What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?
The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.
The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.
Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.
It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.
We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.
The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture, however, are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back, as the White House economist Lawrence Summers tacitly acknowledges when he talks of a “jobless recovery.” The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.
America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.
When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age. It was the economic collapse in Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in Tsarist Russia that opened the door for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to loudmouth talk show hosts, whom we naïvely dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. And as in all totalitarian societies, those who do not pay fealty to the illusions imposed by the state become the outcasts, the persecuted.
The decline of American empire began long before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of Harvard historian Charles Maier, from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and domestic oil production began its steady, inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies.
As the pressure mounts, as the despair and desperation reach into larger and larger segments of the populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. The emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state. This is why the Bush White House pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting. The motive behind these measures is not to fight terrorism or to bolster national security. It is to seize and maintain internal control. It is about controlling us.
And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers offshore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth. And it keeps us from fighting back.
Resistance movements will have to look now at the long night of slavery, the decades of oppression in the Soviet Union and the curse of fascism for models. The goal will no longer be the possibility of reforming the system but of protecting truth, civility and culture from mass contamination. It will require the kind of schizophrenic lifestyle that characterizes all totalitarian societies. Our private and public demeanors will often have to stand in stark contrast. Acts of defiance will often be subtle and nuanced. They will be carried out not for short term gain but the assertion of our integrity. Rebellion will have an ultimate if not easily definable purpose. The more we retreat from the culture at large the more room we will have to carve out lives of meaning, the more we will be able to wall off the flood of illusions disseminated by mass culture and the more we will retain sanity in an insane world. The goal will become the ability to endure.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is the author of several books including the best sellers War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.