We can’t have it both ways. “Imperialism and democracy are incompatible,” argues social critic Chris Hedges in his Empire of Illusion (Nation Books, 2009, 147). We don’t like to acknowledge that the US is an empire perhaps because there is no place for a democratic citizen or for democratic participation in imperial politics. The resources devoted to advancing an imperialist agenda bankrupt democracy.
Unfettered capitalism opposes democracy. Capitalist imperialism tends toward oligarchy and authoritarian rule. The interests of economic elites do not conform to the interests of the people as a whole. As Hedges observes, “Democracy and capitalism are antagonistic entities. Democracy . . . is based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice. A functioning democracy must often defy the economic interests of elites on behalf of citizens.” Democracy promotes the values of community and equality. Accordingly, Hedges asks whether we will “transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state” (185-86, 145).
Democracy is at grave risk. “At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril,” Hedges insists, “or the possibility of totalitarianism as real” (145). The US is in economic and moral decline:
We “mistake management techniques for wisdom” and fail to understand that “the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume” (103).
We are “a society that has lost the capacity for empathy” (73).
We squander our national resources on defense spending, which offers “little more than a psychological security blanket for fearful Americans” (153).
Our economic decline is caused by “a corporate drive for massive deregulation, the repeal of antitrust laws, and the country’s radical transformation from a manufacturing economy to an economy of consumption” (176-77).
Ultimately, “the emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state” and the loss of liberty (177).
We have lost our democratic vision. We cling instead to a misguided vision of mission, which calls us “to save the rest of the world from itself, to impose [by force] our virtues—which we see as superior to all other virtues—on others.” This “mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory” is an illusion that “sweeps away the core values of the open society” and makes the country increasingly vulnerable to rightwing demagogues (145, 21, 52, 183).
We are confronted by a “crisis of faith” (184). The ideology of unlimited growth has displaced and impoverished workers, depleted natural resources, polluted the environment, exacerbated global warming, bloated military budgets.
Hedges would have us abandon myth for a return to the sanity of “a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas.” By this he means we must give up our dependency on “reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence” (189-90).
Perhaps Hedges places too much faith in the rationality of book culture. Perhaps he is too modern to appreciate the necessity of myth, even today, as a way of negotiating the world after empire. Perhaps the appropriate response to the crisis of faith is to embrace an alternative myth, a myth other than imperial virtue and privilege. Hedges himself points to just such a myth (without recognizing it as such) when he laments the loss of the nation’s democratic vision. Perhaps the mythic call embedded in Hedges’ critique of empire is for a guiding narrative of empathy, a renewed appreciation of the commons, a recovered ethos of community and equality.