The poor and the working class in the United States know what it is to be Greek. They know underemployment and unemployment. They know life without a pension. They know existence on a few dollars a day. They know gas and electricity being turned off because of unpaid bills. They know the crippling weight of debt. They know being sick and unable to afford medical care. They know the state seizing their meager assets, a process known in the United States as “civil asset forfeiture,” which has permitted American police agencies to confiscate more than $3 billion in cash and property. They know the profound despair and abandonment that come when schools, libraries, neighborhood health clinics, day care services, roads, bridges, public buildings and assistance programs are neglected or closed. They know the financial elites’ hijacking of democratic institutions to impose widespread misery in the name of austerity. They, like the Greeks, know what it is to be abandoned.
The Greeks and the U.S. working poor endure the same deprivations because they are being assaulted by the same system—corporate capitalism. There are no internal constraints on corporate capitalism. And the few external constraints that existed have been removed. Corporate capitalism, manipulating the world’s most powerful financial institutions, including the Eurogroup, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Federal Reserve, does what it is designed to do: It turns everything, including human beings and the natural world, into commodities to be exploited until exhaustion or collapse. In the extraction process, labor unions are broken, regulatory agencies are gutted, laws are written by corporate lobbyists to legalize fraud and empower global monopolies, and public utilities are privatized. Secret trade agreements—which even elected officials who view the documents are not allowed to speak about—empower corporate oligarchs to amass even greater power and accrue even greater profits at the expense of workers. To swell its profits, corporate capitalism plunders, represses and drives into bankruptcy individuals, cities, states and governments. It ultimately demolishes the structures and markets that make capitalism possible. But this is of little consolation for those who endure its evil. By the time it slays itself it will have left untold human misery in its wake.
The Greek government kneels before the bankers of Europe begging for mercy because it knows that if it leaves the eurozone, the international banking system will do to Greece what it did to the socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973 in Chile; it will, as Richard Nixon promised to do in Chile, “make the economy scream.” The bankers will destroy Greece. If this means the Greeks can no longer get medicine—Greece owes European drug makers 1 billion euros—so be it. If this means food shortages—Greece imports thousands of tons of food from Europe a year—so be it. If this means oil and gas shortages—Greece imports 99 percent of its oil and gas—so be it. The bankers will carry out economic warfare until the current Greek government is ousted and corporate political puppets are back in control.
Human life is of no concern to corporate capitalists. The suffering of the Greeks, like the suffering of ordinary Americans, is very good for the profit margins of financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs. It was, after all, Goldman Sachs—which shoved subprime mortgages down the throats of families it knew could never pay the loans back, sold the subprime mortgages as investments to pension funds and then bet against them—that orchestrated complex financial agreements with Greece, many of them secret. These agreements doubled the debt Greece owes under derivative deals and allowed the old Greek government to mask its real debt to keep borrowing. And when Greece imploded, Goldman Sachs headed out the door with suitcases full of cash.
The system of unfettered capitalism is designed to callously extract money from the most vulnerable and funnel it upward to the elites. This is seen in the mounting fines and fees used to cover shortfalls in city and state budgets. Corporate capitalism seeks to privatize all aspects of government service, from education to intelligence gathering. The U.S. Postal Service appears to be next. Parents already must pay hundreds of dollars for their public-school children to take school buses, go to music or art classes and participate in sports or other activities. Fire departments, ambulance services, the national parks system are all slated to become fodder for corporate profit. It is the death of the civil society.
Criminal justice is primarily about revenue streams for city and state governments in the United States rather than about justice or rehabilitation. The poor are arrested and fined for minor infractions in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere; for not mowing their lawns; for putting their feet on seats of New York City subway cars. If they cannot pay the fines, as many cannot, they go to jail. In jail they are often charged room and board. And if they can’t pay this new bill they go to jail again. It is a game of circular and never-ending extortion of the poor. Fines that are unpaid accrue interest and generate warrants for arrest. Poor people often end up owing thousands of dollars for parking or traffic violations.
Fascist and communist firing squads sometimes charged the victim’s family for the bullets used in the execution. In corporate capitalism, too, the abusers extract payment; often the money goes to private corporations that carry out probation services or prison and jail administration. The cost of being shot with a stun gun ($26) or of probation services ($35 to $100 a month) or of an electronic ankle bracelet ($11 a month) is vacuumed out of the pockets of the poor. And all this is happening in what will one day be seen as the good times. Wait until the financial house of cards collapses again—what is happening in China is not a good sign—and Wall Street runs for cover. Then America will become Greece on steroids.
“We are a nation that has turned its welfare system into a criminal system,” write Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr in an Institute for Policy Studies report titled “The Poor Get Prison.” “We criminalize life-sustaining activities of people too poor to afford shelter. We incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. And we institute policies that virtually bar them for life from participating in society once they have done their time. We have allowed the resurgence of debtors’ prisons. We’ve created a second-tier public education system for poor children and black and Latino children that disproportionally criminalizes their behavior and sets them early onto the path of incarceration and lack of access to assistance and opportunity.”
The corporate dismantling of civil society is nearly complete in Greece. It is far advanced in the United States. We, like the Greeks, are undergoing a political war waged by the world’s oligarchs. No one elected them. They ignore public opinion. And, as in Greece, if a government defies the international banking community it is targeted for execution. The banks do not play by the rules of democracy.
Our politicians are corporate employees. And if you get dewy-eyed about the possibility of the U.S. having its first woman president, remember that it was Hillary Clinton’s husband who decimated manufacturing jobs with the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement and then went on to destroy welfare with the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which halted federal cash aid programs and imposed time-limited, restrictive state block grants. Under President Bill Clinton, most welfare recipients—and 70 percent of those recipients were children—were dropped from the rolls. The prison-industrial complex exploded in size as its private corporations swallowed up surplus, unemployed labor, making $40,000 or more a year from each person held in a cage. The population of federal and state prisons combined rose by 673,000 under Clinton. He, along with Ronald Reagan, set the foundations for the Greecification of the United States.
The destruction of Greece, like the destruction of America, by the big banks and financial firms is not, as the bankers claim, about austerity or imposing rational expenditures or balanced budgets. It is not about responsible or good government. It is a vicious form of class warfare. It is profoundly anti-democratic. It is about forming nations of impoverished, disempowered serfs and a rapacious elite of all-powerful corporate oligarchs, backed by the most sophisticated security and surveillance apparatus in human history and a militarized police that shoots unarmed citizens with reckless abandon. The laws and rules it imposes on the poor are, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, little more than “organized sadism.”
Corporate profit is God. It does not matter who suffers. In Greece 40 percent of children live in poverty, there is a 25 percent unemployment rate and the unemployment figure for those between the ages of 15 and 24 is nearly 50 percent. And it will only get worse.
The economic and political ideology that convinced us that organized human behavior should be determined by the dictates of the global marketplace was a con game. We were the suckers. The promised prosperity from trickle-down economics and the free market instead concentrated wealth among a few and destroyed the working and the middle classes along with all vestiges of democracy. Corrupt governments, ignoring the common good and the consent of the governed, abetted this pillage. The fossil fuel industry was licensed to ravage the ecosystem, threatening the viability of the human species, while being handed lavish government subsidies. None of this makes sense.
The mandarins that maintain this system cannot respond rationally in our time of crisis. They are trained only to make the system of exploitation work. They are blinded by their insatiable greed and neoliberal ideology, which posits that controlling inflation, privatizing public assets and removing trade barriers are the sole economic priorities. They are steering us over a cliff.
We will not return to a rational economy or restore democracy until these global speculators are stripped of power. This will happen only if the streets of major cities in Europe and the United States are convulsed with mass protests. The tyranny of these financial elites knows no limits. They will impose ever greater suffering and repression until we submit or revolt. I prefer the latter. But we don’t have much time.
The Pathology of the Rich – Credibility of the Ruling Elite is Being Shredded – Chris Hedges on Reality Asserts Itself
On RAI with Paul Jay, Chris Hedges discusses the psychology of the super rich; their sense of entitlement, the dehumanization of workers, and mistaken belief that their wealth will insulate them from the coming storms
On RAI with Paul Jay, Chris Hedges says that while people are disgusted with the centers of power, unless there is a constructive alternative, any eruption will be nihilistic and could be fascist
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges, argues that we are heading for economic, environmental, political, and moral collapse, as a once proud nation becomes an empire. According to Hedges, corporations are using mass entertainment to sell us the illusion of meaning, while we are kept apathetic about the decline of our culture, the erosion of education, and the systematic loss of our liberties.
Chapter by chapter
In Chapter 1, “The Illusion of Literacy,” beginning with the popular appeal of professional wrestling and reality TV, the author traces how media creates illusions of life, or pseudo-events, which overlay reality in the minds of those who follow them. These pseudo-events become more important than our real-world problems. “The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality.”
Moving through a detailed panorama of media, the cult of celebrity, and shows like American Idol, The Swan, Big Brother, and Survivor, Hedges uncovers the messages behind these shows. “They leave us chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good.”
This assaults literacy, not just our ability to read, but also our capacity to think deeply about issues.
A culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those that are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read…Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideals. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality.
This is most important in the area of politics.
Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel. They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal history of the candidate…Truth is irrelevant. Those who succeed in politics, as in most of the culture, are those create the most convincing fantasies.
In chapter 2, “The Illusion of Love,” Hedges addresses the issue of the growing use of pornography in the last 40 years. He shows the horrors of the porn industry, its abuse of women and the industrialization of rape. He allows porn actors to speak for themselves, focusing on those who share their victimization by soulless companies whose only concern is profit; in porn they are commodities, not people. Hedges pulls no punches in letting them tell their stories. The testimonies here are stark and sexually detailed, certainly not for the faint-hearted. In other interviews with people who support the industry you can hear the hollowness of their justifications of abuse and torture.
He has a section of interviews with Shelly Lubben and some of her team at a porn convention. Shelly is an ex-porn star and is now a Christian crusader against the industry. Her mission is to rescue women from porn and show them the gospel of Jesus Christ. The author never openly commends her work against the industry, though he seems to share her viewpoint. Hedges does not write from a Christian perspective, and given his other railing against Christians (especially the “Christian Right”) this is a compliment.
There are few conclusions or recommendations for how to deal with this scourge on the mental landscape of our citizens. Instead, the author leaves us to draw our own from the descriptions of how pornography victimizes both users and producers. He rightly sees pornography as disassociated from relationships, intimacy, and real sex, and more about power and violence. Hedges uses our cultures fascination with porn, and the way that it has become mainstreamed into other media, to show how we have replaced real love with an illusion. Porn is a reflection of the violence that we have come to accept as entertainment, as figured in the Abu Graib abuses.
Chapter 3, “The Illusion of Wisdom,” is about higher education, specifically the schools of the elite, like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge—the very schools where most of those in political and corporate power receive their education. Admission to these schools, like a country club membership, is only available to the rich and powerful, who make colossal donations to gain admittance for their children. Diversity is cultural and ethnic, but there is no diversity of class. Intelligence and analytical skills are the only traits prized in these cloisters of privilege, and those students and faculty who question the status quo are shunned. Hedges contrasts this to an earlier time when enrollment was open, and where students questioned what they were hearing, rather than simply regurgitating facts.
These elites are not capable of asking the broad, universal questions, the staples of an education in the humanities, which challenge the deepest assumptions of a culture and examine the harsh realities of political and economic power…Instead the elite are taught skills which prepare them for careers in business and politics. If business and political institutions are going the wrong way, these skills will not enable them to see what is wrong, or show any way to correct them…The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system…By the time they graduate, they are superbly conditioned for the drudgery of moving large sums of money around electronically or negotiating huge corporate contracts.
The consequence of this shift in education over the last 100 years is that the people making the biggest decisions about what kind of country and economy the rest of us will inherit are those unprepared to question authority and the status quo, and unlikely to set aside the interests of the rich and powerful to build a better world for all Americans. The moral and ethical dimensions of business and public policy will not just be ignored, but intellectually unavailable to them.
Chapter 4, “The Illusion of Happiness,” is about positive psychology and social engineering. Positive psychology believes that happiness can be engineered. “By thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen.” As preposterous as this con artistry seems, this is a prevailing philosophy being sold to major corporations. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become…If we are not happy there is something wrong with us.”
This ties in with the picture that Hedges is painting of our culture of illusion.
Once we adopt a positive mind, positive things will always happen. This belief, like all the other illusions peddled in the culture, encourages people to flee from reality when reality is frightening or depressing… This flight into self-delusion is no more helpful in solving real problems than alchemy. But it is very effective in keeping people from questioning the structure around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy.
These positive psychologists sell their services to corporations, who then build a culture where productivity at work, based on an illusion of happiness, not family or church, becomes the highest ethical goal for an individual. As this fails to produce real fulfillment and leads to isolation, the person who rebels against his keepers is passed over for promotion, or “downsized.” The person who is cowed into submission flees into the fantasy of spectacle on television or pornography to validate a life that should have been lived for a higher calling than next year’s annual report. Either way this accomplishes the corporation’s goal of profit, either by producing more brake pads, or downsizing those who don’t want to play the game.
Positive psychology, like celebrity culture, the relentless drive to consume, and the diversionary appeals of mass entertainment, feeds off the unhappiness that comes from isolation and the loss of community. The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion.
The final chapter, “The Illusion of America,” sums up the rest of the book with the opening line, “I used to live in a country called America.” Hedges tells us that, though we use the same language of freedom, rights, liberty, and justice for all, we are left with only the illusion of these things in a country that cruelly treats those who are poor, laid off, and whose homes have been foreclosed, while those who have engineered their demise on Wall Street take home 10 million dollar bonuses. Ironically, the government we elected to promote liberty and to protect our people never steps in to interrupt this greed. There are slogans of hope and change, but the real hope is for the rich to get richer, and the change is just another coat of paint on the same collapsing edifice that was once a great and proud nation.
I challenge you to read that chapter for yourself. It’s not fun. Whether or not all that Chris Hedges says is true, there is certainly the ring of authenticity to someone born in the early 50s who grew up looking forward to a brighter future and a better America. Perhaps the most chilling statement is, “At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real.” In the 70s I wondered, as I read Revelation 13, how the prediction of an evil world ruler could ever be bought and sold in America. Francis Schaeffer’s words were prophetic: “History indicates that that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously greater when [the] two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.”