The Dance Of Death

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Above Photo: Jonny White/flickr/CC

Editor’s note: This is a repost of a March 12 column by Chris Hedges, who is on vacation.

The ruling corporate elites no longer seek to build. They seek to destroy. They are agents of death. They crave the unimpeded power to cannibalize the country and pollute and degrade the ecosystem to feed an insatiable lust for wealth, power and hedonism. Wars and military “virtues” are celebrated. Intelligence, empathy and the common good are banished. Culture is degraded to patriotic kitsch. Education is designed only to instill technical proficiency to serve the poisonous engine of corporate capitalism. Historical amnesia shuts us off from the past, the present and the future. Those branded as unproductive or redundant are discarded and left to struggle in poverty or locked away in cages. State repression is indiscriminate and brutal. And, presiding over the tawdry Grand Guignol is a deranged ringmaster tweeting absurdities from the White House.

The graveyard of world empires—Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Mayan, Khmer, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian—followed the same trajectory of moral and physical collapse. Those who rule at the end of empire are psychopaths, imbeciles, narcissists and deviants, the equivalents of the depraved Roman emperors Caligula, Nero, Tiberius and Commodus. The ecosystem that sustains the empire is degraded and exhausted. Economic growth, concentrated in the hands of corrupt elites, is dependent on a crippling debt peonage imposed on the population. The bloated ruling class of oligarchs, priests, courtiers, mandarins, eunuchs, professional warriors, financial speculators and corporate managers sucks the marrow out of society.

The elites’ myopic response to the looming collapse of the natural world and the civilization is to make subservient populations work harder for less, squander capital in grandiose projects such as pyramids, palaces, border walls and fracking, and wage war. President Trump’s decision to increase military spending by $54 billion and take the needed funds out of the flesh of domestic programs typifies the behavior of terminally ill civilizations. When the Roman Empire fell, it was trying to sustain an army of half a million soldiers that had become a parasitic drain on state resources.

The complex bureaucratic mechanisms that are created by all civilizations ultimately doom them. The difference now, as Joseph Tainter points out in “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” is that “collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole.”

Civilizations in decline, despite the palpable signs of decay around them, remain fixated on restoring their “greatness.” Their illusions condemn them. They cannot see that the forces that gave rise to modern civilization, namely technology, industrial violence and fossil fuels, are the same forces that are extinguishing it. Their leaders are trained only to serve the system, slavishly worshipping the old gods long after these gods begin to demand millions of sacrificial victims.

“Hope drives us to invent new fixes for old messes, which in turn create even more dangerous messes,” Ronald Wright writes in “A Short History of Progress.” “Hope elects the politician with the biggest empty promise; and as any stockbroker or lottery seller knows, most of us will take a slim hope over prudent and predictable frugality. Hope, like greed, fuels the engine of capitalism.”

The Trump appointees—Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Steve Mnuchin, Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Rick Perry, Alex Acosta and others—do not advocate innovation or reform. They are Pavlovian dogs that salivate before piles of money. They are hard-wired to steal from the poor and loot federal budgets. Their single-minded obsession with personal enrichment drives them to dismantle any institution or abolish any law or regulation that gets in the way of their greed. Capitalism, Karl Marx wrote, is “a machine for demolishing limits.” There is no internal sense of proportion or scale. Once all external impediments are lifted, global capitalism ruthlessly commodifies human beings and the natural world to extract profit until exhaustion or collapse. And when the last moments of a civilization arrive, the degenerate edifices of power appear to crumble overnight.

Sigmund Freud wrote that societies, along with individuals, are driven by two primary instincts. One is the instinct for life, Eros, the quest to love, nurture, protect and preserve. The second is the death instinct. The death instinct, called Thanatos by post-Freudians, is driven by fear, hatred and violence. It seeks the dissolution of all living things, including our own beings. One of these two forces, Freud wrote, is always ascendant. Societies in decline enthusiastically embrace the death instinct, as Freud observed in “Civilization and Its Discontents,” written on the eve of the rise of European fascism and World War II.

“It is in sadism, where the death instinct twists the erotic aim in its own sense and yet at the same time fully satisfies the erotic urge, that we succeed in obtaining the clearest insight into its nature and its relation to Eros,” Freud wrote. “But even where it emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, we cannot fail to recognize that the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinary high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfillment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence.”

The lust for death, as Freud understood, is not, at first, morbid. It is exciting and seductive. I saw this in the wars I covered. A god-like power and adrenaline-driven fury, even euphoria, sweep over armed units and ethnic or religious groups given the license to destroy anything and anyone around them. Ernst Juenger captured this “monstrous desire for annihilation” in his World War I memoir, “Storm of Steel.”

A population alienated and beset by despair and hopelessness finds empowerment and pleasure in an orgy of annihilation that soon morphs into self-annihilation. It has no interest in nurturing a world that has betrayed it and thwarted its dreams. It seeks to eradicate this world and replace it with a mythical landscape. It turns against institutions, as well as ethnic and religious groups, that are scapegoated for its misery. It plunders diminishing natural resources with abandon. It is seduced by the fantastic promises of demagogues and the magical solutions characteristic of the Christian right or what anthropologists call “crisis cults.”

Norman Cohn, in “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements,” draws a link between that turbulent period and our own. Millennial movements are a peculiar, collective psychological response to profound societal despair. They recur throughout human history. We are not immune.

“These movements have varied in tone from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and in aim from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earth-bound materialism; there is no counting the possible ways of imagining the Millennium and the route to it,” Cohen wrote. “But similarities can present themselves as well as differences; and the more carefully one compares the outbreaks of militant social chiliasm during the later Middle Ages with modern totalitarian movements the more remarkable the similarities appear. The old symbols and the old slogans have indeed disappeared, to be replaced by new ones; but the structure of the basic phantasies seems to have changed scarcely at all.”

These movements, Cohen wrote, offered “a coherent social myth which was capable of taking entire possession of those who believed in it. It explained their suffering, it promised them recompense, it held their anxieties at bay, it gave them an illusion of security—even while it drove them, held together by a common enthusiasm, on a quest which was always vain and often suicidal.

“So it came about that multitudes of people acted out with fierce energy a shared phantasy which though delusional yet brought them such intense emotional relief that they could live only through it and were perfectly willing to die for it. It is a phenomenon which was to recur many times between the eleventh century and the sixteenth century, now in one area, now in another, and which, despite the obvious differences in cultural context and in scale, is not irrelevant to the growth of totalitarian movements, with their messianic leaders, their millennial mirages and their demon-scapegoats, in the present century.”

The severance of a society from reality, as ours has been severed from collective recognition of the severity of climate change and the fatal consequences of empire and deindustrialization, leaves it without the intellectual and institutional mechanisms to confront its impending mortality. It exists in a state of self-induced hypnosis and self-delusion. It seeks momentary euphoria and meaning in tawdry entertainment and acts of violence and destruction, including against people who are demonized and blamed for society’s demise. It hastens its self-immolation while holding up the supposed inevitability of a glorious national resurgence. Idiots and charlatans, the handmaidens of death, lure us into the abyss.

  • Patricia Gray

    What is there to say. All of these things are happening — but all the people want to talk about is their sports team or some old movies. I still hope there is some way out. The people must stand up and demand that the government act as directed by the people of this nation. We must provide public funds for election campaigns and allow no ‘DONATIONS’. As it is now, ‘our’ government is nothing but a cash cow for the banksters and the apartheid nation of Israel.

  • Lili-Ann Berg

    This article is as brilliant as it’s terrifying. Chris Hedges is one of the few who dare to challenge our stubborn resistance to facing the truth about our imminent demise. He offers no solutions, because none exists. We are doomed – we doomed ourselves, it has all become too much to bear.
    Yet amazingly we go on as usual, Procreate and procrastinate in a pink cloud of self-delusion. And when the time comes to go to war, we act in single-minded obedience, like automated assassins willing to die for “king and country”.
    Albert Einstein wrote:
    “…dictatorship is tolerated because men’s sense of the dignity and the rights of the individual is no longer strong enough. In two weeks the sheeplike masses of any country can be marked up by the newspapers into such a state of exited fury that men are prepared to put on uniform and kill and be killed for the sake of the sordid ends of a few interested parties.”
    It was written at the outbreak of WWII and nothing much has changed. Will it ever?

  • PETER CHILDS

    So sadly and terrifyingly true. Chomsky says it with remarkable lack of emotion; Hedges tells it exactly as it is, and Vltchek howls with sorrow and rage. But there is SO much more to the story.

    There is a way out of this madness; an awakening to the real truth of what life is and of our place in it (the mystics have long maintained that “the only sin is ignorance”). We toil, spin, and rush toward apparent doom, searching desperately for answers (because at some level we know the answers are there) in barren places such as “make America great again”, but there is one place, and only one, that is not barren; it is the gateway out of Plato’s cave into what is in fact our destiny.

    The Theosophists’ motto points the way exactly: “There is no religion higher than Truth”. Jesus said “Know the truth and it will make you free.” What is that truth? Let Walt Whitman have what space dictates must be the last word here: “I say that no man has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough; none has begun to think how divine he himself is, AND HOW CERTAIN THE FUTURE IS.” (emphasis emphatically added)

  • DHFabian

    “Intelligence, empathy and the common good are banished… Those branded as unproductive or redundant are discarded and left to struggle in poverty or locked away in cages.”

    Do today’s liberals see how powerfully implicit they’ve been? We’re 20 years into one hell of a war on the poor. Liberals spent the years of another administration maintaining a boisterous pep rally for the middle class (very recently revised to “working class”). They are so myopic that they think everyone is able to work, and there are jobs for all, therefore no need for poverty relief. They no longer recognize the masses who are worse off than minimum wage workers as being people at all, therefore a legitimate part of the discussion.

    The overall life expectancy of the US poor already fell below that of every developed nation. This is brushed aside as a “non-issue.”

  • DHFabian

    We the People were given our instructions. All we need to do is “get up every morning, work hard, and play by all the rules,” as Bill Clinton had explained. Don’t look around, don’t ask questions. Good Americans comply. We must serve. If you are discarded by the job market, it is your own fault, and we have no mercy on you.

  • DHFabian

    This is something that our middle class don’t seem to understand. For whom could today’s poor vote? The Clinton Dems took the lead in the war on the poor. They implemented policies that tore countless poor families apart, plunging so many into hopeless poverty. As a result of the Democrats’ agenda, the overall life expectancy of the US poor plunged below that of every developed nation.

    All the work that goes into organizing, strategizing and fund raising means nothing without a legitimate, inclusive message that could bring the “masses” back together.

  • DHFabian

    What has been the liberal message of the past 20-some years, regarding our poverty crisis? They simply disappeared the poor, no longer acknowledging anyone worse off than minimum wage workers as legitimate human beings. In the US, we stripped our poor of the most basic human rights (UN’s UDHR) of food and shelter. The masses shrug, and busy themselves with other issues. This is what reveals the moral decay in the soul of America.

  • PETER CHILDS

    As usual, I can’t argue with your point, DH, but I do feel that we can and will survive this historic complex of crises (you don’t need to educate me regarding what’s wrong; I have maybe fifty gigabytes of files on it). But in order to do so we’re going to have to see things in a much broader context. It’s all there, waiting for us to wake up to it.

  • AlanMacDonald

    “The severance of a society from reality, as ours has been severed from
    collective recognition of the severity of climate change and the fatal
    consequences of EMPIRE and deindustrialization, leaves it without the
    intellectual and institutional mechanisms to confront its impending
    mortality.”

    [CAPS ADDED TO FOCUS ON THE CANCEROUS CAUSE OF ALL ELSE]