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In conversation with Chris Hedges

Social Movements

Photo by Artemas Liu

We are living in revolutionary times that are ripe for rebellion. So says Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Chris Hedges in his newest book Wages of Rebellion in which he explains that a major uprising will soon inevitably erupt in the United States. With increasing environmental destruction, wealth polarization and civil liberty violations- it’s all coming to a tipping point. Chris Hedges explained to Canadian Dimension magazine in Toronto where he sees society and rebellion at this particular historical period.

CD: How likely is it for an uprising to occur in the United States? We’ve seen massive revolutions sweep across the Middle East; in Spain there’s Podemos; Greece has Syriza, but it seems as if people here seem to be uninformed and don’t know what’s happening around them.

CH: Well, they don’t and you need a crisis to trigger usually an uprising, a revolt or revolution. Whether that’s economic, whether that’s catastrophic domestic terrorism, whether that’s effects of climate change. So, you can’t predict how these things play out. Certainly the tinder is there.

It could be that the frustration, which does runs deep throughout the country, could express itself in a kind of right-wing backlash- a call for a more authoritarian state. The military as an institution is venerated beyond any other institution; it’s almost like a religious cult and that’s very dangerous. It could certainly go in ways that are quite disturbing but that the system has seized up. That the system is no longer able to respond to the most basic needs of the citizenry is clear.

One of the engines of the uprisings in places like Baltimore and Ferguson is the fact that after bailing out Wall Street, in the name of austerity you are bleeding these municipalities and cities dry and slashing social service programs; they become more predatory on the poor.

30-40 per cent of municipal revenues in St. Louis County are derived from fines- fines for not cutting the grass on your lawn, fines for having a tail light out. If you have an outstanding warrant- and these people obviously have great difficulty paying these fines- then you go right back into the system; you go right back into the jail. That’s why when you get stopped for a broken tail light, you run, because if you don’t have money and you have an outstanding warrant, it means you’re going right back into the prison system.

We have seen now that the underclass in the United States has just been squeezed by corporate power to a point where it can no longer endure. And of course the corporate state is using lethal force against unarmed men and women of colour and has been for a long time, with impunity. We even filmed the murder of unarmed citizens by police and those police are never charged.

If people are marching, people are responding, if the state continues not to respond, then you will inevitably provoke counter-violence and then the whole configuration is changed. But that something’s coming. The widespread discontent and anger in the United States is, I think undeniable.

CD: In your book you made it clear that non-violent resistance is the way to go; that this clearly works. With this in mind, what do you make of the reaction to Freddy Gray’s death that’s been playing out in Baltimore?

CH: Most revolutions are non-violent. I would probably argue all revolutions are non-violent fundamentally because as Crane Brinton and [James C.] Davies, the great theorists on revolution point out, revolutions can’t succeed unless a significant portion of the security and surveillance apparatus defects to the side of the protestors or refuses to use lethal force to stop those protests.

You can go all the way back to the Russian revolution when the Cossacks were sent to quell the bread riots in Petrograd and they refused to fire on the crowd. The czar is put on a railway car, brought back from the front; he never even makes it back to Petrograd; he abdicates.

We saw it in the 1979 revolution in Iran where the armed forces would no longer protect the shah, or you go back to the overthrow of Samoza in Nicaragua. I covered the revolutions in eastern Europe- Erich Honecker, the communist dictator in East Germany sent down an elite paratroop division in Leipzig to fire on the crowd. They refused to do it; Honecker doesn’t even last a week in power.

That is how revolutions function. They function by doing what Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay “The power of the powerless” calls living in truth. They speak an undeniable truth to the corrupt, decayed and venal system of power and those within the structures of power- civil servants, bureaucrats, police hear it and are no longer willing to defend those structures of power.

If we have just seen in the United States three police officers killed in the span of about a week, two in Mississippi, one in New York- now if that becomes a pattern, which I don’t want to see, if police officers start being assassinated, then we could slip into the kind of scenario that Argentina saw with the rise of the Montoneros who were assassinating police officers in this kind of Maoist- Marxist insurgency and then you have terrorism and state counter-terrorism defining your conflict. It’s possible we go that way; I’m just hoping we don’t.

CD: You wrote about how we need a new language and that we need to discover new words and ideas to explain reality. What exactly did you mean by this?

CH: Well we live in an interregnum, this period where the old, the ideology of free market capitalism and globalization has been discredited but we don’t yet have the language to describe the new system that we want. In places like Greece or Spain that language is there with Podemos and with Syriza. So, we need to have a vision. If people rise up out of anger and it is just anarchic or chaotic, the state can easily deal with it. If people rise up and have a clear idea of an alternative way of structuring society, then they become much more dangerous to the state.

CD: Was this something that was missing in the Occupy movement?

CH: No, I think the Occupy movement understood something very crucial and that was that we had- as John Ralston Saul correctly writes- undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion, and that unless that corporate coup d’état was reversed, unless power was arrested from the hands of the corporate elite, nothing would happen.

Occupy was a nascent movement; it had like all nascent movements, issues and made decisions that made it difficult for the movement to sustain itself, which the authorities very quickly figured out. So, the police were dropping homeless people on Zuccotti Park; people would be released from Rikers- the big jail in New York- and they would be dropped in the park because they wanted to overload the social service network. When the individual tents came in, when the drugs came into Zuccotti and sexual assault came into Zuccotti, activists were literally staying up all night in de-escalation teams trying to keep order and that wasn’t their job… Consensus worked when there were a few hundred people in the park; it was a kind of paralysis when it was at 4,000.

But I think the Occupy movement was a seismic event and a deeply important event in American history. Remember, the camps were physically eradicated; they were destroyed in a coordinated effort by Barack Obama and the federal state across the country.

Not only did Occupy mark a shift of consciousness, but we’ve seen many in the Occupy movement now cross pollinate with Black Lives Matter, with the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, with the debt jubilee, with hurricane Sandy we saw Occupy Sandy. It’s become more diffused, more politically sophisticated. It’s expressing itself through a series of important grassroots movements, and that’s how resistance works.

I look at occupy as that as a tactic, as one of many tactics that we’re using in order to overthrow corporate terror.

CD: In the past few years we’ve seen so many laws introduced in the United States and Canada that violate civil liberties such as the 2012 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act), Bill C-51, and now most recently Canada has announced it will use hate crime laws against BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) supporters. How unprecedented is this? Have we ever seen so many severe laws introduced in a short period in the history of Canada and the U.S.?

CH: We have had severe laws, but what we’re seeing is that as the corporate state loses its credibility, it uses harsher forms of control in order to retain power. Your anti-terrorism law is as bad or worse than anything in the United States, which is an indication that this is global. The fact that you’ve walked away from Kyoto, the fact that you’ve also militarized your police, all of those corporate assaults including against our education are seeping their way into Canada.

You’re not at the place where we are in the United States but you’re certainly moving in that direction and that’s because the State realizes that it’s going to have to employ harsher forms of coercion in order to maintain power because propaganda is no longer working. People aren’t buying it. And that’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing in places like Canada and it’s very disturbing because we’re moving to an Orwellian dystopia at a very swift place.

When you have complete surveillance of your citizenry- and we’re the most watched, photographed, monitored, eavesdropped population in human history- you don’t want to give states that kind of power because they’ll use it. When they seek to criminalize an individual or a certain category of people, they have information in which they can charge you with criminal intent, however banal the criminal activity may be. 

That’s what all totalitarian systems do. It’s what Stalin’s communism did, it’s what fascism did and the corporate state is doing the same thing. When you are monitored 24 hours a day by the state, you can’t use the word liberty. That’s the relationship of a master and a slave. If we don’t destroy that internal security apparatus, it’s going to be very hard for us to do anything.

CD: In your book you stress the importance to resist no matter what the odds. How well would you say the general public has been resisting laws such as Bill C-51? There weren’t that many people who showed up at the protest in Toronto last March.

CH: The state seeks to accrue to themselves this kind of power, in essence by promising not to use it, which is kind of absurd. They want to accrue to themselves that unlimited power through a process in which the masses are dormant or passive. And once they have that kind of power, it’s too late.

The systems of propaganda that the state employs to justify gathering to themselves the right to intrude into the laws of citizens through this bill is meant to do that. It’s meant to assure people that they have nothing to worry about it. It’s how totalitarian systems work; it’s the gradual chipping away or erosion of rights.

I think it’s also true that in a way, it doesn’t matter what the citizens want. I mean aren’t opinion polls largely opposed to the bill in Canada? I mean if you take at opinion polls, people don’t want it.

When I sued Barack Obama over section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes, permits the military to arrest American citizens overturning over 150 years of domestic law, to strip them of due process and keep them in military facilities, the opinion polls were running 97 per cent against that section of the NDAA but it passes anyways because the corporate state wants it.

In a way it doesn’t matter what we want; they don’t care what we want. They do what they want. Just in the United States in 2008, the decision to bail out Wall Street- constituent calls were 100 to 1 against the bailout across the political spectrum but they bailed out the banks anyway.

CD: What are the biggest barriers preventing an uprising from happening?

CH: Political consciousness is key; people have to understand power and how it works. And the media has done a great job of locking out the critique of corporate power. Canada’s actually better at allowing it in the mainstream but in the United States it’s almost impossible to get critique in the mainstream.

The entertainment industry, the old Roman bread and circus, the massive sports industries, the celebrity gossip, the constant bombardment of images, these are effective ways of stopping you from thinking.

CD: And yet Freedom House label Canada and the U.S. each year as the freest countries in terms of press freedom.

CH: Well, that’s ridiculous. (Laughs)

CD: You mention in your book that the strangulation of Eric Garner and the shooting of Michael Brown is just lynching by another name. How much has the situation really changed for African Americans since the time of lynching until today?

CH: It’s a continuum. We have to look at the prison system of mass incarceration where we have 25 per cent of the world’s prison population with five per cent of the world’s population. And most of those in prison are poor people of colour. A black body on the streets of a marginal community in the inner city is worth nothing to the corporate state, where it can generate $40,000- $50,000 for the corporate state when it’s locked up behind bars.

There’s been a kind of mutation of racism in America. So King marches in the civil rights movement, you have a kind of legal victory, where the black elite is incorporated into the upper strata of society but for the bottom three quarters of African Americans, life in America is worse today than when King marched in the streets of Selma and Memphis.

And they get it. So Jesse Jackson goes to Ferguson and he’s booed out of Ferguson like Al Sharpton because the black underclass especially the young realize that that black leadership sold them out. And racism expresses itself primarily through economic discrimination. King got that at the end of his life, that if there was not economic justice, there would never be racial justice. While the white liberal class was willing to give blacks a legal victory, they were not willing to give them an economic victory, because they didn’t want to pay for it.

CD: What’s one message you would like readers to take away?

CH: Non-violence is key. We can’t compete with the state in terms of violence or internal security. We have to be transparent. Because as Vaclav Havel says in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless: “Those are the most potent weapons we have.” We have to be disciplined, we have to have an alternative political vision and we don’t have any time left.

The reports that come out- in March, we saw carbon emissions every single day of March above 400 ppm (parts per million). That’s the first time since we began as humans recording weather patterns that that’s ever happened. We have to act now, we have to act quickly; if we don’t it’s going to be awful.


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