Chris Hedges’ catastrophism is faulty politics

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A friend of mine sends me commentaries by Chris Hedges. He raves about them. In his words, they speak truth to power, tell it like it is. Hedges, he says, "pull no punches."

I find them instructive and full of insights too; their sense of outrage is palpable.

There is little doubt that Hedges counts among a growing galaxy of progressive and left writers who are challenging conventional wisdom that sustains the system of capitalism and its present political configuration of forces.

But here's my beef with Hedges. While he goes beyond liberal analysts in his critiques of present-day society, he also in my view falls into the trap of what I call "political catastrophism."

By that I mean he tells his readers that the midnight hour is fast approaching and only an immediate, spontaneous uprising will avert impending doom; anything less will throw the country into a dark era of misery and rapid decay. It oddly echoes, in inverted form, the "political catastrophism" of right-wing extremists like Rush Limbaugh who rail that the Obama presidency unless resisted could spell "end times."

Two excerpts from recent articles by Hedges give a little flavor of what I am getting at.

One:

"New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been Wall Street's anointed son for the presidency. ... Wall Street and the security and surveillance apparatus want a real son of a bitch in power, someone with the moral compass of Al Capone, in order to ruthlessly silence and crush those of us who are working to overthrow the corporate state.

"... if Christie becomes president, [we will] see the vast forces of the security state surge into overdrive to stymie and reverse reform, gut our tepid financial and environmental regulations, further enrich the corporate elite who are pillaging the country, and savagely shut down all dissent. The corporate state's repression, now on the brink of totalitarianism, would with the help of Christie, his corporate backers and his tea party loyalists become a full-blown corporate fascism." [my italics]

Two:

"This is our last gasp as a democracy. The state's wholesale intrusion into our lives and obliteration of privacy are now facts. And the challenge to us - one of the final ones, I suspect - is to rise up in outrage and halt this seizure of our rights to liberty and free expression. If we do not do so we will see ourselves become a nation of captives.

" ... There will be no organized dissent. There will be no independent thought. Criticisms, however tepid, will be treated as acts of subversion. And the security apparatus will blanket the body politic like black mold ... "

My problem with the above analysis isn't that Hedges is way off the mark. The election of Christie or someone else of his right-wing political inclinations to the presidency would constitute a dangerous turn for our country. The national security state is dangerously spreading its tentacles far and wide no matter who is in the White House. And the need for massive resistance to these dangers is undeniable.

In a capitalist society and state such as ours democracy is always limited and restricted, but Hedges is right to point out that the erosion of our democratic structures and liberties today is of a different order of magnitude, eclipsing, for instance, the McCarthy and Watergate periods.

But I part company with Hedges on his claim that we are only minutes away from a totalitarian and fascistic takeover, and on the thinness of his political prescription - a mass uprising - to meet this challenge.

Fascism can't be discounted out of hand; there are certainly some troubling developments that carry the "whiff of fascism." But it is a disabling overstatement to say that fascism is around the corner.

Fascism is not the favored option of capital. As Lenin said on more than one occasion, big capital prefers its class rule to take a bourgeois democratic form. It may choose to restrict democracy to preserve its profits, privileges, and dominance, as it is now doing, but it would rather avoid naked corporate class rule if it can.

Why? At the core of U.S. capitalism's popular legitimacy both here and abroad is the notion that capitalism and democracy constitute an organic and necessary whole. Thus, the capitalist class would be reluctant to give up that ideological and political armor, except in the most extraordinary circumstances when its class dominance is at risk, as in Germany in the 1930s.

But that is not the case now or in the foreseeable future. Ending the class rule of the 1 percent isn't yet at the center of today's struggles.

I'm not suggesting that one can rely on the capitalist class commitment to bourgeois democracy. That would be foolhardy and dangerous. To the contrary, the main way to resist fascism in the future is to vigorously fight to defend and expand democracy in the present.

But here Hedges' analysis has little, if anything, to say.

First of all, his analysis makes no mention of the importance of participating in existing democratic struggles over reproductive rights, living wages, jobs, collective bargaining rights, voting rights, and so on. Aren't these battles the ground on which democracy will be defended and expanded?

Second, it is silent on progressive trends and movements that are growing and even winning victories.

Third, it offers no strategic and tactical guidelines that would give a lead as to who are the key social forces that have to be assembled in order to rebuff a massive assault on democracy and in its place radically expand and deepen democracy.

Fourth, it says not a word about the struggle against racism and its place in the fight for democracy and political advance in general.

Fifth, it makes no mention of the importance of taking advantage of the divisions within political elites and the ruling class and the two major parties - something that earlier transformative movements in the 1930s and 1960s skillfully did to great effect.

Sixth, Hedges ignores the fact that the coming fall elections give an opportunity to hand a defeat to some of the very forces - the right-wing Republicans in Congress and statehouses - that are zealously and systematically hacking away at every democratic right that has been won over the past century.

Thankfully,  life is showing that most people's understanding of the present moment is more nuanced and complex than Hedges'. They are well aware of the mounting dangers to democratic governance, but they don't think doomsday is around the corner. Nor are they pinning all their hopes on a "Great Insurrectionary Day."

Instead, they are doing what needs to be done - steadily building a movement to preserve, deepen, and expand democracy - not in general, but on concrete issues, and not in one arena, but in every arena. And most are, or will be soon, turning their attention to this fall's congressional elections.

This may not seem as exciting as Hedges' scenario, but if I were a betting man as to what scenario is more likely to get us out of the mess that we are in, my money would go to the people in motion.

"Political catastrophism" on the left is no better than its counterpart on the right. It may titillate momentarily, but in the end it comes up empty.

Photo: "Headlights of doom," Lisa Parker CC 2.0

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  • I like Chris Hedges, but I too have had this exact same gripe about him lately. As a polemicist and a poet, he makes astute observations and weaves them into a powerful narrative. BUT, as far as more pragmatic approaches to polemicism go, I'm going to have to go with James Kunstler. I sing his praises on the internet often. The reason is that he actually has a REAL approach to solving what is wrong with contemporary life. For instance, when Chris Hedges talks about the machinations of Shell and company, he doesn't seem to offer an explanation for WHY they act in such a ruthless and seemingly haphazard manner. I mean, sure, like he says, Karl Marx figures into the analysis of the problems with private corporations exploiting valuable resources - they hesitatingly provide accurate information about how much resources are still left, in order to increase profits, as well as having no reasonable limits as to the extent of said profits, which figures quite nicely into the diatribe that Hedges puts out often, saying that unfettered capitalism is [a disaster] - but the reasons the oil companies act like this have deeper explanations than what he gives.

    Here is where I turn to James Kunstler for a coherent framework about what went and is going wrong. To put it simply, we built our nation the wrong way and now REQUIRE the oil to run our cities. The reasons for this are manifold, some having to do with the deep fears of communism/socialism, which made people deeply afraid of any planning, even city planning, fearing that if we planned our cities, we would all end up in gulags, and some having to do with the nature of our own history and the double coincidence of sudden oil wealth and vast room for expansion.

    I don't want to get too wound up on this explanation of why I prefer James Kunstler to Chris Hedges in terms of polemical analyses of modernity - they both offer some valuable insight into contemporary life - but I just needed to lay out why I feel that Chris Hedges is on the mark.....but not, at the same exact time.

    I could take on more pivots for the sake of argument, but this could go on for a long time, and a comparison of the two is probably not on most people's minds, so I'll cut this shorter:
    Understanding modern America requires nothing less than understanding the nature of money itself, (and how it's created), economics and history; you will find yourself in a deep rabbit hole, but the journey is interesting. Personally, to me, Karl Marx is the best tool for understanding almost everything about our problems, but his ideas need to be boiled down to their elements and understood in the most simplistic of ways, or you will get lost. For instance, if you find enough out about Karl Marx, (and probably James Kunstler would die being compared to him), you might find, like me, that Karl Marx's ideas about what life should be like compare most favorably to James Kunstler's ideas about life.......but I jump to my own conclusions about things. I mean, I have even compared Kunstler's ideas about city planning to communism, (which is what Karl Marx was mainly concerned with anyway). This is why he wanted to abolish private property, because he thought it got in the way of city planning.

    Also, just to get you guys all wound up, let's just say for the sake of stoking a conversation that is beyond normal constraints, if you agree that Kunstler's ideas about city planning have an element of communist thought mixed in with them, then what America needs is a healthy dose of communism. Even education could use a dose of communist thought. For instance, Karl Marx was not exactly against child labor; he thought that kids should grow up learning knowledge in school while practicing trade crafts to grow up into healthy, well-rounded adults. America has such a knee-jerk reaction to child labor, that kids grow up, (maybe), to be book-savvy, but with no practical skills.

    Anyway, I like arguing in unconventional ways to get people to think about our real problems in America; we have many, and Chris Hedges only offers a few colors from the prism.



    Posted by mrmiller, 02/24/2014 2:16am (1 year ago)

  • Unfortunately, Sam, the passages you cite from Hedges are among his ROSIER ones. There are times when he comes right out and says that we are doomed; that environmental catastrophe in inevitable; that we are sailors on the Pequod headed for unstoppable disaster with political Ahabs at the helm leading us there and that the only thing we can do is offer ourselves as lambs to the slaughter with futile gestures of rebellion. He is very good at arousing anger in his readership with his wonderfully accurate depictions of the injustice, the arrogance, the violence and the contempt for all of us on the part of the ruling class. Then he leaves us high and dry by saying in essence, in the words of The Borg: "Resistance is futile." Our only hope is organization and mobilization and preaching this sort of fatalism is not helpful, to put it mildly.

    Posted by John Whiskey, 02/18/2014 9:23pm (1 year ago)

  • Apocalyptic or catastrophic analysts leave me feeling powerless. Fatalism is NOT empowering. If you think nothing can be done about a problem, the power elite have already won. Your own mindset keeps you exactly where the ruling 1% want you to be: in the limbo of futility and hopelessness.

    Posted by Mason Taylor, 02/12/2014 8:32pm (1 year ago)

  • I agree in general with Sam's analysis, although I would say that Hedges is someone whom one can learn a great deal from by reading between the lines. And I understand also the political rage and sense of disaster, although in itself it offers little except further despair and withdrawal or support for ultra-left confrontationist politics.
    It is important to understand the dangers, but to confront them rationally. The Koch brothers, two of the top ten richest people in the world, are funding a wide variety of ultra-right political campaigns in and through the Republican party and gettting away with it. The last thirty 33 years of both anti-labor policies and the export of capital have seen the trade union movement, its private sector component, fall to single digits, and of course, many of the state governments which the Koch Brothers poltiical fronts have helped to create have launched an all out attack on public sector unions.
    What we should be talking about is concrete strategies to strengthen the trade union movement and advance electoral politics so as to develop political independence from the urban Democratic political machines by bringing involving the tens of millions of lower income people who are completely outside of the political process, to both involve them, register then to vote and give them something to vote for. Only the trade union movement really has the resources to advance such a program and it is necessary for the trade union movement to do so. As Communists, and we should be proud of that word, since those who revile it are the enemies of economic and social justice and poltical democracy, our task is to educate(which also means the sort of agitation that Chris Hedges does and does well) but help to organize and coordinate peoples struggles. There are masses of people out there who are literally "hungry" for solutions to the crisis and are more than willing to entertain socialist solutions if they make practical political sense. Most of those people right now are more likely to listen to and like Chris Hedges articles than, unfortunately, Sam's, but the two can really be brought together, to both agitate(arouse) and educate("propagandize") for working class based progress solutions to the economic crisis and to both the lack of effective political democracy in the U.S. and the erosion of the political rights that we do have.
    All of this is meant as constructive criticism and I want to commend Sam for the article. Also, I would say to Francisco Aguilar that the comparison with Argentina, given its history of military junta rule and also the poisoned politics of Peronism is not really applicable to the U.S. The military has never played that role in the U.S. in that it was been in the background to take power from governments that it doesn't like and is directly involved in the economy, not merely through the military industrial complex as it is here(where the corporations call the tune and control the politicians) but as an old Brazilian Marxist economist and exile once said to me, as extortionists, strong arm men, "silent partners" whose relationship to much of the economy would be similar to the Mafia here--that is, running the economy as a racket for themselves

    Posted by norman markowitz, 02/12/2014 3:12pm (1 year ago)

  • Sam Webb has articulated perfectly why I love the Communist Party. "Catastrophism" leads to inaction and defeatism. Not only do we have a vision, but we see that our everyday work in peoples' struggles like the Fast Food Workers leads to the society we all want, the socialist democratic society where everyone's voice, work and love counts. We do not have to wait for the "Great Insurrectionary Day" we are building the future now!

    Posted by Tina Nannarone, 02/12/2014 10:51am (1 year ago)

  • Hedges, having received an entire column from an apparachik-one who supports the prevailing power structure-aka a politically embedded stooge, can't help but be amused that he is now being openly yet 'carefully' faulted for his truth telling. Yes things are extreme. That's why he performs such an essential service. Mankibd should be grateful. When does that ever happen?

    Posted by laurie dobson, 02/12/2014 4:37am (1 year ago)

  • Rather like the apologist R. Reich

    Posted by Stiofain Gael Mac Geough, 02/11/2014 10:50pm (1 year ago)

  • Not unlike the apologists R. Reich.

    Posted by Stiofain Gael Mac Geough, 02/11/2014 10:49pm (1 year ago)

  • More of a question. I thought fascism is the merging if government and big capital, corporations. Wouldn't that deem America on the precipice if not already begun a form of fascism now?????

    Posted by Jennifer Block, 02/11/2014 8:30pm (1 year ago)

  • Thanks, I will forward this.

    Posted by Mason Taylor, 02/11/2014 8:04pm (1 year ago)

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