Clearing the FOG cohosts, Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese, interviewed journalist and author Chris Hedges about the significant events of 2019 and what activists must prepare for in 2020 and beyond. Hedges covered uprisings and wars in the Middle East, Balkans, and Central America for twenty years as a foreign correspondent. He has studied and written books about sacrifice zones, the failures of the liberal class and the rise of the right in the United States. He shares the wisdom he has gained from his experiences watching governments fail to inform us about what to expect and how to build power. You can listen to the full interview plus current news and analysis on Clearing the FOG.
Clearing the FOG (CtF): What were some of the events in 2019 that you thought were of importance?
Chris Hedges (CH): I would say there are two. The failure to address the climate emergency, which is seeing an acceleration of the deterioration and destruction of the ecosystem that is quite dramatic and pronounced in California and Australia, would be number one. Even if we stopped all carbon emissions today, which again the ruling elites utterly betrayed and failed us in Madrid, we’re still going to deal with catastrophic climate change. The other was the failure on the part of the Democratic Party to address the rupture of social bonds and deep social inequality that has torn apart the country and resulted in the election of Donald Trump.
At the end of the year, after the complete failure of the Mueller report, which was hyped by all sorts of media organizations, not only Rachel Maddow and MSNBC but also the New York Times, we got this kind of mind-numbing spectacle of the impeachment with that very cloying and repugnant moral posturing on the part of the Democratic Party. What they did was selective. They charged Trump not with all of the most egregious impeachable offenses and constitutional violations that he carried out, but with the most trivial. That’s contempt for Congress and the attempt to get the Ukrainian President Zelensky to open an investigation of Biden and his son in exchange for about 400 million in US aid and allowing Zelenski to visit the White House.
If the Democratic Party was committed to actually defending the Constitution, then they would have to go back and impeach Trump for a series of violations that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama routinely committed. They don’t want to do that. So when I hear them talking about the restoration of the rule of law and see that they ignored the most serious Constitutional violations, which have now been normalized by both parties, it’s an example of at best self-delusion and probably very cynical manipulation.
I can run through a few. Bush launches two illegal wars that are never declared by Congress as demanded by the Constitution. He places the entire U.S. public under government surveillance that’s violating the Fourth Amendment. He authorizes torture and kidnapping of foreign nationals who are not even U.S. citizens and holds them where they’re tortured in black sites and offshore penal colonies around the world. Obama expands the illegal wars, which are now up to 11 if we count Yemen. Edward Snowden reveals that intelligence agencies are monitoring and spying on all of us, downloading all of our data and metrics into government computers where they’re stored for in perpetuity and nothing is done. Obama misuses the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force act to erase due process. That’s when he argues that the executive branch has the right to assassinate US citizens starting with a radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki and two weeks later his 16-year-old son, in essence, serving as judge, jury, and executioner. And then, of course, he signs into law section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which overturns the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that prohibits the use of the military as a domestic police force. I sued him in federal court over that. And then there are other again bipartisan constitutional violations, including violating treaty clauses that are supposed to be ratified by the Senate, violating the appointments clause where you need Senate confirmation and the routine abuse of executive orders.
Watching the impeachment process was a very depressing spectacle for me because it was about the pretense of the rule of law. It again exposed the fact that the Democratic Party will refuse to be self-reflective and refuse to confront its complicity in neoliberalism, deindustrialization, programs of austerity, massive expansion of our prison system and militarizing of our police. It tries to personalize all of our problems in the figure of Trump.
CtF: You have written that the right-wing has picked up revolutionary rhetoric because people in the United States and around the world see the corruption of the elites. Now with these right-wing, fascists rising, do you see any possibility of the Left being able to pick up that need for a revolutionary vision and plan?
CH: Well, I do see the need but I don’t see it happening. I think that is driven by fear. Especially at every presidential election cycle, the Left, the liberal class just crumbles.
The attraction of Trump is that he rightly attacks the Deep State, which is real. But what is the Deep State? The Deep State is the generals, the war industry, the bankers, the lobbyists, the corporatists, the intelligence agencies, the government bureaucrats and the technocrats who actually run both domestic and international policy. The fact is we don’t control our own economy. It’s controlled by Goldman Sachs and Citibank and JP Morgan Chase.
The Washington Post when it released the Afghanistan Papers recently, the roughly more than 2,000 pages of internal government documents about the war in Afghanistan, which they obtained through a three-year legal battle, exposed exactly the bipartisan lies, fraud, deceit, corruption, waste and mismanagement during the 18-year conflict that was carried out by the ruling elites, by the Deep State, the Deep state that so many Trump supporters have been betrayed by and turned on with a vengeance. Trump’s attraction is that he calls them out often in very vulgar and crude terms.
The Democratic Party in pushing Biden, because he’s been anointed by the Democratic Party donor class, is seeking to perpetuate a system that at least half or more of the country wants to get rid of. And the Left has not embraced or understood that the whole ideology of the ruling elite—neoliberalism and imperialism—just doesn’t resonate anymore. They’re bound to this ideology because the people funding the party recognize quite correctly that if they don’t have that kind of corporate money and corporate backing, they will lose power. And so they’d rather take the whole system down, which is what they’re doing.
This is the problem of the Left. It has misread power. I’m a strong supporter of Extinction Rebellion because I think they’ve correctly read power. We can go back for the last four decades, carbon admissions have exponentially risen. All of the attempts to work within the system, this is 350.org and others, have been an utter and complete failure. And the Left, partly because we were so knocked off balance over the last few decades, our organizations were either co-opted or destroyed, is just not willing to face this reality.
CtF: Putting aside the Democratic Party, how do you see the potential for the left movement awakening to anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist thinking?
CH: I don’t know that the Left is organized. I don’t know that it has yet offered a strong alternative vision to the mainstream. I think it’s often divided by identity politics without grasping that the fundamental issue is class. This is class warfare and as Warren Buffett has correctly said, his side is winning.
We also have to make it clear that they have not only marginalized us but cut down the spaces by which we can communicate. That’s why I’m on RT. What I do on RT should be on a functioning public broadcasting system, but the public broadcasting system, in particular PBS, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch brothers.
If you go back to the 70s, you could see Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Angela Davis, and all sorts of people who were not beholden to institutions or to corporations offering a critique of power. The last national show that we had that critiqued power is Bill Moyers’ show, which is now off the air and in the end, was funded through a private foundation.
All of those sentiments are on the rise, but it is yet to be translated into a political movement. And if there are uprisings without that kind of vision and focus, then the ruling elites can easily decapitate them.
CtF: You worked with us back when we were organizing the occupation in Washington D.C. throughout 2011 and that was a time of a lot of uprisings around the world. The Occupy Movement really took off in the United States. Now we’re seeing a rise again around the world against corruption and neoliberal capitalism. Do you think that has the potential to come back to the United States in another wave and what do we need to do to be prepared for that if it does?
CH: I covered uprisings for 20 years as a foreign correspondent all around the globe, the Palestinian uprisings, most of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and the street demonstrations that brought down Slobodan Milosevic. What’s fascinating is that what ignites it, no one can predict. Even purported leaders of the opposition don’t know what pushes people over the edge, which is usually something very relatively in and of itself minor and even banal.
Neoliberalism or global capitalism is a global phenomenon. It has affected people in the same way. One of the things we don’t hear about the protests in Hong Kong is that especially the young are without work and social inequality is very pronounced. I think that economic tyranny lies at the root of the uprisings that we’ve seen not only in Hong Kong, but in India, Chile, and France, and in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. But it also lies at the root of the rise of these right-wing demagogues as we just saw in Britain with Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi in India, and Trump in the United States.
And so, yes, I think that we’re not immune to this kind of social unrest and this kind of upheaval, especially as the forces that created it have no regulation and no restraint—student debt, personal debt, national debt. We’re about to watch the Republican Party again take an axe and slash social services and food stamps. These corporatists know only one word and that’s more and they won’t stop until there’s blowback. The problem is that if that blowback is just kind of a release in the streets of anger and frustration and rage, all legitimate, without an alternative vision and without alternative structures to begin to challenge power, then it can be crushed.
CtF: When we were involved in Occupy, it was a different phase of the movement’s development. Occupy was an eruption of anger, the 99% versus the 1%. Since Occupy, there has been a lot of work done by various groups on new economy ideas, whether it’s participatory budgeting or worker-owned businesses, cooperatives or public banks. California is the first state to do a public bank since North Dakota in 1919-20. We’re seeing some movement toward the beginning I think of a vision that you’re describing and I think that’s a potential positive.
The other thing that’s a challenge in the United States is the electoral system because right now so many activists are getting pulled into the 2020 election particularly through the Sanders campaign and a little bit through the Warren campaign and somewhat in the Green efforts, but those are so squashed in the United States that they are hardly visible. We see the election system as a kind of a mirage democracy. It’s molded, manipulated and in the end, never quenches people’s needs.
Sanders is interesting because if he loses because of a Democratic primary violation, that could create an eruption itself. If he wins, then you have someone in office you can actually push to try to get things done. That may cause an eruption. Can the Sanders campaign have that kind of an impact?
CH: I think you could make a strong case that the nomination was stolen from Sanders in 2016. People walked out of the Democratic National Convention, but it didn’t have that impact.
The New York Times has run more than one story where they are interviewing anonymous Democratic Party donors who are already organizing to make sure neither Sanders nor Warren, and I don’t trust Warren too much, get the nomination. It is the question of whether you can work from within. I have long argued that the Democratic Party is not salvageable. It’s not reformable. It is not in any sense a real political party in that the base has any real say.
Maybe the Sanders campaign will prove me wrong. I hope they do prove me wrong, but I don’t think so. And if Sanders did get the nomination, these rich donors who find Trump an embarrassment and repugnant and vulgar and inept have made it clear they will support Trump.
If Sanders had won in 2016, we would have had complete paralysis because Sanders would have never had the base within either the Republican or the Democratic Party to push through the kinds of reforms he says he wants to institute. I just don’t think at this point our system of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism” is reformable or salvageable. Nor do I think that electoral politics are going to bring about the kinds of radical reforms, especially in terms of our addiction to fossil fuels, that are urgently needed.
CtF: What’s happening in Chile is really interesting because it is stronger than what anyone predicted. Piñera just announced that in April he will put forward discussions and planning to talk about developing a new constitution, which is one of the major demands of the protesters. What are your thoughts on what’s happening down there?
CH: The examples of Chile, Hong Kong, and Lebanon are important because these people have taken to the streets to put pressure on the ruling elites, which is what we have to do. That Constitution was written as soon as Pinochet took power by the so-called Chicago School, the global corporatist and neo-liberal, Milton Friedman-type economists on behalf of the world’s ruling elites. And the hands of any Chilean government have been effectively tied because of that Constitution.
There’s nothing at this point that has proved to be an impediment to the further concentration of wealth in the hands of this global oligarchic elite. Eight families now hold as much wealth as 50 percent of the world’s population. We’re certainly seeing during the Trump administration an acceleration of the demolition of government controls and regulations, the further privatizing of public lands, and public services, the assault on labor unions, the ability of global speculators to use trillions of dollars lent to them of government money at virtually zero percent interest to do things like buy back their own stock to swell their own compensation packages.
The corporations are back to doing exactly what they were doing before 2008 with structured asset destruction through inflation, stripping assets through mergers and acquisitions and raising levels of debt incumbency, which has created this huge debt peonage on the public. Jamie Dimon has been indicted along with JPMorgan Chase more than any other bank in American history for this kind of fraud. I mean really sleazy stuff like having veterans sign mortgage loans and then jacking those loans up to amounts that they can’t pay.
We’ve created another bubble. The Ponzi schemes are back in business. In addition to creating income inequality and monopoly power, that is going to create another financial collapse. When it comes, I don’t know what will trigger it, but it’s not a sustainable system and what will happen then? Will they go back and demand more money, trillions of dollars from the US Treasury? How will people react?
Certainly, people will react with a kind of outrage and anger. But we’re headed for an extremely difficult period especially because they have stripped us of all of our rights: privacy, due process, habeas corpus. And now under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, they can deploy the military into the streets. And they’ll use everything within their power. They will not shrink from using coercion and force to maintain control. And it could get pretty ugly. I mean, we have a thousand of our citizens right now who are shot dead by police, almost all of them unarmed, almost all poor people of color in American cities. That’s one every eight hours.
CtF: One of the challenges on the left is understanding what’s happening around the world. The United States is getting more aggressive and somewhat more sophisticated in its regime-change campaigns. There are so many reasons for people in Hong Kong to protest. It’s a neoliberal capitalist paradise where there’s almost no enforcement of business or finance crimes and people have a very wide wealth divide and inequality, expensive housing, and low paying jobs with no future. It’s just a really hard situation for the vast majority of people in Hong Kong so it’s understandable that it’s a big uprising.
Then it’s interesting to see the National Endowment for Democracy’s role in Hong Kong. They are spending more than a million dollars a year. They have been funding anti-China movements in Hong Kong since before the turnover of Hong Kong to China. These Hong Kong protests are turning into “Trump save us” or anti-China stuff, singing the Star-Spangled Banner or putting up the U.K. flag in the legislature, saying “bring us back to colonialism.” This is really the U.S. targeting China.
CH: Right, but it was Lord Salisbury who said there are no permanent allies, there’s only permanent power. So if you look at the whole human rights drive going back to Charter 77 founded by Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, he was a non-person within Czechoslovakia. The only way you could hear Václav Havel’s voice was over Voice of America. I knew Havel and Havel was not a supporter of U.S. imperialism. He was a socialist.
In repressive situations, we’ll often make alliances. All the points you make are true. I’m not arguing them. But the idea that any resistance movement is somehow untainted is wrong. In the whole Cold War, the Soviet Union, which you know had a very deeply repressive, anti-democratic system, backed revolutionary socialist governments, such as the Cuban government, which I would support. In terms of foreign affairs, there often are contradictions, moral contradictions as you correctly pointed out, but I don’t think that invalidates the uprisings themselves.
CtF: The 2020s are going to be a time when major crises are culminating, the climate crisis, economic crisis, militarism, and repression. What would be your advice to activists to where they should put their focus or things that they should be preparing for?
CH: Well, I think Extinction Rebellion, which is this radical climate group that just organized thousands of people to shut down city centers in about 60 cities around the globe has got it. It’s nonviolent occupation of bridges and roads and roundabouts to paralyze commerce and to begin to force the ruling elites to respond to the climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion is quite clear that they’re not interested in reform. They’re interested in rebellion. They are interested in removing the ruling elites from power. They will do that by breaking the law and by going to jail. Over a thousand people were arrested in London.
That’s where we really have to go. We have to use our numbers to paralyze the system. That’s the only hope that we have. And I think that’s what we have been seeing in countries like Lebanon, Chile, and Hong Kong. I think, especially if we talk about the climate emergency alone, that is the only mechanism left to save us.