[FoRK] We Stand on the Cusp of one of Humanity's Most Dangerous Moments

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Mar 25 08:41:00 PDT 2010


We Stand on the Cusp of one of Humanity's Most Dangerous Moments

By Chris Hedges, Adbusters

Posted on March 18, 2010, Printed on March 25, 2010


Aleksandr Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of anarchists about how
to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was not their job to
save a dying system but to replace it: “We think we are the doctors. We are
the disease.” All resistance must recognize that the body politic and global
capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to reform or appeal
to it. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very
different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies toward building
sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable
to survive and resist without a cooperative effort.

These communities, if they retreat into a pure survivalist mode without
linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community, the
state and the planet, will become as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the
corporate forces arrayed against us. All infrastructures we build, like the
monasteries in the Middle Ages, should seek to keep alive the intellectual
and artistic traditions that make a civil society, humanism and the common
good possible. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We
will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the
larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to
retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. Resistance
will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance, as those who
retained their integrity discovered in the long night of 20th-century fascism
and communism.

We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the
bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if
not centuries, into barbarity. The elites have successfully convinced us that
we no longer have the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented
before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and
environmental catastrophe. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened
people, fed images that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this
state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury
against increased state repression, widespread poverty and food shortages.
But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and
small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular
revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is
just that – a fantasy.

My analysis comes close to the analysis of many anarchists. But there is a
crucial difference. The anarchists do not understand the nature of violence.
They grasp the extent of the rot in our cultural and political institutions,
they know they must sever the tentacles of consumerism, but they naïvely
believe that it can be countered with physical forms of resistance and acts
of violence. There are debates within the anarchist movement – such as those
on the destruction of property – but once you start using plastic explosives,
innocent people get killed. And when anarchic violence begins to disrupt the
mechanisms of governance, the power elite will use these acts, however minor,
as an excuse to employ disproportionate and ruthless amounts of force against
real and suspected agitators, only fueling the rage of the dispossessed.

I am not a pacifist. I know there are times, and even concede that this may
eventually be one of them, when human beings are forced to respond to
mounting repression with violence. I was in Sarajevo during the war in
Bosnia. We knew precisely what the Serbian forces ringing the city would do
to us if they broke through the defenses and trench system around the
besieged city. We had the examples of the Drina Valley or the city of
Vukovar, where about a third of the Muslim inhabitants had been killed and
the rest herded into refugee or displacement camps. There are times when the
only choice left is to pick up a weapon to defend your family, neighborhood
and city. But those who proved most adept at defending Sarajevo invariably
came from the criminal class. When they were not shooting at Serbian soldiers
they were looting the apartments of ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo and often
executing them, as well as terrorizing their fellow Muslims. When you ingest
the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms and
perverts you. Violence is a drug, indeed it is the most potent narcotic known
to humankind. Those most addicted to violence are those who have access to
weapons and a penchant for force. And these killers rise to the surface of
any armed movement and contaminate it with the intoxicating and seductive
power that comes with the ability to destroy. I have seen it in war after
war. When you go down that road you end up pitting your monsters against
their monsters. And the sensitive, the humane and the gentle, those who have
a propensity to nurture and protect life, are marginalized and often killed.
The romantic vision of war and violence is as prevalent among anarchists and
the hard left as it is in the mainstream culture. Those who resist with force
will not defeat the corporate state or sustain the cultural values that must
be sustained if we are to have a future worth living. From my many years as a
war correspondent in El Salvador, Guatemala, Gaza and Bosnia, I have seen
that armed resistance movements are always mutations of the violence that
spawned them. I am not naïve enough to think I could have avoided these armed
movements had I been a landless Salvadoran or Guatemalan peasant, a
Palestinian in Gaza or a Muslim in Sarajevo, but this violent response to
repression is and always will be tragic. It must be avoided, although not at
the expense of our own survival.

Democracy, a system ideally designed to challenge the status quo, has been
corrupted and tamed to slavishly serve the status quo. We have undergone, as
John Ralston Saul writes, a coup d’état in slow motion. And the coup is over.
They won. We lost. The abject failure of activists to push corporate,
industrialized states toward serious environmental reform, to thwart imperial
adventurism or to build a humane policy toward the masses of the world’s poor
stems from an inability to recognize the new realities of power. The paradigm
of power has irrevocably altered and so must the paradigm of resistance

Too many resistance movements continue to buy into the facade of electoral
politics, parliaments, constitutions, bills of rights, lobbying and the
appearance of a rational economy. The levers of power have become so
contaminated that the needs and voices of citizens have become irrelevant.
The election of Barack Obama was yet another triumph of propaganda over
substance and a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by the mass
media. We mistook style and ethnicity – an advertising tactic pioneered by
the United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein – for progressive politics and
genuine change. We confused how we were made to feel with knowledge. But the
goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for
an experience. Obama, now a global celebrity, is a brand. He had almost no
experience besides two years in the senate, lacked any moral core and was
sold as all things to all people. The Obama campaign was named Advertising
Age’s marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and
Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer’s
dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe
another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what
the advertisers want because of how they can make you feel.

We live in a culture characterized by what Benjamin DeMott called “junk
politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights.
It always personalizes issues rather than clarifying them. It eschews real
debate for manufactured scandals, celebrity gossip and spectacles. It
trumpets eternal optimism, endlessly praises our moral strength and
character, and communicates in a feel-your-pain language. The result of junk
politics is that nothing changes, “meaning zero interruption in the processes
and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic

The cultural belief that we can make things happen by thinking, by
visualizing, by wanting them, by tapping into our inner strength or by
understanding that we are truly this while waving the flag and mouthing
patriotic slogans. “The United States has become the showcase of how
democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed,” Wolin writes.

The practice and psychology of advertising, the rule of “market forces” in
many arenas other than markets, the continuous technological advances that
encourage elaborate fantasies (computer games, virtual avatars, space
travel), the saturation by mass media and propaganda of every household and
the takeover of the universities have rendered most of us hostages. The rot
of imperialism, which is always incompatible with democracy, has seen the
military and arms manufacturers monopolize $1 trillion a year in
defense-related spending in the United States even as the nation faces
economic collapse. Imperialism always militarizes domestic politics. And this
militarization, as Wolin notes, combines with the cultural fantasies of hero
worship and tales of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through
surgery, action measured in nanoseconds and a dream-laden culture of
ever-expanding control and possibility to sever huge segments of the
population from reality. Those who control the images control us. And while
we have been entranced by the celluloid shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave,
these corporate forces, extolling the benefits of privatization, have
effectively dismantled the institutions of social democracy (Social Security,
unions, welfare, public health services and public housing) and rolled back
the social and political ideals of the New Deal. The proponents of
globalization and unregulated capitalism do not waste time analyzing other
ideologies. They have an ideology, or rather a plan of action that is
defended by an ideology, and slavishly follow it. We on the left have dozens
of analyses of competing ideologies without any coherent plan of our own.
This has left us floundering while corporate forces ruthlessly dismantle
civil society.

We are living through one of civilization’s great seismic reversals. The
ideology of globalizatosed as a fraud. The power elite, perplexed and
confused, clings to the disastrous principles of globalization and its
outdated language to mask the looming political and economic vacuum. The
absurd idea that the marketplace alone should determine economic and
political constructs led industrial nations to sacrifice other areas of human
importance – from working conditions, to taxation, to child labor, to hunger,
to health and pollution – on the altar of free trade. It left the world’s
poor worse off and the United States with the largest deficits – which can
never be repaid – in human history. The massive bailouts, stimulus packages,
giveaways and short-term debt, along with imperial wars we can no longer
afford, will leave the United States struggling to finance nearly $5 trillion
in debt this year. This will require Washington to auction off about $96
billion in debt a week. Once China and the oil-rich states walk away from our
debt, which one day has to happen, the Federal Reserve will become the buyer
of last resort. The Fed has printed perhaps as much as two trillion new
dollars in the last two years, and buying this much new debt will see it, in
effect, print trillions more. This is when inflation, and most likely
hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire
system breaks down.

All traditional standards and beliefs are shattered in a severe economic
crisis. The moral order is turned upside down. The honest and industrious are
wiped out while the gangsters, profiteers and speculators walk away with
millions. The elite will retreat, as Naomi Klein has written in The Shock
Doctrine, into gated communities where they will have access to services,
food, amenities and security denied to the rest of us. We will begin a period
in human history when there will be only masters and serfs. The corporate
forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian right
and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the rage at the ruling elites and
the specter of left-wing dissent and terroriswill be waving the American
flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order and clutching the
Christian cross. Totalitarianism, George Orwell pointed out, is not so much
an age of faith but an age of schizophrenia. “A society becomes totalitarian
when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial,” Orwell wrote. “That is
when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power
by force or fraud.” Our elites have used fraud. Force is all they have left.

Our mediocre and bankrupt elite is desperately trying to save a system that
cannot be saved. More importantly, they are trying to save themselves. All
attempts to work within this decayed system and this class of power brokers
will prove useless. And resistance must respond to the harsh new reality of a
global, capitalist order that will cling to power through ever-mounting forms
of brutal and overt repression. Once credit dries up for the average citizen,
once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass and the
cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture
vanish, we will probably evolve into a system that more closely resembles
classical totalitarianism. Cruder, more violent forms of repression will have
to be employed as the softer mechanisms of control favored by inverted
totalitarianism break down.

It is not accidental that the economic crisis will converge with the
environmental crisis. In his book The Great Transformation (1944), Karl
Polanyi laid out the devastating consequences – the depressions, wars and
totalitarianism – that grow out of a so-called self-regulated free market. He
grasped that “fascism, like socialism, was rooted in a market society that
refused to function.” He warned that a financial system always devolves,
without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism – and a Mafia
political system – which is a good description of our financial and political
structure. A self-regulating market, Polanyi wrote, turns human beings and
the natural environment into commodities, ae natural environment. The free
market’s assumption that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is
determined by the market allows each to be exploited for profit until
exhaustion or collapse. A society that no longer recognizes that nature and
human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value,
commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they
die. This is what we are undergoing.

If we build self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as
possible to the environment, we can weather the coming collapse. This task
will be accomplished through the existence of small, physical enclaves that
have access to sustainable agriculture, are able to sever themselves as much
as possible from commercial culture and can be largely self-sufficient. These
communities will have to build walls against electronic propaganda and fear
that will be pumped out over the airwaves. Canada will probably be a more
hospitable place to do this than the United States, given America’s strong
undercurrent of violence. But in any country, those who survive will need
isolated areas of land as well as distance from urban areas, which will see
the food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, leach out
across the urban landscape as produce and goods become prohibitively
expensive and state repression becomes harsher and harsher.

The increasingly overt uses of force by the elites to maintain control should
not end acts of resistance. Acts of resistance are moral acts. They begin
because people of conscience understand the moral imperative to challenge
systems of abuse and despotism. They should be carried out not because they
are effective but because they are right. Those who begin these acts are
always few in number and dismissed by those who hide their cowardice behind
their cynicism. But resistance, however marginal, continues to affirm life in
a world awash in death. It is the supreme act of faith, the highest form of
spirituality and alone makes hope possible. Those womfort, often spent time
in jail and in some cases were killed. They understood that to live in the
fullest sense of the word, to exist as free and independent human beings,
even under the darkest night of state repression, meant to defy injustice.

When the dissident Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his
cell in a Nazi prison to the gallows, his last words were: “This is for me
the end, but also the beginning.” Bonhoeffer knew that most of the citizens
in his nation were complicit through their silence in a vast enterprise of
death. But however hopeless it appeared in the moment, he affirmed what we
all must affirm. He did not avoid death. He did not, as a distinct
individual, survive. But he understood that his resistance and even his death
were acts of love. He fought and died for the sanctity of life. He gave, even
to those who did not join him, another narrative, and his defiance ultimately
condemned his executioners.

We must continue to resist, but do so now with the discomforting realization
that significant change will probably never occur in our lifetime. This makes
resistance harder. It shifts resistance from the tangible and the immediate
to the amorphous and the indeterminate. But to give up acts of resistance is
spiritual and intellectual death. It is to surrender to the dehumanizing
ideology of totalitarian capitalism. Acts of resistance keep alive another
narrative, sustain our integrity and empower others, who we may never meet,
to stand up and carry the flame we pass to them. No act of resistance is
useless, whether it is refusing to pay taxes, fighting for a Tobin tax,
working to shift the neoclassical economics paradigm, revoking a corporate
charter, holding global internet votes or using Twitter to catalyze a chain
reaction of refusal against the neoliberal order. But we will have to resist
and then find the faith that resistance is worthwhile, for we will not
immediately alter the awful configuration of power. And in this long, long
war a community to sustain us, emotionally and materially Adorno wrote that
the exclusive preoccupation with personal concerns and indifference to the
suffering of others beyond the self-identified group is what ultimately made
fascism and the Holocaust possible: “The inability to identify with others
was unquestionably the most important psychological condition for the fact
that something like Auschwitz could have occurred in the midst of more or
less civilized and innocent people.”

The indifference to the plight of others and the supreme elevation of the
self is what the corporate state seeks to instill in us. It uses fear, as
well as hedonism, to thwart human compassion. We will have to continue to
battle the mechanisms of the dominant culture, if for no other reason than to
preserve through small, even tiny acts, our common humanity. We will have to
resist the temptation to fold in on ourselves and to ignore the cruelty
outside our door. Hope endures in these often imperceptible acts of defiance.
This defiance, this capacity to say no, is what the psychopathic forces in
control of our power systems seek to eradicate. As long as we are willing to
defy these forces we have a chance, if not for ourselves, then at least for
those who follow. As long as we defy these forces we remain alive. And for
now this is the only victory possible.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the
Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His
latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of

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