A Real News Network interview with Chris Hedges precipitated a lively, thoughtful discussion of the mess we are in as a civilization and whether we can pull ourselves out of what looks like a nosedive.
I thought readers might enjoy continuing the exchange, and the latest release in this Real News Network series should provide ample grist for debate. As much as the readers who saw the segment we posted yesterday, which was mainly on whether we could forestall an ecological crisis, tended to think that Hedges was too apocalyptic, I suspect they’ll have the opposite reaction today, that his take is too positive.
Here, Hedges laments the lack of an effective left, and blames its death on the “inability to articulate a viable socialism”. I’m not sure that was ever possible given the virulence of anti-Communism in the US through the fall of the USSR (and right after that, the Rubinites took over). Look at how Keynes was bastardized in the US (which has also had serious knock-on consequences) because an economic text that was faithful to Keynes by Lorie Tarshis was targeted by, among others, William F. Buckley. As we wrote in ECONNED:
A Canadian student of Keynes, Lorie Tarshis, published an economics textbook in 1947, The Elements of Economics, which included his interpretation of Keynes. It also suggested that markets required government support to attain full employment. It was engaging and well written, and sold well initially, but fell off quickly, the victim of an organized campaign by conservative groups to have the textbook removed. The book, and by implication Keynes, was inaccurately charged with calling for government ownership of enterprise.
Any taint of Communist leanings would damage the career of a budding academic. So aside from his refusal to accept some fundamental elements of Keynes’s construct, [Paul] Samuelson had another reason to distance himself from the General Theory. Samuelson said he was well aware of the “virulence of the attack on Tarshis” and penned his text “carefully and lawyer like” to deflect similar attacks.
Hedges also believes we can still have a radical uprising in America that would change the power dynamics. I’m at a loss to see how that happens. I’m told that protests against the then almost certain US entry into the Iraq War were very effectively tamped down in New York City, that the protestors (estimated at as many as 1 million, certainly well over 250,000) who were trying to get to the UN were barred at Second Avenue and shunted up into Harlem, resulting in a pathetic-looking crowd for broadcast consumption at the official site. And that was a decade before the 17-city paramilitary crackdown of Occupy Wall Street.
But more important, unlike Europe, massing on the street is just not how Americans do things. Large scale sustained protests have been the province only of the downtrodden (labor organizers, later the civil rights movement) and students (with issues of their own in the Vietnam war and as sympathizers to and supporters of radicals). A good American bourgeois identity and demonstrations don’t sit well together. Students are more conservative than ever, thanks to 30 years of neoliberal indoctrination, and even if those that have more idealistic impulses would sensibly be deterred by what an arrest record would do to their job prospects, particularly if they have student debt.
One other bit I believe that Hedges misses in his view that Obama is mediocre. No, Obama has done a fantastic job, just not one that will prove to have done the public well. By happenstance, Lambert flagged a 2011 essay in Aljazeera by William Robinson, Global capitalism and 21st century fascism, which describes clearly the role that Obama was meant to and has ably filled:
A neo-fascist insurgency is quite apparent in the United States. This insurgency can be traced back several decades, to the far-right mobilisation that began in the wake of the crisis of hegemony brought about by the mass struggles of the 1960s and the 1970s, especially the Black and Chicano liberation struggles and other militant movements by third world people, counter-cultural currents, and militant working class struggles.
Neo-fascist forces re-organised during the years of the George W Bush government. But my story here starts with Obama’s election.
The Obama project from the start was an effort by dominant groups to re-establish hegemony in the wake of its deterioration during the Bush years (which also involved the rise of a mass immigrant rights movement). Obama’s election was a challenge to the system at the cultural and ideological level, and has shaken up the racial/ethnic foundations upon which the US republic has always rested. However, the Obama project was never intended to challenge the socio-economic order; to the contrary; it sought to preserve and strengthen that order by reconstituting hegemony, conducting a passive revolution against mass discontent and spreading popular resistance that began to percolate in the final years of the Bush presidency.
The Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of passive revolution to refer to efforts by dominant groups to bring about mild change from above in order to undercut mobilisation from below for more far-reaching transformation. Integral to passive revolution is the co-option of leadership from below; its integration into the dominant project. Dominant forces in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North America are attempting to carry out such a passive revolution. With regard to the immigrant rights movement in the United States – one of the most vibrant social movements in that country -moderate/mainstream Latino establishment leaders were brought into the Obama and Democratic Party fold – a classic case of passive revolution – while the mass immigrant base suffers intensified state repression.
Obama’s campaign tapped into and helped expand mass mobilisation and popular aspirations for change not seen in many years in the United States. The Obama project co-opted that brewing storm from below, channelled it into the electoral campaign, and then betrayed those aspirations, as the Democratic Party effectively demobilised the insurgency from below with more passive revolution.
Thus while Hedges is correct to point to increasing anger and dislocation in the US, I’m not optimistic that it will be channeled effectively, and if by anyone, it’s not likely to be from the deflated left. A general strike would be a galvanizing event but I don’t see how that gets done. I suspect we’ll see more and more random violence as frustrated individuals lash out. And that sort of violence will serve as the perfect pretext for more and more aggressive policing and surveillance.