Wages of Rebellion


By Chris Hedges

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Revolutions come in waves and cycles. We are again riding the crest of a revolutionary epic, much like 1848 or 1917, from the Arab Spring to movements against austerity in Greece to the Occupy movement. In Wages of Rebellion, Chris Hedges — who has chronicled the malaise and sickness of a society in terminal moral decline in his books Empire of Illusion and Death of the Liberal Class — investigates what social and psychological factors cause revolution, rebellion, and resistance. Drawing on an ambitious overview of prominent philosophers, historians, and literary figures he shows not only the harbingers of a coming crisis but also the nascent seeds of rebellion. Hedges’ message is clear: popular uprisings in the United States and around the world are inevitable in the face of environmental destruction and wealth polarization.

Focusing on the stories of rebels from around the world and throughout history, Hedges investigates what it takes to be a rebel in modern times. Utilizing the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, Hedges describes the motivation that guides the actions of rebels as “sublime madness” — the state of passion that causes the rebel to engage in an unavailing fight against overwhelmingly powerful and oppressive forces. For Hedges, resistance is carried out not for its success, but as a moral imperative that affirms life. Those who rise up against the odds will be those endowed with this “sublime madness.”

From South African activists who dedicated their lives to ending apartheid, to contemporary anti-fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, to whistleblowers in pursuit of transparency, Wages of Rebellion shows the cost of a life committed to speaking the truth and demanding justice. Hedges has penned an indispensable guide to rebellion.


Also by Chris Hedges

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

What Every Person Should Know About War

Losing Moses on the Freeway

American Fascists

I Don't Believe in Atheists

Collateral Damage

Empire of Illusion

Death of the Liberal Class

The World As It Is

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (with Joe Sacco)

Copyright © 2015 by Chris Hedges.


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Set in 11 point Minion Pro


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Hedges, Chris.

Wages of rebellion / Chris Hedges.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-56858-490-4 (e-book) 1. Revolutions—Social aspects. 2. Social movements. 3. Protest movements. I. Title.

HM876.H43 2015

303.48'4—dc23 2014044940


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

For Eunice,

y en cuanto a mí no olvides que si despierto y lloro

es porque en sueños sólo soy un niño perdido

que busca entre las hojas de la noche tus manos




Doomed Voyages


The Post-Constitutional Era


The Invisible Revolution




The Rebel Caged


Vigilante Violence


The Rebel Defiant


Sublime Madness





The tolerance which is the life element, the token of a free society, will never be the gift of the Powers That Be; it can, under the prevailing conditions of tyranny by the majority, only be won in the sustained effort of radical minorities, willing to break this tyranny and to work for the emergence of a free and sovereign majority—minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which tolerate destruction and suppression.1

—Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance"

The pious say that faith can do great things, and, as the gospel tells us, even move mountains. The reason is that faith breeds obstinacy. To have faith means simply to believe firmly—to deem almost a certainty—things that are not reasonable; or, if they are reasonable, to believe them more firmly than reason warrants. A man [or woman] of faith is stubborn in his [or her] beliefs; he [or she] goes his [or her] way, undaunted and resolute, disdaining hardship and danger, ready to suffer any extremity.

Now, since the affairs of the world are subject to chance and to a thousand and one different accidents, there are many ways in which the passage of time may bring unexpected help to those who preserve in their obstinacy. And since this obstinacy is the product of faith, it is then said that faith can do great things.2

—Francesco Guicciardini, Ricordi

The civilization and justice of bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their masters. Then this civilization and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge . . . the infernal deeds of the soldiery reflect the innate spirit of that civilization of which they are the mercenary vindicators. . . . The bourgeoisie of the whole world, which looks complacently upon the wholesale massacre after the battle, is convulsed by horror at the desecration of brick and mortar.3

Karl Marx, The Civil War in France


We live in a revolutionary moment. The disastrous economic and political experiment that attempted to organize human behavior around the dictates of the global marketplace has failed. The promised prosperity that was to have raised the living standards of workers through trickle-down economics has been exposed as a lie. A tiny global oligarchy has amassed obscene wealth, while the engine of unfettered corporate capitalism plunders resources; exploits cheap, unorganized labor; and creates pliable, corrupt governments that abandon the common good to serve corporate profit. The relentless drive by the fossil fuel industry for profits is destroying the ecosystem, threatening the viability of the human species. And no mechanisms to institute genuine reform or halt the corporate assault are left within the structures of power, which have surrendered to corporate control. The citizen has become irrelevant. He or she can participate in heavily choreographed elections, but the demands of corporations and banks are paramount.

History has amply demonstrated that the seizure of power by a tiny cabal, whether a political party or a clique of oligarchs, leads to despotism. Governments that cater exclusively to a narrow interest group and redirect the machinery of state to furthering the interests of that interest group are no longer capable of responding rationally in times of crisis. Blindly serving their masters, they acquiesce to the looting of state treasuries to bail out corrupt financial houses and banks while ignoring chronic unemployment and underemployment, along with stagnant or declining wages, crippling debt peonage, a collapsing infrastructure, and the millions left destitute and often homeless by deceptive mortgages and foreclosures.

A bankrupt liberal class, holding up values it does nothing to defend, discredits itself as well as the purported liberal values of a civil democracy as it is swept aside, along with those values. In this moment, a political, economic, or natural disaster—in short a crisis—will ignite unrest, lead to instability, and see the state carry out draconian forms of repression to maintain "order." This is what lies ahead.

The historian Crane Brinton, in his 1965 book The Anatomy of Revolution, explores the preconditions for revolution in the English, French, American, and Russian Revolutions. He cites a discontent that affects nearly all social classes, including "economic grievances . . . not in the form of economic distress, but rather a feeling on the part of some of the chief enterprising groups that their opportunities for getting on in this world are unduly limited by political arrangements."4 A sense of entrapment and despair combine with unfulfilled expectations to fuel the crisis. Brinton argues that a decaying power elite in a prerevolutionary society exploits not only the populace but also its own natural allies. Louis XIV, for example, frequently revoked his patents to new nobility and resold them.5 Corporations, in a modern twist on the same exploitation of those most inclined to support them, defraud shareholders and investors, especially the small investors in the middle class who make up the bulwark of a capitalist democracy.

Brinton lists other preconditions for revolution, including a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny, discredited power elite; a refusal by the press, scholars, and intellectuals to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class; an inability of government to respond to the most basic needs of citizens; and a steady loss of will within the power elite to rule. The denial of opportunities to the sons and daughters of the professional class and the middle class galvanizes resistance. A crippling isolation soon leaves the power elite with neither allies nor outside support. Finally, the state is convulsed by a crisis—usually triggered by economic instability and often accompanied by military defeat, as was the case in Czarist Russia, or a long and futile conflict, as is the case with our own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is at the moment of crisis that revolution begins.

It is never the poor, however, who make revolutions, as understood by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who disdained the revolutionary potential of the Lumpenproletariat. Marx and Engels correctly saw the Lumpenproletariat as providing the primary fodder for the goons, militias, and thugs employed by a discredited regime to hold on to power through violence. "The 'dangerous class,' the social scum (Lumpenproletariat), that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue."6

This is a key factor in understanding the precursors for revolt. "The idea that the very oppressed and poor are important as initiating and maintaining revolutions is a bourgeois one," Brinton writes.7 He adds another important caveat:

No government has ever fallen before attackers until it has lost control over its armed forces or lost the ability to use them effectively—or, of course, lost such control of force because of interference by a more powerful foreign force, as in Hungary in 1849 or in 1956, and conversely that no revolutionists have ever succeeded until they have got a predominance of effective armed force on their side. This holds true from spears and arrows to machine guns and gas, from Hippias to Castro.8

While violence and terrorism are often part of revolutions, the fundamental tool of any successful revolt is the nonviolent conversion of the forces deployed to restore order to the side of the rebels. Most successful revolutions are, for this reason, fundamentally nonviolent. The Russian Revolution was victorious once the Cossacks refused to fire on the protesters in Petrograd in 1917 and joined the crowds. The clerics who overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 won once the Shah's military abandoned the collapsing regime. And the harsh Communist regimes in Eastern Europe were doomed in 1989 when the security forces no longer defended them. The superior force of despotic regimes is disarmed not through violence but through conversion.

James Davies, in his essay "Toward a Theory of Revolution," names the "intolerable gap between what people want and what they get" as the most important component of revolt. "The rapidly widening gap between expectations and gratifications portends revolution," writes Davies. "The most common case for this widening gap of individual dissatisfactions is economic or social dislocation that makes the affected individual generally tense, generally frustrated. That is, the greatest portion of people who join a revolution are preoccupied with tensions related to the failure to gratify the physical (economic) needs and the needs of stable interpersonal (social) relationships."9

However, like Marx, Engels, and Brinton, Davies adds that "socioeconomically deprived poor people are unlikely to make a successful rebellion, a revolution, by themselves." It is rather a disenfranchised middle class and alienated members of the ruling class who orchestrate and lead a revolt. "Without the support of disaffected bourgeoisie, disaffected nobles, and disaffected intellectuals, the French Revolution might have been some kind of grand, episodic upheaval," he notes.

But it would not likely have amounted to the successful assault on the political power structure that a revolution amounts to. The same can be said for the American Revolution. Those who signed the Declaration of Independence and/or became rulers of the new nation were gentleman farmers like Washington and Jefferson rather than callous-handed yeomen, who became the rank and file of the Continental Army. The Russian Revolution, particularly in its 1905 phase, depended on the disaffection not solely of factory workers and peasants but also of urban bourgeoisie and—almost incredibly it seemed at first glance—of substantial numbers of the landed nobility.10

Brinton and Davies argue that expectations have usually been most frustrated—especially when coupled with economic depression and increased repression—immediately after periods when the standard of living rose and the political space opened. This is what took place in Russia, for example, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Alexander II emancipated the serfs in 1861, began the process of industrialization, and created a state-administered legal system that attempted to wrest absolute authority from the noblemen and landowners, who had been imposing jail terms and punishment by fiat. The urban population nearly doubled between 1878 and 1897. Strikes, union organizing, workers' associations, and emergent political groups, along with a dissident press, gave hope for the future. Wages rose. The estimated annual net income at the end of the nineteenth century for a peasant family of five was 82 rubles. A factory worker could make 168 rubles.11 The process of reform ended when Alexander II was assassinated on March 13, 1881.

Alexander III and his successor, Nicholas II, attempted to return the country to a rigid autocracy. Repression mounted, and the opening provided to a free press ended, especially in 1907 with the reinstatement of censorship and the banning of publications. Executions for offending the Czar mounted: there were 26 death sentences during the thirteen years of Alexander III's reign (1881–1894) and 4,449 between 1905 and 1910—just six years of the reign of his grandson Nicholas II.12 "This fifty-six year period [from the freeing of the serfs in 1861 to the Russian Revolution in 1917] appears to constitute a single long phase in which popular gratification at the termination of one institution (serfdom) rather quickly was replaced with rising expectations which resulted from intensified industrialization and which were incompatible with the continuation of the inequitable and capricious power structure of Tsarist society," Davies notes.13

The expectations for political and economic improvement were further stymied when the country entered World War I. The poorly equipped Russian army suffered catastrophic defeats and massive loss of life. The economy broke down. By 1916, inflation had made food difficult to afford, and famine gripped parts of the country. But more than deprivation itself, Davies and Brinton highlight, it was the cycle of heightened expectations, economic improvement, and then frustrated hopes that led to revolt. "In reality the mere existence of privations is not enough to cause an insurrection; if it were, the masses would always be in revolt," Leon Trotsky noted.14

Today this key component of revolution—the gap between what people want, and indeed expect, and what they get—is being played out in the United States and many states in Europe during a new age of mounting scarcity, declining wages, joblessness, government-imposed "austerity" measures, and assaults on civil liberties. The rising living standards experienced by the American working class in the 1950s have been in precipitous decline since the 1970s. The real earnings of the median male have declined by 19 percent since 1970, and the median male with only a high school diploma saw his real earnings fall by 41 percent from 1970 to 2010.15 Moreover, the memory of the postwar moment of prosperity and the belief that prosperity should still be possible—along with the revocation of protections under the Constitution that most Americans want restored—have left Americans increasingly alienated, frustrated, and angry. They have experienced the diminished expectations highlighted by Davies and Brinton. They have set those expectations against the bleakness of the present.

Politicians, a moribund labor movement, and the mass media—either cowed or in the service of corporate power—assure the population that the old prosperity is still attainable, but via a different route. Prosperity will no longer come from expanding the manufacturing base, which characterized the very real prosperity of working men and women immediately after World War II. The neoliberal version of the promise of rising living standards is based on the fallacy of economic deregulation and financialization. Let us be rich, the elites say, and you will share in the spoils. All you have to do is work hard, obey the rules, and believe in yourself. This myth is disseminated across the political spectrum. It is the essential message peddled by everyone from Oprah and the entertainment industry to the Christian Right and positive psychologists. But this promise, as the masses of underemployed and unemployed are discovering, is a fiction.16

In this discovery, this understanding that workers will never have what they expect, lies revolutionary fodder. Today's economic stagnation, accompanied by a steady stripping away of civil liberties and the creation of a monstrous security and surveillance system of internal control, has followed the kind of roller-coaster pattern of rising and then declining hopes that presages revolt, according to Brinton and Davis.

The revolutionary ideal, the vision of a better world, the belief that resistance is a moral act to protect the weak and the poor—in short, an ideology—fuses with the sense of loss and betrayal engendered by a system that can no longer meet expectations. The revolts and revolutions that have convulsed the Arab world and the unrest in Greece and Spain share these vital characteristics. The primacy of corporate profit in a globalized economy has become universal. So have its consequences.

Professor Rami Zurayk, who teaches agriculture and food sciences at the American University of Beirut, pointed out in The Guardian in 2011 "that when international grain prices spiked in 2007 and 2008 Egypt's bread prices rose by 37 percent." Fifty percent of the calories Egyptians consume, he wrote, come from outside the country. Moreover, Egypt, as the world's largest wheat importer, is hostage to world commodity prices, and he notes that only three corporations—Cargill, Archers Daniel Midland Company, and Bunge (all American)—control 90 percent of the global grain trade.17 Zurayk argues that the rising price of food (especially bread)—which puts a family's ability to feed itself in jeopardy, as happened during the French and Russian Revolutions—was one of the major causes of the uprisings across the Arab world in 2010 and 2011. "Should the global markets be unable to provide a country's need, or if there are not enough funds available to finance purchases and to offer price support, then the food of the poor will become inaccessible to them," Zurayk writes, adding:

Already, in Egypt and Yemen, more than 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line and suffer from some form of malnutrition. Most of the poor in these countries have no access to social safety nets. Images of bread became central to the Egyptian protests, from young boys selling kaik, a breakfast bread, to one protester's improvised helmet made from bread loaves taped to his head. Although the Arab revolutions were united under the slogan "the people want to bring down the regime" not "the people want more bread," food was a catalyst.18

The contraction of the Greek economy by 20 percent in the last five years resulted in an unemployment rate of more than 27 percent. An estimated 10 percent of Greek children arrive at school underfed, hungry, or malnourished. Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group, told the New York Times: "When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries."19

The poor population in the United States—15 percent of the total population and a disturbing 21.8 percent for children under the age of eighteen—is expanding. The 46.5 million people living in poverty in 2012 was the largest number of poor counted during the fifty-four years in which the decennial census has calculated poverty rates. The weighted average poverty threshold for a household of four was an annual income of $23,492.20 That is well below what many economists believe constitutes a realistic poverty rate.21 And among those classified as poor, 20.4 million people lived in what was categorized as "deep" poverty, meaning that their incomes were 50 percent below the official poverty line. One-quarter of the nation's Hispanic population, 13.6 million people, and 27.2 percent of African Americans, 10.9 million people, lived in poverty.22 There are 73.7 million children in the United States, and they represent 23.7 percent of the total population. Yet in 2012 they made up 34.6 percent of Americans living in poverty and 35 percent of those living in deep poverty.23

Climate change will only exacerbate these conditions. As pointed out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change will cause a decline in crop production and food prices will soar.24 Poverty and hunger have already begun to expand in the developing world and parts of the industrialized world.

The realization that our expectations for a better future have been obliterated, not only for ourselves but more importantly for our children, starts the chain reaction. There is a loss of faith in established systems of power. There is a weakening among the elites of the will to rule. Government becomes despised. Rage looks for outlets. The nation goes into crisis. Vladimir Lenin identified the components that come together to foster a successful revolt:


On Sale
May 10, 2016
Page Count
304 pages
Bold Type Books

Chris Hedges

About the Author

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He spent nearly two decades as a correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, with fifteen years at the New York Times. He is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Empire of Illusion; Death of the Liberal Class; War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning; and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which he co-wrote with Joe Sacco. He writes a weekly column for the online magazine Truthdig. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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