Chris Hedges is nothing if not a prolific and thoughtful writer. His latest book, The Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, is a forward-looking attempt to present what he sees as the best method for achieving the worthy goal of a more prosperous future for the American working class, and what kind of response those who rebel against the current order might expect from the corporate state. Perhaps more importantly, the book seems to be intended to serve as a sort of “handbook” outlining what the author sees as the “proper” philosophy of revolt. While his analysis is sufficiently challenging to status quo beliefs and values, in the final analysis it is disappointing because of its advocating a single-minded and limited means toward that end.
As with his other books and articles, Hedges is quite astute in his observations regarding what ails contemporary U.S. society: the overreach of government surveillance of its citizens, extreme inequality of wealth and political power, a sense of despair and/or entrapment on the part of citizens, use of fear to control citizens, the evisceration of human and civil rights by the state, the militarization of local and state police, and the cooperation of the intellectual class with the power elite and in defense of the institutional mores that are depriving citizens of their democratic due.
But this book is not concerned with listing or complaining about the current state of affairs. Quite the contrary, he presents what he sees as the only solution to these ills: revolution. Although he never clearly defines what he means by “revolution,” the author drops numerous clues along the way, such as the notions that rebellion is based on a moral imperative, not a pragmatic or utilitarian one focused on success; that genuinely authentic revolutions are embedded within a recognition that the old order is dead and must be completely overturned, not just course-corrected; and that revolutions must present a vision of a better future: “Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, swiftly descends into nihilism, terrorism, and chaos.” Such are the contours of the Introduction and Chapters One and Two.
In Chapter One, Hedges uses his love of literature, especially Moby Dick, to both lay the methodological foundation of his analysis of the current political situation in the U.S., and to prepare the reader to what is coming in Chapter Three and beyond, and that is a direct attack on rationalistic thinking, and what he calls “the cult of rationality” in general.
Chapter Two begins the overall argument in earnest. He outlines the shift that political elites have made to a “Post-Constitutional Era.” Using the examples of Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as “the Blind Sheikh,” and his lawyer, Lynne Stewart, as starting case studies, he hits the target by pinpointing the main foundation to our now-totalitarian state: the widespread system of surveillance that now infiltrates every aspect of Americans’ public or private electronic lives. The goal of such surveillance is not information for information’s sake, but rather to have evidence on hand and available should the state decide to prosecute any of us. By definition, “any state that has the capacity to monitor all its citizenry [and] to snuff out factual public debate through the control of information, any state that has the tools to instantly shut down all dissent, is totalitarian.”
The necessary partner of surveillance is the inculcation of fear in the citizens. This is done by incarcerating, marginalizing, and harassing those whom the state deems to be a threat, while keeping threats to and from the state constantly in citizen consciousness, thus creating “a climate in which people to do not think of rebelling.” In the interim, the state continues to eviscerate human and civil rights, especially those guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
This chapter, along with others, makes clear the primary target of his argument of the need for revolution: “The pestilence of corporate totalitarianism,” which “is spreading over the earth.” He singles out for special praise those who have seen this and revolted against it: figures such as Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden. These heroic figures have paid the price for their revolt, but regardless of such price, revolt we must if we intend to have a future that is not state-corporate totalitarianism.
If Chapter Two and parts of most of the other chapters of the book all zero in on the correct target for revolt, it is in Chapter Three that the book begins to make a wrong turn. The general problem is that, even though Hedges states that he does not advocate irrationalism, his method ultimately ends up unwittingly supporting it by advocating a turn to language content over rational thought, by failing to make a critical distinction between “rational” and “pragmatic,” and by his embrace of spirituality and its connection to emotion as foundational to a more properly revolutionary philosophy, all in response to his understanding of “the failure of rationality.” In brief, the author has opted for a postmodern philosophy to ground his call for revolution.
To be more specific, instead of calling for citizens to be more rational and deliberative in the right (i.e. rational-normative) way, curiously and even disturbingly, the book’s argument makes two dubious moves. First, it capitulates to empirical linguistic analyses and draws the standard postmodern conclusion about “rationality” in general. Second, it eschews the primacy of rationality in favor of a “spiritual visionary” approach to revolution. First, the empirical analysis.
The linguists Edward Sapir and Steven Pinker are used in this chapter to defend the postmodern position that language determines thought: if you change the language, you change the thought. The conclusion from this, the author says, is that if all we do is change our language about the contemporary situation, we will change our ideas, and thus our understanding of what is wrong, and thus, our philosophy changes. This is where the problems begin with his argument.
Aside from the fact that Pinker would completely deny the thesis of the primacy of language content, the first significant problem with this anti-rationalist argument comes when it advocates that we escape the “cult of rationality” and “the use of Enlightenment idioms” by “first learning to speak differently and abandoning the vocabulary of the ‘rational’ technocrats who rule.” While he uses the primacy of language argument to deflate rationality and to advocate spirituality instead, he misses the fact that the very same empirical-linguistic premises that he advocates are the ones used by cognitive and ethical relativists to deflate rationality and objective ethical principles and to reduce human thought to language alone—no spiritualists need apply here. Richard Rorty, a contemporary pragmatic relativist, in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, argues almost verbatim the way Hedges does. But such a postmodern conclusion deflating rationality to a minor player on the basis of an argument for the primacy of language content is a non sequitur argument, and easily leads its adherents into an inconsistent anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism, evidenced in the fact that such arguments conveniently ignore the rational norms and structure that are necessarily embedded in language. In short, language content doesn’t determine language form or structure, and therefore cannot be the primary driver of cognitive meaning. It takes a rational being to both structure language and to understand its meaning through its structured content. Although many empiricists reject this view, the point here is that the argument of this book uses the same premises that postmodernists use in advocating relativism, to conclude that the premises lead instead to the need for an objective spiritual truth. It would seem that the premise of “change the language, change the thought” does indeed allow a number of conclusions to be drawn from it.
To continue with this same argument, Hedges uses these postmodern empiricists to assert that what he terms, without defining it, “the cult of rationality,” has been a complete failure. According to this view, such a “cult” necessarily reduces “its followers” to being “slaves of dogma” and “technocratic thinking.” The consequences of rationalistic thinking, according to the argument propounded here, are at least twofold: first, it ultimately comes to embrace “rational choice theory, which is a just-world theory which posits that the world is just. People get what they deserve.” Second, it “uses Enlightenment idioms” to “embrace the idea that an individual has no responsibility towards anyone except himself or herself. A responsibility to anyone else is optional.” The problem is, again, that both of these conclusions, when applied in a general and sweeping way to rationality as a human faculty, are unsound without a very specific definition of what kind of rationality the author is discussing. Further, when applied in such a sweeping way, they are both false: Rationalism itself states nothing of the sort, and Enlightenment thinking held to just the opposite position regarding responsibilities toward others. Immanuel Kant is the definitive example of this (discussed below).
But perhaps this is precisely what the author means, that the “cult of rationality” is a “watered-down” rationality that in a worst case scenario reduces to language content or rational choice theory, and that uses “Enlightenment idioms” without full use or understanding of the subtle cognitive depth and the normative dimensions of Enlightenment rationality. That would be the best option to take in defining the “cult,” and if one is focused only on criticizing deflationary versions of rationality. That Hedges has this in mind is dubious, given that he never delineates this as a focal point of his criticisms, and given his advocating the spiritual-emotional replacement as the foundation of a 21st-century philosophy. This leads to the second issue here.
The second noteworthy problem is that the argument fails to distinguish between “being rational” and “being technocratic in one’s thinking.” There is a vast difference between the two: the first is normative (e.g. self-consistency) reasoning; the second is pragmatic, means-to-end reasoning. If we abandon the foundational nature of rationality in the first sense and replace it with spirituality and emotions as foundational to a good philosophy, as the book argues we should do, then the possibility of reasoned discourse becomes substantially reduced, with the consequent danger that we will fail to be able to communicate or live together at all, and thus reduce ourselves to the Hobbesian state of nature, in which those with the most power win. But this is the very condition that Hedges sees as devastating to democracy (see Michael P. Lynch, In Praise of Reason, for a detailed argument regarding this point). Yet the foundation he attempts to replace with his spiritual vision leads to this end far faster and more directly than does reasoned discourse, given the amorphous nature and numbers of spiritualties. But because the important distinction between “being rational” and “being ‘technocratically’ rational” is never made, these two versions of rationality become just eggs in one basket. Quoting the economic historian Avner Offer with approval, Hedges argues that rationality, reduced now to “rational choice theory,” and now asserted without argument to be embedded in all major academic disciplines, has resulted in the consequence “that the individual has no responsibility towards anyone except himself or herself.” But problems ensue for this argument. First, the attempt to put Immanuel Kant into the camp of those who were outside of this trend, historically speaking, is an anachronism, since the “trend” is a late 20th-century one, and thus since Kant would never have known what rational choice theory was. But more to the point, Kant, of all philosophers, was most strongly convinced of two things: that it was universal rationality that guaranteed the legitimacy of one’s ethical principles, and that making oneself the exception to those universal principles by shunting aside one’s responsibility to others was the height of immorality. Note that the concepts of “universality of rationality” and the “dignity of persons” that directly implied our responsibility to one another are two of those “Enlightenment idioms” that get smeared in this book. Again, though, if the right distinctions had been made here, the argument would have been a sound one.
In his defense, it is possible that Hedges is referring to a very narrow definition of “rationality” as he attacks it. That definition would likely be the instrumental view of rationality—a definition which defines reason as strictly pragmatic, only for the determination of means to ends sought. This definition would entail the reduction of rationality to something anti-Enlightenment, including perhaps rational choice theory. However, because he never states what he means by “rationality,” and just broadly attacks it as “a cult” that is “too intellectual” to be of any good to revolt against the current system, it is an unsound argument, and quite ambiguous. So if he does have a narrower definition in mind, he owed it to us to give it. He doesn’t.
The bottom line of this argument, for the author, is this: those who focus on “rationality” become what he calls “technocratic human beings,” who are “spiritually dead. They are capable of anything, no matter how heinous.” Again, this is only true if rationality is defined as being a certain kind. It is not true of rationality in general, as it is asserted here. Contrary to the argument made in this book, by exercising rationality, including the rational norms implied by being rational (e.g. consistency, clarity, etc.), one becomes more reasonable, not less so! More directly, even assuming that the book’s premises are true, they still do not imply that spirituality and emotion are the only legitimate alternatives to a 21st-century philosophy.
Whatever its merits, this argument leads the author to assert that “ruling elites ensure that the established intellectual class is subservient to an ideology–in this case, neoliberalism and globalization–that conveniently justifies their greed.” But such assertions, while sometimes true, are misplaced in using them to criticize rationality, since it is not rationalism nor philosophy, nor necessarily intellectuals in academic positions who argue this way. Rather, they are bourgeois liberals who publicly claim to be liberal, but who have given up all pretense to really being so in part by embracing a capitalist philosophy, as Hedges himself argues in Death of the Liberal Class. And while many college professors unquestionably fit this description, nearly as many do not, but are quietly maintaining their revolutionary rational spirit. So the book ends up selling us a Hasty Generalization with a broad-brush rejection of both rational philosophy and an academic tradition that, when done in alignment with its traditional (read “Enlightenment”) values of human dignity and equality, continues to offer challenge to the elitist pretensions of Randian libertarians and narcissistic hedonists who now control the mechanisms of U.S. economics, politics, and many colleges and universities.
Thus, assuming the truth of his conclusion that ruling elites are subservient to the ideology of neoliberalism and individual greed, the reason given for this is off the mark: the real reason is not that those in such positions are too rational, as this book maintains, but that they have rejected all rationality and succumbed to baser passions of desire. They are only “too rational” if rationality is given a very limited and instrumental meaning, which is missed by Hedges’ broad use of “Enlightenment idioms” and various philosophers. But if “rational” means what philosophers in the Enlightenment tradition and in much of philosophy today take it to mean, it concerns the use of the norms of consistency, universality, and necessity, along with their moral counterparts, human dignity and equity, and it is these rational norms that elites have rejected. Hence, the proper conclusion is that it is rationality lost, not rationality being overused.
So now we come to the climax of the book’s argument: what should the revolution look like? We need, Hedges argues, to reject the primary nature rational thinking and instead embrace (quoting the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) “the sublime madness” of spirituality, which he now asserts to be the source of morality, instead of human reason. This argument is made especially clear in the final chapter of his book, but Chapter Three sets the necessary foundation to it. While he does not limit this “madness” to strictly religiously-based spirituality, it is no accident that his primary examples of those who knew this sublimity were religious: Wiebo Ludwig (fundamentalist Christian leader of the anti-fracking movement), Jacques Ellul (Christian philosopher), Reinhold Neibuhr (Christian theologian), the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, James H. Cone (Christian theologian) and even Socrates and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. This thesis is premised in part by arguing that “Rebels share much in common with religious mystics.” They are “propelled forward by a vision” that apparently agnostic or atheistic human rational creatures are incapable of having. Had this been a simple analogy, it would have been fine. The problem is that the rebel and the religious/spiritual are equated and identified.
Relatedly, the author inserts on occasion the idea that revolutions are rooted in “emotion,” and that spirituality is connected to emotion—apparently more so than is rational philosophy. While perhaps at least partially true, that is not a good reason to go wholesale in this direction, and to tie spirituality and emotion together as the engine of revolt. But for the argument presented here, spiritual-emotional ideology, and Christianity specifically, are the source of change, and he eschews rational philosophy as having little to offer for true revolutionaries. What he misses here is that, while emotion is certainly an easy way to rally people, it must equally and likewise be the case that they have the conviction of their morals, and that is something that requires some rational analysis, not just subjective emotional certitude. When rationality is put into service of utopian, idealistic, and spiritually-based ends—all embedded in the passions, as the author notes—then the result is that reason is reduced to the type of pragmatism that he seems to equate with “technocratic” rationality. However, in the case of this argument, rationality now becomes spiritual pragmatism—and more importantly, reason is reduced, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, to being a slave to the passions.
One thing revolutions require are leaders. So who is a good leader to help save us, who has these spiritual-emotional virtues? The book lists a number of them, but seems to give deference to Cornell West. Relatedly, in a presentation Hedges gave recently, he said (paraphrasing): “he’s the real deal. When I meet with him, every time I soon give up all pretense, take out a notebook, and just take notes while he talks.” That the author sees West as one of the best philosophers of our day says something about how he defines “proper” philosophy, and it is not in the traditional sense, but rather is mixed in with his understanding of spiritualism, particularly Christianity. This bear-hug of West fits right in with the argument of the book deflating rationality in philosophy and opting for his “novel” analysis. It is not that Cornell West does not mount rational arguments, but that it is the non-rational aspects of his arguments that most appeal to Hedges.
Hedges is probably right about one thing: a revolution of some kind will be necessary to overturn the current order. But the means he advocates—the retreat into spirituality—is a non-starter for a secular society. Even worse, to advocate spirituality over “the Enlightenment idioms,” which, when defined properly, includes normative rationality, is a direct attempt to diminish or even to cut off our distinct intellectual heritage. But advocating such a radical break with our rationalist tradition cannot be sustained without lapsing into irrationality. Language change alone won’t ground a good or even a revolutionary philosophy; spiritual pragmatism won’t do it, either. Rather, a change in the proper role of reason in philosophy is needed, to correct the notion that it serves either as an emergent function from and thus dependent upon language, and/or that it simply serves the passions (pragmatic/technocratic reason), and/or that rationality is simply a matter of “rational choice.” A “new and better” 21st-century philosophy is one that requires the proper use of and reliance on reason and its norms, in preference to ambiguous and amorphous utopian “spiritual visions” that spiritual history shows inevitably disperses people in more and farther directions from one other than does emphasis on the primacy of rationality.
There are some philosophers who would be a bit more understanding of the arguments made in this book than I am. Jacques Ellul, Soren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth, among others, in some respects line up with some of the main theses of this book. But all of these philosophers fall prey to the same fallacy that the argument in Wages does, and this is to deflate and decenter rationality to such a point that it must serve religiosity instead. That is what makes the argument a disappointing, if not just a flatly dangerous one, for some of the reasons mentioned in this review.
Even with his evident Christian theistic worldview, Hedges has a large following among the bourgeois liberal class. It is interesting how bourgeois liberals, who in their younger rebellious years wanted to escape being “locked down” by dogma, religious or otherwise, have come full circle to be ensnared by religious dogma of a different, “spiritual” sort, that the author praises. But on the other hand, the author spares no vigor in attacking those same bourgeois liberals’ values that allow them to embrace institutional values, whether those institutions be academic institutions, current socio-political arrangements, or even the Democratic party. The only “true” rebel, according to the argument made in this book, is the one who accedes to the former values-set, not the latter.
In conclusion, The Wages of Rebellion is worth reading and cogitation, for those who are concerned with what and how the future should be crafted for U.S. society. However, one must take much of what is said with the proverbial grain of salt, which can be summarized by using the author’s own assessment of his version of revolutionaries: “the rebel” who is possessed by this Divine madness “is deaf to” criticisms that are contradictory to his spiritualist solution. A better definition of “dogmatism” could not have been written.
Dr. Robert Abele holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Marquette University and M.A. degrees in Theology and Divinity. He is a professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College, in California in the San Francisco Bay area. He is the author of four books, including A User’s Guide to the USA PATRIOT Act, and The Anatomy of a Deception: A Logical and Ethical Analysis of the Decision to Invade Iraq, along with numerous articles. His new book, Rationality and Justice, is forthcoming (2016).