Will it even matter if Donald Trump is impeached? - Macleans.ca
Pretending the world isn't bleak feeds the mania for unreal hope that exists within American culture, argues Chris Hedges
by Brian Bethune
Aug 29, 2018
The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Adrian Lee)
Chris Hedges—Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, ordained Presbyterian minister, ferocious anti-corporate activist and prolific author—has long occupied an isolated spot among American public intellectuals, as much a moral crusader as a political critic. But as American, and Western, politics continue to decay and xenophobic nativism continues to rise, Hedges, 61, seems less and less an outlier, his critique of contemporary America more acceptable to his countrymen. And that’s without walking back any of his analysis. If Hedges was worried nine years ago in Empire of Illusion that his nation—like all republics before it—would fail to survive the acquisition of an empire, he’s now convinced it won’t. The title of his newest book, America: The Farewell Tour, says it all. In powerfully reported chapters—including “Decay” (deindustrialization), “Heroin” (the opioid epidemic), “Sadism” (the ography-industrial complex), and “Hate” (racism)—Hedges talks to the most oppressed and dispossessed citizens of an empire he thinks has not much more than a decade of life left.
Q: A very bleak and wide-ranging report. The Farewell Tour is, in its way, the antithesis of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.
A: That book is the modern version of Candide. I mean it is completely unplugged from reality. Pinker, who has spent his life in academic gardens like Harvard, just doesn’t understand what societies look like when they break down. I’ve been there. I’m not an academic. I was primarily a war correspondent for 28 years. Pinker doesn’t get the dark side of human nature and how technology has, in degenerated societies, accelerated the power to commit wholesale slaughter. People love his book. It’s what they want to hear. But it’s not real.
Q: Yet he is correct that much of the world, especially in Asia, has been lifted out of poverty in the last generation.
A: But consider income inequality in China. It’s massive—there’s now a Chinese oligarchy just like the ones in the rest of the world. China is buying up half of Vancouver—what’s that town north of Vancouver that’s becoming the largest Chinese-speaking city outside of China? Richmond? To somehow measure wealth by GDP is a mistake. Having worked in places, especially Africa, in vast urban slums, I know the poverty is worse [than it was] for people who at least had subsistence agriculture before. So the whole measurement of wealth is wrong. The rise of global oligarchic classes with obscene amounts of money doesn’t mean the world’s richer. Not unless you read Thomas Friedman.
Q: You argue from a socialist perspective…
A: I’m not an ideologue. I once gave a talk in a Canadian university—I think it was the University of Winnipeg—some place where you can still hire Marxist economists. That doesn’t happen in America. Anyway, I finished my talk and one of the members of the economics department who had been sitting in the back stood up and said to the students, “I just want to make it clear that he’s not really a socialist, he’s a radical Keynesian.” Which actually is true. He wasn’t wrong. I’m not a Marxist. I read Marx and I think Marxist critique and understanding of capitalism is absolutely vital and true and probably the greatest critique we have. If I were running a hedge fund, I would only hire Marxists because they understand that capitalism is about exploitation, the maximization of profit and reducing the cost of labour. I think sometimes, to put it in Canadian vernacular, I’m a Tommy Douglas socialist.
Q: I think “perspective” still works here, given you don’t see any difference between the purported liberal and conservative parties in the U.S. or in the rest of the developed world.
A: Put it this way: nations have lost control of their own economies, in essence. So it doesn’t matter what people want. There is no way to vote against the global interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. You can’t do it. And this, of course, is what has created political crises. The result is anger and authoritarian populist figures like Orbán in Hungary and the leaders of the current Polish government, and similar strong movements in France, Germany, Italy. This is a global phenomenon of which Trump is a part. But there’s an important difference. America is an empire. So we’re much more fragile than nation-states, non-imperial countries.
Q: And much more dangerous. You cite historians who note how rising empires tend to be judicious in their use of military force, while declining empires are prone to wild swings of the bat to try to stay on top.
A: Yes, much more dangerous. You see that throughout history: the ancient Greeks invading Sicily, and their entire fleet sunk, thousands of soldiers killed and their empire becoming unsustainable; or in 1956 when Britain tries to invade Egypt after the nationalization of the Suez Canal, retreats in humiliation and thereby triggers a financial crisis and the end of the pound sterling as a reserve currency, marking the death of the British Empire, which had been on a slow descent since the end of World War One. The dollar as the world’s current reserve currency is running on fumes. The moment that’s over, American financial supremacy is instantly finished. It will be very similar to the aftermath of the Suez disaster—something like that is always characteristic of late empire. And the fragility of an empire means that when collapse comes it’s almost instantaneous. You look back at the rapid final fall of the old Soviet Union. A failing empire is like a house of cards that just comes down—it’s not a slow descent. We know from history what happens. It’s not a mystery.