Interview with Chris Hedges: Internal Colonies Part II: Welch, West Virginia; Immokalee, Florida & The Occupy Movement
Emanuele: In Chapter Three, you and Joe Sacco travel to coal-country--West Virginia. Overall, you and Sacco illustrate a completely devastating situation. In the beginning of the chapter you spend time with Larry Gibson, whose entire family was born and raised in West Virginia. He describes coal companies destroying grave sites and cemeteries for land grabs; environmental devastation in the form of toxic dust, polluted drinking water and land unfit for growing food. If you could, please focus on the gravity of the situation in West Virginia. As you mention, the area has deteriorated into a de-industrialized "sacrifice zone" --- with over 100,000 jobs lost over the previous two decades. Please, give us some historical context.
Hedges: West Virginia is a classic example of a "sacrifice zone." First, in terms of minerals, it is one of the richest areas in the United States--bar none. Of course, it also harbors one of the poorest populations in the United States, because these coal companies, very few of which are actually based in West Virginia, went into these communities and stripped the resources while devastating the environment in the process--leaving behind a toxic wasteland. You know, blowing 400 feet off the tops of mountains because they don't want to drill for coal, or can't find anymore. There's nothing left. Joe and I flew over West Virginia and it will rip your heart out. It's completely destroyed. There's huge, billion gallon impoundment ponds filled with heavy metals and toxic sludge.
If you go into these coal camps, you'll find people drinking water that literally smells like feces. It's poisonous. You go into small towns and everyone's had their gallbladder removed. You go into elementary schools, walk into the nurse's office and you'll see rows of little inhalers for the kids because the air is filled with coal-dust and the kids can't breathe. Cancer is an epidemic. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, mining in this country has been turned into heavy machine operation. You have some of the largest machines on earth, twenty-five story draglines that can do in a few hours what it used to take hundreds of miners to do in a few days. The consequences of those actions is that there will be nothing left when they're done mining.
You know, these forces are not going to stop. You see it in the fracking industry in Pennsylvania and New York, and with it comes all the same lies, promises and forms of exploitation aimed at people who are poor, who need those benefits, jobs and supposed "pay-offs" from destroying the environment. Many of these people simply don't understand the consequences such actions will have on their lands and communities, and ultimately their bodily health. We were driving through some of these old coal-camps like Jenkinjones, West Virginia, and all we could see is empty houses, many of which were burned out. It's the same as when you're driving through Camden, New Jersey: Everyone just got up and left town. As you go down the street, it's nothing but houses with charred timbers and one spindly chimney sticking through what used to be a roof. It's heartbreaking.
The Appalachia Mountains are the lungs of the eastern sea board. Literally, this is a kind of suicide in the name of profit. The coal companies, well, there's absolutely no check on them. Actually, they write the text books for the local schools, which, of course celebrate Big Coal. They control the press; they control the TV; they control the politicians; and they control the judiciary. You have these figures like Larry Gibson, who you mentioned, who heroically fight back. We actually just lost Larry a few weeks ago; he just died. But they are very lonely and isolated individuals who cannot get justice, or even a fair hearing. You can see this nationally. Especially courtesy of Clinton's deregulation of telecommunications and media, we now have a half-dozen corporations--Viacom, General Electric, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation--that control almost everything Americans listen to, watch or read. They impose a bland-uniformity of opinion. They quite effectively stifle a critique of corporate power.
Emanuele: In a broad sense, can you talk about climate change and species depletion? In your view, how serious is the environmental situation?
Hedges: Well, we're dying (laughs). I mean, what else can I say? We're all going to die, and very quickly if we don't stop or at least slow down this process. I just read a new climate report by the World Bank of all people, and they concede we're on track for very serious destruction and devastation. If we stop producing carbon today, the global temperature would still rise by about two degrees Celsius or more, which is absolutely devastating. We're on track, by the end of the century, to obliterate the ecosystem. And not just the ice on the polar caps, but entire rain forests and species. Huge tracks of the globe will become uninhabitable. Coastal cities and islands will be completely inundated. All of it's there for the taking. It cannot get any clearer. Yet, we do nothing because the people who determine our relationship to the ecosystem, from which our lives depend, are from the same mold of Westward expansionists who devastated the Great Plains and exterminated Native Cultures across the continent.
These people can think only in terms of short-term quarterly profits, and do not care about the consequences of their actions. They're quite happy to walk away from a devastated West Virginia, and quite frankly a devastated planet. Of course, there's a kind of stupidity to it: They're extremely myopic and unable to understand that they too will reap the consequences. This does not occur to them. It makes Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, the most prescient study of the American character: We are all on the Pequod and Ahab's the Captain, and we're all headed for certain doom. Yet nobody responds. That's what's so frightening: there is no time left. We are watching the results of a climate conference in Doha, which is a complete farce, where governments, particularly the United States government, continues to shred Kyoto and block any form of meaningful resolution to deal with climate change. Corporations from industrialized nations are squandering the future of our children and, finally, of life itself on planet earth.
Emanuele: I just spoke with Dr. Robert Jensen a few weeks ago, and he mentioned that people should start discussing climate change as something we might not be able to "fix" or "solve." Now, in his opinion, and mine, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be activists or continue organizing, but it does raise some serious questions: the least of which is how to prepare people for the inevitable? While simultaneously avoiding nihilistic and apathetic analyses? The scientific community continually underestimates the impact of climate change and ecological devastation, yet maintains the view that something can be done to combat these trends. How do you think we can talk about this issue without providing false hope, or engendering a sense of cynicism?
Hedges: Well, I think people fall into two camps that are equally self-delusional. One, of course, is the camp that says global warming doesn't exist. We're not even going to discuss these people. But, the other says we can somehow adapt, or that technology will save us. I mean, come on now, if you read the history of major civilizations—they all collapsed. Joseph A. Tainter does a great job of explaining this in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. They all collapse with similar types of scenarios: political corruption, bureaucratic elites, exhaustion of resources, and the unplugging of that elite from reality; you have harsher and harsher forms of exploitation maintained; and the wealth of society being concentrated and filtered to the top echelons of that elite class; you have all emotional and mental energy being funneled into spectacles. You know, we're no different from previous civilizations. There is one difference, however, and that is the fact that when the United States collapses, we're bringing the whole planet and all of human civilization with us. There will be no other place to go.
So, if human history is any guide, then we're doomed. And yet, I have children so it becomes inexcusable to those of us trying to protect life, especially for those who come after us, to simply give up and go hide in some isolated hole somewhere. We must resist in every way possible, even if we fail. There is no other choice. On the one hand, reading climate science reports, as I do, can be deeply depressing. It's a very natural response to just walk away from it and try and build whatever personal enclave of safety you can. And yet I think that's completely irresponsible. I think resistance is a kind of moral imperative. As long as we resist, there's always a glimmer of hope. Yet, at the same time, I have a very bleak assessment of where we're headed, both as a nation, and finally, as a species. But that doesn't mean I won't stop pushing back. We must resist.
Emanuele: In Chapter Four, "Days of Slavery," you provide a detailed examination of America's ground-zero in agricultural activity and modern-day slavery, Immokalee, Florida. You mention, "Harvesting tomatoes and other agricultural products from the fields is arguably the worst job in the country. In fact, Florida produces about 40% of America's domestic tomatoes." Later in the chapter, you provide a historical context for not only highlighting Florida's historically racist and slavish roots, but how this process has continued through today's economic and political landscape. Can you take us back to 1763 and British control of Florida? Also, talk about the Seminole Indians and African Slave Trade. How have these various dynamics interacted with each other?
Hedges: Well, in many ways slavery has always existed, especially in Florida—including after emancipation. You have to go back to the "convict-leasing" programs, and African-American turpentine camps and, of course, the produce fields. We went to Immokalee, Florida because undocumented workers in this country have no rights, no legal representation, no labor laws protecting them, and so on. We went to Florida because the labor laws are some of the worst in the country. For example, while on the books collective bargaining is legal, an employer can fire a worker for attempting to organize. In Florida, the worker has no legal recourse. So, in essence, collective bargaining is illegal. There you see replications of slave operations, where people are held against their will. We interviewed a worker who had been, for two years, at night, chained inside of a truck with other workers. These people were forced to defecate in the corner of the truck while everyone watched.
After two years a few workers punched a hole in the roof of the truck, escaped, reported it to the Collier County Sheriff's Department who subsequently raided the produce operation. However, most of the workers refused to testify in court because the people who run these operations threatened their families—just like Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other places where the rule of law doesn't function properly. There was, of course, one witness but he was immediately black-listed for testifying in court. So, when the crew-leaders are asked to go out in the middle of the night and pick workers, of course they wouldn't pick this particular worker. When we got there we found him destitute, an alcoholic who was sleeping under a mango tree. We're seeing, as labor laws and labor unions are gutted, this kind of slavery being replicated in other industries where it never used to exist: the hotel industry, the garment industry, etc., and that's the future. That's the world these corporate forces are creating. As Senator Bernie Sanders says, "In the vast race to the bottom that has become America, Immokalee, Florida is the bottom."
Emanuele: In the beginning of Chapter Four you note, "The hardships Matiaz and other farmworkers endure, refute the economist David Ricardo's classic economic theory of 'The Iron Law of Wages.' Wages, the 18th Century economist insisted, would never fall below subsistence level in the free market, because at that point the worker would be unable to sustain him or herself." Further, you add "In our globalized economy, where the labor pool stretches from Mexico to Asia, and where labor can move easily across borders, Ricardo's theory has been exposed as yet another absurdity held up by those who are proponents of laissez-faire capitalism." Moreover, analyst and scholar Jeremy Rifkin points out that by 2050 only 5% of the world's population will be needed to fulfill traditional industrial sector jobs. Right now, this might be a problem for those working in the fields, but as you and Jeremy Rifkin point out, in the near future we should all expect to endure such hardships, slavish conditions and vast unemployment. Can you talk about this process as being something unimaginable to traditional economists? What can we expect in the future? Especially as people continue to hope the jobs come back?
Hedges: Well they won't come back, and that's very clear. For one, the infrastructure isn't there to support it. You now have a global-corporate-force that plays one country off the other. What's happening is that we're reconfiguring our society into something that was anticipated by Orwell in his novel1984: You have a kind of inner-party, which is where the inner-elite dwell, and that's about 2-4% of the population. Then, you have an outer-party that deals with security and surveillance, public relations—the corporate managers—that's maybe 12-14% of the population, and the rest become uneducated Proles (proletariat). I mean, half the country already lives in poverty. So we're well on our way to creating that kind of disparity, and I think this was something that was effectively articulated by the Occupy Movement. This is why the Occupy Movement had a sort of resonance with the general public. This was not articulated by the mainstream media, and that's part of the problem. There's a complete disconnect between where political discourse is, on one hand, and where reality is, on the other.
Emanuele: You talk about this through the framework of what Sheldon Wolin called "Inverted Totalitarianism." The idea that, "We're next." But, in order to provide some hope for our listeners and readers, you talk about several of your own experiences with political resistance and revolution. You not only mention the Occupy Movement in the Untied States, but historically significant places from your past—such as the Middle East in 1987, East Germany circa 1989 and your experiences with social movements from around the globe. Can you talk about your experiences with brutal regimes? And how quickly such regimes fell when effectively confronted by popular forces?
Hedges: Well, to be honest, I think the corporate-state is just as discredited and hated as the old Stasi-State in East Germany. I think you'll find that public opinion polls bare this out. Part of the reason I battle the Black-Bloc is because I've always seen the Occupy Movement as a mainstream movement. Which doesn't mean there isn't a place for radicalism. But we currently have the capacity to build the numbers I saw in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, or Romania. Those kind of numbers can draw the pillars of power, whether police of civil service, to our side, because they understand how internally corrupt the corporate-state truly is. Perhaps even better than those of us on the outside. You never know what exactly will ignite a population. Usually it's an incident that is relatively banal. I do think that the power is there. If, of course, we can, as Václav Havel says in his 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless," begin to "live in truth." Now, I don't know if we'll succeed; I'm not naive enough to promise you that. On the other hand, I think it's the only possibility left to defend us from this corporate assault and against the hollowing out of the country from the inside, the security and surveillance state, and finally, to save us from ecological disaster.
But it may not work. If the corporate-state decides to respond with force and harsher levels of control, then they will get counter-violence. However, once we fall into that kind of a system it becomes very difficult to build effective mass movements, because the bifurcation of society into Us vs. Them means that anyone who goes out into the street takes their lives in their own hands. I lived around so much violence, so as a former war correspondent, I desperately want to avoid that route. But, in the end, it's always the ruling-class that determines the configurations of rebellion and resistance. And because the ruling-class did not respond rationally to the grievances that pushed people into the Occupy encampments, such as forgiving debt or creation a massive jobs program, forgive foreclosures, or put a moratorium on foreclosed homes, a massive upheaval is bound to take place and should be expected. However, what it looks like, what will trigger it, or what it will be called, nobody knows.
Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans. He has reported from over 50 countries around the world. Hedges is currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute in New York City and has taught at New York University, Columbia University and Princeton University. He currently teaches inmates at a correctional facility in New Jersey. He has written twelve books, his latest, written with illustrator Joe Sacco, is entitled Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. This transcribed interview covers the first two chapters in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.
Vince Emanuele is the host of the Veterans Unplugged Radio program, which airs every Sunday, from 5-7pm(Central) in Michigan City, Indiana via 1420AM "WIMS Radio: The Talk of the South Shore," or streaming live online @ (www.veteransunplugged.com). Also, Vince is a member of Veterans for Peace, and currently serves on the board of directors for Iraq Veterans Against the War.