“In a dysfunctional system that’s essentially calcified and can no longer respond to the basic concerns of the citizenry, it’s the rebel who will make a difference.”By Ishmael N. Daro National Post (5/13/15)
The United States is primed for a rebellion. So argues Chris Hedges in his new book, Wages of Rebellion, in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and polemicist examines revolts from 1700s to the ending of apartheid in South Africa, as well as the “sublime madness” that drives the people at the centre of such rebellions. Why is America next? He recently spoke with the National Post’s Ishmael Daro about what he sees as a pot about to boil over.
Q Is this book a warning or a prediction?
A I didn’t write it as a warning or a prediction. I wrote it more as an assessment. I covered disintegrating societies like Yugoslavia. I know how they break down; I know what the warning signs are, so it’s familiar. I don’t think at this point there’s much dispute. Even just the financial indicators in terms of wealth disparity and chronic unemployment. The fact that Congress has a nine-per-cent approval rating. Where I’m coming from, the book is an attempt to explain where we are in this particular historical period.
Q Inequality and injustice is part of human existence — I mean, the U.S. Constitution included slavery, for example.
A Well you have to be careful. That’s not necessarily true. In indigenous societies, everyone is hungry together and they eat together. If you look at Scandinavian societies, they virtually eliminated poverty in the 1980s. The idea that disparity is an inevitable fact of organization of a society is not correct.
And societies can sustain a certain level of disparity without question, and that has been true for a long time in the United States. But massive disparity where you create an oligarchical elite that dominates most of the wealth, then you distort your entire system. That goes back to Aristotle: He said that in that situation, your two options become tyranny or revolution.
Q You have some praise for the Occupy movement and other communitarian efforts to ameliorate the harshest income disparities. So if a rebellion does come and the system does crumble, is that what you see as an alternative?
A Something’s coming, with the twin effects of climate change and the precarious nature of global speculation, and if we go down, we’re going to need each other. We are going to have to create a communitarian network, and that goes down to things like local food, farmers’ markets, something as simple as that. The wealthy are not going to take care of us. They will retreat into their gated compounds where they will have access to food and water and all sorts of things we won’t.
Q In your book you don’t just provide an assessment but you also look at individual actors. What appeals to you about rebellious figures like Nelson Mandela, Thomas Paine, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Julian Assange?
A In a dysfunctional system that’s essentially calcified and can no longer respond to the basic concerns of the citizenry, it’s the rebel who will make a difference. I use the term coined by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “sublime madness.” Niebuhr writes that in moments of extremity, liberalism is an ineffectual force, and Niebuhr is right. If you have a system of apartheid, you need a Nelson Mandela. If you have tyranny by the British crown, you need a Thomas Paine. Rebels bear a lot in common with religious mystics. People like Julian Assange are ornery and peculiar, but that’s who we need. We need those figures.
Q One positive sign of the past 15 to 20 years has been the spread of gay rights, and with recent changes in Colorado, Washington and elsewhere, there are some movements toward curbing the war on drugs. I wonder what you make of that within the context of the economic and political injustice you write about.
A Well, within the American political system you battle over what Freud called the narcissism of minor difference. In terms of war, Wall Street, civil liberties, the refusal of the state to deal with poverty and issues like Ferguson and Baltimore, the deterioration of the public education system, on and on and on — you have these debates, and it’s not tangential if you’re gay, but you reduce it to these social issues about homosexuality, about creationism, whatever it is. They’re fear-based. We don’t fight about anything that’s actually political.
That’s why these issues often dominate the electoral cycle, because on the substantial issues like the economy and corporate power and representative democracy there is no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.
Q Is reform still possible then?
A If we don’t reform America, return this country to a level of sanity, it’s going to have a tremendously negative impact on the rest of the world, including Canada.