The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

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NOV 2011 Issue

Moral Memory

Chris Hedges
The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress
(Nation Books, 2011)

We are living in the end times, according to journalist and moral thinker Chris Hedges. We are living in the end times, if the end times mean the subsumption of moral life into corporate life. In his essays, Hedges describes a world no longer valued for its innate gifts and natural beauty. He sees a world that is valued instead according to its commodity price, its market value—and in the capitalist explanation of reality there is a market for everything. Philosophically, Hedges rejects the notion that democratic-capitalism is the final political form for mankind, the highest representation of its civil order—what Francis Fukuyama famously called “The End of History.” Hedges professes, as Marx did, that unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary ideology, a free market mania that bulldozes everything in its way. The message of Hedges’s new collection of essays, The World As It Is, is that capitulation to the unregulated corporatization and commodification of the planet, also known as globalization, reflects the values of a society that has lost its moral memory, a society that has devalued the ethics of conservation and the welfare of our fellow man.

Liberal institutions and liberal values, Hedges argues, such as freedom of the press, the public education system, the existence of trade unions, credit unions, and the like, were developed to safeguard the most vulnerable in society from predation, despair, poverty, and crisis. They help maintain crucial legal and social protections for regular people against the hegemony of the powerful and the wealthy. As he writes:

The Liberty Party that fought slavery, the suffragists who battled for women’s rights, the labor movement, and the civil-rights movement knew that the question was not how we get good people to rule—those attracted to power tend to be venal mediocrities—but how we limit the damage the powerful do to us.

A faithful student of Noam Chomsky and Dwight MacDonald, Hedges, who was a war correspondent for 20 years, and won a Pulitzer Prize while at the New York Times, writes to challenge systems of control—any framework, domestic or international, that wishes to put its hands on the reins of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Hedges shakes society’s tree and shows us the bad apples. His intended audience is common readership, American workers, American families, the tired, the weary, citizens and non-citizens, voters and non-voters alike. The World As It Is, although occasionally gloomy and elegiac, conveys a redemptive message within. American culture, it advises, needs reawakening from the ground up. Power should ultimately derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. There are concrete steps people can take immediately if they have the verve. Change from the ground up can come quite literally: Hedges applauds the beginning of the much-needed renovation of our systems of food production and distribution, positioning its imbalance in the stark terms of a moral crisis. From his bold essay, “Food Is Power, and the Powerful Are Poisoning Us”:

Cornell University recently did a study to determine whether New York State could feed itself … If all agricultural land were in use, and food distribution were optimized to minimize the total distance that food travels, New York State could, the researchers found, have 34 percent of its food needs met from within its boundaries. This is not encouraging news to those who live in New York City.

The emphasis on food systems drives home a crucial aspect of Hedges’s political philosophy: growing food locally and supporting healthy local food initiatives not only continues a proud American tradition, dating from before white settlers arrived, it also signals a direct shift toward self-governance. In an era of corporate lobbyists, food is an arena, Hedges avers, where people can wrest back control over their communities. Amidst the grim accounts of global decay, the reader feels Hedges grasp zealously to renewed examples of self-governance, or endemic capital.

The deck is seldom stacked in the favor of working Americans. On signing NAFTA in 1994, President Bill Clinton demonstrated an elite preference for American corporations to ship jobs overseas to countries where labor is cheap (and therefore “competitive”) and protections are few. Despite his outward rejection of top-down economics, Clinton pandered to the corporate elite. Meanwhile, consumer protection advocates like Ralph Nader have become part of an untouchable class of radical liberals—pariahs who are no longer welcome in major media outlets. As Nader himself said, “The progressive forces have no hammer.” Responding to pervasive despair, Hedges cites Camus: “One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity.” A thesis for Hedges’s work, culled from the pages of The World As It Is, might be:

Resistance means a radical break with the formal structures of American society. We must cut as many ties with consumer society and corporations as possible. We must build a new political and economic consciousness centered on the tangible issues of sustainable agriculture, self-sufficiency, and radical environmental reform.

The confederation of people, ideas, and methods that has come to be called Occupy Wall Street has been derided by conservative pundits and politicians like Mitt Romney as misguided and un-American. The truth is that OCW represents a channel, which has opened, between our present moment, the future we seek, and the moral memory we hold dear. If liberal institutions are going to survive in the 21st-century, the left needs to assert its backbone, its vision, and its responsibility. Our age requires bold, gutsy, committed, idealistic, evocative, image-producing, people-powered action to produce the systemic change required to preserve the planet’s health and civilization, as we know it. This is the real conservative movement, Hedges argues, the conservation of our core values from the soulless abyss of corporate culture. Groups like Occupy Wall Street and can provide an outward demonstration of these values, and writers like Chris Hedges can help to articulate them. But, ultimately, it is the responsibility of every citizen to educate herself and participate in the ideal of self-governance this country was founded upon. 


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2011

All Issues