Misery's Reply: A Conversation with Chris Hedges on Religion, Poverty, and Crime

Jeremy Brunger I Society & Culture I Interview I July 8th, 2015

This conversation took place on Sunday, July 5th, 2015. This transcript has been lightly edited to maintain the clarity of conversation. An audio version of the interview may be accessed at https://www.mediafire.com/?1otx00pg393aol9 .

Brunger : Hello, Mr. Hedges.

Hedges : Hi, how are you?

Brunger : Hi there, I am quite well. Again, this is Jeremy with The Hampton Institute and I'm calling to interview you about a certain set of questions that I hope you have the time for, and the patience for, as well. So, are you ready to begin?

Hedges : Are you taping?

Brunger : Yes, I am.

Hedges : Okay, good. All right, go ahead.

Brunger : The main point of my analysis that I want to try to understand is how you think that it is, I suppose I could say, "intellectually valid" to synthesize certain elements of the Marxist critique in with the Left Protestant critique; and I'm just curious to see if you have any words to say about that, because I live in the South, and usually the kind of Protestant critique we have in the South is woefully removed from any of the elements of class struggle, issues of poverty, and materialist class politics.

Hedges : You live in the Southern United States?

Brunger : Yes, I live in Knoxville right now, and I'm from Nashville.

Hedges : Well, I'm not a Marxist, nor am I a serious scholar of Marx in any way, and yet, I don't think that it's possible to grasp the nature of capitalism without reading the first volume of Marx's Capital. I mean, you can argue, as I do, about where we go from there or the kind of state that will be set up to replace the capitalist state, but I don't think anyone has equaled Marx's understanding of the dynamics of capitalism. And that's why at least that analysis is foundational to my own understanding of how capitalism works, and more importantly, where capitalism is going. Because I think Marx also understood that.

Brunger : I've heard that before from certain of my professors who say that essentially Marx sort of invented the paradigm of capital which even orthodox economists have to use. They might be anti-Marxist, especially during the Cold War era whenever we were still facing the USSR and its power blocs, but I mean, your answer certainly makes sense to me, because I've heard it before. And it makes more sense than just having this kind of knee jerk reaction to saying, "Oh this is a socialist critique, therefore it's bad or it's invalid."

Elsewhere you talk about, in your book Empire of Illusion, you rail against the media complex that we have in the US and one of your chief critiques seems to be that it's just a method for distracting people from actual social issues. And to me that, again, seems pretty astute and it seems to mirror the Marxist aesthetician Theodor Adorno's, of the Frankfurt School, his classic critique of how the media complex keeps capitalism going, by convincing people that they can fetishize themselves through bad art, so on and so forth, and be opiated by art. And you give an example-Reality TV-and I was just wondering if you think that if the media is going to change in that regard, or if it's still going to be some kind of polluting part of the superstructure that we might need to do away with.

Hedges : No, it's not going to change. Because it's owned by large corporations that have a vested interest in perpetuating the tawdry and the fallacious, as well as the cult of self, which is really what Facebook is about. What will happen in the media is what's always happened, and that is that real critics and real journalists who exist on the margins will shame the commercial media at a certain point into doing their jobs. That's what happened with Ramparts in the 1960s. Ramparts never made any money, but Ramparts exposed COINTELPRO and atrocities in Vietnam; so you know that's the dynamic that's always been true within the capitalist democracy, where the media is dependent on the elites for access and money in order to survive.

What we're seeing of course with that new press is that monopoly that newsprint had- connecting sellers with buyers-is gone. Now, you know, they have sophisticated profiles of all of us, courtesy of the internet, and so the traditional media is dying away. And it's not being replaced with anything that is financially sustainable. And that's frightening because it only perpetuates the process of turning news into a system of entertainment, info-entertainment, because that's the only thing that generates advertising dollars. That's why you've seen such a corrosion of television journalism; and I would argue at this point there is no journalism on television. Everything is measured in terms of ratings and in terms of its ability to attract viewers and to entertain. There is no journalistic integrity left.

So what we're seeing is actually a deterioration. I worked in newspapers for a long time and I have been very critical of them. In my book Death of the Liberal Class I write quite a bit about the failures of the commercial press and yet they have reporters in the state house, reporters in the courts, reporters in the police: that's vanishing. So you don't even have that check anymore on public institutions. I would say not only is it not getting better, it's getting worse.

Brunger : So the role of technology seems to be important in that process because I can talk to older people-again, myself, I'm just 23-so I don't have the life experience that you older folks might have. But I've heard from older folks that the American psyche has been changed by, as you say, the cult of the self and the internet, and people were giving the same critiques against cable television in the 1980s. They were saying this would fundamentally change how we think about the civic life. How, with cable television, you can turn into a kind of echo chamber, where you only hear what you want to hear, and there's no penetrating that sphere of knowledge, and somebody who does want to know how the world works might attain. So this is why you get your critique of right wing talk radio and presumably a critique of left wing comedy because it seems to be this echo chamber.

There's no real middle ground any more. And you talk to these people who are interested in politics and it's always from the left or from the right. There's a real bipolarity there, what Terry Eagleton called schizophrenia in one of his books about traveling to America. And I'm curious if there's any middle ground to be had, is it to be with a moderate sourcing or is it just to, I don't know, to engage more in dialogue with people who are not like yourself and who do not think like yourself. Because it hardly exists anymore.

Hedges : You can't engage in dialogue unless there's an acknowledgment of what is verifiable fact. And when you have image-based media outlets that are driven primarily by emotion, and don't have any concern for verifiable fact at all, then you can't have any kind of a dialogue. And this is part of the severance of a print-based culture, or a culture rooted in ideas. It certainly began with radio. Radio was a very destructive force culturally, because once you started broadcasting music, all of the local venues in Appalachia and everywhere else-people didn't go anymore. And it became a uniformity of opinion, a uniformity of ideas, furthered of course by television and cinema. And today with video games, the internet, hand held devices, and social media, it's crowded out the vital world of print because ideas are finally only transmitted through print. They're not transmitted over electronic systems of information, you have to read books. But nobody reads books anymore.

And that creates a kind of vast historical amnesia. Some people may read the news out of the Middle East, but they've never heard of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, they don't understand what Israel did in 1948, they don't grasp the long tension between Iraq and Iran, and the power balance. I mean there's no context for news anymore. And that of course has made it far easier for the power elites to manipulate public opinion, because without that context-people in essence are blind. They don't know what's going on.

Brunger : Exactly. I recall, I was still a child whenever the War on Terror began in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of the people I knew and grew up around, they didn't even know what Islam was, because there was no context. They lived in what John Gray calls an "eternal present" once you're severed from the historical imagination...

Hedges : That's right. They still don't know about Islam.

Brunger : Well, yeah. Well, some people do. There's been a small push to at least understand that there are different cultures out there besides whatever is in Appalachia. Which is a small step forward considering we still don't even agree on gun control or basic issues like that...So you kind of assign the historical role of the revolutionaries to the working class, which is the same thing that Marx did, because you seem to have almost a classically Christian concern for the poor and those without power and those who are sick, which I would say comprises most of Americans whether or not they know it. I would certainly argue there is a strong false consciousness.

The poor do not think that they are poor and who live in misery by any other standards and yet would of course vote conservative and identify with the spectacle waved beneath them, or before them rather, like the wealthy Bush family, so on and so forth, and other dynasts. I'm curious, what is your opinion on the link between religion as we have it in the South and that's of course spread to the rest of the country, through the conservative political machine, and the real material conditions of existence: poverty, lack of access, hatred, degradation?

Hedges : I wrote a book on the Christian right called American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. And they're Christian heretics. The whole idea that Jesus came to make us rich or bless the American empire is heretical. You don't have to go to Harvard Divinity School, as I did, to figure that out. And the failure's on the traditional churches, they didn't name these people for what they were, and they gave them a kind of credibility they shouldn't have. And so what that brand of religion has done is to fuse the iconography and language of the Christian religion with the iconography and language of the state and with the engines of American capitalism. It sacrilized the most venal elements within American society and has done so quite effectively because it preys on people's despair. And on their yearning for a better life. With the false promise that through magical thinking, Jesus will come and take care of them.

And that's why the most retrograde forces of American capitalism are so enthusiastic about the Christian Right, because if Jesus is going to protect you, you don't need health insurance, you don't need a labor union, you don't need a living wage. So it's been a deeply destructive force, generated out of the South where a lot of economic despair resides, but it's certainly pervasive now throughout the entire country. And you know traditional journalism is to give voice to those who, without your presence, would not have a voice; that's why we have journalism. It's not even a religious tenet, necessarily. Journalism is not about amplifying the voice of the powerful or celebrities. Then you're a courtier, you're not a journalist.

Brunger : Right. I've heard some of the same critiques applied to the professoriat in the universities who, rather than doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is offering critique from outside the box of how society is going, the so-called ivory tower should not always be ivory, right? But then you hear talk about how the "mandarins and eunuchs" are simply pursuing a job. I've seen this in certain of my professors at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville where some of them were actually brave enough to say "yes, I'm a Marxist and I do not like anything that I see," and others were simply quiet about it, or they would say that student debt is okay, because hey, you're not living in poverty, even though the vast cohort of my generation is.

My mother is a waitress. I come from nothing, pretty much. And I don't like being told that being a debt serf for potentially my entire life is an acceptable way to live life. It's insulting to me personally, and it's sad-I've actually written about this for Truthout-that it's going to produce vast cohort effects, and you're going to have part of the generation of young people who already were disadvantaged by attending horrible high schools, and God knows what else they come from, and to be able to just have a basic way to live life, they're going to pay that forever to the state. That seems to me to be ludicrous but it's unfortunately what we've allowed to happen.

Hedges : Well, it's what's been done to us. But that's a long history. Our radical movements have been destroyed. Our liberal institutions have been deconstructed, we've undergone corporate coup d'etat. Most Americans don't want most of this happening to them. Most Americans don't want to lose their privacy. They don't support these wars, they don't support NAFTA or the TPP, they don't support section 10-21 of the International Defense Authorization Act, they didn't want the bailouts of 2008. It doesn't matter what we want. Corporate power has seized internally all the levers of control. And that means we have to rebuild mechanisms of power to push back which are radical movements that defy both the Democrat and Republican parties. Otherwise things are only going to get worse and worse and worse. Debt peonage is a classic form of social control, as any African American understands, and as you quite correctly point out, that is what we have done to a couple generations of university graduates. It's cruel and it's unfair and it's going to cripple many, many lives-it already is.

Brunger : Yeah, I would certainly argue that and in your book Empire of Illusion you actually began it in a pretty interesting way by linking the WWE to our current American problem with how we view the media and how we perceive the world around us. Of course, I grew up watching this stuff-it is a kind of crude entertainment form I'm glad I grew out of. Some of my friends still have not. And you link, using classic propaganda theorists like Le Bon, whose book on the psychology of crowds I actually enjoyed even though it's quite old by now, and you link the dysfunctional economy to dysfunctional families. And in Marxist terms we might say that this breeds a dialectic. In liberal terms we might say it breeds a relationship, a self-reinforcing relationship between a failing economy and failing families.

Now I grew up in an area in South Nashville where a great many families were destitute and obliterated. Misery- like most people that I met at university, cannot even imagine, because they're the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers and so forth. Whereas most of the people that I grew up around were on government assistance from birth possibly to death, and drugs were rife in the community, gun violence was rife, we came from an area where a lot of Kurdish and other war-refugees were residing who were actually the best behaved out of all of us. And I cannot escape the sense that growing up in poverty gives you a more realistic view of life than growing up somewhere in the suburbs where you have two parents, both of whom have good capital incomes or at least credit cards, and you just kind of develop this fantasy bubble around yourself. And this is why, myself, whenever the poor say something, I would tend to give it more credence than if it were not coming from the poor. While both certainly can be deluded, I would say that poor people have a better, if bleaker, more realist view of life provided they're not completely swept up in false religion and so on and so forth.

Hedges : Well, I wouldn't romanticize the poor. I don't think you can understand the nature of power unless you have close contact with those who are oppressed by power. That's why the black prophetic tradition has the best critique of empire, because the African Americans were oppressed internally by empire. And yet, and Louis Fernand Celine kind of made a living out of this, the poor, because the suffering they endure, the despair they struggle with, the remotelessness, are often prey for forces that seek to anesthetize them either physically or ideologically. So I don't think you can have an understanding of power unless you walk into the prison system, or you spend time as I have in cities like Camden, which per capita is the poorest city in the United States.

On the other hand, poverty, which is the greatest of all crimes, has the capacity to destroy not only communities and families, but you know, individual psyches and lives, to the extent that people become, because of the crushing poverty and forces used to maintain systems of inequality, they become crushed. And I think that is what we're seeing in larger and larger numbers. And that's why groups like the Christian Right, the Tea Party, the lunatic fringe of the Republican party, the Neo-Confederacy movement, it's all gaining ground, because it's really preying on that despair. I mean all these Confederate memorials are new, they've all gone up in the last decade or two. People have nothing else-they don't have any jobs, they don't have any hope, they don't have any future, and they cling to this mythic past to define themselves the same way that, after the economic collapse in Yugoslavia, Serbs and Croats clung to a mythic past to define themselves because there was nothing else in their lives.

Brunger : Exactly. I think Peter Gay, the theorist of Enlightenment from the 1960s, used to call that "mythopoeisis," or the creation of myth. Whenever you have nothing else, you do exactly what you just said, and you create myth or you falsely cling to one that never really existed in material reality to begin with. Again, I've seen a lot of swastikas in Knoxville, I've seen a lot of Confederate flags in Knoxville, and people who defend these things don't actually have any clue of what they're defending, but they're living in misery. And they don't have the context, or the analytical tools to recognize why they're living in despair.

So you have people on second-generation welfare who hate the government and yet don't recognize that the government is why they're still alive to begin with. Again I would point out there's false consciousness afoot, and whenever people are falsely conscious of things that actually hurt them rather than help them in this journey of life, then I would say that yes, you have a damn big problem to fix.

Hedges : I think that's correct.

Brunger : Okay, so I won't touch on the recent spate of church burnings, because I don't want to get into that, and I told you that I wouldn't talk about that Roof character. But I am curious about, while we're on it, the topic of crime. My uncle was killed in prison when he was 19 years old. He went there for small petty theft and he was shivved to death by a knife, or a makeshift knife, decades ago. So I have some knowledge of prison, I suppose you can call it a prison industry, and you're critical of it in some of your work, and I'm curious if you have anything to say about the prison industry and if it represents what Marx thought whatever we do with surplus labor.

Hedges : That's right. It's a classic Marxist understanding of what you do with surplus labor. So you have the bodies of poor people of color who are unable to enter a profit, since there's no manufacturing, either because it's been moved overseas or been mechanized for corporate power, unless they're locked in cages where they can generate forty or fifty thousand dollars a year. So that's why we have the largest prison system in the world, 25% of the world's prison population, 5% of the world's population, and that's why nothing is going to be changed in a significant way within mass incarceration until we break the back of neo-slavery, which is the engine of that incarceration. And that means that prisoners have to organize and carry out work stoppages and so either compensated labor is brought in to work in the prison, because prisoners do all the work for the prison, or prisoners are paid the minimum wage. Nothing will change in the prison system until then.

Brunger : Right, I think that if you're actually in a federal prison then you pretty much have to pay your own way, or have family contribute, so that even if you want to call somebody on the phone you still have to have credits in your account to be able to do that.

Hedges : I mean that's true in every prison in the US. Private, Global Tel Link runs the phone service, rates are four to five times higher than they are on the outside, everything is privatized, the commissaries are privatized, the money transfer service is privatized. You have now, I think, in Mississippi they charge you if they taze you, 26 dollars for each tazing, and about half of county jails are beginning to charge people room and board. And you have families, the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, going under. And that is the predatory nature of unregulated capitalism, so in poor counties like St. Louis county, the municipality where Ferguson is, that have to raise 30 to 40 percent of their budgets off of fines, they just will fine you for anything. Not mowing your lawn, for standing on the street for more than five seconds-that's a real crime.

And if you can't pay it, there are warrants for your arrest, so that's why if you get stopped because your tail light is out, it's not just your tail light, it means you're going to jail, you get out, you run, they shoot you in the back. I mean the system's unraveling, and you can get a nice window into what they want, by looking at the prison system because there's a model worker. You have corporations moving into all sorts of prisons because they make 22 cents an hour. In states like Alabama they don't even pay the prisoners. But if you work for the prison industry you make what a sweatshop worker earns in Bangladesh. And you can't unionize, there's no collective bargaining, if you complain you're sent to solitary, companies don't have to pay benefits. And that's why I wrote Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, to look at these sacrifice zones, places where there are no impediments to corporate capitalism, because we've all become one sacrifice zone. And I think it's for the same reason you want to look at what corporations are doing in prisons: because that's the model.

Brunger : That's a very interesting insight because, I mean they do seem to be the perfect workforce. You have to do what your employer tells you to do or you're put in solitary, and there's no profit to be made, there's no shaving off from the profit margins. And that doesn't seem to me to be an over the top critique. It seems to me like a logical extension of how we think of neoliberal capitalism. But okay, so we are coming up on the half hour mark, and I don't want to take up too much of your time. So I'll just end with one question about the quote from Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist theorist of revolt who wrote his notebooks on fascism while starving half to death in a fascist prison. And one of his most famous remarks is that we must have "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will." Correct?

Hedges : Yeah.

Brunger : In regards to the intellect, you know that people don't read anymore. I certainly do, my major is English literature so I would hope that I do that, but as far as the will goes, what kind of political will is there in America besides just the typical Democratic-Republican split, which you point out is just essentially "do you want Left capitalism or Right capitalism." If there is any kind of progressive political will, where will it come from?

Hedges : You have to go back to Gramsci again where he writes about the interregnum where you have a moment when people lose faith in the ideology and systems of power. I think that's half of it. But they have yet to define an alternative vision, what will take place. And that's always been chaotic, and even frightening period, as Gramsci acknowledges. And that's where we are. There is a deep disquiet across the political spectrum about the systems of power and about neoliberal elite ideology which is used to legitimize it. But people haven't figured out what to do. And so it's like what Alexander Burkman says in his essay "Invisible Revolution," and at that moment-we live in a state where congress has a 7% approval rating-and that moment is like water boiling in a kettle. So nobody sees it until they hear the whistle and the steam pops out. And that's what he means by invisible revolution; and I think that's where we are.

How long that will take-there are powerful proto-fascist movements that offer America a frightening vision-I don't know. But in terms of political will I think that if the ruling elites realize they're losing credibility-which is why they're churning more naked forms of oppression, the security and surveillance state, militarized police, the rewriting of the Constitution to take away our rights by judicial fiat-that's all about giving them control, the physical control they need, because the ideological control isn't working anymore.