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Review Essay: Postmodern Spirituality and its Discontents: Chris Hedges, The Wages of Rebellion

Chris Hedges is nothing if not a prolific and thoughtful writer. His latest book presents what he sees as the best method for achieving the goal of a more prosperous future for the American working class, and anticipates what kind of response those who rebel against the current order might expect from the corporate state. The book also is intended to serve as a sort of handbook outlining what the author sees as the “proper” philosophy of revolt. While his analysis is sufficiently critical of status quo beliefs and values, in the final analysis it is disappointing for advocating a single-minded and self-limiting means toward that end.

Hedges is astute in his observations regarding what ails U.S. society: the overreach of government surveillance, extreme inequality of wealth and power, a sense of despair on the part of citizens, use of fear to control citizens, the evisceration of human and civil rights, the militarization of police, and the complicity of the intellectual class with the power elite in defense of institutional mores that are depriving citizens of their democratic due.

But Wages of Rebellion is not concerned merely with complaining about the current affairs. Quite the contrary, he presents what he sees as the only solution: revolution. Although he never clearly defines what he means by “revolution,” the author drops clues along the way, such as the notions that rebellion is based on a moral imperative, not a pragmatic or utilitarian one focused on achieving success; that authentic revolutions are driven by a recognition that the old order is dead and must be overturned, not just course-corrected; and that revolutions must present a coherent vision of a better future: “Social upheaval without clear definition and direction, without ideas behind it, swiftly descends into nihilism, terrorism, and chaos.”

Hedges employs literature, especially Moby Dick, to both lay the methodological foundation of his analysis of the political situation, and to prepare the reader to what is coming in later in the volume, and that is a direct attack on rationalistic thinking, and what he calls “the cult of rationality.” Chapter Two begins the 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 case studies, he pinpoints the main foundation of our ever more totalitarian state: the surveillance system that infiltrates every aspect of our public or private lives. The goal of such surveillance is not information for information’s sake, but rather to have evidence on hand should the state decide to prosecute any of us for any reason. 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 partner of surveillance is the inculcation of fear. This is stoked by incarcerating, marginalizing, and harassing those whom the state deems 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.” The state meanwhile continues to erase human and civil rights, especially those guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments. He singles out for special praise those who have revolted: Julian Assange, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, among others. These heroic figures have paid the price, but regardless of the price, revolt we must if we intend to have a future that is not one of state-corporate totalitarianism.

If Chapter Two zeroes in on the correct target, it is in Chapter Three that the book begins a wrong turn. The problem is that, though Hedges does not advocate irrationalism anywhere, his method ends up unwittingly supporting it by advocating a turn to language content over rational thought. He fails to bother to make a critical distinction between “rational” and “pragmatic,” embraces spirituality and its link to emotion as foundations for a proper revolutionary philosophy, and all this is in response to what he sees as “the failure of rationality.”

Instead of calling for citizens to be more rational and deliberative in a rational-normative) way, Hedges makes two dubious moves. First, he capitulates to empirical linguistic analyses and draws the standard postmodern conclusion about “rationality” in general. Second, he eschews the primacy of rationality in favor of a “spiritual visionary” approach. Let’s look at the empirical analysis. The linguists Edward Sapir and Steven Pinker are invoked by Hedges to defend the postmodern position that language determines thought: if you change the language, you change the thought. The conclusion 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.

Aside from the fact that Pinker would reject the thesis of the primacy of language, the anti-rationalist argument 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 Hedges uses the primacy of language argument to dislodge rationality and to advocate spirituality instead, he misses the point that the same premises that he advocates are the ones cited by cognitive and ethical relativists to deflate rationality and objective ethical principles and to reduce human thought to language alone. No spiritualists need apply.

Richard Rorty, a pragmatic relativist, in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, argues almost verbatim the way Hedges does. But deflating rationality on the basis of an argument for the primacy of language content is a non sequitur argument and leads its adherents willy-nilly into anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. Such arguments conveniently ignore the rational norms and structure 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. 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 seems that the premise of “change the language, change the thought” indeed allows for quite a number of conclusions to be drawn from it.

Hedges uses postmodern empiricism to assert that what he terms, without defining it, that “the cult of rationality,” is a failure. Such a “cult” reduces followers to “slaves of dogma” and “technocratic thinking.” The consequences of rationalistic thinking, according to his argument, are at least twofold: first, it must 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 that both conclusions are unsound without a definition of what kind of rationality the author means. When applied in such a sweeping way, they are both false: Rationalism implies nothing of the sort, and Enlightenment thinking held to the opposite position regarding responsibilities toward others. Immanuel Kant is the definitive example.

Perhaps the author really means that the “cult of rationality” is a “watered-down” rationality that in a worst case scenario reduces itself to language content or rational choice theory, and uses “Enlightenment idioms” without full 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 degraded versions of rationality. That Hedges has this latter critique in mind is unclear and seems to me unlikely, given his advocating the spiritual-emotional replacement as the foundation of a 21st-century philosophy. The second key problem is that the argument fails to distinguish between “being rational” and “being technocratic in one’s thinking.” There is an important difference. The first is normative 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, the possibility of reasoned discourse shrinks, with the danger that we will fail to communicate or live together at all, and thus descend into the Hobbesian state of nature, in which those with the most power win. Of course, this is the very condition that Hedges sees as devastating to democracy now (see Michael P. Lynch, In Praise of Reason regarding this point).

Yet Hedges spiritual alternative vision ironically can usher in this irrational tyrannical end even faster, given the amorphous and unmoored nature of various spiritualities. Because the distinction between “rational” and “technocratically’ rational” is not made, both become eggs in one basket. Hedges argues that rationality, reduced to “rational choice” and seemingly embedded in all academic disciplines, encouraged the view “that the individual has no responsibility towards anyone except himself or herself.” But Kant would never have known what rational choice theory was. Kant, to the contrary, was convinced 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 the concepts of “universality of rationality” and the “dignity of persons” entailing our responsibility to one another are two “Enlightenment idioms” that get smeared here.

It is possible that Hedges is referring to a very constricted definition of “rationality” – an instrumental view that defines reason as a strictly pragmatic relation of means to ends. This definition indeed invites reduction of rationality to an anti-Enlightenment force. However, he broadly attacks rationality as “a cult” that is “too intellectual” to be any good in a revolt against the system. If he does have a narrower definition in mind, he owed it to us to give it. He doesn’t.

The bottom line is that “rationality” cultivates what he calls “technocratic human beings,” who are “spiritually dead. They are capable of anything, no matter how heinous.” Again, this is not true of rationality in general. Contrary to Hedges, by exercising rationality (e.g. consistency, clarity, etc.), one becomes more reasonable, not less so! Even assuming that the book’s premises are true, they still do not imply that spirituality and emotion are the only legitimate alternatives for a 21st century philosophy.

The author argues 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 are misplaced when used to criticize rationality, since it is not rationalism nor philosophy, nor necessarily academic intellectuals who argue in this subservient way. Rather, the justifiable targets are bourgeois figures who claim to be liberal, but who have given up all pretence to being so by embracing a capitalist philosophy, as Hedges argued earlier in Death of the Liberal Class. And while many college professors unquestionably fit this description, nearly as many do not, but are maintaining their rational spirit. So the book ends up as a broad-brush rejection of rational philosophy and of an academic tradition that, when done in alignment with its traditional (read “Enlightenment”) values of human dignity and equality, challenges the elitist pretensions of Randian libertarians and narcissistic hedonists who now control the mechanisms of American economics, politics, and higher education.

Thus, to the degree that elites succumb to and propagate the ideology of neoliberalism, the real reason is not that those in power positions are too rational, but that they have rejected all rationality and succumbed to baser passions. They are only “too rational” if rationality is limited to an instrumental meaning. But if “rational” means what philosophers in the Enlightenment tradition 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 diagnosis is rationality lost, not rationality overused.

So what should the revolution look like? We need, Hedges argues, to embrace (quoting Reinhold Niebuhr) “the sublime madness” of spirituality, which he asserts to be the source of morality. While he does not limit this “madness” to religiously-based spirituality, it is no accident that his primary examples were religious: Wiebo Ludwig (fundamentalist Christian leader of the anti-fracking movement), Jacques Ellul (Christian philosopher), Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian theologian), the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, James H. Cone (Christian theologian) and even Socrates and Kant. This thesis is premised 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.

The author inserts the idea that revolutions are rooted in “emotion,” and that spirituality is connected to emotion. While perhaps partially true, that is not a good reason to go wholesale in this direction and tie spirituality and emotion together as the engine of revolt. But here spiritual-emotional ideology, and Christianity specifically, are the source of change. He eschews rational philosophy as having little to offer true revolutionaries. What he misses here is that, while emotion is an easy way to rally people, it must equally be the case that they have the conviction of their morals, and that is something that requires rational analysis. When rationality is put into service of utopian, idealistic, and spiritually-based ends—all embedded in the passions—then the result is that reason is reduced to the type of pragmatism that he equates with “technocratic” rationality. However, rationality now becomes spiritual pragmatism—and more importantly, reason is reduced, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume put it, to a slave to the passions.

Revolutions require leaders. So who has these spiritual-emotional virtues? The book lists a number, including 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 devaluing rationality. 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 that a revolution of some kind will be necessary to overturn the current order. But a retreat into spirituality is a non-starter for a secular society. Even worse, to advocate spirituality over “the Enlightenment idioms” diminishes our valuable intellectual heritage. A radical break with our rationalist tradition cannot be sustained without lapsing into irrationality. Language change alone won’t ground a good philosophy. Rather, a change in the proper role of reason in philosophy is needed, to correct the misguided notion that it serves as an emergent function from and thus is dependent upon language, and/or that it simply serves the passions (pragmatic/technocratic reason), and, make no mistake “rational choice” is a passion. A “new and better” 21st-century philosophy is one that requires the proper use of reason. There are philosophers who would be a bit more sympathetic to this book. Jacques Ellul, Soren Kierkegaard, and Karl Barth, among others, come to mind. But all these philosophers fall prey to the same fallacy that Wages does, and this is to decenter rationality so that it must give way to religiosity. That is what makes the argument a disappointing, if not just a dangerous, one.

Hedges seems to have a large following among youthful liberals. It is interesting how many bourgeois liberals, who in their younger rebellious years want to shake off dogma, have come full circle to be ensnared by religious dogma of a different, “spiritual” sort, which the author praises. But Hedges vigorously attacks the same bourgeois liberals’ values that allow so many of them whole-heartedly to embrace institutional codes, whether they be academic institutions, socio-political arrangements, or Hillary Clinton’s Democratic party. The Wages of Rebellion is worth reading for those concerned with how the future should be crafted. However, one must take much of what is said with the proverbial grain of salt, which can be summed up in the author’s own approving 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).

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