The Exhaustion of the Radical Imagination: A Critique of Chris Hedges

Every mind and every society harbors hopes of redemption. Nauseated by rampant absurdities that pervert the society’s founding ideals, the collective imagination yearns for relief, a thorough healing of injustices and incongruities. At various moments in history, human societies have expressed this yearning through messianic visions, revolutionary and reformist movements and various genres of subversive art and scholarship.

This grand flux of ideas and ideologies forms a fascinating history that features iconic leaders and noble spirits such as Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as false messiahs and petty opportunists. According to this recent Gallup poll, we can most easily find examples of impostors among elected officials. Other surveys have delivered similarly scathing indictments of corporations, banks, NGOs, religious institutions and media companies.

These are just a few of the latest contributions to the growing body of evidence on the society’s descent into change-resistant “structural” distrust. The evidence has been mounting dramatically, continually bolstered by controversies around Citizens United, Jason Blaire, News Corp, Enron, the government shutdown and other scandals du jour.

At the beginning of 2012, I published this three-part essay in the U.S. edition of PRWeek to draw the attention of professional communicators to the collapse of public trust in the institutional pillars of society. The latest survey and poll results suggest that the crisis of institutional credibility and legitimacy has only deepened, and the broadening study of this trend has largely failed to explain the problem or formulate a promising solution.

Well-intended participants in this area of research continue to agonize over the diagnosis and possible remedies for this systemic malignancy. But they should also acknowledge their collective failures and shift the research on public trust in a more constructive direction.  Below are two ideas intended to ease this process.

1. Fiery indictments of the status quo will not suffice to restore trust.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen an eruption of both thoughtful and sensationalist research and commentary on the flaws and failures of institutional power elites. Even some of the leading participants in this polemic acknowledge that expressions of public outrage have done little to change the conduct of government or business leaders. Similarly, searing critiques of government’s capitulation to corporate interests have not restored the integrity of either participant in this transaction.

Consider the comments of Chris Hedges, one of the most ardent critics of government’s unholy alliance with corporations:

“As this last election illustrated, we’re not having any traction with the American public. We are not going to build a movement if we’re not relentlessly and ruthlessly self-critical. We’ll go nowhere. We have failed at a moment of crisis when these ideas should resonate…We don’t need another critique of the corporate state. We have undergone a corporate coup d’état in slow motion. It’s over. They have won. This is not even a radical idea in most of American society. Large numbers of people recognize that it’s impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, Bank of America, General Electric…”

In his recent column on TruthDig, Hedges makes an eloquent argument that would make for a memorable and radically candid State of the Union address:

“The last days of empire are carnivals of folly. We are in the midst of our own, plunging forward as our leaders court willful economic and environmental self-destruction. Sumer and Rome went down like this. So did the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Men and women of stunning mediocrity and depravity led the monarchies of Europe and Russia on the eve of World War I. And America has, in its own decline, offered up its share of weaklings, dolts and morons to steer it to destruction. A nation that was still rooted in reality would never glorify charlatans such as Sen. Ted Cruz, House Speaker John Boehner and former Speaker Newt Gingrich as they pollute the airwaves. If we had any idea what was really happening to us we would have turned in fury against Barack Obama, whose signature legacy will be utter capitulation to the demands of Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry, the military-industrial complex and the security and surveillance state. We would have rallied behind those few, such as Ralph Nader, who denounced a monetary system based on gambling and the endless printing of money and condemned the willful wrecking of the ecosystem. We would have mutinied. We would have turned the ship back.”

Hedges doesn’t restrict his critique to corrupt power elites. He excoriates journalists, gurus and the population at large:

“The populations of dying empires are passive because they are lotus-eaters. There is a narcotic-like reverie among those barreling toward oblivion. They retreat into the sexual, the tawdry and the inane, retreats that are momentarily pleasurable but ensure self-destruction. They naively trust it will all work out. As a species, Margaret Atwood observes in her dystopian novel “Oryx and Crake,” “we’re doomed by hope.” And absurd promises of hope and glory are endlessly served up by the entertainment industry, the political and economic elite, the class of courtiers who pose as journalists, self-help gurus like Oprah and religious belief systems that assure followers that God will always protect them. It is collective self-delusion, a retreat into magical thinking.”

Robert A.G. Monks, one f the founders of GMI Ratings (my former employer), would probably agree with this basic sentiment. His latest book Citizens Disunited, argues persuasively that not enough has changed — and not enough will change — as long as our society continues to respond to institutional failures with nothing but thoughtful criticism.

2. Socialism is not the answer

In his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” (published in 1988), anthropologist Joseph Tainter showed, by way of historical example, that the rise of complex bureaucracies often presages societal collapse. For Chris Hedges, socialism is an essential part of the strategy for preventing this collapse. Here, the main blind spots in Hedges’ worldview start to become apparent, as he turns from diagnosing and characterizing our existential threats to adumbrating his vision of a path to redemption.

It makes no sense to seek redemption or to engineer a revolution by replacing one bankrupt system (i.e., totalitarian capitalism enabled by a hopelessly docile electorate) with another system (i.e., socialism) whose destructive potential forms the haunting leitmotif of the past century’s darkest moments. Hedges is a staggering intellect, and he understands this history more intimately than most of us do.  Yet, he believes that we can reenergize our exhausted cultural forms by hearkening back to the Marxist dream. In 2008, Hedges wrote: “the inability to articulate a viable socialism has been our gravest mistake. It will ensure, if it doesn’t soon change, a ruthless totalitarian capitalism.”

To me, the retreat to socialism is an unfortunate and misguided twist Hedges’ otherwise solid argument. To paraphrase Lewis Lapham, the former editor of Harper’s magazine, we can only sail toward the brighter future we envision on the wreckage of our imperfect past. But we shouldn’t misconstrue this truism as a denial or denigration of humanity’s unceasing search for new ideas, new discoveries and less imperfect ways to organize the global community to nurture humanity’s noblest yearnings.

Socialism and capitalism are both dead ideas, their carcasses thoroughly picked apart in the hope of constructing a superior vision. This is the work of intellectual vultures whose hopes inevitably dissolve into bitter disillusionment. Their ideas are not only derivative; they are also dead at conception.

The greatest innovators in history did not regard their intellectual heritage with awe. They deeply understood the ideas they had inherited. But, ultimately, they treated these ideas with effortlessly passionate irreverence. Consider these examples:

  • Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei did not pay homage to the geocentric view of the universe. They didn’t build on this view. They didn’t tweak or modify this falsehood. They consigned it mercilessly to the dustbin of dead ideas. This way, they achieved a genuine, if not an iconic, paradigm shift.
  • Darwin and Freud did not try to appease sanctimonious orthodoxies; they replaced them with a more honest and thoughtful study of the grand spectacle of life and death.
  • In the Hebrew Testament, Abraham did not rearrange his father’s idols or place them neatly in a corner. He smashed them. Importantly, this act of symbolically vicious rebellion led not only to the creation of a great nation, but also to the salvation of Abraham’s father. This ancient narrative captures a timeless truth: We best honor our fathers by becoming ourselves.

Conclusion

Considered in aggregate, Hedges’ work reveals not only an impressive intellect and a broad sphere of reference, but also the righteous indignation and unapologetic evangelism that have characterized some of the giants of intellectual history. My point is simply this: As a student of the image-driven consumer culture that Hedges brilliantly bemoans, I doubt that any progressive or radical thinker today can realize his or her potential by expressing indignation through the prism of 19-century ideas.

In some of his recent writing, Hedges seems to understand that we need a new vocabulary to express our disenchantment and dissent. Perhaps, at some point, he will also agree that reviving and embracing the Marxist dream can only impede the evolution of the new language of liberation.

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