REVIEW: Chris Hedges' America: The Farewell Tour
by Mitchell Griffin
A society being devoured by corporate hedonism. Abject poverty and obscene wealth, rampant addiction and social decay– the setting of Chris Hedges’ non-fiction book America: The Farewell Tour. It is an exploration into economic exploitation as one of the essential roots of dysfunction and despair in the contemporary United States, one that combines heart-wrenching interviews and profiles of suffering across the nation with poignant analysis and commentary. In his writing, one can viscerally find Hedges’ sense of urgency, his moral imperative to spread consciousness about the ways he sees America crumbling.
America: The Farewell Tour takes on a wide scope of topics, and it should not be expected to be all-encompassing. It is focused on economic circumstances being the driving factor behind many social ills, ones that he ascribes to being driven by the Freudian concept of an innate “death instinct,” and is a confrontational critique on American society. Hedges draws political and sociological theory from prominent figures like Hannah Arendt, Antonio Gramsci, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Rosa Luxemburg. While the nature of the political theorists is unambiguously leftist at times, Hedges’ writing never feels like a partisan lecture. It remains a serious reflection of economic exploitation under capitalism, drug addiction, the addictive nature of hate and violence, and an expression of his belief that society must be radically transformed away from the worship of the self and toward the good of the community.
The book, as one might surmise from the title, is not exactly filled with glee. It consistently filled me with anger, tears, and sadness. None of its seven chapters (Decay, Heroin, Work, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, and Freedom) are particularly easy to digest. Then again, it shouldn’t be easy to read a dive into the lives of Americans who have been destroyed by drugs, communities that have utterly fallen apart during the great disappearing act of America’s manufacturing base, lives that have been ruined by their entrapment in prostitution and the pornography industry, or the excesses of the police state and not finish the book feeling less than optimistic. They are all accounts of lives that have been exploited and alienated from meaning– stories that aren’t by any means uncommon. They are the stories that describe the lives of countless Americans. Durkheim’s conception of anomie, in its prolonged despair and yearning for self-annihilation caused by a collapse of social meaning and value structures, is a perfect diagnosis for how Hedges sees the state of the country today.
Many of the narratives Hedges employs are common ones. Although any single book can’t be expected to be fully comprehensive, there are noticeable shortcomings. Despite this, the narratives still ring true on a level that is hard to discount. One of the most broad themes, that of a “corporate coup d'état” of American government and widespread corruption, is nothing new; economic power and political power have been partners in crime for ages. Others are deeper and without a proper nuance, outside of Hedges presentation, they begin to feel slightly exaggerated. For instance, the narrative of economic suffering exacerbating decay of social ties is woefully incomplete without addressing the role of the internet in social isolation. Stagnating wages, the decline of civic institutions, loss of unions, and labor protections only go so far to address the scale of America’s many addictions and social tensions.
An entire chapter is focused on hate groups, yet it still feels incomplete. It is at once a sobering account of recent hate crimes, interviews with members of hate groups and reactionary militias, doomsday preppers, and the argument that economic futility fuels hate and violence, but it fails to detail how this affects the daily lives of the very populations the hate is directed toward. Mass, terroristic shootings motivated by racial hatred like those by Dylan Roof are still discussed, but its analysis of virulent racism and xenophobia on levels smaller than mass shootings is lacking. Hedges inclusion of gambling as one of the most pressing ills is also questionable. The way he presents is nearly persuasive enough to accept its need for inclusion, but pages would have been better spent covering the ways the internet isolates us and warps our mental health or the effects of trillions in student loan debts as opposed to casinos.
Hedges spent years as a war reporter; he knows suffering when he sees it. Displays of sadism, terror, and desire for destruction are intimate knowledge for him. Knowing this makes his warnings and insights into economic plight (as it plays an inextricable role in social tensions) and ideological violence even more concerning. As dismal as the book may seem, it is in no way meant to be a treatise on the inevitability of America’s decline. It is a rejection of this sort of nihilism and an urgent call to have the audacity to care for one another and to rebuild communities that give everyone a sense of purpose. The seemingly irreparable state of the world is precisely why Hedges thinks we must devote ourselves to improving it — this hopelessness is the well from which courage will be drawn from to radically transform the world.
Hedges convincingly imparts many lessons throughout the book. Among these are the need to understand the history of the underclass in America to know how the fight for human rights and protections has succeeded and failed. The idea that the institutions that have failed to protect society will not be the ones to save it. That the radical improvements needed to save American society from unraveling must come from mass organization and resistance against the overwhelming greed of the ruling class. Hedges writes, “Resistance entails suffering. It requires self-sacrifice. It accepts that we may be destroyed. It is not rational. It is not about the pursuit of happiness. It is about the pursuit of freedom. Resistance accepts that even if we fail, there is an inner freedom that comes with defiance, and perhaps this is the only true happiness we will ever know. To resist evil is the highest achievement of human life. It is the supreme act of love.” The need to resist the powerful, addictive nature of hate and unite is the ultimate message of his earlier book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.
The book does not preach, but there is a certain quasi-religious conviction in his writing that effortlessly entrances. The focus on despair and decline may feel like an apocalyptic undertone to a call for redemption via revolution at times, but this shouldn’t discount what Hedges is trying to warn us of. General ideals of socialism are undoubtedly part of this book but it isn’t necessary to align with Hedges ideologically on every level to believe his sincerity behind his messages stressing the power of community and the need to care for one another. America: The Farewell Tour is not about calling a socialist revolution to action. There are no cries to overthrow the current government or nationalize industries. It is a book that makes us realize that in a society that prizes the individual over all else, having the audacity to care for one another is a radical act in itself. Hedges writing demands the reader to confront the nation’s struggles and to consider the ways in which we have the power to reorganize society in a way that alleviates the suffering of others and strengthens the sense of community. While there are certainly a myriad of ways this could be done, it is clear that sitting back to watch the farewell tour’s unsightly conclusion is not an option.