Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

by Chris Hedges

I cannot stress how important this book is. Dark, yes.. but then so is the cultural calamity we're in. What people want to blame on Obama, Democrats, or Republicans, is nothing less than a full-blown smack down from the corporatist, oligarchical, monopolistic juggernaut that is our brand of capitalism run amok. 

And the very fact that this is NOT what we are all talking about, is proof-positive of the very kinds of profitable denialism that Hedges chronicles so well. Whether the analogy is pro wrestling, or our celebrity obsessed blogosphere, the image of success and happiness has replaced the need or want for the reality version of life. The pursuit of hedonistic pleasure is not just a ruinous way of life, it's also a perfect way to keep the masses docile, and accepting of the miserable state of decline we are now in.

I urge every American to read this book and to focus on the core diagnosis it offers.  It's important that we start admitting that we have a very big problem, or we will never find our way to any solutions. I've linked two free chapters below, courtesy of Google Books. 

If you really don't have the time or patient to read them, at the very least read this very respectable synopsis of the book.

If you insist on reading no further on this page, just skip down to the Neil Postman quote comparing Orwell with Huxley. Which do you think comes closest to where we are now? It may prompt you to read all the rest.

Note: As I write in other places, I fundamentally disagree with Hedges on many things, especially on his annoying habit of focusing on Obama and Democrats, when they are but a symptom of the disease he has detailed so brilliantly. Hedges is a diagnostician, and that's very valuable. But he is definitely not a physician. He isn't even that interested in remedies. That's why many find him so dark. But it doesn't matter. Whether we have a remedy or not, we still must understand the problem, and that, he helps us do quite well.

An Amazon Review

Hedges suggests possible future scenarios where most Americans are virtual corporate slaves, controlled and monitored by the ever expanding power of law enforcement. He fears that the biggest contrast in this country will be between a marginalized literate minority on the one hand and on the other a barely functionally literate or functionally illiterate majority enchanted by corporate entertainment and the vacuous PR spectacles and slogans of politicians. He fears that as social conditions worsen, right wing demagogues will make great headway. He is very worried about future environmental catastrophes. However he ends his book with the hope that decent human values can be utilized to confront our growing corporate tyranny.

Read all the reviews


Read These Two Key Chapters—Right Now

Reading them  will only make the entire work read better. Take my word for it.

An Excerpt

See below for 60 free pages of excerpts

In his book Celebrity, Chris Rojeck calls celebrity culture “the cult of distraction that valorizes the superficial, the gaudy, the domination of commodity culture.”  He goes further:

Capitalism originally sought to police play and pleasure, because any attempt to replace work as the central life interest threatened the economic survival of the system.  The family, the state and religion engendered a variety of patterns of moral regulation to control desire and ensure compliance with the system of production.  However, as capitalism developed, consumer culture and leisure time expanded.  The principles that operated to repress the individual in the workplace and the home were extended to the shopping mall and recreational activity.  The entertainment industry and consumer culture produced what Herbert Marcuse called ‘repressive desublimation.’ Through this process individuals unwittingly subscribed to the degraded version of humanity.

This cult of distraction, as Rojeck points out, masks the real disintegration of culture.  It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives.  It seduces us to engage in imitative consumption.  It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, costly imperial wars, and economic collapse and political corruption. The wild pursuit of status and wealth has destroyed our souls and our economy.  Families live in sprawling mansions financed with mortgages they can no longer repay.  Consumers recklessly rang up Coach handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes on credit cards because they seemed to confer a sense of identity and merit.  Our favorite hobby, besides television, used to be, until reality hit us like a tsunami, shopping.  Shopping used to be the compensation for spending five days a week in tiny cubicles. American workers are ground down by corporations who have disempowered them, used them, and have now discarded them. 

Celebrities have fame free of responsibility.  The fame of celebrities, wrote Mills, disguises those who possess true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite. Magical thinking is the currency not only of celebrity culture, but of totalitarian culture.  And as we sink into an economic and political morass, we are still controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the dark wall of Plato’s cave.  The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain.  It is designed to keep us from fighting back.

"What Orwell feared were those who would ban books," Neil Postman wrote:

What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of informatio­n. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevanc­e. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupie­d with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifuga­l bumblepupp­y. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertaria­ns and rationalis­ts who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractio­ns." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

Thanks to Truthdig and Alternet, you can read the first 60 pages of this important work below. I am not sure just how complete each is, but it shouldn't take you long to learn.  The wrestling stuff may not grab you at first, but his setup is important.  Stay with it.