Is the United States, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once wrote, living in the End Times? Are these the empire’s last days, its moral authority to claim pre-eminence withered and gone?
It certainly seems so: A staggeringly high pandemic death toll, race riots, rampant police brutality, a political class locked in a vicious knife fight with itself, and a mainstream media egging on the whole circus. Prevailing over the mess is a president whose incompetence is shocking to behold.
Canada's National Observer spoke about it with Chris Hedges, 63, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for the New York Times, where he served as the paper’s Middle East and Balkan bureau chiefs. The interview was edited for length.
Q: In regards to Trump's term in office, how would you characterize it? Has it surprised you?
A: Well, (Donald) Trump is a daily surprise. Just when you think he can't sink any lower, he does. The kinds of policies and even statements that he's engaging in are just wilfully self-destructive. He's a prisoner of his own megalomania and his own narcissism. So in that sense, I think, like most Americans, we've all been surprised at that — how far worse (it is) than we suspected.
Q: If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, would the outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic been any different than under Trump given America’s structural problems?
A: It would have been very different, and I am not fan of the Clintons. They were architects of the neo-liberal policies that have plunged this country into such distress. However, they remain rooted in verifiable fact and science in a way that Trump and his millions in the Christian right do not.
And I think the way to look at it is the difference between the lies — and the Clintons lie like they breathe in the same way Trump does. But those were tactical lies. For instance, (Bill) Clinton lied about all the great jobs he created — I think he threw out a number of four million new jobs under NAFTA, but he didn't continue to lie about NAFTA after it was clear that it was probably the worst assault on the American working class since the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
The same way with George W. Bush: He lied about weapons of mass destruction, but when the weapons of mass destruction were not uncovered in Iraq, he didn't continue to lie about that they were there.
That's the difference between Trump and the Christian right, which is, in essence, his base. That's the “permanent lie” — a fact, verifiable fact, evidence — none of that matters.
So, yes, I think it would be different.
If Trump wins, expect naked and frightening authoritarianism
Q: In regards to Trump getting re-elected or stealing the election, as it has been suggested he might, or not going anywhere, what will happen if he somehow remains in office?
A: Don't put anything past him. I don’t think anyone is, including the Democratic leadership. He will do anything: Whether that's voter manipulation — the Republican Party has long had a history of pretty egregious voter manipulation, erasing people from the rolls.
They've got this program where if you don't vote in the last election, you'll show up at the polling place and you have been erased from the voter rolls because you didn't vote, or you won't get your mail-in ballot, which is not even legal.
So, yeah, there are a series of mechanisms that they've already used and set in place, which Trump will attempt to employ.
If Trump wins, then I think you will see a very naked and frightening authoritarianism. Trump already functions for his followers as a cult leader. And remember, Trump gets a lot of money from the oligarchs because he carries water for them.
The American political system before Trump took office was a kleptocracy, but now you will see just wanton, undisguised pillage, which I think is already pretty evident within the Trump White House given the personal enrichment that he and his family have made off of the office and his catering to his fellow billionaire class without any kind of restraint.
Q: Have you been surprised at how little it seems that the Republican Party has done to try to control him?
A: No, because the policies of both parties, and we know this from the polls, they are wildly unpopular — the tax cuts, the catering to the oligarchic and the corporate elite, the endless wars, the destruction or assault on social services — none of it has any popularity. So politics has devolved in the United States to cultural wars, and the Republican Party long tied themselves, starting with Reagan, to this retrograde neo-Confederate, white nativist Christian right.
The party hierarchy, the Bushes, the Cheneys, look at (the Christian right) as the useful idiots. But what they didn’t realize is that (the Christian right) have the numbers and that one day the useful idiots will take over. And that's exactly what happened.
Pandemic shows American model doesn't work
Q: In the background is the health of the American empire and what Trump and the Republicans represent in regards to its health. How is the empire doing?
A: The fatal mistake on the part of the empire was the invasion of Iraq. Now we have nearly 20 years of warfare in the Middle East, which has cost tremendous suffering, hundreds of thousands of dead, millions displaced, seeing the creation of failed states, whether in Libya or northern Syria. And that's characteristic of all late empires, that they embrace or engage in military fiascos in a kind of desperate attempt to recover a lost glory or a lost hegemony.
I also think what's happening now in the United States around the pandemic is that it has exposed to the rest of the world that the American model doesn't work. We are unable to cope. There are very few countries, maybe Brazil, that have a worse track record than we do. We can’t cope with the pandemic.
So we can cope neither with a pandemic because of our for-profit health-care system, which is not about delivering health, but of course gouging the public. And we can't cope with the economic fallout, which is going to be — even by the government’s figures — extremely severe. So as this pandemic continues to hit us in wave after wave and just spirals out of control, we're now facing an estimated 300,000 American dead by December and 400,000 by January.
Tens of millions of people have already been thrown into destitution, the ruling elites are bickering over an extension of unemployment insurance, the moratorium on evictions has been lifted, which means that some 40 million Americans are at risk of being thrown out of their homes by the end of the year. Twenty-seven million Americans are expected to lose their health insurance because health insurance in the United States is tied to employment; it is employer-sponsored. And real figures of unemployment are probably 20 per cent, because they fix the figure.
The system was hollowed out anyway by corporations and oligarchic elite so that it couldn't withstand any stress, and that I think has been exposed (by the pandemic).
So the credibility of the American empire is embodied in a figure like Trump, embodied in the inability of the United States to cope with a pandemic.
Q: You mentioned the Iraq War, which brings up the issue of defence spending, which is now in excess of $738 billion US a year. How much of the fact that so much of the Treasury is spent on defence and not on infrastructure and health care plays a role in all of this chaos?
A: Huge, huge. This again is a characteristic of late empires. Go back and look at the Roman Empire, there was a one-million men standing army, and all of your resources are being funnelled into it.
The military in the United States is beyond control, it’s not even audited. (Editor's note: Since 1990, the Pentagon was audited twice — and failed both times.) Back in the 1960s, and early ’70s, you had liberals within the Democratic Party, which would fight against wasteful weapon systems. That is completely gone. They are completely subservient to the military industrial complex that is hollowing out the country from the inside — our bridges, our roads, our public transportation, our utilities. I live in Princeton, N.J., which is an enclave of the one per cent, and when it rains, the power goes out, and not only that, but the phone lines go down. It’s all falling apart.
And it's all falling apart to feed essentially this rapacious military complex and defence contractors. The only thing we make any more are weapons, and that's because it's not capitalism.
Democrats were never going to allow Bernie Sanders to win nomination
Q: With the Democratic Party, you've seen the emergence of a left represented by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a few others. But once more, an establishment candidate, Joe Biden, was chosen as the party’s nominee. What do you suppose happened and did the left ever really have a shot this time around?
A: No. The Democratic Party was never going to give Sanders the nomination, and the largest and most important Democratic donors and leaders had made that publicly clear — people like Lloyd Blankfein, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs, who had said several times quite openly that if Sanders got the nomination, which wasn't going to happen, he and the rest of the donor class of the Democratic Party were going to support Trump.
So they had fixed it so the super delegates, which are appointed by the Democratic National Committee and are composed of lobbyists and the Democratic Party leadership, could vote on the second round. So Sanders if had gotten enough votes on the first round, he would have been trounced in the second.
So it was organized to push out the other candidates and leave Biden alone. There were all sorts of tricks they used in 2016 that they used again in 2020.
But Sanders winning was never going to happen, and I think all the publicity around AOC obscures the fact that these people (on the left) are utterly irrelevant, both within Congress and within the Democratic Party.
Again, the two ruling parties agree on far more than they disagree on — whether it's on trade agreements or defence spending or austerity programs or tax cuts.
Biden essentially functions for the Democratic liberal elite as a kind of symbol of nostalgia for a return to what I call the pantomime of democracy. But the political rot that is now eating away at the nation is not going to be solved by elections.
And, by the way, (the political class has) already instituted all sorts of totalitarian forms of control, from wholesale government surveillance to the revoking of civil liberties, to the use of paramilitaries on the streets of our cities — these are all part of the twisted pathologies of all civilizations sputtering towards oblivion. And I saw this in the old communist regimes I covered in Eastern Europe and later in Yugoslavia.
So the removal of Trump isn't going to do anything. In fact, it'll probably exacerbate the lust for racial violence and white nationalism, because both parties have built a mafia economy and out of that, a mafia state. And that's going to continue under Biden as it did under Trump, under Barack Obama, under George W. Bush, under Bill Clinton, under Ronald Reagan — to give essentially carte blanche to corporations and oligarchs to pillage and loot.
Even if Biden wins, underlying problems in U.S. will remain
Q: If Biden wins in November, what does that mean?
A: It will restore the decorum of our version of monarchy, and it will restore the civic religion that is built around our government power. That's all. It may also bring with it a rational response to the pandemic. But remember, the pandemic may be beyond control by then.
The militarized police that terrorize people in poor neighbourhoods aren't going away. The endless wars, they're not going to end. The bloated military budget we just saw passed is not going to be reduced. The world's largest prison system — 2.3 million people incarcerated with four per cent of the world's population, we hold 25 per cent of the world's prison population — that will remain, along with militarized police, which are the two bulwarks of social control.
The manufacturing jobs are not going to return, the social inequality is already growing exponentially, the for-profit health-care system, which are huge donors to the Biden campaign, will continue to gouge the public and price millions of people out of the health-care system.
The language of hate and bigotry has already been normalized as the primary form of communications. So I think that what has happened in the United States is not solvable by an election, and my last book, America: The Farewell Tour, which comes out of (French sociologist Émile) Durkheim’s great work on his book on suicide, where Durkheim examined what drove individuals and societies to carry out acts of self-destruction and self-annihilation. And that's where you get his term “anomie.” Anomie is a rupturing of those social bonds, the bonds that give individuals a sense of having a place in a collective, in being engaged in a project that's bigger than the self.
And you find that once you consider yourself part of this collective and valued by this collective, you express it through rituals, elections, democratic participation, patriotism, all these shared national beliefs. And these bonds, as Durkeim writes, provide meaning, they give a sense of purpose, they give status, they give dignity. In essence, they offer psychological protection from the meaningless that comes with being isolated and abandoned, as well as impending mortality. And once you break these bonds, you push individuals and societies into very deep and self-destructive psychological distress. And that is writ large across the United States.
The self-destructive pathologies of opioid addiction, gambling, suicide, sexual sadism — the rise of armed white hate groups. Durkheim wrote that people who seek the annihilation of others, are driven by desires for self-annihilation, nihilistic mass shootings — this is all a product of this anomie, as is our political dysfunction. And that's not going away with Biden.
Police violence against African-Americans reveals system is beyond reform
Q: On top of all this, you've had the George Floyd murder and other African-Americans killed by the police. You’ve had the emergence of Black Lives Matter. What is the significance of the reaction to this police brutality?
A: Well, again, that's a product of this dislocation, this anomie, this shunting aside of poor people of colour and African-Americans and having a state that treats them as human refuse. And the two forms of social control, as I mentioned before, the prison system and these militarized police, what you've seen is a gaslighting on the part of the elite.
So you will have the police take the knee or NASCAR and the U.S. Marine Corps ban the display of Confederate flags, and Nancy Pelosi don a kente scarf and Biden meets with George Floyd’s family at his funeral, or the mayor of Washington, Muriel Bowser, has the words “Black Lives Matter” painted in 35-foot tall letters on a street near the White House. But at the same time, of course, she's proposed a $45-million increase to the police budget and the construction of a $500-million jail.
(But) I think that the gaslighting isn't working. It worked in the past, but it's not working anymore, and my sense is that those who are in the streets have come to the realization, the correct realization, that the system is beyond reform, that we can't reform the police. All these tricks — more body cameras, consent decrees, revised use of force policies, banning chokeholds, civilian review boards, banning no-knock search warrants, training de-escalation tactics — they've all been proposals that have been proffered in the past, and in several cases, have been adopted in the wake of other police murders, like the killing of Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
So again, it's the structure. Police unions are very powerful because they are big donors to political campaigns. And they have been able to push aside any reformers within the system, like community review boards, even mayors and police chiefs who are reformers.
So these are all smoke and mirrors, it's a pantomime of a faux anguish and empathy by the ruling elites. But I don't think people are buying it. I think my sense is that in the street, there's a kind of political sophistication, and that's why you see people calling for the abolition of police, not the reforming of police.
Q: The mainstream media, and especially outlets like FOX News, how are they covering all of this? Are they doing an adequate job, or does it depend? Or are they doing a terrible job?
A: They're not covering it. They cover the eruption of a crisis, but don't cover the issues. And that doesn't matter which wing of the media landscape you're in, including the New York Times.
I worked there for 15 years. It doesn't cover day in and day out the suffering and humiliation and economic distress that is now visited on half the country, and, in particular, poor people of colour in urban areas. And that’s because of their advertisers, they’re catering to their advertisers.
I think it's important to note that the media landscape has changed from when Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent (in 1988). It's changed quite radically.
You don't need the old print media to connect sellers with buyers. Sellers can go directly to buyers, they have all of our profiles, courtesy of our digital platforms. And so that whole notion of faux objectivity and impartiality is gone, and the media landscape is splintered into people who seek out their particular demographic, whether it's MSNBC or whether it's FOX News or Breitbart or whatever.
And in order to solidify that demographic, they have become purveyors of hate.
So you have a media that still, as Chomsky and Herman pointed out, manufactures consent, but it does this by setting group against group. And it does this by catering to the particular opinions and prejudices of that group, which are reinforced and then sold back to us. So it's kind of packaged anger just for us.
MSNBC does this, CNN does this, Fox does this.
And the danger is that as those divides widen, you can't communicate across them. And that's how you have huge sections of the country essentially cut off from each other, unable to communicate and entranced by the fake dissent of the cultural wars and conspiracy theories. It’s all become, especially the electronic media, kind of a tawdry reality show. Politics is reduced to political personality, civil discourse is defined by insults and invective, and meanwhile, the superstructure of power, of corporate power, is never examined and never challenged, and that creates political impotence among the populous.
So the media is a junior partner in the destruction of American democracy, and, of course, we're a huge factor in publicizing Trump — because he's good for profits. And that kind of moral swamp that the media has created is a very fertile place for demagogues like Trump.
America's billionaires are clueless of what is going on
Q: Do you think the corporate elites, the billionaire class –– are they worried about what's happening to the United States in any regard?
A: The billionaire class doesn't live in the United States, it lives in its self-created entity, as a writer for New Yorker magazine once called it, Richistan. They don't fly commercial airlines, they only hang out with other billionaires. You know, it’s like Versailles or the Forbidden City — they're just utterly disconnected from what's happening around them. They make insane amounts of money, and this pandemic has made them even wealthier.
So I think they're fairly clueless. I think they think Biden is the solution. They don't have any contact with the working class other than the people who serve them. So that's again, always very dangerous when you allow an elite to essentially seize complete political and economic power, and they are utterly disconnected from the reality around them.
If you read Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, where he looks at 24 civilizations that collapsed, he actually uses that phenomenon as one of the major reasons of collapse — the elite is essentially able to hoard so much. American billionaires have gotten almost $500 billion richer since the pandemic. And, of course, they're driving all the policies, and yet they really are clueless about what they're doing and where we're going.
Q: All of which leads to one question: Is America a failed state?
A: America is a failed state, and it is what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls the “system of inverted totalitarianism.” And by that he means it's not a classical totalitarian society like fascist Germany or Stalinism, it's more like the end of the Roman Republic where you still have the old language, the old institutions, the old iconography and symbols, but they're rendered meaningless. Even under Nero and Caligula there was still a Senate.
So that's what's happened. The facade has remained, but our democracy seized up and stopped functioning, beginning in the early 1970s, but certainly, I would say, going all the way back to Clinton. That's when it really kind of stopped working completely.
So you had Clinton — and Biden was at the epicentre of this — speaking in the traditional feel-your-pain language of the Democratic Party while assiduously serving corporate power. That was done, as I mentioned, through NAFTA, it was done through the 1994 omnibus crime bill that militarized the police and exploded the prison population, the deregulation of the Federal Communications Commission, which allowed a half-dozen corporations to seize control of the airwaves. The destruction of welfare was done under Clinton — and under the old welfare system, 70 per cent of the recipients were children — the ripping down of the firewalls between commercial and investment banks, which was the revoking of Glass-Steagall Act, all of this came under the Democratic Party.
So I think part of the problem was that betrayal by the Democratic Party elite saw the white working class gravitate towards the worst elements of the Republican Party — because that betrayal cuts so deep. And then we have the assault on unions. Only 11 per cent of the American workforce is unionized, and I think six per cent of them are in public sector — and most of them can't use the only weapon that workers have to further their interests, which is to strike.
So America has long been a failed state, and I've written book after book — Death of the Liberal Class, Empire of Illusion, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt — which were all reported all over the country essentially talking about the dangers of where we're headed. And, of course, now we're there.