"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘“The American Dream”’

In A System Of Coercion & Predetermined Choices, “Freedom” Is Just A Word

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Oldspeak: “For the overwhelming majority of us, our whole lives revolve around meeting our basic needs and keeping our families from starvation and homelessness. Most individuals are at the mercy of the economic system and have little time for anything else – survival is their main concern. What kind of a life is that? Is this a life lived in absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action? People spend most of their lives working for a ruthless system and benefit very little from the incredible work and labor they put into it. And despite their best efforts, they are barely making it.

But being a human is about more than just earning a living, working 40 plus hours a week for someone else’s benefit, and wasting countless more hours commuting to and from work. We get a few hours to ourselves for lunch or at home after work, and (if we are lucky) two weeks of vacation per year. This is not freedom – it’s more like temporary release. Living means more than merely existing; living is about experiencing life by expressing one’s passions, connecting with one another, and contributing creatively to our communities. For the most part of our existence, our bodies and our time belong to our employers, the “owners.” The only reason the current system “works” is because it threatens us with starvation and homelessness – this is coercion. It is not freedom by any definition.” –Kali Ma

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

“The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. “Many of them are normal because they are so well-adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does.” They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted.”-Aldous Huxley

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Freedom is Slavery””Ignorance is Strength” –George Orwell

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” –Nesta Robert Marley

Don’t believe the hype. All the consumables, you’re being encouraged to spend your life force acquiring in the name of “personalization”, “independence”, “freedom”, “convenience” are being used to control and enslave you. Let go of your attachments to stuff. Don’t live your life in insatiable and relentless pursuit of “more”. Our Mother Earth cannot support us if we don’t drastically re prioritize our civilizations to value conservation over consumption. Sustainable, clean, regenerative energy development over toxic, extractive and destructive development. Creation, abundance, and balance over destruction, scarcity and imbalance. The revolution begins in you.” –OSJ

By Kali Ma @ The Hampton Institute:

Freedom is a word and idea that has become synonymous with America. President George Bush told Americans in the wake of 911 that the reason terrorists attacked the country was because “they hate our freedoms.” The national anthem proudly proclaims that America is “the land of the free.” Every July 4, Americans celebrate Independence Day and the freedoms that America represents. But what does freedom actually mean? What do politicians, those in power, and everyday individuals mean when they use freedom to describe the essence of America? In the sense that we have been conditioned to think of freedom and America as synonymous, there is actually no true meaning or definition of freedom. It is what George Orwell termed a “meaningless word” because it conveys nothing specific.[1] In reality, freedom means different things to different people: the right to free speech; the right to vote and participate in the political process; the right to privacy; the ability to accumulate great wealth and consume various products; or the right to live unmolested and to move about freely without constraints. [2] Essentially, the meaning of freedom is a personal one that has no official consensus.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, freedom means: a)the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action; b) liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another. Freedom, then, is about autonomy and independence – to be in control of oneself and to choose one’s destiny. If we apply this definition as the standard, do we truly have freedom?
“Work Until We Keel Over and Die”

The reality for most people in the world today is one in which we serve the needs of the economic system, and in turn, those at the top who benefit from the status quo. For a human being to do anything in the world, his or her most basic needs – such as food, shelter, and clothing – must first be met. Since all individuals need money to survive, the economic system within a country is one of the primary – if not the primary – determinant of an individual’s course and quality of life. Since money is directly tied to survival, it serves as a major factor that guides our decisions.

Frontline’s recently released documentary Two American Families vividly depicts the extent to which money and the economic system affect our everyday reality. The film follows the lives of two working-class families (the Neumanns and the Stanleys) over the course of twenty years as they struggle to live the “American Dream.” Their troubles begin when both Tony Neumann and Claude Stanley lose their well-paying, unionized manufacturing jobs to overseas outsourcing. What follows in the next two decades for both families is a painful struggle to keep up with their bills, feed their children, and cope with the constant stress of being unemployed, underemployed, and on the brink of poverty and homelessness. Throughout the years, the Neumanns and Stanleys work various demanding jobs (sometimes two at a time) and eventually hope to live a life of “purpose and a lot more self-respect.” The Neumann kids worry about the family’s finances and, at one point, even offer to sell their baseball cards. The Stanley boys start their own lawn care business and have no time for fun during the summer because, as the oldest son Keith says, “You have to go out there and help your mom and dad.” Only one Stanley child makes it through college while the rest are unable to attend due to medical bills that put the family $30,000 in debt. Even with all their hard work, resilience, and refusal to give up, both families express their disappointments and blame themselves for the struggles they have endured over the years.

One of the most disturbing examples of the injustice and ruthlessness of our system is the foreclosure of Terry Neumann’s home. After 24 years, Terry loses her house in 2011 because her part-time job wages are not enough to cover the mortgage. If we assume that the monthly mortgage payments stayed the same for 24 years, the Neumann family paid JP Morgan close to $236,160 for a house the bank sold for $38,000 in foreclosure and for which they demanded an additional $120,000 from Terry as a buy-out.[3] After years of barely “making it,” Terry has little faith in the future and believes that most of us will simply “work until we collapse, keel over and die.”
Poverty – As American as Apple Pie

Unfortunately, the Stanleys and the Neumanns are not unique. Their stories are typical and happen to millions of Americans every day. According to recent surveys, 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and 80% of Americans struggle with unemployment and near-poverty at some point in their lives. Since the 2008 economic crash, millions of Americans have slipped into poverty, lost their homes, gone bankrupt, become unemployed, and are now working part-time jobs in an economy where not even full-time wages are enough to make a decent living. But these conditions have always been present, as evidenced by families like the Stanleys and Neumanns; it’s just that now an increasing number of Americans are living this reality that had previously gone mostly unacknowledged. Currently, there are more than47 million Americans on food stamps (most of thememployed), and almost a third of working class families earn wages below the official poverty threshold. In the more updated poverty measures, which include additional living costs such as medical expenses, almost 50% of Americans – 146. 4 million people – are considered poor or low-income.[4] On top of all this, 69% of Americans today hold some form of debt with the median household owing $70,000. Unfortunately, the odds of overcoming these dire economic circumstances are slim: theU.S. ranks consistently at the bottom when it comes toincome equality and offers much less economic mobility than other developed countries. So, who is benefitting from this system?

The top 1% richest households in America received 121% of all income gains from 2009 to 2011, and median CEO pay increased to $15.1 million last year. Today, the richest 1% of Americans take in 24% of all new income, while in 1976 they took home 9%. The 400 wealthiest individuals – the real owners of America – have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Corporations have also raked in record profits, yet somehow none of this prosperity has “trickled down” to the rest of us.
Freedom to Live, Not Merely Exist

When we look at the Stanleys, Neumanns, and millions of other families struggling to (literally) survive, one has to ask: are they free human beings? What freedoms do they enjoy? For the overwhelming majority of us, our whole lives revolve around meeting our basic needs and keeping our families from starvation and homelessness. Most individuals are at the mercy of the economic system and have little time for anything else – survival is their main concern. What kind of a life is that? Is this a life lived in absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action? People spend most of their lives working for a ruthless system and benefit very little from the incredible work and labor they put into it. And despite their best efforts, they are barely making it.

But being a human is about more than just earning a living, working 40 plus hours a week for someone else’s benefit, and wasting countless more hours commuting to and from work. We get a few hours to ourselves for lunch or at home after work, and (if we are lucky) two weeks of vacation per year. This is not freedom – it’s more like temporary release. Living means more than merely existing; living is about experiencing life by expressing one’s passions, connecting with one another, and contributing creatively to our communities. For the most part of our existence, our bodies and our time belong to our employers, the “owners.” The only reason the current system “works” is because it threatens us with starvation and homelessness – this is coercion. It is not freedom by any definition.

According to studies, most workers today have completely checked out from their jobs and are practically sleepwalking through their workdays. This even includes high-income workers, which suggests that money has little effect on whether we actually enjoy our jobs. These statistics fly in the face of those who argue that our current system is necessary because it creates an incentive for people to be productive. Studies have repeatedly shown thatmoney is actually a bad motivator, and what people really care about is to have autonomy at their jobs and the opportunity to apply their talents and be recognized for their work. Turns out, self-expression and the ability to make one’s own decisions are more important than money. This may be surprising to many of us because we have been indoctrinated into an economic ideology that sees profit as the ultimate value without any consideration for human beings and the natural world. Today, our global economy is mostly geared toward consuming and producing products we don’t need at the expense of exploited workers and the degradation of our environment. In other words, we are lending our labor to forces of death and destruction while ignoring the consequences of our work. No wonder most people cannot relate to their jobs.

Unfortunately, many individuals cannot afford to quit their jobs even if they find their work morally repugnant because they have to worry about paying their bills and taking care of their families. Moreover, in an economy based on consumption and exploitation, there are few meaningful jobs that provide us with a deep sense of purpose and that create a positive impact on society. If they do exist, these jobs are mostly reserved for privileged individuals who get to choose between careers of profit or lives of purpose. It is these kinds of choices that working class people do not have in our system today.

No one is suggesting that people should not be “productive” or contribute to society; on the contrary, people want to have a purpose in life and we should be able to utilize our talents and passions for the benefit of society while still working in harmony with each other and the environment. A coercive economy only creates widespread discontent and fails to meet even the basic physical and psychological needs of the majority of people.

Unfortunately, there are still those who blame others for being poor, unemployed, or struggling in this economy. While those in power often blame people for their misfortunate in order to evade responsibility for creating and perpetuating a system of oppression, there are also those within the working class who echo their sentiments. Clearly these individuals have internalized the authoritarian and coercive mindset that keeps them obedient to the needs of those in power. Their anger, criticism and disgust are misplaced and should be directed at the ruling class who benefits from this system of oppression and degradation. They have sharp words of “personal responsibility” for working people, yet no calls for accountability of Wall Street criminality and general belligerence of the ruling class. The victim-blamers never stop to ask themselves why there is no space in our economy for people to express their passions and talents; or why every person must adapt to the needs of the system – isn’t the system supposed to work for us, the people? But, of course, it is much easier to blame the victims than to confront our own powerlessness.
Limited, Predetermined Choices

Our every decision depends on the system’s approval, and we forego many of our wishes, desires, hopes, and dreams because we have to labor to survive. This is simply a sophisticated and updated version of slavery that has most people serving the interests of the powerful with minimal benefits to themselves. And make no mistake about it – the ruling class – if they could get away with it – would make all of us work for free. They are certainly not above slavery, as the history of African Americans and today’s corporate exploitation of farmworkers,temp workers, prisoners, and millions of sweatshop laborers around the world clearly shows. We are only putting up with this system because we have no other choice; we are blackmailed and rendered passive because our survival depends on our servitude to the interests of a ruthless authoritarian structure. No one in their right mind would willingly choose this type of existence because it goes against every natural human instinct that pushes against oppression and yearns for self-expression and creativity.

We cannot even choose our own education because we have to look to the system to determine which majors will land us a job or make us a lot of money. Knowledge and education have been commodified, stripped of their inherent value, and turned into assembly-line products to be bought and sold on the market. We have lost the most basic and personal freedoms to determine how we wish to cultivate our lives – it is all about the system and how we can be used to serve its needs. This type of thinking is so deeply ingrained into our psyche that most people do not even realize that this is how they approach life. Living our passions and having autonomy should not be a privilege – we all deserve the opportunity to express our talents, not just the lucky (mostly privileged) few. Anything less than that is psychological and spiritual suicide.

The issue of freedom boils down to autonomy – the dignity of self-determination which recognizes that we as human beings are more than just commodities to be used and exploited for the benefit of the few; to exercise our inherent rights as living beings to make decisions about our own lives without facing catastrophic consequences from a system created by those in power who benefit from our oppression. So the next time you hear the word “freedom,” ask yourself: do I have the autonomy to direct my life as I wish, to pursue my passions, interests, and desires without facing the consequences of starvation, homelessness or alienation? Am I free to do as I wish (without harming anyone) or am I dependent and beholden to a greater force and power than myself – one that makes those fundamental decisions for me? Do I have real choices in my life or only the superficial “choice” of Pepsi or Coke, Democrat or Republican, CNN or Fox News? In other words, do our choices have substance or is it just the same shit in a different package?

Notes

[1] Because the word “freedom” conveys nothing, individuals (and governments) can conceal the true nature of their ideas and actions behind such ambiguous words, while allowing their audience to fill in the missing definition. For instance, when politicians speak of a free economy (or economic freedom), what they really mean is an economy free to exploit workers and the environment without any regulation, rules, or oversight of corporations; however, many individuals interpret economic freedom to mean the right to work, decent wages, or better opportunities to start small businesses. Clearly, there is a disconnect between the politician’s meaning of the word and its interpretation by the audience.

[2] Even the rights we think we have are vanishing before our eyes: as a result of mass surveillance, the right to privacy no longer exists; our votes have become meaningless because regardless of who we vote for, Wall Street and the military industrial complex always win; many of us cannot even walk around freely without being harassed in the age of codified racial profiling under “Stop and Frisk”; and of course the “chilling” effect on free speech resulting from unprecedented persecutions of journalists and whistleblowers by an establishment so afraid of the truth that it jails those who expose corruption and war crimes.

[3] $820 (monthly mortgage) x 12 months x 24 years = $236,160. This sum does not include fees and penalties the Neumanns paid over the years when they fell behind on their mortgage.

[4] Some critics argue that even these figures are too low because the standards for calculating the poverty line have not been updated since the 1960s. If the measures had kept pace with living standards over the years, today the poverty threshold would be $34,000 for a family of four instead of the $25,222 in the more “updated” version under the Poverty Supplemental Measure. http://www.cepr.net/index.php/blogs/cepr-blog/raising-minimum-wage-to-9-not-enough-to-ensure-that-families-with-fulltime-workers-live-above-poverty-line

Why The American Empire Was Destined To Collapse

In Uncategorized on March 20, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Oldspeak:“We are at our core a nation of hustlers; not recently, not sometimes, but always. Conventional wisdom has it that America was predicated on the republican desire to break free from monarchical tyranny, and that was certainly a factor in the War of Independence; but in practical terms, it came down to a drive for “more” — for individual accumulation of wealth. The dominant thinking on the left, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.” –Morris Berman. In a totalitarian, consumption-fueled state, “the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks”-Tony Judt. This shrinkage inevitably hastens the empire’s collapse. There is no discussion of of fairly viable and sustainable alternative systems (resource based, localization,) to the obviously failing monetary, infinite growth based and globalization-driven systems in corporate approved intellectual discourse. No threats to profit generation can be tolerated. Never mind the surely fatal and entirely avoidable consequences for our planet, our people, and all the living things that share our planet with us. We’ll poison the air, we’ll destroy the soil, contaminate the water, the three essential elements to our survival; in the perpetual quest for “more”.  These are the thought processes of our most dominant and influential ‘citizens’ -transnational corporations. And we flesh and blood people have internalized their self-exterminating values. How long will it be before they drive our ‘civilization’ into the ground? Our Id fueled economic model is unsustainable. We won’t be able to ignore our demise much longer.  “Profit Is Paramount”

Related Stories:

The Decline and Fall of the American Empire: Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025

The U.S. & The Five Stages Of Collapse

By Nomi Prins @ Alter Net:

Several years after the Wall Street-ignited crisis began, the nation’s top bank CEOs (who far out-accumulated their European and other international counterparts) continue to hobnob with the president at campaign dinners where each plate costs more than one out of four US households make in a year. Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream.

This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go. This is the flaw in the entire premise of the American Dream: if we can have it all, it must by definition be at someone else’s expense.

In Why America Failed, noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman’s brilliant, raw and unflinchingly accurate postmortem of America, he concludes that this hustling model, literally woven into the American DNA, doomed the country from the start, and led us inevitably to this dysfunctional point. It is not just the American Dream that has failed, but America itself, because the dream was a mistake in the first place. We are at our core a nation of hustlers; not recently, not sometimes, but always. Conventional wisdom has it that America was predicated on the republican desire to break free from monarchical tyranny, and that was certainly a factor in the War of Independence; but in practical terms, it came down to a drive for “more” — for individual accumulation of wealth.

So where does that leave us as a country? I caught up with Berman to find out.

Nomi Prins: Why America Failed is the third book in a trilogy you wrote on the decline of the American Empire. How did this trilogy evolve?

Morris Berman: The first book in the series, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), is a structural analysis, or internal comparison, of the contemporary US and the late Roman Empire. In it, I identified factors that were central to the fall of Rome and showed that they were present in the US today. I said that if we didn’t address these, we were doomed. I didn’t believe for a moment we would, of course, and now the results are obvious.

After 9/11, I realized that my comparison with Rome lacked one crucial component: like Rome, we were attacked from the outside. Dark Ages America (2006), the sequel to Twilight, is an analysis of US foreign policy and its relationship to domestic policy, once again arguing that there had to be a serious reevaluation of both if we were to arrest the disintegration of the nation. Of course, no such reevaluation took place, and we are now in huge economic trouble with no hope of recovery, and stuck in two wars in the Middle East that we cannot seem to win.

By the time I sat down to write the third volume, Why America Failed, I was past the point of issuing warnings. The book is basically a postmortem for a dying nation. The argument is that we failed for reasons that go back more than 400 years. As a result, the historical momentum to not undertake a reassessment, and just continue on with business as usual, is very powerful. At this point we can no more reverse our downward trajectory than we can turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub.

NP: So you’ve been analyzing America’s decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration for Why America Failed?

MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) and his argument about America being a nation of hustlers. The original working title was Capitalism and Its Discontents, the point being that those who dissented from the dominant ideology never had a chance. The crux of the problem remains the American Dream: even “progressives” see it as the solution — including, I have the impression, the Wall Street protesters — when it’s actually the problem.

In my essay collection, A Question of Values, I talk about how we are driven by a number of unconscious assumptions, including the notions of our being the “chosen people” and the availability of an endless frontier (once geographical, now economic and technological). For a while I had The Roots of American Failure as the title, but more to the point would be The Failure of American Roots — for even our success was a failure, because it was purely material. This is really what the American Dream is about, in its essence, as Douglas Dowd argued years ago in The Twisted Dream.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.

I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.

NP: What do you say to people who don’t believe America has failed; who may just see the country as going through a bad patch, so to speak? What evidence have you compiled for the argument that the United States has failed?

MB: The major evidence is, of course, economic, and there is by now a slew of books showing that this time around recovery is not really possible and that we are going to be eclipsed by China or even Europe. These are books by very respected economists, I might add; and even a US Intelligence report of two yrs ago, “Global Trends 2025,” says pretty much the same thing, although it adds cultural and political decline into the mix. The statistics here are massive, but just consider a single one: in terms of collective wealth, the top 1 percent of the nation owns more than the bottom 90 percent. If we have a future, it’s that of a banana republic. And there will be no New Deal this time around to save us; just the opposite, in fact, as we are busy shredding any social safety net we once had.

NP: How does this relate to the rise of the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement?

MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the US is still number-one, but I believe that on some level they know that this is whistling in the dark. They suspect their lives will get worse as time goes on, and that the lives of their children will be even worse than that. They feel the American Dream betrayed them, and this has left them bitter and resentful. The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.

NP: Most political analysts place the blame for our current situation on major institutions, whether it is Wall Street, Congress, the Bush or Obama administrations, and so on. You agree with them to a great extent, but you also seem to place a lot of emphasis on the American people themselves—on individual values and behavior. Why is that? How do you see that as a factor?

MB: The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.

In addition, all of the data over the last 20 years show that Americans are not very bright, and not even the bright ones are very bright—it’s not merely a question of IQ. A Marist poll released on July 4, 2011 showed that 42 percent of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776, and this figure increases to 69 percent for the under-30 age group. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the United States seceded. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system turned up the fact that 77 percent of the students didn’t know who George Washington was, and the Texas Board of Education recently voted to include a unit on Estee Lauder in the history curriculum, when they don’t have one on the first president. Nearly 30 percent of the American population thinks the sun revolves around the earth or is unsure of which revolves around which. Etc. etc. How can such a population grasp a structural analysis of American history or politics? They simply aren’t capable of it.

NP: So, basically it’s only a matter of time before students are taking courses in the historical significance of Kim Kardashian? What are the deeper, structural obstacles, in your opinion, to the American public accepting your general argument?

MB: It seems to me that it would involve a complete reversal of consciousness. I remember after the publication of the German edition of Dark Ages America, a major Berlin newspaper, the TAZ, or Tageszeitung, ran a review of the book called “Hopes of a Patriot.” One of the things the reviewer said was that America might be able to save itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.

Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages America. He went out and bought her essay, “Capitalism and a New Social Order,” in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic environment.

As a dean, my friend interacts with faculty a lot, at department meetings, cocktail parties, or whatever. He took these opportunities to raise the topic of the rapid redefinition of virtue in colonial America, only to discover that within 30 seconds, the eyes of whomever he was talking to glazed over and they would change the subject. Tocqueville said it in 1831, and it is even more true today: Americans simply cannot tolerate, cannot even hear, fundamental critiques of America. IQ has very little to do with it. In an ontological sense, they simply cannot bear it. And if this is true for the “best and the brightest,” then what does this say for the rest of us?

NP: What do you think can be done to reverse the situation? Is there any hope for the American Dream?

MB: At this point, absolutely nothing can reverse the situation. If every American carries these values, then change would require a different people, a different country. In dialectical fashion, it is precisely those factors that made this nation materially great that are now working against us, and that thus need to be jettisoned. What we need now is a large-scale rejection of the American Dream, and an embracing of the alternative tradition I talk about in Why American Failed. These are the “hopes of a patriot,” and they are simply not going to be realized.

NP: Can you mention briefly what some of those alternative traditions are ? You have a chapter that’s attracted some controversy regarding the Civil War – how does that relate?

MB: As I mentioned earlier, the working title of the book was Capitalism and Its Discontents. The reason I liked it (for various reasons, my publisher didn’t) is that it does reflect the thesis of the book: that although there was always an alternative tradition to hustling, with one exception America never took it, and instead it marginalized those alternative voices. The exception was the antebellum South, which raises real questions as to the origins of the Civil War, which were not about slavery as a moral issue, no matter how much we like to believe that. As Robin Blackburn writes in his recent book, The American Crucible, antislavery ideas were far more about notions of progress than about ones of racial equality. That’s a whole other discussion, however, and I have it out in the book for an entire chapter.

But the main narrative here is that from Captain John Smith and the Puritan divines through Thoreau and Emerson to Lewis Mumford and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith to Jimmy Carter, this tradition of capitalism’s discontents never really stood a chance. It never amounted to anything more than spiritual exhortation. Reaganomics, also known as “greedism,” was not born in 1981; more like 1584. The result is that for more than four centuries now, America has had one value system, and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive. Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich. The alternative tradition, in the work of the figures mentioned above, sought to question the definition of “wealth.” If the dominant culture was following the template of “they eat each other,” the alternative tradition can be encapsulated in that famous line from John Ruskin: “There is no wealth but life.”

NP: Speaking of wars, having just undergone Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and actually the Republican candidates as well, have begun to vilify China, and have amped up the volume regarding Iran. You talk about our need as a country to have an external enemy. In what way do you believe that need will manifest itself in any coming military actions?

MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values. America was founded within a conceptual framework of being in opposition to something—the British and the Native Americans, to begin with—and it never abandoned that framework. It doesn’t really have a clear idea of what it is in a positive sense, and that has generated a kind of national neurosis. I mean, we were in real trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed; in terms of identity, we were completely adrift until the attacks of 9/11 (just think of how frivolous and meaningless the Clinton years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode.

Hence the saber rattling against Iran now, or the foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia to “watch” China. What bothers me is that we are doing all of this unconsciously, and we always have. Mr. Obama, like most of his predecessors, is little more than a marionette on strings (Mr. Carter being the only postwar exception to this pattern, in a number of significant ways). Once again, true intelligence is ontological, and as a nation, we are sorely lacking in that department.

NP: But haven’t we heard all this before? After all, there is a long history of the so-called “declinist” argument, that the country is in permanent decline and has no future. Such books come and go; meanwhile, the country goes on. What makes your book, or books, different from previous assertions that “it’s all over”?

MB: Decline takes time; an empire doesn’t come to an end on August 4, A.D. 476, at two in the afternoon. Similarly, declinist analysis also takes time: the books you are referring to form a continuous argument, from Andrew Hacker’s The End of the American Era in 1970 to George Modelski’s Long Cycles in World Politics in 1987 to Why America Failed in 2011. And there have been a good number of declinist works in between. These books are not wrong; rather, they are part of an ongoing recognition that the American experiment is finished. Even then, we can go back to before Professor Hacker to Richard Hofstadter (1948), who called the US a “democracy of cupidity”; or to C. Vann Woodward (1953), who wrote that we were probably doomed because we had put all of our eggs in one ideological basket, namely laissez-faire economics. During these years the country hasn’t just “gone on”; what it has done is progressively fallen apart, and these writers have made it their business to document the process.

NP: Finally, you moved to Mexico a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to America?

MB: There are a lot of answers to that question, and yes, some of the reasons can be found in the above dialogue. You know, the air is really “thin” in the United States, because the value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around Europe in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the citizens of other countries, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives.

Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land. In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues conclude that happiness is achieved only by those who manage to escape the American value-system. Well, the easiest way to escape from that value-system, is to escape from America.

Nomi Prins is a journalist and senior fellow at Demos. She is the author of Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How “Conservatives” are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted For Them or Not).