Stephen Mennell, The American Civilizing Process (Cambridge: Polity, 2007)
ISBN: 978-0-7456-3209-4. £19.99. 388 pp
David Ryan (University College Cork)
Immediately after 9/11, President George W. Bush framed the terrorist attacks within a discourse on civilization. His rhetoric betrayed an idea of America (really the USA) as static. He informed audiences in the National Cathedral and in the House of Congress that the United States had a “responsibility to history” which involved ridding the world of “evil”. He asserted that every generation had “produced enemies of human freedom” and that they attacked the United States because it was “freedom’s home and defender” and that “the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.” Days later, in the second major speech following the attacks, he invoked the appeal to dichotomies that have characterised various aspects of US domestic attitudes and foreign policies, through the injunction that all nations in every region had a choice to make, they were either “with us, or … with the terrorists.” He answered the question that he intimated Americans were asking – “why do they hate us?” – by signalling that what they hated was what they saw right there in the chamber: a democratically elected government, “our freedoms”. Stephen Mennell’s work takes this period as a departure for a grand study of US history, sociology and international relations. It is a broad and brave, yet incisive, exploration of the process of US evolution, effectively mingling, and moving between, sociological and cultural considerations with political and international trends.
Bush’s rhetoric displayed an idea of the United States as static, unchanging, constant and proud, almost in the vein of the “national symbolic” concept developed by Lauren Berlant, which produces “a fantasy of national integration.” Mennell cites the Irish historian Joe Lee, writing at the time of 9/11, who identified the rhetoric as “self-indulgent” and a “mirror image of the jihad thinking” of the fundamentalists. Of course Mennell accurately identified the return of a concern with the concept of civilization in contemporary discourse that was not only pervasive in official rhetoric but so too found its way into a range of responses echoing the point Lee makes, in books with titles such as Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms or Gilbert Achcar’s The Clash of Barbarisms, both of which echo Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Clash of Civilizations thesis. A controversy that Mennell invokes early in the work is the response of Susan Sontag, who argued at the time that the attacks were hardly “cowardly” or conducted against “civilization”, “liberty” or “humanity” but were attacks on “the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” When the historian of US foreign policy in the Middle East, Douglas Little, echoed the point in his book American Orientalism – that 9/11 was, in part, the product of decades of US policy in the region – further controversy ensued. This was largely the case because there was a certain and relatively static view of the United States. In that view, 9/11 constituted the beginning of a new narrative. Mennell’s The American Civilizing Process works through the framework and methodology of Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process. Despite the limitations of working through one methodology, albeit with derivatives, the great contribution is the emphasis on process within a broad temporal span. (Obviously that required some elision which is at times frustrating).
Mennell regards the benign characterisations of the US within the long trajectory from the time of the “first settlers” to the present, with the Heraclitean conviction that “everything changes”. As he explains, Elias employed the methodology of concentrating on process rather than “the identification of structural constants supposedly underlying the surface flux of social life”, separating these methods and this study from the methods of Bourdieu – his notions of cultural capital – and from that of a number of historians from the Annales School as well as from much of the work by either revisionists or world system theorists on the United States. The resulting concentration on attitude, agency, contingency and unplanned expansion will not suit those who prefer the structural analysis and explanations of US history; and obviously there is scope for considerable disagreement on the extent to which structural analysis has contributed an understanding to certain aspects of US history. The importance of this work is the emphasis on the term civilizing which is not to be taken as a synonym for progress, as in Fukuyama’s end of History thesis. The process also certainly involves de-civilizing tendencies as well as processes of “functional de-democratization”. Ultimately for Elias and hence for Mennell, a transposition into this study is the notion that the “civilizing process is the increasing social constraint towards self-constraint.” Echoing characteristics of Isaiah Berlin’s essays on negative liberty, Mennell writes, “the long-term growth of complexity, and the spreading web of social interdependence, is associated with a tilting of the balance between external constraints […] and self-constraints, towards the latter’s greater weight in the steering of individual people’s conduct.” This balance is considered within the context of the US balance of power with other nations, the construction of the US “empire”, and the unilateralism that aspired to avoid constraints imposed either by the self or others. After 9/11, the historian Walter LaFeber identified the condition with his usual prescience: that the combination of the strong tradition of American exceptionalism, the “immensity” of its power, “hinted at the dangers of being a nation so strong that others could not check it, and so self-righteous that it could not check itself.”
This thought-provoking work is structured along the same lines as Elias’s The Civilizing Process with its initial focus on the use and understanding of the concept of civilization. The book moves on to a consideration of US manners, competing US aristocracies, the market in US society and attitudes to violence and aggression. State formation provides the focus for the subsequent chapters with a concentration on territorial expansion, integration and the legitimate use of violence. These chapters are fascinating in the observations made on integration and urbanisation but also and more particularly on the breakdown during the Civil War and the enduring ambivalence of the armed forces and the attitudes towards “big government”. Subsequent chapters treat the issues of equality and inequality, religiosity and then America’s place in the world seen through the long-term historical processes.
Balances and perception permeate the book. There is the early discussion of the tensions surrounding the purpose and extent of government; the Jeffersonian optimism on self-restraint with the implications that government, providing external constraint, should be kept to a minimum. Yet Jefferson’s faith in individuality within the community is effectively set against a discussion on The Federalist Papers, whose authors held a deep sense of scepticism about such self-imposed negative liberty and argued for systems of checks and balances that would ensure the survival of freedoms and “democracy”, an architecture that Jefferson regarded as unnecessary, in preference for a form of “gentle constraints”. That sentiment coupled with Elias’ argument that such external constraint was less necessary as both civilization and the recognition of mutual interdependence advanced could not be sustained in an expansionist America.
Yet, given the continued presence of a variety of “other” peoples and powers on the north American continent, it is a short leap to the processes of elimination that Mennell so clearly dissects through the analysis of the American displacement of its rivals due to the local [North American] and increasingly European imbalances of power between the European rivals: the Dutch, French, Spanish, Swedish and British. European rivalries caused the elimination of some of these powers, and ultimately it was a struggle between the Americans and the British, French and Native Americans within the context of local and transatlantic imbalances that, through a drawn-out process, saw the Americans victorious. Identity, identity formation and evolution are important themes. The construction of the so-called “we-image” and “we-feelings” Mennell argues “always takes place in tandem with the construction of a ‘they-image’”, primarily and initially images of Native Americans, Blacks and “Europeans-in-Europe” as opposed to the “Europeans” in America, conceptually divorced from Europe through the various discourses on US exceptionalism. But again, process is all important, as Mennell argues, “motives and perceptions were at least as much the product as the cause of events”; each successive elimination or success reinforced certain and often mythical “we-images” and certainly, “we-feelings”.
Much of what Mennell provides in a fascinating chapter on westward expansion is already well-known; it remains fascinating however, because it is analysed through this particular framework. The shibboleth of “manifest destiny” is subjected to a series of discussions centred on the imbalances of power that facilitated and provided the opportunity for Americans to move westward against the Native Americans and the Europeans and a discussion on the planned and opportunistic territorial expansion. The Louisiana Purchase, “Manifest Destiny” and the Frontier Thesis are all well known but here the interesting aspect is the discussion of sovereignty as a function of power ratios between the various parties of contention. With it goes the discourse on legitimacy and the legitimate use of force. Mennell perceptively argues that it is only after the US builds a navy of growing magnitude across the 1890s and when the British concede hegemony over the western hemisphere that President Theodore Roosevelt added his famous corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. That doctrine, if indeed Roosevelt’s corollary was a part of the doctrine, was transposed to provide the United States with the self-proclaimed legitimacy to police and intervene in the region to uphold what Roosevelt regarded as the civilizing process. Of course Roosevelt meant a form of US style progress with all the ethnocentric attributes (something quite different from the sense in which Mennell and Elias use the term). There are two fascinating connections here, one made by Mennell. The final section to the chapter is titled: “The Dubya Addendum”. After 9/11, and especially through the speech of 1 June 2002 at West Point, and then later through the National Security Strategy of September 2002, the “Dubya addendum” provided the US with the self-proclaimed right to intervene in other states, as Roosevelt had argued in 1904. Secondly, the ship that sailed to war in Afghanistan in late 2001, flew the very flag that produced that enduring post-9/11 icon of the NYFD fire-fighters hoisting the flag above the rubble in New York, at the bow of the USS Roosevelt. It might also have been fitting that Theodore Roosevelt was a strong advocate of what he called the “barbarian sentiment” necessary to keep US power in shape, especially at a time when a transition in hegemony was underway. The “Dubya addendum” was obviously situated within the context of contemporary disparities of power and the associated attitudes, something that the columnist William Pfaff identified in 1989 as producing “barbarian sentiments” in his discussion of how the American century ends. Mennell concludes that “the long-term experience that has left its mark on Americans’ habitus is of the steady tilting of balances of power in their favour […] and continuing up to its domination of many other countries of the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”
Mennell is dismissive of cold war revisionism without considering some of the central findings of key authors on the cold war, or even the more centrist findings by the likes of Melvyn Leffler in his recent Soul of Mankind or his earlier Preponderance of Power on the causes of the origins of the cold war; a more detailed consideration of these works might have produced a more nuanced treatment of the subject. However, in works that take such a grand sweep through history such disagreements are likely. What Mennell contributes is a sustained and integrated response to a deficit that was identified in the literature some years ago by Amy Kaplan who argued that the study of American imperialism was devoid of culture, and that various studies of US culture largely ignored US imperialism. Mennell provides a bold and sustained remedy to that deficiency in the literature.