Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt

As the U.S. political scene has evolved, more and more Americans have begun to realize that the nation suffers from deep, systemic problems. The sad truth is that American democracy is dysfunctional, with government (and to a large degree all of society) firmly under the control of corporate interests. To the extent there is public discourse, it is typically some combination of superficial, combative, and anti-intellectual. As such, those who strive for progressive, human-centered public policy increasingly face the realization that true, long-lasting reform seems unlikely.

Few public intellectuals in recent years have articulated this dire situation more passionately and consistently than Chris Hedges. Author of the bestselling Death of the Liberal Class and other acclaimed books, Hedges is an esteemed voice from the left whose articles circulate widely throughout social media and elsewhere. For this reason his latest work, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, is particularly intriguing. Here we have an important thinker and activist taking a position on the age-old question in radical politics: reform or revolution? As the book’s title suggests, Hedges comes down on the side of revolution.

Well, sort of. As the book’s subtitle tells us, Hedges is trying to lay out the moral justification for revolution, which he sees as forthcoming, desirable, and necessary. He addresses the moral imperative of revolt at length, sometimes with convincing authority and sometimes not, but the most noteworthy aspect of this revolutionary book is perhaps what it omits. That is, aside from allusions to general goals—he would “shut down the engine of global capitalism” and build “communitarian structures”—Hedges articulates not even an outline of his envisioned revolution or of the new and improved social-political environment it presumably would deliver. In this sense the book will disappoint those who were looking for Hedges to utilize his stature and intellect to lead in a substantive way in the revolution that he imagines.

What Hedges offers instead in Wages of Rebellion is a somewhat unambitious work that delivers heaps of moral indignation—which has long been one of his specialties—but little else. The great bulk of the book is dedicated to random discussion of various rebellious figures, some historical and some contemporary—from Thomas Paine and Herman Melville to Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning—sewn together with interludes of emotionally charged polemics. “We live in a revolutionary moment,” Hedges boldly declares at the outset of the book—a highly questionable claim considering the general obedience and passivity that define American society. This is followed with various diatribes that will be familiar to those who read Hedges’ opinion columns: denunciations of “ruling elites” who oversee a capitalist system that is “threatening the viability of the human species,” and so forth. Even when Hedges speaks the truth, which is often, understatement and subtlety have never been his style.

Hedges’ impressive breadth of knowledge is on display throughout Wages of Rebellion, but what is most unfortunate about the book is that it rarely gets beyond moralizing anecdotes. When it occasionally ventures outside that realm, the information and analysis offered is superficial. We learn, for example, that there is a common historical thread that links Socrates to Karl Marx to Julian Assange and others, one element of which is “sublime madness,” a term Hedges borrows from Reinhold Niebuhr referring to the human will to resist oppression. Some readers, especially on the younger end of the spectrum, might find such narratives informative and even inspiring, but many will see it as academic and contrived.

Since most who are interested in transformative change have already found the moral basis for it, one has to wonder exactly what Hedges is trying to accomplish. On the surface it seems he’s trying to convince progressives that reform efforts are futile, that revolution is needed—this was a motivation behind Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? over a century ago, responding to Eduard Bernstein’s calls for democratic reform—but Hedges’ failure to relay any concrete vision of revolution makes that claim questionable. Indeed, despite calling for revolution Hedges has never expressly rejected electoral politics, having publicly supported candidates such as Jill Stein and Kshama Sawant.

Thus, readers will be excused if they interpret his calls for revolution as hyperbolic; Hedges is a frustrated reformist who is saying only that some kind of major left-leaning change is needed, but little more. That’s nothing to be ashamed of—but he should be forthright about it.

In Wages of Rebellion Hedges is not debating anyone—fellow progressives or moderates or conservatives—but instead is imagining that a revolution is occurring, justifying it morally, and casting himself as its chief moralist, a role he takes seriously. “Rebels share much in common with religious mystics,” he writes. “They hold fast to a vision that they alone see. They view rebellion as a moral imperative, even as they concede that the hope of success is slim and at times impossible.” Given the context, it’s hard not to interpret this dramatic statement as being a self-portrait of sorts; and if you aren’t willing to indulge Hedges in his self-perception, the book quickly becomes laborious.

But as Hedges moralizes, humanists and progressives could reasonably question his competency for the role. In advocating for nonviolence, for example, Hedges does so almost exclusively for practical reasons, pointing out that nonviolence is ultimately more effective than violence. Not once does he unequivocally condemn violence on moral grounds; in fact, quite the contrary, as he writes: “Violence, in moments when we face near certain annihilation, can become a final affirmation of human dignity.” (If you’re surprised to learn that Hedges is a divinity school graduate and a recently ordained Presbyterian minister, you shouldn’t be, though I must confess that I missed the biblical passage where Jesus called violence dignified.)

As Hedges advocates nonviolence for practical reasons only, while simultaneously rationalizing violence under certain circumstances as an act of “dignity,” we can understand why Bertrand Russell described the job of the moralist as “the infliction of cruelty with good conscience.” We can take Hedges at his word that he doesn’t actually advocate for violence, though from his own reasoning one could easily see him changing his mind if empirical evidence supported a few, or perhaps more than a few, innocent casualties. (For good measure, Hedges also says he doesn’t condone property damage, but then enthusiastically conveys positive stories about activists who have damaged property.)

Another characteristic that makes Hedges’ renunciation of violence (and indeed much of his argumentation) less convincing is his signature style of bitterness and anger that hardly conveys a spirit of peace. The world portrayed in Hedges’ writing is usually black and white, good and evil—and the bad is really bad: “organized kleptocracies” where “the religion of capitalism, the maniacal quest for wealth at the expense of others… turns human beings into beasts of prey.” The answer is to “rapidly build militant mass movements to overthrow corporate tyranny.” And so on, and so on, with no insight on how to build those militant mass movements. Even those of us who agree with him—and there are many of us, enough to launch a revolution if someone would just show the way—can only take so much.

This never-ending combination of vitriol and moralizing makes Hedges difficult to embrace despite his being generally spot-on with regard to policy positions. Indeed, for activists interested in working for radical change, his relentless, shaky, and excessive moralizing is downright demoralizing. “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as ‘moral indignation,’” wrote psychologist Erich Fromm, because it “permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” Of course Fromm, the AHA’s 1966 Humanist of the Year, wasn’t talking about Hedges, but he could have been.

Nobody would deny that revolutions need polemicists, but Hedges’ polemics are hardly revolutionary. They come across instead as the polemics of a jaded, upper-middle-class psyche. With anecdotes referencing his family roots going back to America’s earliest white settlers, a privileged prep school upbringing (in a typically melodramatic passage referring to his wealthy classmates, he writes, “I knew from a young age who my enemies were”), and a stint as an elite journalist, Hedges hardly qualifies as a champion of the working class. These polemics aren’t geared for the factory floor, the shipyard, or the inner city, but instead for the comfortable liberal, reading from a summer home on Cape Cod.

Global capitalism and its neoliberal politics pose a major threat to humanity, and, given this state of affairs, many progressives and humanists see major change as necessary. If you already knew that, any further enlightenment from Wages of Rebellion is likely to be scant.