By Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost
Political paralysis is snuffing out what is left of our anemic democracy.
It is the paralysis of doing nothing while the ruling oligarchs, who have increased their wealth by nearly a third since the pandemic began and by close to 90 percent over the past decade, orchestrate virtual tax boycotts as millions of Americans go into bankruptcy to pay medical bills, mortgages, credit card debt, student debt, car loans and soaring utility bills demanded by a system that has privatized nearly every aspect of our lives.
It is the paralysis of doing nothing about raising the minimum wage, despite the ravages of inflation, around 600,000 homeless Americans and 33.8 million people living in food insecure homes, including 9.3 million children.
It is the paralysis of ignoring the climate crisis, the greatest existential threat we face, to expand fossil fuel extraction.
It is the paralysis of pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the permanent war economy rather than repairing the nation’s collapsing roads, rails, bridges, schools, electrical grid and water supply.
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It is the paralysis of refusing to institute universal health care and regulate the for-profit insurance and pharmaceutical industries to fix the worst health care system of any highly industrialized nation, one in which life expectancy is falling and more Americans die from avoidable causes than in peer nations. More than 80 percent of maternal deaths in the U.S. alone are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is the paralysis of being unwilling to curb police violence, dismantle the world’s largest prison system, end wholesale government surveillance of the public and reform a dysfunctional court system where nearly everyone, unless they can afford high-priced lawyers, is coerced into accepting onerous plea deals.
It is the paralysis of standing passively by as the public, armed with arsenals of assault weapons, slaughter each other for crossing into their yard, pulling into their driveway, ringing their doorbell, angering them at work or school, or are so alienated and bitter at being left behind, they gun down groups of innocent people in acts of murderous self-immolation.
Democracies are not slain by reactionary buffoons like Donald Trump, who was routinely sued for failing to pay workers and contractors and whose fictional television persona was sold to a gullible electorate, or shallow politicians like Joe Biden, whose political career has been devoted to serving corporate donors. These politicians provide a false comfort of individualizing our crises, as if removing this public figure or censoring that group will save us.
Democracies are slain when a tiny cabal, in our case corporate, seizes control of the economy, culture and the political system and distorts them to exclusively serve its own interests. The institutions that should provide redress to the public become parodies of themselves, atrophy and die. How else to explain legislative bodies that can only unite to pass austerity programs, tax cuts for the billionaire class, bloated police and military budgets and reduce social spending? How else to explain courts that strip workers and citizens of their most basic rights? How else to explain a system of public education where the poor are, at best, taught basic numerical literacy and the rich send their children to private schools and universities with endowments in the billions of dollars?
Democracies are slain with false promises and hollow platitudes. Biden told us as a candidate he would raise the minimum wage to $15 and hand out $2,000 stimulus checks. He told us his American Jobs Plan would create “millions of good jobs.” He told us he would strengthen collective bargaining and ensure universal pre-kindergarten, universal paid family and medical leave, and free community college. He promised a publicly funded option for healthcare. He promised not to drill on federal lands and to promote a “green energy revolution and environmental justice.” None of that happened.
But, by now, most people have figured out the game. Why not vote for Trump and his grandiose, fantasy-driven promises? Are they any less real than those peddled by Biden and the Democrats? Why pay homage to a political system that is about betrayal? Why not sever yourself from the rational world that has only brought misery? Why pay fealty to old truths that have become hypocritical banalities? Why not blow the whole thing up?
As research by professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page underscores, our political system has turned the consent of the governed into a cruel joke. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” they write.
The French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book “On Suicide” called our state of hopelessness and despair, anomie, which he defined as “rulelessness.” Rulelessness means the rules that govern a society and create a sense of organic solidarity no longer function. It means that the rules we are taught — hard work and honesty will assure us a place in society; we live in a meritocracy; we are free; our opinions and votes matter; our government protects our interests — are a lie. Of course, if you are poor, or a person of color, these rules were always a myth, but a majority of the American public was once able to find a secure place in society, which is the bulwark of any democracy, as numerous political theorists going back to Aristotle point out.
Tens of millions of Americans, cast adrift by deindustrialization, understand that their lives will not improve, nor will the lives of their children. Society, as Durkheim writes, is no longer “sufficiently present” for them. Those cast aside can participate in society, he writes, only through sadness.
The sole route left to affirm yourself, when every other avenue is closed off, is to destroy. Destruction, fueled by a grotesque hypermasculinity, imparts a rush and pleasure, along with feelings of omnipotence, which is sexualized and sadistic. It has a morbid attraction. This lust to destroy, what Sigmund Freud called the death instinct, targets all forms of life, including our own.
These pathologies of death, diseases of despair, are manifested in the plagues that are sweeping across the county — opioid addiction, morbid obesity, gambling, suicide, sexual sadism, hate groups and mass shootings. My book, “America: The Farewell Tour,” is an exploration of the demons that grip the American psyche.
A web of social and political bonds — friendships and family ties, civic and religious rituals, meaningful work that imparts a sense of place, dignity and hope in the future — allow us to be engaged in a project larger than the self. These bonds provide psychological protection from impending mortality and the trauma of rejection, isolation and loneliness. We are social animals. We need each other. Strip away these bonds and societies descend into fratricide.
Capitalism is antithetical to creating and sustaining social bonds. Its core attributes — relationships that are transactional and temporary, prioritizing self-advancement through manipulating and exploiting others and the insatiable lust for profit — eliminates democratic space. The obliteration of all restraints on capitalism, from organized labor to government oversight and regulation, has left us at the mercy of predatory forces that, by nature, exploit human beings and the natural world until exhaustion or collapse.
Trump, devoid of empathy and incapable of remorse, is the personification of our diseased society. He is what those who have been cast adrift are taught by corporate culture they should strive to become. He expresses, often with vulgarity, the inchoate rage of those left behind and is a walking advertisement for the cult of the self. Trump is not a product of the theft of the Podesta emails, the DNC leaks or James Comey. He is not a product of Vladimir Putin or Russian bots. He is a product, like aspiring doppelgängers such as Ron DeSantis, Tom Cotton and Margorie Taylor Greene, of anomie and social decay.
Individuals are “too closely involved in the life of society for it to be sick without their being affected,” Durkheim writes. “Its suffering inevitably becomes theirs.”
These charlatans and demagogues, who reject the customary restraints of political and civic decorum, ridicule the “polite” elites who sold us out. They offer no workable solution to the crises besetting the country. They dynamite the old social order, which is already rotten, and cry for vengeance against real and phantom enemies as if these acts will magically resurrect a mythical golden age. The more that lost age remains elusive, the more vicious they become.
“Since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of Western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess in private and business life, but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest,” Hannah Arendt writes in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” of those who embraced the hate-filled rhetoric of fascism in the Weimar Republic. “What a temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate and pretended to be gentle, to parade wickedness in a world, not of wickedness, but meanness!”
Our society is deeply diseased. We must heal these social illnesses. We must mitigate this anomie. We must restore the severed social bonds and integrate the dispossessed back into society. If these social bonds remain ruptured it will guarantee a frightening neofascism. There are very dark forces circling around us. Sooner than we expect, they may have us in their grip.
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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.