Defying the Politics of Fear
Chris Hedges gave this talk Saturday evening at a rally in Philadelphia for Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein and her running mate, Ajamu Baraka. Watch Hedges’ full speech on our YouTube channel.
No social or revolutionary movement succeeds without a core of people who will not betray their vision and their principles. They are the building blocks of social change. They are our only hope for a viable socialism. They are willing to spend their lives as political outcasts. They are willing to endure repression. They will not sell out the oppressed and the poor. They know that you stand with all of the oppressed—people of color in our prisons and marginal communities, the poor, unemployed workers, our LGBT community, undocumented workers, the mentally ill and the Palestinians, Iraqis and Afghans whom we terrorize and murder—or you stand with none of the oppressed. They know when you fight for the oppressed you get treated like the oppressed. They know this is the cost of the moral life, a life that is not abandoned even if means you are destined to spend generations wandering in the wilderness, even if you are destined to fail.
I was in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania in 1989 during the revolutions, or in the case of Romania an interparty putsch. These revolutions were spontaneous outbursts by an enraged population that had had enough of communist repression, mismanagement and corruption. No one, from the dissidents themselves to the ruling communist parties, anticipated these revolts. They erupted, as all revolutions do, from tinder that had been waiting years for a spark.
These revolutions were led by a handful of dissidents who until the fall of 1989 were marginal and dismissed by the state as inconsequential until it was too late. The state periodically sent state security to harass them. It often ignored them. I am not even sure you could call these dissidents an opposition. They were profoundly isolated within their own societies. The state media denied them a voice. They had no legal status and were locked out of the political system. They were blacklisted. They struggled to make a living. But when the breaking point in Eastern Europe came, when the ruling communist ideology lost all credibility, there was no question in the minds of the public about whom they could trust. The demonstrators that poured into the streets of East Berlin and Prague were aware of who would sell them out and who would not. They trusted those, such as Václav Havel, who had dedicated their lives to fighting for open society, those who had been willing to be condemned as nonpersons and go to jail for their defiance.
Our only chance to overthrow corporate power comes from those who will not surrender to it, who will hold fast to the causes of the oppressed no matter what the price, who are willing to be dismissed and reviled by a bankrupt liberal establishment, who have found within themselves the courage to say no, to refuse to cooperate. The most important issue in this election does not revolve around the personal traits of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. It revolves around the destructive dynamic of unfettered and unregulated global capitalism, the crimes of imperialism and the security and surveillance apparatus. These forces are where real power lies. Trump and Clinton will do nothing to restrict them.
It is up to us to resist. We must refuse to be complicit, even in the act of voting, with the fossil fuel industry’s savaging of our ecosystem, endless wars, oppression of the poor, including the one in five children in this country who is hungry, the evisceration of constitutional rights and civil liberties, the cruel and inhumane system of mass incarceration and the state-sponsored execution of unarmed poor people of color in our marginal communities.
Julien Benda reminds us that we can serve two sets of principles. Privilege and power or justice and truth. The more we make compromises with those who serve privilege and power the more we diminish the capacity for justice and truth. Our strength comes from our steadfastness to justice and truth, a steadfastness that accepts that the corporate forces arrayed against us may crush us, but that the more we make compromises with those whose ends are privilege and power the more we diminish our capacity to effect change.
Karl Popper in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” writes that the question is not how do you get good people to rule. Popper says this is the wrong question. Most people attracted to power, he writes, have “rarely been above average, either morally or intellectually, and often [have been] below it.” The question is how do we build forces to restrict the despotism of the powerful. There is a moment in Henry Kissinger’s memoirs—do not buy the book—when Nixon and Kissinger are looking out at tens of thousands of anti-war protesters who have surrounded the White House. Nixon had placed empty city buses in front of the White House to keep the protesters back. He worried out loud that the crowd would break through the barricades and get him and Kissinger. And that is exactly where we want people in power to be. This is why, although he was not a liberal, Nixon was our last liberal president. He was scared of movements. And if we cannot make the elites scared of us we will fail.
The rise of Donald Trump is the product of the disenchantment, despair and anger caused by neoliberalism and the collapse of institutions that once offered a counterweight to the powerful. Trump gives vent to the legitimate rage and betrayal of the white underclass and working poor. His right-wing populism, which will grow in virulence and sophistication under a Clinton presidency, mirrors the right-wing populism rippling across much of Europe including Poland, Hungary, France and Great Britain. If Clinton wins, Trump becomes the dress rehearsal for fascism. A bankrupt liberal class, as was true in Yugoslavia when I covered the war and as was true in Weimar Germany, is the great enabler of fascism. Liberals, in the name of the practical, refuse to challenge parties that betray workingmen and –women. They surrender their values for political expediency. Our [failure] to build a counterweight to the Democratic Party after it abandoned the working class with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 was our gravest mistake.
Hillary Clinton embodies the detested neoliberal establishment. She can barely fend off one of the most imbecilic and narcissistic candidates in American history. Matched against a demagogue with brains and political skill, she would lose. If we do not defy the neoliberal order, championed by Clinton and the Democratic Party elites, we ensure the conditions for a terrifying right-wing backlash, one that will use harsh and violent mechanisms to crush the little political space we have left.
The tactic of strategic voting begs the question “Strategic for whom?” Our money-drenched, heavily managed elections are little more than totalitarian plebiscites to give a veneer of legitimacy to corporate power. As long as we signal that we are not a threat to the established order, as long as we participate in this charade, the neoliberal assault will continue towards its frightening and inevitable conclusion.
Alexis de Tocqueville correctly saw that when citizens can no longer participate in a meaningful way in political life, political populism is replaced by a cultural populism of sameness, resentment and mindless patriotism and by a form of anti-politics he called “democratic despotism.” The language and rituals of democracy are used to mask a political system based on the unchallenged supremacy of corporate power, one the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.”
We must build structures of open defiance to the corporate state. It may take as long as a decade for us to effectively confront corporate power. But without a potent counterweight to the neoliberal order we will be steadily disempowered. Every action we take, every word we utter must make it clear that we refuse to participate in our own enslavement and destruction. The rapid disintegration of the ecosystem means resistance cannot be delayed.
Our success will be determined not by the number of votes we get in this or any other election but by our ability to stand unequivocally with the oppressed. The enemies of freedom throughout history have always charged its defenders with subversion. The enemies of freedom have often convinced large parts of a captive population to parrot back mind-numbing clichés to justify their rule. Resistance to corporate power will require fortitude, an ability to march to the beat of our own drum.
No revolutionary abandons, no matter what the cost, those he or she defends. We cannot betray those murdered by police in our marginal communities. We cannot betray the courageous dissidents—Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and the great revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal. They have not betrayed us. We cannot betray the dissidents in North Dakota who are defying a fossil fuel industry that is orchestrating the sixth great mass extinction, melting the polar ice caps and raising carbon emissions to over 400 parts per million. We cannot betray the 2.3 million men and women locked in cages across this nation for years and decades. We cannot betray the Palestinians. We cannot betray the Iraqis and Afghans whose lives we have destroyed by state terror. If we betray them we betray ourselves.
We cannot betray the ideal of a popular democracy by pretending this contrived political theater is free or fair or democratic. We cannot play their game. We cannot play by their rules. Our job is not to accommodate the corporate state. Our job is to destroy it. “We think we are the doctors,” Alexander Herzen told anarchists of another era. “We are the disease.”
The state seeks to control us through fear, propaganda, wholesale surveillance and violence. [This] is the only form of social control it has left. The lie of neoliberalism has been exposed. Its credibility has imploded. The moment we cease being afraid, the moment we use our collective strength as I saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 to make the rulers afraid of us, is the moment of the system’s downfall.
Go into the voting booth on Tuesday. Do not be afraid. Vote with your conscience. Vote Green. If we win 5 percent we win. Five percent becomes the building block for the years ahead. A decade ago Syriza, the ruling party in Greece, was polling 4 percent. And after you vote, join some movement, some protest, some disruption, Black Lives Matter, the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel, an anti-fracking demonstration. Courage is contagious. Revolutions begin, as I saw in East Germany, with a few Lutheran clergy holding candles as they marched through the streets of Leipzig in East Germany. It ends with half a million people protesting in East Berlin, the defection of the police and the army to the side of the protesters and the collapse of the Stasi state. But revolutions only happen when a few dissidents decide they will no longer cooperate, when they affirm what we must all affirm, when, as Havel said, they choose to live in truth.
We may not succeed. So be it. At least those who come after us, and I speak as a father, will say we tried. The corporate forces that have us in their death grip will destroy our lives. They will destroy the lives of my children. They will destroy the lives of your children. They will destroy the ecosystem that makes life possible. We owe it to those who come after us not to be complicit in this evil. We owe it to them to refuse to be good Germans. I do not, in the end, fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.