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The Wages of Sin

Posted on Apr 10, 2016

By Chris Hedges

  Camden, one of the poorest U.S. cities, is among New Jersey municipalities suffering a crisis of blight since manufacturing disappeared. (Mel Evans / AP)

When Plato wrote “The Republic,” his lament for a lost Athenian democracy, he did not believe democracy could be recovered. The classical world, unlike our own, did not see time as linear. Time was cyclical. It inevitably brought decay and eventually death, true for both individuals and societies. And in his “Republic,” Plato proposed that those who attempted in the future to create the ideal state carry out a series of draconian measures, including banning drama and music, which diverted the citizen from performing civic duties and instilled corruption, and removing children from their parents to provide a proper indoctrination. Plato wanted to slow the process of dissolution. He wanted to stymie change. But that decay and death would come was certain, even in Plato’s ideal state.

History has proved the ancient Greeks correct: All cultures decay and die. Dying cultures, even when they cannot fully articulate their reality, begin to deeply fear change. Change, they find, brings with it increasing dysfunction, misery and suffering. This fear of change soon becomes irrational. It compounds decay and accelerates morbidity. To see modern-day victims of this process, we need only look to white American workers who once had good manufacturing jobs and benefited from the structures of white supremacy.

Those who promise to miraculously roll back time rise up in decaying cultures to hypnotize a bewildered and confused population. Plastic surgeons who provide the illusion of eternal youth, religious leaders who promise a return to a simplified biblical morality, political demagogues who hold out the promise of a renewed greatness, and charlatans offering techniques for self-advancement and success all peddle magical thinking. A desperate population, fearing change, clamors for greater and greater illusion. The forces that ensure collective death—including corporate capitalism, the fossil fuel industry and the animal agriculture industry—are blotted out of consciousness.

When a society laments the past and dreads the future, when it senses the looming presence of death, it falls down a rabbit hole. And as in the case of Alice—who “went on saying to herself, in a dreamy sort of way, ‘Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?’ and sometimes, ‘Do bats eat cats?’ for, you see, as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it”—language becomes unmoored from experience. Daily discourse, especially public discourse, is, as our presidential campaign illustrates, reduced to childish gibberish. 

Jobs are gone. Schools are closed. Neighborhoods and cities are in ruin. Despair and poverty dominate lives. Civil liberties are abolished. War is endless. The society self-medicates. Democracy is a fiction. “Austerity” decisions by government such as the latest slashing of the federal food stamp program, a move that could remove a million people from the rolls, bring more jolts. Shocks like these, as Alvin Toffler wrote, eventually trigger emotional overload; they are “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.” And, finally, reality is too much to bear and is banished.

Climate change and the looming financial crisis will transform these emotional short circuits into what anthropologists call “crisis cults.” Crisis cults serve up illusions of recovered grandeur and empowerment during times of collapse, anxiety and disempowerment. A mythologized past will magically return. The old social hierarchies and rules will again apply. Prescribed rituals and behaviors, including acts of violence to cleanse the society of evil, will vanquish malevolent forces. These crisis cults—they have arisen in most societies that faced destruction, from Easter Island to Native Americans at the time of the 1890 Ghost Dance—create hermetically sealed tribes. We are already far down this road.

I spent a recent weekend in the Second Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, N.J., helping to clear out piles of old books, church records, plastic flowers, worn choir robes and other detritus that were dusty remnants of the white working-class congregation that filled these pews a few decades ago.

Elizabeth was devastated by the 1982 closure of its Singer plant, which had been built in 1873 and at one time had 10,000 workers. The 1,000 or so African-Americans at the plant worked mostly in a foundry that made cast-iron parts for the sewing machines. The work was poorly paid and dangerous. White workers, many of them German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish or Lithuanian immigrants, dominated the safer and better-paid factory floor. The city was built around the sprawling plant. Generations of residents organized their lives and their families on the basis of Singer jobs or income that the facility indirectly produced. And then, after a long decline, the factory was gone.

The year Singer closed its flagship factory in Elizabeth there were 2,696 plant shutdowns across the United States, resulting in 1,287,000 job losses. Singer workers in Elizabeth under the age of 55 lost all retirement benefits, even if they had worked for the company for decades. Small businesses in the city that depended on the plant went bankrupt.

In postindustrial cities across America it is now clear, after the passage of years, that the good jobs and stability once provided by factories such as the Singer plant have been lost forever. The pent-up anger and frustration among the white working class have given birth to dark pathologies of hate. The hate is directed against those of different skin color or ethnicity who somehow seem to have heralded the changes that destroyed families and communities. 

This sentiment, on display at Donald Trump rallies, will outlive the Trump campaign even should the candidate be, as I expect, deposed by the party elites. It is a very dangerous force. It presages violence against all who appear to have been empowered at the expense of the white working class—African-Americans, Muslims, undocumented workers, homosexuals, feminists, artists and intellectuals—and will feed the rise of a Christianized fascism. 

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