A Report from the Left Forum (6-1-14) with: Chris Hedges, Dr. Cornel West, and Richard Wolff.
Moderated by: Laura Flanders.
By Jill Dalton, NYC June 5, 2014
This seminar was part of the Left Forum’s three day symposium, Reform and/or Revolution: Imagining a World with Transformative Justice, held at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City (May 30 – June 1). The turn out at this conference was their largest to date, which I consider a very good sign.
Chris Hedges, Dr. Cornel West and Richard Wolff began a ten-part series starting with, according to Chris Hedges, America’s only real revolutionist, Thomas Paine. In Paine’s three great works, Common Sense, The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason, he laid down the foundations by which rebellion is morally and legally permissible. With the rise of the corporate state, they ask whether the conditions set by Paine have been met, and if Paine’s call to overthrow British tyranny should be our own.
I’d been warned via email the event would be crowded, so I arrived forty-five minutes early to procure a good seat, and after a few minutes of inquiring who was saving or sitting in which empty seat, managed to procure myself a seat in the front row. As predicted, the lecture hall filled to overflowing, and the overflow was directed to another room where the proceedings were live streamed.
In Laura Flanders’ opening remarks she runs down a list: 7 million in prison, the war on terror, 46 million hungry and in poverty, and the 0.1% with 20 million or more have doubled their wealth since the 60’s. Then she quotes Thomas Paine,
These are the times that try men’s souls.
These are indeed the times that try men’s souls, but the question Paine asks is,
What is to be done?
Flanders asked the crowd two questions. First, do we want change and second, are these revolutionary times? Richard Wolff pointed out the crowd gave a strong cheer regarding change but wobbled when asked about revolution. This is understandable,” he continued, “as revolution is scary.” Many of us, myself included, believe the American population is asleep and apathetic but Wolff reminds us, “Revolution is not limited to the U.S. Revolution is global.”
Power and Language
Hedges explained the importance of Paine. “Paine understood the monarchy. He understood British power and could explain the structures of power. He understood what power was, and how it functioned, and was able to write in such a way that, according to Cornel West, “the common folk could understand it.” Hedges continued, “Hubris blinded the British monarchy just as our system of government is blinded now.”
West went on to say Paine was able to create a vocabulary and write ‘as plain as the alphabet.’ Paine, a Quaker, was opposed to power, and the rights of kings and belonged to no political party. Born in the UK, Paine arrived in the United States in 1774 and in 1776 wrote Common Sense, which was read far and wide including by George Washington to his troops, and this work inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to stand up and fight for their independence from Great Britain. Paine gave them the language to understand what was actually going on, and why they needed to fight for their freedom from British rule.
Later West gave us some language to explain what’s truly going on today. “Poverty is the new slavery,” he tells us. “Prison is the new Jim Crow. Economic inequality is slavery. The plutocrats, oligarchs, banks, Wall Street, and corporations are the monarchy.”
Richard Wolff pointed out, “We now face more than enough evidence, outrage, injustices, attacks on our freedoms, and rights on our security.” Our system is unequal, unjust, and intolerable. “Reform?” he asks. “Been there/done that/doesn’t work. They undo our reforms. They spent forty years undoing the New Deal.” Thomas Paine concluded, “We’ve got to change the system. Revolution means tell the King of England to go home. You’re out of here.”
Wolff maintains it’s the same for us. He mentions the economist Thomas Piketty, who in his 700-page book, Capitalism in the 21st Century, concludes capitalism always produces growing inequality of wealth and income. Wolff continues, “We’ve got to have the courage to make systematic change.”
If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.
West challenged us, “We must be willing to die. We must act humanely, think critically, and that means sacrificing popularity.” He pointed out how many intellectuals today have been seduced by power, prestige and money. Not willing to take a risk but rather hide behind a veneer of being cynical and despairing.
Hedges again emphasized how important language is. Paine reclaimed words like democracy that, at the time, was considered a very negative term. Today the elites have crafted a specialized vocabulary we can’t penetrate. Paine gave them the vocabulary. We too must search for language and call things by their real name.
West reiterated the need for “righteous anger and indignation. Speech that is unafraid.” This is what Malcolm X did and he suffered the consequences. Truth tellers are pushed to the margins, vilified, assassinated or all three. This is what happened to Thomas Paine when he peeled off the cover and gave a scathing critique of George Washington. He called America a bastion of capitalism and white supremacy. Paine also said indigenous people were wiser than white people. West reminds us that today, “We’re isolated from each other. We’re separated from our red, black, yellow, and white brothers and sisters.”
Wolff pointed out, “All the people who stood against Paine are now forgotten but Thomas Paine survived.” Thomas Paine addresses, “What is to be done?” and gives us insight into what we face now. Wolff reiterates, “Democracy was a very negative term but now is the holy of holies.” “Our democracy,” Wolff points out, “is a fake–a complete fantasy. We live in the opposite of a democracy. Our institutions are undemocratic. We pretend we live in a democracy. We need to shock the population. We’re not treated like human beings.” Wolff continued, “Paine teaches us to think about revolution as a way to change a system.” “We permit institutions to be organized in an undemocratic way. We leave decisions to the few people at the top–the corporations. We have to be in charge of them. We must reorganize production.”
Vilification and Historical Amnesia
Hedges explained the two weapons used against Thomas Paine were: vilification and historical amnesia. Paine was followed, slandered, libeled, marginalized, arrested, pushed to the margins, narrowly escaped execution, and they finally broke him. He died a pauper in Greenwich Village. “Six people attended his funeral. Two of them were black.” But even as Paine was prosecuted and vilified he preached we must protect our enemies. Hedges went on to illustrate our historical amnesia by asking, “Where are the monuments to him? He was an important founder. He’s been ignored. The establishment works hard to erase our radical tradition.”
In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.
Truth telling is very dangerous business indeed, and certainly not for the faint of heart. West points out, “most of our friends are cowards.” I’ll add most of us are too cowardly and lazy to get off the couch let along stand up to the system that enslaves us, call it out, and ultimately change it. But according to West, “The truth has to emerge.” We need courageous examples such as Malcolm X, Herbert Harrison Victoria Garvin, David Walker and I’ll add Dr. King, Gandhi, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. West reminds us, “We must be courageous or we’ll go under. The people organized are powerful, but the gangsters who run things are powerful too. We’re up against a lot. Their crimes against humanity include our educational system, prisons and drones” to name a few.” “Poverty is prison, and, as West points out, “if whites instead of blacks were in prison and poverty in these numbers we’d be hearing a different story. “ “White supremacy, lies and crimes,” West assures us, “the black elites will be behind this as well.”
We thought (the United States) could lead us to freedom, but they led us into feardom, not freedom.
Wolff contends, “We don’t know where we are in the revolution. Be a critic. Push to see where and how far you can go. Can’t worry about what we’re up against.” He quotes, “For decades nothing may happen, but then in a moment decades happen.”
The basis of a democratic state is liberty.
“Liberty?” Wolff asks. “There is no liberty.” We live in an NSA corporate surveillance state. He explains, “Our problem is the economic system. Our climate situation is another consequence of capitalism. We have obscene social inequalities. Our economic system is dysfunctional to most of us.”
Surveillance, without regard to the rule of law or our basic human dignity, creates societies that fear free expression and dissent, the very values that make America strong.
I downloaded Paine’s Common Sense to my Kindle a couple of years ago and began reading it, but never finished it. I ordered a paperback of Common Sense along with The Rights of Man, as it’s easier for me to study these works with a hardcopy. I also just ordered and received Democracy, Inc. by Sheldon Wolin. Hedges always mentions this professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University, and his work on “managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism.” Not exactly light reading but important to understand what’s actually going on, and perhaps gain insight into how to change the system.
We are the empire.
I’ve included a link to this amazing ninety-minute talk with these three enlightened truth tellers. Please check it out for yourself. Then we, like Paine, must ask ourselves, “What is to be done?” And then go a step further. What can I do? How can I get involved? It’s time for a revolution. Our system no longer serves us, and is a threat to humanity and the planet. We must stop these illegal wars of aggression that murder millions in our names. The U.S. military is the largest terrorist organization on the planet. Our elected officials no longer listen to us. We’re merely commodities to the elites, as is the environment, which they are in the process of destroying. As Hedges pointed out in his closing comments,
Whites are now enduring what people of color have already endured. The minimum wage is critical. What they’ve done to college students is criminal. Something is coming– no jobs, mortgage crisis, climate change. There will be blowback.
According to Thomas Jefferson we need a revolution every twenty years. I’d say we’re long overdue.
God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, and always, well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented, in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions, it is lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. … And what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.