Chris Hedges’ catastrophism is faulty politics

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.


“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]


“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


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.