Chris Hedges is a familiar face for those who regularly watch political documentaries. He pops up like a grouchy uncle to add commentary on everything from the global arms industry to the evisceration of American democratic institutions (see sidebar for films Hedges inhabits).
Hedges was in Vancouver recently to speak at Capilano University and discuss his latest book America, The Farewell Tour, which charts the decline of the U.S. empire in unsparing detail. From the ubiquity of violent porn, to the rotting, rodent-infested hulk of Trump’s casino empire in Atlantic City, things aren’t looking so great due south. Like much of Hedge’s work — Empire of Illusion; Death of the Liberal Class, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning — America, The Farewell Tour is heavy stuff.
As we settle in for our chat, Hedges is shorter and actually more muscled than I expected. Having only seen him as a talking head, I’m vaguely surprised he has a body, too. In fact, Hedges arrives frustrated by having to pay $50 to go to a nearby gym. “You should go the YWCA, it’s much cheaper,” I tell him, thinking a veteran investigative reporter should be able to sleuth a cheap workout. But being a nice Canadian wiener I don’t say any of that.
Instead, we get talking about the rivets popping off of global capitalism, its crash imminent. Hedges has covered horrors from Latin America to Eastern Europe. I am curious to know if there is anything that he can offer in the way of hope for the future. The short answer to that question is, not really...
But, he isn’t entirely without suggestions for change. I say, “In your book, people find ways of building hope, whether it’s small organic farms in downtown Detroit or the Catholic Worker Movement. There are attempts to build alternative structures. But they are so tiny!”
“Yeah” Hedges answers, “but they are about wresting control back over your own life. Which, the more we can do that, the better.”
I have read a lot of Hedges’ work, bleak as it can tend to be. I found The Farewell Tour unexpectedly moving, not simply because he is most likely correct about how the final act will play out, but also because in the face of such unrelenting darkness, he is still trying to shed some light.
In our interview, here is what else Chris Hedges had to say...
On the rot eroding the US empire:
The breakdown of empire is triggered by economic instability, which is coming. One, because the speculative bubbles have been re-inflated — $26 trillion fabricated out of electronic ether by the U.S. Federal Reserve and handed to the banks. And they’re doing just what they did before, which is pumping insane amounts of money into industries like the fracking industry which loses money, but is valued on projected profit. Just like the dotcom industries were valued on profit while buying back their own stock, which overheats the stock market, so that it has no correlation to actual value. But companies buy back the stock, because it increases CEO and senior managerial compensation packages.
On what flat wages plus ‘debt peonage’ equals:
Nowadays, because money is borrowed at virtually zero per cent interest, we are imposing debt peonage on the rest of the population that can’t be sustained. Americans are carrying $1.5 trillion personal debt, $13 billion in student debt. Meanwhile, for years we’ve seen the suppression of wages.
Wages have been kept far below what they should be, based on productivity which has increased by 77 per cent since 1973. If wages had kept pace with productivity, the minimum wage in the United States would be well over $20 per hour.
By next year people in the U.S. will be paying $370 billion a year just on interest on government debt. Within 10 years, that’s $900 billion. And of course, the linchpin is the day the dollar is removed as the world’s reserve currency. Then we’re finished. It’s terminal. I can’t predict the date, but at that point of collapse all of the pathologies that I write about in the book will just explode across the landscape. I watched that happen in Yugoslavia.
In the U.S. we’ve undergone what (Canadian author) John Ralston Saul called a corporate coup d’etat in slow motion. And it’s over, they’ve won, and now they’re either overthrown or we’re finished.
On how to fight back, and whether co-operative networks and grassroots resistance can win:
I don’t know how else you battle. If the institutions tasked with carrying out democratic reform no longer function, what else do you have? I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe. I saw what 1.5 million people every day coming to Alexanderplatz Square can do. I’m not saying it will succeed. But I have no hope now that the failed democracy that exists in the United States is capable of reforming itself.
On whether Canada is doomed to crash, too:
Many of the same forces affect Canada. It’s just not a virulent. And you’re not an empire, that’s a big difference. And it’s not within the Canadian DNA, that endemic undercurrent of violence. But you’re hardly immune from it, I mean you saw Stephen Harper as your prime minister, you had Doug Ford become the premier of Ontario. So, you’ve got those forces here.
On Justin Trudeau:
Trudeau’s an empty suit, like Obama. He’s completely supine before the fossil fuel industry.
On his bone to pick with documentary maker Michael Moore:
I disagree very strongly with Michael and always have. I disagree that the Democratic party functions as a real political party, or that it is capable of internal reform. I don’t believe it. I mean they stole the election from (Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie) Sanders. The evidence is pretty overwhelming at this point.
On what the hell happened to quality, mass audience journalism in the US:
It goes back to (then-president Bill) Clinton’s deregulation of the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission). That allowed a few corporations to consolidate control of the media, so now you have five or six that control about 80 to 90 per cent of what Americans listen to or watch. And these are the most retrograde forces in American capitalism.
Fox News was conceived of, and functions as a propaganda outlet. The architects of Fox News never set it up as a legitimate news organization, really, and it doesn’t function as one. But the other media outlets function as entertainment. CNN is just burlesque. It contributes to the whole descent of political discourse into another genre of reality television.
The New York Times, where I worked for 15 years, is different. It’s a publication geared towards the elites, and they have a number they aim for: 30 million Americans. That’s the upper echelon of American society, the managerial class, the lawyers, and this kind of stuff. But the Times is still rooted in verifiable fact, unlike, now, much of the rest of the media. Its role is to buttress the ruling ideology, which is neoliberalism. To critique the excesses of empire, without critiquing empire. And to cater to the proclivities and desires of the wealthy, to attract advertisers.
But with all of those caveats, the Times still does journalism, in a way that I would argue, MSNBC or CNN or Fox do not. They have completely abandoned any pretense of journalism.
On whether absurdism will swamp the news (as filmmaker Adam Curtis explored in his documentary HyperNormalisation):
Well, it’s entertainment. (Rolling Stone’s) Matt Taibbi writes that the only difference between Fox News and CNN is a baby falls down a well, and there’s live coverage on CNN, and on Fox, a baby was thrown down a well by an ACORN activist, and there’s live coverage. But it’s kind of true. Fox News is just a kinkier version of the rest. It’s appalling, it’s porn, endless interviews with Stormy Daniels, or her lawyer, who now wants to run for president, or Omarosa.
And then we just had the whole (Brett) Kavanaugh fiasco, as if it wasn’t completely preordained. We watched the senate Republicans violate every rule, including those of decorum. It was appalling. It was a symptom of how the system has become political theatre. It has no substance at all anymore. Kavanaugh clearly committed perjury, and clearly was a sexual predator. Nothing matters anymore.
On the special job of indie media:
Independent media’s function is that it kind of shames the traditional press into doing their job. That’s what independent media does, because it’s not as bound to commercial interests. It can wear you down, but in Canada, at least independent journalists have health insurance. It’s a very big deal.
On the millions of very, very angry Americans:
Dr. (Christine Blasey) Ford, (who testified to a Senate committee she’d been sexually assaulted in high school by Republican Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh) had to leave her house because of death threats. And Republican Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski (who voted against Kavanaugh) has had a series of death threats. The rage goes both ways, but right now the propensity within the United States is for a virulent, very violent, right-wing backlash.
On fascism, USA:
That’s why I spent so much time writing about the evangelicals. I spent two years writing a book called American Fascists, and I don’t use that word lightly. They’re Christian fascists. The movement created an institutional base through Liberty University (founded by Moral Majority preacher Jerry Falwell) and its systems of Christian broadcasting.
Trump has no ideology. So, Christian fascists are filling the ideological vacuum of Trump. But this is why (Noam) Chomsky says if you get rid of Trump, (U.S. vice-president Mike Pence (a strongly conservative Christian) will be worse. And I think that’s true.
They’re about to outlaw abortion in the United States. That’s why Kavanaugh was pushed onto the Supreme Court.
On ‘suicide’ by neoliberalism:
If there is a not a radical reconfiguration of our relationship to the biosphere, then we’re finished. Sooner rather than later. But for corporations profit is the only thing that matters. Neoliberalism is not even economically rational, because they’re driving the country towards collapse. It’s an economic and political policy where you force an entire nation to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace.
It is suicidal, as we can see in the refusal to address the issue of climate change. We don’t have any time left. I mean you’re watching in the United States, the destruction of the Environmental Protection Agency, the gutting of even the very tepid environmental regulations that we have.
On how to render working people passive:
Barbara Ehrenreich writes that for working poor in America it’s one long emergency. I mean that’s right, if you’re working 70 hours per week, and sleeping in your car. They become broken.
If you’re not in some state of despair, then you’re not facing the reality around us. On the other hand, I think the fact that you are able to carry out forms of resistance is probably the best protection from despair.
It’s what I’ve always done, I mean I went to El Salvador as a freelance reporter (to cover the civil war there in the 1980s). I was always in distressed situations writing about people suffering horrific forms of oppression. Whether that was in Gaza, in Sarajevo or anywhere else. It’s continuity; I wouldn’t say there’s been any change.
On the clock on the wall:
It’s very clear that the ruling global elites are going to do nothing to save us. The economic dislocation is coming.
Even the New York Times is writing about it, and it’s going to be very bad, probably even worse than 2008, because they don’t have a Plan B. They can’t lower interest rates any more than they already have. Are they going to produce another $26 trillion of fabricated money? Well, Weimar (Germany during the rise of Hitler) tried that, so did Yugoslavia, they ended up with hyper-inflation.
We have to face how bleak it is, and hopefully facing that reality will push us to begin to respond. Because we don’t have any time left. I mean, we have no time left.