Collapse Inevitable?

I made the three hour plus trek to Deer Isle, a beautiful section along the coast of Maine, to hear Chris Hedges speak on Thursday.  I also was able to have him sign a copy of his just published book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.   His talk was hard hitting and to the point.   The US is on the verge of a complete breakdown thanks to the way in which corporations have taken over our political and cultural realms.  We have socialism already, but it’s a corporate socialism whereby the government bails out companies, allows big money to write legislation, and pours billions into a pointless war machine that engages in violence and aggression across the globe.  Not only is this contrary to American values, but it has created an unsustainable economic situation where collapse is all but inevitable.

He had harsh words for Democrats like Obama and Clinton, as well as Republicans like Bush.   It’s clear he had nothing but disdain for the Christian right — a group that he called ‘Christian fascists’ — though he publically has debated Hitchens and Dawkins, arguing that radical atheism is just as bad.   (That was in an answer to a question from the audience, in that answer he ridiculed meme theory, which caused me to want to stand up right there and applaud!)  Politics has become spectacle, our culture has become a corporately manipulated consumer pseudo culture.

Hedges used Michael Jackson’s death as symbolic of who we have become.  Jackson was literally driven insane by the way he was exploited in life — his childhood was robbed, he could not distentangle his public and private life, he mutilated his body out of self-loathing, yet was kept in a guilded cage where he seemed to have anything he wanted.  The public treated his tragic and bizarre life as entertainment, a celebrity reality show.  His funeral was watched by over 30 million, a glitzy entermainment special, the final installment of the Michael Jackson show.

Jackson’s life is an exaggerated symbol of who we have become as a people.   As more money gets sucked up into the pockets of the elite, the number of working poor expand, and the stability of the middle class deteriorates.   We got deep into debt to try to keep the illusion alive, relying on the largesse of countries like China and the Arab world for our capacity to do so.   At some point they will stop buying our bonds and currency, the dollar will collapse, and the public will be ill prepared for the depravation and hard times that will be forced upon us.  It’ll happen as baby boomers retire, making unfulfillable demands on federal coffers for social security and medicare, bankrupting the country (or causing those programs to collapse).  It will be another Great Depression, and the bile now ridiculed as just entertainment — the Limbaughs, Hannitys and Becks — will become the rallying cry of a new right wing fascism designed to reimpose the moral order and blame others (liberals, internationalists, socialists, whatever) for the collapse of the American system.   In short, Hedges believes we’re in for a crisis of historical proportions.  

He also talked about the dangers of global warming, and how now in northern Russia methane gas is shooting up from the once frozen seas, going into the atmosphere with 25 times the strength of carbon dioxide as a green house gas.   Our oil and debt addicted shallow materialist consumer culture created an illusion we could party without consequence, consume without producing, and live in the spectacle of the moment, distracted from the massive corruption and theft being perpetrated by the elite.   Obama, he says, isn’t changing this a bit — he’s still in Iraq and Afghanistan, still pouring money into the military machine, and is allowing corporations to control the writing of any health care reform being considered.   We simply allow this because, thanks to debt and spectacle, we are living in our own guilded cages.

Heavy stuff.   Yet it’s hard to find a flaw in his analysis.   Debt the size of our GDP, unsustainable current account deficits, and a record high gap between the rich and poor are signs of an economy on the verge of destruction.  The higher deficits and programs undertaken by Obama may hold off the inevitable, but reality cannot be denied.   We’re totally unprepared because anyone under 65 (and not already part of the poverty stricken subculture) has lived a life where comfort was considered an American birthright, believing the myth that somehow the free market handles everything well.  The market is not, however, free — again, Hedges notes, correctly I think, the strong corporate socialism.   Moreover the myth of the magical market allows people to rationalize amoral behavior, including consumption of goods produced through exploitation, the de-industrialization of the country (as workers suffer or move to unproductive service sector jobs), and consumption without consideration of consequence.     He noted that if you count people who are out of work but given up looking, and those working poorly paid part time work, our unemployment rate would be at 20%, a fifth of the workforce.

As readers of this blog note, all of this resonates with me because I’ve been exploring similar themes (check my posts on the economy, and on consumerism, by clicking the links to the right for a listing of those posts).   With young children ages 6 and 3, I worry that the future will be nothing like the opulant, easy life we’ve grown accustomed to.  But what can be done?

Hedges argued there is still time to take back the country.   Rather than respond to the crisis with arrogance and blame, we need to learn humility and reject American imperialism and corporate socialism.   We need again to put the worker first, focus on production, and see real, average people as more important than ideologies and elites.   Yet no one can win an election without massive amounts of money, and the people, rendered numb by non-political spectacle, or seduced into embracing the corporate socialist state through talk radio and emotion driven politics, seem to have no desire to take control.   We have been manipulated into submission.

Hedges calls for a kind of ‘Democratic Socialism,’ using Switzerland and Scandinavia as examples of countries where despite high taxes they have excellent quality of life and all are assured basic standards of care.   Here, I think Hedges may be a bit off the mark.   Not only is American culture pre-disposed to distrust that style of governmental organization, but we are so much larger than the Scandinavian states that a centralized welfare system could be choked by a morass of bureaucracy.   Yet his mention of Switzerland saves his idea, I think.

Switzerland is not considered socialist.   Yet it reflects the communitarian values Hedges articulates.    I’d argue that the “left” needs to get out of bed with corporate America and call the current system what Hedges labels it, and what it is: corporate socialism.   The socialists have already taken over, and their defenders are the Hannitys who claim to be defending market capitalism.  The defenders are the so-called ‘neo-libertarians’ who support massive military spending and American imperialism.  The first order of business is to take apart this corporate socialism, help infuse real productive capacity at home, and bring down the debt.

Second, we need a de-centralized communitarian approach, building on local, county and state actions, not on a large government bureaucracy.   This is impossible now, but as the collapse unfolds, the weakness of the current government vis-a-vis corporate America (really the reach is global now) will become obvious.  The only way for people to re-assert control is to be active locally, focusing on everything from food to sustainable energy.   Communities have to come together, the guilded cage in which we’ve been living has supported a disconnect between the individual and his or her community.  Individuals are autonomous consumers, community has become simply a location on a map.  

Next week I’ll blog about Hedges’ answer to a question I asked, and I’ll give my thoughts as I read through the book.  Needless to say, it was a powerful and thought provoking talk — the auditorium (Reach Auditorium at Deer Isle) was packed with hundreds, and Hedges received a sustained standing ovation.

  1. #1 by Eve on August 14, 2009 - 16:57

    Scott, bravo, bravo, bravo! Thanks for bringing notes on this talk to your blog. I read it with great interest, as sobering as it was. I particularly like your conclusion about acting locally. Comparisons between the U.S. and small nations such as Switzerland and Scandinavia cannot work; these nations are more homogenous than we and their ways probably cannot work for us. However, we might achieve a more truly ‘blessed’ life by being more truly ‘righteous,’ to use two Biblical terms.

    What I mean by this is the law of reciprocity or sowing and reaping. You suggest we need to return to putting the worker first, but I suggest that we never really did. Yes, workers united and won a lot of battles through unionization etc. But it’s the people with the money who take advantage of those without; whether it is the government of a country as the ‘corporation’ or an actual corporation as a corporation doesn’t matter. It’s how the beast acts that defines it as a beast.

    If a collapse occurs, and I’m not sure it will but we’re preparing as if it will, I have to agree that the size of our nation and government will make it nearly impossible for the government to do anything to solve problems. Individual states will have to step up and solve their own problems, as we’re already seeing they’re trying to do in spite of federal regulation. If we return to more local influence, we’ll be doing what our forefathers intended when they fled from a monarachy whose influence had become too great.

    My questions for you are, do you agree with Hedges and think we’ll face a financial collapse? If so, what are you doing to prepare? If not, why not, and what are you doing with any doubts you have?

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 16, 2009 - 22:16

      Been camping all weekend at Rangely Lake State Park, nice to see some comments. I do think a collapse is likely, but I hope we can avoid it. I’ve been thinking this way for over a decade…but the fundamentals are so out of balance I can’t see how we can somehow fix this without a major restructuring.

      I’m not doing much but trying to pay down debt and connect with neighbors and friends (something I want to intensify in the next year). I think next year we’re going to be part of a community garden. Maybe I need to learn to hunt!

  2. #3 by Mike Foster on August 15, 2009 - 00:33

    Great article! We need more of this kind of thinking.

  3. #4 by classicliberal2 on August 15, 2009 - 19:45

    Hedges is a bit of an enigma for me. He’s able to do a lot of thoughtful, well-reasoned work, then, just when you’re almost sold on him, he comes out with his screed against the “New Atheism,” a commentary which is just unfiltered crackpotism. I’ve long recognized and written about the problems he’s just outlined in EMPIRE OF ILLUSION, and that probably makes me overly predisposed to be receptive to his viewpoint. I never turn my Critical Thinking switch to the “off” position, but with something like Hedges’ current material, I always have to make sure I’m not swallowing a line simply because I agree with a lot of the analysis that led to it.

    I battle conflicting tendencies when confronting the doomsday elements of Hedges’ current line of thought. I’m both a pessimist, to whom well-reasoned doomsaying holds a certain appeal, and a cynic, who is reflexively suspicious of doomsayers–things are never as bad as they say they are. I don’t think the problems inherent in an “empire of illusions” need be linked to doomsday scenarios. They’re sexier when they are, there’s no doubt, but they’re still HUGE problems, even if they never lead to the Collapse of Civilization As We Know It or the End Of History.

    We don’t face reality. That’s a fact.

    I usually use, as perhaps the most visible example of this, a massive political faction on the right that has staked its entire future on the hope that we NEVER have to face reality. I call them the Bubble People. They’re an outgrowth of our drone culture, in part, but they’re primarily a consequence of a massive, well-funded effort that has been underway for decades to create a constituency for the right.

    This isn’t a small group. It’s a large and growing segment of the population on the right that has increasingly opted to seal itself in what amounts to an alternative universe, and never have any more than superficial commerce with reality. They exist, more and more, in a bubble of their own puerile political fantasies.

    To be sure, there have always been people who would, for one reason or another, behave in this manner, and they’ve always existed across all segments of the political spectrum (today, for example, we see some simple souls on the left who suggest George Bush Jr. was responsible for the Sept. 11th attacks). The difference is that such people have always been a very small portion of the population, and have always been regarded as the fringe nuts they were. Today’s conservative Bubble People are just as nutty as any of the Bubble People of the past, but they’re a HUGE segment of the population, to the degree that they’ve more-or-less managed to go mainstream. They’ve spent millions of dollars constructing their bubble, which includes right-wing radio, the Fox News Channel, a huge network of think-tanks, publications, internet sites, and so on.

    When you see the drones who turn up, on command, at the townhall meetings about health care across the country, you’re seeing the Bubble People. They’ve been told, by the conservative elite, that they should be terrified of health care reform, and that elite has used, as a rallying point, the idea that the health-care proposal includes “death panels,” bureaucrats who will be empowered to decide to pull the plug on the elderly and the infirm.

    The thing is, no such provision exists in the bill. It isn’t in it. It has never been in it. No one, in fact, has ever even suggested it. Not once. But hundreds of people turn up, on command, at these townhall meetings to scream, cry, rant, threaten, and employ violence in order to shut down any discussion of the matter, based on their contention that the socialist in the White House wants to pull the plug on granny. These rent-a-mobs have remained completely impervious to the fact, noted in the press umpteen times, that no such provision exists. They’re being told by the conservative elite–the only voices allowed in their bubble–that it does, and, to them, that’s The Truth. Reality never penetrates.

    For that matter, the mere appearance of these mobs is indicative of a refusal to face reality. Health care in the U.S. is on an unsustainable course, at present. You can demonstrate this in any one of dozens of ways, without resorting to any speculative doomsday scenarios. Something has to be done. That doesn’t mean the current proposal is what should be done–I don’t think it’s much better than what now exists–but that’s the beginning of a discussion. The Bubble People don’t want a discussion. Their tactic, fed them by their handlers, has been to shut down discussion. And as for those handlers? The Bubble People are appearing at the behest of organizers who openly avow they want no health care reform at all. Considering the current unsustainable trends in health care, this, alone, bespeaks a sharp disconnect from reality.

    When you see the signs and banners, waved by demonstrators at these events, that say things like “Keep your grubby government hands off my Medicare,” you know something has gone terribly wrong.

    Iraq is probably the most obvious and visible sign of the very real danger presented by the Bubble People, danger not only to the United States but to the rest of the world. The decade+ campaign to destroy Bill Clinton was the first indication that they were getting completely out of hand, but, even the impeachment fiasco–essentially an attempted coup against an elected government, with all the attendant implications–didn’t have even remotely as wide-ranging an effect as Iraq.

    Because of the data available, I like to use, as a stock example of the trouble with the Bubbles, the 2004 presidential election. Consider these facts about that election, courtesy of the University of Maryland:

    “…72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that [Bush weapons inspector Charles] Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program.”

    “…75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission.”

    And so on. There’s more–this was, by far, the single most important issue of that campaign, and Bush’s supporters were wildly misinformed about every significant point of it.

    The impications?

    The President of the most powerful nation on the planet was sent back into office by an electorate that based its decision on pure fantasy.

    THAT is a problem. To note the obvious, you can’t responsibly run the most powerful nation on earth on fantasy.

    Though a significant problem, it isn’t necessarily the end of the world, even if the Bush administration was one of the most damaging in our entire history. Hedges doesn’t need to tie the problems presented by a culture of illusion to doomsday scenarios. There’s no chance the Chinese will stop financing U.S. debt–we’re their top market for goods. There’s no chance Social Security will collapse in the foreseeable future–all such scenarios are premised on sustained U.S. economic growth lower than was experienced in the Great Depression. We can, however, do a lot of harm to ourselves and others by our present reality-avoiding way of doing business. This could lead to a doomsday, but it can cause a hell of a lot of problems before it gets that bad. In my view, that’s where the focus belongs.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on August 16, 2009 - 22:24

      I haven’t read what Hedges wrote about atheism, but I’m glad he’s taking on the Hitchens and Dawkins element, they turn atheism, which is supposed to be an absence of belief in God, in a rather rabid anti-theism. I’m not sure if social security can be sustained as the boomers retire…your post is long, I’m just back from camping, I’ll reply again later when I can do it justice. Thanks for the comment!

      • #6 by classicliberal2 on August 17, 2009 - 01:51

        Christopher Hitchens threw away a once-promising literary career to alcohol. I have no use for him at all. Hedges puts Hitchens in a blender with Dawkins, Sam Harris, and some others, comes up with a composite version of what he calls “the new Atheist,” and attributes their views to “most self-proclaimed atheists” (those views including support for things like the Iraq misadventure that, in the real world, probably wouldn’t poll out of single digits among “self-proclaimed atheists”). If that wasn’t crackpotist enough, he’s certainly well ’round the bend by the time he gets to describing Richard Dawkins as an “utopian,” an “anti-intellectual,” and slams him for “intolerance” and “bigotry.”

        Harris, who also gets slammed by Hedges (sometimes rightly, sometimes not) actually has a lot to say about Hedges’ current subject. Harris makes a forceful argument that a strong religious faith is frequently incompatible with the challenges of the modern world. I’ve always found Harris’ overgeneralizations on that particular subject to be extremely irritating, but he is, at heart, correct (Harris, in my view, completely fails to account for the progressive acceptance of secular values among the religious, which is really a major part of human history for the last few centuries). Harris uses, as his stock example, stem cell research, a field that shows a great deal of promise for battling any number of ailments that have shown themselves resistant to every effort at treatment. It shows all this promise, and it would do harm to nothing in the universe to proceed with it, but it’s been held up because of a religious view that holds that an embryo is a human being.

        A good illustration of illusions standing in the way of progress.

        Where Harris falls short is that he fails to recognize an obvious fact: most Christians SUPPORT stem cell research. It’s not just a slim majority, either–it’s overwhelming.

        As I said, secular values have progressively gained acceptance among the religious. That’s why we don’t live under churchstates. Religion can be a problem. It can also change. It just usually takes a lot more time.

        The Muslim world used to be the advanced culture. While Christian Europe was sunk in Christian-imposed darkness, they kept science and literature alive, kept civilization itself alive. Eventually, Christendom was rocked by a series of cultural revolutions that broke the stranglehold of religion. It changed, and suddenly, we’re flying like birds, beating back cancer and putting men on the moon. Much of the Muslim world was left behind, and the sorry state of so much of it is a consequence of the fact that they never had an Enlightnment.

        That’s all sort of a tangential rant, though.

  4. #7 by classicliberal2 on August 15, 2009 - 22:00

    Something else…

    “I’d argue that the ‘left’ needs to get out of bed with corporate America and call the current system what Hedges labels it, and what it is: corporate socialism. The socialists have already taken over”

    There’s no need to invent a new phrase for what you (and Hedges) are describing, particularly not one that continues the historical distortion of “socialism.” We already have one that works just fine: Fascism. It needs to be given back its teeth.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on August 16, 2009 - 22:22

      Yeah, I’ve alluded to that on my blog a few times. Fascism as a term has lost its meaning to most people; I think that’s why people tend to avoid it.

      • #9 by classicliberal2 on August 17, 2009 - 02:01

        It’s unfortunate that it became essentially a generalized curse. It is the proper word for what you’re describing as “corporate socialism,” though. With fascism, the men of wealth and power are always behind it, and they’re always the ones who benefit from it. The phenomenon in question isn’t “socialism” at all, and using the word in that context just tends to take it even further from its meaning–it sort of does what the misuse of “fascism” for all these years has done to that word.

  5. #10 by notesalongthepath on August 16, 2009 - 04:59

    Heavy stuff from Chris Hedges. It’s not like we could go on forever like we are, so disconnected from ourselves, our souls. I’ll be reading what you write next. With some hope.

  6. #11 by Scott Erb on August 17, 2009 - 18:57

    Classicliberal2 — I agree with you pretty much on the religion stuff. I think there are a lot of Christians who really do focus on transcental ideas like love, compassion, and a sense of sacredness in life, and find the radical religious right very distasteful. Enlightment reason is a tool, with instrumental value, but doesn’t itself give us the ends. That leaves open a very important question about what life is all about, which religion helps answer for many people. I do think that we need a new “axial age” to help religions move from local exclusivism to global inclusion:

    • #12 by classicliberal2 on August 17, 2009 - 23:19

      The Religious Right[tm] is a political, not a religious, movement, and pretty much always has been. It uses religion as a rationale for policies that, in reality, largely have entirely different motivations and purposes.

      Nothing illustrates this better than the prayer-in-school issue. The Religious Right is of one voice on the matter of condemning the Supreme Court rulings eliminating government endorsement of religion. Their bad faith in this matter is transparent–the very fact that they choose to portray it as a dictatorial ban on prayer in school leaves room for no other interpretation. More to the point, though, this sort of “prayer”–the kind the Religious Right advocates in this matter–is explicitly condemned by Jesus himself. Those who insist on praying in public that they may be seen of men are dismissed as hypocrites, their practice a farce. The words of Jesus himself, yet the Religious Right is almost universal in insisting on this sort of “prayer.”

      That isn’t to say many among the Religious Right don’t genuinely believe what they do is religiously motivated. That’s their illusion, to bring this back to the subject of the thread. Religion is used as a means to organize and manipulate them. The reason this is effective is a much larger issue having to do with the psychology of those who find an appeal in primitivist religion also finding appeal in other things, but that’s a Kansas-sized can of worms perhaps too broad to properly fit within the subject of this thread.

      On the news tonight is more disruption at congressional townhall meetings, people STILL turning up demanding that congress not pass health care reform–keep the socialist bureaucrats from pulling the plug on granny. The liberals over at Media Matters have identified over 40 different instances of the press debunking this–a very rare case of the corporate media actually doing its job correctly–yet it still packs those townhalls, because, to the Bubble People, it isn’t real unless Limbaugh (or the rest of the conservative elite) say it is.

    • #13 by classicliberal2 on August 17, 2009 - 23:28

      It wouldn’t be a post I’d written if I didn’t forget something:

      It’s good to see you blogging, Scott. I still like to post to message boards and get in big fights–keeps away intellectual atrophy, if you can find worthy opponents–but I’ve mostly taken to blogging, as well, and on all sorts of topics (while trying to get a film project off the ground):

      I’ve been unemployed for a while, now, so I’ve had plenty of time to write! And having recurring manic periods, I’ve had plenty of energy to do it, too.

      Keep it up. I’ll keep reading, and trying to offer insights of my own (on the rare instances when I may have any).

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