Chris Hedges’ latest book, America: The Farewell Tour, offers the reader an unsentimental and brilliant diagnosis of our ongoing national malaise, and it goes off in your face like a truth-bomb — you want to look away, but you can’t, and dare not.
Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former war correspondent, takes an unflinching look at the “corporate coup d’etat” that has all but gutted the civic and economic structures of the United States, pushing the country toward inevitable collapse. Not one to pull punches, he combines ground-zero investigative reporting with high-octane analysis to detail the disaster that has befallen us and its effects in terms of very real human suffering — rampant drug addiction, prostitution and gambling, to chronic poverty, the loss of manufacturing jobs and the rise of hate groups.
“When a tiny cabal seizes power — monarchist, communist, fascist or corporate — it creates a mafia economy and a mafia state,” Hedges writes. “Trump is not an anomaly. He is the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy.”
And later: “Corporate capitalism has made war on the communal and the sacred, on those forces that allow us to connect and transcend our temporal condition to bond with others. These bonds will be reestablished or we will slip further into a world where death is more attractive than life.”
It’s a tough book to read, but absolutely vital. Hedges suggests that our time is growing short — as a country and, perhaps, as a species — and the time to act is now.
A regular contributor at Truthdig and a host of the RT America show On Contact as well as an ordained Presbyterian minister, Hedges is on a book tour that brings him to Eugene Wednesday, Oct. 3, for a 7pm talk, “Democracy Reborn: Communities Resisting, Communities Rising,” at First United Methodist Church; free, donations accepted. A private meet-and-greet fundraiser for Oregon Community Rights Network takes place from 5 to 6 pm at Eugene Garden Club (reserve a spot at orcrn.org).
Eugene Weekly caught up with Hedges to discuss everything from climate change and Donald Trump to the failure of the Democratic Party and what we can do about it all.
EW: You open up America: The Farewell Tour with a pair of pretty powerful quotes from Walter Benjamin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and they seem to set the tone for the book — that it’s as much a spiritual diagnosis as a political one. Could you describe the genesis of the book, and why you decided to take this angle?
Chris Hedges: Well, because physical decay always has kind of moral consequences. That’s how you end up with a figure like Donald Trump and all the kleptocrats around him. But that decay is a long process. It’s not embodied in the personality of Trump. It’s a product of a system that’s kind of lost its way and been seized by people who have little regard for the truth, the common good, and who operate systems of power for their own personal enrichment. So, I mean, this has been decades in the making, but it always goes together. Empires, when they fall, physically disintegrate but also morally disintegrate, and we’re no exception.
You describe the current political order as the result of a decades-long corporate coup d’état. Could you describe that process, and what’s resulted from it?
It’s been orchestrated by the business elites, the corporate elites, who have always been hostile to popular democracy. We saw the severe repression against labor unions when they attempted to form in the late 19th century. We had the bloodiest labor wars of any country in the industrialized world, so it’s been a kind of seesaw back and forth. Unions were virtually crushed; independent or radical press was shut down; appeal to reason was shut down after World War I.
Then you had the breakdown of capitalism and the resurrection of radical movements and unions, and many of the people who joined unions in the 1930s had never been in a union before. And then, with the Vietnam War, you had all sorts of movements that frightened the establishment — what Samuel Huntington, the political scientist, called “an excess of democracy.”
And then, so this latest assault, if you really want to put a date on it, began in 1971 with the Lewis Powell memo tacked onto the free enterprise system, which was a blueprint that the corporations used to really seize control of institutions and levers of power. And that has been a long process.[Ronald] Reagan was certainly emblematic of it, but so was [Bill] Clinton. Clinton kind of turbo-charged that assault against the working and middle class on behalf of corporate power, with NAFTA, deregulating the FCC, abolishing Glass-Steagall and expanding the prison population under the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, which more than doubled our prison population. And half of the people in our prison population are never charged with harming anyone — it’s just an insane system. It becomes a form of social control in de-industrialized pockets of the United States. But that process is fairly complete. The country is in deep decay, and anybody who drives from the Rust Belt, or through cities like Cleveland or Detroit can see it.
One of the things that frustrates me most is the Democrats saying, “We just need to get Trump out.” There seems to be an inability on the part of the Left and the Democratic Party to take its own inventory and understand that, in my opinion, if anybody’s responsible for Trump, it’s the Democrats — their inability to counter the neoliberalism that was kicked off by Reagan.
Yeah, I think the Democrats are more culpable for Trump than the Republicans, in this sense: The Democrats continue to speak as if they were watching out for the interests of the working class, while betraying them. In the book, I report from Anderson, Indiana, where GM had huge factories that are now just empty lots. They didn’t just abandon the factories; they bulldozed them down, so there’s gigantic, weed-choked lots. Twenty-five thousand good union jobs disappeared. These were jobs that paid $25, $30 an hour, provided benefits, you could support a family on a single income, buy a house, your kids could go to college.
And the city’s fallen into deep distress, and not just physically — all sorts of things are boarded up, churches and old streets abandoned — but all of the attendant problems that I focus on in the book: opioids, suicide, everything else. So, when the elections came, most of the old UAW workers voted for Bernie Sanders, but in the general election they voted for Trump, because they’re acutely aware that their jobs were outsourced to Monterrey, Mexico, where GM pays workers $3 an hour without benefits. And their lives, and the lives of their families, the lives of their children, the lives of their community and city were destroyed.
And the Democrats have no real response to Trump. They have no leader. You’d be hard pressed — you know, what do the Democrats stand for? Other than social issues like multiculturalism and abortion, which are not political platforms. So, yeah, it’s this anti-Russian hysteria, and anti-Trump hysteria, without addressing the social inequality that gave rise to a figure like Trump. And that’s, of course, very dangerous because we’re headed for another economic meltdown which many economists feel will be worse than 2008. And the Democrats really have no agenda.
In citing political theorists like Antonio Gramsci in your book, you address this idea of divide-and-conquer, where working class people who would have voted for Sanders vote for Trump, who is going to be the first person to drive the knife in their back. That division among supposed allies in the working class — how in the hell do we overcome that?
Well, this is what’s so frightening about the Democratic Party. And you can see the lack of ideology in the candidates that it’s running who hold positions that in some districts are indistinguishable from the Republican Party; you know, other districts are more mainstream, and then a handful of people who are progressive. But you have the party leadership actively working against the progressive candidates, because their tactic is — it’s one that Hillary Clinton tried to follow, and it’s the same blueprint — which is reaching out to that so-called middle-of-the-road voter who voted for Trump. I mean, I just think the whole thing is ridiculous and potentially disastrous.
The fact is that the ruling elites in both parties destroyed the country. Let’s just come down to name it what it is. They destroyed the economy. They physically destroyed the country. They went to war 17 years ago in the greatest strategic blunder in American history, where we have poured trillions of dollars into the futile exercise, and created one failed state after another. It’s been just appalling mismanagement. Our civil liberties have been taken from us, and when that is exposed and documented by Edward Snowden, they do nothing.
Militarized police kill an average of 3.3 unarmed civilians a day. We have the largest prison population in the world. And meanwhile, the economic distress is quite severe; a third of the workforce earns less than $12 an hour without benefits, 16 million kids go to bed hungry every night in this country. The electronic media, which is commercially driven, never shows these pictures because it’s all the fusion of entertainment and news and celebrity gossip, you know, Stormy Daniels and the latest Tweet and Omarosa; it’s just a giant reality television show that mesmerizes a public, to a certain extent, but enrages it on the other, because their own suffering is never reflected, never reported upon. And it creates a kind of collective schizophrenia that’s very dangerous.
And we haven’t even spoken about climate change. It is a kind of willful, collective self-delusion that is about avoiding reality. That’s certainly true for many Trump supporters, the neo-Confederates and the Christian Right, but it’s also true for many in the mainstream.
Where do we find hope? What do we do? Is it just completely hopeless?
Well, I mean, you read climate change reports — it’s not good. That is just a fact. It’s not a fact I particularly enjoy repeating, but even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, which we’re not doing, we would still suffer severe and catastrophic climate change.
The reason climate scientists are so terrified of going beyond 2 degrees Celsius is because you trigger feedback loops. We know what feedback loops do; they’ve studied it on Venus, which used to have water and is now 800 degrees. You just lose control. There’s nothing you can do. I mean, they’ve run mathematical scenarios that vary between a 70-percent die-off and complete extinction. So it’s all there. The inability on the part of the neoliberal or corporate globalists to respond rationally to what they’re doing to nation-states — because they’ve seized the economy, we’ve lost control of our own economy, in essence, in the same way India has and Hungary has and everyone else has. Greece.
So, the inability to rebuild a system where you can integrate the majority of your population into the economy, to give them economic stability — and work is more than the exchange of labor for wages — and a sense of place and dignity and purpose, etc., the inability to do that, coupled with a financial crisis, we’ll really see the kinds of pathologies that I wrote about in the book explode, in very frightening ways. And I don’t see the elites responding rationally, either to climate change or to the economic distortions or to the collapse of our democracy. They have no intention of instituting reform whereby we actually have a voice in how we are governed.
And they are using harsher and harsher forms of control, provided to them by the wholesale security and surveillance state, that makes us the most watched, monitored, photographed, eavesdropped populations in human history. So, short of a major economic reconfiguration — and that would be a form of socialism, whether it’s as radical as I would propose or even a New Deal kind of socialism — short of that, and I don’t see it happening, then I think we’re heading for a period of deep distress. What can we do?
Well, we should stop trusting that the elites are going to save us. We should engage in acts of non-cooperation as much as possible, to protect ourselves and protect our planet. That’s what they did at Standing Rock. You have had activists block railroad tracks in the Northwest, with the bitumen tar sands — I mean, I don’t see any other solution but that. And we have to hope that we can get the kinds of numbers, the critical mass that I saw in Eastern Europe. But waiting around for the Democratic Party to address this crisis, I think, is futile. I mean, the [Democratic] Party doesn’t function as a party anyway; the base is irrelevant; it’s a corporate appendage. It carries out acts of mass mobilization and hyperventilates, but in the classical definition of a party, it doesn’t function as a party.
Is there any way that we can have viable acts of resistance without overcoming this kind of spiritual nihilism that seizes us at this point? I’m thinking of faith-led groups like the Poor People’s Campaign. How do you balance the spiritual with the structural and the political?
Well, you can’t resist without the spiritual; that’s why Standing Rock was so important. And it doesn’t have to be Christian, or the Judeo-Christian heritage at all. Or it doesn’t even really have to be religious, in its formal iteration. I mean, Che Guevara, for instance, had a kind of spiritual dimension. It’s what Reinhold Niebuhr called “sublime madness,” where you resist not because you think you’re going to succeed, but because you seek to defy radical evil, even at the cost of your own life, and that you believe that it’s worth it.
But I think that spiritual dimension is key; I think it’s why authentic culture is so important to any resistance movement. Richard Wright said [that] the blues, the chants, the spirituals are what we had in the place of freedom. The structure of corporate totalitarianism is now so pervasive and so severe that, from a practical level, I suppose one could argue that it’s a waste of time. But on a spiritual level it’s a moral imperative. And I think we have to seize that moral imperative, because we don’t have any time left. We are responsible for the world that our children inherit, and we’re not going to leave them much. In fact, we may leave them misery and death. I don’t know if we’re going to succeed.
Honestly, I don’t know if we’re even going to survive as a species. But you don’t fight fascists because you’re going to win. You fight fascists because they’re fascists.
Chris Hedges gives a free talk 7 pm Wednesday, Oct. 3, at First United Methodist Church, 1376 Olive Street; there will also be a meet-and-greet fundraiser to benefit Oregon Community Rights Network from 5-6 pm at Eugene Garden Club, 1645 High Street.; $50-$60, info & tickets at orcrn.org.