Review of Chris Hedges, Wages of Rebellion (Knopf Canada, 2015).
About two thirds into Wages of Rebellion, Chris Hedges discusses the writing of Thomas Paine, saying “[Paine] spoke undeniable truths. And he did so in a language that was accessible. He called upon his readers to act upon these truths.” Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Hedges. Not only is much of Wages of Rebellion excessively academic, referencing dozens of authors, theorists, and political thinkers who are probably not common reading for those on the front lines of political struggle, but he also presents little in the way of a call to action.
Most of the time, Wages of Rebellion reads like a rapid-fire tour of individual rebels and revolutionary thinkers. Hedges jumps at a dizzying pace from contemporary stories of political struggles against state surveillance and climate change to descriptions of revolutionaries throughout history to discussions of philosophers and critical theorists on the topics of rebellion and revolutions.
Hedges uses literary works like Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby to discuss the perils of capitalism. He references ancient philosophers, modern thinkers like Immanuel Kant and contemporary writers such as Michelle Alexander, and interjects some of his own experiences as a journalist and activist. In many instances, I was lost on exactly what he was trying to get across.
When I admit to a friend who I work with in Solidarity Halifax, a membership-based anti-capitalist organization, that I don’t really get what Hedges is doing in Wages of Rebellion, he tells me it’s supposed to be inspiring. So I read on, expecting a shift, expecting Hedges to turn the corner and start providing insight into how past rebellions succeeded and failed, the lessons we can learn, a sense of where the Left should go. I wasn’t sure I would agree, but I expected an impassioned argument.
Unfortunately, there was no such turn and Hedges continued to outline the individual targets of the state and corporate elite. On one of the book’s last pages, Hedges explains, “Rebellion requires an emotional intelligence. It requires empathy and love. It requires self-sacrifice. It requires the honouring of the sacred. It requires an understanding that, as with the heroes in classical Greece, one cannot finally overcome fate or fortuna, but that we must resist regardless.”
After I read that, I am annoyed that it misses the point that rebellion requires organization. It requires working together. At its core, rebellion is a collective action, but Hedges presents it as an individual moral decision.
Moments of Inspiration
Despite my frustrations, there were some rare moments of inspiration; rare times that I think Hedges is actually illuminates an important idea for those of us who believe our world must be radically transformed in order to be made more just.
One such moment is Hedges’ discussion of the mass incarceration of African-Americans in relation to the Black prophetic tradition. Hedges describes how the criminal legal system is used as “part of the cultural drive to crush the remnants of the black prophetic tradition,” which Hedges describes as “our more astute critique of empire” that has “expressed radical truths with a clarity and moral force that have eluded most other critics of American capitalism.”
Through largely quoting political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and theorist Cornel West, and recounting several stories of incarcerated people, Hedges connects the mass incarceration of racialized people to heightened attempts to criminalize dissent.
In a chapter entitled, “The Rebel Cage,” we are introduced to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a long-time political prisoner who was an activist in the Black Panther Party and a radical journalist; Ojore Lutalo, a leader in the Black Liberation Army, and Bonnie Kerness, founder of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch, who worked together to reveal a shift to tactics of psychological torture in American prisons; Syed Fahad Hashmi, a Muslim political activist serving a 15 year sentence for allowing an acquaintance who planned to give ponchos, raincoats, and waterproof socks to a member of al-Qaeda to stay with him; and Cecily McMillan, an Occupy Wall Street activist sentenced to three months in jail and five years probation after she elbowed a police officer who grabbed her breast.
Through these stories, Hedges draws out important connections about how the prison system is being used as a tool to neutralize the leadership of potential mass movements. Hedges’ analysis here is helpful in that it connects a long line of state repression of movements and the multi-faceted tactics it employs.
For the young activists of Occupy, incarceration may be enough. For the writer Abu-Jamal, a communications blackout is necessary; islamophobic deployments of the legal system take up a narrative of national defence. These varied tactics are part of one strategy though: cut off the opportunity to fight back.
What’s most disappointing, though, is Hedges doesn’t really give any insight into how we should fight back. There is a lot about personal motives and revelations, but not about strategy or collective analysis. In the end, quoting Sartre, Hedges says that we don’t fight fascists because we will win, but because they are fascists, and while I agree that engaging in political struggle cannot be based on the likelihood of success, Hedges doesn’t give us any tips or tools to help us in the fight. Wages of Rebellion gives us many reasons why we should be engaged in struggle, but provides little in the way of suggested ways forward.
Kaley Kennedy is an anti-capitalist and feminist activist and writer. She is a member of Solidarity Halifax, a membership-based, anti-capitalist organization in Halifax, Nova Scotia.