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The end of American empire -- closer than we think?

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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.

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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 ( 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.

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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?

In his book Democracy Incorporated,, Sheldon Wolin, who taught political philosophy at Berkeley and Princeton, uses the phrase inverted totalitarianism to describe our political system. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the constitution, while manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. If elected, they are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitols, who author the legislation and then get the legislators to pass it. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear. It imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. It diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. Under inverted totalitarianism, the reverse is true: Economics dominates politics. And with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.

The Obama brand offers us an image that appears radically individualistic and new. It inoculates us from seeing that the old engines of corporate power and the vast military industrial complex continue to plunder the country. Brand Obama is about being happy consumers. We are entertained, we feel hopeful, we like our president, we believe he is like us. But like all branded products spun out from the manipulative world of corporate advertising, we are being duped into doing and supporting a lot of things that are not in our interest.

What, for all our faith and hope, has the Obama Brand given us? His administration has spent, lent, or guaranteed $12.8 Trillion in taxpayer money to Wall Street and insolvent banks in a doomed effort to re-inflate the bubble economy, a tactic that, at best, forestalls a catastrophe and will leave us broke in a time of profound crisis. Brand Obama has allocated nearly $1 Trillion in defense-related spending and a continuation of our doomed imperial projects in Iraq, where military planners now estimate that 70,000 troops will remain for the next 15-20 years. Brand Obama has expanded the war in Afghanistan, including the use of drones sent on cross border bombing runs into Pakistan that have left 700 civilians dead since Obama took office.

Brand Obama has refused to ease the restrictions so workers can organize -- and because of pressure from the for-profit health care industry, refuses to consider single payer not-for-profit health care for all Americans. Brand Obama will not prosecute the Bush Administration for war crimes including the uses of torture, and has refused to dismantle Bush's secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than Brand George W. Bush. The Bush Brand collapsed, we became immune to its studied folksiness, we saw through its artifice, and now we have been given the new Obama brand with its exciting and faintly erotic appeal. Bennington and Calvin Cline were the precursors to the Obama Brand, using ads to associate themselves with risque' style and progressive politics. It gave their products an edge, but the goal, as with all brands, was to fool passive consumers, suggesting to them that a brand was an experience.

The decline of the American empire began long before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of historian Charles Mayer, from an empire of production to an empire of consumption. By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and domestic oil production began its steady and inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed, from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a lifestyle and empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. And the bill is now due.

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America's most dangerous enemies are not the Islamic radicals, but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free market capitalization and globalization, for they have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in government subsidies. These corporate forces will never permit real reform. It would mean their extinction. The oil and gas industry will never allow us to achieve energy independence -- that would devastate their profits. Real reform would wipe out tens of billions of dollars in weapons contracts. It would cripple the financial health of a host of private contractors, from Lockheed Martin to Boeing, to Grumman, Raytheon, Halliburton and the newly renamed Blackwater. It would render obsolete the existence of the US Central Command.

It was Bill Clinton that led the Democratic Party to the corporate watering trough. Clinton argued that the party had to ditch labor unions, no longer a source of votes or power, as a political ally. Workers, he insisted, would vote Democratic anyway they had no choice. It was better, he argued, to take corporate money and do corporate bidding. By the 1990s the Democratic Party under Clinton's leadership had virtual fund raising parity with the Republicans; today the Democrats get more.

But the legislation demanded by corporations, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, thrust a knife into the back of the American working class. NAFTA was peddled to the working class as "an opportunity to raise the incomes and prosperity of the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico." NAFTA, we were told, would also staunch Mexican immigration into the US. But NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, had the effect of reversing every one of Clinton's rosy predictions. Once the Mexican government lifted price supports on corn and beans grown by Mexican farmers, these farmers had to compete against the huge agribusinesses in the US. Many Mexican farmers went bankrupt, which drove 2 million of them off their land since 1994. And guess where many of them went.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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