Thomas Carothers is senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Building on several previous books presenting damning critiques of American society, in “America: The Farewell Tour,” Chris Hedges lays out his full manifesto: a comprehensive account of what he believes to be the devastating effects of capitalism on the United States and in fact the entire world. The book stands more vividly as a window into one of the renewed tribes of American politics in the Trump years than as a persuasive, cogent argument based on careful deployment of evidence and analysis.
The tribe in question is the anti-capitalist left, enjoying something of a moment these days in response to the political gains of the populist right. Its main tenets are the same as in the last heyday of this outlook, the 1960s and 1970s, updated to match today’s socioeconomic and political conditions. Central among these is the argument that capitalism is an inherently destructive force that rots and ruins every arena of American life.
The corporate state that presides over this destructive capitalist economic system is ruthless and relentless. “It practices only the politics of vengeance. It uses coercion, fear, violence, police terror and mass incarceration as forms of social control while it cannibalizes the nation and the globe for profits.”
This scourge is all-consuming. Once-liberal institutions, including “the press, labor unions, political third parties, civic and church groups, public broadcasting, well-funded public universities, and a liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” have all “collapsed under sustained assault during the past forty years of corporate power.” Today, there are “no institutions left in America that can authentically be called democratic.”
It is terminal. “Short of a sudden and widespread popular revolt, the death spiral appears unstoppable, meaning the United States as we know it will no longer exist within a decade or, at most, two.”
And it is worldwide. “The malaise that infects Americans is global.” Global capitalism is responsible for all misery and the metastasizing of violent rage from many different sides, from jihadists and neofascists to far-right militias and antifa.
Hedges portrays this nightmarish situation as the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s prediction of the eventual end of capitalism. This vision of capitalism’s demise is slightly puzzling, given that in his account, capitalism seems to be steamrollering everything in its path. But he argues that all this winning is only serving to make clear capitalism’s fundamental hollowness and deceit, which represent the seeds of its ultimate destruction.
The most engaging parts of the book are the searing portraits he presents of individuals victimized in six arenas that he explores in detail: drug addiction, pornography, gambling, the criminal justice system, extremist groups and the search for meaningful, well-paid work. He takes the reader inside these issues in ways that are often telling and memorable, and sheds light on a variety of troubled U.S. cities along the way, from Scranton, Pa., and Camden, N.J., to Rockford, Ill.
Yet this exploration of American society is unrelieved in its negativism. It is clear that in his travels around the country, Hedges never crossed paths with James and Deborah Fallows while they were researching their recent illuminating book, “Our Towns,” on places thriving in notable ways. And for every problem Hedges encounters — whether racism, sexism, addiction or political intolerance — capitalism is always to blame. After poignantly recounting how a drug-addicted young woman endured repeated sexual assaults while working as a prostitute, Hedges writes: “This is how the Wall Street gamblers . . . want it. The hell of the poor is their playground.”
It is striking that what seeks to be a sweeping critique of right-wing populism ends up echoing some of its core characteristics. Hedges excoriates followers of the Christian right as “Manichaeans” who view the world in good-and-evil terms, but then he demonizes his political opponents and invokes black-and-white dichotomies with a cringe-worthy lack of self-reflection. He recommends that the left not ridicule Trump supporters, only to characterize them several pages later as a basket of “half-wits, Christian fascists, criminals, racists, and moral deviants.”
Similarly, Hedges’s economic vision strongly resembles that of President Trump. A recurring motif is his comparison of shuttered U.S. factories to the ruins of a once-great civilization as he documents how automation and offshoring have turned former manufacturing hubs into ghost towns. He evinces a relatively simplistic vision for economic revival based on restoring manufacturing jobs, ignoring models of growth beyond the traditional manufacturing sector.
Also similar to the Trumpian worldview is Hedges’s deep-seated belief that real power in the United States resides in a permanent, unelected elite intent on ripping off average Americans. Hedges, too, posits the existence of a potent “deep state,” but one that empowers corporate bloodsuckers and war-thirsty generals. The ruling elite employs America’s surveillance state to “track our movements,” while platforms like Google “steer people away from dissident, left-wing, progressive, or antiwar sites.”
As to the way forward, for Hedges, only one approach is possible: determined civic resistance that confronts capitalism head on. He presents the Standing Rock protests of 2016-17 against the Dakota Access Pipeline as a template for such resistance, highlighting their nonviolent, sustained and highly organized nature, as well as their grounding in inspirational cultural traditions. And this resistance will necessarily be global. “Bonds of solidarity and consciousness will unite the wretched of the earth against our global corporate masters.”
As tends to be the case with clarion calls to global socialist revolution, the reader is left not just reeling from the unrelieved darkness of the verdict against capitalism but wondering about some basic questions. What exactly will the revolution look like? How will small-scale activist movements gain the power necessary to defeat the global capitalist machine? And perhaps most important, what forms will the socialist answer take that are different from the tragically flawed attempts of the 20th century to achieve anti-capitalist alternatives?
By Chris Hedges
Simon & Schuster. 388 pp. $27