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The Existentialist Politics Behind “The Cancer in Occupy”

April 30, 2012

photo by numina

by Robert McKay

What did Chris Hedges think of mass movements before he became involved in the tactical controversies within Occupy Wall Street? Way back in 2010, Hedges’ book “Death of the Liberal Class” defined his take on the deteriorating political and economic situation of the turn of the 21st century. I picked the book up hoping to find out something about the politics behind Hedges’ anti-black bloc article “The Cancer in Occupy” and its sequel, “Occupy Draws Strength from the Powerless,” which advocates Gandhian nonviolence as a moral high ground. I’m revisiting the topic now, not to side with the black bloc against Hedges, but to draw out some reservations I have about the basis of Hedges’ opposition to “expressive” violence.

In that vein, “Death of the Liberal Class” is quite instructive. I can’t figure out why Hedges keeps referring to liberals as a class, apparently distinct from the working and middle classes, but I think he means the liberals of the ruling class. He makes the fairly obvious claim that this “class” (or section of the ruling class) has sold out the workers and the middle class, and that its institutions– from the Dems to the liberal churches–have been gutted, largely by their own leaders. The first chapter, tagged “Resistance,” begins with a lengthy interview with a disgruntled veteran who swings between right- and left-wing populism, though he has no left-wing language and must fall back on nationalist fantasies of a lost American past, worship of the Constitution, and confused Obama-2008-like jabs at “fat cats”. This, Hedges remarks chillingly, is “the new face of resistance.” The vet calls for “revolution,” but has no inkling of a revolutionary strategy. He has ideals, but no real hope. I’ll return to hope.

What is Hedges’ own relationship to liberalism, as opposed to variants of the Left tradition? Hedges calls the liberal [ruling] class “the most integral and important partner” of “the corporate state” (his updated gloss on the classic leftist category “capitalist state”). He recognizes the benefits of social democratic class compromise, but also realizes their counter-revolutionary nature. Neoliberalism and rising corporatism and authoritarianism in the Western “democracies,” especially the US, represents for Hedges an un-strategic overreach by capital. How the profit/growth imperative of capitalism may have necessitated the decimation of social democracy, as other exploitable areas ran out, does not receive much discussion. Rather, Hedges focuses on the betrayal of the liberal politicians, union tops, church leaders and the like.

Hedges sees the Red Scares of the U.S. 20th century as the death blow not only to the country’s socialist tradition, but to its liberal tradition as well. Without the leftists to speak the language of class struggle and anti-capitalism, the liberals “lost their voice.” Hedges sums up the communist analysis of capitalism thus: “For all the failings of the communists, they got it.”

Well and good. Hedges goes on to document the dismantling of the “liberal class” in anti-communist witch hunts and the conformism of the 1950s, and his own experience with liberal “intellectual” docility during the War on Terror. In the final chapter, where he returns to his theory and prescriptions for change, we see a strange, but all-too-familiar, response to the 20th century’s legacy of leftist defeat and betrayal, against the backdrop of bleakly honest predictions about climate change and the converging catastrophes now assured by the utter “liberal class” failure that was Copenhagen 2009.

Hedges stays with the Left tradition in his rejection of reform as a final strategy: The state as it now exists is democratic in name only, and is really an instrument of capital–increasingly so with the destruction of social democracy and liberalism in the late 20th century U.S. His antidote to futile reform is not revolution, he tells us, but something he calls “rebellion.” This is not insurrectionism, but something rather specific. It has a bit of an anarchist flavoring, though Hedges is no anarchist. He begins the chapter “Rebellion” with a quote from a Russian anarchist counseling against reformism: “We think we are the doctors. We are the disease.” A slow, degenerative, probably non-fatal disease, it seems, for Hedges clearly rejects the possibility of a revolutionary defeat of capitalism.

“Revolution” is the leftist category notably absent from Hedges’ otherwise dark pink index. He subscribes to the old Frankfurt School-derived pessimism, in which the masses–under the sway of the mass media–are too anesthetized to present any hope of a militant mass movement. Unlike some who share this pessimism, Hedges also categorically rejects violence, even property destruction, because of its risk to innocents and its destructive, uncontrollable psychology. This is the position of “The Cancer in Occupy:” not outright pacifism (Hedges admits that as a Palestinian in Gaza or a Jew in the Holocaust, he would take up a gun in a last-resort defense of his community), but a principled rejection of violence based on very broad claims about its inevitable nature. This goes beyond “tactical” nonviolence, to a sort of “moral” nonviolence one step closer to pacifism.

So if reform, mass-based revolution, and violent insurrection are out, where does Hedges end up? Unfortunately, on the lonely road of an existentialist play: Hopeless “revolt” for exclusively moral reasons. The chapter starts with an epigraph from Camus that’s worth reproducing:

One of the only coherent philosophical positions is revolt. It is a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity… It is not an aspiration, for it is devoid of hope. That revolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.

-Albert Camus, “An Absurd Reckoning”

This may sound noble, but what we’re facing isn’t personal or inner “obscurity,” but the “obscurity” –the plunge into darkness–of billions of species, hundreds of millions of human beings, and civilization as we know it. It doesn’t seem to me like the time to be romanticizing absurdity. Hedges didn’t pick this quote by accident. “Acts of resistance,” he writes on page 205, “are moral acts. They take place because people of conscience understand the moral, rather than the practical, imperative of rebellion. They should be carried out not because they are effective, but because they are right”. For those familiar with “The Cancer of Occupy,” this is quite odd, because, while most leftists who condemn the black bloc do so for strategic reasons, citing the impracticality of violence/vandalism as self-expression, Hedges seems to embrace this sort of expressivism, but after earlier rejecting the “violence” of window-smashing on equally moralistic grounds. Again on page 205,  he proclaims, “Any act of resistance [sic] is its own justification. It cannot be measured by its utilitarian effect”. A moment earlier, Hedges identified resistance with “liv[ing] in the fullest sense of the word.” Fine, and civilization can die “in the fullest sense of the word,” while would-be militants are “living fully”–until they expire in neo-fascist prisons.

This sort of faux-noble nihilism is a garden path, usually leading through an organic garden somewhere along the way. As a garden educator, and someone who fully realizes the likelihood that we are entering the Dark Ages, I am all for Transition Towns and any other efforts to build up resiliency. But when these efforts are self-righteously presented as an alternative to militant politics, I get sick to my stomach. Unfortunately, Hedges also falls into this withdrawalist survivialism:  He puts his only hope in holdout communities “like medieval monasteries” (page 196), with organic gardens, of course, keeping the embers of civilization alive. Go buy land, he says, and wait for the Rapture. We’ve heard that one before.

It’s ironic that, immediately after denouncing the failure of globalization–along with all other utopian determinisms–Hedges suggests back-to-the-land survivalism as part of his own rather deterministic account. His vision is less utopian than eschatological: It posits the inevitable devolution of empire into “local fiefdoms.” This is by now a familiar dystopian future, shared with the likes of James Howard Kunstler, of The Long Emergency, as well as the leftist I see as Hedges’ doppelganger–Lierre Keith, of Deep Green Resistance. In all their accounts, some of the post-imperial localities are fascist, some green decentralist. The latter are the monasteries carrying the torch; the former are the masses, whom all three authors agree are incapable of forming an effective left-wing mass movement. But what if this collapse of empire and centralism is not inevitable? Surely there are possible near futures in which the empires live on in a more totalitarian form, or in which left-wing mass movements do in fact form. To my mind, these writers are too certain in predicting the specifics of collapse.

Of Kunstler the bourgeois eschatologist, Keith the anarcho-primitivist, and Hedges the disgruntled democratic socialist, I like Hedges’ politics best, and am struggling to find a third way between his strategy and Keith’s, both of which I see as monstrous. Keith’s primitivist politics are highly problematic, though I would gladly count her like as comrades, if they did not reject the possibility of a mass movement. Hedges, meanwhile, abdicates politics altogether, in favor of existentialist, moralistic nihilism–the poetic abandonment of hope. No. Both options are betrayal. It is either ecosocialism (whether decentralist libertarian, or using some form of a democratized central state) or barbarism. To get there, a mass movement (coupled with radical reform, prefigurative or rather preparatory practice, and possibly even guerrilla activity) is our only hope, and the only way of preventing the ascendancy of an overtly fascist Right.

Keith herself admits that Deep Green action will strengthen right-wing demagogy. This will happen anyway, but the Deep Greens’ proposed defense of small pockets of “resistance (perma)culture” seems to me like an awfully thin shield. So let Kunstler seek salvation in his elite New England enclave; let Deep Green Resisters either stand with the mass movement now struggling to be born, or else descend into armed cultism; let Hedges write eloquent letters on the moral poetry of hopeless “rebellion” from a fascist prison cell. I, for one, intend to march with as many as can be mustered, under the rigorous discipline of strategic hope. I, for one, intend to fight.

8 Responses to The Existentialist Politics Behind “The Cancer in Occupy”

  1. edward on April 30, 2012 at 11:11 AM

    Excellent analysis, very well-written.

  2. Tim on April 30, 2012 at 11:57 AM

    As for blackbloc and Occupy, this knot is elegantly and definitively cut by the notion of consensus.  

    OWS operates by consensus.  Full stop. 

    If you don your black kerchief and break windows across town, that is your business and that of those who would stop you.  

    If you infiltrate an Occupy action and break windows, overturn cars, light fires or what-have-you, you are violating a deliberate consensus among a group of people who–for good or ill– have foresworn both personal and property violence.  

    Some Occupiers may have consented to non-violence out of pacifist conviction. Others in a strictly strategic move. But they have formed this consensus and are taking risks to act on and out of this consensus. 

    If you arrive at my local Occupy action and start Fucking Shit Up, you are violating consensus no less than the cops with their truncheons are.  You are violating my brothers and sisters and me just as surely as the system which we are trying *in our way* to rebel against is violating us.

    Are you doing this “for our own good”?
    I’ve heard this one before.

    A single person breaking windows and lighting fires has stolen the course of non-violence from everyone else present.  

    Irrespective of whether “property is theft”, theft is fucking theft.  

    This imposition of violence upon an adamantly unwilling population is autocracy, not anarchism. It is autocracy as fundamentally unjust as any other.  

    Consider a local group of advocates of property violence *only*, going out to break windows, etc.  Imagine a “darkblack bloc” adherent who says: “Screw this. Their tactics won’t work. I l know better than they do. I will infiltrate and from the center of a black-clad crowd start throwing bombs and shooting cops, to help these poor misguided folks out.”

    Is the darkblack blocker’ killing in the name of those s/he stands among warranted in doing this maiming and killing?

    Is he or she not a cancer in this body?

    No more is any violent tactic warranted *in support of* an avowed non-violent group taking avowed non-violent action.  

    Neither black-clad corporatist paramilitaries nor black-clad “anarchists” (in scare quotes because as we have seen this is autocracy, not anarchism) have any just warrant to bring violence to an assembly of peaceful protestors. 

  3. Tim on April 30, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    I hear Hedges saying to do what is right, not because of any hope of success, but because it is the right thing to do.

    My impression is that you hear Hedges advocating some sort of romantic surrender.

    I refer you to Hedges’ discussion of his experience of the day the Berlin Wall fell.  Easily found on YouTube.  He reports that he was with some ringleaders of opposition to the wall. He reports that they had *no hope* that the wall would fall that day. Their most optimistic prognostication dealt with easier movement across the wall, several months hence. 

    Hours later, the wall was down. 

    The wall fell that day, not to their hopes that it would fall that day, but to their (and others’)  efforts to topple it *because that was the right thing to do*, to try, irrespective of hope.

    Acting out of conviction rather than hope is not “hopelessness” in any familiar or useful-in-this-context sense of the word.  

    I don’t hear Hedges advocating surrender. I hear him advocating a vibrant, visceral belief in what is right, manifested in action. Absolutely not manifested in despair.  

    If your boat sinks in darkness a mile from shore, and you know damn well you cannot swim a mile? Swim anyway. 

    Don’t plug your nose and sink, trying to imagine some plausible narrative of hope which might motivate you to paddle toward the surface after all.   

    Don’t waste your energy splashing because you’ve convinced yourself that someone on the beach will see the disturbance and so maybe there is some teeny tiny hope. 

    No.  Just swim.  

    And encourage your companion in “hopelessly” swimming too.  

    Your condition being hopeless is no reason to relent.  

    In the first place, you can die trying (as you have pointed out,) and what the hell else is on your calendar at that point?  And this effort needn’t be frantic.  Just try.  Swim a stroke and then swim another stroke.  

    In the second place, the condition of something “beyond hope” working to your advantage is that you do not slip beneath the waves.  

    In this moment you *cannot* effect your salvation, but you can contribute to creating the conditions of the possibility of your salvation. Things happen, ever so rarely, beyond all hope.   But though there be *no* reason to hope for what is beyond hope, just swim.  

    If you as a commentator on Hedges choose to speak in terms of some meta-hope here, or something, and further insist that in *these* terms one must never give up hope, I doubt Hedges would shout you down. I earnestly believe that the main dispute underlying this part if the conversation is semantical.

    If it were *purely* semantical I could toss a coin in choosing between Hedges’ account and yours. But I detect at least one salient difference. I can envision this salient factor eventually determining the outcome. Based on this state of affairs I side with Hedges.

    Please let me illustrate.

    If I am motivated by my hope, then my adversary can stop me by extinguishing my hope.  

    If I am motivated by my desire to serve justice, win or lose, my adversary cannot stop me but by … *actually* stopping me.   

    On this account alone I see real meaning and power and inspiration in Hedges’ semantics, if you will, as opposed to what I am reading as your semantics.  

    • Robert McKay on June 4, 2013 at 1:38 PM

      OK, I basically buy what you’re saying. Impossible events do of course erupt, and ‘Don’t be “dependent” on contingent hope’ is good advice. I guess whatever Hedges’s positions in his broader oevre, I responded the way I did because I see a danger among the left today of being unand -strategic and over-romantic generally. This is where Hedges and I agree actually, but then he starts quoting Camus and in that text anyway I still feel he contradicts his own condemnation of purely expressive action.

  4. Kelley on May 2, 2012 at 8:44 AM

    From Rilke as reprinted in “Soul of a Citizen”

    My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
    going far ahead of the road I have begun.
    So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
    it has its inner light, even from a distance-

    and changes us, even if we do not reach it
    into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are …

    • Robert McKay on June 4, 2013 at 1:34 PM

      Awesome quotation; thanks! Reminds me of the idea of utopian desire as a gaze fixed on the horizon. See Jodi Dean’s excellent *The Communist Horizon* (Verso, 2012).

  5. Jim on May 2, 2012 at 11:13 PM

    When you anti-Hedges folk garner an army of more than a few hundred people, I will take your criticisms seriously. Those anarchists in Ohio who wanted to blow-up a bridge were fools. Until we have a serious violent opposition to the current political class, I will work within the peaceful opposition. Any violent opposition today is tiny and narcissistic. The tiny number of violent idiots in the streets only hurt our cause. I understand their anger, but the public won’t support you. MLK understood this.

    • Robert McKay on June 4, 2013 at 1:39 PM

      Wait, you realize I’m also for nonviolence and against pointless, expressive property destruction, right?

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