Yesterday, my son and husband were extremely excited to be able to get Netflix on their iPhones. Meanwhile, I was on the last chapter of Chris Hedges latest book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle which makes me a bit hesitant to add Netflix to my iPhone. (Not to mention David Lynch’s admonition against watching a film on a telephone.)
I appreciate Hedges arguments. I’m just not quite sure what to make of his conclusion that we are on the fast track to totalitarian rule.
Hedges claims that a growing majority of us are living in a fantasy world thanks to the increasing oligarchical rule of corporate America. For instance, we are obsessed with a celebrity culture. The fame of celebrities disguises those who posses true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite. Hedges says it is as though we are controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid figures on Plato’s cave, and it is a fantasy that is specifically designed to keep us from fighting back. Hedges calls reality shows like Big Brother “a celebration of a surveillance state”. People are increasingly willing to be placed on round-the-clock video monitoring and this is problematic. The use of hidden cameras in these shows reinforces the notion that not only is it normal, it is enviable, to be constantly watched. You, too, can have celebrity fame simply by being willing to have cameras on you 24/7. Constant surveillance used to be something we feared. By manipulating our fascination with celebrity, the elite have made it seem like something we want.
Meanwhile, we are experiencing an epidemic of illiteracy in North America. Nearly 1/3 of us are illiterate or barely literate and this number grows by 2 million people a year. 42% of college graduates don’t read another book for the rest of their lives! (Statistics are similar in both Canada and the United States.) Instead, we are bombarded with spectacle. Hedges finds this extremely disturbing because he says it hasn’t been since the fascist dictatorships or maybe the authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages that content has been so ruthlessly and skillfully controlled. We are allowing propaganda to be a substitute for ideas and ideology.
Hedges says that our faith in illusions has become a secular version of being born again…
These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate. The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.
As an example of the cruelty of the corporate state, Hedges turns to the pornography industry. There are 13,000 porn films made every year in the United States, most of these in the San Fernando Valley. In 2006, porn revenues exceeded $97 billion which is more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink combined. Porn is very lucrative to large corporations like General Motors and AT&T that receive 80% of all porn dollars spent by consumers (through DIRECTV, Adult Pay Per View, etc.)
Porn is becoming increasingly mainstream, and it is also becoming far more cruel than it has ever been. Women endure horrible acts of degradation and extreme violence. Porn has always been about male power, but today it is about the expression of male power through the physical abuse and torture of women. Hedges quotes Robert Jensen who wrote, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.
What does it say about our culture that cruelty is so easy to market? What is the difference between glorifying violence in war and glorifying the violence of sexual domination? I think that the reason porn is so difficult for many people to discuss is not that it is about sex – our culture is saturated in sex. The reason it is difficult is that porn exposes something very uncomfortable about us. We accept a culture flooded with images of women who are sexual commodities. Increasingly, women in pornography are not people having sex but bodies upon which sexual activities of increasing cruelty are played out. And many men – maybe a majority of men – like it.
Hedges says that porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our culture. Porn is now fused with the mainstream commercial industry and has evolved to its logical conclusion. “It first turned women into sexual commodities and then killed women as human beings.” It’s no wonder we don’t blink when hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan are killed. It’s no wonder we can throw our mentally ill out onto the street, imprison millions of our youth for non-violent drug crimes, and deny health care to the poor. According to Hedges, “The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”
Hedges turns from the mainstream cruelty inherent in the porn industry to America’s elite universities which have become overly specialized and reliant upon the corporate hierarchy. Hedges says that the development of specialized vocabularies amongst so-called experts in these specialized fields are meant to thwart universal understanding. “It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny specialized fragments. This allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions.”
Hedges claims that the bankruptcy of our economic and political senses can be traced directly to an assault against the humanities. By neglecting the humanities, the elite have been allowed to organize education and society around predetermined answers to predetermined questions. “Students are taught structures designed to produce these answers even as these structures have collapsed.” Those in charge “have been trained only to find solutions that will maintain the system…They have forgotten, because they have not been taught, that human nature is a mixture of good and evil. They do not have the capacity for critical reflection.”
Universities are becoming nothing more than glorified vocational schools for the corporations, and must adopt the values and operating techniques of the corporations they serve. “The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience. It has created an elite class of experts who seldom look beyond their tasks and disciplines to put what they do in a wider, social context. And by absenting themselves from the moral and social questions raised by the humanities, they have opted to serve a corporate structure that has destroyed the culture around them.” Ironically, the universities are training students for vocations that will soon no longer exist because “they have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained.”
Hedges views the Positive Psychology as a further method of corporate control. He says, “Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis… It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed. Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan.” This is an interesting argument and one I hadn’t fully considered previously. I’ve liked what I’ve read of Positive Psychology, but I haven’t paid attention to how it is being used within corporations.
Hedges says that it’s use within corporations, makes it possible to claim that those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes are somehow ill when they may have a legitimate claim to their negative attitudes (lack of appropriate pay, insufficient health care, over worked, etc.) Positive psychologists often make arrogant, vague claims using a religious tone. They have learned to manipulate social behavior and by promoting social harmony under the guise of achieving happiness, they have designed a mechanism for conformity.
According to anthropologist Laura Nader, most oppressive systems of power, including classical Western colonialism and proponents of globalization, make use of the idea of social harmony as a control mechanism. Nader claims that the drive for harmony always lends itself to covert censorship and self-censorship. The tyranny of harmony, when pushed to an extreme, leads to a life of fantasy that shuts out reality. It slowly dominates and corrupts the wider culture. (Again – think Brave New World!)
Hedges says, “The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion…Here in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain. Here, we are all happy.”
So what is to become of us? Hedges thinks our future is bleak. “Never before has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over.” And there is little President Obama can do to stop it. It’s been in the making for decades and cannot be undone with a few trillion dollars in bailout money. Hedges points to those who saw it coming… Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, Andrew Bacevich, Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader. Also, social critics who wrote books immediately following WWII – David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd), C. Wright Mills, (The Power Elite), William H. White (The Organization of Man), Seymour Mellman (The Permanent War Economy: American Capitalism in Decline), Daniel Boorstin (The Image: A guide to Pseudo-Events in America), and Reinhold Niebuhr (The Irony of American History) – have proven to be prophetic.
Hedges says that fear and instability has plunged the working class into profound and personal economic despair which, unsurprisingly, drives them into “the arms of the demagogues and charlatans of the radical Christian Right who offer belief in magic, miracles, and the fiction of a utopian Christian nation. And unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed.”
Hedges says that the moment China, the oil-rich states, and other international investors stop buying U.S. Treasury Bonds, the dollar will become junk and we will become Weimar Germany, unprepared to deal with the backlash of a betrayed and angry populace. Christian demagogues and simpletons like Sarah Palin and loudmouth talk-show hosts will make promises of revenge and moral renewal, while the elites retreat into the shelter of privilege and comfort. The rest of us will be left to the mercy of a security state. He quotes George Orwell, “A society becomes totalitarian when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud.”
Hedges says there are powerful corporate entities that do not want to lose their influence or wealth and that are waiting for a national crisis that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control. Hedges says the tools for doing this are already in place. “These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing descent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross. By then, exhausted and broken, we may have lost the power to resist.” The worse reality becomes, the less we want to hear about it and the more we are willing to distract ourselves with manufactured illusions. This is what eventually happens to a dying civilization.
But Hedges says this will not be the end of hope, because the power of love has always been greater than the power of death. Love cannot be controlled. It constantly rises up to remind a society of what is real and what is illusion.