Empires communicate in two languages. One language is expressed in imperatives. It is the language of command and force. This militarized language disdains human life and celebrates hypermasculinity. It demands. It makes no attempt to justify the flagrant theft of natural resources and wealth or the use of indiscriminate violence. When families are gunned down at a checkpoint in Iraq they are referred to as having been “lit up.” So it goes. The other language of empire is softer. It employs the vocabulary of ideals and lofty goals and insists that the power of empire is noble and benevolent. The language of beneficence is used to speak to those outside the centers of death and pillage, those who have not yet been totally broken, those who still must be seduced to hand over power to predators. The road traveled to total disempowerment, however, ends at the same place. It is the language used to get there that is different.
This language of blind obedience and retribution is used by authority in our inner cities, from Detroit to Oakland, as well as our prison systems. It is a language Iraqis and Afghans know intimately. But to the members of our dwindling middle class—as well as those in the working class who have yet to confront our new political and economic configuration—the powerful use phrases like the consent of the governed and democracy that help lull us into complacency. The longer we believe in the fiction that we are included in the corporate power structure, the more easily corporations pillage the country without the threat of rebellion. Those who know the truth are crushed. Those who do not are lied to. Those who consume and perpetuate the lies—including the liberal institutions of the press, the church, education, culture, labor and the Democratic Party—abet our disempowerment. No system of total control, including corporate control, exhibits its extreme forms at the beginning. These forms expand as they fail to encounter resistance.
The tactic of speaking in two languages is as old as empire itself. The ancient Greeks and the Romans did it. So did the Spanish conquistadors, the Ottomans, the French and later the British. Those who inhabit exploited zones on the peripheries of empire see and hear the truth. But the cries of those who are exploited are ignored or demonized. The rage they express does not resonate with those trapped in self-delusion, those who continue to trust in the ultimate goodness of empire. This is the truth articulated in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India.” These writers understood that empire is about violence and theft. And the longer the theft continues, the more brutal empire becomes. The tyranny empire imposes on others it finally imposes on itself. The predatory forces unleashed by empire consume the host. Look around you.
The narratives we hear are those fabricated for us by the state, Hollywood and the press. These narratives are taught in our schools, preached in our pulpits and celebrated in war documentaries such as “Restrepo.” These narratives humanize and ennoble the enforcers of empire. The government, the military, the police and our intelligence agents are lionized. These control groups, we are assured, are the guardians of our virtues and our protectors. They produce our heroes. And those who challenge this narrative—who denounce the lies—become the enemy.
Those who administer empire—elected officials, corporate managers, generals and the celebrity courtiers who disseminate the propaganda—become very wealthy. They make immense fortunes whether they deliver the nightly news, sit on the boards of corporations, or rise, lavished with corporate endorsements, within the vast industry of spectacle and entertainment. They all pay homage, even in moments defined as criticism, to the essential goodness of corporate power. They shut out all real debate. They ignore flagrant injustices and abuse. They peddle the illusions that keep us passive and amused. But as our society is reconfigured into an oligarchic system, with a permanent and vast underclass, along with a shrinking and unstable middle class, these illusions lose their power. The language of pleasant deception must be replaced with the overt language of force. It is hard to continue to live in a state of self-delusion once unemployment benefits run out, once the only job available comes without benefits or a living wage, once the future no longer conforms to the happy talk that saturates our airwaves. At this point rage becomes the engine of response, and whoever can channel that rage inherits power. The manipulation of that rage has become the newest task of the corporate propagandists, and the failure of the liberal class to defend core liberal values has left its members with nothing to contribute to the debate.
The Belgian King Leopold, promising to abolish slavery and usher the Congolese into the “modern” era, was permitted by his European allies to form the Congo Free State in 1885. It was touted as a humanitarian gesture, as was the Spanish conquest of the Americas, as was our own occupation of Iraq. Leopold organized a ruthless force of native and foreign overseers—not unlike our own mercenary armies—to loot the Congo of ivory and rubber. By the time the Belgian monarch was done, some 5 million to 8 million Congolese had been slaughtered. It was the largest act of genocide in the modern era until the Nazi Holocaust. Leopold, even in the midst of his rampage, was lionized in Europe for his virtue. He was loathed in the periphery—as we are in Iraq and Afghanistan—where the Congolese and others understood what he was about. But these voices, like the voices of those we oppress, were almost never heard.
The Nazis, for whom the Holocaust was as much a campaign of plunder as it was a campaign to rid Europe of Jews, had two methods for greeting arrivals at their four extermination camps. If the transports came from Western Europe, the savage Ukrainian and Lithuanian guards, with their whips, dogs and clubs, were kept out of sight. The wealthier European Jews were politely ushered into an elaborate ruse, including fake railway stations complete with flower beds, until once stripped naked they became incapable of resistance and could be herded in rows of five under whips into the gas chambers. The Nazis knew that those who had not been broken, those who possessed a belief in their own personal empowerment, would fight back. When the transports came from the east, where Jews had long lived in fear, tremendous poverty and terror, there was no need for such theatrics. Mothers, fathers, the elderly and children, accustomed to overt repression and the language of command and retribution, were brutally driven from the transports by sadistic guards. The object was to create mass hysteria. The fate of the two groups was the same. It was the tactic that differed.
All centralized power, once restraints and regulations are abolished, once it is no longer accountable to citizens, knows no limit to internal and external plunder. The corporate state, which has emasculated our government, is creating a new form of feudalism, a world of masters and serfs. It speaks to those who remain in a state of self-delusion in the comforting and familiar language of liberty, freedom, prosperity and electoral democracy. It speaks to the poor and the oppressed in the language of naked coercion. But, here too, all will end up in the same place.
Those trapped in the blighted inner cities that are our internal colonies or brutalized in our prison system, especially African-Americans, see what awaits us all. So do the inhabitants in southern West Virginia, where coal companies have turned hundreds of thousands of acres into uninhabitable and poisoned wastelands. Poverty, repression and despair in these peripheral parts of empire are as common as drug addiction and cancer. Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis and Palestinians can also tell us who we are. They know that once self-delusion no longer works it is the iron fist that speaks. The solitary and courageous voices that rise up from these internal and external colonies of devastation are silenced or discredited by the courtiers who serve corporate power. And even those who do hear these voices of dissent often cannot handle the truth. They prefer the Potemkin facade. They recoil at the “negativity.” Reality, especially when you grasp what corporations are doing in the name of profit to the planet’s ecosystem, is terrifying.
All tyrannies come endowed with their own peculiarities. This makes it hard to say one form of totalitarianism is like another. There are always enough differences to make us unsure that history is repeating itself. The corporate state does not have a Politburo. It does not dress its Homeland Security agents in jackboots. There is no raving dictator. American democracy—like the garishly painted train station at the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka—looks real even as the levers of power are in the hands of corporations. But there is one aspect the corporate state shares with despotic regimes and the collapsed empires that have plagued human history. It too communicates in two distinct languages, that is until it does not have to, at which point it will be too late.
Chris Hedges is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a weekly columnist for Truthdig. His latest book is “Death of the Liberal Class".