Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is a look at what main author Chris Hedges terms “sacrifice zones”. These are areas in the country that have been more or less been given up to Capitalism, places where human life, human dignity, and the environment have been overruled in favor of cheap resources and cheap labor. The first chapter looks at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, a Native American reservation that is steeped in poverty and neglect. This starts the book out in the long view, looking at a people who long ago got in the way of profit. When the next chapters focus on Camden, New Jersey; Welch, West Virginia; and Immokalee, Florida, the Natives in the first chapter stick with you. They are the future of these places and these people. This is what American Capitalism promises to you once it’s deemed you unfit for exploitation.
In the following chapters we look at places that have been exploited to death and places currently being exploited. The authors talk to poor black folks, poor white folks, and poor Latinos, and yes, it seems that living at ground zero in a place the Profit Machine sees dollars never makes you one of the rich winners.
It’s a sobering look. These are conditions we are not used to hearing about in our own, supposedly modern country.
Hedges’ writing is paired with illustrations and longer pieces by Joe Sacco, who was more of the draw for me. I always appreciate Sacco’s take on this kind of material, and again, it was jarring seeing the pieces he was doing and realizing this was our own country, not some bombed-out hellscape across the globe.
But then we get to the last chapter, “Days of Revolt”, which is set in “Liberty Square, NYC”. This is the name the Occupy Wall Street movement gave to Zuccotti Park when they were there (the book was written in 2011). We are suddenly thrown from the hard cold facts of corporate exploitation into an eye-rolling theoretical wonderland.
Look, I have defended Occupy Wall Street, and I still think that movement did a lot of good. But in Hedges’ narrative, every single thing you would want to avoid in a discussion of OWS is brought front and center. He talks to a woman called “Ketchup” who describes the exact sort of hippie-dippie nonsense that prevented the movement from being taken seriously. It also demonstrates why the movement has all but fizzled out: its obsession with organization over message. There are paragraphs and paragraphs on how they do things, and hardly any words about what they intend to use those methods for.
Hedges surrounds all of this in a wrapper of political philosophy and his own memories and feelings and it’s in this overwrought, elevated language that stands in direct opposition to what preceded it in the first four chapters. In those chapters the situation is real, the emotions are strong. The people Hedges talks to there tell their stories and they are the stories of the economic devastation surrounding them because they’re tied to the land. The OWS stuff can’t help but feel fluffy and superficial by comparison.
Hedges intends for the OWS chapter to end on a high note and he rides it as much as he can. Having the benefit of hindsight, the amount of hope he tries to put into the movement is absurd. He writes not as a journalist here, but as a groupie, someone who’s become enthralled with this great new thing and just can’t stop talking about how incredible and world-changing it is. As a cynical reader, even a cynical reader who was also buoyed by hope for the Occupy movement, I couldn’t see how the caucuses and the arts and culture group and the vibes-readers were going to do anything against the inhumane juggernaut that had mowed down the people he talked to in the previous chapters. Hedges has no doubts here; as far as he’s concerned, the revolution is a done deal and the Corporate clock is ticking.
This final chapter doesn’t bring hope to the story; it does the opposite. Maybe it’s just because I had previously read The Divide by Matt Taibbi, written more recently and describing how nothing on Wall Street has changed in the slightest, but it did not make me feel that a new day was dawning. It made me feel like there was no relief in sight, that nothing could be done.
This book would have been more powerful without this last chapter. Even without knowing what we already know, there was no reason, in late 2011, to put this much stock in Occupy and speak so majestically of it. Sure, a dialogue had started, but there was no evidence that this was going to go anywhere or do anything. This hagiography of Occupy Wall Street, with its stock references to 1984 and the banality of “reality TV” diminishes the hard work and the hard lives presented in front of it. I’ve never seen a non-fiction book take such a sudden, unexpected plummet in quality before.