In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman talked about the collapse of Western civilization as it is represented by America.
First, he identified four signs of this collapse. The first was (1) the greatest gap between rich and poor in the history of America. The creation of this gap includes the ongoing destruction of the middle and working classes as families from both join the ever-growing ranks of the marginal class. It also includes the continuing destruction of democracy and culture as both of these depend upon a hearty middle class for their maintenance and enhancement. He also mentioned (2) diminishing returns, as responses to challenges demand greater costs but deliver smaller benefits; (3) increasing ignorance; and (4) spiritual death, an exponential growth in meaninglessness as corporate beliefs, values, and norms obliterate the existence—even the memory—of all others.
Morris then pointed out the uncomfortable parallels between our contemporary situation and that of the western Roman Empire as it collapsed in the AD 400s. Yet he also appreciated the creative response made by monks and monasteries as they chose to save the best books of classical culture for other better times. Such times indeed arrived, though only after more than 600 years had passed, when just before 1100 those books delighted scholars once again and intellectual creativity flourished.
Morris then explored why Western civilization is collapsing again at this time. He asserted that the good Enlightenment went bad, that science and sensate observation became scientism and materialism under the increasing pressure of growing capitalism, and gave us the triumph of meaninglessness we endure today.
Morris celebrated people today who, in ways similar to the monks of old, seek to be New Monastic Individuals (NMIs) by preserving and transmitting what was true, good, and beautiful of the good Enlightenment tradition now disappearing. Such individuals include “Earl Shorris teaching Plato and Aristotle to ex-cons, [and] Olga Bloom arranging chamber-music concerts on a barge in the East River…” (161).
Morris concludes his book with a discussion of the different futures we might face. He personally believes that our future can be better than our present. That, however, will depend on the meaningfulness of current monastic activity. In times of transition, small acts have greater impact. If monastic activity is sufficient to indicate a meaningful and viable alternative to a collapsing status quo, a large number of people might embrace it.
Historical development only looks inevitable in hindsight. At any given moment, a variety of possibilities exist. Surprising eventualities only seem so because their development remained hidden. Perhaps NMIs today will preserve and bequeath enough meaning to spark a Relightenment tomorrow. “Just maybe, we need to expect the unexpected” (166).
Morris takes a quick look at our historical context. As a historical era, he says the 19th century actually began in 1789 with the French Revolution. That’s when the old feudal order of monarchy and Church ended. This 19th century era actually ended with the beginning of the War of 1914.
Morris identifies the next historical era, between 1914 and 1989, as “the final phase of modernism, the age of genocide, the era of angst, anomie, Picasso, and Einstein, and the ineluctable emergence of the United States as the world’s only superpower” (167).
He identifies 1989 as the year marking the end of the modernistic era and the beginning of a postmodernistic period. In that year, the Soviet Union began its terminal collapse. With that, the division of the world into two opposing alliances ended and globalization, under the control of American corporate elites, grew rapidly.
Morris believes that in this “new global economy…consumerism will be a full-blown religion” (167). We’ve already noted elsewhere that Olympianity is already the world’s most popular religion and that consumerism is simply our devotion to Bacchus the god of consumption.
If globalization is the first new reality of the postmodern era, information technology is the second. The exercise of power or control on a global scale by American corporate elites would have been impossible without it. Worse, it rendered “reality so abstract that it became completely virtual” (168). “Like texts on a computer screen,” states Morris, “all information has an ephemeral quality and is seemingly equivalent to all other information” (168). Consequently, people, places, organizations, events, national states, history, beliefs, values, norms, and goals all appear equally abstract, ephemeral, and equivalent “in a new world of an eternal electronic present” (168).
The third characteristic of postmodernism to emerge around 1989 was deconstructionism. This is the intellectual affirmation of absolute relativism. All beliefs, values, norms, narratives, logic, and goals are equivalent. There is no truth or falsehood, right or wrong, good or evil, or meaning of any kind. Consequently, there is no enduring individual or societal identity or need for one.
While globalization, virtual reality, and deconstructionism characterize our world right now, Morris believes these characteristics are too unstable to endure long. They characterize only the transitional period between the modern world that ended in 1989 and the dark age that will precede the emergence of a new civilization at some point in the future.
This new civilization might take one of several forms. One would be a new manner of feudalism. In this future, like that which followed the collapse of the western Roman Empire, civilizational stability would have been reestablished through the dominance of large landowners and the freezing of social mobility.
Two, some kind of authoritarian state in which a small elite controls everyone else.
Three, a “decentralized egalitarian world” (168), although creating this “seems…to ignore the realities of power” (170).
Four, a decentralized warring world similar to the chronic hostility of the municipal states of Renaissance Italy.
The process of transition, from our collapsing civilization to the rise of the next one, might also take one of several forms. One, we might experience a quick return to an equitable, democratic, prosperous, creative, and meaningful world through “some combination of dedicated, ‘righteous’ activity and shift in spiritual consciousness” (170). Morris thinks this is so unlikely that he calls it “the ‘miraculous’ model, based as it is on wish fulfillment” (170).
Two, a “total and rapid collapse…into real barbarism” (170). Morris thinks this is much less likely than I do because, he says, America “seems to be good at crisis management” (170). Not this time.
Three, a cultural renaissance based on the confluence of enduring monastic activity and other factors after years, perhaps centuries, have passed. This is the form which Morris prefers and regards as possible though not likely.
Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.