Long before Donald Trump was dreaming of a White House with gold walls, back when the world’s hugest Twitter account was in its infancy, promoting a blustery businessman’s appearances on late-night television, the American journalist and author Chris Hedges was already lamenting the collapse of his country. As Americans celebrated their first black president, Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter as well as a Presbyterian minister, published 2009’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. His follow-up, Wages of Rebellion (2015), laid out the inevitability of revolt in the age of the Occupy movement and Arab Spring. His books skirt traditional left and right divisions, bringing a clear eye and righteous rage to his nation’s political and social ills. In the latest, America: The Farewell Tour, as befits the times, his arguments have taken on a fevered urgency.
As a novelist, critic, and, for the past four years, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, Charles Foran has also examined vital questions around culture and democracy in his work. Foran is the Governor General’s Award-winning author of eleven books including Mordecai: The Life & Times (2010) and the essay collection Join the Revolution, Comrade (2008), in which he brought his wit and lively intellect to explorations of cultural clashes in Asia, pornography’s effects, and the state of language. Foran spoke with Hedges via telephone in July.
Charles Foran: Let’s start with the title. Whose farewell tour is this?
Chris Hedges: The country’s.
Foran: Where’s it going?
Hedges: That’s what I spend most of the book writing about. It’s suffering the familiar pathologies of any diseased culture as it collapses.
Foran: Some of the antecedents you talk about, like the Roman Empire, took many centuries to collapse. Is that the trajectory here?
Hedges: No. I’m pretty clear in the book that we’re on the cusp of disintegration and I’m also clear that this has been a long process. That this is the culmination of a political, economic, and cultural deterioration.
Foran: If you had to assign a date to the onset, when might that be?
Hedges: It’s already the onset; anybody who drives across the deindustrialized heartland of the United States can see it. It’s quite visible and quite powerful.
Foran: I meant the onset of the farewell, if you will, if it’s well advanced. Are you talking post Second World War? Where would you begin tracking this?
Hedges: You mean the deterioration? It begins after the Second World War, but it’s accelerated over the 1960s and in particular the 1970s when we shifted, as the Harvard historian Charles Maier writes, from an empire of production to an empire of consumption—meaning that we could no longer afford to maintain a lifestyle or an empire, and began to fall into horrific debt peonage, both as a nation and then in terms of personal debt peonage. So it began in earnest in the 1970s, but it had its roots in the destruction of radical movements, the corporatization of the two major political parties, and the disemboweling of the economy by the military, which began immediately after World War Two. So it spans several decades.
Foran: A dimension of the book that is true to your work, but still may surprise some readers, is that you are very committed to reportage, very committed to sitting down with lots of different people in lots of different circumstances. What does that do for your thinking, those encounters with direct personal experiences? Why do you value so much talking to people about what’s been going on in their lives?
Hedges: Because I’m a reporter. There is only one way to understand the zeitgeist of any society or culture, and that’s stepping out into it and listening. No matter how prescient or intelligent you may be, you carry assumptions which are often, when pitted against reality, wrong. It also keeps your work fresh: you’re constantly discovering new things; you’re asking yourself new questions; you’re shattering the old paradigms. I think reporting is key rather than living off old capital. That’s why this book, like almost all of my books, is very heavily reported.
Foran: In contrast to many of the big idea books that don’t leave the office of the author, it seems to me, to their detriment.
Hedges: I like some of those books. I think the problem is that in the third or fourth book down the line, it’s hard to sustain. That is why so many scholars or academic writers echo themselves. If you’re writing about a contemporary society, even if you are an academic, you have to get out. Matthew Desmond’s book on evictions, Evicted, was very good. He’s an academic who now teaches at Princeton, but the whole book was written out of Milwaukee; it’s a fine piece of reporting.
Foran: In America: The Farewell Tour, you focus most of your interactions on people from marginal communities. Is that the only voice that you want to hear from in America?
Hedges: Well, I would argue that I focus on distressed communities, but they’re not all marginal. I write about sexual sadism—those people aren’t necessarily economically marginal. I write about gambling—a lot of those people come out of the middle class. So I’m looking for people who are victims of a dysfunctional society, and that often means the lower-income brackets of the society, but not always.
Foran: Yes, you report from a sadism conference held by a now-defunct website, and write about spending a day being taught extreme S&M practices. Tell me about the way the book breaks down by chapter: Decay, Heroin, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, and Freedom. Many of these could be described as behavioral pathologies. Is there an argument being made about the connection between specific pathologies and the larger cultural pathology of dysfunction?
Hedges: This comes out of Émile Durkheim. It is an understanding that when societies fragment and disintegrate, it destroys structures that give life coherence and meaning, and these pathologies are expressed in behaviours. And that’s really at the core of the book. That’s the opioid epidemic—and, again, the two women who are central in my chapter on opioids are not poor, they’re working class or middle class. All societies express their sickness in aberrant forms of behaviour. That’s the idea of the book: it’s a look at this behaviour and the root causes of it, and how it is endemic now throughout my country as it disintegrates. That is a familiar pathology in the decline of civilizations or empires, including, of course, the Roman Empire.
Foran: These things you discovered, observed, and reported on, are any of them exclusive to America in 2018? Aren’t most of those behaviorial dysfunctions findable anywhere in human history, pretty much?
Hedges: Sure, we live in an age of global corporatism, so these pathologies are existent in Canada and in other countries, but in the United States it’s more extreme, especially in terms of violence, mass shootings, nihilistic violence, and hate crimes. Part of that is due to lax gun control. I think that’s why the book has relevance for people outside the United States. I mean, Canada is not immune from any of this, but it’s not as advanced and it’s not as dangerous because Canada is largely a self-contained country, whereas the United States is an imperial power.
Foran: Tell me a little bit about the death instinct that you write about very powerfully.
Hedges: This is a culture that has embraced the death instinct. That’s what rampant militarism and the celebration of military and hyper masculine values is about. It is about crushing what Freud would call Eros, those forces that preserve, conserve, protect, and nurture life. The death instinct runs rampant through dying societies. Joseph Roth writes about this on the eve of fascism in Europe. So does Dostoevsky, of course. These societies willfully embrace forces of destruction because it’s all they can do, it’s all they have left, and they confuse destruction with creation.
Foran: How does America confuse destruction with creation at this precise moment?
Hedges: You see it in the Trump administration with the evisceration of the diplomatic pool and the belief that threats and coercion are a way to advance the American interest and the American agenda, when of course it’s completely self-destructive. This is what’s happened with the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are the final, fatal errors of this empire. Most empires make fatal errors: The Greeks invaded Sicily, their entire fleet was sunk, most of their soldiers were killed, and their empire disintegrated. The British attempted to take back Suez in 1956, and the empire was in a slow decline since the end of First World War, but that finished the empire. So you overreach.
An empire that is successful or is ascendant will actually use military force judiciously and carefully, and an empire that’s in decline will seek almost irrationally to use military force to return the country to a golden era—which is largely mythical—but a golden age that can’t be recovered. That very much explains this endless—almost seventeen years now—continuous war in the Middle East, that is disemboweling the American economy, that has created one failed state after another, and fueled radical jihadist movements throughout the region.
Foran: I’d like to come back to the end of empire in a second, but let’s first arc back just a little bit. Some of the challenges, complications, dysfunctions in any society, like the addictions and destructive behaviors, such as hate crimes, that you describe—do they look different in societies that aren’t in the spiral of a death instinct? In other words, do we see them through a different lens once we come to understand or accept your proposition that America is in its farewell phase?
Hedges: Well, they’re not as pervasive. Every society has dysfunctional segments that retreat into self-destructive pathologies. That’s part of human existence. But within the United States, it’s extremely widespread. It’s crippling to the health of a culture and of a civilization. Donald Trump is the exemplar of this—he’s the symptom; he’s not the disease.
Foran: Is the election of Donald Trump a manifestation of a death instinct?
Foran: You use the word totalitarianism, corporate totalitarian. I think of totalitarianism as a manifestation of an extreme form of government on the far left which demands—
Hedges: On the far left?
Hedges: What about fascism?
Foran: Fascism didn’t necessarily have the same ambitions to completely own the souls, hearts, heads, purses, schedules—
Hedges: No, it had the same ambitions; it had a different mechanism.
Foran: Okay, fair enough.
Hedges: Children at ten years old were taken away from their parents by the Nazi party, put into the Hitler Youth, and indoctrinated. All civic organizations came under control of the Nazis. The difference was that, unlike the state capitalism of communism, it [the Nazi government] had an uneasy alliance often with the powerful industrialists, the business class. And then you can argue that there is no coherent, real ideology to fascism, but its ambition was to control every aspect of society, without question.
Foran: Corporate totalitarianism, the kind that you now associate with the American government, does it have that wide, deep menu of ambitions and conscious intention?
Hedges: Yeah, it does. And it’s increasingly successful, whether it is in control of academia, control of the press—we have about a half dozen corporations that control everything most Americans watch or listen to. Sheldon Wolin used the term “inverted totalitarianism,” in that it’s not a classical form of totalitarianism, or at least not yet. So you have, as at the end of the Roman Republic, the facade of democracy, and the institutions of democracy, but internally the citizens are irrelevant and the corporations control all the levers of power, including, as we’re now watching, the Supreme Court, the judiciary, the executive, the legislative, as well as the fourth estate—the press.
There’s no space within the mainstream media in the United States to have even a discussion on corporate capitalism. Critics of imperialism and critics of corporate capitalism really have no place within the wider society to amplify their voices. At the same time the ideology of neoliberalism has collapsed; it doesn’t have any credibility. This is what got Trump elected; it’s what saw the insurgency of Bernie Sanders. So there has now been, in the last couple of years, an assault against these critics. You’ve seen the imposition of Google algorithms and Facebook algorithms that have diverted traffic away from left-wing sites where these views are expressed. You’ve seen the abolition of net neutrality, which will be used as a mechanism to further marginalize those sites.
Foran: My wife is American, and we were just in Milwaukee, and I was down in Philadelphia before that. Does it interest you that middle class white Americans don’t appear aware of what’s unfolding?
Hedges: Any totalitarian system or authoritarian system works quite actively to keep the populace ignorant. And we are, like all totalitarian societies, a society that does spectacle extremely well. All you have to do is turn on American television and it’s salacious, trivial crap, from everything you watch, whether it’s these talk shows or the news itself. A couple of weeks ago—I don’t own a TV—I was in the gym and it was showing a long discussion of Stormy Daniels, the porn star, and then they broke and had a roundtable on Roseanne Barr’s show. I mean this is CNN.
Foran: Yes, there it is: bread and circuses. I remember at the end of the Reagan era, a term emerged from people critical of the quiescent media and they called it “voluntary Pravda” in America, which was a quip about the Soviet Empire. We seem to be living in a deepening era of voluntary Google and voluntary Facebook and voluntary all kinds of—
Hedges: Right, and these institutions are closely linked with security and surveillance state.
Foran: Was 2008 a tipping point? The financial crisis and the bailouts of executives and the dire impact on regular Americans—was that for you the tipping point?
Hedges: The tipping point? In what sense?
Foran: Well, your book doesn’t see a clear
Hedges: There isn’t a clear way out of death. [chuckles] Empires, like individuals, don’t last forever, and we’re not an exception.
Foran: For you, was 2008—
Hedges: No, 2008 was I think the third financial dislocation just in this century—and the largest of the three—and we’re headed for another one. But I had long been a critic of corporate capitalism and I’d written about the trajectory of American decline before 2008.
Foran: You often cite John Ralston Saul’s “coup d’état in slow motion” comment about corporatism. Is this coup in faster motion? Or is it the usual pace?
Hedges: Well, it’s largely over. There aren’t any institutions left in America that can authentically be called democratic.
Foran: The middle class slipping into their own kind of distress—will that trigger something interesting or will it take the form of further supporting populism?
Hedges: Where we live right now is in a period of economic stagnation, but we will be hit with another financial crisis. And at that point there’s no plan B. They can’t lower interest rates any more than they’ve already lowered them—they are pretty much near zero. So what is the mechanism? They don’t really have a mechanism.
And then of course the death blow to the American empire is when the dollar is no longer the reserve currency. Then the economy contracts massively, the U.S. Treasury bonds aren’t worth anything, you can’t maintain the tentacles of military power around the globe, and then you’re finished. There’s no recovery from that. And it will be quite dramatic in terms of its economic and political effect. But that’s where we’re headed. When it comes—I’m not an economist; I don’t know—but I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s eventually coming. There are people like Alfred McCoy who put the date at 2030, and he’s a smart guy and I actually quote him in the book, but I’ve been a reporter too long, so I’ve seen the danger of making those kinds of predictions in terms of dates.
Foran: Would the eventual demographically driven erosion of whiteness be a potential positive turning point, a positive marker for America?
Hedges: We’re in the midst of that now. Trump has essentially created Trump’s White Man’s Party. That’s what the Republican Party has become. And the Democratic Party…The political divide in the United States has been reduced to the people who are overtly racist and bigoted, and those who do not want to be identified as racists or bigots. That’s really the only difference left.
Foran: Those would be interesting voting categories, wouldn’t they?
Hedges: That’s what it’s come down to. Because both parties are assiduously tied to corporate power and militarism. Nobody in the Democratic Party establishment is talking about restoring civil liberties or cutting subsidies for the fossil fuel industry or anything else.
Foran: But could you see anything good coming out of a different power alignment due to the erosion of whiteness? Or is it too late?
Hedges: You mean demographically, when whites become a minority? Well, Barack Obama served the interests of American imperialism and Wall Street as enthusiastically as George W. Bush, in fact Obama’s assault on civil liberties was worse than Bush’s. The system has been quite adept at pushing forward faces of colour, or differences in gender: Hillary Clinton gave us the dysfunctional state of Libya and was an enthusiastic supporter of the wars in the Middle East. So the eventual demographic shift away from a white majority is not going to substantially in and of itself affect the structures of corporate power. Diversity has proven to be quite an effective con game in the hands of the establishment. It’s like colonialism: if there’s a real revolutionary, like Patrice Lumumba, he’s assassinated and replaced with Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who dances to the tune the Belgians play.
Foran: What about a substantial contribution of differently configured people by gender, race, background? Would that not maybe help?
Hedges: It doesn’t make any difference; it depends what systems they serve. Harvard had its first woman president, Drew Faust, and days within leaving office she joined the board of Goldman Sachs. We need people who have political ideas. Diversity, gender, multiculturalism—these have nothing to do with politics. They’re cultural issues, and I’m not opposed of course to including the voices, but we need clear political vision. Diversity isn’t going to help us. It hasn’t helped us.
Foran: America: The Farewell Tour comes close to calling for and maybe does actually call for the overthrow of a corporate totalitarian government. What might that look like?
Hedges: It looks like [the Dakota Access pipeline protests at] Standing Rock. It looks like the student protests in Montreal. Sustained civil disobedience: that’s the only mechanism we have left to push back against the corporate state.
Foran: In the book you describe deindustrialization, social inequality, as “the malaise that affects America” and note that it is also global. What would you recommend to your neighbour to the north as far as what can be done here in Canada to stave off—
Hedges: It doesn’t matter what I recommend to Canadians because we’ve provided a clear example of what you shouldn’t do, and ten years later Canada always does it for reasons that I can never figure out. I mean…Don’t let them underfund your healthcare system. Don’t let them corporatize or underfund your universities so students go into deep debt. Don’t let the fossil-fuel industry destroy your environment and in particular your water. But you’re doing it all. It’s a little better under Trudeau, but Harper was destroying the CBC the same way public broadcasting was destroyed in the United States, and public broadcasting should be a place for people who don’t work for any power structure. The CBC is still far healthier than public broadcasting in the States, but those pressures are as real in Canada as they are here.
Foran: You published a book. It’s a good-sized book, it took you a while to write it, it’s coming out in in hard copy. Simply because of your age and your own relationship with the written word, are you still content with making your arguments in this form? And I ask that both because of the digital age and because of the pace of events—you cite Justice Anthony Kennedy’s resignation as something you won’t have in there because it happened last week or whatever. How are you managing to balance how you want and need to express and think—
Hedges: It’s not a book that is tied to political immediacy in any way. I don’t believe that you can fully understand systems of power any other way than by reading. I don’t think you can understand how a capitalist economy works unless you read the first volume of [Marx’s] Capital. I remain rooted in that print-based culture, and I wrote about this in Empire of Illusion, because it is the most effective mechanism for giving yourself both a vocabulary and an understanding of how power works. I also was a New York Times reporter, so I watched power. I have a TV show, so I do use other media. I write a column on the internet, so I don’t exclusively write books. I have no illusions in terms of the decline of the reading public, but I write for another reader like myself.