Monday, May 29

America: A Declining Empire

Regardless of the outcome, the election will not stop the rise of  hypernationalism, crisis cults, and other signs of an empire’s terminal  decline.

The  terminal decline of the United States will not be solved by elections.  The political rot and depravity will continue to eat away at the soul of  the nation, spawning what anthropologists call crisis cults — movements  led by demagogues that prey on an unbearable psychological and  financial distress. These crisis cults, already well established among  followers of the Christian Right and Donald Trump, peddle magical  thinking and an infantilism that promises — in exchange for all autonomy  — prosperity, a return to a mythical past, order and security. The dark  yearnings among the white working class for vengeance and moral renewal  through violence, the unchecked greed and corruption of the corporate  oligarchs and billionaires who manage our failed democracy, which has  already instituted wholesale government surveillance and revoked most  civil liberties, are part of the twisted pathologies that infect all  civilizations sputtering towards oblivion. I witnessed the deaths of  other nations during the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern  Europe and later in the former Yugoslavia. I have smelled this stench  before.

The removal of Trump from office will only exacerbate the lust for  racist violence he incites and the intoxicating elixir of white  nationalism. The ruling elites, who first built a mafia economy and then  built a mafia state, will continue under Biden, as they did under  Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, to  wantonly pillage and loot. The militarized police will not stop their  lethal rampages in poor neighborhoods. The endless wars will not end.  The bloated military budget will not be reduced. The world’s largest  prison population will remain a stain upon the country. The  manufacturing jobs shipped overseas will not return and the social  inequality will grow. The for-profit health care system will gouge the  public and price millions more out of the health care system. The  language of hate and bigotry will be normalized as the primary form of  communication. Internal enemies, including Muslims, immigrants and  dissidents, will be defamed and attacked. The hypermasculinity that  compensates for feelings of impotence will intensify. It will direct its  venom towards women and all who fail to conform to rigid male  stereotypes, especially artists, LGBTQ people and intellectuals. Lies,  conspiracy theories, trivia and fake news — what Hannah Arendt called  “nihilistic relativism” — will still dominate the airwaves and social  media, mocking verifiable fact and truth. The ecocide, which presages  the extinction of the human species and most other life forms, will  barrel unabated towards its apocalyptic conclusion.

“We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it,” Pascal wrote.

The worse it gets — and it will get worse as the pandemic hits us in wave after deadly wave with an estimated 300,000 Americans dead by December and  possibly 400,000 by January — the more desperate the nation will  become. Tens of millions of people will be thrown into destitution,  evicted from their homes and abandoned. Social collapse, as Peter  Drucker observed in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, brings with it a loss  of faith in ruling institutions and ruling ideologies. With no apparent  answers or solutions to mounting chaos and catastrophe — and Biden and  the Democratic Party have already precluded the kind of New Deal  programs and assault on oligarchic power that saved us during the Great  Depression — demagogues and charlatans need only denounce all  institutions, all politicians, and all political and social conventions  while conjuring up hosts of phantom enemies. Drucker saw that Nazism  succeeded not because people believed in its fantastic promises, but in  spite of them. Nazi absurdities, he pointed out, had been “witnessed by a  hostile press, a hostile radio, a hostile cinema, a hostile church, and  a hostile government which untiringly pointed out the Nazi lies, the  Nazi inconsistency, the unattainability of their promises, and the  dangers and folly of their course.” Nobody, he noted, “would have been a  Nazi if rational belief in the Nazi promises had been a prerequisite.”  The poet, playwright and socialist revolutionary Ernst Toller, who was  forced into exile and stripped of his citizenship when the Nazis took  power in 1933, wrote much the same in his autobiography: “The people are  tired of reason, tired of thought and reflection. They ask, what has  reason done in the last few years, what good have insights and knowledge  done us.” After Toller committed suicide in 1939, W.H. Auden in his  poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller” wrote:

 We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

The poor, the vulnerable, those who are not white or not Christian,  those who are undocumented or who do not mindlessly repeat the cant of a  perverted Christian nationalism, will be offered up in a crisis to the  god of death, a familiar form of human sacrifice that plagues sick  societies. Once these enemies are purged from the nation, we are  promised, America will recover its lost glory, except that once one  enemy is obliterated another takes its place. Crisis cults require a  steady escalation of conflict. This is what made the war in the former  Yugoslavia inevitable. Once one stage of conflict reaches a crescendo it  loses its efficacy. It must be replaced by ever more brutal and deadly  confrontations. The intoxication and addiction to greater and greater  levels of violence to purge the society of evil led to genocide in  Germany and the former Yugoslavia. We are not immune. It is what Ernst  Jünger called a “feast of death.”

These crisis cults are, as Drucker understood, irrational and  schizophrenic. They have no coherent ideology. They turn morality upside  down. They appeal exclusively to emotions. Burlesque and celebrity  culture become politics. Depravity becomes morality. Atrocities and  murder become heroism. Crime and fraud become justice. Greed and  nepotism become civic virtues. What these cults stand for today, they  condemn tomorrow. At the height of the reign of terror on May 6, 1794  during the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre announced that the  Committee for Public Safety now recognized the existence of God. The  French revolutionaries, fanatical atheists who had desecrated churches  and confiscated church property, murdered hundreds of priests and forced  another 30,000 into exile, instantly reversed themselves to send to the  guillotine those who disparaged religion. In the end, exhausted by the  moral confusion and internal contradictions, these crisis cults yearn  for self-annihilation.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his classic book “On Suicide”  found that when social bonds are shattered, when a population no longer  feels it has a place or meaning in a society, personal and collective  acts of self-destruction proliferate. Societies are held together by a  web of social bonds that give individuals a sense of being part of a  collective and engaged in a project larger than the self. This  collective expresses itself through rituals, such as elections and  democratic participation or an appeal to patriotism, and shared national  beliefs. The bonds provide meaning, a sense of purpose, status and  dignity. They offer psychological protection from impending mortality  and the meaninglessness that comes with being isolated and alone. The  breaking of these bonds plunges individuals into deep psychological  distress. Durkheim called this state of hopelessness and despair anomie,  which he defined as “ruleless-ness.”

A protester demonstrates for racial and economic justice in Milwaukee, July 20, 2020. Morry Gash | AP

Ruleless-ness means the norms that govern a society and create a  sense of organic solidarity no longer function. The belief, for example,  that if we work hard, obey the law and get a good education we can  achieve stable employment, social status and mobility along with  financial security becomes a lie. The old rules, imperfect and often  untrue for poor people of color, nevertheless were not a complete  fiction in the United States. They offered some Americans — especially  those from the white working and middle class — modest social and  economic advancement. The disintegration of these bonds has unleashed a  widespread malaise Durkheim would have recognized. The self-destructive  pathologies that plague the United States — opioid addiction, gambling,  suicide, sexual sadism, hate groups and mass shootings — are products of  this anomie. So is our political dysfunction. My book, “America: The Farewell Tour,” is an examination of these pathologies and the widespread anomie that defines American society.

The economic structures, even before the pandemic, were reconfigured  to mock faith in a meritocracy and the belief that hard work leads to a  productive and valued role in society. American productivity, as The New York Times pointed out,  has increased 77 percent since 1973 but hourly pay has grown only 12  percent. If the federal minimum wage was attached to productivity, the  newspaper wrote, it would be more than $20 an hour now, not $7.25. Some  41.7 million workers, a third of the workforce, earn less than $12 an  hour, and most of them do not have access to employer-sponsored health  insurance. A decade after the 2008 financial meltdown, the Times wrote,  the average middle class family’s net worth is more than $40,000 below  what it was in 2007. The net worth of black families is down 40 percent,  and for Latino families the figure has dropped 46 percent. Some four  million evictions are filed each year. One in four tenant households  spends about half its pretax income on rent. Each night some 200,000 people sleep  in their cars, on streets or under bridges. And these stark figures  represent the good times Biden and the Democratic Party leaders promise  to restore. Now, with real unemployment probably close to 20 percent —  the official figure of 10 percent excludes those furloughed or those who  have stopped looking for work — some 40 million people are at risk of being evicted by the end of the year. An estimated 27 million people are expected to lose their health insurance. Banks are stockpiling reserves of cash to cope with the expected wave of bankruptcies and defaults on  mortgages, student loans, car loans, personal loans and credit card  debt. The ruleless-ness and anomie that defines the lives of tens of  millions of Americans was orchestrated by the two ruling parties in the  service of a corporate oligarchy. If we do not address this anomie, if  we do not restore the social bonds shattered by predatory corporate  capitalism, the decay will accelerate.
This dark human pathology is as old as civilization itself, repeated in  varying forms in the twilight of ancient Greece and Rome, the finale of  the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, revolutionary France, the  Weimar Republic and the former Yugoslavia.

The social inequality that characterizes all states and civilizations  seized by a tiny and corrupt cabal — in our case corporate — leads to  an inchoate desire by huge segments of the population to destroy. The  ethnic nationalists Slobodan Milošević, Franjo Tudjman, Radovan Karadžić  and Alija Izetbegović in the former Yugoslavia assumed power in a  similar period of economic chaos and political stagnation. Yugoslavs by  1991 were suffering from widespread unemployment and had seen their real  incomes reduced by half from what they had been a generation before.  These nationalist demagogues sanctified their followers as righteous  victims stalked by an array of elusive enemies. They spoke in the  language of vengeance and violence, leading, as it always does, to  actual violence. They trafficked in historical myth, deifying the past  exploits of their race or ethnicity in a perverse kind of ancestor  worship, a mechanism to give to those who suffered from anomie, who had  lost their identity, dignity and self-worth, a new, glorious identity as  part of a master race. When I walked through Montgomery, Alabama, a  city where half of the population is African-American, with the civil  rights attorney Bryan Stevenson a few years ago, he pointed out the  numerous Confederate memorials, noting that most had been put up in the  last decade. “This,” I told him, “is exactly what happened in  Yugoslavia.”

A hyper-nationalism always infects a dying civilization. It feeds the  collective self-worship. This hyper-nationalism celebrates the  supposedly unique virtues of the race or the national group. It strips  all who are outside the closed circle of worth and humanity. The world  instantly becomes understandable, a black and white tableau of them and  us. These tragic moments in history see people fall into collective  insanity. They suspend thought, especially self-critical thought. None  of this is going away in November, in fact it will get worse.

Joe Biden, a shallow, political hack devoid of fixed beliefs or  intellectual depth, is an expression of the nostalgia of a ruling class  that yearns to return to the pantomime of democracy. They want to  restore the decorum and civic religion that makes the presidency a form  of monarchy and sacralizes the organs of state power. Donald Trump’s  vulgarity and ineptitude is an embarrassment to the architects of  empire. He has ripped back the veil that covered our failed democracy.  But no matter how hard the elites try this veil cannot be restored. The  mask is off. The façade is gone. Biden cannot bring it back.

Political, economic and social dysfunction define the American  empire. Our staggering inability to contain the pandemic, which now  infects over 5 million Americans, and the failure to cope with the  economic fallout the pandemic has caused, has exposed the American  capitalist model as bankrupt. It has freed the world, dominated by the  United States for seven decades, to look at other social and political  systems that serve the common good rather than corporate greed. The  diminished stature of the United States, even among our European allies,  brings with it the hope for new forms of government and new forms of  power.

It is up to us to abolish the American kleptocracy. It is up to us to  mount sustained acts of mass civil disobedience to bring down the  empire. It poisons the world as it poisons us. If we mobilize to build  an open society, we hold out the possibility of beating back these  crisis cults as well as slowing and disrupting the march towards  ecocide. This requires us to acknowledge, like those protesting in the  streets of Beirut, that our kleptocracy, like Lebanon’s, is incapable of  being salvaged. The American system of inverted totalitarianism, as the  political philosopher Sheldon Wolin called it, must be eradicated if we  are to wrest back our democracy and save ourselves from mass  extinction. We need to echo the chants by the crowds in Lebanon calling for the wholesale removal of its ruling class — kulyan-yani-kulyan — everyone means everyone.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist  who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas  Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact.

This article was originally published as;  Chris Hedges: America’s Death March. The original source of this article is at Scheerpost

Copyright © Chris Hedges, Scheerpost

Feature artwork by Mr. Fish 

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