Thursday, January 26, 2012

Soulless, or Why Americans Love Vampires.

One pejorative adjective I often hear used about Americans is “soulless.” “They don’t seem to have a soul" is something that people I know say about other Americans, and I’ve made this same observation myself. But this is a very slippery, hard-to-define concept. What does it mean to say someone has no soul? Well, to give some pertinent observations; most Americans seem to be automatons, sleepwalking around in the pursuit of the next promotion, the bigger (And more distant) house, the newer car, and the latest Xbox. They care about nothing else but their place in the hierarchy, and as long as there is someone below them that they can feel superior to, they care not one whit about concepts like “social mobility” or “justice”. They live to work, and work to consume ever more stuff. There is no soul-searching, no self-reflection, about why they are here on this planet and what is really important in life, except to get that plum job, that next promotion, that new automobile, that fancy degree, and to make sure that one’s offspring are placed well enough to stay in the same class (e.g. moving to the exclusive suburbs to get into the “good schools” and so on). There is no questioning, no curiosity, only a desire to live in comfort and protect what one has. There is an incuriosity about the world, with no desire to ask larger questions or learn anything besides immediately relevant vocational skills. People just push whatever button or pull whatever lever is required to get their reward – no questions asked. People only have relationships to the extent that they can get something from the other person. Real, genuine human emotion based on compassion and selflessness is virtually absent. Climbing the ladder is all that matters in life, no matter who you have to step on. Getting ahead is all that matters, and the devil take the hindmost. It’s worth noting that the more “soulless” one is, the higher their place in the hierarchy (I bet your boss fits this category). It also feels like it’s getting worse. In fact, studies show that empathy is literally declining among college students.

Lately I’ve been listening to a number of interviews with the sociologist Morris Berman. Berman’s critiques help give an actual vocabulary to these concerns. People feel deep down that something is wrong with American society, but what? Berman finally gives a voice and a vocabulary expressing these concerns. There is something “different” and very wrong with life in America, he claims; we don’t notice it because we’re so embedded in it. Why do things feel so wrong? Because many things about American society are fundamentally inhuman, he asserts. His arguments are essentially value-based qualitative arguments about the American lifestyle, and they sound so different from the usual pro-America arguments that center around the size of our economy, our GDP, and the fact that everyone has indoor plumbing, a TV, a car and an iPod. Berman’s arguments, by contrast, are fundamentally rooted in arguments about the quality of life that we just don’t ever hear or consider. I would say they are in the realm of the spiritual, which is why they fall on deaf ears to Americans who are not used to thinking in these terms, despite our religious pretensions.

Berman’s observation is that from the original settling of country back in the sixteenth century, people have come to America to exploit the frontier and to get rich. Berman defines this as the “hustling” way of life, and says it is embedded into our cultural DNA. America, he states, drawing on the work of earlier sociologists, is a “fragment culture”, one that takes only one aspect of an earlier foundational culture, and becomes a one-dimensional society based on that aspect. In America’s case, it was England’s aspirational, pragmatic, entrepreneurial “hustling” get-rich now aspect, divorced from all other elements of society. Thus, making a quick buck is all that defines American culture; there is no other purpose – no art, no literature, no mythology, no sense of social relationships or shared heritage – none of the other things that define a well-rounded three-dimensional human culture. American English, he points out, is alone among world languages in having hundreds of synonyms for “swindle”.

This entrepreneurial “hustling” attitude, combined with America’s seemingly boundless natural resources and Enlightenment-inspired government institutions propelled America to a preeminent place in the world’s economy. But now that we’ve reached the apogee of economic expansion and production, it’s tearing the country apart. We recoil at any attempts to act collectively, and any sense that we have “enough” is instantly dismissed in favor of indistinct rhetoric about the next round of “growth” and “innovation”, as if those will solve all the problems they have not solved to date.

Berman’s ideas dovetail nicely with those of a neuroscientist named Peter Whybrow, who published a book some years ago called “American Mania.” Dr. Whybrow’s insight was that there is a genetic basis for novelty-seeking and addictive cravings, what Berman might call “hustling”, specifically the D4-7 allele which regulates dopamine reward pathways. And Americans, because of their immigrant character, have these genes overrepresented in their citizens, leading to the highly-addictive, frenetic “more-more-more” attitude so common here. Americans are people whose ancestors wrenched themselves out of a social context that they had been embedded in for generations, turning their backs on the stable, relatively sclerotic traditions to go to an unknown, often savage, faraway place in hopes of “making it”, that is, getting rich and moving up the hierarchy. That is, they self-selected. “The streets are paved with gold” was a common refrain told to aspirational immigrants, and in fact, as Berman points out, such messages about America were preeminent all the way back to the late 1500’s! You can imagine what sort of people such messages attracted. Thus, there may be literally a genetic difference between the people in America and people in the rest of the world.

Combine these theories and you get a great insight into a lot of attitudes in America that seem pathological, e.g. if you don’t hustle you deserve to fail and die in a ditch; the rich are the “fittest” in a Darwinian social struggle and deserve everything they get no matter how excessive; any attempt to restrain the behavior of elites is “penalizing success”; CEO’s are “great men” who make society function while their workers are merely parasites, that anyone in poverty has only themselves to blame for it, that rewards are always based on merit, etc. You also explain one of the most distinctive traits that outsiders always tend to remark on – American “optimism”. No matter what the survey is, you can be assured that Americans will be optimistic and bullish about the future. Of course anyone who pulled up their roots and moved thousands of miles to a foreign land where they had no family ties, knew no one, possibly didn’t speak the language, and had no guarantee of a job, had to be optimistic. Most likely these “Pollyanna” genes were passed down, and it’s likely optimistic people were likely to have more children as well, amplifying this gene. This may be why the minority of more realistically-minded people in America can’t seem to understand why their fellow citizens are unable to perceive what’s going on around them. It also explains why pabulum like “you create your own reality” is so popular here, and why the “reality based community” is more and more likely to be liberal nowadays (and why conservatives are happier than liberals). Like hustling, optimism can have advantages for a nation, but blindly holding onto it even as your society literally crumbles around you is not optimism – it easily crosses the fine line into delusion.

All of this explains why the poor are more likely to meekly accept their plight here than anywhere else in the world. We’ve been expanding all of our history. If you cannot grab your piece of the pie, the thinking goes, it’s your own failure for not working hard enough. No one is to blame but you (America’s Calvinist heritage plays a role here too). America is an equal meritocracy, with fluid social mobility. And even if you’re poor, just pump out a bunch of kids whose future is guaranteed to be better than yours. All of it is rubbish, of course, but those narratives sell here thanks to a combination of history (which Berman describes), and self-selection (which Whybrow describes).

The problem is, this type of society drives people crazy. The proof is here – one in five Americans needs to be treated every year for psychiatric disorders! A society that we might expect from people genetically predisposed to hustling and optimism is exactly the society we see today – an extremely wealthy society where most people are poor, where “redistribution” is seen as a crime, and where people on the apex of society who already have more than they can spend or use in a thousand lifetimes are willing to break any rule and rig the game to get even more, even at the cost of tearing the social fabric apart. A country based on little more than hustling in a world of limits slowly eats itself, and that is exactly what we’re seeing as documented so well in real-time collapse blogs like The Downward Spiral and The Economic Collapse blog. This is why Berman’s book is titled Why America Failed (failing might be more apt). When the guiding credo of your culture is “every man for himself,” your society turns into simply a war of all against all (bellum omnia contra omnes), based solely on the principle of “might makes right.” The fundamental question becomes, how can such a society survive? I think the answer is, of course it cannot.

A common refrain I hear from people is “yes, but it’s bad everywhere.” Yes, that’s sadly true, as we see in the case of Greece, and yes, Peak Oil will affect the whole world, but there’s a crucial difference. When you have a society that’s only ever known increasing prosperity and expanding living standards, it has no idea how to function without those things, unlike most of the rest of the world’s cultures. Other cultures have the necessary tools to adapt to a world with limits; they’ve been there before. America has not. As conservative politicians are so fond of saying, character matters. America’s character of greed is the reason the U.S. will tear itself apart in the years ahead. Americans are fundamentally different on a genetic level, and will never stop spending, gobbling up resources, or take the steps to construct a stable and just society, no matter what. America’s rich are like the scorpion in the tale of the turtle and the scorpion.

The story goes like this: A scorpion wishes to cross a river, and entreaties a nearby turtle to ferry him across on his back. The turtle knows the scorpion is deadly, but figures that as long as the scorpion is dependent upon him to cross the river, he will not be stung, which would result in both their deaths. Halfway across the river, the turtle feels the sting of the scorpion in his neck. As they sink under the water, the turtle pleadingly asks the scorpion “why”? “It’s in my nature” is the scorpion’s reply.

Which explains why America’s rich grab ever more even as society crumbles around them. It’s in their nature. The will grab ever more, even at the cost of their own fundamental well-being because it’s simply “in their nature”. They can’t stop themselves, even if it means their own demise and the demise of their entire society. They are compelled by their very core natures, the very natures that made them rich in the first place, to be rapacious to the point of suicide, and nothing will cause them to retreat from this course, even self-preservation. And Americans cultural narratives and genetic predisposition will ensure that they will be able to do exactly that.

This is why I hold out some hope for the rest of the world but none for America. America is different. In discussion of emigrating, occasionally you hear someone saying that leaving would be “giving up”, and that you need to stay and “save” America and take it back from those who “stole It. But nobody stole it, Americans don’t want to be saved; they are getting exactly what they want. Berman’s analysis is a splash of cold water on those who think that way – where we are not is not an accident, but our destiny from the very beginning. Berman’s fundamental message is that the seeds of our decline are embedded in our very DNA. The only question is, do you want to stay on the sinking boat or get the hell off.

In the end, I’m glad I finally have a real vocabulary to describe exactly what’s wrong on a societal level with the country, and exactly why you have a population that seems so soulless*. I only wish I knew what to do about it.

For a good, direct visceral confirmation of the amoral nihilism of the capitalist hustling life in America, see this post -

The middle class is diminishing quickly and if you're in that income bracket, better find some strategic ways to get out immediately or drown with the rest of them. Or so says Grant Cardone, sales expert, host of National Geographic's "Turnaround King" and author of The 10X Rule: The Only Difference Between Success and Failure. And don't blame your financial struggles on the economy — it's all happening because you're not taking responsibility of your mindset. "This [economy] is for real people, real products and real actions, so don't be a little bitch. Don't scream and cry and moan and make excuses. It doesn't change anything. It's a waste of energy. We're in a kill what you eat economy now. If you don't kill it, you're probably not going to eat it."

Get out of the middle class (and into the upper) or prepare to drown. Welcome to America’s endgame. In conclusion, if you know in your heart that something’s wrong, and you don’t know quite why, read Berman’s work.

Dark Ages America – Morris Berman’s Blog
The summary of the book:
Peter Whybrow’s Web site.

* In my opinion, people feel this at a fundamental level, which explains the popularity of vampires and zombies in popular culture.

BONUS: Extreme Optimists Only Learn From Good News (Future Pundit). The most optimistic have frontal lobes that want nothing to do with bad news. Proof there is a biological basis for optimism.


  1. Nice essay. I suppose that 'Can Do', 'Pull yourself up by your bootstraps' American attitude is part of the problem, but Capitalism itself may be the overwhelming factor, as evidenced by the social break down in the rest of the capitalist world. Check out this comment from someone named Darbikrash(in response to this essay):

  2. Good analysis. The original article makes I point I often hear in defense of the current system - even if were to suddenly make everyone equal, over time you would "naturally" end up with these very unequal outcomes. Therefore, such skewed wealth distribution is "natural." If I understand the point of the model correctly, given a long enough time frame, and without redistribution, you would always end up with a Gini coefficient of 1 - one person owning everything and everybody else owning nothing, with the system breaking down along the way.

    What's missing is that you can only get rich by commanding other people's labor. After all, you only have two hands, one brain, and twenty-four hours in a day. In the past it was being a king, slave holder or general. Today it is being a holder of capital. In each case, the fruits of other people's labor flows to a "designated" person at the top of the pyramid. This seems to be a sad feature of civilization, which is why many trenchant critics criticize the very product of civilization itself as being only possible through slavery (whether the chattel or wage variety).

    Yet there has been a period where that was not true - the post-war years have been called "the great compression". Thus we know it is theoretically possible for wages to rise across the board and inequality to be kept in check. But this has now been undone nearly everywhere. Much of modern-day liberalism seems to want to resurrect whatever policies caused that compression, with the wealthy opposed. The wealth/power connection is what's leading to feedback loops that make reinstating such policies improbable today, if not impossible.

    It's interesting that the model of capitalism we see worldwide today is associated with the United States (and to some extent Britain, hence the terms Anglo-Saxon capitalism, and "cowboy" capitalism). I think this is going to lead to a backlash against the U.S. in particular, and countries will gradually turn to other "models" out of necessity - Scandinavian capitalism, Rhineland capitalism, Chinese or Japanese varieties. This happened during the last Great Depression - it was a time of experimentation, and unfortunately some of that experimentation came joined to some very nasty things, hence Fascism. Some are afraid that may happen again too, unfortunately, as it looks like it is in Hungary. But something's gotta give. Unfortunately, the American "hustling" attitude I talked about in the post means that that the experimentation that we so desperately need will not be tried here, preventing us from changing course from the iceberg.

    Really, we think there are economic "rules", but we're figuring it out as we go. Industrialism is an extremely novel form of social organization. As the article pointed out, "pure" Communism and Capitalism have failed. As I like to say, I'm not a Communist or a Capitalist - I'm a pragmatist.