A Culture of Narcissism
Chris Hedges is one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the USA, indeed the world, today. This journalist, activist, author and Presbyterian clergyman first came to prominence as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, where he gained a rare insight into the politics of the Balkans and the Middle East. He would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize as part of their team covering international terrorism; however, his experience there reporting stories based on false leads, some of which were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, turned him into one of the fiercest critics of both the war and the media.
He remarked at the time, “We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige, power and security”. Prescient words indeed, which would lead him into a dispute with the paper, and see him leave to work with The Nation, and write a column for Truthdig, which is essential reading. He would also write the first of the books that would establish his reputation, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning”. Indeed, he has described war as “ the most potent narcotic invented by humankind”.
He is best known, however, for what he has described as an informal trilogy of books, criticising the US and its role in the rise of global capitalism; “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”, “Death of the Liberal Class”, and “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”.
“Empire of Illusion charts a bleak vision of the Dystopia that Hedges maintains the USA has become, tracing our “severance from a print-based culture, a reality-based culture, the degradation of both the moral and intellectual life of modern society”. He compares corporations to psychopaths, and reminds us that virtually everything we consume, including the media we rely on, ultimately is the product of a corporation. This leads to the promotion of a psychopathic world view, internalised by the population, who are deluded by a media landscape of celebrity culture and pseudo events. As Hedges states, “Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed, a culture of narcissism. “
This, converging with the narcissism encouraged by social media, creates a toxic mixture that Warhol could not have anticipated.
“Human beings become a commodity in a celebrity culture. They are objects, like consumer products. They have no intrinsic value. They must look fabulous and live on fabulous sets. Those who fail to meet the ideal are belittled and mocked. Friends and allies are to be used and betrayed during the climb to fame, power and wealth. And when they are no longer useful they are to be discarded. “
What results is a culture entirely based on image, where people are reluctant or unable to engage in critical thought, where technology and the media converge to create a virtual culture obliterating the real, like Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle squared.
As Hedges notes, “You don’t read on the internet. Technology has the capacity to destroy thought. We have created a virtual reality that we mistake for the real.”
This makes it a matter of ease to manipulate the public: ““It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality.”
Hedges considers this image based culture to be a totalitarian one, after the late Sheldon Wolin, who he considers to be the most important recent political thinker, and his concept of inverted totalitarianism, one where economics trumps politics, with anonymous corporate rule.
“The Death of the Liberal Class” examines how the left has utterly failed to prevent, and even helped to facilitate, the advance of these insidious systems. The book began as a critique of the press, but Hedges went on to uncover how not only the liberal press has collapsed, but all the pillars of the liberal establishment, including the Democratic Party, the liberal church and the academy. He shows how impossible it has become for journalists to do their job properly. Journalists serve the interests of the elite, rather than the public, a role Hedges compares to that of courtiers at an imperial court; “It is the job of courtiers to feed off the scraps tossed to them by the powerful and serve the interests of the power elite.”
With the destruction of radical populist movements, there’s no longer any pressure on the liberal centre, for whom Hedges reserves the utmost scorn.
With the withdrawal from an empire of production to an empire of consumption, he accuses liberals of talking the language of “I feel your pain’, but actually serving corporate interests, and has called on American radicals to withdraw support from the democrats, because they have betrayed the working class.
What has happened to the working class in the process?
“The growing desperation across the United States is unleashing not simply a recession-we have been in a recession for some time now -but rather a depression unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s. It has provided a pool of broken people willing to work for low wages without unions or benefits. This is excellent news if you are a corporation. It is very bad news if you are a worker.”
“Days of Destruction: Days of Revolt” was the product of a tour with comic strip artist Joe Sacco of what Hedges calls “sacrifice zones”, those working class communities that have had their hearts and souls ripped out to pay for corporate greed. In this work Hedges and Sacco sought, with vivid effect, make “to make visible what has become invisible” in the glut of media and virtual images.
If Hedges’ vision appears to be overwhelmingly pessimistic, he reminds us that things need not be like this. He asks, ““How do we limit the damage the powerful do to us?” And attempts to answer this question in his latest book, “Wages of Rebellion”.
In it, Hedges traces a history of civil disobedience in the USA, and how it has been suppressed. Since we can longer place our faith in the traditional structures that ensured social justice, Hedges calls on citizens to form mass movements and resist the state in campaigns of civil disobedience. There will have to be a change consciousness however – “We must begin to opt out of the mainstream”
As you could probably guess, Hedge’s pronouncements have upset many in the establishment, and he has even been accused of plagiarism. While obviously, he has been influenced by many other thinkers, and freely quotes from thinkers to Hannah Arndt to Walter Benjamin, what distinguishes Hedges is his clear, accessible style, and refusal to pull punches.
As he says, in characteristically blunt style, “I fight fascists because they are fascists.” And he calls on people who care about their country to follow his example.