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Am I a Rebel? Chris Hedges wouldn't think so.

By Dave Belden. Crossposted from Tikkun Daily. Chris Hedges put up another vehement piece on Truthdig on Monday: “Calling All Rebels.” Representative quotes:
There are no constraints left to halt America’s slide into a totalitarian capitalism… The old game of blaming the weak and the marginal, a staple of despotic regimes, will empower the dark undercurrents of sadism and violence within American society and deflect attention from the corporate vampires that have drained the blood of the country… The engines of social reform are dead…. The elites and their apologists call for calm and patience. They use the hypocritical language of spirituality, compromise, generosity and compassion to argue that the only alternative is to accept and work with the systems of power.... Those who do not rebel in our age of totalitarian capitalism and who convince themselves that there is no alternative to collaboration are complicit in their own enslavement. They commit spiritual and moral suicide.
Am I one of those suicides, in his opinion? I guess so. I still pay my taxes. I still vote. If I had been on last week’s march for education that Alana Price blogged about here I would have gone home after the rally with the main body of marchers instead of following the anarchist group that sat down on the freeway and got arrested.
Protestors take over the 880 freeway in Oakland in both directions as part of last week's Day of Action for education funding. Photo: Reginald James/

Protestors take over the 880 freeway in Oakland in both directions as part of last week's Day of Action for education funding. Photo: Reginald James/

The goal of the march from the Cal Berkeley campus was to join other schools in Oakland to present a united front and win public support: I would have argued that closing the freeway was not a tactic the march organizers had endorsed and it was not based on a sophisticated concept of how to win over public opinion. A friend of ours was arrested, however, and spent a night in an astonishingly filthy jail, with old blood and faeces on the wall, and verbal abuse from the cops. And I find I wasn’t that critical of her choice, especially since she went as a medic, or that unhappy that the freeway had been closed, especially since no one was hurt and the kinds of action that would have alienated the public more, that some anarchists love, like smashing car windows, did not take place: the action did show the passion of the protest. Hedges’ primary form of rebellion seems to be writing and speaking about the need for fundamental change. I’ve been doing the same kind of work through the pages of Tikkun, where I serve as the managing editor. Here we are rebelling by publishing strong critiques of the profit-run corporate world and the evermore corporate-run political world — including a fine one in our last issue by Hedges — plus all the other articles and posts you see here and in the magazine (many of which are about envisaging a better economy, better ways of making peace or of relating empathically to each other, which takes a different mindset from rebellion). You could also say I have rebelled against the car culture, because after years of long distance car commuting I am now able to commute by bike, enabling my family to have one car not two. But I guess in Hedges’ view it all means nothing because I still have those Obama stickers on my bike’s front and rear bumpers. Granted I put them there during the primaries. But to a Hedges that just shows my feeble-mindedness then, and the fact that I haven’t ripped them off shows it now. In the Bush II years one of my best friends told me the United States’ descent into corporate militarism was happening so quickly we would not see another election: after stealing 2000 and 2004, the far right would stage a coup rather than let a moderate win. I disagreed: I thought that was an out-of-touch demonization of the political right as it was then in this country; I thought it worth voting for Obama, and if Hillary had won the primaries I would have voted for her. In that very limited, time-sensitive argument, I had the better read in that a coup did not take place. Hedges would say it didn’t need to. While I am one of those deeply disappointed by Obama’s performance I think of other times in history when radicals dismissed the system as radically as Hedges does now. In the 1930s there was huge populist leftwing energy for revolution. Were the revolutionaries right back then to dismiss the so-called democratic system? FDR’s administrations left much to be desired. They did not reverse racism, sexism, corporate profit-mania, or militarism. But ironically the revolutionaries’ furious energy and dismissal of the system was a major factor that enabled FDR to pass the New Deal — to save capitalism, as he himself said. A great many people benefited from the New Deal. I did not expect Obama to be any better than FDR, and without revolutionary energy in the country I did not expect him to be as good. In that sense, I am not so critical of Hedges: we need some strong movements utterly dismissing the system, alongside some strong movements that believe the system can be improved, if the system is to be in any way reformed. But could I join the ones with the darkest vision, that say the system is irredeemable? No, because if I was thrown back into the year 1930 knowing what I know now I would not join the Communist Party or any revolutionary movement, because I don’t think the revolutionary Left was ready then to create a better system. I don’t think it’s ready now. If it’s not about envisaging a better system, if it is just about rebelling against whatever system we find ourselves in, then count me out. The cult of the rebel is a cult like any other, in my view. Cults demonize non-members of the cult, and so fall prey to unrealistic thinking about the rest of the world. They alienate the mass of people who have more common sense. If they are unfortunate enough to take power, they create disillusioning dictatorships that any decent rebel like Chris Hedges has to leave. These dictatorships may be worse than what would have happened if the reformers had won instead: think of Robespierre, Stalin, Mao. At some point the reformers have to take over again. We need more rebels, but only to make the reformers look good. I’m a wannabe revolutionary but an actual reformer until I get some confidence that we wannabe revolutionaries have a real handle on how to create non-demonizing, empathic, respectful, celebratory relationships in our own movements and with our opponents. So I think we need more rebels and reformers of many kinds, but the ones I want to work with are those who, as Michael Lerner writes, aim “to move from a Left that is identified primarily in terms of what it is against to a Left that is known for WHAT WE ARE FOR,” and who understand what it means to act from empathy, love and generosity, and not primarily from righteous anger. Because while anger can bring a system down, it doesn’t build a better one. The part I liked best in Hedges’ new article was this:
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career,” Vaclav Havel said when he battled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. “You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … The dissident does not operate in the realm of genuine power at all. He is not seeking power. He has no desire for office and does not gather votes. He does not attempt to charm the public. He offers nothing and promises nothing. He can offer, if anything, only his own skin-and he offers it solely because he has no other way of affirming the truth he stands for. His actions simply articulate his dignity as a citizen, regardless of the cost.”
Perhaps I am not a Hedges-type rebel yet simply because I have not yet been thrown out of the system in the way Havel describes. Until I am, I work for empathy with the great American public and towards moving it towards building a caring society. This is what Michael Lerner is working for with his writing and conferences. It takes a particular kind of humility in a prophetic thinker to avoid, as Michael does, the dramatically righteous dismissal of almost everyone as spineless and deluded and instead work to persuade, to carry the mass with him or her towards the promised land. You risk contemptuous dismissal yourself by all the righteously dismissive, but you remain with a chance to lead those who resist the cult of the rebel.
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