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What revolution could look like

In his latest book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (2015), Chris Hedges urges us to rebel against the corporate imperial system killing us and our earth-home to profit a small elite. Seeing us beginning to fall off the proverbial cliff, he says “we’ll have to make hard decisions about how to ensure our own survival and yet remain moral beings. We’ll be called upon to fight battles, some of which we’ll have no hope of winning, if only to keep alive the possibility of compassion and justice. We’ll depend on others to survive…The greatest existential crisis we face is to accept what lies before us – for the effects of climate change and financial instability are now inevitable – and find the resilience to fight back. When the unraveling begins, it will be global…any sanctuary will be temporary.”

Hedges and others he quotes, including E.M. Forster, William Faulkner, and Edward Said, see Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick as a metaphor for the hubris and ultimate destruction of Western “civilization,” in particular, American corporate culture, now fighting a losing battle with nature. “Like Ahab and his crew,” Hedges says, “we rationalize our collective madness, bowing slavishly before the enticing illusion provided by our masters of limitless power, wealth, and technological progress…To emotionally accept the impending disaster, to attain the visceral understanding that the power elite will not respond rationally to the devastation of the ecosystem, is as difficult to accept as our own mortality.” Mutiny, “the only salvation for the Pequod’s crew,” will be “our only salvation.”

We must be strictly nonviolent, however, according to Hedges, seeking to transform rather than destroy, and creating above all “a radical shift in consciousness…making citizens aware of the mechanisms of power” and “drawing larger and larger numbers of people into acts of civil disobedience.” Hedges believes, rather naively in my opinion, that nonviolent acts of civil disobedience could lead to the “conversion” of our “oppressors.” The revolutionaries will be debtors, the unemployed, and service workers in the developed world and workers in Asia and the global south. “No one knows where or when the eruption will take place,” or “what form it will take. But a popular revolt is coming.

If a nonviolent popular movement is able to ideologically disarm the bureaucrats, civil servants, and police – to get them to defect – nonviolent revolution is possible. But if the state organizes effective and prolonged violence against dissent, it can spawn reactive revolutionary violence, what the state calls ‘terrorism,’” creating nihilistic chaos and/or empowering ruthless, Lenin- and Stalin- (or Hitler-like) “revolutionaries.”

Hedges’ nonviolent creed extends to the protection of private property, because destruction of such property wouldn’t be “living in truth…A resistance movement’s most powerful asset,” he says, “is that it articulates a fundamental truth. As this truth is understood by the mainstream – ‘the 99%’ – it gathers a force that jeopardizes the credibility of ruling elites…if a mass movement is to retain its hold on the majority, it has to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.” But how can we expect 99% of the population to understand and support every important revolutionary idea? Like, for example, the idea that certain things, like most land, cannot and should not be “owned” by private individuals or corporations. And what if you want to protest some destructive technology by damaging the equipment used to effect it – monkeywrenching à la Edward Abbey? I’m also personally and theoretically, against the idea of offering oneself up for arrest and imprisonment by an illegitimate government. Edward Snowden, one of the greatest heroes of recent time, hasn’t done that, and I won’t either – especially after reading, a chapter later, Hedges’ litany of the tortuous abuses to which US prisoners can be (and are) subjected. Hedges invokes the values of accountability and transparency in his brief for strict nonviolence, but there are other conflicting needs and values that may be as or more important – like the right to resist and the right of self-defense. It seems to me that a variety of tactics by different groups is the answer.

“We are not a people with a revolutionary or insurrectionary tradition,” Hedges writes. “The War of Independence, while it borrowed the rhetoric of revolution, replaced a foreign oligarchy with a native, slave-owning oligarchy. The founding fathers were conservative. The primacy of private property, especially slaves, was paramount to the nation’s founders,” who went on to design a government meant to “thwart the popular will…The few armed rebellions, such as the 1786 and 1787 Shay’s Rebellion and the 1921 armed uprising [of miners] at Blair Mountain, were swiftly and brutally put down by a combination of armed vigilante groups and government troops.” These uprisings expressed local grievances that could have been made more general, but “the universal, radical ideologies and utopian visions that sparked revolutions in Russia and Germany after World War I are alien to our intellectual tradition. ‘Most American violence,’” as Richard Hofstadter observes in American Violence (2012), “‘has been initiated with a conservative bias…unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities.’” For this reason, Hedges believes, we’ll “have to form a new language, articulating our reality through the ideas of socialism rather than capitalism in an age of diminishing resources.” Turn to socialism only for practical reasons? That not only seems ideologically weak; it ignores the fact that words like “socialism” and “anarchism” are tainted in this country, and will have to be reclaimed. There is also the danger, as Hedges points out, of Nazi-like movements and the scapegoating of minority groups that we’re seeing already (Muslims, “illegal” immigrants, women who want control over their bodies).

Hedges concludes his book with a chapter on the “sublime madness” he believes is necessary to devote oneself to expressing the truth as one sees/feels it, whether in art or other revolutionary action. Unconcerned about “the possibility of success,” he says, “we must refuse to allow our reality to paralyze us;” we must fight for life. Fight – not meekly go to jail, opening oneself to whatever fate this illegitimate, death-dealing system may choose to mete out to us.