Feb. 20, 2013 - Issue #905: DOA No more - Trading in punk for politics
Death throes of the planet
Best-selling author Chris Hedges talks complacency in the face of corporate greed
Chris Hedges neither can nor will tell you that everything is going to be OK. He knows only too well that things will soon get much worse. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author is at the University of Alberta this Sunday as part of Freedom to Read Week.
Hedges has documented our planet's perils first as a war correspondent and, for more than a decade now, as an author of books like American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle and Death of the Liberal Class. His latest is Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, co-authored with and featuring illustrations by Joe Sacco. But will people get the picture? Hedges has his doubts. I spoke to him before his stop in Edmonton to find out more.
Vue Weekly: What was the inspiration behind Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt?
Chris Hedges: It was begun about two years before Occupy Wall Street. We were in Florida doing research when the occupation happened in (New York's) Zuccotti Park. The book's title was always Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, but the revolt was conjecture. Suddenly, it was happening as we were concluding our work. So, we wrote the last chapter out of Zuccotti. As a matter of fact, and rather ironically, there was really no indication of an immediate push back when we started work on the book.
I threw myself into the Occupy Movement. It really was an expression of everything I have been saying and writing for the past few years: that we had to build a mass movement outside of the formal structures of power if we had any hope of wrestling back control of our lives from the corporate state. I was deeply moved by and continue to be involved in the Occupy Movement.
VW: What is the status of the Occupy Movement today?
CH: It was crushed, physically crushed. In a co-ordinated effort, the encampments were erased and there's been tremendous harassment of Occupy activists. But it's important to remember that it's always the ruling class that determines the configuration of revolt.
So, because the ruling elites did not respond rationally to the grievances that drove people into those encampments; because they didn't declare a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repossessions; because they didn't enforce regulations or prosecute Wall Street for fraud; because they have not addressed the chronic unemployment or underemployment ... it means something is coming.
Will it be called or look like Occupy? I don't know. No one does. But that something is coming. I have covered movements and popular uprisings around the globe, from both of the Palestinian uprisings to the revolution in Eastern Europe and the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Milošević ... you know when the tinder is there.
VW: In the book, you refer to the communities of Camden, NJ, Immokalee, FL and southern West Virginia as "Sacrifice Zones." What does the term mean?
CH: It's a term used by activists in reference to southern West Virginia's Appalachian coalfields. It refers to what has happened to the environment, their communities and to them. That's really what all of the places we wrote about were: sacrificed. They were pockets where they and the natural world were forced to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace. With all of the impediments lifted on corporate capitalism, what's happening in theses sacrifice zones is now happening to the rest of us.
VW: I think most Canadians like to think we're above corporate capitalism. Or at least less under its influence compared to Americans.
CH: Well, it's worse in the United States. And we have so many other things going on [in the US] that you don't, like our gun culture: the undercurrent of violence in the US runs very deep.
But configurations of corporate totalitarianism are evident in Canada. There's the assault on public education, especially at the university level. You also see it with the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands, Prime Minister Harper's shredding of the Kyoto Accords and the rise of the security and surveillance state—as everyone who was at the G20 in Toronto knows.
I've never quite figured out why, but the US does things first and then 10 years later Canada copies us. You're certainly not immune from corporate capitalism, and no one in Europe is, but nobody is as bad as the United States. This is really a global phenomenon.
VW: The US seems to be in a difficult position of trying to balance the immediate need for job creation against long-term environmental concerns.
CH: It's more than just job creation; our infrastructure is falling apart. It's really a Third-World infrastructure. Our roads are falling apart, our national train service is decrepit. Putting people back to work on infrastructure projects is badly needed because it's been so neglected. Not only would it create tremendous employment opportunities, that money would then pour into our deteriorating economy. This would be the rational response.
Unfortunately, the corporate state is stealing as much as it can as fast as it can on the way down. They are harvesting our country, to use a business term. But in the language of patriotism, they are traitors. They have no loyalty to the nation state. Most of these larger corporations, like General Electric, don't even pay taxes. They use sweatshop labour in Bangladesh or, like Apple, prison labour in China to make their products. They are hollowing out the country from the inside.
VW: To the degree that this process and construct have become institutionalized, is there hope of reversing course?
CH: I don't think anyone who reads the reports on climate change can be an optimist. The fact is that the deterioration of the ecosystem is far more severe than even the most apocalyptic climate scientists predicted just a few years ago. I just read the World Bank report and it talks about the planet becoming uninhabitable—and they're right. We're in big, big trouble as a species and the response of the power elite is ... well, when 40 percent of the Arctic Sea ice melts, Shell Oil sees it as a business opportunity.
VW: There is a growing sense of environmental awareness, however. Even your work and message have developed a larger audience since Occupy New York. Does that offer you any sense of optimism?
CH: You have to put it in perspective. My best-selling book was War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, which sold about 300 000 copies in the United States. That's not even one percent of the American public. You can reach an educated elite. Unfortunately, the masses have been mesmerized by these electronic hallucinations. We invest our emotional and intellectual energy into the tawdry and salacious celebrity gossip. It is really a kind of moral decay. That's why we see a society as utterly complacent before a fossil fuel industry and elite that is quite willing to sell the future of our children for quarterly profit. These people are profiting from the death throes of the planet. It's utterly insane.
Sun, Feb 24 (7 pm)
Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science (Room 1-430)
University of Alberta, Free
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