By Jase Short
Chris Hedges is one of the most celebrated intellectuals of the contemporary US Left. A former New York Times reporter who essentially lost his job for taking a public stand against the invasion of Iraq, Hedges straddles the line between cynical doomsayer and principled critic of mainstream politics. In spite of many lapses in judgment in his intellectual work, the general thrust of his political standpoint is a welcome relief to those who have a hard time finding intellectuals who take the crises of global capitalism seriously.
Hedges' initial claim to fame came from his infamous speech at the 2003 commencement address for Rockford College, during which his microphone was cut when he criticized the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In his own words, "My editors at the New York Times were furious. I had crossed the line once too often. I had dared to feel, to make a judgment, and to think independently." Another casualty of the war fever of that period, Hedges was fired. Thus began his journey from troubled liberal to fiery populist intellectual.
Hedges published a politically ambiguous work,War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, in 2002. Hedges then developed an entire book around Umberto Eco's forgettable theses on fascism, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt." The book, titled American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2006) was typical of many liberal works of the period which tended to trace the problems of the Bush administration to its relationship with the Christian Right. American Fascists details the ways in which the Christian Right functions as a proto-fascist movement in the United States. Hedges' fascination with this political force in US politics was symptomatic of the time in which many leftists and liberals felt that this force had established hegemony over the Republican Party that controlled both the presidency and congress. Though the Christian Right is not to be discounted as a force in American politics, the period of 2008-2010 can be seen as one in which the far right of the American electorate was transformed by the merger of the Christian Right with the Tea Party "movement" of rightwing populism. Consequently the analysis of American Fascists seems rather dated at this point, but nonetheless Hedges' book is an important read and one which is insightful in many respects.
His next major work, Empire of Illusion, gained a lot less traction and represents Hedges' most moralistic side. Published in 2009, the entire work lampoons the products of the US culture industry as vapid, insubstantial spectacle, but falls short in meaningful critique. The central problem with Hedges' perspective on these issues is his identification with the critical work of Neil Postman, a modern incarnation of Marshal McLuhan. Instead of looking at technology as a tool for human use, Postman and McLuhan nostalgically look to older forms of technology as bastions of human freedom. Essentially their critique boils down to the displacement of print culture with image-based media culture. What they argue is that print culture facilitates critical thought and reasoned discourse while image-based culture facilitates manipulation and deception.
Throughout the book, Hedges' moralistic style comes across as entirely too heavy handed and dismissive of popular media in a manner reminiscent of right wing critics of modernity. Indeed his dismissive approach to subjects as varied and complex as pro-wrestling and pornography seems to be exemplary of the stereotype of the elitist liberal intellectual whose tastes for "high culture" inoculate them against even understanding the rhyme and reason of "low culture."
The transformation of Chris Hedges from moral gadfly to principled radical activist can be traced through his 2010 work Death of the Liberal Class (reviewed here by Sam Farber) and his immersion in the Occupy Wall Street movement. In Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges takes a strong stand against what he calls "the liberal class," essentially the institutions of print journalism, the mainstream churches, the universities, the Democratic Party, the arts and the labour unions.
In his analysis, the period after World War II through the beginning of the neoliberal era in the 1970s represents the high point for the liberal class. In this period, the transformation of the workers' movement into an institutionalized force of the AFL-CIO represents the big shift of the liberal class from being a small layer of intellectuals into a powerful cross-class alliance. The effect of the AFL-CIO on the Democratic Party was, at least in Hedges' analysis, to pull the party into a realm of social democracy lite, thereby giving a mass base and effective political instrument to the forces of the liberal intellectuals of the universities, mainline churches, the arts and print journalism.
These bastions of what Hedges calls "classical liberalism" and "social democracy" served as a brake on the rapacious nature of the capitalist system in its treatment of humanity and the natural world. In the book, he traces the rise and fall of these institutions and the subsequent bankruptcy of all efforts to utilize mainstream institutions to reform US society.
One of the book's most powerful assertions is that in the absence of a principled left-wing opposition to capitalism, right-wing oppositions will emerge, much as the fascist movements of the 20th century did. He contends that "with its reformist and collaborative ethos, the liberal class lacks the capacity or the imagination to respond to…discontent. It has no ideas. Revolt, because of this, will come from the right, as it did in other areas of bankrupt liberalism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Tsarist Russia."
Indeed, he begins the book with the story of Ernest Logan Bell, a young Marine Corps veteran who would have been an excellent candidate for becoming a member or supporter of the old Communist Party during the 1930s, but who, in the context of contemporary US society, found himself a strong support of Tea Party populism.
The story of Bell is a microcosm for Hedges of what the US has become in light of the decline of the liberal class and the lack of a serious left-wing movement to oppose the entire social and political order. Consequently, when the Occupy Wall Street movement erupted across US society in the fall of 2011, he immediately jumped into the effort, describing it in an interview as "where the hope of America lies." He went on to say:
"The real people who are scared are the power elite. Of course, they're trying to make you scared and us scared. But I can tell you, having been a reporter for the New York Times, that on the inside they're very, very frightened. They do not want movements like this to grow, and they understand on some level - whether it's subconscious or, in other cases, even overt - that the criminal class in this country has seized power."
In November of that same year, Hedges joined others in front of Goldman Sachs' headquarters to hold a "people's hearing" on the institution's numerous financial crimes. Hedges and others were arrested for blocking the entrance.
Media Face of Occupy Wall Street
A regular interviewee of left-leaning news outlets like Democracy Now and The Real News Network, Hedges became for Occupy Wall Street a figure somewhat akin to Naomi Klein's relationship to the alter-globalization movement: a recognizable face whose standpoints were equated by the mainstream media with the goals of the whole movement.
This spot in the limelight reached its apogee with Hedges' joint lawsuit against the US government over provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which allow for the suspension of habeas corpus and the indefinite detention of US citizens by the president. The lawsuit, Hedges v. Obama, was later bolstered by the addition of prominent dissidents Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg.
Perhaps Hedges' greatest contribution as a mainstream representative of Occupy Wall Street is the attention he has brought to the state of the Left in US society. In a 2013 interview with The Real News Network Hedges noted, "the left has been destroyed, especially the radical left, quite consciously in the whole name of anti-communism." In Death of the Liberal Class he elaborates on this destruction:
"The true militants of the American twentieth century, including the old communist unions, understood, in a way the liberal class does not, the dynamics of capitalism and human evil…They saw themselves as political beings. They called for sweeping social transformation… And for this they were destroyed. They were replaced by a pliant liberal class that spoke in the depoliticized language of narrow self-interest and pathetic 'Buy America' campaigns."
This single fact -- that there is no substantive radical left to speak of in the US and there has not been for quite some time -- is lost on the majority of the population for whom "left wing" is synonymous with the Democratic Party, in spite of its thoroughly neoliberal orientation.
Perhaps the most contentious parts of Hedges' politics involve his somewhat eclectic stance on some issues. While calling for a wholesale rejection of engagement with the mainstream institutions of society, he involved himself in a high profile court case against the Obama administration. Though he freely speaks about alternatives to capitalism, he bemoans changes in information technology for the role they have played in fostering illegal downloading.
Furthermore, he is often derided for his sudden shifts from advocating challenges within the system to a kind of catastrophism which calls for a retreat from the rest of civilization, "But in any country, those who survive will need isolated areas of farmland distant from urban areas, which will see food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, spread outward across the urban landscape as produce and goods become prohibitively expensive and state repression becomes harsher and harsher."
For Rebellion, Not Revolution
Perhaps Hedges' greatest political weakness lies in how he answers the question of "What is to be done?" In essence he reverts back to an old argument from the post-war period put forward by French writer Albert Camus in his work, The Rebel. Camus' position holds that revolution as such merely perpetuates forms of oppression by institutionalizing new forces of power that people will have to resist anew. He cites as his examples the "tyranny" imposed after the French and Russian Revolutions, what many leftists would see as the result of counter-revolution.
In Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges explicitly advocates for Camus' view: "Rebellion is not the same as revolution. Revolution works towards the establishment of a new power structure. Rebellion is about permanent revolt and permanent alienation from power." This utopian view involves a flight from confidence in the ability of ordinary people to wield power in order to concretely change their living circumstances. Instead, it holds that power is somehow a corrupting force in itself. Here Hedges' cynicism about the potential for human progress comes out incredibly clearly. Any serious engagement with his work requires, at least from the perspective of socialists, a rejection of this cynicism and a healthy appreciation for the capability of ordinary people to interfere in the decision-making processes that affect their lives. In his work in Occupy, Hedges seems to reject his own view, at least up to the point at which he has confidence that ordinary people know better than the "power elite" about what is needed to make their lives better. His infatuation with Occupy can also be seen, from another angle, as a confirmation of his allegiance to Camus' concept of rebellion. What many saw as a vice of Occupy, its inability to form an effective political instrument able to wield real power, was seen by Hedges as its virtue, keeping it incorruptible. Indeed, Hedges subscribes to the view that Occupy was destroyed almost entirely by repression rather than by any problematic internal dynamics.
In sum Hedges' political transformation is special precisely because he comes from a place other than the Left. This is the source of some of the weaknesses in his eclectic style of thought. Certainly there are numerous intellectuals with more meaningful systematic approaches to the contemporary scene, from David Harvey to David McNally. Yet as a journalist and gadfly with access to mainstream audiences, Hedges' transformation from a New York Times employee to a thoroughly radical anti-capitalist gives him an importance to activists on the Left that is of a different kind than that of academic or grassroots activist intellectuals. He is a member of the so-called "liberal class" who has become a dissident, and perhaps is a harbinger of defections to come.
Jase Short is a member of the US socialist group Solidarity who lives in Tennessee.