A mood on the march?

democEight years on from the global debt crisis, the most remarkable thing about US politics is that it remains the same asinine, catchpenny charade that it was in the decades leading up to it. Notwithstanding the devotees of the Tea Party, who after grabbing the wrong end of the stick with both hands proceeded to beat themselves into irrelevance, and the sloganeers of the Occupy movement, who declined to articulate any demands at all, no populist movement has yet come forward to mount a serious challenge to the status quo, while Obama’s promise not to ‘waste’ the crisis died long before it got to congress. It’s a good bet that the next US president will be the wife of a former US president – a strange choice for a country established in the teeth of a constitutional monarchy whose habits of mind it was determined to eradicate. True, it looks as if we’ll be spared another Bush, ‘Jeb!’ having fallen way back in the field. But it can’t be long before the GOP moves against the current Republican frontrunner, if only on the basis that American voters, having elected their first black president just eight years ago, are not yet ready for an orange one with hair like a sample of loft insulation.

Precisely what Chris Hedges means when he writes, on page 1 of The Wages of Rebellion, that ‘we live in a revolutionary moment’ is therefore difficult to say. Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and has reported on many uprisings in his time, so he is aware of the conditions that need to be in place before push comes to revolutionary shove. He’s not Russell Brand, in other words. But his suggestion that popular discontent with neoliberal economics and the plutocratic nature of US power is about to spill out onto the streets sounds like so much wishful thinking. Of the various countries to have thrown off communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he writes: ‘they seized in a revolutionary moment upon an ideal – one that was often more emotional than intellectual – that allowed them to defy established power. This revolutionary sentiment, as much a mood as an idea, is again on the march.’ But in what parts of the world this mood is evident, and where it is marching, remain unclear.

The aim of Hedges’ book is twofold: to anatomise the degradations of ‘the corporate state’ and to explore the forces and personalities that will foster rebellion in the years to come. On the first thing, Hedges is on safer ground, though his (justified) anger about climate change, inequality, racism and the militarisation of the police is, like the ‘revolutionary sentiment’ identified/assumed in the quotation above, rather light on intellectual rigour. Of particular concern is his formulation of ‘totalitarian corporate power’. Gaudy historical analogies have always been a Hedges speciality; his 2007 book on the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the US is called American Fascists. But you cannot seriously take this line while appealing to the American Civil Liberties Union or the New York Times for supporting arguments. Such institutions do not exist in totalitarian societies, and it involves no defence of kleptocratic elites to insist on the difference between life as it is lived in the poorer, blacker parts of the US and the fate of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Certainly when Hedges writes of Marek Edelman, a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, that he ‘noted the collective self-delusion that prohibited the Jews in the ghetto – as it prohibits us – from facing their fate’ (my emphasis) he is so remote from any sense of historical decorum that he forfeits his right to be taken seriously.

As for the second of Hedges’ aims – to isolate the character and priorities of ‘the rebel’ – this is even less convincing. Based on a handful of biographical portraits of revolutionaries past and present, and fleshed out with some rather tendentious readings of literary classics such as Moby Dick, Hedges’ analysis is thin and simplistic, a sort of hippy-dippy version of L’Homme révolté: Albert Camus meets Deepak Chopra. Shunning ‘intellectual knowledge’ for the spiritual uplift of ‘emotional knowledge’ and pitching ‘sublime madness’ against ‘radical evil’, he casts his rebel as a quasi-mystic, out-of-sympathy not just with the political system but with the ‘rationality’ on which it is based. ‘There is nothing rational about rebellion’, writes Hedges; ‘To rebel against insurmountable odds is an act of faith, without which the rebel is doomed.’ He continues:

The rebel, possessed by inner demons and angels, is driven by a vision. I do not know if the new revolutionary wave and the rebels produced by it will succeed. But I do know that without these rebels, we are doomed.

Doomed without rebels who are doomed without faith! This sounds to me like a prescription for martyrdom rather than a prescription for a better world. At any rate, such apocalyptic bluster will, I imagine, cut little ice with the people who stand to gain most from real change.

In spite of itself, The Wages of Rebellion does raise an important question: why do people not rebel against systems that are so obviously unfair? And it so happens that this is precisely the question at the heart of John Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, a difficult work of political philosophy in which epistemology and the philosophy of language are brought to bear on what is, in essence, a species of cognitive dissonance. A professor of philosophy at Yale University, Stanley wants to know why, if the world is iniquitous, we seem so disinclined to make it less so.

Stanley has a cooler head than Hedges and invokes totalitarianism, not in order to draw a comparison between modern liberal democracy and twentieth-century dictatorship, but in order to point out the differences between them. In particular, and as his title suggests, he is interested in the very different ways propaganda operates in each system. The traditional definition of propaganda – verbal or visual material deployed by the state in order to alter public opinion and reinforce a particular worldview – is, he suggests, inadequate to the task of describing how false ideas are propagated through political rhetoric in western democracies, in which propaganda is better understood as ‘the employment of a political ideal against itself’. Thus the American Dream is invoked in order to instil in everyone a sense that they can get ahead in life; but its effect is to instil in those who fail a feeling that this failure is no one’s fault but their own. The result is inequality and political passivity. Egalitarianism is hoist by its own petard.

This narrow definition of propaganda – too narrow, perhaps, to be generally useful – rests on a subtle distinction between propaganda and ideology, by which Stanley means, not an intellectual system such as communism or fascism, but the distortion of thought inevitable in a society set up along certain lines. As far as I can understand it, his thesis is that propaganda is predicated on a contradiction and the reason we don’t see this contradiction is because we all have ‘flawed ideologies’. Of these flawed ideologies, it is the idea that the successful deserve their success that is the most pernicious, leading as it does to the false belief that anyone who is unsuccessful only has him or herself to blame. (The other term for this is ‘just-world theory’, of which Hedges gives a brief exposition in one of the better passages in The Wages of Rebellion.)

Stanley is an academic and writes like one. His book, though packaged for the general reader, is repetitive and rather dryly written. But it does make some important points, and I prefer it to the empty calories offered in The Wages of Rebellion. It will, I’m sure, repay further study.
The Marxist geographer David Harvey points out that in the wake of the GFC the majority of Americans who lost their homes blamed themselves for their financial misfortune. In order to convince them otherwise, radicals need good arguments, not mystics. Good arguments, and probably many more crises.

Chris Hedges, The Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt
Nation Books; U$26.99; 286pp

Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works
Princeton; $56.95; 353pp

*

First published in The Weekend Australian