On RAI with Paul Jay, Chris Hedges says that while people are disgusted with the centers of power, unless there is a constructive alternative, any eruption will be nihilistic and could be fascist. This episode was produced on December 6, 2013.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself, continuing our discussion with Chris Hedges about the people’s movement, the left, its weaknesses–and I guess at some point we’d better get around to its strengths, too.
Now joining us in the studio is Chris Hedges. He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He’s the author with Joe Sacco of the New York Times bestseller Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He also writes a weekly column for Truthdig.
Thanks for joining us again.
CHRIS HEDGES, JOURNALIST, SENIOR FELLOW AT THE NATION INSTITUTE: Thank you.
JAY: So you wrote a column in Truthdig. The title of it is “Our Invisible Revolution”, and you quote, to start with, Alexander Berkman: “Did you ever ask yourself how it happens that government and capitalism continue to exist in spite of all the evil and trouble they are causing in the world?”
And let me add to that. We’ve had these enormous revelations recently, WikiLeaks and Snowden, and Hammond’s leaks of the Stratfor files. And it should, one would think–and enough of this has gotten into the mainstream media, you know, enough of the revelations, that you would have had, you’d think, a fundamental shaking of masses of people’s belief in the American narrative. But not so much. Like, we’ve not really seen a change in the political landscape at the mass scale that one might have thought.
HEDGES: Well, this was what Berkman–this essay is called “The Idea Is the Thing”–is playing out, that as long as the ideas that sustain the power elite have currency or relevancy, the institutions that hold up that system of power are unassailable. Once those ideas are utterly discredited, those institutions collapse.
And Berkman draws the analogy of heating water on a kettle, that you can’t make a revolution, you can’t decide that next Monday is the revolution. Revolutions are organic. And they take place through this change within the culture whereby the ideas that sustain a particular ruling class are so thoroughly discredited that the ruling class is finally only able to sustain itself through the use of force and violence, that it’s kind of–it resorts to the most naked forms of repression to hold on to power, which, as you can see with the rise of the security and surveillance state, we are moving towards.
And so what you have in a pre-revolutionary society, which I think we’re in, is a kind of invisible revolution, whereby the state, the ideology of the state, in this case capitalism, the fiction of American democracy, larger and larger numbers of people–and I think we are also seeing this across the political spectrum–wake up and understand the hollowness of the language that’s used to describe their own economic, political, and social reality.
What’s important is that in this process you need to present an alternative vision, an alternative language, so that people can orient themselves toward something. Otherwise, any kind of eruption is nihilistic. Without that kind of vision, ultimately it doesn’t represent any kind of a threat to the ruling elite, because it doesn’t drive towards something. And I think that, you know, opinion polls point this out in terms of, like, the approval rating of Congress, which is below 10 percent, the utter disgust at the inability of the centers of power to respond to the most basic concerns and needs of the citizenry. All of that is there.
And I think that it’s incorrect to say that nothing’s happening, that there is no ferment. I think this is the ferment. And it’s extremely dangerous for the ruling elite, because their credibility–and Obama, the current disaster with Obamacare is just adding to that–is being shredded.
JAY: One of your main points in the article “Our Invisible Revolution” is this point you’re starting to get at. If there isn’t a vision to fight for, one, I don’t think you can really get people into motion, because unless things are in absolute desperation for more people than are–because many people are desperate, but it’s not the majority that a desperate. Even if unemployment, the real unemployment is 20, 25 percent, there’s still 75 percent of people who have jobs. But if there isn’t a vision to fight for, then what are you left with? But what’s happening now is there’s this sort of right-wing vision, that’s kind of carving off a part of this alienation, you know, this idea of the smaller government and that we can all be free and we’ll all be able to do what we want, you know, individualism, is–hearken back to these days of America that actually never existed.
HEDGES: Right. Well, that’s a danger. I mean, you know, in situations of collapse or turmoil, we could certainly swing to our version of a kind of Christian fascism, which I’ve spent a lot of time writing about in my book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.
And these are classically fascist movements, in that they celebrate the language of violence, the gun culture. They fuse the iconography and language of American patriotism with the Christian religion. They demonize and direct a legitimate sense of rage and betrayal at the vulnerable Muslims, homosexuals, undocumented workers, liberals, intellectuals, feminists. And they are funded by the most retrograde elements of American capitalism–the Koch brothers and others.
And I think given the fact that progressive, populist, radical movements have been eviscerated throughout the 20th century and destroyed means that those of us who care about an open, egalitarian society are extremely weakened and disadvantaged. So it may very well be that our backlash is a very disturbing kind of quasi-fascist backlash. That indeed may happen. Certainly in breakdown or the breakdown of any society, you are going to see the rise of those kind of vigilante, racist, right-wing elements, and they will employee violence. History has shown that.
The question is whether we can build a response with an alternative vision fast enough to counter that kind of implosion. You know, I covered the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia, and I see many scenarios between here and the former Yugoslavia. There you had a self-identified liberal elite that was not able to deal with economic collapse. Hyperinflation took over the former Yugoslavia, and it vomited up these figures like Radovan Karadžić and Slobodan Milošević and others in the same way that Weimar vomited up the Nazi Party.
And what happens in moments of breakdown is that people not only turn against an ineffectual liberal elite that is not able–that in essence–that has presided over political and economic paralysis, or certainly political paralysis, but they also jettison the values that elite purports to defend. And that’s what’s dangerous. And we’re certainly barreling towards that kind of a crisis. I worry that we are not only weakened but unprepared.
JAY: Well, one thing we’re going to do at The Real News is we’re going to spend a little less time with the critique. We’re not going to stop the critique, but we’re going to spend a little less emphasis on the critique and spent a lot more time in terms of investigative journalism and working with, you know, policy experts, front-line workers, the public. We’re going to have town halls. And it’s part of the reasons. And we’ll tell you more about our new building and what we’re doing here.
But this idea–and you raise it in this article and others–we have to create a viable vision of what the alternative is. But, like, what would you do if you ran a city like Baltimore, what would you do if you ran a state like Maryland, dealing with the real world, not some utopian vision? But what you do the next year? And what do you do for the next three, four years? ‘Cause I don’t think you can really get a big mass movement going in this country if they don’t think what they’re fighting for is at least going to be better than what exists.
HEDGES: Well, and history has shown that that is absolutely correct. And so I write in the article that I seek to articulate a viable kind of socialism, which is going to have to begin at the local level. And I know that, you know, you’re in accordance with this that we’re probably going to have to start by taking over city after city, town after town. That’s where it’s going to begin. We can’t compete on a national level anyway. We’re shut out. Ralph Nader has amply illustrated what happens when you try and compete in that arena. But on the local level, especially in depressed cities, we can.
Now, the problem with cities like Baltimore or other depressed cities is that you have such a large segment of the population incarcerated. And that’s done consciously. That bottom sort of 15 percent of people who are considered superfluous in terms of labor, whose bodies are worth nothing on the street, are put into cages where their bodies are worth $40,000 or $50,000 a year to prison contractors and food contractors and private security guard companies and people who build prisons and everyone else.
So that has been an effective mechanism by which we have broken our most astute sort of political class, which is the African-Americans, who not only traditionally understand the nature of white supremacy and power, but understand the nature of empire. Figures like Frederick Douglass, King, Malcolm, their critique of empire came from having suffered internally from the mechanisms of empire and having the first chapter–or it was the second chapter of my book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt takes place in Camden, which per capita is the poorest city in the United States and, not surprisingly, in terms of homicides per capita the most dangerous. And we’re talking two, three, four generations where people have been so traumatized by the violence that is taking place within these internal colonies and the violence of mass incarceration that I don’t know how effective those communities initially are going to be, given how broken they are.
I think that the recipe for revolt will come from a fusion between what Bakunin called the déclassé intellectuals, these kids who, burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of college debt, coming largely out of the middle class, thrown out into the workforce, where they can’t get jobs, they can’t pay their debts, coupled with service workers who are in essence the working poor.
JAY: And I think one of the misconceptions some people have about Baltimore–and it’s partly to do with the television–the percentage of African-Americans in Baltimore, if I understand it correctly, who live in these very dispossessed areas and with generation after generation of chronic, you know, addiction to drugs and crime is a real minority. The vast majority of African-Americans in Baltimore are part of a fairly stable working-class.
HEDGES: That’s not true in Camden. So that provides hope, then.
And, you know, we find–I don’t want this to be racial, because if you look at the meth labs that are popping up in all these old mill towns where my families are from in Maine, it’s the same. And, actually, we’re watching now the criminalization, through the war on drugs, of the white poor, the white underclass, who are now being railroaded into these prisons at increasing rates because they’ve also become superfluous in the neofeudalistic state that we’ve created.
But I think, yes, it’s going to come off the ground. It’s going to come by stepping out outside of the mainstream. It’s going to come by articulating a very different vision about how we relate to each other, how we relate to our economic system, and ultimately how we relate to the ecosystem if we’re going to make it. And none of those visions are coming out of traditional centers of academia, traditional political parties, traditional forms of the media. These things are all going to have to be created at the margins of society and then implemented at the margins of society. And then, hopefully, there’ll be a kind of contagion where they will spread outwards. And frankly, if they don’t–I mean, I just speak as somebody who reads climate change reports–we’re finished and we are completely finished.
JAY: Well, you kind of just talked about the agenda of The Real News.
JAY: Thanks for joining us, Chris.
HEDGES: Thank You.
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