US Capitalism: Marginalizing the Masses

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books, 2012) is a searing, angry indictment of capitalism in the United States. Pulitzer prize winning journalist and avowed socialist Chris Hedges has teemed up with cartoonist Joe Sacco to catalogue America’s “internal colonies” where the most downtrodden sections of US society survive against the odds. Hedges and Sacco rail against the destruction of working class communities and the obliteration of the environment by big business in its aggressive pursuit of super profits.

days_DVThe book is divided into five sections. The first four sections describe in intimate detail the “third world” type of poverty and the atomisation of working class communities in Pine Ridge among the Indigenous communities, it goes on to catalogue the destruction of working class community in post industrial Camden city and West Virginia and the emergence of modern slavery on the vegetable farms of Immowakalee, Florida. Chris Hedges’ powerful commentary is accompanied in each chapter by the moving cartoons of Joe Sacco which tell the story of various people caught up in America’s internal colonies.

In chapter one, “Days of Theft,” they tell the story of the attempted genocide of the Indigenous peoples. Following General Custer’s defeat by the Lakota Sioux the American government launched a genocidal war against the Indigenous nations of the plains that nearly wiped them out. The remnants of the various tribes were forced on to internal colonies called reservations where the tribal culture was almost extinguished. Indigenous culture, language, and religion were banned. Many were kidnapped and removed from their families only to be raised in racist Christian boarding schools.

Hedges and Sacco focus upon the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where those stuck on the reservation have been left to rot in a sea of poverty and hopelessness. Sixty per cent of dwellings lack electricity or running water. The tragic result of this has been the atomisation of a once proud people whose communities are devastated by rampant alcoholism, family break up, drug abuse, and violence.

However, there is some hope in the emergence of the American Indian Movement which has stood up to racist oppression and resurrected Native American religion and culture such as the once banned sun dance. A growing number of people have begun to learn their own culture and resisted the attempt at cultural genocide.

In chapter 2, Hedges and Sacco move their focus to Camden City which once had a thriving industrial base. Sadly, the de-industrialisation of America over the last few decades coupled with the riots of the late sixties has led to the mass pauperisation of the city’s inhabitants. As in Pine Ridge the people of Camden City live in an internal colony blighted by terrible poverty, mass unemployment, a high murder rate and a rampant drugs trade. Lone individuals stand out as having tried to keep communities together and provide a safety net for a people who have been abandoned by the state. Father Michael Doyle has founded a medical clinic, organised to keep the local school open along with a food bank and the renovation of one hundred and seventy derelict houses.

In Chapter 3, “Days of Destruction,” the story moves to the mining communities of West Virginia where open top coal mining involves the destruction of entire mountains. So far an area the size of Delaware, over 1 and half million acres, has been destroyed by the mining companies whose ruthless pursuit of profit has involved the poisoning of huge areas. Over five hundred mountain tops have gone along with an estimated one thousand miles of streams, creating an ecological disaster zone in this once beautiful area. Millions of tonnes of toxic coal slurry is kept in various dams that threaten villages and towns with destruction if they burst.

The decimation of the deep coal mining industry left once proud communities atomised and demoralised. Here again, the drugs trade is one of the few growth industries. Corporate politicians allow the mining companies to poison the ground water and air through the massive quantities of coal dust given off by their operations. Hedges and Sacco give the example of the town of Sylvester where people can no longer stay outside as everything is covered in a toxic coal dust which has led to huge increase in lung disease and cancers. As in Pine Ridge, small numbers of people are fighting back and campaigning to to force the mining companies to take measures to deal with the toxic coal dust which poisons the air.

In chapter 4, Hedges and Sacco take up the re-emergence of modern slavery on the tomato and vegetable farms of South Eastern America. They focus upon the farms in the Immokalee region of Florida where the super exploited workers are illegal aliens from the South and Central America.

Here, the workers are trapped in hellish conditions where they toil for ten hours a day in the sweltering fields where temperatures soar to 90 degrees and above. Workers wait at 3:30 am each morning to see if they will be picked for work in the fields. The US Department of Labor estimates that the agriculture industry has a death rate seven times higher than the average rate of most industries. The workers put up with such conditions in an effort to send money back to their impoverished families back home.

Workers are trapped in these modern-day slave plantations. Many are in permanent debt to the gangs who charge $1,000 for bringing them to the United States. They work six days days for slave labour wages and have to pay large amounts of their wages for shared accommodation, often ten people to a room, while they buy overpriced food from the labour contractors, known as crew leaders. The tomato and cucumber pickers are exposed to dangerously high levels of poison as the crops have been heavily sprayed with toxic pesticides. Over the last decade over 1,000 workers have been freed from these slave plantations by police raids.

Workers have begun to fight back and organise against their super exploitation. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers was set up in the mid-90s. Its inspiring campaigns have forced several of the fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King to sign the Fair Food Agreement that demands more humane working conditions and a wage increase of a penny or more for each pound of tomatoes harvested. The campaign continues to force all of the big food companies and super market chains signed up to this code.

In the concluding chapter, they deal with the Occupy Wall Street movement which is regarded as a turning point in the American political scene and is seen as the beginning of a new revolt from below against the bankster occupation of American politics and society. Hedges concludes with a call to arms and says the American people have no option but to revolt against a capitalist system that is totally bankrupt. For example over 50 million Americans live off food stamps while the 0.1 per cent of the population become richer and richer guarded by a totally corrupted political and legal establishment that denies even a modicum of justice to the general population while creating a monstrous surveillance state that Stalin and Hitler could only have dreamed of.

Hedges writes:

The American Dream … is a lie. The virus of corporate abuse-the perverted belief that only corporate profit matters-has spread to outsource our jobs, cut the budgets of our schools, close our libraries, and plague our communities with foreclosures and unemployment. This virus has brought with it a security and surveillance state that seeks to keep us all on a reservation. … Revolt is all we have left. It is our only hope.

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a powerful indictment of capitalism in present day America and an inspiring account of how people can fight back even under the most difficult of conditions.

Dylan Murphy is a historian and trade union activist. Read other articles by Dylan.