AUDIO: Chris Hedges and Robert Scheer: Rebellion and the Freedom Act
Editor’s note: Chris Hedges’ column will be published Wednesday this week.
In a discussion about the topics in Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges’ new book, “Wages of Rebellion,” Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer and Hedges argue over the significance of the USA Freedom Act — specifically, whether it represents a meaningful challenge to the national security and surveillance state.
The interview was broadcast as a KPFK 90.7 FM Special Program produced by Joshua Scheer.
— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.
Robert Scheer: So, let me begin by asking about — before we get to your book, “Wages of Rebellion,” you had an article this week on Karl Marx. And when I saw the article and I started reading it, I thought, “This is great, but no one’s going to read it.” And in fact, I think we’ve had over 100,000 people come to Truthdig to read it. Is that surprising to you that there would be interest, that —
Chris Hedges: Yes. It is. I had the same reaction you did. I never kind of write a column thinking whether or not anyone’s going to read it. As you know, I can write really long — probably too long — and I often, you know, accept that probably a lot of people won’t finish it, but I write it long because I want to get all of that in there. But yeah, I was kind of surprised; I thought that it would not garner a lot of attention.
RS: Well, it’s really interesting. Before we get to the substance of your book and then of this article — everybody’s got this sort of view of the Internet, and nobody really quite grasps what it’s doing, at least in its current — it may get ruined by corporate takeover and so forth, more extensively than now, but the myth in journalism schools and elsewhere is that, you know, the quick read. Nobody wants long-form stories, and this is an article that has complex thoughts on important issues. And we can tell on Truthdig, people are going right through the different pages — they’re not stopping just with the lead. So anyway, I consider that very encouraging that people are looking for deeper answers. Do you have any — .
CH: Well, I think I write for a peculiar kind of reader often — I mean, I try to gear my columns toward people who probably read books. You know, I write columns in the same way that I write books, which is ultimately for myself; I mean, I love books, I have 5,000 books in my house; the only rooms that don’t have bookshelves are the bathrooms and the kitchen. And I often will go to used-book stores, and I live within walking distance of the Princeton University Library, one of the great research libraries in the country. And I love just pulling, discovering a book that I’ve never heard of — pulling it off the shelf of a bookstore, a used-book store or a library. I think of that moment myself as a reader, you know, wanting to — as a writer, I think of appealing to that kind of a person who would pull that book out, and that’s why I kind of write at a level at which, you know, I don’t pander to a particular audience, but to kind of the reader within me — that’s always how I write.
RS: Yeah, but the good news here is that, as I say, well over 100,000 people and climbing have signed on to read your article, so that’s very promising for the number of book readers. And hopefully a significant number will show up in Los Angeles to hear you speaking Sunday night. But let me begin with Marx, and in reading your book, I was surprised to find that actually, in “Wages of Rebellion,” a kind of refutation of Marx and Engels. That there’s an optimism in Marx and Engels of a sort of trajectory of history as leading to ever-higher levels of progress — that the contradictions get resolved and produce a higher form. And in “The Communist Manifesto,” people tend to ignore it, but I used to delight in pointing out that in “The Communist Manifesto,” there’s actually even a tribute to capitalism for ending what Marx called the idiocy of rural life, of building big cities, developing a more interconnected world and so forth, and in “Wages of Rebellion,” you specifically discount that view.
CH: Yes. And you nailed something that a lot of people who don’t read Marx don’t know, [which] is that Marx had a great admiration for capitalism. But I don’t share — I mean I think that there is no one, I mean he ranks with Freud in terms of the seismic importance of what he did as a philosopher in terms of dissecting and explaining to us how capitalism works. You cannot be literate about economics if you haven’t read “Capital.” And his political writings — “The Civil War in France,” “The 18th Brumaire [of Louis Bonaparte],” “The Communist Manifesto” — are brilliant and important.
But I diverge, as you correctly point out, very dramatically from Marx in that I don’t embrace this notion that time is linear, that human progress is inevitable, that we are going somewhere that is greater and more glorious than where we have been. I don’t share that. And I think that comes out of my own kind of dark understanding of human nature — partly inculcated in the heavy Protestant Calvinist theology in which I was raised — but I think even more significantly influenced by my 20 years as a war correspondent in some of the most brutal conflicts in the latter and early part of — latter part of the 20th century and early part of this century — wars in Bosnia, five years in the war in El Salvador, the wars in the Middle East for seven years — and I’m just acutely aware of how swiftly societies can become collectively insane, and how easy it is to acculturate people to commit and condone atrocity.
RS: Yeah, but I don’t think that Marx was a stranger to societal madness.
CH: No, he wasn’t.
RS: He experienced the collapse and the tyranny of different societies and ended up, of course, taking refuge in England —
RS: — only after he was driven out of Germany and France and so forth, and he also was something of a witness to war. I think his own writing on the American Civil War was quite interesting. But the differences, and I don’t have the authority to say who’s right in this, but what Marx was basically arguing was that the contradictions in the system lead to a higher level — the reason being, the system can’t deliver, it can’t satisfy — .
CH: And in that he’s right.
RS: Yes, but then why don’t we get good outcomes? I’m looking for some optimism here.
CH: Well, sometimes you do, but sometimes you don’t. And I think that where I diverge from Marx is in the belief that a good outcome is inevitable. You know, you just have to look at the rise and fall of civilizations — the Dark Ages, I know that’s a kind of misnomer — but the way that all of not only the technical but cultural and intellectual achievements of the classical era were obliterated, kept alive solely because of Arabic scholars with the rise of Islam — and we wouldn’t have Aristotle otherwise. And in that sense I don’t think there’s anything within human nature or human history to justify that kind of optimism.
RS: Yet your book is an attempt at optimism, because you’re singling out people who are in struggle — individuals who challenge the system. But you liken them to religious mystics; you make them seem almost as if they’re acting compulsively, without hope, without reason. They have to do it. Is that how you see your own book-writing or … ?
RS: Lynne Stewart, I think, who is another particularly interesting —
CH: Lynn Stewart is another.
RS: — a lawyer who, you interviewed her when she was in fourth-stage breast cancer — .
CH: She just had been released from prison. And the others, including Assange — he’s virtually living under house arrest in the Ecuadorean embassy — but Hammond and Mumia. And I think that there is something within the rebel — and Reinhold Niebhur calls it the “sublime madness.” I also quote James Baldwin and his great essay where he talks about the convergence of qualities that he sees within the artist and the rebel, that it’s not so much that they strive toward a particular vision but that they are driven by it, consumed by it.
And I think that, you know, especially in moments when we see seismic change, those who stand up to resist — and I covered, as you know, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and was every night in the Magic Lantern Theater with Vaclav Havel, and Klaus and Dinsbeer and everybody who had gone to run the post-communist-era government — I think there is that kind of quality where you resist not finally for what you can achieve but for what it allows you to become. I think that was very much the thesis that Havel had in his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay I like very, very much. Of course, we hope to achieve or defeat those forces that we are defying.
But even if, empirically, at the end of our particular personal struggle, everything around us is worse, it doesn’t invalidate what we’ve done. And especially in moments of tyranny, when you stand up and defy forces of oppression, you keep alive another narrative. And you saw that with the great dissidents Milovan Djilas or Havel or others in Eastern Europe who, year after year, who were non-people, who were banished from the official press in the way that figures like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader are virtually banished from the mainstream press here, but they just keep hammering at it. And more people hear it than appears at the moment among a population that is written off as passive or complacent. And rebels, you know, they’re not particularly great in terms of exercising power. You saw it with, you know, figures like Che Guevara, or Trotsky, or I interview Ronnie Kasrils, who founded the armed wing of the ANC [African National Congress] with Nelson Mandela; he’s white and Jewish. And he makes a good point in the interview, you know, he said, “I’m a rebel in the sense that I turned on my own class.” Nelson Mandela was a revolutionary. And when the ANC took power, Kasrils could never fit into that power structure, because he was a rebel.
So, he immediately in the same way that Milovan Djilas, the great Yugoslav dissident, never fit into Tito’s power structure and wrote his classic takedown of the communist elite called “The New Class,” which sent him back to prison. So you saw the same thing with Kasrils, who condemns the corruption of the ANC, and then when those miners are shot, in the largest massacre since the Sharpeville Massacre of 1961, he becomes a fierce critic. And I think that that is the quality of a rebel. They kind of never conform — even to their own. They’re kind of eternal heretics. And yet they’re absolutely vital in moments of seismic change. And here I would go back to Neibhur. He says, and I quote Neibhur in the book, that in moments of extremity, liberals are useless. They’re too ineffectual, they’re too — he actually uses the term, too emotional.
And I think we live in a moment of, you know, what Immanuel Kant or Hannah Arendt will call radical evil, which is why rebels are absolutely essential if we’re going to rise up and push back against the tyranny of corporate power.
RS: But how do they get to be these rebels — you almost describe people as if they’re sort of deranged, but Ralph Nader was a solid citizen in the eyes of most liberals. … There are many people who have gone into the Clinton administration, right up through Obama, who were disciples of Nader, who signed up for his various consumer protections programs and so forth. How did, is Nader really that religious mystic, or is Nader what a balanced citizen/lawyer should be — ?
CH: Well, you know, he lives like a monk.
RS: I know that.
CH: I mean, he lives on $25,000 a year, he has no car, as far as I can tell, he has no personal life.
RS: But he has a very balanced view of — .
CH: … Well, I don’t think rebels are imbalanced. I don’t think that. … You know, rebels have to make very clear calculations about the forces of power they are up against. And Ralph knew, when we had a functioning democracy and a functioning liberal class, he knew how to work those centers of power on behalf of the citizenry. And the reason that he finally walked away and ran for president is because he was unable, after the Clinton administration, to effect change within the system, because that traditional wing of the liberal party that was willing to push through the pieces of legislation, 24 pieces of little legislation which were all written largely by Nader — the Mine and Safety Act, the Clean Water Act, OSHA, all this came out of Nader.
And I think my own early critique of corporate power is really due to Ralph, in the sense that, you know, Ralph — he knows more about the inner workings of corporate power and has been fighting it longer and with more integrity than probably any other American. And he was very patient and took a lot of time to really explain to me, because I had spent 20 years overseas, exactly what had happened, how this corporate coup had taken place, and what it had done to the various mechanisms within government that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible. So, I certainly would describe Nader as a rebel in that, rather than conform or give up, you know, he’s just utterly tireless about pushing back. And incorruptible — GM, as you know, and everybody tried, you know, they’ve tried to bring him down every way possible.
So, yeah, I do think they do share this kind of quality with religious mystics in that they are driven by this vision, and no matter what is thrown at them, they keep rising up and resisting. Mumia Abu-Jamal is a heroic example of that. And yet I’m not always sure that these people are built for power because they’re not always good at compromise, and yet they’re absolutely vital to a healthy society.
RS: You know, it’s interesting, reading your book — and I have to admit that I’m not yet done with it, probably about 50 or 60 percent in — and it’s great that people are going to be able to hear you discuss the book when you speak in Los Angeles in Little Tokyo on Sunday night, which is one of the reasons why we are doing this interview. I think anybody who starts this book is not going to be able to stop, and they’re going to want to hear this lecture.
But it seems to me that, dare I say, that there is a contradiction. You are really hard on what you call the “lumpenproletariat.” You talk about the ability of the CIA to organize just such an element — as they did against Mossadegh in Iran — the use of the mob in the street, how easy it is for authorities to pervert such movements and so forth. And yet you hold up Occupy, for example, as a great vehicle, a great example of the kind of struggle that we should be engaged in. Aren’t those movements the exact kind of movements that can be infiltrated by the police, that can be manipulated, and that do attract a lumpen element, in the sense that they are not connected with the labor movement, they’re not connected with jobs, they’re not connected with structures. There are people who are out there for manipulation to be — .
CH: Well, Occupy was largely a white middle-class phenomenon driven by — you know, I’m going to speak mostly about the Occupy movement in New York, where I spent a lot of time — but driven by the sons and daughters of the middle class. College educated, burdened with tremendous debt, unable to find jobs — so they would hardly be considered the lumpenproletariat. In terms of infiltration — and yes, without question this is part of the problem, and it really brings us back to Lenin — the fact that these movements were nonhierarchical, the fact that they attempted to govern themselves through consensus made them very much vulnerable to manipulation by internal security. And internal security was all over these movements just as they were — you know, anecdotally I have no idea whether this is true, but I have heard from Ferguson activists that they estimate that up to 150 FBI, Homeland [Security], you know, internal security people have been placed in Ferguson itself. I wouldn’t be surprised.
And that gets into the old debate which Lenin had, which is: How do you build a radical movement unless you use rigid hierarchy and discipline to essentially keep out those elements from destroying it? And unfortunately the state has invested tremendous resources into destroying what are nonviolent peaceful citizen movements — including, of course, the decision to physically eradicate Occupy encampments themselves. And this is very worrying, because I have covered all sorts of conflicts, including, you know, the war in El Salvador, which, people forget after [a] military coup, began with huge peaceful demonstrations through the capital. And the military government responded by literally setting machine guns up on the roofs of buildings and gunning people down in the streets, which precipitated an insurgency.
The longer a state refuses to respond to the rational and legitimate demands of the citizenry, of people marching in Baltimore, marching in Ferguson, decrying the murder by a militarized police force of citizens, many of them unarmed — and yet these shootings and murders by these police forces continue unabated, even as we in the country watch a video of uniformed police choking to death armed citizens on sidewalks — and the longer the state refuses to react in a rational way, the more it pushes inevitably towards counterviolence.
And we’ve seen — I’m hoping that it’s episodic and they are isolated — but just in the last month, we’ve seen a rash of shootings of police officers. So, I worry that the state is so ossified and so tone-deaf, and we’ve seen that with the reaction to the financial crisis, to the exposure of wholesale security and surveillance, to the decision by our judicial system to strip us of constitutional rights in essence by judicial fiat, by reinterpreting the Constitution so that unlimited corporate cash becomes the right to petition the government — which is, of course, insane — that, you know, you are polarizing a society. And what the schools are becoming are essentially technical schools, in the way that Stanford has become, and Harvard is rapidly heading in that direction; so is Princeton. So that, you know, the humanities, which were once the kind of core mission of institutions like these, are just appendages. Fewer and fewer majors, diminished resources, and it’s all about building technical systems, including business schools, that produce classes of service managers for corporate power.
I mean, we had at one point — I don’t know what the figure is now — but not very long ago, we had 49 percent of the graduating class at Harvard going into the financial services industry, and that didn’t count all the people who went to law school to become corporate lawyers. At that point you’re probably talking 60 or 70 percent. And Princeton is no different. Goldman Sachs starts recruiting here on this campus — I’m a few blocks from campus — sophomore year, they give them internships. The first week of school, you can see these young men and women in their tuxedos and ball gowns bidding, going to these eating clubs that look like plantation houses — some of which still have 100 percent African-American service staff. And everybody wants to network to get into Ivy [League schools] because Goldman Sachs recruits out of Ivy.
It’s sad. You know, their whole childhood or youth is being robbed from them, and they are being slotted into the machine. But you don’t get into the schools anymore unless you’ve been conditioned — through standardized testing, AP testing, enrichment courses, you know, perfect SAT scores, perfect grades — to define yourself by being utterly deferential to authority. And so they — you know, if you’re a rebel, if you’re an iconoclast, you’re never going to even get into the schools, and so while these kids are competent and work hard, they are spineless. They are so deferential to authority that they are unquestioningly, you know, almost all of them, swept up into the system of corporate power.
And that goes right back to Adorno’s great essay “Education After Auschwitz” — if you don’t teach people to make moral decisions, if you don’t teach people how to critique power and systems and challenge societal assumptions, if you don’t teach people, in short, to think, but you just program them, then you barrel your society toward a terrifying dystopia.
And I’ve heard you say — it’s a line I’ve stolen from you a few times — about Obama getting up and talking about education. And as you have correctly pointed out, the problem isn’t education; the people who destroyed this country, like Larry Summers, were the best-educated, ostensibly, people in the United States. The problem is at a much more fundamental level. It’s about greed, and I’m paraphrasing Robert Scheer, but it’s true.
RS: OK, but I also have written that there is hope in that their system is not sustainable.
CH: Well, it isn’t sustainable, without question. And that was the whole focus of my column on Marx — because he not only dissected how capitalism operated, but he understood, with a kind of brilliant prescience, what the final stages of capitalism would look like when it was no longer able to expand and generate its past profits. That it would consume the superstructures that sustained it, and it would prey, in the name of austerity, on the poor, on the working class and everyone else. And that’s of course what it has done. So it isn’t sustainable, but it doesn’t mean — and here’s where it gets back to the beginning of our discussion — it doesn’t mean that what comes after is going to be better. It could be worse.
RS: Oh, there’s no question it could be worse. But I’m trying to look for the glimmer of hope here, and again in terms of those contradictions, let me just take you to the current argument about the surveillance state. And there’s no question that the drive for fully controlling authority, observing every moment — yes, that comes from a desire to sustain your power, even when there’s no basis in logic or decency for sustaining it — you want to observe everyone, you want to control them, you want to stifle dissent.
But the reason the U.S. Congress was forced to abandon the worst of it, the Patriot Act — I’m not saying it solved the problem, and even the president had to sign on that bill — is that the model for the United States of the surveillance society and observing the rest of the world for our convenience was not going to be accepted by the rest of the world. And that for the multinational corporations, they have the contradiction that indeed Marx explained that the interest of the multinational corporation might be rejected by people outside of America. And so therefore there was pushback on this surveillance state. And is that not a source for optimism, that you can win big victories?
CH: Well, the question is whether this is a big victory or not.
RS: Do you want me to defend it?
CH: I think it’s a victory, but as I understand it, the bulk collection of [phone data] are still being stored, they’re just not being stored by the government. Most of the operations, and as I understand it, the foreign operations, are still intact. I am highly skeptical that this monster that we have unleashed, this vast global security and surveillance apparatus, is going to be tamed by the Freedom Act. But you know more about it than I do.
RS: There’s no question this stops one program — at least changes it. But what happened was that the debate raised by people who — you’re absolutely right — the mainstream media and government officials wanted to destroy, the Julian Assange, the Edward Snowden, the Bill Binney, all of these, the people who spoke out, were going to be marginalized, destroyed, called traitors, eliminated from the debate.
But the fact is that didn’t happen. Their message got out. Thanks in part to what you do — writing books, speaking, denouncing evil when you encounter it. And in fact, it found a receptive chord not only in the American public, which is not unimportant, but internationally. Internationally. So the effort to marginalize that opposition — now, Edward Snowden, even in the accounts and New York Times and elsewhere, have to acknowledge that this law would not have been changed were it not for Snowden. Right? Were it not for whistleblowers, not for people who offered a profound indictment of the system. And so that is a profound victory, it shows that there can be change. I know I sound naïve, but I believe this to be true.
CH: Well, this is the problem: It doesn’t matter what we want. I mean, there’s no question. People don’t want corporations to — they want campaign finance. People didn’t want bailouts for banks; constituent calls were 100 to 1 against those bailouts across the political spectrum. But they passed anyway. When I challenged Obama in federal court against section 10-21 of the National Defense Authorization Act [NDAA], opinion polls were a 97 percent disapproval rating of section 10-21, which allows the military to be used as a domestic police force, but it passed anyway. Because it doesn’t matter what we want.
And you can see that in small and large examples across the country, including at this moment in Denton, Texas. Where no one in that community wants them to frack and destroy their environment, their land, their health. And this Texas Senate passes a law that says “You can’t control your own destiny.” So it’s true — nobody wants that mass surveillance, from Rand Paul to myself. But this is the problem: We don’t live anymore in a system where we have a voice, or where our voice counts. And that’s very frightening.
RS: Well, it’s not only frightening, it leads to inactivity, and if it’s true, it justifies inactivity. But the fact is on this issue, you and Rand Paul won.
CH: Well, we didn’t destroy the system of mass surveillance.
RS: No, but you picked a big hole.CH: I don’t think we put Fort Meade out of business.
RS: You know, in fact, the NSA has been building this huge thing, and Amazon has built a bigger cloud for them, and they’re gonna store all this data. And because of something straight out of a Hollywood movie — “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – this improbable hero of the moment, Rand Paul — for all his contradictions — gets up there, and he’s Jimmy Stewart saying, “No, this is wrong.” And he manages to rouse an opposition — not alone, but it turns out the American public comes to its senses and says, “No, this has gone to far.” And I think it creates room for raising other issues.
The question I have for you, really, basically, Chris, ’cause I have tremendous respect for your writing and for your insight, and yet I feel, OK, you’re gonna speak, so you’re speaking around the country now. You’ve got a book out. A brilliantly written, brilliantly constructed, documented — it’s like an education in itself, it’s like going to get a doctorate reading it, with all the citations. But what is somebody, they go and say, “OK, Sunday night, Los Angeles, I’m going to Little Tokyo, I’m going to see Chris Hedges,” but what is the message of hope?
CH: The message of hope is that we have to — you know, as good as Rand Paul was on this issue — we have to rebuild movements, radical movements that disrupt the mechanisms of power. So, last night I spoke in Boston. And Boston, for anti-fracking activists, are fighting Kinder Morgan and Spectra, which are running huge pipelines literally through the city down from Canada to take this bitumen and dirty oil, and ship it overseas. And they’re writing petitions to Markey and to Warren, and I don’t think it’s gonna work. And I said last night, the only thing that’s gonna work — and I’m listing a page from the French farmers’ strike in Paris — is you buy junk cars, and you drive them into the streets where this construction equipment has to maneuver in order to build this pipeline. You take the batteries out, and you walk home. I think that’s what’s gonna give us hope.
There are figures within the establishment — Warren, and I have issues with Bernie Sanders, especially his refusal to confront the military, Israel/Palestine, but on a lot of issues he’s good. But we’ve got to stop placing our faith in particular individuals. That’s not how power responds. Power responds when it feels threatened. I mean the New Deal took place because radical movements, including the old Communist Party, essentially told the ruling class: “Either you respond or you get Russia — you get the Soviet Union, you get a revolution.” And that was Roosevelt’s pitch to the ruling class, and said, “You’re gonna have to give up some of your money, or you may lose all of it.” And so Roosevelt creates 15 million government jobs and Social Security.
And we have to grasp that if we’re going to effect serious change, it’s not gonna come from a naïve faith in particular lonely political figures but by building radical, sustained movements that carry out mass civil disobedience day in and day out and begin to isolate, discredit and threaten the power elite. I know how frightened the power elite was of the Occupy movement, which was kind of ridiculous, because most of them were college-educated vegans who did yoga and dumpster-dived. But I know because I have relatives on Wall Street. I mean, they wouldn’t even go out on the street; they would eat at their desks. I also know how the system of internal security had crossed lines from the state to corporations because they were getting almost minute-by-minute tweets on what the Occupy activists were doing — they’re walking down Bond Street, they have puppets — which means, of course, which shows how heavy the surveillance was.
And I think that part of their fear was that they worry that they’d be found out. They know how corrupt the system is, they know how gamed it is, they know how anti-democratic it is, they know how mercenary it is. Because they’re very cynical, and they make a lot of money off of it. It’s not a system that anybody who understands it wants to defend. And all those cops — New York City cops who get $37 an hour to moonlight — so they stand in the corridors of these marble foyers of Goldman Sachs or Citibank — they see these guys walk by. They know what’s going on. And I think that’s part of the reason they passed the NDAA — or the Section 10-21 of the NDAA, because they worry that if things unraveled, the police won’t protect them. And again, look at Denton. So, the police take the protesters who are blocking the construction site, shake their hands, thank them for their community service, arrest them, drive them to the police station and release them on their own cognizance. That’s not something the corporate state wants to see too much of.
RS: You know, you list a series of problems in your book. Global warming, income inequality, stupid wars that cannot be justified — you go through a whole list. And clearly — let’s just take global warming. And you suggest in the book that it may be too late to do anything. But no one in their right mind thinks this is a problem you can ignore. And that’s true of all the others I mentioned. And so really, what you are suggesting is that these people, despite their education that formed this elite, are stupid. That they are so shortsighted, they don’t understand that they are creating the means of their own destruction, and rendering meaningless the culture of the life they have celebrated. Isn’t that basically what you are saying?
CH: Yes. I went to school with them. They are stupid. I mean, they’re not stupid in terms of being able to manage complex systems — economic systems, technical systems — but they’re kind of stupid as human beings. In that they don’t stop and think of what matters in life. Because what matters to them are — and let’s go back to my divinity training — are their idols. The monuments they build to themselves, either in terms of power or money or maybe fame. And they’re absolutely blinded by their own hubris, and this goes right back to classical Greek tragedy.
So, on a certain level, they’re technically proficient — maybe even brilliant. But they’re kind of idiot savants, because they don’t grasp the wider ramifications of what they’re doing, or the consequences. And unfortunately, these technocrats have absolute power. Not only do they have absolute power, but we kind of worship them. I mean Donald Trump may be very bright — I mean very rich — but certainly not very bright, at least in terms of understanding the broad spectrum of human nature and human affairs. And yet these people are determining our destiny, and ultimately their own destiny. But a destiny which, if left untouched, is gonna doom us all.
RS: So let me just suggest that you’re underestimating not only your influence, your power to push back, but that of Edward Snowden, Lynne Stewart, Ralph Nader — Ralph Nader has had a much greater impact on American history than most Wall Street people. I mean, things that have endured.
Let me just give you one example: the people who have been organizing a living wage, or raising the minimum wage. We seem to be on the cusp of serious victories here, that dramatically affect peoples’ lives and demand at least some serious move in the direction of greater equality, or at least a living life. Isn’t that the sort of thing that you would advocate and support?
CH: Completely, but these are all grass-roots mass movements. Black Lives Matter, debt jubilee, the struggle for the $15 minimum wage. And you can watch, if you look at Seattle, with the socialist City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant, how the national democratic apparatus has waded into this little City Council re-election campaign, to make sure that she’s crushed. Because of course it began in Seattle, migrated to L.A. And the resources that they have dumped into this campaign to defeat her — you know, the polling, the figures they brought in, they are of course backing an African-American woman as her rival — they worry, and I quote from Alexander Berkman’s essay in the book “Invisible Revolution” where the old ideas — neoliberalism — that are used to sustain a ruling structure, when they lose credibility — and they’ve certainly lost credibility; I think Congress has an approval rating of 7 percent.
But we are in a period where we have yet to articulate an alternative vision, this period that Antonio Gramsci calls the “interregnum.” But Berkman points out that all of the superstructures — the façade of power remains in place, but you have this turmoil, subterranean turmoil, that’s largely not seen by the mainstream society, not recognized by the mainstream society, until everything erupts; and he likens unrest or revolt to the boiling of water in a kettle. So suddenly you hear the whistle and see the steam, but it’s been a long process. And I think we are in that process and I think that our corporate masters are very worried about it, and they’re struggling to find all sorts of mechanisms including, of course the TPP and CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement], by which they can further disempower a citizenry that is becoming more restive about restoring its basic rights.
So we are seeing a heightened battle between ourselves and the corporate entity or corporate state as more and more people understand that if they want to effect change, it’s gotta come from mass movements that are not tied to any political party but built around issues that matter. And how that dance plays out, I don’t know, but those are the movements that I endorse, call for, seek to expand and have hope in. But at the same time, we can’t be naïve about the apparatus that is determined to stomp us out.
RS: In your book, “Wages of Rebellion,” you stress that those movements have to remain basically nonviolent, and that there’s been a corruption of violence in your experience in revolutionary movements that led to becoming oppressive movements. How do you defend that view, when you consider how limited the power of nonviolence is against a whole state apparatus or military?
CH: Well, I quote Crane Brinton at the beginning of the book, from his book “Anatomy of Revolution” and … other theorists on revolution. And they both argue that no revolution has ever been successful until the organs of internal security — or at least significant portions of the organs of internal security — have defected. Or if they haven’t defected, they have at least decided that they will no longer use force to defend a discredited ruling elite. So that was true in Russia, with the csar, when the Cossacks would not crush the Petrograd riots and the czar abdicates; it was true in Iran when the shah fled and the army would no longer defend the regime; it was true in Cuba, when Baptiste fled and the army would no longer defend the regime; it was true in Nicaragua, when Carter turned the three boats filled with U.S. weapons back and the national guard would no longer defend Somoza; it was true in East Germany when Honecker sent down an elite paratroop division to Leipzig to fire on the demonstrators and they refused to do so; Honecker was out within a week. Violence is often part of revolutions, but I think that ultimately what breaks a regime, a discredited regime, and we’ll go back to Havel, is the truth, which permeates the society; in essence, they’re exposed for who they are. And the foot soldiers of the elite are no longer willing to defend them, then they’re finished. This is different from colonial occupation. And I think part of the whole historical myth about America is that we fought a revolution — we fought a colonial occupier, and Britain at the time was our equivalent, of this massive imperial power arranged with the rise of the revolt in the colonies. One of the largest armadas ever off the coast of New York bombarded the city, sent their Prussian mercenaries to rape and pillage across New England. And so violence — and Franz Fanon writes about this — when you are attempting to overthrow a foreign occupier — Iraqi resistance fighters, or Afghani resistance fighters are quite successfully attempting to overthrow our occupation — then I think violence, I don’t like violence obviously, and I’ve been around a lot of it, but I think violence is a tool that can work.
But in a revolution, the most effective weapon is nonviolence. The ability to bring larger and larger numbers of people in a sustained way out into the streets to disrupt the mechanisms of government, and appealing to police, civil servants, bureaucrats, others within the system, appealing to their conscience. And when that happens, if enough people hear the message, it’s paralysis. It’s very dangerous for the state in order to continue. So I think that revolutions are the core. The defining success of revolutionary activity is actually nonviolent for that reason.
RS: And so how — and finally my last question is: How do we get the kind of moral-tone leadership commitment of the very people you discuss — you know, for instance, Martin Luther King? We know in King’s case, it came out of your tradition — out of the church, but people no longer even believe in the basic message of the church.
CH: Nor should they; the church doesn’t have much to say these days.
RS: Yeah but, even if it did, it seems like war was sort of a modern view of science and life that no longer is credible to young people. To sort of wrap this up, as someone who basically in your case — and you are now an ordained minister, which allows you to go into prisons and work with people — you know, if we don’t have the power of religion, and we don’t have the fear of a divine judgment, if we are really not accountable in any way, if there are no rewards and no punishment, what is the produced decency and sanity?
CH: Well, I don’t think it has to come out of a religious effect. I mean, [Albert] Camus — and I’m a huge admirer of Camus — but I think it does have to come out of a deep respect for the sacred. Which doesn’t have to come out of a religious belief system. Honoring those forces of beauty, truth, justice, a search for meaning, the struggle for our own mortality, the sanctity of life, and of course the natural world. I mean I think it’s interesting in the prison, that the most effective groups in terms of their own psychological health and their ability to resist — most of my students, of course, are Muslim — are the Muslim communities. And I think we need that communal structure, and we need that — I don’t like the word spirituality — but that sense of the sacred. That we’re called, whether we believe in a creator or not, we’re called to do what’s good — good insofar as we can determine it — and then let it go. But the belief that the good always draws to it the good.
And that is a kind of faith. And given the forces that rage against us, I think both communal structures, a sense of community where we’re not isolated, where we’re together, coupled with a belief in something that is beyond the prosaic issue of the moment, that has a kind of existential quality to it, allows us to resist. Because if we measure ourselves by our effectiveness, especially with the emotional highs and lows of American life, it may become very easy to fall into cynicism or despair, which we must not do. I think many people talk about Marxism as a kind of religion; I don’t think that’s wrong, the belief in the inevitability of history, the dialectics of history to reach a certain point, it gives you a kind of faith. But I do think that’s an important element, and I think that it’s gonna be very hard to resist without it.
RS: Before Josh cuts me off, just one last sentence, cause this is not my tradition, although my father was Protestant, my mother is Jewish: There is something in this tradition that you are part of — and your father was a minister — which is that each individual is significant. Each individual. And that, at the end of the day, is the assertion of your message.
CH: Not only that each individual is significant, but that each individual is sacred. And has a duty to defend everything that is sacred around him or her. And that’s Martin Buber. And it’s not finally about us, in terms of defining us as moral beings. It’s our neighbor.
RS: That is a great note on which to end, Chris. Thank you for taking the time.
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