Chris Hedges: American Requiem

However inequitable its bias, capitalist democracy at least offered the possibility of incremental and piecemeal reform. Now it is a corpse.

Art by Mr. Fish. (Original to Scheerpost)

By Chris Hedges

Well, it’s over. Not the election. The capitalist democracy. However biased it was towards the interests of the rich and however hostile it was to the poor and minorities, the capitalist democracy at least offered the possibility of incremental and piecemeal reform. Now it is a corpse.

The iconography and rhetoric remain the same. But it is an elaborate and empty reality show funded by the ruling oligarchs — $1.51 billion for the Biden campaign and $1.57 billion for the Trump campaign — to make us think there are choices. There are not.

The empty jousting between a bloviating President Donald Trump and a verbally impaired Joe Biden is designed to mask the truth. The oligarchs always win. The people always lose. It does not matter who sits in the White House. America is a failed state. 

“The American Dream has run out of gas,” wrote the novelist J.G. Ballard. “The car has stopped. It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its fantasies. No more. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares now.”

There were many actors that killed America’s open society. The corporate oligarchs who bought the electoral process, the courts and the media, and whose lobbyists write the legislation to impoverish us and allow them to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth and unchecked power.

The militarists and war industry that drained the national treasury to mount futile and endless wars that have squandered some $7 trillion and turned us into an international pariah. The CEOs, raking in bonuses and compensation packages in the tens of millions of dollars, that shipped jobs overseas and left our cities in ruins and our workers in misery and despair without a sustainable income or hope for the future.

The fossil fuel industry that made war on science and chose profits over the looming extinction of the human species. The press that turned news into mindless entertainment and partisan cheerleading. The intellectuals who retreated into the universities to preach the moral absolutism of identity politics and multiculturalism while turning their backs on the economic warfare being waged on the working class and the unrelenting assault on civil liberties. And, of course, the feckless and hypocritical liberal class that does nothing but talk, talk, talk. 

Contemptible Class

If there is one group that deserves our deepest contempt it is the liberal elites, those who posture as the moral arbiters of society while abandoning every value they purportedly hold the moment they become inconvenient. The liberal class, once again, served as pathetic cheerleaders and censors for a candidate and a political party that in Europe would be considered on the far-right.

Even while liberals were being ridiculed and dismissed by Biden and by the Democratic Party hierarchy, which bizarrely invested its political energy in appealing to Republican neocons, liberals were busy marginalizing journalists, including Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, who called out Biden and the Democrats. The liberals, whether at The Intercept or The New York Times, ignored or discredited information that could hurt the Democratic Party, including the revelations on Hunter Biden’s laptop. It was a stunning display of craven careerism and self-loathing.

Biden’s campaign was utterly bereft of ideas and policy issues, as if he and the Democrats could sweep the elections by promising to save the soul of America.

“OWN Your Vote” event with Oprah, Oct. 28, 2020. (Joe Biden, Flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Democrats and their liberal apologists are, the election has illustrated, oblivious to the profound personal and economic despair sweeping through this country. They stand for nothing. They fight for nothing.

Restoring the rule of law, universal health care, banning fracking, a Green New Deal, the protection of civil liberties, the building of unions, the preservation and expansion of social welfare programs, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, the forgiveness of student debt, stiff environmental controls, a government jobs program and guaranteed income, financial regulation, opposition to endless war and military adventurism were once again forgotten.

Championing these issues would have resulted in a Democratic Party landslide. But since the Democratic Party is a wholly-owned subsidiary of corporate donors, promoting any policy that might foster the common good, diminish corporate profits and restore democracy, including imposing campaign finance laws, was impossible.

Biden’s campaign was utterly bereft of ideas and policy issues, as if he and the Democrats could sweep the elections by promising to save the soul of America. At least the neofascists have the courage of their demented convictions. 

The liberal class functions in a traditional democracy as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It ameliorates the worst excesses of capitalism. It proposes gradual steps towards greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with supposed virtues.

It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements. The liberal class is a vital component within the power elite. In short, it offers hope and the possibility, or at least the illusion, of change. 

The surrender of the liberal elite to despotism creates a power vacuum that speculators, war profiteers, gangsters and killers, often led by charismatic demagogues, fill. It opens the door to fascist movements that rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the absurdities of the liberal class and the values they purport to defend.

The promises of the fascists are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth. Once the liberal class ceases to function, it opens a Pandora’s box of evils that are impossible to contain. 

Disease of Trumpism 

The disease of Trumpism, with or without Trump, is, as the election illustrated, deeply embedded in the body politic. It is an expression among huge segments of the population, taunted by liberal elites as “deplorables,” of a legitimate alienation and rage that the Republicans and the Democrats orchestrated and now refuse to address. This Trumpism is also, as the election showed, not limited to white men, whose support for Trump actually declined.   

Fyodor Dostoevsky saw the behavior of Russia’s useless liberal class, which he satirized and excoriated at the end of the 19th century, as presaging a period of blood and terror. The failure of liberals to defend the ideals they espoused inevitably led, he wrote, to an age of moral nihilism.

In Notes From Underground, he portrayed the sterile, defeated dreamers of the liberal class, those who hold up high ideals but do nothing to defend them. The main character in Notes From Underground carries the bankrupt ideas of liberalism to their logical extreme. He eschews passion and moral purpose. He is rational. He accommodates a corrupt and dying power structure in the name of liberal ideals.

The hypocrisy of the Underground Man dooms Russia as it now dooms the United States. It is the fatal disconnect between belief and action. 

“I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” the Underground Man wrote. “And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure – primarily a limited being.”

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasili Perov, 1872. (Wikimedia Commons)

The refusal of the liberal class to acknowledge that power has been wrested from the hands of citizens by corporations, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have been revoked by judicial fiat, that elections are nothing more than empty spectacles staged by the ruling elites, that we are on the losing end of the class war, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. 

The “idea of the intellectual vocation,” as Irving Howe pointed out in his 1954 essay This Age of Conformity, “the idea of a life dedicated to values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization — has gradually lost its allure. And, it is this, rather than the abandonment of a particular program, which constitutes our rout.”

The belief that capitalism is the unassailable engine of human progress, Howe wrote, “is trumpeted through every medium of communication: official propaganda, institutional advertising and scholarly writings of people who, until a few years ago, were its major opponents.” 

“The truly powerless people are those intellectuals — the new realists — who attach themselves to the seats of power, where they surrender their freedom of expression without gaining any significance as political figures,” Howe wrote. “For it is crucial to the history of the American intellectuals in the past few decades — as well as to the relationship between ‘wealth’ and ‘intellect’ — that whenever they become absorbed into the accredited institutions of society they not only lose their traditional rebelliousness but to one extent or another they cease to function as intellectuals.” 

Populations can endure the repression of tyrants, as long as these rulers continue to effectively manage and wield power. But human history has amply demonstrated that once those in positions of power become redundant and impotent, yet retain the trappings and privileges of power, they are brutally discarded. This was true in Weimar Germany. It was true in the former Yugoslavia, a conflict I covered for The New York Times. 

The historian Fritz Stern in The Politics of Cultural Despair, his book on the rise of fascism in Germany, wrote of the consequences of the collapse of liberalism. Stern argued that the spiritually and politically alienated, those cast aside by the society, are prime recruits for a politics centered around violence, cultural hatreds and personal resentments.

Much of this rage, justifiably, is directed at a liberal elite that, while speaking the “I-feel-your-pain” language of traditional liberalism, sells us out.

“They attacked liberalism,” Stern writes of the fascists emerging at the time in Germany, “because it seemed to them the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it; the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sense in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this, liberalism denied. Hence, they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith.”

We are in for it. The for-profit health care system, designed to make money — not take care of the sick — is unequipped to handle a national health crisis. The health care corporations have spent the last few decades merging and closing hospitals, and cutting access to health care in communities across the nation to increase revenue — this, as nearly half of all front-line workers remain ineligible for sick pay and some 43 million Americans have lost their employee-sponsored health insurance.

The pandemic, without universal health care, which Biden and the Democrats have no intention of establishing, will continue to rage out of control. Three hundred thousand Americans dead by December. Four hundred thousand by January. And by the time the pandemic burns out or a vaccine becomes safely available, hundreds of thousands, maybe a few million, will have died. 

Inevitable Unrest

The inevitable social unrest will see the state, no matter who is in the White House, use its three principle instruments of social control — wholesale surveillance, the prisons and militarized police — buttressed by a legal system that routinely revokes habeas corpus and due process, to ruthlessly crush dissent.

The economic fallout from the pandemic, the chronic underemployment and unemployment — close to 20 percent when those who have stopped looking for work, those furloughed with no prospect of being rehired and those who work part-time but are still below the poverty line are included in the official statistics — will mean a depression unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s.

Hunger in US households has already tripled since last year. The proportion of US children who are not getting enough to eat is 14 times higher than last year. Food banks are overrun. The moratorium on foreclosures and evictions has been lifted while over 30 million destitute Americans face the prospect of being thrown into the street. 

There is no check left on corporate power. 

People of color, immigrants and Muslims will be blamed and targeted by our native fascists for the nation’s decline. The few who continue in defiance of the Democratic Party to call out the crimes of the corporate state and the empire will be silenced. The sterility of the liberal class, serving the interests of a Democratic Party that disdains and ignores them, fuels the widespread feelings of betrayal that saw nearly half the voters support one of the most vulgar, racist, inept and corrupt presidents in American history.

An American tyranny, dressed up with the ideological veneer of a Christianized fascism, will, it appears, define the empire’s epochal descent into irrelevance.      

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show “On Contact.” 

This column is from Scheerpost, for which Chris Hedges writes a regular column twice a month. Click here to sign up for email alerts.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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7 comments for “Chris Hedges: American Requiem

  1. Zhu6
    November 6, 2020 at 22:35

    Thank you for writing so forthrigtly, Mr. Hedges.

  2. Moi
    November 6, 2020 at 05:42

    Oops. Should be –

    In an article yesterday about the Australian economy, business reporter Ian Verrender wrote in the ABC:

    Led by America, interest rates have plunged to zero. Wages growth is non-existent. Asset prices have headed for the moon. Debt levels have exploded. Inequality has become entrenched. And social unrest is brewing across the developed world.

    That pretty much much sums up my opinion except that I’d add that the eternal US gambit of “divide and conquer” used on other nations is now being used within it’s own borders. It seems other nations do have a way to weaken the once all-powerful US after all.

  3. November 6, 2020 at 02:54

    It now appears likely that the swampy deep-state has finally slayed its Moby Dick embodied in Donald Trump.

    Internationally, the citizens of Southwest Asia while ostensibly living under a Biden administration should be on high alert over the next four to eight years. His cabinet is sure to be stocked full of neoliberal interventionists who have a penchant for starting hot wars (primarily against Israel’s enemies); witness the Libyan horror, drones, Syria, the Donbas, and Serbia. The corporate warmongering Dems justify their overseas violence and carnage on “humanitarian intervention” and R2P pretexts. It’s a disgraceful display that is likely to continue.

    Despite some of Trump’s serious faults (tax cuts for Wall St and billionaires, ratcheting up tensions with Moscow, trashing the JCPOA, genuflecting to Tel Aviv) he did not start a major war, something every president over the past 40 years has engaged in.

    It’s noteworthy that the Biden corporate Dems are no friend to working people. During the campaign they shamelessly courted John Kasich and Rick Snyder, two of the most vicious union busting governors to ever slink across the U.S. political stage. Finally, let’s not forget that Biden has vowed to veto any Medicare-for-All bill that might come across his desk.

  4. migueljose
    November 5, 2020 at 21:24

    20 years ago your writing seemed too depressing for me, coming from war zones. I was a strong supporter of Gore/Liebermann then and made a good living as a guidance counselor in Rockford IL. Now your perspective seems painfully accurate and, after following and reading you for 20 years, consistent. You never back down as you showed in Rockford IL when some frat boys heckled you. We Americans are still spoiled brats, very soft, short on qualities that take lots of effort to develop: generosity, kindness, courage, humility, self-reflection. So, we will suffer. Me, I’m trying to wake myself up and I thank you for helping with your writings. Keep it up.

  5. geeyp
    November 5, 2020 at 21:15

    Chris Hedges comments on the Democrats echo my comments the other day praising Jill Stein’s similar views.

  6. Truth first
    November 5, 2020 at 17:08

    Amazing how so many, most?, Americans are convinced that their country is the best in the world.

    The fact that Americans have killed more innocents since WW2 does not register in the US. Neither does over throwing more democracies, exporting more killing equipment, having the greatest amount of inequality, a crappy health care system, a crappy president, being the greatest contributor to climate change, wasting trillions of $$ on needless weapons including trillions on illegal nukes.
    All this and more has led many of us who are not Americans wishing for the demise of America. It cannot come fast enough!!

  7. Carolyn L Zaremba
    November 5, 2020 at 15:48

    There has been no progressive program in the United States since The Great Society in the 1960s under Lyndon Johnson. And programs that already existed where whittled away through lack of funding or outright repeal. Democracy left the country a long time ago. The heyday when reformism was in limited action was during the boom times that began at the end of WWII. The United States was the only country that hadn’t been bombed into crumbs, and so there were jobs for everyone–well paid jobs whereby someone working in an auto plant could buy a house and a car and send their kids to college. There was the GI Bill of Rights for returning veterans, of which my father was one.

    The U.S. manufactured almost everything in the world for a few decades. But the boom began to wane in the early 60s and ended in the 1970s. As the formerly devastated countries rebuilt their industrial infrastucture, the dominance of the U.S. was contested. Ever since then, it has been cutbacks and austerity and the financialization of the economy. Now the U.S. manufactures very little and what manufacturing jobs remain have had wages cut back (by half in the auto industry, thanks to Barack Obama). Hedges is correct that the country most people still think exists is a corpse.

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