One of America’s worst crimes, according to cultural historian and social critic Morris Berman, is the cultivation of a “culture of hustling.” Hustling—the surrender of everything to market forces and the sacrifice of life to consumer culture—is an energizing and often enriching enterprise, but it is ultimately empty, depressing, and destructive.
Berman’s previous books, The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, take the unpopular but persuasive view that the American empire is in freefall with no hope for recovery. But in his latest book, Spinning Straw Into Gold, he explains how he escaped this tedium of "unnecessary" and "stupid" pursuits and found meaning, purpose, and peace in his life by retiring to Mexico after years of working in academia at the University of New Mexico, the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and more.
The book eschews self-help clichés, and doesn’t presume to teach you to be happy. I spoke with Berman over email about embracing a reality that includes sadness, escaping poisonous American values, and how to stop obsessing over results and accept pleasure as it comes.
You write about the "unnecessary," "wasteful," and "stupid" routines, obsessions, and goals that you once pursued and that most of American culture preaches as the means of accessing the good life—careers, professional ambition, the drive for prestige, etc. You have left that behind for a peaceful "retirement" in Mexico, but during your retirement, you've written five books. How do you differentiate between pointless hustling and meaningful work? You write that more people should "let the universe do its thing." How do we do that and strive for work that gives our lives a sense of purpose and source of meaning?