I just finished Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It is superb, and I've spent a fair amount of time typing in passages from the book below in order to capture some of its theme.
The "me" of twenty years ago wouldn't be caught dead reading a book like this. It is, after all, an unflinching assasination of our present capitalist system. As a younger person, I was wholeheartedly (and more than a little ignorantly) devoted to a dog-eat-dog, lassiez-faire capitalist system. And, in my adult life, I have lived that way, at least inasmuch as I created, built, and sold a successful business and have, before, during, and after that time, been a very active participant in the financial markets (both by way of trading as well as writing).
Experience and observation have moderated my views, however. At the outset I will say that I still regard capitalism as the most proper, natural, and constructive economic system, but I'm a much firmer believer in a modified version – – consistently-regulated with a distribution of wealth more akin to the 1970s than the present day – – than I ever imagined I would be.
This passage from the preface of the book captures the pages that follow nicely:
The ruthless hunt for profit creates a world where everything and everyone is expendable. Nothing is sacred. It has blighted inner cities, turned the majestic Appalachian Mountains into a blasted moonscape of poisoned water, soil, and air. It has forced workers into a downward spiral of falling wages and mounting debt until laborers in agricultural fields and sweatshops work in conditions that replicate slavery. It has impoverished our working class and ravaged the middle class. And it has enriched a tiny global elite that has no loyalty to the nation-state. These corporations, if we use the language of patriotism, are traitors.
Days of Destruction take the rather novel approach of combining superb journalism (Chris Hedges) with world-class graphic art (Joe Sacco). It is part graphic novel and part diatribe. And, I need to tell you right now, this is not a feel-good book, and the balance of words and art work well. The Walt Whitman piece, I Sit and Look Out, is offered within these pages to embellish the picture further:
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves,
remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband–I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid–
I see these sights on the earth; I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny–
I see martyrs and prisoners; I observe a famine at sea–
I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these–All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.
And if you need any more convincing as to the non-fuzzy-feelings you will have while reading it, here is another poem offered – a brief haiku in the chapter about Camden, New Jersey:
The sack of kittens
Sinking in the icy creek
Increases the cold
There are several broad regions of the United States covered in the book, including the Indian reservations of South Dakota; the mean streets of Camden; the wretched lives of the produce-pickers in Southern Florida; and the "moonscape" of West Virginia's coal country. It is this last area that includes a talk with Larry Gibson, an activist in West Virginia who grew up there, had to leave for a while due to family poverty, and has returned to try to fight for the region's sake. He says the following, which is perhaps my favorite section of the entire book:
“Living here as a boy, I wasn’t any different than anybody else. First time I knew I was poor was when I went to Cleveland and went to school They taught me I was poor. I traded all this for a strip of green I saw when I walking the street. And I was poor? How ya gonna get a piece of green grass between the sidewalk and the street, and they gonna tell me I’m poor. I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world, with nature. I could walk through the forest. I could hear the animals. I could hear the woods talk to me. Everywhere I looked there was life. I could pick my own apples or cucumbers. I could eat the berries and pawpaws. I love pawpaws. And they gooseberries. Now there is no life there. Only dust. I had a pigeon and when I’d come out of the house, no matter where I went, he flew over my head or sat on my shoulder. I had a hawk I named Fred, I had a bobcat and a three-legged fox that got caught in a trap. I wouldn’t trade that childhood for all the fancy fire trucks and toys the other kids had."
I have a tremendous amount of respect for that point of view. There was a time in my life I craved a lot of stuff. There was a time I thought rich people were rich because they were sharper and harder-working than the rest of us.
I've certainly learned otherwise. I've learned that "stuff" is boring and unfulfilling. And I've learned that some rich people – – and I've known a lot, including a couple of billionaires – – can at times be some of the biggest dumb-fucks you'd ever encounter. One in particular thought he was some kind of genius, when in fact he was simply born into a rich family and was too blinkered to recognize that his accidental circumstance had no bearing on his (dim) wit.
The chapter goes on with another activist………
Gunnoe is a thin woman with curly black hair. She is part Cherokee. Her vocal opposition to the coal companies, like Larry Gibson’s, has engendered the fury of many of her neighbors, who fear the loss of the coal industry will mean and end to any viable employment. One of her dogs was shot dead and left in the parking lot where her children catch the school bus. Another dog was shot and killed while tied up in the back of her house. The gas tank to her truck was filled with sand, requiring $1,200 in repairs. Her children have been taunted at school as “tree huggers.” She has erected a six-foot protective fence around her house that she calls “my cage.” But she says that even for the miners who blast away the mountains, the destruction can be overwhelming.
I figure even if there's no such thing as hell, the universe would have conjured one up for whatever low-lifes would stoop to killing a dog (it should be mentioned that Mr. Gibson's dog was also killed, and his current dog was hanged, but he was able to save him in time). Humans I can do without. Dogs, on the other hand, have no business being harmed. Particularly by "people."
“It’s a sacrifice zone. It’s so the rest of the country can have electric toothbrushes and leave the lights on all night in parking lots for used cars and banks lit up all night long and shit like that. We have been a national sacrifice zone. Hell, that phrase was created thirty-five, forty years ago. Now it’s terminal. There is no way to stop it. I haven’t had any hope for a long time. But the only reason I keep going is, why the hell not? I’m going to die. Shit, might as well hold my head up. I don’t want Bill Raney, the president of the Coal Association, to be able to tell his lies without somebody saying, “Bill, that’s shit, that’s not true.” These corporations are going to strip the whole country. If you have this reality, then you become a guerilla. You blow up the damn thing. I can’t go to there, because they will put me in penitentiary, and I don’t want to go there. I know they would catch me eventually.
Hedges' training in divinity (his father was a minister, and he himself got his Masters degree from Harvard) is present, although not heavy-handed, throughout the book. But his firm Chrstian beliefs certainly don't lead you to a polite, hands-in-lap, gentle list of suggestions in the final chapter. The man is Pissed. Off. And he uses the (presently inert) Occupy movement as the shining example of what should be happening in America:
There comes a moment in all popular uprisings when the dead ideas and decayed systems, which only days before seemed unassailable, are exposed and discredited by a population that once stood fearful and supine. This spark occurred on September 17., 2011, in New York City when a few hundred activists, who were easily rebuffed by police in their quixotic attempt to physically occupy Wall Street, regrouped in Zuccotti Park, four blocks away. They were disorganized at first, unsure of what to do, not even convinced they had achieved anything worthwhile, but they had unwittingly triggered a global movement of resistance that would reverberate across the country and the capitals of Europe. The uneasy status quo, effectively imposed for decades by the elites, was shattered. Another narrative of power took shape. The revolution began.
Hedges goes on:
The American dream, we now know, is a lie. We will all be sacrificed. The virus of corporate abuse – the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters – has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment. This virus has brought with it a security and surveillance state that seeks to keep us all on a reservation. No one is immune. The suffering of the other, of the Native American, the African American in the inner city, the unemployed coal miner, or the Hispanic produce picker is universal. They went first. We are next. The indifference we showed to the plight of the underclass, in Biblical terms our neighbor, haunts us. We failed them, and in doing so we failed ourselves. We were accomplices in our own demise. Revolt is all we have left. It is the only hope.
Hedges doesn't agitate for a particular candidate; he doesn't suggest a new set of regulations; he doesn't ask that Blankfein be brought to trial. He wants a revolution, not unlike that would swept away the Communists from Eastern Europe. He states:
The preconditions for successful revolution are:
+ discontent that affects nearly all social classes;
+ widespread feelings of entrapment and despair;
+ unfulfilled expectations;
+ a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite;
+ a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class;
+ an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens;
+ a steady loss of will within the power elite itself together with defections from the inner circle – a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support;
+ a financial crisis
Well, I guess some of those elements are in place already, right? But he's just getting started:
Welcome to the revolution. The elites have exposed their hand. They have shown they have nothing to offer. They can destroy but they cannot build. They can repress but they cannot lead. They can steal but they cannot share. They can talk but they cannot speak. They are as dead and useless to us as the water-soaked books, tents, sleeping bags, suitecases, food boxes, and clothes that were dumped into garbage trucks after the New York City police raid that November night. They have no ideas, no plans, and no vision for the future.
Get back into your cages, they are telling us. Return to watching the lies, absurdities, trivia, celebrity gossip, and political theater we feed you in twenty-four-hour cycles on television. Invest your emotional energy in the vast system of popular entertainment. Run up your credit card debt. Pay your loans. Be thankful for the scraps we toss. Chant back to us our platitudes about democracy, greatness, and freedom. Vote in our rigged corporation elections. Send your young men and women to fight and die in useless, unwinnable wars that provide huge profits for corporations. Stand by mutely as our legislators plunge us into a society without basic social services while Wall Street speculators loot and pillage.
Our dear friend, Lloyd Blankfein – – the man doing God's work, remember? – – is often cited in Days of Destruction. He is held up as just about the closest thing to the anti-Christ as can be imagined, almost directly responsible for the murder of millions.
The rogues’ gallery of Wall Street crooks – such as Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs; Howard Milstein at New York Private Bank & Trust; the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch; David and Charles, the Koch brothers; and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co. – no doubt think the Occupy movement has passed. They think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes. But they have no concept of what is happening around them. They are as mystified and clueless about these uprisings as the courtiers at Versailles or the Forbidden City, or the inner sanctums of the communist elites in Eastern Europe, who never understood until the very last days that their world was collapsing.
The political philosopher Sheldon Wolin uses the term inverted totalitarianism in his book Democracy Incorporated to describe our political system. In inverted totalitarianism, the sophisticated technologies of corporate control, intimidation, and mass manipulation, which far surpass those employed by previous totalitarian states, are effectively masked by the glitter, noise, and abundance of a consumer society. Political participation and civil liberties are gradually surrendered. Corporations, hiding behind this smokescreen, devour us from the inside out. They have no allegiance to the country.
The novel 1984 is also an important touchstone in Days of Destruction, and Orwell is quoted frequently as a fount of truth.
We, like those who opposed the long night of communism, no longer have any mechanisms within the formal structures of power that will protect or advance our rights. We, too, have undergone a coup d’etat carried out not by the large stone-faced leaders of a monolithic Communist Party, but by our largely anonymous corporate overlords. George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but that once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We have now entered that era of naked force. There are no excuses left.
Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history. You either obstruct through civil disobedience, the only way left to us, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street, and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. You either taste, feel, and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt, or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. You are either a rebel or a slave.
The way you react to this book depends a great deal on who you are and what your experiences in life have been so far, particularly with respect to your own financial and personal security. I found the book partly inspiring, partly infuriating, but very readable. One of the few things the United States still has going for it – – for now, at least – – is freedom of expression, and I'm glad a book like this is available to all who care to be more aware than their fellow countrymen, and I'm grateful to live in a place where I can be permitted to offer my favorite passages from the book and encourage you to read the whole thing yourself.