Truth tellers are always shunned at the precise moment when they are needed most. It's no surprise, then, that Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Chris Hedges endured jeers from a crowd and hatred from the media following his anti-war commencement speech at Rockford College in 2003. With the Iraq War raging, it ended his career at The New York Times. Hedges set forth on a new path towards becoming a powerful polemicist. He now pens weekly columns on Truthdig and authors books on an array of subjects ranging from Christian fascism to gutter poverty.
His latest work is Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. Hedges delivers doom and gloom prophecies where liberalism is politically impotent and ecocatastrophe is imminent. The public intellectual comes to OC with his message steeped in the classics, unafraid of radicalism and with one hope left for humanity: revolt!
The Weekly caught up with Hedges before his featured speech at Santa Ana's Delhi Center on Sunday.
OC Weekly: (Gabriel San Román) The presidential elections seem to be more of a circus than usual. You recently described our current time as 'The Great Unraveling.' How dangerous is this political decline we are seeing?
Hedges: It's very dangerous because, in essence, we live in a state of political paralysis. By that I mean the government no longer functions on behalf of the citizen but on behalf of corporations. It doesn't matter if you vote Democratic or Republican there, there is no way to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobile or Raytheon. The longer this paralysis continues, the longer the state is unable to respond to the difficulties that are now predominate among the working class and increasingly among the middle class. The more this frustration builds, figures like Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz are vomited up in the same way that I saw in Yugoslavia. The economic collapsed produced demagogic figures like Slobadon Milosevich. These are baffoonish figures on one hand, but on the other they're very dangerous in power. It comes from a bankrupt liberal elite. They speak in that traditional 'feel your pain' language of liberalism but they assiduously serve corporate power.
Bernie Sanders offers middle class reforms that are attracting arena-sized crowds across the nation. But haven't we learned anything from LBJ, the Vietnam War and The Great Society's failure? Haven't we learned that these reforms can't happen while maintaining empire?
That's exactly the column I wrote, "The Enemy Within." You have a military establishment that is bleeding the country dry. Officially, we spend almost 54% of the budget on military expenditures. There's all sorts of other expenditures that are masked and millions upon millions that are classified within the budget that we're never allowed to see. The best estimates are that we're draining 1.6 trillion dollars a year. We're doing what empires traditionally do where you allow a military apparatus and an imperial power that expands beyond its ability to sustain itself, as we've seen in the Middle East, to hollow the country out from the inside. You drive through city after city and they're just boarded up wastelands. Our infrastructure is collapsing and austerity is being visited on the American citizen to pay for it.
This is the problem with Sanders. You can't talk about genuine economic, political, social reform if you do not confront the monster of American militarism. After World War I, factories and manufacturing reverted to producing to domestic products. After World War II, you had a huge military bureaucracy who allied themselves with corporatists who decided that even though the war was over they were going to continue to produce weapons systems. Part of that alliance saw them roll back, starting with the 1948 Taft-Hartley Act which makes it very difficult to unionize, the reforms of the New Deal. It's not just that this has had a catastrophic effect upon the economy, but this alliance has had a catastrophic effect on the political life of the country where all sorts of movements and dissidents were crushed in the name of anti-communism and now are crushed in the supposed War on Terror.
Moving away from electoral politics, let's turn to your latest work "Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative to Revolt." In it, you begin stating that "we live in a revolutionary moment," and move forward with an opening chapter inviting us to return to 'Moby Dick.' What does Herman Melville's novel tell us about this moment we find ourselves in?
We live in a revolutionary moment in this sense: that all of the promises of neoliberal economics and globalization have been proven to be a lie. It has allowed a very rapacious, corrupt global oligarchic elite to amass insane sums of money. It has impoverished the working class. It has become an extremely destructive force within the domestic economy. It has not solidified democracy or even promoted democracy beyond the borders but has proven to be an inhibitor of democracy transforming the country into what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls the "species of inverted totalitarianism." In that sense, the ideology itself has lost credibility. That gives space for figures like Trump or Cruz and creates this moment where the ruling elite has to resort to more naked forms of control, coercion and violence, in order to retain power.
Why Moby Dick? Because it's about the collapse of a civilization. It's about what happens when there is a maniacal obsession. What happens when you commodify everything because the whale itself becomes a commodity? What happens when, at a certain point, people on the ship know they're doomed if they continue in this quest in the same way that we're doomed if we don't radically reconfigure our relationship to the ecosystem. These same people can show physical courage like Starbuck the first mate, but they don't show moral courage. At the end of the book, Melville writes about how the ship sinks and with it five-hundred years of civilization. He knew exactly what he was doing and he said that all of these values of unfettered capitalism ultimately will destroy you. In that sense, it's quite a radical book which, of course, is why it never sold during Melville's lifetime. That's a message we should heed. In many ways it makes it the most important novel in the American cannon. In the United States, outbreaks of rebellion are happening most in areas of urban decay, surrounding instances of police violence in black communities. It would seem that #BlackLivesMatter runs in the tradition of black prophetic politics that has always been in the vanguard of social change in this country, does it not?
I think so because if you look at the establishment black leaders, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they were booed out of Ferguson. This new generation is not willing to be co-opted by the system. They realized that Obama has functioned as a brand for the corporate state and for the militarization of the internal security apparatus. When Tef Poe, a Ferguson hip-hop artist and activist, went to the White House, Obama asked him if he voted for him, he said "No, I didn't vote for you. You've done nothing for black people." There's a realization that after the civil rights movement,there was an upper segment of the black elite that were bought off. These kids have turned on the system and turned on those elites. That is much more in tune with the black prophetic tradition, which has always had a very severe critique of empire and has always been hostile to that Booker T. Washington accommodationist strain that allowed themselves to be co-opted.
Where will the revolt of the working class come with the weakened state of unions today?
We don't have a manufacturing base anymore. Unions are largely built around a service economy. We've reconfigured the economic landscape so that the muscle of unionized factory workers is no longer significant since everything is made in the Philippines, Vietnam or China. The radical labor movement was broken by the bloodiest labor wars of any industrialized country. Hundreds of American workers were killed, thousands were wounded, tens of thousands were blacklisted following World War I. I spent a lot of time in my book The Death of the Liberal Class talking about this. They used the specter of communism, the psychosis of permanent war, the empowerment under the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, the creation of the FBI to destroy all those radical movements.
By the 1970s you have a labor movement that is supporting Nixon's wars on Indochina and calling on Nixon to get rid of all the long-haired hippies in the streets. This is Lane Kirkland and George Meany in the old AFL-CIO. You divorce labor from radical movements. After World War I, you saw a kind of collaboration between the state and labor, especially after World War II when the CIA used the labor movement to break radical and communist labor organizations in Europe and Latin America. The labor movement itself is dwindling and fighting a rear-guard action where its leaders, who make 5 or 10 times what the average worker makes, are negotiating deals where older workers, and this is what happened in GM during the bailout, get to keep their benefits and their pay scale but GM can hire new workers for $14 an hour without benefits. They will sell out the younger worker. The collapse of labor has been incredibly significant in terms of the ability of the working class to fight.
Your book profiles a number of people who fall under the identity of 'The Rebel.' What commonalities do you see in them that are essential to furthering liberation?
The commonality is what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr would call "sublime madness." And Niebuhr writes that in moments of societal breakdown liberalism is too weak a force. You need those people who stand up against monolithic, seemingly unassailable systems of power and are incapable of not standing up.They're the only people who have any hope of succeeding although most rebels don't succeed. For most of them, resistance is a moral imperative that is less about what they can achieve and more about what it allows them to become. We're certainly at a moment when we desperately need these figures if we have any hope of reversing the corporate coup that has taken place and building a sane, rational society which will provide a future for our children. Right now, given what we're doing to the environment our future is vanishing at a frightening pace.
We can't speak of a revolutionary moment without taking notice of what's been done to our environment in the form of climate change. On a personal note, what future do you see for your children and grandchildren? What about the next generation motivate you, Chris Hedges, to rebel?
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There is no future if we don't break the power of the fossil fuel industry. Every climate change report that comes out now says that things are deteriorating at a far faster rate than all of the climate scientists predicted. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, the effects of climate change across the planet over the next few decades will be devastating. Yeah, I have four kids. I may not succeed but at least I want them to know that their father tried because we don't have any time left at all. It's very clear that the power elite has no intention, Obama has just opened up Arctic drilling to Shell Oil, of protecting not only the ecosystem but the future for the very generation that's coming next. Even if we fail, we have a responsibility to those who are coming after us to do everything in our power to wrest control from these corporate forces. Otherwise we are complicit in a tremendous betrayal of our children and our children's children.
"Calling All Rebels: The Moral Imperative to Revolt" featuring Chris Hedges, Jill Stein, The Originalites and others at the Delhi Center, 505 E Central Ave, Santa Ana, www.ocgreens.org, Sun., 5 p.m. $25. All ages.
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @gsanroman2