By John Siman
I met Chris Hedges to discuss his new book America: The Farewell Tour (he treated me to an espresso at the Harvard Club) just a single day after I had read it, and I was almost startled by the difference between the rapid, urgent oratorical precision of his conversation and his contemplative, often digressive, often melancholic prose style. But fine: various methods for presenting a single message, and his message is that we the people must resist the rise of corporate oligarchy and the impoverishment of half the country. So near the beginning of our conversation I asked him to describe the current state of the Democratic Party, the putative party of the people:
JS: The Democrats are now the party of —
CLH: The less overtly racist billionaire class.
JS: But now we have RussiaRussiaRussia —
CLH: Well, the problem is that it fails to focus on social inequality — grotesque social inequality — and economic stagnation for the working class, which, I think, led two insurgencies within the major parties: with Bernie Sanders — and the Republican Party to Trump. I mean that is the root cause. Did Russia interfere in the elections? It wouldn’t surprise me. We interfere in elections all the time. I was a foreign correspondent; I saw it. But I think pushing the whole idea that Trump was elected because of Russia ignores the much more important issue, and that is the rise of corporate oligarchy and the impoverishment of now over half the country.
JS: And that’s not discussed by —
CLH: No, and that’s because the Democrats were, especially under Clinton, the architects of it. It was Clinton who pushed through NAFTA, it’s Clinton who destroyed the welfare system, it’s Clinton who passed the 1994 omnibus crime bill that saw the prison population explode from 700,000 to over two million. It’s Clinton who passed these draconian drug laws — three strikes you’re out — and increased the lengths of sentences, militarized the police, deregulated the FCC so a handful of corporations control what most Americans listen to and watch — this is all Clinton.
JS: And as we look back on Clinton, how do we want to judge him? Was he just purely —
CLH: Well, Clinton understood: if he did corporate bidding, he’d get corporate money — so that by the end of his presidency the Democratic Party had rough parity in terms of corporate money with the Republican Party…. That was all Clinton — including the rolling back of the opening up of the Democratic Party establishment that had been possible because of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition — dog-whistling, you know, super-predators — appealing to a racist white base — this was all Clinton. I think Clinton did tremendous amounts of damage because he continued to speak in the feel-your-pain language of liberalism and yet betrayed working men and women.
JS: Yes —
CLH: And so this is why when Hillary Clinton goes to places like Anderson, Indiana, where the old GM plants were — you know most of those people voted for Sanders, the old UAW workers. They weren’t going to vote for Clinton.
JS: No —
CLH: Because of Clinton those plants closed down in 2006, went to Monterrey, Mexico where they’re paying those workers three dollars an hour without benefits. And their wives, their families, their community, their city was devastated. And that’s the reality we have to grapple with. And it’s one that, because the Democratic Party is so complicit in creating this monstrous system of unfettered corporate capitalism, they don’t want to confront. I mean, for instance, if there were to be serious electoral reform — i.e. they wouldn’t take corporate money the way Sanders didn’t — then the major figures in the Democratic Party wouldn’t exist. Pelosi wouldn’t exist. Schumer wouldn’t exist. These are creatures of — and especially in the case of Pelosi and Schumer — they are the funnels for corporate money.
JS: Yes —
CLH: hey select the candidates. I think the ship of state may go down, but they have no intention of giving up their first-class cabins. And that’s why the Democratic Party is not reformable from the inside. It’s a creature of the corporate state. It doesn’t even function as a political party traditionally functions. The base is irrelevant. You have certain moments like the Democratic National Convention — delegates trotted out as props — but they don’t have any say in party control, and they don’t have any say in legislation. It’s all done by lobbyists….
JS: So do they have any reason to exist as a party anymore? Can they be salvaged?
CLH: No. I don’t think they can be salvaged.
JS: Is there going to be a third party?
CLH: Well, I worked for Nader. There are so many impediments to third parties. I mean, both parties work conspire to lock out third parties, after — especially after Ross Perot — so, I think he got 19% of the vote?
JS: He got a lot.
CLH: And so they’re not going to let third party candidates in on the debates — who would want to debate Ralph Nader? They create all sorts of obstacles in terms of getting on the ballot in states. It’s extremely difficult. I mean in Ralph’s case they would challenge his voting lists, not because there was anything wrong with the voter lists but because they just wanted to run up his legal fees…. And then the press kind of functions as a hand maiden of the two established parties by ridiculing….
JS: It’s hostile. It’s purely hostile. But what’s the next step forward? It just seems so incredibly bleak!
CLH: Well, I think the next step forward is to organize movements that aren’t built around particular election cycles — movements that begin to significantly challenge the corporate assault on the country. Standing Rock would be a good example of something like that. To begin to — especially on the local level — create organizations that help us sever ourselves from the tentacles of corporate power. You see that with the local farm movement, stuff like that. Local currencies. The more that we can build alternative structures that help us exist outside of the dominant corporate structure, the better we are. And I think that we have to become much more militant, especially in terms of the fossil fuel industry — I mean we’ve seen some actions blocking train tracks, with bitumen tar sands, you know, in the northwest — I think that’s the kind of stuff we need to do. I don’t think we’re going to elect anyone to save us.
This is all bad news — tragic news, really — but it is somehow invigorating to hear Hedges across the table articulating the prognosis so energetically, with such clarity and such forthrightness. The book provides a different sort of expository experience.
Read in one long cinematic sitting, America: The Farewell Tour, overflowing with Hedges’s indignation,unfolds and unwinds, from one concentric circle onto another, like a Sadean queering of Dante’s Hell: One is shown a series of grotesque portraits of underclass Americans who suffer absolute and unrelenting debasement, not because they are sinners in the hands of an angry God but because their remaining flesh and cash are, in a variety of end-game capitalist enterprises, marginally useful to the oligarchs whose ultimate job is “extracting money from the carcass of the state” (p. 9). So then, profiles in humiliation. This is a dark book.
In this Hell’s first circle, as it were, Hedges describes the nightmare that is post-industrial and therefore depopulated Scranton, Pennsylvania, once the ”Electric City,” once filled with middle-class because unionized coal miners. Today Scranton — and the many similarly desolate ex-cities of Flyover America — represent for Hedges the fulfillment of Marxist prophecy that the overclass — the kleptocrats, the ruling elites, the predatory Mugwumps, our corporate masters, the billionaires, the capitalists, the one percent — that the overclass finally — all profitable resources having been exhausted — cannibalizes the oppressed underclass. “This moment in history,” Hedges writes, “marks the end of a long, sad tale of greed and murder by the white races. It is inevitable that for the final show we vomited up a figure like Trump. Europeans and Americans have spent five centuries conquering, plundering, exploiting, and polluting the earth in the name of human progress…. They do not understand that the dark ethic of ceaseless capitalist and imperialist expansion is dooming the exploiters as well as the exploited” (p. 43). And it gets bleaker.
In the second circle, he shows the descent of one Christine Pagano (an almost allegorical name!) into addiction and then into prostitution and then onto the brutal streets — from her first time snorting heroin as a teenager to her fighting off a rapist in a weed-choked vacant lot in Camden, New Jersey. Hedges then moves on to Edison, New Jersey and attends the funeral of Shannon Miller, dead of a heroin overdose at age twenty-three.
In the third, the ex-city is Rockford, Illinois, and the victim sixty-one-year-old Dale Gustafson, a self-employed house painter: Gustafson chose to shoot himself to escape the humiliations of divorce and debt. “A white male in Rockford,” Hedges writes, “committed suicide, on average, every ten days in 2016.”
In the fourth, Hedges interviews thirty-two-year-old Robin Rivera, who, beginning in 2007, performed in dozens of porn films produced by Kink.com in San Francisco. Rivera’s story of degradation, Hedges argues, shows how the consumption of pornography entails the commodification of pure sadism: “The violence and commodification of human beings for profit are the quintessential expressions of global capitalism. Our corporate masters are pimps. We are all being debased and degraded, rendered impoverished and powerless, to service the cruel and lascivious demands of the corporate elite” (p. 139).
Hedges thence proceeds to the circle of hate, in which, after describing various Christian fascists (the book Hedges published in 2007 was entitled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America), he concludes with a charitably insightful analysis of those extreme Americans whom Hillary Clinton would include among her deplorables: “The white racists and neo-Nazis may be unsavory, but they too are victims. They too lost jobs and often live in poverty in deindustrialized wastelands…. They too often suffer from police abuse and mass incarceration” (p. 198).
It comes as something as a relief at this point for the empathic reader to discover that while Dante’s Hell had nine circles, Hedges’s mercifully has only seven, the final two being gambling addiction, exemplified by the long heartbreaking downward spiral of a Syrian immigrant called Ahmed, whose humiliation at the hands of capitalism occurs within the moldy gilded rat-infested labyrinth which was Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City, — and the enslavement of convicts, which Hedges can describe firsthand, since he has, for the past several years, taught convicts in New Jersey state prisons and was, in 2014, ordained by the Presbyterian Church to serve as a Pastor of Social Witness and Prison Ministry.
CLH: The logic of it is to strip — I mean corporate power seeks to strip — the citizenry of all protection, and we see it within the prisons because it makes it possible to carry out unchecked, predatory behavior.
And so, O my God, is this ever a depressing book! But so would it also be depressing to be told by one’s doctor that one has cancer, that one’s whole family has cancer, that one’s whole nation has cancer. The question, if Hedges’s diagnoses are even vaguely accurate — and I think they are — is one of how to proceed.
Hedges calls for a transnational revolution out of the Marxist theories of Rosa Luxemburg: “The discontent in Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Madrid, and Ayotzinapa,” Hedges writes, “is a single discontent. And the emerging revolt, although it will come in many colors, speak many languages, and have different beliefs and values, will be united around a common enemy. Bonds of solidarity and consciousness will unite the wretched of the earth against our global corporate masters. The leadership for this revolt,” Hedges continues, “will not come from institutions of privilege or elite universities, but from the squalid internal colonies that house the poor and usually people of color. The next great revolutionary in America won’t look like Thomas Jefferson. He or she will look like the rapper Lupe Fiasco” (pp. 264-5).
Could a Muslim rapper and community activist from Chicago lead the revolt of the masses of Rosa Luxemburg’s dreams? I think that it would be more useful to consult Toqueville on this point:[I]l n’y a au monde que le patriotisme, ou la religion, qui puisse faire marcher pendant longtemps vers un même but l’universalité des citoyens. “There is in the world only patriotism or religion to make the mass of citizens advance steadily towards a common goal”(De la Démocratie en Amérique1. 1. 5).
Hedges is more persuasive when he observes that “[f]ear is the only language the power elite understands” (p. 300). He reminds us that it was not Obama, not Clinton, not Jimmy Carter, but Richard Nixon who was our last “liberal” president. “Nixon was not a liberal personally,” Hedges writes. “He was devoid of empathy and lacked a conscience. But he was frightened of movements.”
And Hedges extends the point by arguing that Franklin Roosevelt was able to rescue capitalism — “It was this administration which saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin,” Roosevelt boasted in 1933 — only because socialism was at that point in American history sufficiently powerful as a movement to force concessions from the plutocracy. “In other words,” Hedges writes, “Roosevelt went to his fellow oligarchs and said, Hand over some of your money or you will lose all your money in a revolution. And they complied…. The capitalists did not do this because the suffering of the masses moved them to pity. They did it because they were scared” (p. 301).
And a more universal loathing of today’s capitalists might very well make themscared as well: wholesome loathing could beget a wholesome fear. So here was my final question for Chris Hedges:
JS: [final question] Can you say one happy thing?
CLH: You know, I spent so long in the war, I don’t like — I don’t share American society’s mania for hope. I try — in a war zone you make a very cold calculation of a very dangerous environment and seek to navigate that environment the best you can.
JS: So we’re in a war zone?
CLH: Well, we’re in a very dangerous environment. And I think that part of the problem is that we haven’t faced how bleak and destructive this environment is. And I think that the first task — and perhaps the emotionally most difficult task — is to face what’s before us, and yet find the fortitude and the courage and strength to resist anyway. But I think that part of the problem is that because of this mania for hope, even among the well-meaning social activists on the Left, they have not yet grappled with the fact that our situation may be terminal…. We are flirting now with collective self-annihilation.
JS: Yes —
CLH: And I think there is an emotional tendency to want, every time that issue is confronted, to find hope. And I think often that hope is unrealistic — the idea that we can adapt — or that technology will save us — is as foolish as denying climate science itself.
JS: Yes —
CLH: Or to pretend that we live in a functioning democracy — there are no institutions left in America that are authentically democratic.
JS:That’s true. That’s really sad —
CLH: And I think that part of the problem is that even among those people whose hearts are in the right place, it’s just too psychologically debilitating to face it. But face it we must. And I think it’s only when we face it that we can begin to react in a rational and a positive way. But by pretending it’s not as bad as it is, or that there’s some way out, it only contributes to the passivity we have to break.
JS: That was very beautifully stated. Thank you.
DA: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.