Empire of Illusion Ch. 5: In Conclusion, We’re Doomed
We’ve reached the end of Empire of Illusion. Throughout the previous chapters, Chris Hedges has argued that Americans have retreated into a fantasy world that denies the grim realities the country now faces. Here, in the concluding chapter, he performs an autopsy on those grim realities. Spoiler alert: we’re screwed.
To sum up as best I can: “oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political and economic elite” have hijacked the government and looted the treasury; the country’s physical infrastructure is crumbling to ruins; the $700 billion defense budget is draining the nation’s resources; the old standard of living will never return; the American Empire is collapsing; the culture has been degraded and reflects the cruelty of imperialism; democratic participation is only open to those whose way has been greased by corporate lobbyists; finally, the corporate mass media has no interest in telling us how bad things are, but focuses on superficial, empty gossip. It’s a shame the book didn’t come with a complimentary razorblade.
Transplanted Lawyer has touched on the main problem I have with the last chapter, which is that Hedges piles up a number of issues in a way that would suggest there’s some prime mover behind all of these problems, without really showing that there is one; it reads like a conspiracy theory with no conspiracy. T.L. also argued that Hedges is suggesting things are so bad that we’re doomed unless a strong government intervenes. However, I rather think that Hedges could just be saying, “Things are so bad that we’re doomed”. Period.
Certainly he’s saying the American Empire is doomed. I hear this idea quite often on the progressive left- American dreams of global omnipotence have hollowed out the culture at home in a manner familiar with late empires. And there is quite a stark gap now between what American military power might accomplish and what many people seem to think is possible. Moreover the country doesn’t have its books in order, nor is anyone in office willing to get them in order. And it’s been this way for decades.
Another interesting wrinkle to the chapter- and another increasingly prevalent idea on the progressive left- is that the America of old, while imperfect, was superior to what we have now, but alas has almost certainly been lost forever. It’s interesting because it’s a narrative of decline and not a program for progress. Sometimes it’s suggested, and I think Hedges implies this here, that the downfall of America by greed and hubris was fairly inevitable, given the profound limitations of human nature. Again, this is rather straightforward cultural conservatism.
By this account, militarism, economic decline and the rampant greed of ragnarok capitalism have created a nation that imports more than it exports, whose mass culture is insipid, whose leaders are beholden to an oligarchic business elite, whose police and military have entirely too much power, and where the standard of living is declining for all but a few- basically a banana republic.
The wreckage of this has been financial but also cultural. Another idea now common among progressives: the loss of community. It’s absolutely fascinating to me to hear progressive friends openly yearning for those lost, collective structures of meaning that once embedded the individual in his community and provided a narrative that shaped his life and provided psychological stability. They are, politically, to the left, but many of them, and Hedges too I think, would fit in well on the Front Porch Republic. Nostalgia might just arise during economic downturns. But the fact that many of these ideas are beginning to transcend political ideology is just cause for considering them seriously.
The porch reminds me of one area where I think Hedges has a major blind spot- for a book that focuses on media and the dissemination of information it’s surprising that he makes almost no mention of the Internet. He tells us that the truth is never spoken in the corporate news media- but aren’t more people going online to get the news for just that reason? Similarly, his discussion of misogynist pornography ignored the fact that the fastest growing demographic of porn consumers are women, who now make up 1/3rd of the market, as a result, again, of the internet. And aren’t many people fleeing cable now that they can watch the rare good program online?
I’m not as pessimistic as Hedges, but I think jeremiads like this serve a useful function: by refusing to pull any punches, they’re like a flare in a foggy night, beckoning towards those other people who are dissatisfied with the state of things. Even though we disagree on much, I’ve already started to think of certain incidents in my own life- a class I had where they only wanted to talk about shopping, a party where the discussion never strayed far from Tiger Woods cheating on his wife, a friend who, totally unprompted, commented, “I can’t stand how trivial everything is now”- as Hedge moments. I think he is on to something, although I’m not sure just what it is. If so, other people have likely noticed the same thing, which is cause for optimism. Cultures change by the generation. If American culture really is so shallow and chimerical at this moment, I await the inevitable backlash.