Robert Scheer and Chris Hedges on Class Struggle
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.”
Robert Scheer: I’m talking to Chris Hedges … I want to say, you’ve played an incredible role in getting people to not focus so much on the electoral possibilities, the leading party, and to take their concern to the street. And long before there was any of this Occupy L.A. or New York or any other movement, Wall Street, somebody else who did it—and it really impressed me, I reread his article—is Joseph Stiglitz. Back in April, in Vanity Fair of all places, [he] had a statement. I’d just like to begin by reading something he wrote then, because people say oh, where did this come from, and it came from this website, or something—and quoting Stiglitz, he said: “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.” Are we at that moment now?
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.Robert Scheer: Well, you know, this is not the place to defend the ’60s. But let me tell you, a lot of the claims about the hedonism and the wildness and so forth, I think, were mass media exaggerations. We had COINTELPRO, we had a lot of craziness; it’s very difficult to keep a grass-roots movement going. In my own case, every picture I’ve found of myself in the ’60s I seem to be wearing a jacket and tie to go against that image. And when I read your article I thought well, you know, there was Paul Schrade. And Paul Schrade was the head of the United Auto Workers on the West Coast. And he was the first prominent—he was the guy who was shot when Bobby Kennedy was shot, he was standing near, by his side. And Paul Schrade I remember, because I would speak at many rallies where there were union workers, and in that situation he was going against sort of the immediate short-run interests of his own members—who, after all, they were having defense contracts, and so forth. And that’s really what [union leaders] [George] Meany and [Walter] Reuther were playing on: that these were good times; it was working.
And right now it seems to me, I would raise two points about this. One, there is this different reality, which everyone across the board in this country who is not part of the elite can see. These are really hard times. But the question you raise about demonstrations is how would you prevent the media, and from the police—we have a “J. Edgar” movie coming out next week about all the things Hoover did—how do you prevent these people from hijacking a movement, from distorting it? It’s extremely difficult, and I know I was up at Oakland before the police moved in, but it was difficult to maintain a tone that seems to have been maintained in New York. I’m not defending the police, but that’s the nature of grass-roots movements. They’re easily infiltrated, they’re easily—the purpose can be changed. Do you not see that as a danger?
Chris Hedges: No, because the structure of this movement—I can only speak, you know, for Zuccotti Park, because that’s where I’ve spent a lot of time. I’ve been to Washington, but I can’t—I know the structure in Zuccotti Park pretty well. And because it’s non-hierarchical, in the sense that everything is transparent—I mean, all the decisions are made by a general assembly—No. 1, you avoid that kind of leadership cult that I think plagued a lot of movements in the ’60s. And because people who facilitate and run meetings and have positions of relative authority are recycled—I mean, they’re replaced—nobody is able to accumulate significant amounts of power. That’s significant.
The other thing is that because the process is transparent, you don’t have groups that are—every decision is made in public, and chanted throughout the entire park. Now, there are clearly plainclothes police in the park; we see them; they all look something, you know, like a caricature from Doonesbury; they look like cops; they’re sort of 30 years old with baseball caps, telling you they’re students from Rollins College or something. But the big tip-off is they’re running around saying well, who do you think the leaders are? Where’s the core leadership? And so that makes this movement a lot harder to decapitate, because they can’t take out the leadership.
In terms of how they characterize the movement, you’re right; the power elite and the way they’re—you know, in New York they’re labeling the movement anti-Semitic. Reporters from the New York Post will go down and find somebody in the crowd who will utter something repugnant about Jewish bankers or something. And they play on that theme. So far, none of that’s been able to stick, but they’ve certainly tried many tactics. ‘They’re hippies, they’re anarchists, they’re drug addicts, they’re anti-Semites,’ whatever it is, to try and discredit it. And of course that process will continue. I think nonviolence has been extremely effective, especially in New York where the police, I think, at the beginning carried out clear attempts at provocation. They wanted a response, because a couple clips of protesters smashing car windows or doing something to that effect essentially allows them to speak in the one language they know they can master, which is force.
But this is a widespread movement; it’s decentralized; it takes on its own coloring and characteristics, depending on the city that it’s in; and so there will be, you know—as you point out, I mean, movements are by their very nature messy and make steps forward and steps back. But I think that there is a resiliency to this movement because it articulates a fundamental truth of inequality that hits the majority of American citizens.
Robert Scheer: This is Robert Scheer for Truthdig Radio. I’m interviewing Chris Hedges, and this is part of the KPFK fund drive. KPFK is one of these rare media outlets that is honestly covering these events, and not allowing them to be distorted. Chris, let me ask you: It seems to me a high point for labor involvement came in the Wisconsin protests, where there seemed to be a very good merging and clarity about the need of organized labor to support these [protests]. There was a moment in the New York protests where unions turned out; is that developing, or is it still estranged?
Chris Hedges: First of all, Wisconsin—you know, there was a lot of discussion about a general strike, which is what they should have done. And it was the Democratic Party and organized labor that talked them out of it, which I think was a mistake. You are seeing, certainly on that Friday morning when they threatened, if you remember, at 6 a.m. to clear the park out, ostensibly to clean it, and then several thousand people gathered and linked their arms—you did see teamsters show up to help protect the park. I think that part of the reason that organized labor, in a way, has to graft itself onto this movement is because the union leaders have betrayed the rank and file and the interests of the American worker. These union bosses are pulling five times’ the salaries that the rank and file are pulling; all they’ve done over the last couple of decades is largely barter away benefits and pension plans, and you see contracts now essentially abandoning incoming workers, the quid pro quo being that they protect limited privileges or rights—privileges is probably the wrong word—for older workers. You see groups like Moveon.org, which has become an obsequious public relations machine for the Obama White House, trotting down to Zuccotti Park. Because I think they’ve been exposed for their cowardice, for their complicity in systems of power, which really has made war against the poor, the working and the middle class. And in a way, they will see their own base drift away from them if they don’t at least pay lip service to these movements. Robert Scheer: Well, one good sign is that in Oakland last night we saw nurses turn out, and members of SEIU service employees union, to show support. But what I’m wondering is, what is the next stage? And that might be an irritating question, but it’s very difficult to sustain this kind of “occupy”; people get tired; where does it go?
Chris Hedges: We never know where movements go. And all of the movements I’ve covered—I covered all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe; all of the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Miloševic in Belgrade; the two Palestinian uprisings. You don’t know. The movements have a kind of life of their own that even the purported organizers don’t grasp or understand. So that on the afternoon of November 9, 1989, I was with the leaders of the East German opposition movement all out of Leipzig. And they said well, maybe within a year we’ll have free passage back and forth across the Berlin Wall. By that evening, the Berlin Wall, at least as an impediment to movement, did not exist. So even they didn’t know. And I think that is true; I mean, with all movements, ‘we just don’t know’ is the answer. And even the most—even those who are most intimately connected with the movement don’t know.
Robert Scheer: You know, I was just at home watching some of this, this morning. And my wife turned to me—you know Narda Zacchino, a journalist, cares a lot about it—and she says well, why don’t they call for a reversal of Glass-Steagall? Why don’t they call for an increased millionaires tax? She came up with a five point program in a few minutes, and so forth. And aren’t there some common demands—and in Egypt we had some common demands—that we could rally around at this time, that would give it greater clarity?
Chris Hedges: Well, I think that groups who support the Occupy movement can make those demands. But I think we have to keep focused. And you know, look, you’ve written a lot on this, on the corporate coup d’etat, on the fact that speculators and criminals have seized our economy and our political system and have no intention of letting go. And we can supplicate, we can make demands; of course, that’s just what they want. But unless these people are held accountable for the crimes that they have committed, and prevented from carrying out further criminal acts; unless there is some kind of accountability and restitution to the American public; then specific demands don’t matter. And I think that the clarity of the movement is that it recognizes that our political system doesn’t work, that there is no way in this country to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, and that if we don’t reverse that situation we will be radically reconfigured into a neo-feudalistic state. And we’re already very far down that road. So all of those demands are great, and I think they have wide support—certainly they do in New York and Washington—but drawing up a list of demands deflects attention from the main problem, which is of course the corporate coup d’etat.
Robert Scheer: And? So what do we do about it? I mean, can we just stay in the parks? I mean, what is the message we—you know, I just read a report that actually, poverty doubled in the suburbs as compared to the urban areas. This is a national problem now; this is no longer concentrated in certain ethnic neighborhoods or racially divided neighborhoods or visible poor. If you go across America—the article centered, it was on the suburbs of Cleveland, have doubled the increase in poverty that Cleveland itself as an urban area has had. And this has happened around the country; you go to a place like Riverside, Calif.; you go to once more prosperous suburbs of south Florida, and so forth. How do we reach these people? They’re not going to pick up and just go to these parks. What is …
Chris Hedges: I think we’ve reached them. And the groundswell of support for the occupiers is staggering. People are shipping boxes of sleeping bags and tarps and supplies through the UPS box office, which you can find on the Occupy Wall Street website. They are sending money. They are ordering with local restaurants and fast food chains to deliver mostly pizza, but it gets delivered. I think the message is there; I think the message resonates, and we know from the polls that that is correct. The secret of movements is that they grow; you start with candlelight marches, with a few clergy and church members in Leipzig, and you end with half a million people standing in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin.
Now, the secret to bringing down authoritarian regimes that are as corrupt as ours is that the foot soldiers of the elite, i.e. the police, no longer enforce the dictates of a discredited power elite. So once these crowds assume gigantic proportions—and I saw this also in Prague, as well, with the Velvet Revolution, and that discredited elite became terrified and tried to employ mechanisms of overt force—those foot soldiers wouldn’t comply. And at that point, these regimes were finished. Will we reach that point? Absolutely no one knows. But I think that the steady refusal to be baited by the police, and the respect that is shown towards the blue uniform cop—not the guys in the white shirts, who are the supervisors and who are probably even more detested by the blue uniform police than they are by the protesters—is absolutely crucial. And that was something that also took place in East Germany and in Czechoslovakia and was vital in bringing down the power structure, the communist parties in both of those countries.
Robert Scheer: You know, what’s disturbing in this situation are the examples of false consciousness. After all, I mean, these blue uniform police are dependent upon unions; that’s one of the reasons they got decent wages and had the right to organize, which had formerly been denied them, along with most government workers. And what we’re having is these sort of false battles, a place like Oakland, where everybody knows Oakland has suffered enormously because of what the bankers did. Here in Los Angeles, everyone knows. So even the top city officials, the mayor of Los Angeles, city council, the mayor of Oakland, are people who call themselves progressive, who support the demonstrations. They supply, in the case of Los Angeles, bathrooms and electric power and so forth. But at the end of the day, they are sort of under this tremendous pressure to do the bidding of the bankers, because of the way the laws are set up, the way the power works, the way the media, corporate media, functions, you know, describing this disarray and so forth. And it’s really a sad situation of sort of pitting people who probably support these demonstrations against them, I think. I mean, it was sort of a classic …Chris Hedges: That’s why you have to delineate who your enemies are. And it’s really interesting being in Zuccotti Park, because when the white shirts, which are the supervisors, aren’t around, there’s a lot of fraternization between the blue uniform cops and the protesters. Even sort of jocular bantering, and it all changes as soon as the white shirts show up. And I think that’s right. And I think that it’s extremely important to remember that you know these blue uniform cops who are all working class, they probably feel most about these bankers in $8,000 suits the way we do. Not only that, they have to work down in the financial district, where these multimillionaires sort of glide by them as if they’re invisible. And there’s also a huge rent-a-cop business. I mean, you are a cop, and these big companies like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan hire you out for $37 an hour so that you can serve as a kind of private security service for their industries and for their executives. So I think that the protesters have been very astute about realizing that this is a kind of natural ally—potentially a natural ally, and I think they’re right.
Robert Scheer: You know, I think one thing that this protest movement has going for it—in the case of the anti-Vietnam War movement there was obviously the war was wrong, never made sense, but to make all the other connections was difficult. The same thing with the civil rights movement. There was no question that a significant group in this society were being persecuted and denied their rights, but others could sort of get off it. This time, anyone who’s seen a movie like “Inside Job” or “The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the Enron movie, let alone read any of the books out there, you know—I mean, they know how rancid this is. They know how evil it is. They know how these people talk among themselves; we have tapes in those documentaries, we know how corrupt the business schools are.
And so I was just wondering, you’re in that city where you have one of the richest guys as the mayor. And he owns the business press, you know, and so forth, and does that embarrass these people at all? I mean, they still think we have a free press of the kind Jefferson had in mind, with a town crier and a penny press and anyone could own one? We see the concentration of power in this media. And I saw an article in The New York Times, I forget who wrote it, one of their media guys raises the cry, why not occupy the newsrooms? And he talked about what Sam Zell did through the Tribune Company to papers like the Los Angeles Times. So do you get any sense of movement in those circles?
Chris Hedges: Well, I don’t hang out with those people too much. Although I did go to prep school with them all. I think they’re sort of beyond shame. I really think that they are like courtiers in these closed cities, where they’re just clueless. That’s my feeling. You know, they live within their own little bubbles—one writer called it Richistan—where they never see anything; they never experience anything, other than people who are just like them. I just think—and you know what, a lot of them also are just stupid. They have been able, through privilege—I mean, George W. Bush is a kind of poster child for this—to become immensely wealthy. I mean, Rahm Emanuel leaves his job for two years, what did he make, $12 million?—working for a hedge fund. I mean, this is just sick. And I think that they run in those circles, they don’t step outside of those circles, and I think that they, because of that, are divorced from the common experience of the ordinary citizen. They have no way to make judgments about it, because it’s not part of their reality.
Robert Scheer: And there’s a dirty secret to this whole thing. It hit me the other night; I spoke, I introduced at the International Women’s Media Foundation dinner in Los Angeles. And they honored three very heroic women from Mexico, Thailand and Iran. And yet the whole evening was hijacked by Wal-Mart! Because Wal-Mart, which seems to be giving money to all sorts of organizations—and this woman from Wal-Mart gets up there before these people are even honored, and gives a long 10-minute speech about how Wal-Mart represents liberation. And then Bank of America is another sponsor, and then Chevron is another sponsor. And the ability of these companies to throw their money—I mean, one of the dirty secrets of American journalism and punditocracy is the speaking fees, which is always—they’re never commented on. You know, Lawrence Summers got $12 million—no, I’m sorry, $8 million, 8 and a half million dollars when he was advising Obama and ostensibly a Harvard professor, and half of that came in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. You know, $100,000 for a 20-minute talk. Now, the people in the journalism profession, people who are the pundits, they very often get what, 50, 75—Thomas Friedman, he gets enormous speaking fees. And it’s not even discussed. The corruption runs so deep that that’s even—I mean, when I worked at the L.A. Times if a friend of mine gave me a free beer at his restaurant it was considered a conflict of interest. But you can now go get a $75,000 speaking fee. Who’s the guy just indicted, he was chair of McKinsey, the Goldman Sachs director, now they’re going after him with criminal charges today, [Rajat] Gupta I think his name is. I know people who worked for McKinsey and get all kinds of money, consulting and advising, and yet they’re treated as objective journalists. I mean, I think the rot goes pretty deep into the news profession.Chris Hedges: Oh, yeah, of course. I mean, Thomas Friedman becomes a kind of poster child for it, but it doesn’t matter; I mean, they all run in the same circle. That’s how you get news celebrities like Katie Couric pulling down salaries of $15 million. Katie Couric couldn’t write a story on deadline if she put a gun to her head. So yeah, it’s … [laughs] I mean, I wrote a whole book on it. I mean, all of the pillars of a democracy and liberal institutions—I don’t mean that in an ideological sense, but institutions that once gave a voice to those outside the power elite, and made possible incremental or piecemeal reform, have been completely corrupted and bought off, including public education. I mean, look at what’s happened to Berkeley. So, yeah. And I think when we talk about a corporate coup … it’s not incorrect, that every major system of power is either beholden to or wholly controlled by the corporate state—including, of course, our judiciary, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate interests.
Robert Scheer: Let me ask you a personal question, and then I’ll turn it over to Alan Minsky here at KPFK. I do want to remind people that you’ve agreed to be at a teach-in that they’re going to have at Occupy L.A. I’m going to be speaking there, Robert Reich is speaking there, it’s the weekend of Nov. 4 and 5. And so we’ll have great occasion to hear from you.
Chris Hedges: I might be in jail on the 4th, but that’s all right.
Robert Scheer: Well, then, that would be a legitimate …
Chris Hedges: We’re holding that hearing with Goldman Sachs on the 3rd, with Cornel West, in the park. We’re marching to Goldman Sachs to demand our money back.
Robert Scheer: Oh, OK … I’m sure the people at Occupy L.A. will forgive you for not being able to be there. But I want to ask you a personal question, because we’ve been running your—and we’re going to, by the way, be using your book as a way of promoting contributions to KPFK within this hour. And you know, I have been assuming this role; I don’t edit anything you write, but I’m the editor of Truthdig, and people constantly are asking me well, what drives Chris Hedges? And so forth. And I, in thinking about that, I think you are drawing upon an incredible wellspring of idealism and commitment and social justice in America. And in terms of your father’s example, and the tradition; we’ve had a lot of blather about religion, condemnation of religion, celebration of religion, one nation under God and everything. And it seems to me one of the clearer messages that comes from the three major religions certainly is a notion of social justice that condemns usury, Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers. And that whole message, which Martin Luther King drew upon, has been lost. And it seems to me you, having gone to divinity school, being the son of a preacher, you’ve revived that maybe more visibly than anyone else. Do you accept that, that you are kind of a prophetic voice in that respect, drawing on that tradition?
Chris Hedges: Well, I don’t like the word prophetic, but I certainly come out of that tradition. And you know, I was trained as a preacher, and in many ways I act and write like one. I mean, the tragedy for me is that—and this isn’t just Christian—but I mean, look at the great tradition of social justice within Judaism, the alliances between major figures like Rabbi Abraham Heschel and others, and the civil rights movement. That unfortunately we saw a corruption of these monotheistic religions which have ended with this grotesque distortion, whether it’s with the Christian right and Jesus comes to make you rich and bless dropping iron fragmentation bombs all over the Middle East, or the state of Israel is elevated, you know, sanctified in whatever—it’s making a mockery of the great prophets, Amos, Isaiah. I think that unfortunately, we were probably always a minority within the church, but I think the chatter and noise of—I would call them heretics, these people who have hijacked religion for very nefarious ends, have just shut out, coupled with the fact that the liberal church itself has become sort of anemic and weak, and you know, lost membership. But it think that that kind of moral imperative—and it doesn’t have to be religious; I mean, Camus for me is a great figure—but that moral imperative to do right, to fight for justice whether you win or not, is something that is needed within every society to counterbalance all of those elements that are built around self-interest and self-gain.Wait, before you go…
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