"A deep and troubling examination of the dark corners of working-class America, where unemployment and the loss of traditional jobs have produced an epidemic of drug abuse, bigotry, and even suicide, coupled with an urgent plea to rearrange our priorities to address the ills of middle America and emphasize the common good"--
America: The Farewell Tour is a book, but also a symphony. The opening movement, Decay, has every instrument blasting, overwhelming the reader with a multitude of themes: accusations, facts, and historical proofs about the true state of the union. The middle movements are much more narrowly focused and deep. They are in many ways quieter, and somber. They detail the decline and fall of typical Americans thanks to the policies outlined in the first movement. They are slow and sad, depressing and relentless. The grand finale Freedom, echoes the opening movement, showing the way forward to be bleak and grim. The only hope is for people to take back society from the corporate capitalists. It won’t be easy and it will never be complete. But if we don’t even try, the whole empire dissipates.
Writing skillfully and carefully, Chris Hedges shows the decline of the American ideal dating from the Great Depression. Neighbors helping neighbors, the idea of the common good, and corporate capitalists giving in to FDR in order to drag us all out of the seemingly bottomless pit of poverty and suffering.
It worked. We moved forward as we never have before (or since). And promptly forgot all the lessons. We are far along the retrograde line of uncaring, self-obsessed greed, hubris and arrogance. It will not end well, as history shows repeatedly. But it will end soon, unless history suddenly stops repeating itself. America and its bloated, ineffective military, will be sidelined. Its world-record debt will come due. The decline will be ugly.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Chris Hedges (a socialist) detests Donald Trump and all he represents. He likens Trump to Nero fiddling while Rome burns, except Trump is the one lighting the fires. He says Trump and today’s Republican Party represent the last stage in the emergence of corporate totalitarianism. The shift from common good to “race, crime and law and order” is typical of declining empires, he says. It expresses a nostalgia for a time that never was and can never be, the way we’re going about it. People are simply fooling themselves. He cites Irving Howe, inspired by Faulkner: “They need not believe in the crumbling official code of their society; they need only learn to mimic its sounds.” That is a concise summary of politics today. The sounds and fury of the Trump Administration, blasting against the sounds and fury of Congress, have us addressing no real problems with anything like workable solutions. Meanwhile, the quality of life plummets for the 99%.
The middle chapters examine issues like heroin, porn, gambling, racial hatred and work, which no longer allows middle class living. Nearly half the population is in a state of poverty, despite exceptionally low unemployment.
Possibly the saddest chapter is the incarceration state. States have gotten past the Civil War to re-implement slavery themselves. They keep literally millions of blacks and Hispanics in slave labor, doing the work of dozens of major, household-name corporations, and profiting mightily. The prisoners, often paid pennies an hour if they are paid at all, go into debt, because they have to purchase everything (from toothpaste to stamps, as well as medical co-pays for every little thing) from the company store at hugely inflated prices, while their wages are little or nothing. The system is all about keeping the system going. Rehabilitation is not a consideration. The states want prisoners back in custody.
Idiotic laws like not mowing the lawn regularly or riding a bike without both hands on the handlebars ensure a constant flow of new victims. Absurd fines and impossible bail guarantee the supply. States have contracts with prison managers to keep the prisons humming at a minimum 90% capacity, so they must find new recruits daily. This is an example of American exceptionalism: wrong incentives to achieve the corporate agenda. Hedges says “Prisons are prototypes for the future, an example of the disempowerment and exploitation corporations seek to inflict on all workers. “
The final movement, Freedom, is self-mocking: when a government watches you 24 hours day, you cannot use the word “liberty”, he says. The “toxic brew” of American exceptionalism means all our institutions are corrupt and cannot be relied on for anything that doesn’t fit the corporate agenda.
The solutions are hard. We need to build our own service/protest groups, open up to our communities, stay away from government and corporate grants, and keep actively building resistance. But not resistance for the sake of resistance; there must be a goal. Antifa will fail because it is purposely isolated and goalless. Prison strikes for better working conditions can succeed because of all the contracts states have with corporations to deliver goods and services. Hedges says: “As long as personal violent catharsis masquerades as acts of resistance, the corporate state is secure. Indeed, the corporate state welcomes this violence, because violence is a language it can speak with a proficiency and ruthlessness that none of these groups can match.” Hedges gives sickening examples of the state putting plants in protests to start the violence that will allow for live fire by the militarized police.
Finally, we fool ourselves if we think talking will do any good: “Only when ruling elites become worried about survival do they react. Appealing to the better nature of the powerful is useless. They don’t have one.” Tough love from a straight shooter.
A chapter looks at one family's journey through the nightmare of opioid addiction. Another chapter gives a Very Detailed look inside the porn business. The Taj Mahal Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City may still be officially open. The gaming tables are empty, and large numbers of the hotel rooms are unusable. Maintenance in the rooms that are used is a thing of the past, so a guest may have to deal with, for instance, leaky toilets or cockroaches.
Antifa and the alt-right are two different manifestations of the same phenomenon; people who are frustrated and feel left behind by global capitalism. The factory which provided a decent living for residents of a small Midwest town has closed, and moved to Mexico, leaving them with no alternatives, and no hope. The average minority resident of New York City is more than tired of being repeatedly stopped and frisked, or given a ticket for something like jaywalking, simply because a white cop feels like it.
People who are in prison will get paid a few cents for working, usually for some large corporation, if they get paid at all. Especially in private prisons, they will get financially gouged for everything else, including phone calls to their loved ones.
Donald Trump may have ridden this frustration to the White House, but that does not mean that he can do anything about it, until corporate control of America is eliminated. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but it is a very eye-opening book. It is highly recommended for all Americans.