The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Adrian Lee)
Chris Hedges—Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, ordained Presbyterian minister, ferocious anti-corporate activist and prolific author—has long occupied an isolated spot among American public intellectuals, as much a moral crusader as a political critic. But as American, and Western, politics continue to decay and xenophobic nativism continues to rise, Hedges, 61, seems less and less an outlier, his critique of contemporary America more acceptable to his countrymen. And that’s without walking back any of his analysis. If Hedges was worried nine years ago in Empire of Illusion that his nation—like all republics before it—would fail to survive the acquisition of an empire, he’s now convinced it won’t. The title of his newest book, America: The Farewell Tour, says it all. In powerfully reported chapters—including “Decay” (deindustrialization), “Heroin” (the opioid epidemic), “Sadism” (the pornography-industrial complex), and “Hate” (racism)—Hedges talks to the most oppressed and dispossessed citizens of an empire he thinks has not much more than a decade of life left.
Q: A very bleak and wide-ranging report. The Farewell Tour is, in its way, the antithesis of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
A: That book is the modern version of Candide. I mean it is completely unplugged from reality. Pinker, who has spent his life in academic gardens like Harvard, just doesn’t understand what societies look like when they break down. I’ve been there. I’m not an academic. I was primarily a war correspondent for 28 years. Pinker doesn’t get the dark side of human nature and how technology has, in degenerated societies, accelerated the power to commit wholesale slaughter. People love his book. It’s what they want to hear. But it’s not real.
Q: Yet he is correct that much of the world, especially in Asia, has been lifted out of poverty in the last generation.
A: But consider income inequality in China. It’s massive—there’s now a Chinese oligarchy just like the ones in the rest of the world. China is buying up half of Vancouver—what’s that town north of Vancouver that’s becoming the largest Chinese-speaking city outside of China? Richmond? To somehow measure wealth by GDP is a mistake. Having worked in places, especially Africa, in vast urban slums, I know the poverty is worse [than it was] for people who at least had subsistence agriculture before. So the whole measurement of wealth is wrong. The rise of global oligarchic classes with obscene amounts of money doesn’t mean the world’s richer. Not unless you read Thomas Friedman.
Q: You argue from a socialist perspective…
A: I’m not an ideologue. I once gave a talk in a Canadian university—I think it was the University of Winnipeg—some place where you can still hire Marxist economists. That doesn’t happen in America. Anyway, I finished my talk and one of the members of the economics department who had been sitting in the back stood up and said to the students, “I just want to make it clear that he’s not really a socialist, he’s a radical Keynesian.” Which actually is true. He wasn’t wrong. I’m not a Marxist. I read Marx and I think Marxist critique and understanding of capitalism is absolutely vital and true and probably the greatest critique we have. If I were running a hedge fund, I would only hire Marxists because they understand that capitalism is about exploitation, the maximization of profit and reducing the cost of labour. I think sometimes, to put it in Canadian vernacular, I’m a Tommy Douglas socialist.
Q: I think “perspective” still works here, given you don’t see any difference between the purported liberal and conservative parties in the U.S. or in the rest of the developed world.
A: Put it this way: nations have lost control of their own economies, in essence. So it doesn’t matter what people want. There is no way to vote against the global interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. You can’t do it. And this, of course, is what has created political crises. The result is anger and authoritarian populist figures like Orbán in Hungary and the leaders of the current Polish government, and similar strong movements in France, Germany, Italy. This is a global phenomenon of which Trump is a part. But there’s an important difference. America is an empire. So we’re much more fragile than nation-states, non-imperial countries.
Q: And much more dangerous. You cite historians who note how rising empires tend to be judicious in their use of military force, while declining empires are prone to wild swings of the bat to try to stay on top.
A: Yes, much more dangerous. You see that throughout history: the ancient Greeks invading Sicily, and their entire fleet sunk, thousands of soldiers killed and their empire becoming unsustainable; or in 1956 when Britain tries to invade Egypt after the nationalization of the Suez Canal, retreats in humiliation and thereby triggers a financial crisis and the end of the pound sterling as a reserve currency, marking the death of the British Empire, which had been on a slow descent since the end of World War One. The dollar as the world’s current reserve currency is running on fumes. The moment that’s over, American financial supremacy is instantly finished. It will be very similar to the aftermath of the Suez disaster—something like that is always characteristic of late empire. And the fragility of an empire means that when collapse comes it’s almost instantaneous. You look back at the rapid final fall of the old Soviet Union. A failing empire is like a house of cards that just comes down—it’s not a slow descent. We know from history what happens. It’s not a mystery.
Q: You don’t believe there is anything the system—meaning the opposition party, meaning the Democrats—can do to effect real change in the U.S.
A: Let’s be clear. The Democratic Party under Bill Clinton transformed itself into the traditional Republican Party, and the Republican Party moved, was pushed, so far to the right it became insane. The Democratic Party is a creation of the better-educated, more enlightened wing of the billionaire class, those who don’t want to be identified as racist, misogynist, homophobic Islamophobes. But fundamentally, the economic structures and imperial structures remain untouched because the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, depends on corporate money to exist. So figures like [Nancy] Pelosi or [Chuck] Schumer have power within the party because they control the money and which candidates get the money. They’re the bag people, and they are acutely aware that should they institute real electoral reform—purging corporate money from the system—they wouldn’t hold political power. However decayed the ship of state is, they are not going to give up their first-class cabins. The Democrats’ entire electoral strategy is to hope that Trump implodes.
Q: To run on “we’re not Trump”?
A: Yeah—which could fail, by the way. Their elites, which include the media elites, are woefully out of touch with the country.
Q: When you write about Charlottesville, it’s clear you feel that all the people there, whether neo-Nazis or counter-protesters, were reacting to the same economic, social and psychological dislocations.
Q: With no answers at all from their government short of mass incarceration?
A: That’s right, that and militarized police. And again, in Canada too—look at the streets of Toronto during the G20.
Q: So that is the answer to the question puzzled liberals pose in America: why do Trump supporters in particular, or Republican working-class supporters in general, vote against what liberals see as their own interests?
A: That idea is just untrue. The Democratic Party has long abandoned working-class America. And the sense of betrayal on the part of the Democrats was deeper because traditionally the Democrats had been at least open to the interests of labour. That was all abolished under Bill Clinton, who—like Hillary—understood astutely that if they did corporate bidding they would get corporate money. The political spectrum in the United States across the two major parties is now so narrow as to be almost irrelevant. What they argue about are cultural or social issues. But that’s a form of anti-politics. They don’t actually argue about anything of substance in terms of the economy or foreign policy. That’s why you see complete continuity between Republican and Democratic administrations. So the rage is quite legitimate. That was fascinating for me when I was in Anderson, Ind., which is—was—one of GM’s epicentres. After NAFTA, carmakers could move to Mexico and pay workers $3 an hour without benefits. According to the old UAW officials, their members voted for Sanders in the primary but then voted for Trump in the general, because they weren’t going to vote for Clinton. They were fully aware that their city, their lives, their families, their ability to make an income that could sustain them, was taken away from them by the Democratic Party machine. Oh, and when I say complete continuity, one caveat—Barack Obama’s assault on civil liberties and levels of deportations of undocumented workers were actually worse than Bush’s.
Q: Civil liberties have been eroding for quite a while in the U.S., at least since the Patriot Act.
A: This is global. You have it in Canada, too. That security bill Harper passed that Trudeau hasn’t revoked? Your wholesale surveillance is as draconian as ours.
Q: One of your major themes is that contemporary politics has neither language nor platform to talk about economics and social issues from an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist position.
A: Not within the mainstream media, which has co-opted political language quite effectively. There is no genuine debate about the nature of corporate capitalism: how it works, what its economic effects are both nationally and globally, what its political effects are. It’s never discussed at all. In Canada the situation is better because of people like John Ralston Saul, Naomi Klein, Adbusters, so it’s at least possible to raise the issue. But in the U.S. it is quite stunning how it’s completely censored from public discourse. The health-care system is the perfect example. There is no rational discussion of it because people who advocate universal government-funded health care are never allowed to have a platform. We just don’t talk about how much money we spend for the most inefficient health-care system in the industrialized world. Instead, Americans get spectacle: this endless reality television show with porn stars and a maniacal idiot in the Oval Office sitting in front of a television set tweeting, and it’s good entertainment. CNN made more money last year than they’ve ever made. But it is not news. It has nothing to do with news.
Q: What can you tell me about the mix of hope and despair in your book. Is there hope in it?
A: I don’t think like that. One of the great existential crises of our time is to understand how bleak the world is, and resist anyway. But pretending that it’s not bleak feeds the mania for unreal hope that exists within American culture that I don’t share. That’s our exit door—it allows us to find excuses not to react with the militancy that we must embrace if we’re going to ultimately survive. There is a moral dimension to fighting radical evil. Most rebels throughout history do not succeed. But you don’t succeed without them, and the situation truly is hopeless if we do nothing. If we resist we have hope, however marginal and impossible that hope may seem. If we don’t resist, you can’t use the word hope.