A call for a ‘sane’ dismantling of the American empire

With a new book out, Chris Hedges speaks with OpenCanada about what decay looks like in the United States, why Trump is a ‘symptom and not the disease,’ and the importance of listening to others. 

By: /
August 29, 2018
The south lawn of the White House in Washington, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

“We cannot pick and choose whom among the oppressed it is convenient to support,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges in his new book, America, The Farewell Tour. “We must stand with all the oppressed or none of the oppressed…This will mean a huge reordering of our world…Our empire will be dismantled.”

His latest work provides a look at the wide range of the oppressed across the United States — those, he says, “beset by despair and hopelessness,” from the suffering after deindustrialization to lives torn apart from drug addiction, gambling and violence. It is a bleak picture of communities across the world’s most powerful country, but one rich in storytelling, and the historical and theoretical context needed for Hedges to explore two central questions throughout the book: Why and how have things gotten so bad?

As the former foreign correspondent explained when he recently spoke with OpenCanada managing editor Eva Salinas, on the eve of the Canadian leg of his book tour, the answer lies in the nature of empire itself, and the solution is “not about resurrecting the empire, it’s about dismantling the empire in a rational and sane manner.”

While other recent publications critical of the current political climate seem to be in direct response to the election of Donald Trump, Hedges began writing this new volume before Trump announced his candidacy. As he discusses in the conversation below, Hedges was out to remind his readers of the myth of American success, of the negative impact of empire and of the importance of listening to others from all sides of the political spectrum.

Early on in the book you say ‘that the end is coming is hard to dispute.’ Did you mean the end of global capitalism or specifically the end of the American empire? Do you see a difference between the two?

There is a difference between the two and I’m speaking specifically of the American empire. 

Do you think that is something we should mourn? Are there parts that would be unfortunate to lose?

I think empire is an unmitigated evil. And I don’t think the dissolution of any empire should be mourned. Empire, as [Karl] Marx understood, is fundamentally about the control of foreign labour and foreign resources for the advantage of those who administer the empire. 

Yet your message appears as a warning, despite that.

The problem is that as societies disintegrate, the pathologies that they exhibit are often very self-destructive, and that’s really what I was writing about. The decay within American society is quite pronounced and the attendant pathologies that come with that decay are quite widespread — hate groups, mass shootings, nihilistic violence, sexual sadism, gambling, opioid addiction, suicide, it’s all there. And until we reconfigure the structure of our society, the longer we continue to attempt to maintain both the empire and the lifestyle we can no longer afford, the more trouble we’re going to be in. 

So you’re bidding the American empire farewell.

All you have to do is drive across this country — it’s one deindustrialized wasteland after another. Canada is not immune from this. 

Is that romanticizing a time when industrialization was robust — are you calling for a return to that? Or do we need a clean slate here?

Industrialized centres usually have a shelf life of a few decades, 60-80 years, and then they move. They move from Birmingham to Lowell, they move to Lowell to the South, they move from the South. There is a constant migration. I don’t think that system of industrial capitalism is sustainable anymore given the ecological cost, because what do they leave behind — poisoned water, poisoned land, and of course an abandoned population. So, yeah, I think we need to begin to pretty dramatically reconfigure our relationship to each other within a social system, and certainly our relationship to the biosphere, if we’re going to survive as a human species, rather than essentially attempt to prop up a system that ultimately is not sustainable.

There has been recognition of a loss of American leadership on the global stage at the moment — for instance, with regards to human rights and governance — rather than a loss of the American empire as a whole. Do you agree with that?

"This idea that America travelled the globe defending liberty and human rights is a myth."

I don’t think the idea of America travelling the world defending human rights is a reality-based belief. Whether you’re in Vietnam, or what we did in Central America — I covered the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua — or the proxy states that we support, I was in Gaza, look at Yemen, look at Iraq, look at Afghanistan, look at the Bay of Pigs, look at the overthrow of [Salvador] Allende, look at the overthrow of [Mohammad] Mosaddegh in Iran.

This idea that America travelled the globe defending liberty and human rights is a myth, and one that was essentially sold to the American people to promote empire. A lot of other people who benefitted from empire, like the Canadians, often bought it as well. But it’s not true. I mean, I was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, and the last thing the American empire cares about is liberty and democracy and granting people rights to real self determination — that’s what they spend most of their time making sure doesn’t happen. 

So is the US different under Trump? Could this book have come out before him, and would people be listening to the message in the same way?

I’ve been writing about this generation of American culture and the American empire for some time — Death of the Liberal Class, Empire of Illusion, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt — so to what extent do people listen? That I don’t know. To what extent is that critique given a platform? It’s almost never given a platform within American society. I can get national exposure in France or in Canada with this kind of critique. I can’t get it within the United States at all. It’s a matter of having a ruling elite that essentially blocks that critique from being presented to the wider public, so you’re pushed to the margins of the internet or pushed to the margins of the media landscape. I would say that people are receptive to it across the political spectrum because they realize that the whole ideology of neoliberalism has been a giant con game by the oligarchs and the corporate elites. 

I actually think that the audience has always been open to listening and, if anything, they might be less open now because Trump is such a venal and repugnant and frightening political personality. And so there is more of a knee-jerk reaction to ‘anybody but Trump’ and that fails to acknowledge that Trump is the symptom and not the disease; he is the consequence of a decayed political system and a decayed culture. A lot of people are banking on either the deep state or the Democratic Party to get rid of Trump. That’s not going to solve our problem.

Take me into the process of writing this book. Had you been writing it for some time before Trump’s election? How did those two events overlap?

I started two years ago, so before Trump ever announced. And I wrote my gambling chapter out of the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which was completely accidental. I didn’t know Trump was going to announce, much less run, much less become president. And I know the editors at Simon and Schuster, when I proposed the book with the title, America, the Farewell Tour, felt it might be somewhat hyperbolic, but certainly after the election of Trump they didn’t feel that way anymore. 

How different are the conversations you have with your audiences at book events from those you had researching this book?

Well they are different because the people who show up at the book events are largely white, older, literate, and economically not in desperate situations. The people I interview in the book are really, truly suffering, and are in touch with a kind of deep hopelessness, despair that manifests itself in a real rage at a system that has betrayed them. And so I think at book events people may understand that the system has betrayed working men and women and the poor in this country, and even the middle class, but they don’t feel it viscerally. Whereas the people I interview — and I interviewed people who support Trump — the people I interview are in real pain and express real and, I would argue, legitimate anger. 

How does the suffering you relay in the United States fit into or compare to the global picture?

What is happening here is happening in many deindustrialized centres — look at Poland, Hungary, look at France, look at Germany, look at England. It is hardly unique. Global corporate capitalism is a planetary-wide phenomenon and so the decay that the United States is experiencing is in some ways similar to the decay that we are seeing in other deindustrialized pockets, especially in Europe. The difference is that we are an empire. And empires depend for their sustenance, especially their economic sustenance, on having a global reach, maintaining the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Take that away and empires in fact are much more fragile than states that are not empires, that do not depend on controlling world markets and world currency for their economic survival.

So that’s why the consequences within America are so much worse than they are in a place like Canada. With this book I wanted to show that the human consequences of decay, that the psychological, physical, emotional assault that a society in decay carries out against the individual, what the sociologists call the ‘diseases of despair.’ That’s really what the book attempted to explain and report on. And of course the argument becomes until you address the root causes of despair, what Emile Durkheim calls the ‘anomie’ of society, it is not only going to continue but get worse.

Would some interpret that as a warning to reverse the dying of the American empire and therefore hold it up?

"It will be the loss of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency that will effectively dismantle the empire."

Well, the empire is the problem. The tyranny imposed on others is finally imposed on itself. And empires always overreach. Look at the Athenian empire — they invade Sicily, their entire Navy is sunk, thousand of their soldiers are killed. It is what they call micromilitarism, and the Athenian empire unravels.

Or the British empire invades Egypt in 1956 after the nationalization of the Suez Canal and has to retreat in humiliation. That was the end. I mean, the British Empire was a slow disintegration beginning after World War One, but that was the end, and of course the pound sterling was dropped as the world’s reserve currency and that set the British economy into free fall.

It will be the loss of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency that will effectively dismantle the empire because there will have to be a huge contraction, imports will become phenomenally expensive, no one will buy US treasury bonds, et cetera, et cetera. But we’re not preparing for that. We’re pretending that we’re going to go on forever, like it always has been, and that’s been so disastrous.

So it’s not about resurrecting the empire, it’s about dismantling the empire in a rational and sane manner so that we cause as less damage as possible. Our fatal embrace of military adventurism was the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is now 17 years old. And there’s no way out. This is what empires inevitably do. We were already very far down that road, but by not recognizing it and pretending that what we had before can be maintained, we could create some very frightening political deformities in the forms of proto-fascism that societies in distress often create. 

How do you distinguish empire from global capitalism or even the current state of democracy, if they are all interconnected at the moment?

Unfettered capitalism is the enemy of democracy and I’m not the first make that assertion. And global capitalism is supranational; it has no loyalty to a nation-state. So global capitalism, which in many ways is responsible for the decay in the United States, will continue to exist, even in a multipolar world. But the maintenance of empire and the maintenance of democracy given the trajectory that we are on is going to be extremely difficult. I mean, we don’t really live in a democracy anymore — it’s a failed democracy. There are no institutions in the United States that can be authentically called democratic, even our political parties. It’s like the Roman Republic, where you have the facade of the republic, you still have the Senate, etcetera, but it is autocratic. And here we have the facade of electoral politics and supposedly a free press, although it’s in the hands of about a half dozen corporations, but internally it’s impossible to challenge the interests of corporate power. Within the American political system you cannot vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs. It’s impossible.

These themes all appear when it comes to climate change — private interests, decay, etc. — but don’t always get mentioned outright.

[Privatization] is central to climate change because what you’ve created is a system where the dictates of the marketplace determine whole policies where nothing, including human beings, has intrinsic value. Everything is monetized, and then you exploit both the natural world and human beings until exhaustion or collapse. That is the nature of unfettered and unregulated capitalism and, as Marx understood, it has built within it its own seeds of destruction. So now you’re seeing in the late stage of capitalism in the United States these corporations cannibalize the very democratic or once-democratic institutions and structures that made a democratic capitalism possible.

So you’re slashing taxes, so the government is starved for revenue. You’re privatizing — we’ve got a proposal to privatize the war in Afghanistan — I mean, this is nuts — under Erik Prince, meanwhile his sister Betsy DeVos is privatizing American education...The book opens in Scranton [Pennsylvania]. They are selling off their sewer system, their parking authority, anything. They are desperate to bring in revenue because of the shortfalls in taxation, but that’s not a long-term solution. What happens when they don’t have anything left to sell? And these structures are less efficient and far more costly. The assault now is one where they’re kind of disemboweling the very structures of the state. 

These warnings or examples of these kinds of consequences aren’t new — is the message not getting through?

It doesn’t get reported on. Public broadcasting in the United States is corporate controlled now, because they get so little money from the government they depend on the donations of Koch brothers and others, so it doesn’t get reported on in a meaningful way. There’s no meaningful debate about universal healthcare in the United States. Our for-profit healthcare system is a disaster but it’s very profitable for pharmaceutical and insurance companies, very bad for patients and for doctors. There’s no meaningful debate because they block out the debate.

You never hear the word capitalism on MSNBC, on any of those [stations], that’s just not part of acceptable political discourse. It’s replaced with trivia and gossip and Stormy Daniels and Omarosa, you know, what Michael Cohen is going to do or not do. And so the substantive issues that we should be coping with, the collapse of capitalism and the collapse of the ecosystem, are not even mentioned. I mean, we have horrific extreme weather events and they never talk about global warming. 

You’ve mentioned how Canada is obviously not an empire, but do you see similarities or implications here?

Canada is kind of a milder version of America. The DNA of Canada is not as violent as the United States. You’re not an empire, but at the same time the ripple effect is inevitably going to reconfigure and distort Canadian society. 

Are there any movements or young thinkers out there you think are getting it right or inspiring you?

Oh, certainly. First of all, you had some amazing acts of sustained, civil disobedience in Canada led by First Nations communities. We had Standing Rock. Earlier we had Occupy. You had the Montreal student movement. It’s got to be sustained. And in all of those cases, it was sustained. I think that’s where the hope lies. That deals not only with the kind of technical understanding of how to build movements but increases consciousness.

How important is it for everyone to go out and have their own conversations with others in addition to reading a book like this?

Vital. I think part of the problem is that in modern society, people are alone. I mean, where they don’t really exist within community. Where they spend far too long in front of screens — which is just where the corporate state wants them to be. And that makes it harder to build relationships, which build movements. There’s only one way to have a relationship and that’s face-to-face. It’s not through Facebook. And there’s only one way to build movements and that’s face-to-face. [We need] to build real relationships around common interests, often, with people whose politics we may not agree with. As long as we remain separate from each other and isolated, we remain powerless.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.