Pine Ridge is one of the poorest counties in the US, and its conditions are comparable to developing countries. This is partly why Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and brilliant social critic, Chris Hedges, has referred to places like Pine Ridge as capitalism’s “sacrifice zones.”
Although this systemic subjugation is as old as civilization itself, the oppression of people in far away lands is now backed with an unprecedented amount of military force. Society’s toxic perpetuation of the “Military Mind” causes profound destruction, both domestically and internationally.
As 21st century capitalism thrives on an unsustainable model of endless growth, Hedges discusses the inevitable collapse of industrial civilization, analyzes cult-like behavioral patterns that rise out of desperation and explores the antidote to defeatism in an enlightening interview series with Breaking the Set.
“I don’t fight fascists because I’ll win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.” – Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges Part I: Crisis Cults and the Collapse of Industrial Civilization
Chris Hedges Part II: The Military Mind and the Antidote to Defeatism
AM: Why are places like Pine Ridge so susceptible to extreme poverty?
CH: These are places where unfettered capitalist forces – backed by force on behalf of the railroad companies, timber merchants, and the people who profited from decimating the buffalo herds – minding concerns, came in and seized the land of Native Americans and killed most of them. Not only that, but after herding them into what—in essence—were prisoner of war camps set out to destroy their culture, their religion, their language. That’s why Indian children were taken from their parents and put in Christian boarding schools where they were not allowed, for instance in Pine Ridge, to speak Lakota. What’s happening now with the late end of the industrial age and capitalism is that the reservation; that environment that Native American people have endured and suffered under is being extended and growing in greater and greater areas. We’re all being sacrificed as the residents of Charleston, West Virginia were sacrificed when their water was poisoned by coal companies, and it’s still poisoned. Although they’ve been told to drink it, people and children are coming home from school sick. This is not something that is unknown to Native Americans. I think that whole demented project of ceaseless exploitation, expansion, and violence. The template for that was set in the Westward expansion.
AM: You discuss how the world is globally integrated under an unsustainable form of capitalism, but America positions itself atop the totem pole justified by the notion of American exceptionalism. How do you think that that notion plays into the global collapse?
CH: Well, corporations are preying on the United States in the way that they prey on all nation’s states. They are in this essence super-national. They owe no loyalty to any one nation. That’s how you have seen the decimation of the American manufacturing base; that is how you’ve seen the transference of capital overseas where it lies beyond the reach of taxation. You have seen the rise of the decimation of the working class, and the rise of tremendous numbers of poor, whether they are listed as ‘in poverty’ or a category called ‘near poverty’. We’re now talking about half the country. The myth of America is still there; the idea of if you work hard, you can make something of yourself; the idea that we have a right to travel the globe and impose our virtues—supposed virtues—on other countries by force, which is what we are doing and attempting to do throughout the Middle Easy, although it’s not going very well for us.
Imperialism has always been a mask for trade, for business, for control of natural resources. That has been true since the United States began its imperialist expansion with the conquest of the Philippines, Cuba, the control of the Caribbean for sugar and bananas, into the Middle East for oil. So, what we are seeing is a clash between the myths that America once used to identify itself. Let’s not forget that many of the most fervent supporters of imperialist expansion came from labor unions. I mean, GOMPers was at the Versaille Treaty. All segments of this society are complicit. But these forces, which in essence kind of cannibalize both the natural environment and exploit human labor and have been doing this on the outer reaches of empire for decades, are now being done internally just as it was done in the original conquest of the United States against Native Americans.
AM: You talk about the impending environmental catastrophes, and also the severe economic uncertainty on the horizon—why do you think there is no sense of urgency on a large scale to address these troubling trends?
CH: Because they’re not reported. The commercial media is about bread and circus. It’s about spectacle. It’s about celebrity gossip. It’s about the Super Bowl. I mean, every week it’s something new. If we had a responsible media, especially a broadcast media, we would understand that climate change at this point is an emergency; that at this point the effects of climate change are unstoppable, and if we don’t radically configure our relationship with the ecosystem, very, very quickly the human species itself is in jeopardy. You can look at the World Bank report on climate change, turn up the heat, the World Bank can hardly be accused of being a radical organization and they speak at the end of that report in utterly apocalyptic terms. So, scientists—especially people who study climate change—they know very well what’s happening, and yet we are not hearing their voices.
We are mesmerized by electronic hallucinations, and that’s of course how corporations want it. When forty percent of the summer Arctic Sea ice melts, companies and corporations, like Shell Oil, look at the death throes of our planet as a business opportunity and they’ll run up and drop a half a billion dollar drill bits down into the Arctic Sea. I think what we have seen is a kind of iron control of the systems of information by corporate power who are determined to exploit, and exploit, and exploit until collapse, and now we’re about to see—in all likelihood—the President approve the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline. So, it’s an uninformed public. It’s a public which has been diverted. They’re emotional and intellectual energy has been invested into spectacle, coupled with a ruthless corporate totalitarianism that thinks only in terms of quarterly profit and has absolutely no concern for the common good or sustenance of the ecosystem that might provide some kind of decent and acceptable living standards for future generations.
AM: Chris, but on the flip side you’ve also said that as collapse become palpable, humanity will retreat in what anthropologists call ‘crisis cults’. What is a ‘crisis cult’ and why does our psychological hardwiring always revert back to these modes of groupthink?
CH: When things become so desperate, human societies retreat into forms of magical thinking. At the end of the Indian Wars and the latter part of the 19th Century, you saw the rise of the Ghost Dance which swept through the remnants of native communities. These communities believed that the Great Spirit, the warriors would come back; the buffalo herds would come back; they would get their lands back; the white colonizer would disappear. That is replicated, as anthropologists have studied, throughout societies that collapse.
Now, the way we express our crisis cult, is through the radical Christian right, again, a form of magical thinking which denies evolution, which believes in the rapture; that those believers, when Jesus returns, will be raptured up into heaven. That’s a classic example of a crisis cult, so that when things become desperate you gather in a church, you pray, you carry out Christian ritual, you tend to lash out at a society to purge. You see it in the rhetoric. Whether it’s against homosexuals; whether it’s against undocumented workers, Muslims, a long list of contaminants that will somehow make the society right—all of that has within it the makings of a crisis cult. But crisis cults are what societies do when despair reaches such a level—and we’re certainly headed in that direction—when you are unable in a real way to affect the environment of the world around you, then you wrap yourself in these cocoons of fantasy.
AM: In the article The Myth of Human Progress, you write in reference to truth that people quote, ‘get as close as they can before the flames and heat drive them back. This intellectual and moral honesty, Nietzsche wrote, comes with a cost. Those singed by the fire of reality become ‘burnt children’, he wrote, eternal orphans in empires of illusion. Chris, if this is the way it has always worked, and those who seek truth are constantly ostracized, is humanity just doomed to be subject to empires of illusion?
CH: Well, I’m quoting Nietzsche there about looking down that only artist and philosophers have the capacity to look into what he calls the ‘molten pit of reality’, and when they come back out they find that the wider populous which is unable to look can’t deal with it. So, I depart a little bit from Nietzsche there. Nietzsche, like Plato, says that you create illusions, myth in order to explain a reality or help people cope with a reality. Unfortunately, the role of truth tellers in distraught or disturbed societies, and we have our own examples of that whether it’s Noam Chomsky, or Ralph Nader, or Cornell West—all of them, for getting up and speaking an unpleasant truth, have been pushed to the fringes of society.
The Liberal class is guilty, maybe even guiltier than the stations like MSNBC, which are utterly subservient to the Democratic Party and to the cult of Barack Obama, have kept those voices form us. So it’s not just the right, it’s the left, too; they are both trading in a false reality and that’s very dangerous, because when you can’t confront reality, when your society shuts out those voices that seek to describe what reality is and how it works, then you can’ talk about hope and you can’t talk about change because all hope and change is essentially redirected into a dead political process, or redirected in phantasm, in the idea that Barack Obama is going to save us from Wall Street or from the drone wars, or from environmental degradation. It’s a bit like those poor prisoners in the Gulag were writing letters to Uncle Joe Stalin. That is symptomatic and I think the United States would be probably a good example of an empire in serious decay and decline. These are qualities that are symptomatic of a society that no longer has the intellectual and moral health to face hard facts, readjust and carry out forms of self-criticism and self-correction.
AM: Let’s talk about that new Oxfam study that recently came out that shows how eighty-five people control the equivalent of the bottom half of the World’s wealth. What’s your response to people that say, “We just have to remove those eighty-five people”?
CH: Well, it’s a system of corporate power which is not necessarily driven by individuals so much as driven by corporate interests. Exxon Mobil, Citibank, Goldman-Sachs. So, you can arrest and imprison the head of Golman-Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein—which is where he belongs—but somebody will take his place. What has to happen is we have to break the back of corporate power which is now global, and break the logic whereby everything is about profit; that nothing has value beyond its monetary value. That’s an extremely dangerous moment for any society to live in, because when nothing has an intrinsic value, whether that’s water, air and human beings, then the ruthlessness of those corporate forces mean that you will squeeze every ounce of potential profit. Everything becomes a commodity and you squeeze those commodities until there’s nothing left and that’s exactly what’s happening. So, it’s not individuals, it’s the rise of corporate power which is a species of totalitarianism. Different; it differs from past systems of totalitarianism but it is no less totalitarian than fascism or communism, or totalitarian forces.
AM: Right. The system is a machine at this point. If those people died today, it would still grind on. In a recent article you discuss the menace of the military mind and how only devotion to establish forms of behavior result in individual success. How do you think this concept applies to the director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and his feelings towards journalists who have exposed NSA documents?
CH: Well, I speak as a former war correspondent who spent twenty years covering conflicts around the globe—Latin America, the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa—so, I know the military really well and blind obedience, aggressiveness resort to violence. All of these things; you know, destruction of individuality, all of these things work really well on a battlefield. They don’t work very well in a peacetime society. So, when Clapper made this comment that Edward Snowden and his quote-unquote ‘accomplices’—and he was clearly referring to journalists such as Laura Poitras and Glen Greenwald—should be prosecuted, I understood exactly what he was saying. He was a former Lieutenant General; he comes out of this military culture which detests the press, and has always made war on an independent press. Their vision of journalism are all the little lackeys who sit through their press conferences and follow them around and write glowing tributes to their heroism, or whatever they’re directed to write in press pools.
But actual journalism is something that within the military culture they’re deeply hostile, too, and the triumph of military values is—again—symptomatic of a civilization in decline; the rigidity, the celebration of hyper-masculinity, the lack of empathy, the belief that every problem should be dealt with by force both internationally and domestically, militaristic hyper-masculine regimes speak exclusively in the language of force, and then you see within popular culture, subsequently, a celebration of those hyper-masculine military values. I’ve been in enough combat to tell you those values are quite useful in a firefight, but they will destroy a civil society. I think that is a window into how tattered our civil society has become, and how we have shifted our allegiance from an open society, from empathy, from a capacity to embrace various opinions and outlooks and political stances to this increasingly rigid militaristic society, and Clapper is a figure who exemplifies precisely this sickness.
AM: Chris, in a recent speech you gave, you said quote, ‘I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.” Chris, Glen Greenwald recently spoke about how one man, Edward Snowden, has changed the world, and that singular capacity is the antidote to defeatism. What do you regard as the antidote to defeatism?
CH: You can’t talk about hope if you don’t resist, and Edward Snowden has certainly resisted. Heroically. We must carry out the good, or at least the good so far in as we can determine it, and then we have to let it go. The Buddhists call it ‘karma’. I come out of the seminary; that’s what faith is. It’s the belief that it goes somewhere even if empirically everything around you seems to point in the other direction. Once we give up, once we stop resisting, then we’re finished. Not only finished in a literal sense, but finished spiritually and morally. So, I fall back in moments of distress like this on that belief, which is one that I learned in seminary; that we have a capacity and an ability and a moral duty to fight against forces of evil even if it looks almost certain that those forces will triumph.
Transcript by Juan Martinez, Photo by flickr User theNerdPatrol