Friday, February 12, 2010

Zero Point Indeed: A Response to Chris Hedges

In his latest article, Zero Point of Systemic Collapse (February '10 Adbusters),Chris Hedges analyzes the breakdown of the modern socio-economic & global political system. Anyone on the eyes-wide-open radical fringes is likely to have seen elsewhere many of the points Hedges makes in his article. However, as always, such work is often worth a look as it may challenge or clarify some of the ideas you may have had on the various subjects presented. Personally, I took issue with some of the things he wrote and found some theoretical shortcomings which were not very enlightening.

Early in his article, regarding what form resistance should take, he writes: "It means turning our energies toward building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis..." & "These communities, if they retreat into a pure survivalist mode without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community, the state and the planet, will become as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us."

I, myself, have expressed similar sentiments, but I don't really see here what ideas or values Hedges is suggesting we defend. The intellectual and artistic traditions "that make a civil society, humanism and the common good possible," of which he writes, seems a bit vague and, for the sake of argument, can be applied to any set of intellectual and artistic traditions. So I, for one, would like to see more examination of what values lie at the core of such a proposed community.

Then, after prompting us to thusly "retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours," Hedges condescendingly moves on to the "fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state" and the anarchists who "do not understand the nature of violence." Now I don't claim to know how successful any popular revolt or mass movement might ever be, but Hedges fails to adequately show why he believes such activity is a "fantasy" and only leaves his readers with the feeling of defeat. He seems to take on the role of a fellow slave or serf telling the rest of us not to rise up lest the master get angry. At the very least he sounds like someone who might cross the picket line. And this "fantasy" seems to contradict his ideas (presented later in his piece) of an ill-defined "resistance" which is to be undertaken -- of which he writes: "They understood that to live in the fullest sense of the word, to exist as free and independent human beings, even under the darkest night of state repression, meant to defy injustice." While I appreciate the eloquence of his words, I can't help but to see the contradiction in his context.

As for the anarchist dig, which could hardly be a compliment, I have to chuckle. I doubt that Hedges or anyone else is qualified to so tidily sum up the collective thoughts of anarchists regarding violence. His subsequent condemnation of violence is couched conveniently, but somewhat paradoxically, between these two statements: "I am not a pacifist" & "It must be avoided, although not at the expense of our own survival." He gives very little passing reason why he isn't a pacifist or when non-violence would be "at the expense of our own survival." In the end he sees the "criminal class" as being the most adept at violence in the name of self-defense and warns that "even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms and perverts you." Also, in the preceding paragraph, with great subtlety, he manages to shamefully conflate property destruction with innocent people getting killed. These are sentiments that I imagine a number of people who are fighting for their lives and freedom might take issue with -- especially if they are merely destroying property and not taking lives.

After that he gets back to the obvious... democracy has been undermined, reformism is inadequate, Obama is a tool, and junk politics changes nothing. Yes, obviously, the economy is collapsing. I won't argue with any of those things. Nor will I contest the shortcomings of "magical" thinking and the dismissal of criticism as "negativity." Anyone who is flabbergasted by the state of the world (and the many politically puerile responses to it) knows exactly what he's talking about.

His take on the "inverted" totalitarianism (under which he sees us) is somewhat interesting, but I take issue with this statement: "Inverted totalitarianism wields total power without resorting to cruder forms of control such as gulags, concentration camps or mass terror." Really? Is that so? Are not millions of American citizens currently incarcerated in these inverted corporate totalitarian states of America? Are not millions more cycled through the prison-industrial complex each year? Are emergency sirens not heard almost all day throughout all the major cities? It's not Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, but it's easily comparable to the Soviet Union in its final years. And to claim that "It does not forcibly suppress dissidents, as long as those dissidents remain ineffectual," well... that just shows some plain ignorance of recent protest movements (like those at the St. Paul RNC in 2008 & the G20 in Pittsburgh 2009). Lots of people (including those who weren't even part of the protests) have been beaten and terrorized by the state's police at recent protests for little more than standing on the sidewalk . This is on top of the police violence that occurs in the neighborhoods and on the highways of America every day.

Now don't get me wrong, I like a lot of Chris Hedges' work. And I like a lot of what he says in this piece about systemic collapse. With this article, however, it seems like he's dived into a deep radical analysis where he is flailing about while trying to stay afloat. It's as if he's saying "Resist but don't revolt! Violence has a place but I won't tell you accurately where that place is while I go on and on about it's ills. We live in a heavily surveilled police state, but this form of totalitarianism isn't as bad as some previous forms." And, finally, "we all need to head for the hills (but the values and activities around which to build a community I will leave painfully vague)."

In short... it seems as if this hackneyed article was written as a form of commodified revolt specifically catering to the editorial style of Adbusters. Perhaps Chris Hedges was (or has become) more of a holistic radical than I realized, and maybe this is partly sour grapes (as many have done more than just write about revolutionary acts), but a lot of his analysis strikes me as seriously flawed and the picture he paints is somewhat inaccurate. I would welcome a more thoughtful, comprehensive, and well-constructed article from Hedges along these same lines, and I wouldn't be totally surprised if he came out with something spot on, but I've also learned not to hold my breathe as I wait for award-winning scholars to get a clue.