One of the reasons that I dislike reading books like the ones I’m reading now — books on the flaws of our society and the dangers in our future — is that I take their pessimism too much to heart.
I don’t like being pessimistic. I like being rather skeptical, mind you, but one can be skeptical without the additional emotional baggage of pessimism.
One can, but it seems that I can’t.
Despite the enduring financial and political troubles in which we find ourselves, there is a palpable euphoria in the air. On the left, there’s a new hopefulness about positive political change, a desire striving to become a conviction, that the “Occupy” movement(s) either represent or will at the least generate real and effective opposition to corporatism. And everyone seems to be elated that Libya has murdered its dictator and Tunisia is voting. Surely democracy and goodness are rampant. And hasn’t Steven Pinker proclaimed that the human race is evolving its way away from violence?
Alas, if it were only true. Oh, it’s true enough that Gaddafi is gone and that parts of the Middle East are adopting the most external trappings of democracy. There’s no denying the facts.
But it doesn’t follow from these facts that violence is decreasing, that totalitarian states must fall, or that real citizen empowerment is about to sweep the world. Indeed, I am pretty well convinced that the latest skirmishes are side-show entertainments, and that the battle — and the war — have been over for some time.
Some months ago, I wrote an article in which I argued that the great surge of middle class prosperity, education, and meaningful involvement in the shaping of society, otherwise known as the postwar boom of the 50’s and 60’s, was a one-off, the incredible luck of a single generation — my own — who grew up in a brief interim of privilege that looks much sweeter now than it looked at the time, during the atomic fears of the Cold War.
We “won” the Cold War, but we did it, substantially, with a nonpartisan weapon — free market capitalism. And, as that weapon is now trained on us, we are becoming ever more aware of the price we have paid for the victory.
The corporate state and the superficial consumption-driven culture which it fosters to keep us amused and unaware has triumphed, and there’s not much we can do about it on any scale that really matters.
Yes, there are thousands, even millions, of concerned and involved people who dedicate themselves to positive change. Good for them! But what they can really change is the rate of recycling in their neighbourhoods, or the ratio of locally-grown to imported foodstuffs.
What they can’t change is the general culture of elite entitlement. No matter how much “choice” or “freedom” we are touted to have, we have them only within the larger context of superficial consumerism.
Being free to select an IPhone 4S over an HTC Desire is fine as far as it goes, but how far does it go? How much power do we have to choose that our unemployed neighbour has enough food for his family, rather than that the hedge fund manager who lives in the gated enclave down the road gets another bonus? There’s choice, and then there’s choice.
So while I feel uncomfortable when I read more than a few pages of Chris Hedges, it’s not because I think he’s wrong to be so negative. It’s because I fear that he’s right.