By Chris Hedges. This article was first published on Rabble.
This is the speech Chris Hedges would have delivered at the Toronto protest against Bill C-51 on Saturday, if he had made it to the city in time. Weather delayed his plane, but rabble.ca was able to obtain the text of his address and present it here.
Hedges has spent much of his career working as a foreign correspondent in war zones across the globe, and has written extensively on the surveillance state and world conflict. rabble.ca interviewed Hedges by phone that day. You can read that interview here.
Here is what Chris Hedges planned to tell the Toronto crowd protesting C-51:
Any state that has the ability to inflict full-spectrum dominance on its citizens is not a free state. It does not matter if it does not use this capacity today. It will use it, history has shown, should it feel threatened or seek greater control. The goal of wholesale surveillance, as Hannah Arendt wrote, is not, in the end, to discover crimes, “but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.” No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere at any time, whose conversations, messages, meetings, proclivities and habits are recorded, stored and analyzed, as ours are, can be described as free. The relationship between those who are constantly watched and tracked, and those who watch and track them, is the relationship between masters and slaves.
There will, if this law is not blocked, be no checks left on state power. State Security will operate outside the law. Citizens will be convicted on secret evidence in secret courts. Citizens will be subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. Due process will be eradicated. Internal security organs will serve as judge, jury and executioner. The outward forms of democratic participation — voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation — will remain, but become meaningless forms of political theater.
Once the security services become omnipotent those who challenge the abuses of power, those who expose the crimes carried out by government are treated as criminals. Totalitarian states always invert the moral order. The evil rule. The righteous are condemned.
Societies that once had democratic traditions, or periods when openness was possible, are often seduced into totalitarian systems because their rulers continue to pay outward fealty to the ideals, practices and forms of the old systems. This was true when the Emperor Augustus dismantled the Roman Republic. It was true when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control of the autonomous soviets and ruthlessly centralized power. It was true following the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi fascism. And it is true today in Canada and the United States. Thomas Paine described despotic government as a fungus growing out of a corrupt and decayed civil society.
Try to defend the treaty rights of First Nations people and you will go to prison. Try to halt the tar sands, fracking, or the bitumen-carrying pipelines and you will go to prison. Try to oppose Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and you will go to prison. And once you are seized by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service you can be subjected to sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, the disorienting poles of extreme light and darkness or extreme heat and extreme cold, along with stress-position torture, waterboarding, beatings and pressure-point torture. And it will all be legal.
Those singled out as internal enemies will include people of color, immigrants, gays, intellectuals, activists, feminists, Jews, Muslims, journalists, union leaders and those defined as “liberals.” They will be condemned by reactionary forces, fed and sustained by corporate propaganda and money, and blamed for our decline. The looming economic and environmental collapse will be pinned by these demagogues and hate-mongers — some of whom have found a perch within the CBC — on vulnerable scapegoats. And the random acts of violence, such as the attack by a lone gunman on Parliament Hill, will be used to justify even harsher measures of internal control. Fear will be relentlessly orchestrated to manufacture paralysis and consent.
How do we resist? How, if this descent is inevitable, as I believe it is, do we fight back? Why should we resist at all? Why not give in to cynicism and despair? Why not carve out as comfortable a niche as possible within the embrace of the corporate state and spend our lives attempting to satiate our private needs? The power elite, including most of those who graduate from our top universities, academics, politicians, the press and our liberal and intellectual classes, have sold out for personal comfort. Why not us?
Albert Camus argued that we are separated from each other. Our lives are meaningless. We cannot influence fate. We will all die. Our individual beings will be obliterated. And yet Camus wrote “one of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between human beings and their obscurity. It is not aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”
“A living person can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object,” Camus warned. “But if he or she dies in refusing to be enslaved, he or she reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object.”
The rebel, for Camus, stands with the oppressed — the unemployed and underemployed workers, the people of the First Nations whose land and lives are being exploited, Palestinians in Gaza, the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, the disappeared who are held in our global black sites, the poor in our inner cities and depressed rural communities, immigrants and those locked away in our prison system. And to stand with them means a refusal to collaborate with political systems that mouth the words of justice while carrying out acts of oppression. It means open and direct defiance.
The elites and their liberal apologists dismiss the rebel as impractical. They brand the rebel’s outsider stance as counterproductive. They condemn the rebel for being inflexible, unwilling to compromise. These elites call for calm and patience. They use the hypocritical language of spirituality, compromise, tolerance, generosity and compassion to argue that the only alternative is to accept and work with systems of despotic power. The rebel, however, is beholden to a moral commitment that makes this impossible. The rebel refuses to be bought off with government and foundation grants, invitations to parliament, television appearances, book contracts, academic appointments or empty rhetoric. The rebel is not concerned with self-promotion or public opinion. The rebel knows that, as Augustine wrote, hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage — anger at the way things are and the courage to see that they do not remain the way they are. The rebel is aware that virtue is not rewarded. The act of rebellion defines is its own virtue.
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Vaclav Havel said when he battled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. The dissident is not seeking power. The dissident has no desire for office and does not gather votes. The dissident does not attempt to charm the public. The dissident offers nothing and promises nothing. The dissident can offer, if anything, only his or her own skin — and the dissident offers it solely because the dissident has no other way of affirming the truth he or she stands for. The dissident’s actions simply articulate his or her dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.”
We have the capacity to say no, to refuse to cooperate. Any boycott or demonstration, any occupation or sit-in, any strike, any act of obstruction or sabotage, any refusal to pay taxes, any fast, any popular movement and any act of civil disobedience ignites the soul of the rebel and exposes the dead hand of authority. It is only this refusal to cooperate that will not save us.
“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop,” Mario Savio said in 1964. “And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
Rebellion in the face of tyranny is its own justification. Rebellion allows us to be free and independent human beings. Rebellion chips away, however imperceptibly, at the edifice of the oppressor and sustains the flames of empathy, solidarity, hope and finally love. And in moments of profound human despair these flames, no matter how dim, are monumental. They keep alive the capacity to be human. We must become, as Camus said, so absolutely free that “existence is an act of rebellion.” Once we attain that freedom we discover that rebellion is not defined by what it achieves, but by who we become.
Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism, those who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration with corporate tyranny are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide. They extinguish hope. They become the living dead.
No one Ottawa or Washington will halt the rise of the most sophisticated security and surveillance state in human history. The corporate coup is over. And they have won. It is up to us. We are the people we have been waiting for.
I do not know if we can build a better society. I do not even know if we will survive as a species. But I know these corporate forces have us by the throat. And they have my children by the throat. I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists. And this is a fight that in the face of the overwhelming forces against us requires us to find in all acts of sustained rebellion the embers of life, an intrinsic meaning that lies outside of certain success. It requires us to at once grasp reality and then refuse to allow this reality to paralyze us. It is, and I say this to people of all creeds or no creeds, to make an absurd leap of faith, to believe, despite all empirical evidence around us, that good always draws to it the good, that the fight for life always goes somewhere. We do not know where. The Buddhists call it karma. And in these sustained acts of resistance we make it possible to reclaim a future for the generations that come after us, a future that the corporate state, if not overthrown, will obliterate.