Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter, has become perhaps the foremost media scribe and most prolific advocate of a need for revolutionary change in our current institutional oppression and control of the government by the oligarchical and political elite. Hedges writes with a reporter’s detail, a prophet’s eloquence and a compelling sense of urgency. This is evident in his latest book, which visits the “sacrifice zones” of America. Get the just-released “Days of Destruction Days of Revolt” (with illustrations by Joe Sacco) directly from Truthout right now by clicking here. Make a minimum donation and support progressive writers and Truthout.
Mark Karlin: You begin “Days of Destruction Days of Revolt” with a visit to and reflection upon the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the poorest and perhaps most hopeless Native American settlement in the United States. Indian reservations were a tragically ironic result of the American revolt to throw off the shackles of being a colony, only to become a colonial power over the indigenous residents that lay in its way to achieving “Manifest Destiny.” Is this irony the reason why you begin your journey across the “sacrifice zones” of the United States at Pine Ridge?
Chris Hedges: This is where the dark ethic of endless expansion and limitless exploitation, of ruthless imperial conquest, subjugation and extermination of native communities, began in the name of profit. Commercial interests set out to obliterate native peoples who stood in the way of their acquisition of the buffalo herds, timber, coal, gold and later minerals such as uranium, commodities they saw as sources of power and enrichment. Land was sliced up into parcels – usually by the railroad companies – and sold. Sitting Bull acidly suggested they get out scales and sell dirt by the pound. The most basic elements that sustain life were reduced to a vulgar cash product. Nothing in the eyes of the white settlers had an intrinsic value. And this dichotomy of belief was so vast that those who held on to animism and mysticism, to ambiguity and mystery, to the centrality of the human imagination, to communal living and a concept of the sacred, had to be extinguished. The belief system encountered on the plains and in the earlier indigenous communities in New England obliterated by the Puritans was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the concept of technological progress, empire and the ethos of the industrial society.
The effect of this physical and moral cataclysm is being played out a century and a half later, however, as the whole demented project of endless capitalist expansion, profligate consumption and growth implodes. The suffering of the other, of the Native American, the African-American in the inner city, the unemployed coal miner or the Hispanic produce picker is universal. They went first. We were next.
MK: You write in your introduction, “We [you and Joe Sacco] wanted to show in words and drawings what life looks like when the marketplace rules without constraints, where human beings and the natural world are used and then discarded to maximize profit.” This is pretty much a definition of neoliberal economics. Is the United States creating an internal economic system of colonies?
CH: The forces of colonization that were applied to the “sacrifice zones” Joe and I wrote about have been turned inwards on the rest of us to create a global form of neofeudalism, a world of corporate masters and serfs. The central point of the book is to show what happens when human beings, communities and the natural world are forced to prostrate themselves before the demands of the marketplace. It is incumbent on us to look closely at this system of neo-liberal economics because it is now cannibalizing what is left, including our eco-system. These forces know no limits. They will exterminate us all, as Joseph Conrad pointed out in “Heart of Darkness,” his masterpiece on the savagery of colonial exploitation. Kurtz in Conrad’s book is the self-deluded megalomaniac ivory trader who ends by planting the shriveled heads of murdered Congolese on pikes outside his remote trading station. But Kurtz is also highly educated and refined. Conrad describes him as an orator, writer, poet, musician and the respected chief agent of the ivory company’s Inner Station. He is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” Kurtz was “a universal genius” and “a very remarkable person.” He is a prodigy, at once gifted and multi-talented. He went to Africa fired by noble ideals and virtues. He ended his life as a self-deluded tyrant who thought he was a god. That pretty much sums up what we have become as a nation.
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MK: Regarding your third chapter on Welch, West Virginia, and the devastation you portray created by the coal mining industry in that state, I wonder why the victims, primarily white, of a rapacious and pretty much unaccountable coal industry don’t revolt. In fact, West Virginia has become a pretty reliable Republican state in presidential elections. Rephrasing your introductory quote to this chapter (from H.L. Mencken) have the destitute of West Virginia been driven from “despair” to “hopelessness” – and a psychological crutch of white identity politics, because they see no possibility of change in their condition?
CH: We are seeing the conscious and deliberate creation by the corporate state of a permanent, insecure and terrified underclass within the wider society. They have had a lot of practice in refining these techniques in the sacrifice zones, such as West Virginia, we wrote about. The corporate state sees this permanent and desperate underclass as the most effective weapon to thwart rebellion and resistance as our economy is reconfigured to wipe out the middleclass and leave most of us at subsistence level. Huge pools of unemployed and underemployed effectively blunt labor organizing, since any job, no matter how menial, is zealously coveted. The beating down of workers, exacerbated by the refusal to extend unemployment benefits for hundreds of millions of Americans and the breaking of public sector unions, the last redoubt of union power, has transformed those in the working class from full members of society, able to participate in its debates, the economy and governance, into terrified people in fragmented pools preoccupied with the struggle of private existence.
The determining factor in global corporate production is now poverty. The poorer the worker and the poorer the nation, the greater the competitive advantage. With access to vast pools of desperate, impoverished workers eager for scraps, unions and working conditions no longer impede the quest for larger and larger profits. And when the corporations do not need these workers they are cast aside. Those who are economically broken usually cease to be concerned with civic virtues. They will, history has demonstrated, serve any system, no matter how evil, and do anything for a pitiful salary, a chance for job security and the protection of their families. There will, as the situation worsens, also be those who attempt to rebel. I certainly intend to join them. But the state can rely on a huge number of people who, for work and meager benefits, will transform themselves into willing executioners.
MK: Of course, your chapter on the squalid, economically abandoned Camden, New Jersey, points to a particularly egregious example of an entire city that has been sucked of any hope. Financially, it has been written off by the “Masters of the Universe” economic agenda, its citizens parasites of the government, according to Paul Ryan. Even Barack Obama has been the first president in decades not to mention poverty in his State of the Union Addresses. But isn’t Camden just representative of blighted urban areas, particularly minority neighborhoods, that have been left without jobs for decades? This goes back to before the urban riots of 1968 and the Kerner Report about what caused them. Isn’t this structured poverty?
CH: The corporations and industries that packed up and left Camden and cities across the United States for the cheap labor overseas are never coming back. They have abandoned huge swathes of the United States, turned whole sections of American cities into industrial ghost towns. The unemployment and underemployment, the disenfranchisement of the working class, and the assault on the middle class, are never factored into the balance sheets of corporations. If prison or subsistence labor in China or India or Vietnam makes them more money, if it is possible to hire workers in sweatshops in Bangladesh for 22 cents an hour, corporations follow the awful logic to its conclusion. And as conditions worsen the corporate state, which controls the systems of information and entertainment, renders the poor and cities like Camden invisible. This is what Joe’s illustrations are so crucial to the book. The goal of the book is to make these people visible.
MK: In the book, you bluntly write: “The American dream, as we know it is a lie. We will all be sacrificed.” You speak of the spreading transnational corporate virus. Are you, in essence, saying the worst is yet to come, that the forsaken communities you profile are an ominous portent of what waits for so many of us except the privileged class?
CH: Yes. This is why we wrote the book, as a warning of what is about to befall us all. It is no more morally justifiable to kill someone for profit than it is to kill that person for religious fanaticism. And yet, from health companies to the oil and natural gas industry to private weapons contractors, individual death and the wholesale death of the ecosystem have become acceptable corporate business.
MK: Your fourth chapter is entitled “Days of Slavery” and it is about what you quote Bernie Sanders as calling “the bottom of the race to the bottom.” It is about the exploited (and that seems an understated word given the circumstances) tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. It is indentured servitude and just short of slavery. But isn’t there a glimmer of hope in the activism of the Immokalee workers’ movement for better pay and working conditions?
CH: You cannot use the word hope if you do not resist. If you resist, even if it appears futile, you keep hope alive. And in every sacrifice zone we visited, including Immokalee where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have organized tomato workers, we saw heroic struggles to fight back. But at the same time it is vital to remember that we cannot achieve significant reform or restore our democracy through established mechanisms of power. The electoral process has been hijacked by corporations. The judiciary has been corrupted and bought. The press shuts out the most important voices in the country and feeds us the banal and the absurd. Universities prostitute themselves for corporate dollars. Labor unions are marginal and ineffectual forces. The economy is in the hands of corporate swindlers and speculators. And the public, enchanted by electronic hallucinations, remains largely passive and supine. We have no tools left within the power structure in our fight to halt unchecked corporate pillage.
Once any political system ossifies, once all mechanisms for reform close, the lunatic fringe of a society, as I saw in Yugoslavia, rises out of the moral swamp to take control. The reformers, however well meaning and honest, finally have nothing to offer. They are disarmed.
MK: You were a vocal advocate of the hopefulness of the Occupy movement in creating radical change. But you also note in your book that the federal government joined local governments in dispossessing the Occupy movement of its beachheads of public land. Are we facing a situation like the suppression of the Green Revolution in Iran, like the crushing of the revolt in Czechoslovakia?
CH: The importance of the Occupy movement, and the reason I suspect its encampments were so brutally dismantled by the Obama administration, is that the corporate state understood and feared its potential to spark a popular rebellion. I do not think the state has won. All the injustices and grievances that drove people into the Occupy encampments and onto the streets have been ignored by the state and are getting worse. And we will see eruptions of discontent in the weeks and months ahead.
If these mass protests fail, opposition will inevitably take a frightening turn. The longer we endure political paralysis, the longer the formal mechanisms of power fail to respond, the more the extremists on the left and the right – those who venerate violence and are intolerant of ideological deviations – will be empowered. Under the steady breakdown of globalization, the political environment has become a mound of tinder waiting for a light.
MK: You write, “Revolt is all that we have left. It is our only hope.” Most revolt from oppressive powers has come from the working class. But except for the Wisconsin uprising, the working class appear to view movements like Occupy as not representing them. And even in Wisconsin, the GOP was able to split the unions from the non-union working class. How do you see progressive revolts linking up with the working class?
CH: The movement in Wisconsin made a fatal mistake. It allowed its energy to be channeled back into a dead political system by the Democratic Party and the labor movement, or at least what passes for a labor movement in this country. It could not compete with corporate power and corporate money. And it will be hard now to regroup. They willingly played the game and lost, although of course the rules were rigged. The split between labor and non-labor is only one divide. Occupy is essentially a white, middle class movement led by college educated men and women who have found no place in the wider society. The working class and the poor deeply distrusts liberals, especially college-educated liberals, who since the Clinton administration have repeatedly betrayed them in the name of liberalism. Those who support Occupy will have to rebuild bridges to our impoverished working class, and more importantly to those of color who live in marginal communities and who also have been abandoned by the traditional liberal elites. But this skirts an even bigger and more important problem. In the traditional sense of a working class, i.e. one that is organized and manufactures goods, we no longer have one. Workers have been reduced to toiling at two or three jobs in the service sector. I don’t know how we are going to fight back effectively without an organized work force. That is one of my greatest concerns.
MK: You are a consummate writer. But what role do you see that six decades of visual and sound bite messaging on television has had on allowing the political elite and oligarchy to sustain their “frame” of the status quo through corporate TV?
CH: The chatter that passes for news, the gossip that is peddled by the windbags on the airwaves, the noise that drowns out rational discourse, and the timidity and cowardice of what is left of the newspaper industry reflect our flight into collective self-delusion. We stand on the cusp of one of the most seismic and disturbing dislocations in human history, one that is radically reconfiguring our economy as it is the environment, and our national obsessions, because of these electronic hallucinations, revolve around the trivial and the absurd. The illusionists who shape our culture, and who profit from our incredulity, hold up the gilded cult of Us. Popular expressions of religious belief, personal empowerment, corporatism, political participation and self-definition argue that all of us are special, entitled and unique. All of us, by tapping into our inner reserves of personal will and undiscovered talent, by visualizing what we want, can achieve, and deserve to achieve, happiness, fame and success. It is, of course, magical thinking.
MK: You conclude “Days of Destruction” with an anecdote about your experience as a boxer fighting men who were professionals and pummeling you, but you kept fighting and eventually the crowd cheered you on as the underdog. How does this relate to achieving a successful revolt against a status quo with unlimited financial power and military/police powers?
CH: You do not fight tyrants because you are going to win. You fight tyrants because they are tyrants. Yes, we do not have the tools or the wealth of the state. We cannot beat it at its own game. We cannot ferret out infiltrators. The legal system is almost always on the state’s side. If we attempt to replicate the elaborate security apparatus of our oppressors, even on a small scale, we will unleash widespread paranoia and fracture the movement. If we retreat into anonymity, hiding behind masks, then we provide an opening for agents provocateurs who deny their identities while disrupting the movement. If we fight pitched battles in the streets we give authorities an excuse to fire their weapons.
All we have, as Vaclav Havel wrote, is our own powerlessness. And that powerlessness is our strength. The survival of the movement depends on embracing this powerlessness. It depends on two of our most important assets – utter and complete transparency and a rigid adherence to nonviolence, including respect for private property. This permits us, as Havel puts it in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” to live in truth. And by living in truth we expose a corrupt corporate state that perpetrates lies and lives in deceit.
This attempt to “live within the truth” brings with it ostracism and retribution. Punishment is imposed in bankrupt systems because of the necessity for compliance, not out of any real conviction. And the real crime committed is not the crime of speaking out or defying the rules, but the crime of exposing the charade.
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