Online journalist of the year and Pulitzer prize winning author Chris Hedges spoke about his new book, Empire of Illusion, at the Berkeley Hillside Club July 21st, 2009, at a benefit for KPFA. Here are some of the things he said.
The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture are vanishing as we barrel towards collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The pernicious idea that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the freedom to accumulate vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others has collapsed. The conflation of freedom with the free market has been exposed as a sham. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as the unemployment insurance runs out and people get a taste of Bill Clinton's draconian welfare reform. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity through unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.
Our economic crisis, despite the corporate media circus surrounding the death of Michael Jackson or the marital infidelity of Governor Mark Sanford, barrels forward. And this crisis will lead to a period of profound political turmoil and change. Those who care about the plight of the working class and the poor must begin to mobilize quickly to abandon the two-party system, to build a viable socialism, or we will lose our last opportunity to save our embattled democracy.
Unfettered capitalism, as Ralph Nader told me the other day, is destroying the very socialism that is trying to save it. We must wrest the organs of communication from the corporations that use mass media to demonize movements of social change and empower proto-fascist movements such as the Christian Right.
Multifaceted, multi-ethnic American culture was systematically destroyed in the 20th century by corporations. These corporations used mass communication as well as an understanding of human psychology to turn consumption into an inner compulsion. Old values of thrift, regional identity that had its own iconography, aesthetic expression and history, diverse and rich immigrant traditions, self sufficiency, a press that was decentralized to provide citizens with a voice in their own communities, were all destroyed to create mass corporate culture. New desires and habits were implanted by corporate advertisers to replace the old. Individual frustrations and discontent could be solved, corporate culture assured us, through the wonders of consumerism and cultural homogenization.
American culture, or cultures, was replaced with junk culture and junk politics. Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. Junk politics personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. It is impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about America's optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on "feel your pain" language and gesture -- as Benjamin DeMott noted in his book, Junk Politics: the Trashing of the American Mind (http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-533910.html). The result of junk politics is that nothing changes, meaning zero interruptions in the processes and practices that strengthen existing interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage. Junk Politics miniaturizes large complex problems at home while maximizing threats from abroad. It is also given to abrupt unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly bloating problems previously miniaturized. And finally it seeks at every turn to obliterate voters' consciousness of socioeconomic and other differences in their midst.
And now, standing on the ash heap, we survey the ruins. The very slogans of advertising and mass culture have become the idiom of common expression, robbing us of the language to make sense of the destruction. We confuse the manufactured commodity culture with American culture.
How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and the fantasies of a glorious tomorrow, or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up in moments of crisis and panic to offer fantastic visions of revenge and moral renewal? Will we radically transform our system into one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, that dismantles empire, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent and drive us into a new dark age?