Book Review: Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (2009)

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This is a critical review of Chris Hedges’ book Empire of Illusion, with further discussion of its relevance in a society with no future.

(Crossposted at Orange and at Firedoglake)

There are a number of reviews of this book out already.  Many of them are in the vein of “ho hum, another book declaiming American society for its shallowness.”  So for instance if you access the review at popmatters.com, it says that this book is about the:

argument that America as a society has become enslaved to passive entertainment and divorced from any meaningful interaction with the world or our fellow citizens. To buttress this jeremiad, Hedges enlists punchy quotations from Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” and Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (Arendt, Plato, and Huxley are also called up to bat).

The page itself yawns.  A proactive review of Hedges’ book, however, would take as important the accuracy of his depiction of America, and to look in an attempt to see if anything could be done with Hedges’ vision in the larger scope of things.  That’s what this book review hopes to do.

*****

Hedges thesis is that there is a “culture of illusion” dominating America, a great substitution of images for reality in which America is plied with entertainment while real power is robbed from it by self-serving elites.  The process has gotten to the point where collapse will at some near point be on the agenda.  Hedges argues:

Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die.  The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality.  The elites were blinded by absurd fantasies of omnipotence and power which doomed their civilizations. (143-144)

This is what is at stake, then: civilization.  So most of the book, then, is about the ongoing decay of that civilization, Western civilization, and America in particular.  It is more specifically about the illusions which are peddled to the public as aspects of the promotional scheme of the culture industry, distracting the public in the service of elite domination.

The beginning of this book offers us the retelling of an episode of “WWE Smackdown.”  Hedges has a notion of the history of this sort of “world wrestling entertainment.”  It used to contain characters which symbolized evil, as determined by the reigning orthodoxy of US nationalist propaganda.  There was an evil Russian, and an evil Iranian, we are told.  Nowadays WWE taps into class resentment, with the upper-class pseudo-cowboy “John Bradshaw Layfield,” and the working-class character of the “Heart Break Kid.”  WWE, of course, does not give class resentment anything like a credible narrative.  Later, Hedges describes a portion of an episode of “American Idol.”  His point in all of this is to introduce us to the “culture of illusion.”  Hedges spends some time discussing the form taken by the various celebrities who participate in these televised spectacles, and concludes with a rumination on the “culture of illusion”:

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks.  And a culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those who are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read.  There have been other historical periods with high rates of illiteracy and vast propaganda campaigns.  But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, has the content of information been as skilfully and ruthlessly controlled and manipulated.  Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology.  Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel.  Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality.  And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded.  (45)

In the next chapter, Chapter 2, titled “The Illusion of Love,” Hedges takes aim at the pornography industry, for its brutality and for its exploitation of women.  Here I will say that Hedges’ analysis may be dead-on — pornography is largely depersonalizing — but in spots he seems to have focused rather tightly on that portion of the industry which specializes in gangbanging.  “Porn has evolved from the airbrushed misogyny of glossy spreads in Playboy and smutty films sold in seedy shops into modern, easy to use websites like maturesexmovies to name just one of the more popular ones.  It is corporate and easily available.  Its products today focus less on sex between a man and a woman and increasingly on groups of men beating off on a woman’s face or tearing her anus open with their penises.  Porn has evolved to its logical conclusion.” (86)

Hedges’ third chapter is concerned with the corporatization of academia.  The argument somewhat follows Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, which I reviewed earlier.  The idea of this chapter is that universities are becoming “glorified vocational schools for the corporations,” (110) teaching as well as creating class segregation, while “the new class of expert professionals have been trained to focus on narrow, specialized knowledge independent of social ideas or conceptions of the common good.” (111)  Thus the promise of “honest intellectual inquiry” (89) in the university is (for Hedges) just another illusion as well.

In his fourth chapter, Hedges looks at the “positive thinking” industry, in terms which approach hyperbole.  Here is what he says:

Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis.  Positive psychology — at least, as applied so broadly and unquestioningly to corporate relations — is a quack science.  It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.  (117)

Hedges’ concern, then, is that the persuaders will try to make us feel happy as everything we know and love is taken from us.  But this claim has teeth: Hedges then investigates the corporate use of positive psychology to induce conformist behavior among cheap laborers in the workplace.  This is now apparently the latest trend in sweatshoppery.

The last chapter of Empire of Illusion attempts to summarize the state of politics today, the empty campaign slogans leading to the same old corporate domination regardless of the group laying claim to power.  Here Hedges suggests that, long ago, the America in which he grew up was a place in which hope was maintained amidst the general injustice meted out to the oppressed.  That America, he argues, is now merely a “facade.” (143)  Hedges asks America this question:  


How will we cope with our decline?  Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and the fantasies of a glorious tomorrow, or will we responsibly face our stark, new limitations?  Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humanity, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up in moments of crisis and panic to offer fantastic visions of escape?  (145)

That’s really Hedges’ main question for all of us.  Do we choose illusion, or reality?

*****

Conclusion: Underlying Illusion

*****

As pointed out in popmatters.com above, Hedges’ book is not original for having borrowed insights from Daniel Boorstin or Christopher Lasch or Theodor Adorno.  This is a synthetic work.  It criticizes disturbing trends.

Hedges says little about economic issues in Empire of Illusions, focusing instead on personal encounters and important readings.  But I think economic explanation bears out the truth of his extended jeremiad.  The real reason that there are sizable economies around celebrity crap or pornography or academic “sales” or happytalk psychobabble is that the capitalist economy can no longer improve its fortunes through real industry, and so new “industries” must be invented to separate people from their money because the old ones, which centered around selling real products, will no longer do.  This trend began in the neoliberal era among the economic crises of the 1970s, in which industrial production was confronted with reduced profits.  At that point the trend shifted to “finance,” which sucks your lifeblood by creating money and charging you interest on it.  Today, however, we have “zombie banks,” banks which do not make profits loaning to anyone because those who need loans today do not qualify for them.  Thus even that is gone.  The capitalist system itself brags about its entry into a “post-industrial” economy — what could be more post-industrial than selling the capitalist ethos to the masses in the absence of other sources of profit?  At any rate, that’s what’s left.

Moreover, I think that we can find the reality underneath Hedges’ themes of illusion if we look at them from the perspective of economic autonomy.  Entertainment, sex, learning, happiness, and governance: each of these are domains in which ordinary people can create their own, in pairs or (with everything but sex) in small, autonomous groups; instead, modern society is full of hucksters, entrepreneurs, and “professionals” with their own “fields of expertise” ready to sell to us what we can do for ourselves.  

In this regard we might take to heart what Hedges says about our elites, the ones who run this whole show:

Our elites — the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools — do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess.  Indeed, they will make it worse.  They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one.  They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats trained to carry out systems management.  They see only piecemeal solutions that will satisfy the corporate structure.  Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement.  They lack a moral and intellectual core.  They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships.  (110)

So far the elites have not proved Hedges wrong.

*****

AFTERWORD FOR YOU, YEAH, YOU

Every once in awhile I get responses to diaries such as this which argue that “things were worse before; they are better now.”  This sort of response aims at the spots in Hedges’ narrative which appear (to the respondents) to be exaggerated.  In some senses this response rings true; things are better.  In other senses, no.  Things are not better for all of the animal and plant species which have gone into extinction.  Things are not better for the victims of US “foreign policy.”  Things may be better in one sense for college students if, for instance, the possibility of a meaningful education has improved with the improvement of systemic critique — nevertheless the material conditions of college life are, on average, themselves deteriorating as money dries up and as tuition rises.

Measuring life by “material” qualities concocted by economic “experts” (e.g. monetary income) will doubtless “prove” that life in the US is still pretty good.  Me?  Sure, I have a job right now, and I live fairly comfortably, although my net worth was, is, and will be significantly in the negative (student loans y’know).  The prosperity I enjoy, however, appears to me as the proceeds of a previous stage of the capitalist system in its historical development.  The current stage appears to me as a form of decadence, lived without any real concept of the future, and so if I need to promote a writer like Chris Hedges to dramatize that decadence, that’s what I’ll do.

 

12 comments

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    • k9disc on June 9, 2010 at 8:07 pm

    Hedges has been a mainstay of my reading for several years now.

    I find the acid in his writing and thoughts to be horrifyingly true. There is something about ‘naming our enemy’ that stems that horror and seems to empower, but then I chat with friends and associates and see the massive disconnect and then feel despair.

    I see the bright shiny packaging strapped around the shit we’re fed daily, but not many others have that ability. It’s painful and scary.

    Last night I thought to myself that I’m going crazy – how can I see this stuff so clearly and others not…

    I’m often accused of ‘being too deep’ or reading into things so much, but when our reality is only skin deep, a thin veneer of bullshit, how can one not try to get underneath and see what’s going on?

    Thanks for your work, cassio… I appreciate it.

    peace

  1. I actually started reading this just a couple days ago, I find it’s explanatory power to be incredible. It is a definite must-read.

  2. Could use a little more sense of humor, but then again there is nothing humorous about our situation.

    Nice review.

  3. People have been trained to look for some mythical happiness by poking around from one cultural symbol frame to another until they find what fits them. It’s like thought for sale, a Wallmart of symbols, discounts for buying into the “experience” crafted by the unknowable magic of Santa Claus.

    • banger on June 10, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    …too long.

    He hits the mark. As to your afterword I agree with you.

    As each day passes the stakes get higher and higher. Also, the long-term economic trends in this country have been, despite “booms” have gone steadily down since around 1980. This has been a fact, easily documented, particularly using Elizabeth Warren’s work on the vanishing middle-class.

    Culturally, we are amazingly confused–illusion and fantasy is so dominant right now it is hard to imagine any healthy outcome unless people deliberately deconstruct the mind-control aspect of these fantasies and wean themselves from the mass-entertainments (including “news”) that are being provided.

  4. I haven’t read Hedges but sounds like I should, I will get it today. I saw a poll that gave me ‘hope’ then dashed it all in a moment. It said the public a majority of them do not believe the news they get via the TV. It also said they think it is liberally biased. So they may not think there getting the truth but they believe the false cultural and political narrative they have been feed for ever…false comparisons like better then or still pretty good and a desire rooted in exceptualism and nationalism makes the illusion palatable, even for those who are not plugged into the reality pumped out in the TV or our institutions. How do you come to grips as a culture with the fact that your life and your society is and always has been an illusion that has no future and is eating itself? People are fighting hard on all levels from academia to the illiterate  to keep their illusions in the face of ‘the fierce urgency of now’. People are jumping to their deaths to provide the toys we equate with happiness and proof that were better off.    

           

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