtue, where MacIntyre calls for the construction of ‘new forms of community’ that might sustain moral and intellectual life in the ‘coming ages of barbarism and darkness’.  What makes MacIntyre’s account more satisfactory is its awareness that the question of spiritual decay is not merely a matter of self-destructive elite behavior plus popular ignorance, but is ultimately inseparable from philosophical questions concerning the structure of our reasoning.
In this regard, MacIntyre is much closer to Spengler’s thesis of cultural decline than Berman seems to be. For Spengler, rationalism, the structure of modern reasoning, is identifiable as the ‘enemy of tradition’. Its own religion is ‘criticism’, and it replaces the soul-filled symbols of traditional understanding with abstract concepts (DW, 365). These concepts, on Spengler’s view, are hollowed-out forms of those names laden with spiritual significance with which a culture first gives expression to its underlying soul. Civilization, and its eviscerated rationality, is for Spengler the condition of a culture and its soul ‘after it has actualized its possibilities in full’ (DW, 182). The difference between culture and civilization is thus the difference between ‘the living body of a soul and the mummy of it’. For Spengler, the ‘Northern soul has exhausted its inner possibilities’, hence nothing remains for the West but the ‘passionate desire to create, the form without the content’ (DW, 187).
In an earlier book, The Twilight of American Culture, Berman had suggested that it was possible to understand the notion of a decay of civilizations without the organic baggage that goes along with Spengler’s account. Whilst collapse is built into civilization itself, this can be understood, he suggests, ‘in purely rational or economic terms’.  Spiritual death, Spengler’s notion of the emptying out of the content of cultural forms, would here be intelligible as a side effect of a process of economic decline that is driven by the cumulative irrationality of bureaucratic complexity. But the baby that Berman throws out with the bathwater of Spengler’s organic metaphoric is the possibility of a critical perspective on the structures of Western rational thinking, as it is embodied in the dominant practices of late capitalist modernity.
This is where, I think, a perspective like that of Spengler may be useful in thinking through why today religion seems to have become inaccessible, except in an entirely reactive, ressentiment-driven form. Any reproach leveled by Natural science at religion, Spengler claims, is a boomerang (DW, 190). This is because, according to Spengler, ‘there is no Natural science without a precedent Religion’. While this should not lead us to say that the natural scientific model is not a uniquely insightful way of obtaining knowledge about nature, it is true all the same that it is a consequence of a particular cultural constellation of values and interests. Following Nietzsche, Spengler conceives this in terms of a culture’s underlying will. This is why any accusation leveled against the anthropomorphic nature of religion boomerangs against natural science, which, turning its critical eye upon itself, reveals itself to be an outgrowth of a particular culture. Berman does capture something of the inherently self-destructive nature of scientific rationality in his claim that critical thought has the potential to ‘erode the foundations of any society’ (DAA, 93). He also notes that the other side of the coin, the ‘pure tribalism’ that he sees embodied in regressive cultural movements in the Islamic world, is equally as nihilistic as the critical potential of scientific rationality driven to extremes. All the same, this description does not really capture the destructive dialectic at work here, where re-discovered forms of (foreign and domestic) tribalism are intelligible as eminently reactive cultural formations that respond to the threat of corrosive consequences of scientific rationality by way of a defensive posture towards tradition. Because these fundamentalisms are inherently reactive, asserting themselves in opposition to a perceived threat, they do not offer a genuine solution to the problems attendant upon the hollowing out of cultural meaning. Instead, they simply generate increasing – and increasingly difficult to satisfy – demands for targets of resentment. Spengler’s understanding of cultural decline would allow us more properly to formulate the dialectical connections here. The central idea is that the growth of religious fundamentalism is not a sign that religion today is intellectually bankrupt; it is a symptom of the fact that the religious bases of scientific rationality have exhausted themselves. Spengler’s comment that Western physics is drawing to the limits of its possibilities (DW, 212) is not targeted at the power of natural science as a process of intellectual discovery (which remains inexhaustible). It is directed at the incapacity of the natural scientific worldview to give sense and direction to culture.
Berman seems to me entirely right when, in The Twilight of American Culture, he suggests that the central problem is the integration of natural scientific thinking into the expanding industrial, technological, and global/commercial culture.  This is more than evident in today’s universities, where scientific research has come to mean little more than prostitution to the highest corporate bidder. However the corporate capture of natural scientific thinking is a consequence of the decline of scientific rationalism as an embodiment of cultural value, not the cause of the latter. In other words, the notion of spiritual decline, as Spengler saw, is primarily a religious problem. More precisely, it is a problem of the impossibility of a religiously driven culture – and this impossibility manifests itself in both the forfeiture of the spaces of cultural meaning to the intrusions of consumer capitalism and the sole accessibility of religion as a purely reactive formation. We are, then, in that historical context that Spengler refers to as ‘pure civilization’, which consists in ‘a progressive exhaustion of forms that have become inorganic or dead’ (DW, 25). Although it is easy to empathize with Berman’s call for ‘long-term study and thought’ in order to come up with alternatives to ‘global bourgeois democracy’ (DAA, 329), at the same time it must be recognized that the expulsion of theory from culture, and the subsequent degeneration of theory into what Spengler calls ‘rationalism’, is part of what theory needs to reflect upon. Once theory has become disembodied intellectual knowledge, in other words, it is itself part of the problem (which is not to say that it isn’t part of the solution as well).
The Conflicts of Empire
What, then, should we make of Berman’s diagnosis that the United States represents an Empire in decline? Although Berman is careful to trace the history of imperial ambitions in U.S. foreign policy, it is clear he wants to portray the excesses of the Bush II administration as an important signifier of imperial decline. It goes without saying that there are problems with trying to discern significant historical shifts within a very short space of historical time (five years in this case). It’s not clear there has been any historically significant shift in the troika of decline that Berman mentions: the triumph of religion over reason (when was this not the case?); the atrophy of critical thinking (was it ever in a healthy state?), or the apparatus of torture (as Berman notes in the historical sections of his book, the United States has a sorry history of condoning torture in support of its foreign policy goals). This is not to say that there have not been important shifts in the configuration of empire, however they are not the ones Berman mentions.
What marks the difference between the United States and previous imperial powers is not that the U.S. is an ‘Empire lite’ (in Michael Ignatieff’s phrase), but rather the distinctive fashion in which it has used its preponderant military and economic power to construct a world system of global free trade that serves primarily transnational capitalist interests. What is new about the U.S. version of empire, as Arif Dirlik has argued, is precisely its element of transnationality.  That is to say, it is a form of empire in which transnational class interests take precedence over national ones. This, Dirlik argues, stems from an understanding that ruling class interests can best be promoted by cooperation with ruling interests elsewhere, rather than through the old forms of competing national interests. It is the unique position of the United States as both the enforcer of this order, and also at another level simply another player within the rules of the game, that determines its current imperial role. We are far from the Leninist model of a zero-sum game of competing nation states, fighting for a share of the colonial spoils. Without going so far as to endorse William Robinson’s promotion of the idea of a new Transnational Capitalist Class, it is certainly clear that the world order guaranteed by U.S. power promotes class interests that are not demarcated by national boundaries. If Berman had taken some time to look at this, he might have taken a different approach to the question of what is new in the post 9/11 world. In particular, as Doug Stokes has argued, there has been an increase in tension between the role of the U.S. as coordinator of transnational order and its pursuit of distinctly American interests.  The tensions inherent in the unique role of the US within the world order show signs of coming to the surface, particularly in the sentiment of the American Right that the U.S. has been unduly constrained by the system of international coordination. The Iraq war and occupation, as Stokes points out, is certainly the most distinctly national moment of U.S. empire, and might well presage a shift in the international system. These tensions between national and transnational interests are likely to increase in the near future, primarily for economic reasons. Even empire apologist Niall Ferguson has noted the economic constraints within which the U.S. now operates. He suggests that only ‘steep cuts in public expenditure or increases in taxation will enable the government to avoid a grave fiscal crisis’.  Given the deeply sclerotic U.S. political system, which seems increasingly unable to respond to growing social or economic problems, a grave crisis is looking more and more like the most likely outcome to the serious structural problems plaguing the U.S. Furthermore, and contrary to Ferguson’s rather boyish fixation on the U.S.’s ‘full spectrum’ military capabilities, the Iraq occupation has made perfectly evident how irrelevant the capacity to win military battles is without political victory. These developments are the ones that are likely to lead to changes in the configuration of empire in the coming years, whether that implies a re-aligning of the national versus international constellation of interests, or a withdrawal/abdication of the U.S. role of guarantor of the world capitalist order, with potentially very destructive consequences for that system.
In short, I’m not convinced that Berman has satisfactorily articulated the reasons why the United States is in a state of political and spiritual decline, together with waning imperial influence. It is important for the Left to understand the reactive politics that has enabled the Right to capture the white (particularly white male) working class; and it is not enough for the Left to counter reactive politics with a model of politics as problem solving. The Left has to construct a narrative that can compete with the politics of resentment so skillfully manipulated by the Right. This means (as Thomas Frank has argued) placing the idea of class conflict squarely in the center of political debate. However, I’m not convinced that the left can renew itself politically unless it can discover the key to what John Dewey meant when he spoke of the need for ‘an emancipation of the religious from religion’.  This would imply, I suggest, something like (at the risk of contradiction) recovering the religious force of the tradition of secular humanism, so brilliantly exemplified in the young Karl Marx’s devastating moral critiques of capitalism. Part of what I understand Dewey to be saying in this phrase is that Religion is harmful precisely because it extinguishes any possibility of understanding the religious (that is, unified and directed toward ideal ends) nature of our everyday practices. In this sense, the critique of the dominant, reactive religiosity of the current age is the key to spiritual renewal. Or in other words, the reversal of spiritual decline is impossible without the destruction of Religion. The most important thing for the Left is to develop a sense of the seriousness of the problem. Berman is to be commended at least for making the attempt.
1. Morris Berman, Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006). Hereafter cited in the text as DAA.
2. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson (New York: Vintage, 2006). Hereafter cited in the text as DW.
3. Arlie Hochschild, ‘Let Them Eat War’, accessed on Monday May 1st, 2006.
4. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 101.
5. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980), 32.
6. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985).
7. MacIntyre, After Virtue, 263.
8. Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000), 18.
9. Berman, The Twilight of American Culture, 110.
10. Arif Dirlik, ‘Empire? Some Thoughts on Colonialism, Culture, and Class in the Making of Global Crisis and War in Perpetuity’, Interventions 5:2, 2003, 213.
11. Doug Stokes, ‘The Heart of Empire? Theorising US Empire in an Era of Transnational Capitalism’, Third World Quarterly 26:2, 2005, 231.
12. Niall Ferguson, ‘An Empire in Denial: The Limits of U.S. Imperialism’, Harvard International Review, Fall 2003, 67.
13. John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1934).
Roger Foster is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York. Foster has published articles on Frankfurt School critical theory in several journals. His book, Adorno: The Recovery of Experience, is forthcoming from State University of New York Press.