Here Chris Hedges offer the kind of angrily coruscating analysis of power which would see you dismissed as a ‘trot’ in mainstream political circles in the UK. In fitting with neoliberalism’s reduction of politicians to a manager class, it has become de rigueur to present yourself as being reasonable and concerned with matters of realpolitik, as if this is not in itself shot through with ideology. I was surrounded by such attitudes at university, prematurely middle-aged youngsters speaking of ‘tough choices’ and viewing power as something to aspire to rather than an almost-endless series of relationships, often hidden from plain sight, which governed the world around them. The past year has, of course, brought a series of scandals which has offered us a small glimpse into many of these relationships – yet many of the politically-engaged keep parroting the same lines, shoving their fingers in their ears and labelling anyone who seeks to expose, understand and even destroy these relationships as an extremist.
The American election which Hedges writes about offered yet another example of how degraded our politics has become. Some would call it ‘post-ideological’, I’m sure. I wrote previously about how in many quarters it became little more than a contest between the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘good guy’ and the one commonly-viewed to be the ‘bad guy’. What was perhaps more shocking than this was how power became reduced to a checklist of utter banalities, separate from any real-life impact. I saw several columns in support of Obama which did acknowledge his use of torture, his complete disregard for the rule of law and civil liberties (to name but two of Hedges’ concerns.) Yet they were presented as marks in a column looking at his good and bad points, counter-balanced by his positive words about gay people, his rhetoric about ‘ordinary Americans’. Of course we all must do this to a degree – but if we have dearly held principles, there would also surely come a time where we drew a line in the sand and said “No more. Not in my name.” We have become so brutalised and desensitised that ‘he kills thousands of people with no explanation, justification or oversight, but I like his tax policies’ is viewed as the argument of reasonable people while those who focus on the former are tarred as puritanical radicals, demanding the world from their well-meaning elected representatives.
I wrote frequently during the Summer about how efforts to discuss the Olympics and, to a lesser extent, the Jubilee celebrations as political events were greatly frowned upon. You were again liable to be viewed as a bitter crank, overly critical for the sake of it. Yet we should always be critical of the narratives which govern our worlds, in the sense of questioning them and how they serve power. Instead, this critical approach so maligned in ‘the political sphere’ (as if anything can possibly be outside of this) is diverted to the sphere of entertainment, where critical thought has become scathing skepticism and knee-jerk cynicism. We consume our entertainment while believing ourselves to be ‘above’ it, from X Factor and 50 Shades of Gray to Twilight and reality tv shows. We believe we understand how these things work, how they seek to manipulate us and play with our expectations. We share endless Youtube clips to engage with our peers in laughing at them, tearing them apart, asserting our dominance over a culture which we instinctively refuse to view with any sincerity.
This form of critical thinking is largely empty and perhaps even damaging. Fundamentally, there are no principles involved here – we don’t ridicule because these things offend our sense of what culture should be, rather they exist solely so that we may ridicule them. So we have an enormously odd arrangement where a critical approach to entertainment (albeit a corrosive, empty one) is celebrated while one which speaks of politics and power is beyond the pale. It’s notable that one of these approaches leads absolutely nowhere while the other threatens to ‘radicalise’ people.
Of course, so-called radicalisation is only part of a path and a critical approach to power which stops at your front door is arguably one which is as much about flattering egos as choosing the ‘good guy’ is. This is another common criticism of ‘trots’ – that they are either inactive, or engage in actions which have little effect, merely in order to feel right rather than engage in often-difficult and laborious reform. To the extent that our politics has increasingly become an extension of our egos rather than our principles, this is probably accurate to some degree. The crucial point however is that it’s accurate to some degree for people of every political hue, with countless people engaged in ‘mainstream’ politics doing/achieving little yet enjoying a smug superiority because they have hooked their wagon to something larger and frequently unchallenged (and the fixation on reformism is undoubtedly one of the manifestations of real politik.)
Personally, I think that the true challenge with your politics is how you live it day to day, not how it manifests itself on marches, protests and so forth. This isn’t for a second to deny the importance of the latter. Yet they offer platforms for political action, opportunities to be part of something bigger. As incredibly important as that is, it’s far more difficult to articulate your principles and attempt to live a life true to them in your office each day, or with your family, or with your peers. Because it is here that you again and again will encounter the dominant sense that any significant deviation from commonly-accepted interpretations (ways of interpreting, even) is bitter, angry, sad, smug, superior and countless other aspersions. It’s here that you are personally challenged. Of course, it’s important to guard against the temptation to fragment the world into those who understand and those who do not. It’s so easy to see yourself as a true believer and this offers only a self-gratifying cul de sac as ultimately pointless as the idea of the ‘trot’. Engaging with people, especially those who challenge your views, is the only way to prevent this.
Hedges’ piece undoubtedly reads as pessimistic and would be portrayed by some as nihilistic. Given its source, it’s debatable whether it will reach anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to its argument. This will be enough for many to dismiss it as the self-gratifying ramblings of a bitter man (much like my much less well-written blog!) Yet those who instinctively feel that urge would do well to question why it is so, especially when it is so rarely the approach taken to opinion pieces which parrot more conventional views. It is clear that Hedges has been on an intellectual journey regarding his beliefs, his principles, his identity even, and this rigorous questioning of the things we hold dear can only be healthy.