Chris Hedges’s article in the new Adbusters with its dramatic title (“Zero Point of Systemic Collapse”) is a spirited call to new forms of resistance against a capitalist structure that is dead on its feet. Within the first paragraph he has renounced reformism, declaring “All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global capitalism are dead.” This is a gutsy move for a magazine most closely associated with Seattle-era anti-neo-liberal opposition to branding. Adbusters has never been far from the radical left, but one would be hard-pressed to say it’s been on the cutting edge of leftist theory.The piece is also a courageous move by Hedges who has relatively strong mainstream appeal to call for a war to the death with capitalism. If this article can provoke discussion and more writing about radical forms of resistance moving forward, then Hedges and Adbusters have done us an enormous service. I write this partly because I fear the critique that follows will sound too harsh and I want to make clear that I thought the article was not only interesting but important and I will spend the next few days sending it to friends and family. Hedges’s book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning was distributed free to students the year before last at Maryland and the author came and gave a talk. I read War Is A Force and wrote a complimentary piece in The Diamondback looking at the ways in which my university fails to live up to the standards Hedges sets in the book. He was nice enough to send me an e-mail thanking me for the article and his talk was both critical and engaging. All of this to say that I think Hedges is a stand-up guy and an important voice on the left who manages to write about complex ideas in ways that interest readers. None of what follows is meant to contradict any of that.
In “Zero Point,” Hedges writes of an American society on the edge, “on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” His thesis is that old forms of resistance that conjure up a fantasy of popular revolt are antiquated and no longer respond to our historical circumstances. Most of the modes of struggle, at least as far as the media is concerned, are reformist and centered around environmental sustainability. Hedges lays the smackdown;
“We can march in Copenhagen. We can join Bill McKibben’s worldwide day of climate protests. We can compost in our backyards and hang our laundry out to dry. We can write letters to our elected officials and vote for Barack Obama, but the power elite is impervious to the charade of democratic participation. Power is in the hands of moral and intellectual trolls who are ruthlessly creating a system of neo-feudalism and killing the ecosystem that sustains the human species. And appealing to their better nature, or seeking to influence the internal levers of power, will no longer work.”
I don’t know about “moral and intellectual trolls” but the power elite’s best angels don’t speak loudly enough to deserve much credit. This critique of the current sustainability movement is probably the best part of The Coming Insurrection and it’s nice to see Adbusters take the more radical side and not the greenwashing cop-out.
Instead of just calling attention to problems, Hedges proposes alternatives. In this articulation he falters and reveals the central problem in his analysis and the prophetic tradition in which he writes. The author’s solution is to build neo-monastaries isolated from the destructive effects of contemporary capitalist society:
“If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient.”
This idea of hiding out and relying on each other in communes is predicated upon a need to “weather the coming collapse.” Hedges has made a clear, strong argument about the unfeasibility of reforming current social structures and the emptiness of our contemporary political culture, but this is not the same as predicting a collapse. The mechanics of what could actually bring down American capitalism is almost an afterthought in the piece, and not a very well-researched one. It seems fair to quote Hedges’s collapse prediction in its entirety:
“The massive bailouts, stimulus packages, giveaways and short-term debt, along with imperial wars we can no longer afford, will leave the United States struggling to finance nearly $5 trillion in debt this year. This will require Washington to auction off about $96 billion in debt a week. Once China and the oil-rich states walk away from our debt, which one day has to happen, the Federal Reserve will become the buyer of last resort. The Fed has printed perhaps as much as two trillion new dollars in the last two years, and buying this much new debt will see it, in effect, print trillions more. This is when inflation, and most likely hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire system breaks down.”
This certainly sounds like it could be true, and if our government were a household, it would have declared bankruptcy a while ago. But our government is not a household and despite its magnitude, the national debt is not our most pressing economic concern. Paul Krugman put the fear of China selling dollars in context in this post, which is kind of wonky but basically concludes in Krugman saying that it would help the U.S.’s finances if China sold some dollars and that fears of this process initiating a collapse are unfounded. Sure, Krugman’s one of those Times elites, but he has a reputation for over-predicting collapse. If he thinks you’re worrying over nothing, you probably are.
Hedges’s language frames the collapse as inevitable, “one day has to happen,” without considering the alternative. America has been behaving unsustainably since its founding, what makes him think collapse is imminent? Hedges, who has a degree from Harvard Theological Seminary, is writing in the same Judeo-Christian tradition as the Old Testament prophets who forewarned the people of an angry God’s coming wrath. In this discourse, the collapse, as predicted by the prophet, is connected to man’s failure to fulfill a contract with the divine being. From The Flood to Amos and Jonah to Sodom and Gomorrah, social depravity leads to collapse as God renders judgment upon the living. One of the more vulgar examples of this way of thinking was Jerry Falwell blaming the ACLU for 9/11 because they took God out of the schools. Hedges speaks more in the tradition of Amos who did not warn of a violation of the cultic requirements (like worshipping God insufficiently in schools) but of social requirements. We have allowed injustice to run rampant and will pay the price. Things have gotten so bad that they must collapse soon, therefore we ought escape to our communal monasteries and preserve whatever knowledge and culture is worth saving.
The problem here is that I still haven’t heard why this collapse is coming. Hedges seems to attribute the collapse of the U.S. structures of power to the hand of God in the form of Chinese monetary policy (although Bob Herbert’s analysis of unemployment as a flashpoint for social unrest seems more realistic). I think Hedges and those who believe that the “arc of history bends toward justice” are optimistic in thinking that we can’t go on this way. The author’s conclusion seems to be some variant of the “build an ark” strategy, but America has developed complicated systems of flood prevention.
Hedges’s has an overriding concern for the quality of his and our souls. Despite recognizing that there are times for armed resistance, the author chides anarchists for their romanticization of violence. He acknowledges that their structural analysis is correct, but reacts strongly against the reactionary mayhem that was the bread and butter of hard-left factions of what became known as the “Anti-Globalization Movement.” This is a good place for Hedges to refer to the thesis of War Is A Force, but he’s taking unnecessary shots at friends. I don’t know when the last time was Hedges spent time with grassroots anarchist organizers, but he seems to think their analyses haven’t changed over the last decade or so. It’s not true. There are some activists who just want to fight cops, but they’re increasingly a joke within larger communities and their strategic insights are not in great demand. Hedges crosses the line with this sentence, “There are debates within the anarchist movement – such as those on the destruction of property – but once you start using plastic explosives, innocent people get killed.” Who are the anarchists advocating using plastic explosives? When was the last person killed in an act of anarchist political violence in the U.S., President McKinley? Hedges fights the same spooky straw-man the mainstream media constructs when it comes to anarchists. The anarchist movement if we can speak of such a thing at present, is much more interested in building sustainable communities than breaking windows.
Anarchists may be violent in their aspirations, but not precisely in the way Hedges imagines. Creating new structures based around non-market values involves the destruction of current institutions and patterns of thought. This sort of change is violent insofar as it dislodges us from current subjectivities and ways of interaction. (Thus Slavoj Zizek’s infamous claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler.) Having heard him talk about his book, I know Hedges’s aversion is based in extensive experience around war, but I’m worried how much theoretical sense his definition of violence makes. If we cannot ethically use the violence of thrown bricks to destroy the violence of sweatshops, then what responsibility have we really claimed when it comes to creating a better world? The urge to destroy can lead to a spiral of violence, but it is dialectically linked to the urge to create.
The author then finds himself in the position of a Disney screen-writer. By the end of the movie, the villain must be destroyed in order to usher in the happily-ever-after utopia, since there is no possible compromise with the pure evil. At the same time, the hero cannot be directly responsible for the villain’s death since that would bring the pollution of murder into the utopia, a contradiction in terms. The recurring answer is some Deus ex machina, usually a product of the villain’s hubris, ends up doing the dirty work of actually removing the evil, setting up the possibility of utopia – e.g. Scar’s death at the hands of his hyena cronies in The Lion King or Jafar’s desire to be a genie imprisoning him in Aladdin. Hedges requires the flood, brought on by American arrogance, so that we might keep our souls and be worthy to save what’s worth saving. Needing a collapse isn’t the same as having one ready in the wings.
The article starts with a quote from Aleksandr Herzen, “We think we are the doctors. We are the disease.” Hedges uses this to make an argument against reform, but he fails to recognize the full implications of what he writes. The distinction between doctor and disease is one between reform and revolution, not reform and withdrawal. We cannot wait for the flood because we are the flood, and rising waters need no boat. If Hedges’s analysis of our current structures of power is correct – and I think it is – then we can’t head for monasteries 2.0. The struggle is to reclaim for the commons what has been unjustly privatized, commodified and appropriated and its a monstrous process. I share a portion of the author’s fear for our humanity, but the model of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister executed by the Nazis, holds no hope for me. Hedges quotes Bonhoeffer’s last words, “This is for me the end, but also the beginning.” But without an act of God, I see no time to waste with post-mortem beginnings.