A Culture of Narcissism

7d6b0681-6557-4869-8471-0a460944928aChris 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.

 

Comments (19)

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  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    So good to see Hedges featured on Bella. His “War is a Force …” is important, because its latter chapters start to touch on the spirituality of war, without which hyperreality (Baudrillard) cannot be understood, causing us to fall prey to the undertows of our times. Indeed, more and more I am impatient with the ontological laziness of those who profess an interest or expertise about what drives “events, dear boy, events,” but refuse to look beneath the materialistic outer crust. Refuse to name and unmask, in order to engage, the Powers that Be (Walter Wink). Hedges ventures to such territory. That’s what makes him great. More such depth is needed to resource, and to be resources by, our old “metaphysical Scotland”.

  2. duncan says:

    disappointing . Intellectuals are forever misrepresenting reality and quoting Baudrillarard etc. to explain society when most people don’t actually behave like they think. The problem with intellectuals from both left or right is they see everything threw their ideologies. The world isn’t like that, i know hundreds of people who don’t bother about hype or take the leads in the news stories seriously about shopping frenzies etc.Besides, the university of life is far more complicated than the ‘hyperrealities’ and all the uni babble and it teaches you how things actually operate. Politicians are just like any other group in society,l rotary etc all looking out for each other and working like a family to screw each other. And that’s ho it goes with some people putting up with it and others not. Seriously,university is great but a few people should take a lead here and try and experience a bit of life, not everyone is walking around in virtual reality. Intellectuals seem to perceive the people as gullible or lacking in some way or another and therefore they need to explain it and as often is the case take responsibilities over the masses when they get the chance. I find it frustrating reading it, but I suppose it’s more of an intellectuals forum.

    1. Andy Nimmo says:

      Sorry Duncan but I have to disagree with you.
      Social psychologists have argued for decades that ordinary decent folk can be oh so easily manipulated by psychopaths into doing deeply unpleasant things.
      To me that is what is happening in the world in general and the UK in particular.
      I find it indisputable that the UK is now a ‘Toxic Empire’ made that way deliberately by a ‘Psychopathic Culture’ that has existed since Thatcher’s time.

      1. duncan says:

        Fair enough, Andy, but I think your taking the t.v. and its culture a bit too seriously. Most people realise t.v.and the media for what it is: a shallow cultural experience. It is not as transformative as you seem to think it is. Are you trying to tell me the Ummayyad Dynasty or the Morrocan Invasion of Western Sahara or the first world war etc., all predating thatcher, were less Psychopathic?

  3. George Gunn says:

    I live in a “sacrifice zone”. It’s called Caithness. For 60 years we have lived with a Level Two Cold War target called Dounreay. Now it is being decommissioned and the state, who sited the reactors in the Far North for safety’s sake – theirs, not ours – are abandoning any responsibility for the residual population. We were good enough to serve their purpose and now their purpose is done we can do what we like. The problem is that because the economy and society have been channeled in one direction for so long most people have lost the confidence to think for themselves. That is what happens when three generations of workers are controlled by the Official Secrets Act. Democracy anyone?

    1. Jan Cowan says:

      Thanks, George. Agree wholeheartedly with your comment…….and by the way I’ve just bought your new book “The Province of the Cat”. One good thing about winter, there’s plenty of time to read.

  4. elaine fraser says:

    I came across Chris Hedges by pure chance (in conversation on YouTube last year?). Absolutely fascinating speaker . I had never heard of him or read any of his work. I believe he was discussing climate change among other things . I didnt feel like he was some out of touch intellectual and I felt the conclusions he had drawn stemmed from his actual real life experience of being in war zones as a journalist witnessing suffering and his attempts as a journalist to tell the truth . Whether in the end you agree or disagree I hope many will take the time to hear him on Livestream as we need to consider alternative views of the world more than ever.

  5. Mike Fenwick says:

    It’s 1977, think Watergate and Nixon, Margaret Thatcher opposes the BBC in its intention to feature J K Galbraith and his series “The Age of Uncertainty”, I offer a link to one of the episodes “Big Corporation”.

    When it comes time, in our time, to raise issues that concern us, whether raised and analysed by Hedges or others, don’t we need to try to understand the origins of the issues, how did we get here, what were the forces at work, were our parents and grandparents willing participants in accepting the trends of the time, and are we today similarly willing, or does each generation simply sleepwalk, never truly waking.

    The link:

  6. John Page says:

    Thank you Brian and Bella for this stimulating article…….more titles for my reading pile for the winter months
    Among its other purposes, I have really appreciated Bella’s opening up for me avenues of reading/study
    Thank you so much
    John Page

  7. Brian Beadie says:

    I’nm sorry Duncan, but everything is seen through the prism of an ideology. Free market capitalism is as much of an ideology as Marxism, and has devastating effects on people’s lives. Just because it pretends to be ;natural’ doesn’t mean that it is.
    I’m not an academic; many of my friends have never read Baudrillard but have tried to escape the system, an act which has become harder and harder to do over the years.
    Not going to see the new Star Wars film is the sign of a moral deviant, or a ‘weirdo’ as was put to me in the office today.

    1. duncan says:

      Brian, I think seeing everything through a prism is dangerous as ideologies are often not intellectually coherent or suited to humans. All I’m saying is they are often incomplete descriptions or explanations of the world. Seeing people as commodities and images as totalitarian is useful to serve an example but it doesn’t represent people properly. Madge, my mum in law, goes to get her haircut with the money she earns as a cleaner now and again, it might just be to let her feel good for a while, relax, or is she the product of a totalitarian system as a result of thatcherism? All I’m saying is ideologies don’t get close to what humans are really like and intellectuals seem to forget that because, to me, their ideas seem fanciful or just as oppressive as what they condemn. Surely, independence of mind is above this.

      Aside, having just comeback from an African country I find it strange why people would want to escape from a system, like in Scotland or the UK, which gives you freedoms and opportunities that less fortunate people marvel at, where even little things like this post would mean a sentence on the shooting wall, as they call it. As for office staff, didn’t they make a series about that, so I guess you kind of know what to expect.

      1. Wul says:

        Duncan,

        Do you think the freedom to visit & comment on a site like Bella and all those other freedoms that oppressed people envy just happened?

        Some in Scotland want to “escape” because they can see the potential of what a society could (just could) be. Let’s be grateful for the freedoms we have, yes, but not be complacent just because worse countries exist.

        If you think TV doesn’t have a very, very deep influence on most people’s thinking then you are mistaken.

        1. duncan says:

          Wul, I’m very wary of ideologies, this is what I’m saying. I value my rights in Scotland and I am using one very important one now, called asserting my opinion. There is no complacency, my assertion is one of caution, history is awash with the dead from so called societies that could be. You say some in Scotland want to escape (i’m assuming this is a melodramatic way of saying independence) but another half don’t. Even though I don’t agree with them it is representative of how things tend to work in life: some agree, some don’t, and this is a good place to work from. Hedges is of an intellectual strain that is totalitarian and he always categorises people as consumerist and culture as oppressive when its not really the case. Unless you personally are a saint you will understand a lot of the contradictions in society, a lot of people take advantage of situations, people look after their friends and family,companies, organisations, mates in the pub, politicians are the same. Academics booking conferences around about now in Thailand and laughing abut it drinking red wine on their tax funded flights. I don’t like this and think it should be monitored closer but Hedges isn’t interested in that. He sees things through dogma and thats what worries me.
          As for your assertion about t.v. influencing peoples you’d have to be a bit more specific how. I think people are smarter than you think.

          1. Graeme Purves says:

            I agree, Duncan. Scotland has already suffered enough from the dogmas of it’s home-grown Presbyterian egotists. We don’t need to import them. Hedges accusing others of narcissism is enough to make a cat laugh.

          2. Wul says:

            Duncan,

            I used the word “escape” because you used it in your own post; “…why people would want to escape from a system…”
            I share your distrust of ideologies. I do however feel Scotland is shackled to governments which operate within some very powerful ideology; “money is God”, “the economy is all”, “all business is good”, “war makes us safe”

            As to TV, do you think companies would spend millions on TV adverts if they didn’t influence people?

  8. Alex says:

    Chris Hedges is describing the system in which, particularly the Americans live. We are gradually slipping into the same. Comments about individual actions and responses are misleading, because of the “givens” which constrain possibilities. Most individuals are constrained by their perceptions of “normal behaviour”. Many people fail to notice that these norms are “imposed” by corporate interests. What is the point of advertising if it doesn’t influence behaviour? I think we all have to concede that it can be persuasive. Propaganda masquerading as “news” can and does influence thinking. Most of the media is part of the “corporate conspiracy”. The media set the “agenda” for opinion setting, and control. It takes people with real insight such as Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky to shine a light on reality.

  9. Gralloched says:

    ” manipulated …… Into doing deeply unpleasant things ”
    Download the free PDF, bob altemeyer on the psychopathy of authoritarianism. Uni of Manitoba.
    Very illuminating.

  10. MBC says:

    The world has always been a cruel and indifferent place. People tend to idealise and personify nature, but nature doesn’t care for human beings any more than any other living thing. Each living thing takes its chances with what it finds.

    What is increasingly the case as the wilderness retreats and the city encroaches is that the cruelty of the world is man-made cruelty. And that’s a huge moral dilemma for human beings. As well as being a complex poorly understood web of interconnections. At least nature obeyed laws. But the man-made world has no fixed laws.

  11. douglas clark says:

    This is a fascinating thread.

    I like to think I have broken free of the mind control of media and mainstream politicians. But, I have to accept that that is possibly untrue.

    So, I now have no idea whether I have independent thought or not. Am I a mere Borg, part of a hive mind? Am I, perhaps, addicted to war?

    Many folk seem to argue in favour of us being, I don’t know, overwritten by a collective perhaps?

    I have degrees of independence, perhaps.

    Just thinking this through, you understand, given the force of nature that is the concept that we are controlled, not agents of our own volition.

    I happen to support a political party that the collective detests. The SNP gets my monthly payment, and no, I do not agree with everything they do. So, how is it possible that I pay them money? Is it because they are the least awful alternative?

    Perhaps.

    But that does not explain the collective mind.

    It is a given in many newspapers that the SNP are bad, bad people. I appear independent minded enough to reject their concensus. As do around 50% of the rest of the country.

    How does that happen in Borgistan?

    Well it doesn’t.

    Because, whilst advertising works, to an extent, even the greatest campaign for, say, snail gravy, would be unable to convert more than the most gullible.

    The point being, that the message has to at least play to the likes of you and me, who no longer buy Mazda lights that, apparently lasted longer:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKDH-cuH3nE

    Sorry if this has been a ramble, but I am unconvinced that Scots men and women are incapable of making decisions, and I do not think we are incapable of thinking for ourselves. Neither do I really think that these decisions are controlled by media. We appear, well 50% of us or so, to have freedom of action. On the political stage at least. Whether our light bulb buying philosophy is as nuanced is yet to be determined.

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