Monday, July 18, 2011

Chris Hedges' "The World as it Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress"

I started reading this book with a lot of hope. Hedges is a new leading light on the left and I was hoping for something inspirational. But I ended up disappointed. He has taken the "hard" left view of doomsday scenarios and a black-or-white view of the world. I just don't buy into that. Here's an example:
The reason the ecosystem is dying is not because we still have a dryer in our basement. It is because corporations look at everything, from human beings to the natural environment, as exploitable commodities. It is because consumption is the engine of corporate profits. We have allowed the corporate state to sell the environmental crisis as a matter of economic reform. We are left powerless.

Aleksander Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of Russian anarchists working to topple the Czar, reminded his followers that they were not there to rescue the system.

"We think we are the doctors," Herzen said. "We are the disease."
If Hedges really believes "people are powerless", why is he writing a book? He is a hypocrite. he is selling radical reform. He doesn't believe people are powerless. But he finds that selling that to excitable people will galvanize them into extreme acts which they wouldn't do if he said "things are getting a bit worse and we will have to spend more time being political to ensure that our government agencies do the job they are mandated to do". You don't get young campus radicals out trashing a downtown core in order to "help make government agencies a bit better at their responsibilities". No. You tell people that things are going to hell in a handbasket and this is the last chance to act and we are going to lose everything unless they are willing to "lay down their lives" to stop the inhuman machine!

If Hedges and his radical friends really thought they were "the disease" and not the cure, they would take the Jonestown solution, i.e. drink poisoned Kool-Aid and leave this vale of tears for us benighted fools who think that reform and not radical revolution is the proper path to the future.

If Hedges really believes that the people are the disease and not the cure, then why is he messing with people's heads writing a book trying to tongue lash them into doing his bidding?

The problem with a radical like Hedges is that he is overly broad in his "sympathies" while intolerant in his willingness to work with the political structures as they exist:
The rebel, for Camus, stands with the oppressed -- the unemployed workers, thrust into impoverishment and misery by the corporate state, the Palestinians in Gaza, the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disappeared held in our global black sites, the poor in our inner cities and depressed rural communities, immigrants, and those locked away in our prison system. To stand with them does not mean to collaborate with parties, such as the Democrats, who can mouth the words of justice while carrying out acts of oppression. It means open and direct defiance.
He presents a long list of "victims". I'm sympathetic, but not in the blanket way he is. I think that some poor are poor by their own fault. I accept that most poor have been dealt an unfair hand and need assistance, but I'm not going to be guilt-tripped into handing cash to a drug addict so he can toddle over and get his next fix. I believe in "tough love", i.e. I'll help the drug addict get a job and earn money to pay his way, but I won't pay for his drug addiction. I will pay to help treat the addiction, but I won't sign up to be a patsy who pays for his dazed-out state day after day.

I agree that some Palestinians are victims of a historical injustice, but at the same time I believe they have to take responsibility for their lives and quit voting in Hamas and Fatah and elect responsible governments that will put their efforts into community building, not firing rockets into Israel or preparing suicide bombers to blow up pizza joints and buses in Israel.

I agree that corporations have a terrible track record with regard to the communities within which they are embedded. But the answer is not to declare the problem to be a "corporate state" with the implication that if we simply burned down all the corporate buildings, trashed their financial records and patented processes, and if we shot all the managers and professionals (like the Communists did) then we would have a "worker's paradise". Nope. You would simply descend into a hell of paralyzed economic life. The trick is to regulate corporations. Require them to pay taxes at all levels of government so that their economic activities feeds life back into their communities.

Chris Hedges "solutions" sound like the nightmares of the worst of the extremes of the Communists. There were two great political splits at the end of the 19th century:
  • The red and black divide: the anarchists and Marxists fell out in a split between the wider more tolerant, less dogmatic left and the strict party authoritarianism of Marxism at the International in 1872.

  • The democratic socialists and revolutionary socialist divide: those who didn't buy into the core of a professional revolutionary with its "dictatorship of the proletariat" chose the path of evolution and elections while the revolutionary left chose plotting and revolutions at the Second International.
I sometimes side with the democratic socialists and I sometimes side with liberals. I like the concern that democratic socialists have for working people, but in practice these parties are rife with the corruption seen in other political parties, so a "throw the rascals out" approach is needed. A good antidote is the classic liberal parties which respect individual freedoms with less emphasis on entitlements and regulations. That means that in Timothy Ferris's political spectrum of progressivism, liberalism, and conservativism I cycle between the first two and generally avoid that latter. I also tend toward small government but many layered to ensure political representation is close to the citizen and at the appropriate level for the problem. But Chris Hedges is beyond the pale. He is a revolutionary, not a progressivist.

Here is a bit to explain where Hedges sits:
The witch hunts against communists in the United States were used to silence socialists, anarchists, and pacifists, and all those who defied the abuses of capitalism. Those "anti-Red" actions were devastating blows to the political health of the country. The communists spoke the language of class struggle. They understood that Wall Street, along with corporations such as BP, is the enemy. They offered a broad social vision that allowed even the noncommunist left to employ a vocabulary that made sense of the destructive impulses of capitalism. But once the Communist Party, along with other radical movements, was eradicated as a social and political force, once the liberal class took government-imposed loyalty oaths and collaborated in the witch hunts for phantom communist agents,were were robbed of the ability to make sense of our struggle. We became fearful, timid, and ineffectual. We lost our voice and became part of the corporate structure we should have been dismantling.
This is a fanciful recreation of history. The truth is that the Communists sabotaged the left. Sure, they provided effective organizers, but at the same time they were dismantling other left groups or co-opting them into fellow-traveler Communist dominated organizations. Notice how he twists history. It wasn't "liberal" who imposed loyalty oaths. That came from right wing extremists like Joseph McCarthy. The Communists offered a "broad social vision" only when they were under orders from Stalin to take the broad "united front" approach. At other times they wrecked competing organizations. And, as for "speaking the language of class struggle" and "employ a vocabulary that made sense of the destructive impulses of capitalism", what Communists "provided" was obscurantist and dogmatic word formulas memorized by the party faithful but opaque to everyone. Hedges simply distorts history by giving the Communists a rosy pink tone and not the blood splatter vicious history that really went on. Read books about the Spanish Civil War if you want to know the "true character" of Communism.

Hedges, like a lot of the political left these days is anti-science and caught up in a romantic mysticism of "nature" and "the land":
The more we divorce ourselves from nature, the more we permit the natural world to be exploited and polluted by corporations for profit, the more estranged we become from the essence of life. Corporate systems, which grow our food and ship it across country in trucks, which drill deep into the ocean to extract diminishing fossil fuels and send container ships to bring us piles of electronics and clothes from China, have created fragile, unsustainable, man-made infrastructures that will collapse.
That sounds nicely frightening all wrapped up in a doomsday shudder about "evil" corporations. But humans can't live "in nature". We are over a million years removed from really being cheek-by-jowl with our fellow creatures. We are what we are because of technology made possible by civilization and social cooperation. I for one am very happy that I can get fresh greens through the winter. Just 3 generations ago my relatives went through "the hard season" relying on preserves and root cellars and seeds through winter. I'm happy I can buy cheaply manufactured clothes from China. I just wish my government would drive a harder bargain with the Chinese to ensure a "fair playing field" for manufactures from my country, Canada.

The book is interesting and thoughtful at times, but it is filled with extremist ideology. So I can't recommend it. Steer clear of this book.

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