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.