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Hedges’ Talk on America: The Farewell Tour

I was able to get a seat to see Chris Hedges at CIGI in Waterloo. It was a packed house with a full overflow room as well. He started his talk about his new book with a lecture on America. Here’s the gist of his speech, loosely quoted and/or lightly paraphrased:

“Trump is the result of a long process of decay of democratic institutions. He’s the natural consequence of a degenerate society. He’s a symptom, not the disease, which is the death of the liberal class.”

Hedges discussed the failure of the church to call out the religious right and described the “sacrifice zones” of the tar sands, coal fields, and impoverished areas.

He said that John Ralston Saul calls neoliberalism “a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion.” Hedges told the same story of free market policies that have been discussed by Chomsky at length, that Robert Reich outlined in Inequality for All, that Naomi Klein explained in Shock Doctrine, and that’s illustrated in Inside Job: in the 1970s, the global multi-nationals began to roll back the excesses of democracy by deregulating industry, privatizing public services, and busting unions. The elites focused on taking out opposing voices, and the Powell Memo actually named Ralph Nader specifically. Corporate powers seized control of academia and media platforms, and then captured the political parties. We have one ruling party now: the corporate party. They seem like two parties with just one demonizing undocumented workers, and the other acting as a release value for citizen upset, but the structure is the same, which explains the continuity between Bush and Obama. When first elected, Obama had more corporate funding of his campaign than his Republican rival. The last ten minutes of Inside Job make this connection crystal clear. There were radical group opposing the corporate monopolies on the eve of WWI, but they were soon crushed. There’s been a breakdown of capitalism in the 30s and the 60s, but in the early 90s, under Clinton, the Democrats turned into Republicans and then repealed the Glass-Steagall Act which separated commercial and investment bankings, and the Republicans were pushed further to the right. Because Chretien didn’t allow the barriers around banks to be destroyed, the mortgage crisis didn’t affect Canada like it did in the states. Hedges said,

“We are captive to entertainment that has seeped into every aspect of our lives. Politicians are surrounded by fictional personalities. Political rhetoric is rife with clichés and slogans devoid of content. Trump is a manufactured personality who plays reality TV games better. The population has largely lost faith in the ruling elites. Trumps win was a cathartic expression of working class rage.The severe decay of democracy is rendered invisible by the burlesque of CNN feeding the reality presidency because Trump is good for ratings.”

He visited communities hit by the economic assault and concentration of wealth. Income inequality is greater now than in the guilded age. His book was modelled after Emile Durkheim’s study of suicide, for which Durkheim travelled across France interviewing the people and coined the term “anomie” to describe the condition of people feeling alienated and disconnected enough to lead them to suicide. Hedges saw opioid epidemics, gambling, suicides, and white hate groups. The common denominator was economic despair.

“If we don’t restructure society, these pathologies will grow. We’re flirting with another economic collapse, but this time, there’s no plan B. We can’t lower interest rates any lower, and it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. As far as dying empires go, we’ve checked off most of the boxes, including disastrous military adventurism. . . . Once the dollar drops, the empire contracts as imports become more expensive. It’s different than the 30s when Roosevelt created jobs. Now there’s no ideological vision to take the place of what was. As Paul Krugman wrote recently, the U.S. is on track to become another Hungary.”

The ruling elites are aware of their loss of credibility with the people, so they’re pushing the broadcasters to the edges and attacking journalists. They’ve influenced social media algorithms to divert from leftist sites like Truthdig. “Alternet’s traffic is down 63%. The ruling elites have run out of arguments and they’re becoming more dangerous.” Public Broadcasting is now funded by the Kochs. In the 1960s, Public Broadcasting showed Chomsky, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, etc. These types of thinkers have vanished from the American landscape. “In their place is a kleptocrat accelerated pillaging of the nation and the structures of government.” “Marx said of late capitalism that once capitalism is unable to extract profit from the exploited working class, it will start cannibalizing the very systems that make capitalistic democracy possible, by privatizing public education, war, and prisons.”

We’ve outsourced factories within our own borders in the bonded labour of the prison system. 94% of inmates never went to trial.

“They can’t strike, complain, or take vacations. If they make trouble, they end up in solitary confinement for a year or two. The cabal of oligarchs and corporation redirected mechanisms towards profits for themselves, seizing systems with propaganda fed to the working class. This began under Reagan who said, ‘The government is not the solution; it’s the problem,’ but government is the only way citizens can defend themselves.”

And the government is inciting violence between citizens:

“The proliferation of nihilistic violence is seen with hate groups given license by the White House. Trump incited violence in his speech to evangelicals when he told them their opponents intend to carry out violence. The moment the dollar drops, political forces will create a dystopia, which will make the U.S. unrecognizable. It’s a nation founded on genocide and slavery. Violence is in our DNA and seen in the remaining idea of “purification” and the fetishized gun culture that sees the solution to gun violence in giving kindergarten teachers handguns. . . . “

We need to take to the streets:

“Unless the U.S. builds mass movements that can carry out civil disobedience, like Standing Rock, Canadian First Nations groups, or the Quebec students, Canada will feel the ripple effect of this. Canada’s not an imperial power, so it’s more self-contained, but you still elected Ford, and Trudeau refused to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. The subtext to climate change articles is that it’s happening faster than predicted. . . . “

“We have to resist in order to have hope, AND we have to understand how bleak the situation is. There’s a moral element to resistance. You don’t fight fascism because you’re going to win; you fight fascism because it’s fascist [Sartre, The Age of Reason]. We have to fight the corporations or face extinction. To be complacent is to be complicit. We may fail, but at least we must try.”

Asked about the utility of anger, Hedges said compassion comes through anger and quoted Augustine,

American exceptionalism is making a resurgence, and it’s toxic. He paraphrases James Baldwin: “the longer white power refuses to confront who they are, instead hold on to faux innocence and virtue, the more monstrous they become.”

“Trump is unable to be self-critical or truthful. The corporate assault on public education and the humanities is because they teach us how to think; they’re subversive in their critique of the structures of power. Now, education is all vocational. At the bottom, you’re stacking shelves, but at the top, you’re a computer scientist working as a systems manager. You’ve got more money, but you’re still just maintaining a system, not questioning it. We could have redesigned the banking system to offer new mortgages to people who lost their homes, but that requires thinking outside the system. Elites are unplugged from the real world. They don’t live in American; they live in “Richistan.” Joseph Tainter says when societies collapse, elites retreat, then maintain their lives by pushing the population harder until it collapses.”

He immersed himself in the Christian Right, even taking a course in teaching creationism to see the inner working of the cult (according to Singer’s definition). They make a fortune off promising magical solutions which are endemic to all forms of totalitarianism. They invite people into service, then suck them into systems of indoctrination. But their stories are heartbreaking: evictions, unemployment, addictions. There’s a lust for end times because of their economic struggle. It’s a political movement like the German Christian Church of the Nazis. The only way to break this movement is to re-integrate them in society to give them reason to hope.

Liberals are hypocrites who want to appear moral without the struggles and risks. Martin Luther King saw that at the end of the civil rights movement when it was okay to desegregate, but not okay to ask for economic justice. Hedges called himself a radical Keynesian, but thinks it’s highly unlikely we’ll get a socialist party in America. We must forgive student debt, which is over $1 trillion. Scandinavia in the 80s were able to eradicate poverty. 25% of our prisoners have mental health problems and are just drugged all day. Politicians never debate health care because we spend the most and have the worst care because it’s all for profit. Only 6% of people are in labour unions. In 1928, the Nazis were in the single digits, but exploded after the market crash. They were as buffoonish as Trump, but people were angry at the system. Trump’s incitement to violence is similar to that used by Milosevic in the lead up to war.

His solution is what Reich advocates, we need to tax the rich at 90% like it was under Eisenhower, and revolt peacefully.

“And we have to slash the bloated military. People can’t learn to manage money without any money.We need to take to the streets, but moral forces are on our side. The elites know they’re corrupt. Revolution is fundamentally non-violent. Once significant sectors of control fall, the Czar’s finished, like when paratroopers refused to shoot citizens. We can’t win violently. Antifa was effective only in allowing the state to demonize the resistance. They played into the hands of the state. During the Chicago teacher’s strike, cops let teachers use their bathroom. That scared the elites. That’s the only mechanism that will take them down. Every community has an area of corporate abuse. Resistance will begin locally. Maybe local food or power. Be aware; build relationships with others face to face, and organize.”

The tipping point of a revolution is ineffable:

“Leaders of revolutions scramble to understand what’s happening, but nobody knows. It can’t be predicted. The tinder is there, we don’t know what will light it or when, but it’s there. The population is more cognizant that appears on the surface. Faith is the belief that the good draws int eh good. Resistance is an act of faith. Our job is to keep that narrative alive.”

And he left us with a few lines of Auden,

Originally published at apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.com on March 16, 2019.

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Marie Snyder

Marie Snyder

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I ramble endlessly about the environment, social injustices, and philosophy at apuffofabsurdity.blogspot.ca.