Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges explains why the Occupy protests we’ve seen so far are merely a dress rehearsal for what is to come.
How do the places you visited in the making of Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt exemplify what’s behind the Occupy movement?
This is really a book about unfettered, unregulated corporate capitalism – a world that is made to kneel before the marketplace. In all these “sacrifice zones,” there are no legal impediments to what corporations want. They control the legislators, the senators, the governors, and they certainly control the judges. In southern West Virginia, Big Coal even writes the textbooks in the schools. There’s nothing to stop them now from, in business terms, harvesting the entire country. They started in these sacrifice zones, but we’re next.
Sacrifice zones. In the book, it’s a teacher – the son of coal miners in Virginia – who used that term. Is that the first time you heard it?
Apparently it’s a term that’s been used a lot, but that was the first time I heard it and it really resonated with me. I thought, “Wow, all the places we’re writing from are sacrifice zones where human communities, human beings, have all been sacrificed.” It was Julian Martin that mentioned the term to me.
So, sacrificing to, or for, what?
You’re sacrificing for corporate profit. You’re killing the environment, and you’re poisoning human beings, throwing them into utter despair and devastation. In that sense, Karl Marx was right: Unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force.
In this case, the people who are doing the sacrificing aren’t the people who are profiting from it.
The corporations are sacrificing others for their own profit – it’s not self-sacrifice. As Julian said, they’re being sacrificed so others can leave the lights on in office towers all night in New York City.
The problem is that once you unleash these forces, they know no limits. As they finish these sacrifice zones, they’ll turn on what remains.
The Occupy movement has often been criticized for not having a really defined set of goals. What’s your view on that?
I think they have a very defined goal, which is the overthrow of corporate power. And as Crane Brinton writes in The Anatomy of Revolution, revolutionary movements adopt a fundamental goal that the power elite can never meet, because if they did, it would mean their own dissolution.
So, I always thought they were really clear about what their goal was. That’s why they were camped out at the foot of Wall Street: That’s where power lies.
But that’s not a goal that those in power can hear. So they keep saying, “What are your demands? Do you want electoral reform, or … ?”
Well, of course we want all that, but you can’t have it under this system. This is a system that exclusively serves corporate power, so appealing to the system is a waste of time. It’s about civil disobedience, and it’s about continuing that civil disobedience until power is wrested back from the hands of corporations.
I think Occupy was always very clear on that. They did not want to work within the system. They understood that everything stems from corporate power, and that if you don’t break corporate power then you can’t talk about a rational health-care policy, you can’t talk about sustainable energy, and you can’t talk about public education.
If we don’t halt the corporate cannibalization of the country – and the political class is not going to do it – then we are going to continue to barrel towards this neo-feudalism, which we are rapidly close to having with a rapacious, obscenely wealthy, oligarchic corporate elite.
You suggest that the outcome isn’t really known – that we’re observing the tinder but not knowing when it’s going to be lit. What do you think is going to set it off? And what is it going to look like once it’s lit?
1905 was the dress rehearsal for 1917. The Stamp Act of 1765 was the dress rehearsal for 1776. Movements take a long time to come to fruition. They did in Eastern Europe. Charter 77 began in 1977, and the Velvet Revolution didn’t take place until 1989. People like Vaclav Havel were fighting all that time.
It’s always the ruling class that determines the configurations of revolt. If they respond rationally – if they were, for instance, to declare a moratorium on foreclosures and bank repositions, and to forgive student debt, if we had universal health care, and if they instated a jobs program especially targeted at those under 25, that would dissipate the movement. Instead, their only response was force – to physically eradicate the encampments. Which means this is not going away.
What will it look like? When will it erupt? Will it even be called Occupy? No one knows. I’ve covered movements all over the world, and they have a kind of mysterious life force of their own. But I have zero doubt that something is coming back.
In the form of violence?
Well, it can always go the wrong way. We have powerful proto-fascist elements in the United States that do what fascist movements do: They celebrate the language of violence and they blame societal ills on the vulnerable – Muslims, undocumented workers, homosexuals, and intellectuals.
Who knows where it’s going to go? But as long as political paralysis grips the center of power, the more traditional centers of power are discredited, and the more extremists are in power themselves … In the 1930s in Europe, it all went bad. And it went bad in Yugoslavia. It could go bad in the United States.
You’ve compared the Occupy movement to things you’ve seen in Eastern Europe with the fall of communism. Is it possible that this revolt will fail like some others have?
It can fail. Not all movements succeed. There’s no guarantee that it will succeed. It’s different from the ’60s, when the new left was primarily a middle-class white movement built around opposition to the war and the draft. Once the war was over, once Nixon was out of office, it lost its focus. It was never aligned with labor or the working class. And you really need labor to push through significant social change.
This is one of the problems, because we only have five to seven percent of the American workforce engaged in manufacturing. The rest of them are in places like Wal-Mart, and they’re not unionized. So that’s a big question: How do you carry out a revolt without a powerful, organized labor force?
So no, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work at all.
I think the goal is to try and build the kind of numbers we saw in Eastern Europe. The thing is, if non-violent, peaceful mass protest doesn’t work, and corporate forces continue to disembowel the country …
In the last few weeks, hundreds of thousands of American workers have lost their unemployment benefits, the food-stamp program has been cut, and the Supreme Court made a ruling that severely crippled public-sector unions. They won’t stop.
So, I know there’s going to be a backlash. I don’t know when it’s coming, I don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t know if it will succeed. But I have absolutely zero doubt that something’s coming.
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of 12 books, including Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries, and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.