Chris Hedges: Papering Over the Rot

The staggering concentration of wealth at the top has deformed our governing institutions. New window dressing will not end oligarchy.

U.S. Capitol behind a fence, Jan. 22, 2021. (Ted Eytan, Flickr)

By Chris Hedges

The death spiral of the American Empire will not be halted with civility. It will not be halted with the 42 executive orders signed by President Joe Biden, however welcome many are, especially since they can, with a new chief executive, be immediately revoked.

It will not be halted by removing Donald Trump, and the crackpot conspiracy theorists, Christian fascists and racists who support him, from social media.

It will not be halted by locking up the Proud Boys and the clueless protestors who stormed the Congress on Jan. 6. and took selfies in Vice President Mike Pence’s Senate chair. It will not be halted by restoring the frayed alliances with our European allies or rejoining the World Health Organization or the Paris Climate Agreement.

All of these measures are window dressing, masking the root cause of the demise of America — unchecked oligarchic power and greed. The longer wealth is funneled upwards into the hands of a tiny, oligarchic cabal, who put Biden into office and whose interests he assiduously serves, we are doomed.  

(Original art by Mr. Fish)

Once an oligarchy seizes power, deforming governing institutions to exclusively serve their narrow interests and turning the citizenry into serfs, there are only two options, as Aristotle pointed out — tyranny or revolution. The staggering concentration of wealth and obscene avarice of the very rich now dwarfs the hedonism and excesses of the world’s most heinous despots and wealthiest capitalists of the past.

In 2015, shortly before he died, Forbes estimated David Rockefeller’s net worth was $3 billion. The Shah of Iran looted an estimated $1 billion from his country. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos amassed between $5 and $10 billion. And the former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was worth about a billion. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are each at $180 billion.  

The new wealth comes from a cartel capitalism far more concentrated and far more criminal than any of the cartels built by the old robber barons of the 19th century.

It was made possible by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton who, in exchange for corporate money to fund their campaigns and later Clinton’s foundation and post-presidency opulent lifestyle, abolished the regulations that once protected the citizenry from the worst forms of monopoly exploitation.

The demolishing of regulations made possible the largest upwards transference of wealth in American history. Whatever you say about Trump, he at least initiated moves to break up Facebook, Google, Amazon and the other Silicon Valley monopolists, none of which will happen under Biden, whose campaign these corporations bankrolled. And that has to be one of the reasons these digital platforms disappeared Trump from social media. 

Stranglehold  on Wealth & Power

The new robber barons peddle the classless identity politics of the Democratic Party to deflect attention from their stranglehold on wealth and power, as well as their exploitation of workers, especially those that make their products overseas. Corporations such as Walmart have 80 percent of their suppliers in China. These corporations are full partners in China’s state-controlled capitalism and suppression of basic labor rights and wages, where most Chinese workers make less than $350 a month and toil in Dickensian conditions. 

There is no political will among the ruling elites to defend the rights of Amazon workers who are aggressively blocked by the company, the country’s second largest employer, from forming unions, work all night in drafty, Covid-19-infested warehouses or deliver packages for $15 an hour, which leaves thousands of Amazon workers dependent on food stamps. Likewise, this is no political will among the elites to defend the rights of workers in China, often forced to work 100 hours of overtime a month in sweatshops for as little as $2 or $3 an hour. 

History has repeatedly illustrated the dire consequences of extreme social inequality. It foments revolutionary ferment, which can come from the left or the right. Either a leftwing populism that smashes oligarchic power takes control or its counterfeit, a rightwing populism, built on the poisoned solidarity of hate, racism, vengeance and violence — and bankrolled by the hated oligarchs that use it as a front to solidify tyranny. We are barreling towards the latter. 

The soaring levels of social inequality are laid out in stark statistics that are reflected back to us in the pain, despair and suffering afflicting perhaps 70 percent of the U.S. public.

Street sticker in Washington, D.C., February 2020. (Mike Maguire, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The wealth of U.S. billionaires has increased to over $1.1 trillion since mid-March 2020, when the pandemic began to ravage the country, a nearly 40 percent leap during the past 10 months. The total wealth of America’s 660 billionaires, $4.1 trillion, is two-thirds higher than the $2.4 trillion in total wealthheld by the bottom half of the population165 million Americans.

An additional 8 million Americans were recently classified as “newly poor” as the poverty rate increased 2.4 percentage points from June to December 2020. It is now at 11.8 percent, although many economists argue that the official poverty rate of $26,500 for a family of four masks the fact that perhaps half the country lives in real poverty. 

The official poverty rate for Blacks has climbed 5.4 percent to 23.6 percent just between June and December, but again is probably at least twice that number. Blacks, along with Hispanic and Native American people, are also dying from Covid-19 at almost three times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Protesters in Minneapolis after the police killing of George Floyd, May 26, 2020. (Lorie Shaull, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

But, despite the fact that many Blacks work in the health care industry they are being inoculated at percentages far below those of whites. In Maryland, for example, Black people make up 30 percent of the population and 40 percent of the health care industry yet account for just 16 percent of those who have been vaccinated.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, landlords have filed more than 227,000 evictions in just the 27 cities in five states that the Princeton Eviction Lab tracks — and that is with a national eviction moratorium. Twelve million renters, who owe an average of $5,600 in back rent and utilities, now face being thrown out of their homes. By the end of 2020 there were an estimated 50 million food-insecure Americans, up from 35 million in 2019. One in four households with children, according to a report from Feeding America, experienced food insecurity in 2020.

Tossing Coins from Gilded Carriages

The response by the ruling oligarchs is the equivalent of tossing coins from their gilded carriages to the despised masses. The Democrats have proposed raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15, but not until 2025. Biden has actually called for reducing the proposed third stimulus check — a $1,200 check for eligible adults was issued last spring and a $600 per person check was issued earlier this month — from $2,000 to $1,400.

The oligarchs have bristled at even these meager responses. Larry Summers, Clinton’s treasury secretary who orchestrated the Wall Street bailout in 2008, called the $2,000 checks — crumbs compared to the trillions handed to Wall Street speculators —- a “serious mistake.” Elon Musk, now one of the two richest humans, said that a second “government stimulus package is not in the best interests of the people.” 

The response by a morally bankrupt ruling class is symbolic, given that we are enduring the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and an estimated one-third of all Americans are struggling to pay their bills. It illustrates how woefully disconnected the elites are from the lives of those they dominate. 

Unless families receive regular monthly payments of at least $2,000 until the pandemic ends; unless the country has access to universal health care, especially during a national health crisis; unless the nation radically pivots from fossil fuels to halt the looming ecocide; unless the crippling debts that are draining the bank accounts of American families are reduced or forgiven; unless there is an unassailable moratorium on evictions and foreclosures; and unless manufacturers at home and overseas are forced through stringent trade agreements and labor laws to pay decent wages, abide by strict labor regulations and permit independent unions, the oligarchs will only accelerate their pillage. 

The class warfare is global. Not until workers in sweatshops in China, Mexico, Cambodia, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh are lifted out of poverty will the American working class be lifted out of poverty. This class war is the real fight, which corporate-owned media platforms and bankrupt liberals refuse to discuss. 

“In a real sense all life is inter-related,” Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” 

Rosa Luxemburg in 1910. (Wikimedia Commons)

Liberalism, which Rosa Luxemburg called by its more appropriate name — “opportunism” — is an integral component of capitalism. When the citizens grow restive, or when capitalism goes into crisis as it did in the 1930s, liberals ameliorate capitalism’s cruel excesses. Franklin Delano Roosevelt correctly said his greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. 

But capitalism, Luxemburg argued, is an enemy that can never be appeased. Liberal reforms, such as the New Deal legislation, are used to temporarily stymie organized resistance and then later, when things grow quiet, dismantled to reinstitute capitalist slavery. The history of capitalism illustrates this constant seesaw between liberal reforms and unregulated, capitalist exploitation.

The last century of labor struggles in the United States, which has seen unions largely obliterated, and the advent of neoliberalism, austerity, rampant militarism and deindustrialization amply prove Luxemburg’s thesis.

Failed Liberalism

Former President Bill Clinton, left, congratulating the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, Jan. 20, 2021. (Screenshot)

Fascism is the result of a failed liberalism. With liberalism corrupted, as it has been in the hands of the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton, all self-identified liberals have left to peddle is cloying appeals for tolerance and civility, shorn of economic justice. This politesse, which epitomizes the Biden White House, fuels an animus towards the ruling elites, along with the feckless liberals and the liberal values they purport to defend. 

The elevation of women, people of color and those with different sexual orientations to managerial positions in the oligarchic state is not an advance. It is a species of corporate colonialism. It is branding. It is the substitution of cultural politics for real politics.  

When the Belgian colonizers could no longer openly exploit the Congo, they installed the corrupt and compliant puppet Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, after, of course, assassinating the courageous independence leader and first prime minister Patrice Lumumba.

Mobuto, who embezzled between $4 and $15 billion during his bloody dictatorial reign, served his colonial masters until the end. Expect the same prostrations before corporate power from the diverse appointments in Biden’s cabinet and, should it be required, the same state repression. 

The political, cultural and judicial systems in any capitalist state are centered around the sanctity of private property. Laws and legislation are instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or, as Luxemburg writes, “those who have some property against those who have none at all.”

This inherent bias in capitalist societies, however, becomes criminal once monopolies, from Wall Street Banks to Silicon Valley, seize the organs of power. These monopolists create, by abolishing regulation and oversight, as political economist Karl Polanyi writes, first a mafia economy and then, inevitably, a mafia state. 

The Democrats and Republicans have legalized a level of greed and fraud that even heirs of the robber barons thought unsustainable. David Rockefeller’s “enlightened capitalism,” however self-serving, along with his call for a nation of stakeholders and his formation of the Trilateral Commission, have been pushed aside to license unchecked corporate pillage. 

Bill Clinton and his two treasury secretary enablers, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, instituted a system of unregulated capitalism that has resulted in financial anarchy. This anarchic form of capitalism, where everything, including human beings and the natural world, is a commodity to exploit until exhaustion or collapse, is justified by identity politics.

It is sold as “enlightened liberalism” as opposed to the old pro-union class politics that saw the Democrats heed the voices of the working class. Financial anarchy and short-term plunder have destroyed long-term financial and political stability. It has also pushed the human species, along with most other species, closer and closer towards extinction. 

The more workers are dehumanized, as Polanyi notes, the more the ruling elites are morally degraded. Unheard-of wealth creates unheard-of poverty.

 “Scholars proclaimed in unison that a science had been discovered which put the laws governing man’s world beyond any doubt,” Polanyi writes of laissez-faire capitalists. “It was at the behest of these laws that compassion was removed from the hearts, and a stoic determination to renounce human solidarity in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number gained the dignity of a secular religion.” Workers, abandoned by the state, reach a point where they resemble more “spectators that might haunt a nightmare than human beings.”

The shipping of jobs overseas, where workers toil in conditions that replicate the worst abuses of the early industrial revolution, leaves those in the industrialized world unable to compete. A living wage, job security and benefits are replaced by the insecurity of the “gig” economy.

This global market forces workers, whether in the Rust Belt or in China, to surrender before the dictates of their corporate masters. The bondage of the working class, at home and abroad, cannot be corrected by legal or legislative reform when the political system is hostage to corporate money and political office is defined by legalized bribery. 

Global capitalism relentlessly searches the globe to exploit cheap, unorganized labor and plunder natural resources. This is its nature, as Karl Marx understood. It buys off or overthrows local elites. It blocks the ability of the developing world to become self-sufficient. At the same time, it strips workers in the industrialized world of good paying jobs, benefits and legal protections, pushing them into crippling debt peonage, which further swells the bank accounts of these global speculators.

Its two unrelenting goals are the maximization of profit and the reduction of the cost of production, which demands that workers be disempowered and treated like prisoners. This global assault on the working class is fueling a global rage. And its visage, as we see among the white, dispossessed working class in America, can often be very ugly.

Stencil graffiti in Lübeck. (Asterion, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons)

Apple, one of the most profitable companies in the world, is the epitome of “enlightened” global capitalism. WIRED reported that “employees at Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Oracle have contributed nearly 20 times as much money to Biden as to Trump since the beginning of 2019. According to data released by the Federal Election Commission, which requires individuals who contribute $200 or more to a presidential campaign to report their employer, employees at these six companies have contributed $4,787,752 to Biden and just $239,527 to Trump.”

Employees at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, WIRED reported, are Biden’s biggest financial backers in Silicon Valley. They donated nearly $1.8 million, more than one-third of the money raised from employees of the six companies. Open Secrets, a campaign finance watchdog, found that contributions from Alphabet’s employees and political action committee to the Biden campaign collectively exceed those from any other company. Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, Open Secrets found, account for five of the seven largest donors to the Biden campaign on that basis.

Apple in China, however, treats its workers little better than 19th-century serfs. Jenny Chan, Mark Selden and Pun Ngai in Dying for an iPhone, chronicle the endemic labor abuses, including substandard wages and wage theft, long hours, union busting, a refusal to pay sick leave, unsafe labor conditions, a harsh work environment and pressure to meet quotas, that contribute to a high rate of worker suicides in factories that make Apple products. Workers are crammed into overcrowded dormitories next to factories “to facilitate high-speed, round-the-clock production” and are forced to put in as much as 130 overtime hours a month.

The disenfranchised white working class embraced Trump because he taunted and belittled the globalists and monopoly capitalists who destroyed their communities and their lives. For them, Trump’s vulgarity was a welcome respite from the cloying language of inclusivity and political correctness used by the oligarchs to mask the crimes of monopoly capitalism. The connecting tissue, in the United States, between these disparate, disenfranchised groups of white workers is Christian fascism.

Biden, a tool of global oligarchy, who naively intends to resurrect the ancien régime, is paving the way for a frightening despotism, one where voices of dissent, from the left and the right, are censored and all who refuse to accept the new global order are labeled as domestic terrorists and pounded into submission.

Societal breakdown, which is looming, brings with it grotesque political distortions. Trump was a symptom of this breakdown.  He was not the disease.  This the dystopian future, one that will probably end in the United States in a form of Christian fascism, has been bequeathed to us by the ruling global elites, who in another era would have been found promenading thought the halls of Versailles or the Forbidden City. 

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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20 comments for “Chris Hedges: Papering Over the Rot

  1. zhu
    February 3, 2021 at 05:29

    Re Christo-fascism, there’s always lots of fussing about how this or that politician is anotHitler. Another Cromwell is rather more likely.

  2. zhu
    February 3, 2021 at 05:26

    Remember, for many people, earning enough money to pay rent, buy food, is the highest priority. The streets are full of people who couldn’t do it. Politics is rather higher up the pyramid of needs.

  3. F Lilleness
    February 2, 2021 at 20:26

    Eliminate the Hatfields and the McCoys, Dems and Reps! Election after election it is the same repeat!
    Anyone wanting to run for office must fulfill the Government Criteria. For example knock on so many doors; gather X amount of signatures, speak at X number of community organizations, write x number of topics that are published in the newspapers and any other form of communication. Our Government should make up the criteria. Once the potential candidates meets ALL of the government’s criteria, and it is verified by the government office, those persons then are directed to the local office to receive $X! Everyone who qualifies, receives the same amount of money and runs for office. Whoever wins the election, owes his votesl to the voters, and NOT to the HIGHEST CONTRIBUTERS to his/her campaign. –just a start on something to think about.

  4. bobzz
    February 2, 2021 at 15:43

    I realize this piece is a day old, but hope this question will be answered somewhere. I agree with virtually all Hedges writes, but I wonder… How can we square what I hear, viz., China has lifted nearly 840,000,ooo out of poverty with the sweat shop workers Hedges talks about?

    • Anne
      February 3, 2021 at 12:36

      Because Chris – like all of us – has blind spots, and the propaganda re-Chinese sweat shops is obviously one where he believes what is told to the mass media by those (like the odd Uyghur who, oh yes, speaks English and/or is well educated and somehow manages to get their “info” through the draconian censoring of the Chinese authorities; akin to those Iranians who all are well educated, usually speak English – screaming International School education, i.e. $$$ – and yell about the abuses committed by the Iranian government [elected, by the way] but never seem to care about Palestinians or their lower class, religiously inclined compatriot Iranians). Let’s not look closely, mention, those in Bangladesh, India…they are more or less on “our” side, more or less, supposedly, democratic (whatever democracy actually means as manifested in the west and in the US/UK in particular where $$$$ speak far louder than any other expression; in India it apparently means killing Muslims [akin to you know who, albeit abroad] and denying them citizenship…)…

  5. Susan Leslie
    February 2, 2021 at 15:40

    Another excellent article Chris! Keep them coming!!!

  6. Tedder
    February 2, 2021 at 15:03

    As usual, Chris Hedges offers an insightful indictment of modern capitalism. I am not so sure, however, that he needs to include China in this panoply of horrors. The fact is that China has transitioned from one of the poorest nations on Earth to one of the middle-earners in barely 50 years. While America foolishly outsourced its manufacturing, China used this opportunity to develop its own industries, significantly because part of the outsourced deal was transfer of technology. While this effort has undoubtedly involved considerable sacrifice, it is not the story of America–perhaps more the story of the USSR in the post-1917 days. The result is that now, or soon, the Chinese economy will be the largest in the world.

    As an addendum, Chris is especially critical of Apple’s Chinese factories, which, by the way, are mostly run by Foxconn, a Taiwanese company operating in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen; it is not a Chinese company.

    • Anne
      February 3, 2021 at 12:40

      Ta Tedder (hmmm…my dad used to use a tedder to turn the grass cut for hay…) …and I agree. Plus doesn’t surprise about the presumptions about Apple’s factories and the two-facedness of the Taiwanese company running it/them… Handy to be able to blame the PRC…Makes one wonder about where the Uyghers live (not that I believe the western propaganda…)

  7. Steve
    February 2, 2021 at 14:34

    “We must learn to govern ourselves before we deign to govern others”

  8. Diane Lesher
    February 2, 2021 at 14:31

    Thanks, Chris for another excellent piece and you are correct in all of your assessments. As you’ve said many times, until Americans take to the streets by the millions and install a more equal and people-focused government, things will only get worse. And that’s exactly what’s NOT happening. People on both sides of the political spectrum are too brainwashed by their side’s Oligarchs to realize it’s their so-called leaders who are causing all of the mayhem. Neither do they pay any attention to their government’s obscenely bloated military budget and what they do to destroy other countries, including ramping up the weapons of mass destruction leading to possible nuclear war. Nor that we as a species are about to hit the point of no return in the ongoing heating of the atmosphere. The majority of Americans sit on their social media pages and complain about the other side and yet do nothing to change what is happening to them. I no longer live in the US, and I sadly watch the downfall of my old country. With the coming crash of the US dollar and economy, it doesn’t look possible to stop the rot. The collapse of the United States may very well likely occur in the not too distant future.

  9. Steve
    February 2, 2021 at 14:22

    Which government is the best? The one that teaches us to govern ourselves.
    Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  10. Steve
    February 2, 2021 at 14:06

    Rebelling against Capitalism is like rebelling against human nature……..specifically greed. Plutocrats do what Plutocrats do. As my Mother used to say “What do you expect to hear from a pig but an oink.” The feelings of anger, frustration and powerlessness as seen on Jan. 6th stem from the futility of rebelling against the tyranny of human nature.

    1. The slave becomes a sharecropper
    2. The sharecropper becomes farmer
    3. The farmers compete for market share
    4. The farmers expand their business in order to compete
    5. Economic survival of the fittest weeds out the weak and increases the strong
    6. The strong dominate the market
    7. The farmer becomes a Plutocrat
    7. No one gives up power willingly

    What slave does not want to to be a farmer ?

    • Michael Weddington
      February 3, 2021 at 10:57

      So slavery is the natural order of things?

  11. B Currie
    February 2, 2021 at 13:19

    Bracing (and depressing essay) that to me is a succinct summary of where we stand today. A “Christian Fascist” future with a Cotton, Cruz or Hawley at its head, catastrophic environmental degradation two decades away, and the increasing likelihood of armed conflict with China as a sideshow while it all comes crashing down. That is, if nuclear armageddon doesn’t put a swift end to it all.

  12. Anne
    February 2, 2021 at 12:05

    Yes but, Chris, this began a long time ago and Liberalism, in its classic form (John Stuart Mill) was little, if any, better than its present construct…it was after all, Capitalism writ large. And Capitalism has Always, since its inception (essentially an extension of villeinage/serfdom) been totally exploitative of the working (plebeian) classes…

    And we need to stop pointing the finger at China per se…and really concentrate on our own (or our oligarchic-political-imperialist ruling elites and their profound faults: glass houses – stone throwing) glaringly obvious faults…(and I’m not even raising the original genocidal ethnic cleansing for the huge land grab of this land nor the subsequent slavery of a different peoples – preceded by a form of slavery [sort of intermediate twixt villeinage and US slavery] the indentured servants)…

    Historically (and an old underlying loathing by European Americans of immigration) the capitalists wanted constant immigration from wherever because it kept wages low and reduced the unionization possibilities (language and need barriers) low…This together with the low melanin slave holders/wealthy southerners deliberate construction of “racist white supremacy” in order to stop and then eliminate plebeian/poor whites and African American slaves and the few free ones getting together and revolting against their enslavement and deprivation…

    One way to reduce, if not totally eliminate plutocratic/oligarchic control of US politics/governance would be to REMOVE ALL $$$$$ from elections first and politics more widely (no lobbying)… There is NO reason why elections could not be held without the $$$….television could well broadcast “Party Political Broadcasts” for Free by mandate…we do not need the constant (and tree destructive) mailings nor whatever comes on tv now…Almost everyone has access, one way or another, to the internet and the folks running for Congress/Presidency could be – again by mandate if necessary – revealed on the net and their “policies” revealed there too…

    This is the most corrupt political system ever to exist and not unintentionally…

  13. Sandra
    February 2, 2021 at 11:52

    Wish this was an audio… Love to listen to Chris.

  14. D.H.Fabian
    February 2, 2021 at 09:23

    On just one point: I remain a bit mystified about why there is almost never mention those masses who are far worse off than minimum wage workers. Surely, people can figure out that a whole lot of them are around today. Even in America, not all people are able to work, and job losses long surpassed job gains. The consequences aren’t hard to figure out, even for those who are generally oblivious to the world outside of their own neighborhoods. And yet, there is no cognizance of all those with little or no incomes. I wonder, then, if the bourgeoisie are trying to maintain the illusion that US capitalism works better than it does, or if they decided that the very poor (in this country) are no longer to be regarded as people at all, but more like subspecies.

  15. Jeff Harrison
    February 1, 2021 at 21:17

    And not hanging by their heels from lampposts.

  16. GMCasey
    February 1, 2021 at 21:06

    I began reading 1984 and was horrified by how it ended—but then I found Fahrenheit 451—and realized that a different world is possible—How to get to that other place has become the difficulty. But then, the fact that I have thought that—— tells me that the correct direction is in the possibility.

  17. February 1, 2021 at 16:16

    Absolutely, and the most fundamental truth about America and the source of its many terrible problems.

    But, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Comments are closed.