Living in Illusion

Chris Hedges on the American empire

Point Austin
Austin Chronicle: Your book Empire of Illusion might be described as an extended polemic against the whole state of American culture – politics, entertainment, business, education, and so on. Was there a specific impetus to you for this kind of a book, or does it more broadly represent a summation of your sense of where things have been headed for the last couple of decades?

Chris Hedges: The book is a summation of the slow, steady decline of the American empire, a decline the Harvard historian Charles Maier noted when he wrote about our transformation from "an empire of production" to an "empire of consumption." This transformation brought with it new values, or rather a loss of values, and reoriented society around the hedonism of the consumer culture and the cult of the self. We now face an environmental crisis as profound as our economic crisis. These are interrelated, for in the dark ethic of the commodity culture, nothing has an intrinsic value beyond its monetary value. Cultures that lose touch with the sacred, that see human beings and the natural world as commodities to be exploited until collapse or exhaustion, commit collective suicide.

AC: The first two chapters open with portrayals of pro wrestling and professional pornography, as representative, respectively, of the "illusion of literacy" and the "illusion of love." Why choose these extreme representatives of popular culture, as opposed to, say, professional sports and mainstream films – do you consider wrestling and pornography more indicative of the state of the culture as a whole?

CH: I chose wrestling because it works to reflect back to a society its visions of itself and its personal disintegration. Films work, on some level, but wrestling evokes in arenas around the country passions that are not at play in a movie theater. The back stories of wrestlers function as ongoing narratives that those who follow wrestling set their lives against. In short, watching films, like television, is passive, while attending Madison Square Garden for a professional wrestling bout is an event which unleashes the foibles, dreams, and suffering of many fans, who see the wrestlers as idealized versions of themselves. This happens, of course, in celebrity culture, but there is a visceral quality in wrestling that I found fascinating. As for porn, we are a pornified culture. The porn industry, according to the best estimates, makes four times what Hollywood makes, and the images reflect back the fusion between violence and eroticism that surfaced when the photographs from Abu Ghraib became public.

AC: You've been best known as a chronicler and analyst of war – indeed, you've made the argument that war represents a true expression of modern culture, a shared public narcotic, a permanent cultural institution that "gives us meaning" to hold against the deep alienations of modern life. Did this new book grow out of that same insight, or is its larger cultural indictment an attempt to step beyond the stark extremities of combat?

CH: Combat is not replicated in popular culture, even in cultural depictions of combat. Popular culture celebrates the myth of war, not the reality of war. Those who endure combat come back to this culture and struggle with deep alienation, caused in large part because of the disconnect between the mythic narratives we are fed about war, and the reality of war. The narcotic is not shared, at least not with the public, since depictions exclude the rush and fear of battle that produce what soldiers and marines refer to as a "combat high." War promises meaning, indeed at its inception looks and feels like love, the chief emotion war destroys. But war, in fact, exacts an emotional, psychological, and physical toll that ends in death. This book is about illusions, including the illusions of war and power, that defy the realities of these events. I know war. I know the reality of American power, having been on the receiving end of American power, and I know the vast divide between the reality and our perceptions. This is what led me to write the book.

AC: The book argues that many of our central, popular institutions are effectively designed to encourage or generate passivity – to create fictional melodramas, emotions, and crises that sidestep larger public concerns or any sense of real community. Do you see any signs of better possibilities in American life, or do you consider the culture essentially doomed?

CH: You strive towards a dream. You live in illusion. As long we live in an illusion there is no hope. There is no hope because every decision we make is based on a misreading of reality. Those who live in a non-reality based world cannot use the word hope since they function and make decisions based on illusions. This is what got us into Iraq, a series of illusions that were not true. Those who react to the world from a state of illusion cannot survive. We will either shatter these illusions or go the way of all other dead civilizations. So far things do not look good.

AC: Similarly, you dismiss any signs of hope represented by the apparent resurgence of liberalism, the public reaction against continued war, or the election of Obama, as so much illusion or deliberate deception – do you see no progressive possibilities in political activism beyond isolated protest?

CH: We live, to quote the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, in a state best described as "inverted totalitarianism." Inverted totalitarianism is not the same as classical totalitarian structures. It is not built around a great leader or demagogue. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish electoral politics, democracy, the Constitution and patriotic symbols while so corrupting the levers of power to make democracy irrelevant. In classical totalitarian regimes economics is subordinate to politics. In inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true, and with this comes different forms of ruthlessness. Obama, like the Democratic Party, no more challenges the core of our corporate state than did George W. Bush. The arms manufacturers, our for-profit health care system, the speculators on Wall Street, who in the 17th century would have been hung, continue to loot the U.S. Treasury while foreclosures and joblessness mount. Liberalism is bankrupt, and has been since the Democrats pushed through NAFTA, gutted Welfare, demolished Glass-Steagall [the federal Glass-Steagall Act, regulating investments] and decided to do corporate bidding for corporate money.

AC: The book seems very close to despair – after a fierce analysis and wholesale condemnation of the American "culture of death," you offer only a brief coda of hope in the power of personal, sacrificial love to overcome our common predicament. Beyond individual outcry against the darkness, do you despair of effective common action?

CH: I do not see the end of empire as tragic. It will teach us to speak in a language other than violence and adopt a new humility. I do not see the collapse of the consumer culture as tragic. It will bring with it older values of thrift, self-sacrifice, and community. The decline of empire is a decline of wealth and power, but these things do not breed either morality or compassion, indeed seek to banish both. We can become a better people if we dismantle our permanent war economy, if we learn to live in ways that protect the ecosystem that sustains the human species rather than destroy it. Will our lives change? Yes, significantly, but not necessarily for the worse, indeed perhaps for the better. The tragedy of the end of empire is not its conclusion, but that we are bringing so many people down with us.

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Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion, Sheldon Wolin

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