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Robert Scheer and Chris Hedges on Class Struggle
Posted on Nov 1, 2011
Last week on Truthdig Radio, the columnists had an in-depth discussion about the Occupy movement and the ruling class, which Hedges said is “totally divorced from what’s happening.”
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Chris Hedges: Yeah. We are.
Robert Scheer: And are they getting the message, or is it just too late?
Chris Hedges: No.
Robert Scheer: No.
Chris Hedges: They don’t know what’s happening. It’s that old Dylan song, you know? “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones.” They don’t have—they don’t know what’s going on. That’s why they keep asking for demands: What are your demands, what are your demands? I was just down at Zuccotti Park, and they said, “We’re thinking about having a slogan saying ‘our demands are there is no demand.’ ” They want the corporate state reversed, and the power elite can’t get their head around that.
Robert Scheer: You know, the power elite has spent a lot of money denying there is a power elite. And I remember when I was teaching in graduate school in economics, there was ‘oh, there really isn’t—there’s equal, relatively equal income distribution.’ And just today, the Congressional Budget Office came out with a study of what I would call Three Decades of Greed. They traced it from ’79 to ’07. And the top 1 percent’s income went up 273 percent! I mean, we now have ample documentation of the obvious: that this claimed middle class that was supposed to be the basis of American democracy is being wiped out; that people lower down are really suffering. And you’ve seen these people, you’ve met with them, you’ve rubbed shoulders with them. What do they think, they’re just going to rough it out, or that it won’t matter?
Chris Hedges: Well, I think that oligarchic elite is so insulated from reality; you know, the only time they mingle with the working classes is when they meet their gardener or their chauffer or, you know, a bartender. And of course these people are in roles where their job depends on them being subservient or obsequious. So they’re totally divorced from what’s happening. They don’t see it, it’s not on their radar screen, they don’t get it. And that’s what happens with isolated elites, whether it’s in the Forbidden City or Versailles or anywhere else. They can’t make rational decisions, because they don’t understand what reality is like for the 99 percent. They have no idea.
Robert Scheer: You know, Chris, in your most recent article on Truthdig you raise a pointed challenge to the protesters to be in touch with minorities, to not repeat the errors of the ’60s, to involve the working class. And when I read that, it hit me that one big difference we have now is that back in the ’60s, we had something of what was called the labor aristocracy. There was an illusion that the good times would keep rolling, because we had strong unions and decent wages. And there [even] was a hope that minorities would be doing better. Now we have a situation, the Pew Research Center reports, that for Latinos there’s been a 60 percent decline in wealth, not just income; for African-Americans, 53 percent. We know what has happened to working-class wages. So do you think that is the decisive difference between now and then?
Chris Hedges: I think there are many differences, but I think that’s probably the biggest. There was never an alliance with unionized labor and the anti-war movement, or the civil rights movement. Unionized labor being predominantly white, you know—you know better than I; supported Nixon’s war in Indochina, denounced the sort of hippies in the streets, with all of that sort of coded racism that white privilege loves, when they were talking about Martin Luther King. That’s a big difference.
Now, unions also don’t have the kind of clout that they had in the ’60s. I think we had about 37 percent of workers in this country were unionized; it’s now diminished to around 12 percent, and a lot of them are public-sector employees, not only whose unions are under assault but who don’t even have the capacity to strike. But I think that’s a huge difference; I think that part of the weakness of the ’60s was that it never built an alliance with labor the way the old radical movements of the turn of the century. The Wobblies, the old C.I.O. and the Communist Party built movements between radical intellectuals like Randolph Bourne and Jane Addams and Mother Jones and Eugene Debs, and organized labor. Which gave those movements, I think, a kind of power that, in the end, the movements of the ’60s didn’t have.
I think the other problem is that the movements in the ’60s—and I have a kind of peculiar relationship; I was just a kid, but I was hauled off to all these demonstrations by my father, who was involved in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement and finally the gay rights movement. But he was an ordained Presbyterian clergy, so in our house there was never any alcohol. The hedonism of the ’60s was deeply distasteful to the religious left, and I think that hedonism is not part of this movement. I mean, it’s fascinating that the ban on alcohol and drugs is rigorously enforced—self, it’s self-policing in Zuccotti Park. Now, of course they know that this gives the authorities an excuse to throw them out. But I think that there are important differences that cut across class lines now, and those class lines remained fairly rigid in the ’60s. The anti-war movement was largely a white middle-class phenomenon; the civil rights movement, of course, achieved a legal victory, not an economic one, although both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X understood that without economic justice, racial equality, any kind of racial equality, was impossible.
I think what we’re seeing is something really new and unique and different. Not that movements are new and unique; they’ve, of course, always come with us throughout American history, and of course always proven to be the true correctives to democracy, whether it’s the suffragists or the anti-slavery movement or the labor party or the civil rights movement. But this cuts across traditional lines. And that’s why you see, almost from its inception, a very wide popular support. And I think when you go back to the civil rights movement, even among the African-American community, certainly that’s true in the anti-war movement—those movements began with very little popular support. And that’s a big difference.
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