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Chris Hedges: “When you have bankrupt liberalism you descend into moral nihilism”

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Toronto. And it was only a few weeks ago in Toronto that the G-20 met. And if you read the document, the final declaration of the G-20, two things become quite clear. Number one, they don’t really seem to have much of a plan for the global economic crisis except austerity. How to actually have finance reform and deal with some of the casino capitalism is certainly on the back burner. And they had almost nothing to say about the climate-change crisis. Now joining us to discuss this is Chris Hedges. Chris has reported from more than 50 countries. He’s a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He’s worked for The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, currently publishes on Truthdig, and his latest book is called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Thanks for joining us, Chris.


JAY: So, first of all, you must have followed the G-20 events, the declaration and such, and particularly President Obama’s role there. What was your reaction?

HEDGES: Well, an utter failure of leadership in a time of profound crisis, both financial crisis and environmental crisis. The response to the global financial meltdown was essentially, in the United States and Europe, to loot public treasuries, create stimulus packages, which were, of course, a short-term response to the problem. It’s all going to come back to haunt us, and very soon, as these monies are running out. We’re already seeing them run out in the United States. And, secondly, the inability at Copenhagen to deal with this catastrophic assault on the ecosystem. And essentially I think both dilemmas point out that we are hostage to [inaudible] who have turned everything from human labor to the natural world into commodities that they will exploit until exhaustion or collapse. And if they take down the planet, they’re quite happy to do that.

JAY: President Obama campaigned on change we could believe in. A lot of this liberal and progressive community in the United States seemed to believe that was a possibility. Since then, what in fact have we seen? Because if there’s going to be a change, either on the finance side or the climate-change side globally, there’s going to have to be some significant change in American politics.

HEDGES: Well, Obama was a brand, and he functioned as a brand. He won, right after the election, marketer of the year, beating out Zappos and Nike and Apple. He is essentially used by the corporate state and was used effectively to make American voters confuse how they were made to feel with knowledge. He no more disrupted the running of empire and the casino capitalism that dominates Wall Street than did George W. Bush. I mean, if you look, for instance, in the Middle East, nothing has changed for Muslims in the Middle East. If anything it’s gotten worse in places like Afghanistan and in Gaza and the West Bank. If you look at the dislocation, the economic dislocation in the United States, what Obama’s financial adviser Lawrence Summers calls our jobless recovery, we are rapidly cementing into place a kind of permanent underclass. When you count real unemployment figures�and by that I mean people who have stopped looking for work or people who accept part-time jobs when they would like full-time employment�we’re talking about 20 percent, 20 percent of the American workforce that is unable to find work that can sustain them. Unemployment benefits keep running out. We keep extending them. So nothing has changed in any kind of a dramatic way. And, unfortunately, time is running out. Time is running out for the American Empire. Time is running out for the planet at large. Even if we were to stop all carbon emissions right now, global warming would still accelerate. So it’s, I think, an utter failure on the part of the leadership class, and I think it has illustrated that power has essentially been wrested out of the hands of citizens and turned over to corporations.

JAY: The message that you’re giving here, it must, if�you know, just rough kind of numbers, based on how people vote and polling and all the rest, you may be talking 10 to 15 percent of the population in the United States probably agrees with a lot of what you said, give or take here and there. And if you take the foreign policy critique and add the Ron Paul libertarian types on the foreign policy side, you get up into fairly healthy numbers. You know, it could be 15-20 million people. But there’s no political reflection of that. If you look at the November elections, there are some progressives, you know, running in primaries, but even the recent challenge to Blanche Lincoln didn’t win. And at the national level, as a political force, there’s almost no articulation. Why is that?

HEDGES: Because the needs and desires of citizens are irrelevant. When the first bailout package was proposed, $700 billion, constituent calls in Congress were 100 to 1 across the political spectrum against the bailout, and yet it passed anyway. It passed because the corporations and Wall Street wanted it passed. The FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] reform act, which permitted or essentially made legal what had been illegal, which was the spying and monitoring, wiretapping, eavesdropping on tens of millions of American citizens without warrant, was passed, which had no popular support. Why? Because, of course, the telecommunication companies, which had a series of lawsuits for turning over this information to the government [inaudible] most credible legal experts believe they would have lost�wanted it to be passed. Again and again the whole health-care debate, so-called health-care reform bill, has just been turned out, by the time it was finished, to have been the pharmaceutical, insurance companies’ version of the Wall Street bailout, with about $400 billion plus in subsidies, no check on rising copayments and premiums, I mean, on and on and on. We as citizens have been rendered impotent.

JAY: George Will said something in the election campaign which I’ve quoted many times, and he said, essentially, let’s not get sentimental about American democracy: we’re not going to decide whether or not the elites are going to rule; we’re going to decide which elite is going to rule or which section of the elite is going to rule. If one takes that as true�and I don’t often find myself agreeing with George Will, but I do on that�then where are the non-elite politics? Like, what you’re expressing is a point of view that one could say reflects the interests of people who aren’t in the elite. Where is a national political force that represents that?

HEDGES: Well, there isn’t one. And this is really tied to the death of the American liberal class. The liberal class as an entity is extremely important in functioning civil societies, because it makes possible incremental or piecemeal reform. It in essence functions as a kind of safety valve, especially in times of political turmoil. We saw it in the 1930s. Remember, Roosevelt was a patrician figure who certainly, as you correctly point out by quoting Will, came out of the elite. You saw it again in the 1960s. That is the role of the liberal class. Unfortunately, with the rise of the corporate state, the liberal class has been destroyed, and the institutions which sustained the liberal class�the press, the universities, culture, the Democratic Party, labor unions, religious organizations�have been decimated by corporate control, so that those truly independent voices�. Look at economics departments in just about any university in the United States, and they’re all coming out of the Chicago school, they’re all, you know, the free-market believers in globalization. The liberal class internally has purged those kinds of voices that in a time of crisis they so desperately need to hear, so that they are not only outside of the liberal institutions themselves, but because these institutions�especially the press, of course�control the means of communication. These voices are not heard. And you saw very heavy-handed tactics, both in the primaries and in the general election, to shut out these kinds of voices. You saw it with Dennis Kucinich, who was literally locked out of debates in New Hampshire, Nevada, and other places by the debate committee, which is a private committee actually funded by corporate interests. You saw it the way Nader was shut out [inaudible] Nader, of course, essentially being destroyed by the Democratic Party after his grassroots movement posed a very credible threat to Democratic control. So what has happened is that the liberal class, to retain its positions of comfort and privilege, has essentially abandoned any serious defense of traditional liberal values. You see it all in any column that Thomas Friedman writes. It is an embrace of imperial war, preemptive war, which of course under international laws or under post-Nuremberg laws is defined as a criminal war of aggression. It’s an embrace of globalization. It is an abandonment, a betrayal of the American working class. And when you, within a society, have a bankrupt liberalism�it’s something Dostoevsky wrote about in Demons and Notes from the Underground at the end of the 19th century�you descend inevitably into a period of moral nihilism, you remove that capacity for change, that mechanism by which change is possible, and so that this legitimate rage, which is being expressed by huge numbers of the dispossessed within the United States, has no outlet through traditional political mechanisms and finds its expression in these proto-fascist movements like the militias or tea parties. And that’s essentially what’s happened. So the tragedy of the liberal class is that it was destroyed and it destroyed itself. And you can’t maintain a civil society in those kinds of circumstances.

JAY: Okay, Chris, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about what you think people should be doing. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Chris Hedges on The Real News Network.

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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.