Above Photo: mediasanctuary.org / YouTube.
Chris Hedges gave this talk on American Sadism at The Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, New York on Sunday June 27.
Sadism defines nearly every cultural, social, and political experience in the United States. It is expressed in the unchecked greed of an oligarchic elite that has seen its wealth increase during the pandemic by $1.1 trillion while the country has suffered the sharpest rise in its poverty rate in more than 50 years. It is expressed in the wanton killings by police of unarmed citizens in cities such as Minneapolis. It is expressed in the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used by the CIA at secret black sites, Guantánamo Bay, and our prisons at home. It is expressed in the separation of children from their undocumented parents, where they are held as if they were dogs in a kennel.
It is expressed in the pornification of American society, where women are tortured, beaten, degraded, and sexually violated, often by numerous men, in porn films, and then discarded after a few weeks or months with severe trauma, along with sexually transmitted diseases and vaginal and anal tears that must be repaired surgically. It is expressed in the “incel” movement that perpetrates violent assaults against women by men who say they have been spurned or ignored by women.
It is expressed in the predatory health care system where, as Steven Brill writes, a trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion can exceed the cost of a semester of college, simple lab work done during a few days in a hospital can be more expensive than a new car, and a drug that requires $300 to make and that the manufacturer sells to a hospital for $3,000 to 3,500 can cost the patient to whom it is prescribed $13,702. It is legally permissible in the United States for corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves to save their sons or daughters.
This sadism is expressed in payday loans, for-profit prisons, the privatization of public education and public utilities and the rise of for-profit mercenary armies. It is expressed in the cultural glorification of violence by mass media, the state and the entertainment and the gaming industries. It is expressed in the nihilistic mass shootings at schools, including elementary schools, and workplaces. And it is expressed in the murderous and futile wars we prosecute or support in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
The historian Johan Huizinga, writing about the twilight of the Middle Ages, argued that as things fall apart sadism is embraced to cope with the hostility of an indifferent universe. No longer bound to a common purpose, a ruptured society retreats into hedonism and the cult of the self. It celebrates, as do corporations on Wall Street or popular reality television shows, 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. Get what you can, as fast as you can, before someone else gets it. This is the state of nature, the “war of all against all,” Thomas Hobbes saw as the consequence of social disintegration, a world in which life becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is a world in which the powerful, men like Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein, reduce the bodies and selfhoods of their victims to nothing.
We know what this sadism looks like. It looks like Derek Chauvin nonchalantly choking to death George Floyd as his police colleagues watch impassively. It looks like Andrew Brown Jr. shot five times by police in North Carolina, including once in the back of the head. It looks like Abner Louima, who had a broomstick pushed up his rectum by police in a bathroom at the 70th Precinct station house in Brooklyn, requiring three major operations to repair the internal injuries. It looks like Navy Seal Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher randomly shooting to death unarmed civilians and using a hunting knife to repeatedly stab to death an injured, sedated 17-year-old Iraqi prisoner and then photographing himself with the corpse. It looks like Iraqi civilians, few of whom had anything to do with the insurgency, naked, bound, beaten and sexually humiliated and raped, and at times murdered, by army guards and private contractors in Abu Ghraib. It looks like the prisoners in Abu Ghraib who were routinely dragged across the prison floor by a rope tied to their penises and were sodomized by chemical lights or had the lights snapped open so the phosphoric liquid could be poured over their naked bodies. The leaked pictures from Abu Ghraib are the true face of America, the hooded Man, a dark-caped figure standing on a box, arms outstretched, wires attached to his fingers or the naked leashed man lying at the feet of the female American soldier in camouflage pants who holds his leash, one end wrapped around his neck, in her hand.
Why is the malaise of a dying civilization expressed through sadism rather than a kind of righteous anger? Here we must turn to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche warned that those who are humiliated and disempowered are poisoned by ressentiment. Because they have been stripped of agency, they lack the power to harm those who they believe harmed them. In short, there is no cathartic release. Ressentiment is bred from damaged self-esteem. It festers and corrodes the soul. The powerless, and here Nietzsche is writing about Christianity as a slave religion, must expresses their ressentiment obliquely and surreptitiously, hence the coded racism, Islamophobia and supposed yearning for a return of the traditional family and “Christian” values. Ressentiment is produced by feelings of inferiority, failure, and worthlessness. And this ressentiment, fueled by self-loathing, expresses itself through sadism, what Nietzsche calls “wrecking the will” of those who are weaker or more vulnerable. Nietzsche understood that this “wrecking the will” of others imparts a perverted, sadistic pleasure. He writes in On the Genealogy of Morals, that “to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more. . . . Without cruelty there is no festival . . . and in punishment there is so much that is festive!”
The ressentiment in American society, the political scientist Wendy Brown writes, is born not only from feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness, but feelings of dethronement and lost entitlement. It explains what she calls the “permanent politics of revenge, of attacking those blamed for the dethronement white maleness—feminists, multiculturalists, globalists, who both unseat and disdain them.” For this reason, the rage cannot, as it could be in Christian theology, sublimated into self-abnegation and a call to love of thy neighbor. There is, in short, nothing to mitigate or redirect this ressentiment. It’s pure expression is nihilism and sadism. Trump embodied this dark ethic. Revenge is his sole philosophy of life. Those gripped by ressentiment no longer are able to create. They can only destroy. They gleefully ignite their own funeral pyre.
Laws, institutions, and bureaucratic structures are deformed to serve the interests of a tiny cabal, a rapacious elite, which enriches itself at the expense of everyone else. All are made to bow before the dictates of what Max Weber called the “inanimate machine.” The inanimate machine forces the vast majority into the mass, but it allows a selected few, willing to do its dirty work, to rise above the multitude. These privileged few are given the license and authority to carry out the acts of sadism that have become the primary forms of social control. These enforcers do this work vigorously, for their greatest fear is being pushed back into the mass. The more these foot soldiers for the elite insult, persecute, torture, humiliate and kill, the more they seem to magically widen the divide between themselves and their victims. This is why Black police and corrections officers can be as cruel, and sometimes crueler, than their white counterparts.
The sadism eradicates, at least momentarily, the sadist’s feelings of worthlessness, vulnerability and susceptibility to pain and death. It imparts feelings of omnipotence. It is pleasurable. I was beaten by Saudi military police and later by Saddam Hussein’s secret police when I was taken prisoner in Basra shortly after the first Gulf War. Those who beat me enjoyed their work. I could see it on their faces. Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians, the assaults of Muslims and girls and women in India and the denigration of Muslims in the countries we occupy are part of the scourge of sadism in service to an “inanimate machine” that has become global.
Feminists have long understood that sadism runs like an electric current through male sexual desire. Pornography is about the fantasy of men who are omnipotent, who have the power to torture and physically abuse girls and women who in porn beg to be degraded. “Sexual fun and sexual passion in the privacy of the male imagination are inseparable from the brutality of male history,” Andrea Dworkin writes. “The private world of sexual dominance that men demand as their right and their freedom is the mirror image of the public world of sadism and atrocity that men consistently and self-righteously deplore. It is in the male experience of pleasure that one finds the meaning of male history.”
Women, of course, are not immune from acts of sadism. Ilse Koch, known as the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” with her husband, the commandant of the death camp, used to throw prisoners into bears’ cages to watch them get ripped apart and devoured. The Chilean Adriana Rivas, facing extradition to Chile from Australia, reportedly tortured prisoners by strapping them to metal bunk beds rigged with electrical current and sending shocks throughout their bodies or suffocated them to death with plastic bags during the regime of August Pinochet. But Dworkin is right to highlight sadism as inherent in male expressions of total and unaccountable power, which is why sadism is the chief characteristic of imperialism.
Jean Amery, who was in the Belgian resistance in World War II and who was captured and tortured by the Gestapo in 1943, defines sadism “as the radical negation of the other, the simultaneous denial of both the social principle and the reality principle. In the sadist’s world, torture, destruction, and death are triumphant: and such a world clearly has no hope of survival. On the contrary, he desires to transcend the world, to achieve total sovereignty by negating fellow human beings—which he sees as representing a particular kind of ‘hell.’”
Amery’s point is important. A sadistic society is about collective self-destruction. It is the apotheosis of a society deformed by overwhelming experiences of loss, alienation and stasis. The only way left to affirm yourself in failed societies is to destroy. Johan Huizinga in his book “Waning of the Middle Ages” noted that that the dissolution of medieval society provoked “the violent tenor of life.” Today, this “violent tenor of life” drives people to carry out wanton police murders, evictions of families, court-ordered bankruptcies, the denial of medical care to the sick, suicide bombings and mass shootings. Sadism imparts the rush and pleasure, often with heavy sexual overtones, which lures us towards what Sigmund Freud called the death instinct, the instinct to destroy all forms of life, including our own. When enveloped by a death-saturated world death, ironically, is embraced as the cure.
Joseph Conrad saw enough of the world as a sea captain to know the irredeemable corruption of humanity. The noble virtues that drove characters like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness into the jungle veiled the abject self-interest, unchecked greed, and murder that defines all imperial projects. Conrad was in the Congo in the late nineteenth century when the Belgian monarch King Leopold, in the name of Western civilization and antislavery, was plundering the country. The Belgian occupation, which turned the Congo into a rubber plantation, resulted in the death by disease, starvation, and murder of some ten million Congolese.
In Conrad’s short story “An Outpost of Progress,” he writes of two white, European traders, Carlier and Kayerts, who are sent to a remote trading station in the Congo. The mission is endowed with a great moral purpose—to export European “civilization” to Africa. But the boredom and lack of constraints swiftly turn the two men into savages. They trade slaves for ivory. They get into a feud over dwindling food supplies, and Kayerts shoots and kills his unarmed companion Carlier.
“They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals,” Conrad wrote of Kayerts and Carlier:
whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd; to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one’s kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one’s thoughts, of one’s sensations—to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous; a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable, and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.
The Managing Director of the Great Civilizing Company—for, as Conrad notes, “civilization” follows trade—arrives by steamer at the end of the story. He is not met at the dock by his two agents. He climbs the steep bank to the trading station with the captain and engine driver behind him. The director finds Kayerts, who, after the murder, committed suicide by hanging himself by a leather strap from a cross that marked the grave of the previous station chief. Kayerts’s toes are a couple of inches above the ground. His arms hang stiffly down “and, irreverently, he was putting out a swollen tongue at his Managing Director.”
Sadism is carried out in the name of a moral good, to protect western civilization, “Christian” values, democracy, the master race, liberté, égalité, fraternité, the worker’s paradise, the new man, or scientific rationalism. Sadism will mend the flaws in the human species. The jargon varies. The dark sentiment is the same.
“Honor, justice, compassion and freedom are ideas that have no converts,” Conrad writes. “There are only people, without knowing, understanding or feeling, who intoxicate themselves with words, shout them out, imaging they believe them without believing in anything else but profit, personal advantage and their own satisfaction.”
“Man is a cruel animal,” Conrad wrote. “His cruelty must be organized. Society is essentially criminal—or it wouldn’t exist. It is selfishness that saves everything—absolutely everything—everything that we abhor, everything that we love.”
Bertrand Russell said of Conrad: “I felt, though I do not know whether he would have accepted such an image, that he thought of civilized and morally tolerable human life as a dangerous walk on a thin crust of barely cooled lava which at any moment might break and let the unwary sink into fiery depths.”
Kurtz, the self-deluded megalomaniac ivory trader in Heart of Darkness, ends by planting the shriveled heads of murdered Congolese on pikes outside his remote trading station. But Kurtz is also highly educated and refined. Conrad describes him as an orator, writer, poet, musician, and the respected chief agent of the ivory company’s Inner Station. He is “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress.” Kurtz was a “universal genius” and “a very remarkable person.” He is a prodigy, at once gifted and multitalented. He went to Africa fired by noble ideals and virtues. He ended his life as a self-deluded tyrant who thought he was a god.
“His mother was half-English, his father was half-French,” Conrad writes of Kurtz:
All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz; and by-the-by I learned that, most appropriately, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance. . . . He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, “must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,” and so on, and so on. “By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,” etc., etc. From that point he soared and took me with him. The peroration was magnificent, though difficult to remember, you know. It gave me the notion of an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence. It made me tingle with enthusiasm. This was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words. There were no practical hints to interrupt the magic current of phrases, unless a kind of note at the foot of the last page, scrawled evidently much later, in an unsteady hand, may be regarded as the exposition of a method. It was very simple, and at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightning in a serene sky: “Exterminate all the brutes!”
The violence and exploitation, which has long defined imperial projects abroad, now defines existence a home. Empires, in the end, cannibalize themselves. The tyranny we long imposed on others we now impose on ourselves. The dark pleasure derived from exploiting others is all that is left. As Nietzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals:
Let’s clarify the logic of this whole method of compensation—it is weird enough. The equivalency is given in this way: Instead of an advantage making up directly for the harm (hence, instead of compensation in gold, land, possessions of some sort or another), the creditor is given a kind of pleasure as repayment and compensation—the pleasure of being allowed to discharge his power on a powerless person without having to think about it, the delight in “de fair le mal pour le plaisir de le faire” [doing wrong for the pleasure of doing it], the enjoyment of violation. This enjoyment is more highly prized the lower and baser the debtor stands in the social order, and it can easily seem to the creditor a delicious mouthful, even a foretaste of a higher rank. By means of the “punishment” of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters. Finally, he himself for once comes to the lofty feeling of despising a being as someone “below himself,” as someone he is entitled to mistreat—or at least, in the event that the real force of punishment, of inflicting punishment, has already been transferred to the “authorities,” the feeling of seeing the debtor despised and mistreated. The compensation thus consists of a permission for and right to cruelty.
Social sadism and murder, as Friedrich Engels noted in his 1845 book The Condition of the Working-Class in England is built into the capitalist system. The ruling elites, Engels writes, those that hold “social and political control,” were well aware that the harsh working and living conditions during the industrial revolution doomed workers to “an early and unnatural death.” The formation of unions and socialism were in direct response to these malevolent forces. As Engels wrote:
When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live—forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence—knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.
The ruling class devotes tremendous resources to mask this social sadism and murder. It controls the narrative in the press. It floods our screens with friendly, feel-good images and propaganda, perfected by the public relations and advertising industries. These electronic hallucinations distract us from the limitations of our own lives. They obfuscate the fundamental nature of corporate capitalism. They attack our self-esteem and create an embarrassing self-consciousness about our appearance, social standing and bodily functions. They falsify science and data, as the fossil fuel, animal agriculture and tobacco industries, have for decades. They create, as Guy DuBord writes, the “spectacular commodity society” that is a seductive substitute to participatory democracy. This entrepreneurial tyranny reduces political choice to the sadistic prescriptions provided by corporate power. It creates a society where there is an absence of nearly all positive social and political constructs. Even social change, reduced to identity politics and multiculturalism, has been effectively emasculated by corporate propaganda. A sense of agency, personal power and social status comes almost exclusively from, as Nietzsche foresaw, serving the sadistic machinery.
Enron energy traders, in a dialogue that could have come from any large corporation, were caught on tape in 2000 discussing “stealing” from California, sticking it to “Grandma Millie.” Two traders, identified as Kevin and Bob, dismissed demands by California regulators for refunds because of the company’s constant price-gouging.
Kevin: So the rumor’s true? They’re fucking takin’ all the money back from you guys? All those money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?
Bob: Yeah, Grandma Millie, man. But she’s the one who couldn’t figure out how to fucking vote on the butterfly ballot.
Kevin: Yeah, now she wants her fucking money back for all the power you’ve charged for fucking $250 a megawatt hour.
Bob: You know—you know—you know, Grandma Millie, she’s the one that Al Gore’s fightin’ for, you know?
Later in the same conversation, Kevin and Bob denigrate Californians.
Kevin: Oh, best thing that could happen is fucking an earthquake, let that thing float out to the Pacific and put ’em fucking candles.
Bob: I know. Those guys—just cut ’em off.
Kevin: They’re so fucked and they’re so like totally . . .
Bob: They are so fucked.
The obscene avarice of the very rich now dwarfs the hedonism and excesses of the world’s most heinous despots and wealthiest capitalists of the past. In 2015, shortly before he died, Forbes estimated David Rockefeller’s net worth was $3 billion. The Shah of Iran looted an estimated $1 billion from his country. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos amassed between $5 and $10 billion. And the former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was worth about a billion. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are each worth $180 billion.
Yes, the decorum of the Biden presidency differs from that of the Trump presidency. But the underlying mercenary exploitation and sadism of American society remains untouched. Biden’s American Jobs Plan will never create “millions of good paying jobs—jobs Americans can raise their families on” any more than NAFTA, which he supported, would, as was also promised, create millions of good paying jobs. His mantra of “buy American” is worthless. The vast majority of our consumer electronics, apparel, furniture and industrial supplies are made in China by workers who earn an average of one or two dollars an hour and lack unions and basic labor rights. His call to lower deductibles and prescription drug costs in the Affordable Care Act will never be permitted by the corporations that profit from health care. His promises of fair taxation, despite the world’s richest men—Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Carl Icahn, Michael Bloomberg and George Soros—paying a true tax rate of 3.4 percent will not be altered. The corporate subsidies and tax incentives he proposes as a solution to the climate crisis will do nothing to halt oil and gas fracking, shut down coal-fired plants or halt the construction of new pipelines for gas-fired power plants. His money for infrastructure projects is destined for large corporations and state governments.
The health system will remain privatized, meaning the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations will reap a windfall of tens of billions of dollars with the American Rescue Plan, and this when they are already making record profits. The profits the big banks, Wall Street and the predatory global speculators make from the massive levels of debt peonage imposed on an underpaid working class, including those who owe student loans, will continue to funnel money upwards into the hands of a tiny, oligarchic cabal. There will be no campaign finance reform to end our system of legalized bribery. The giant tech monopolies will remain intact. The censorship imposed by digital media platforms, the obliteration of our civil liberties and the wholesale government surveillance will continue to be enforced. Biden’s request for $715 billion for the Defense Department in fiscal year 2022, a $11.3 billion (1.6 percent) increase over 2021, will exacerbate the military provocations with China and Russia, the endless wars in the Middle East and the bloated defense industry. The industries that were shipped overseas and the well-paying unionized jobs will not return. The 81 million Americans that struggle to meet basic household expenses, the 22 million that lack enough food and the 11 million that can’t make their next house payment are about to hit a wall as the meager benefits from the COVID relief bills run out and the moratorium is lifted on evictions and foreclosures. The grinding machinery of predatory capitalism, and the sadism that defines it, will poison the society as mercilessly under Biden as it did when Trump was conducting his Twitter presidency. These so-called reforms have no more weight than those peddled by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who Biden slavishly served and who also promised social equality while betraying working men and women.
Biden is the epitome of the empty, amoral creature produced by our system of legalized bribery, those who built our culture of sadism. His long political career in Congress was defined by representing the interests of big business, especially the credit card companies based in Delaware. He was nicknamed Senator Credit Card. He has always glibly told the public what it wants to hear and then sold them out. He was a prominent promoter and architect of a generation of federal “tough on crime” laws that militarized the nation’s police and more than doubled the population of the prison system, the world’s largest, with harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines and laws that put people in prison for life for nonviolent drug crimes, even as his son struggled with addiction. He was a principal author of the Patriot Act. And there has never been a weapons system, or a war, he did not support. Nothing substantial will change under Biden, despite the hyperventilating about him being the next FDR.
The Biden administration resembles the ineffectual German government formed by Franz von Papen in 1932 that sought to recreate the ancien régime, a utopian conservatism that ensured Germany’s drift into fascism. Biden is bereft, like von Papen, of new ideas and programs. He will keep the machinery of repression well oiled, a machinery he was instrumental throughout his political career in constructing. Those that resist will be attacked as agents of a foreign power and censored, as many already are being censored, through algorithms and deplatforming on social media. The most ardent dissidents, such as Julian Assange, will be criminalized.
The established elites pretend that Trump was a freakish anomaly. They naively believe they can make Trump and his most vociferous supporters disappear by banishing them from social media. The ancien régime, will, they assert, return with the decorum of its imperial presidency, respect for procedural norms, elaborately choreographed elections, and fealty to neoliberal and imperial policies. But what the established ruling elites have yet to grasp, despite the narrow electoral victory Joe Biden had over Trump and the storming of the capital on January 6 by an enraged mob, is that the credibility of the old order is dead. The Trump era, if not Trump himself, is, unless we break the stranglehold of corporate power, the future. The ruling elites, embodied by Biden and the Democratic Party and the polite wing of the Republican Party represented by Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, is headed for the dustbin of history.
The growing ressentiment of the dispossessed is stoked and fed by a mass media that has divided the public into competing demographics. Media platforms target one demographic, feeding its opinions and proclivities back to it, while shrilly demonizing the demographic on the other side of the political divide. This has proved commercially successful. But it has also split the country into irreconcilable warring factions that can no longer communicate. Truth and verifiable fact have been sacrificed. The Democratic Party, in a desperate bid to control the media narrative, has built an alliance with social media industry giants such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Patreon, Substack and Spotify to curtail or censor its critics. The goal is to herd the public back to Democratic Party allied news organizations such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. But these media outlets, which service corporate advertisers, have rendered the lives of the working class and the poor invisible. They are as reviled as the ruling elites themselves.
The loss of credibility has also given rise to new, often spontaneous groups, as well as the lunatic fringe that embraces conspiracy theories such as QAnon. They traffic in emotional outrage, often replacing one outrage with another. They provide new forms of identity to replace the identities lost by tens of millions of Americans who have been cast aside. This emotional outrage can be harnessed for laudable causes, such as ending police abuse, but it is too often ephemeral. It transforms political debate into grievance protests, at best, and more often televised spectacle. These flash mobs pose no threat to the elites unless they build disciplined organization structures, which takes years, and articulate a vision of what can come next. This is why I support Extinction Rebellion, which has a large grassroots network, especially in Europe, carries out effective sustained acts of civil disobedience and has a clearly stated goal of overthrowing the ruling elites and building a new governing system through people’s committees and sortition. But this emotional outrage, which put Trump in the White House, can also stoke the fires of American sadism, especially among a white working class that feels dethroned and abandoned.
The breakdown of our society is not only political. It is ecological. Scientists have long warned that as global temperatures rise, increasing precipitation and heat waves in many parts of the world, infectious diseases spread by animals will plague populations year-round and expand into northern regions. Zoonotic diseases—diseases that jump from animals to humans—such as HIV/AIDS, which has killed approximately 36 million people, Avian flu, Swine flu, Ebola and COVID-19, which has already killed some 4 million, will ripple across the globe in ever more virulent strains, often mutating beyond our control. The misuse of antibiotics in the animal agriculture industry, which accounts for 80 percent of all antibiotic use, has produced strains of bacteria that are antibiotic resistant and fatal. A modern version of the Black Death, which in the 14th century killed between 75 and 200 million people, wiping out perhaps half of Europe’s population, is probably inevitable as long as the pharmaceutical and medical industries are configured to make money rather than protect and save lives.
Even with vaccines, we lack the national infrastructure to distribute them efficiently because profit supersedes health. And those in the global south are, as usual, abandoned, as if the diseases that kill them will never reach us. Israel’s decision to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to as many as 19 countries while refusing to vaccinate the 5 million Palestinians living under its occupation is emblematic of the ruling elite’s stunning myopia, not to mention immorality.
What is taking place is not neglect. It is not ineptitude. It is not policy failure. It is social murder. It is murder because it is premeditated. It is murder because a conscious choice was made by the global ruling classes to extinguish life rather than protect it. It is murder because profit, despite the hard statistics, the growing climate disruptions, and the scientific modeling, is deemed more important than human survival.
The global elites thrive in this system, as long as they serve the dictates of what Lewis Mumford called the “megamachine,” the convergence of science, economy, technology and political power unified into an integrated, bureaucratic structure whose sole goal is to perpetuate itself. This structure, Mumford noted, is antithetical to “life-enhancing values.” But to challenge the megamachine, to name and condemn its death wish, is to be expelled from its inner sanctum. There are, no doubt, some within the megamachine who fear the future, who are appalled by the social murder, who worry what will happen to their children, but they do not want to lose their jobs and their social status to become pariahs.
The U.S. military—which accounts for 38 percent of military spending worldwide—is, of course, incapable of combating the grave existential crisis before us.. The fighter jets, satellites, aircraft carriers, fleets of warships, nuclear submarines, missiles, tanks and vast arsenals of weaponry are useless against pandemics and the climate crisis. The war machine, which is spending $ 1.2 trillion to modernize our nuclear arsenal, does nothing to mitigate the human suffering caused by degraded environments that sicken and poison populations or make life unsustainable. Air pollution already kills an estimated 200,000 Americans a year while children in decayed cities such as Flint, Michigan are damaged for life with lead contamination from drinking water. And, on top of all this, the U.S. military emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions between 2001 and 2017, twice the annual output of the nation’s passenger vehicles.
Future generations, if there are any, will look back at the current global ruling class as the most criminal in human history, willfully dooming billions of people to mass death. These crimes are being committed in front of us. And, with few exceptions, we are being herded like sheep to the slaughter.
The radical evil that makes this social murder possible is perpetrated by the colorless bureaucrats and technocrats churned out of business schools, law schools, management programs and elite universities. Demonic nonentities. These systems managers carry out the incremental tasks that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death work. They collect, store, and manipulate our personal data for digital monopolies and the security and surveillance state. They grease the wheels for ExxonMobil, BP and Goldman Sachs. They write the laws passed by the bought-and-paid-for political class. They pilot the aerial drones that terrorize the poor in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan. They profit from the endless wars. They are the corporate advertisers, public relations specialists and television pundits that flood the airwaves with lies. They run the banks. They oversee the prisons. They issue the forms. They process the papers. They deny food stamps and medical coverage to some and unemployment benefits to others. They carry out the evictions. They enforce the laws and the regulations. They do not ask questions. They live in an intellectual vacuum, a world of stultifying minutia. They are T.S. Eliot’s “the hollow men,” “the stuffed men.” “Shape without form, shade without color,” the poet writes. “Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.”
These systems managers made possible the genocides of the past They kept the trains running. They filled out the paperwork. They seized the property and confiscated the bank accounts. They did the processing. They rationed the food. They administered the concentration camps and the gas chambers. They enforced the law. They did their jobs. These systems managers, uneducated in all but their tiny technical specialty, lack the language and moral autonomy to question the reigning assumptions or structures.
The Russian novelist Vasily Grossman in his book “Forever Flowing” observed that “the new state did not require holy apostles, fanatic, inspired builders, faithful, devout disciples. The new state did not even require servants—just clerks.” This metaphysical ignorance, a product of an educational system that is primarily vocational, greases the cogs for the culture of sadism and social murder.
We will not extract ourselves from predatory capitalism and its culture of sadism with meager government handouts. We will not extract ourselves because Biden’s slick speech writers and public relations specialists, who use polls and focus groups to feed back to us what we want to hear, can make us feel the administration is on our side. There is no good will in the Biden White House, the Congress, the courts, the media—which has become an echo chamber of the privileged classes—or corporate boardrooms. They are the enemy.
We will extract ourselves from this culture of sadism the way the dispossessed extracted themselves from the stranglehold of crony capitalism during the Great Depression, by organizing, protesting, and disrupting the system until the ruling elites are forced to grant a measure of social and economic justice. The Bonus Army, World War I veterans who had been denied pension payments, set up huge encampments in Washington, which were violently dispersed by the army. Neighborhood groups, many of them members of the Wobblies or the Communist Party, in the 1930s physically prevented sheriff departments from evicting families. In 1936 and 1937, the United Auto Workers union carried out a sit-down strike inside factories that crippled General Motors, forcing the company to recognize the union, raise wages and meet union demands for job protection and safe working conditions. Farmers, forced into bankruptcy and foreclosures by the big banks and Wall Street, founded the Farmer’s Holiday Association to protest the seizure of family farms, one of the reasons bank robbers such as John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and the Barker Gang were folk heroes. The farmers blocked roads and destroyed mountains of farm products, reducing supply, and raising prices.
The farmers, like unionized auto workers, endured widespread government surveillance and violent attacks from the FBI, company goons, hired gun thugs, militias, and sheriff’s departments. But the militancy worked. The farmers forced the state to accept a de facto moratorium on farm foreclosures. Mass demonstrations outside state capitals at the same time pressured state legislatures to block the collection of overdue mortgage payments. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the south unionized. The Department of Labor called their collective action a “miniature civil war.” The unemployed and the hungry throughout the country squatted in vacant homes and on vacant land forming shantytowns that were known as Hoovervilles. The destitute took over public buildings and public utilities. This constant pressure, not the good will of FDR, created the New Deal. He and his fellow oligarchs eventually understood that if there was not reform there would be revolution, something Roosevelt acknowledged in his private correspondence.
It is not until people are reintegrated into the society, not until corporate and oligarchic control over our educational, political and media systems are removed, not until we recover the ethic of the common good, that we have any hope of rebuilding the positive social bonds that foster a healthy society. History has amply illustrated how this process works. It is a game of fear. And until we make the ruling elites afraid, until a terrified Joe Biden and the oligarchs he serves look out on a sea of pitchforks, we will not blunt the culture of sadism and social murder they have engineered.
Rebellion, however, must be its own justification. It is a moral imperative, not a practical one. It not only erodes, however imperceptibly, the structures of oppression, it sustains the embers of empathy and compassion, as well as justice, within us that defy the sadism that colors every layer of our existence. In short, it keeps us human. Rebellion must be embraced, finally, not only for what it will achieve, but for what it will allow us to become. In that becoming we find hope.