Thursday, June 21, 2012

Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges

New York: Nation Books, 2010, pp. 248.

Phrases like "liberal establishment" have always struck me as oxymoronic. It is hard to see how anything can be both those things at once. Chris Hedges' latest book, Death of the Liberal Class, would seem to testify to the untenable position of those making the attempt.

As defined by Hedges, a liberal class (in contrast to the corporate-government-military "power elite") could be found holding positions in organized religion, the arts, universities, the media, unions and the Democratic Party.1 Of course, these institutions were never outside the reach of corporate and other conservative influences, the interests of which they usually did represent, but liberal views and voices were sufficiently present to constitute a force there.2

During that time, this liberal class occupied the center of American politics, to the right of socialists and Communists, and to the left of the business-centered conservative establishment. It acted as a check on that power, provided some representation for the disenfranchised (the poor and even the middle class), and in so doing made moderate, but meaningful, reforms possible. However, that class was ultimately coopted by the very power elite whose actions it had sought to mitigate, the party of the New Deal giving way to the party of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and the journalism of Progressive-era muckrakers reduced to the crude, sadistic drivel of a Thomas Friedman. When daring to criticize at all, they limit themselves to only the most tepid kinds of critique, discussing tactics rather than goals or principles, and advocating mild reforms that have little meaning in the context of the "inverted totalitarianism" and "participatory fascism" Hedges identifies.3

This has meant, especially from the 1970s on, the dismantling of every obstacle and restraint on corporate power, resulting in the juggernaut of neoliberal globalization, with all its destructive economic, social and ecological consequences – which, through climate change, may even threaten the survival of the species. Long reduced to the courtiers of the power elite, the liberals – by this point, given to celebrating corporate power, militarized foreign policies and the like – can hardly do much about it, making them impotent, irrelevant and despised even by the politically weaker groups they were supposed to defend (whom they have failed miserably).

According to Hedges' history, while the liberal elite was always compromised by its embrace of the power elite, its "greatest sin" (p. 15) was its collusion with the right against the left, during and after World War I, then after the left's revival amid the Great Depression, again during the Cold War (the role of these conflicts no coincidence, conditions of "permanent war" being inimical to the liberal class's balancing act). The corrupted remainder even joined in the attack on those within their own ranks who continued to adhere to liberalism's ostensible convictions. (Hedges profiles Richard Goldstone, Norman Finkelstein and Ralph Nader as current examples of jurists, scholars, journalists and activists betrayed in this manner – while also telling the story of how he was pushed off the pages of the New York Times, like many a principled liberal before him.)

Crushing the left resulted in the liberals' ending up the new left of center, eliminating their old role and dumping on them a new one they were incapable of filling. In the process the liberals also grew alienated from the very working class that they were supposed to speak for in a variety of ways, including the turn from "bread and butter" issues to identity politics, or even a broader turn away from politics of all kinds (for instance, in the disengagement of the "beat" ethos in the '50s, and the preoccupation with psychoanalysis and mysticism in the '60s counterculture), all of which worked out in ways quite conducive to corporate power.

Meanwhile, the very institutions the class inhabited were being dismantled. The membership of both the mainline churches and the labor unions declined. Colleges educate more students than ever, but the professors who teach in them have been transformed into insecure part-timers in no position to carry out research or perform broader intellectual functions, while the receding pool of tenured faculty (going the way of unionized steelworkers to use his analogy) sticks to overspecialized study of the obscure and minute, and to theoretical debates inoffensive to those who hold genuine power. Those who would dare to go their own way are ignored, and the same goes for their counterparts in the arts, closing the door that much more to any possibility of regeneration. Where some have seen in it a source of hope, even the Internet is a problem for Hedges, the image-based culture of the new electronic media being far less conducive to rational, individual thought and debate than earlier print media, while further undermining artists, journalists and the like by making it impossible for them to earn a living, so that culture is turned over to "part-time amateurs."

As a result, not only has the left been neutralized, but the former center is moribund, leaving a vacuum in American politics which can only be filled from the political right, in the form of a right-wing populism with all its fascistic tendencies (already evident in movements like the Tea Party and the revival in militia activity), ironically funded by the same corporate forces that brought about the crisis in the first place. Indeed, as he has done in earlier works (particularly 2007's American Fascists), Hedges draws a comparison between the United States today and Weimar Germany, characterizing the U.S. as now in greater danger than it was in the 1930s precisely because of the absence of the kind of countervailing left-center forces that existed then.

As far as Hedges is concerned, there can be no salvation from a rightist movement, only political regression, with the soft tactics of "inverted totalitarianism" perhaps being supplanted by the more overt ones of the classic kind. This line of development (or degeneration) concludes with an image of broad economic and ecological collapse (driven in large part by climate change) precipitating Roman Empire-style political collapse, and perhaps even species extinction, if the processes he describes are not halted.

Alas, there is little time for bringing about such a halt, and few options with the conventional avenues for dissent and reform ceasing to function. He sees little point in appealing to the conscience or enlightened self-interest of the power elite. While he regards the greatest potential for change as being among the disenfranchised, he is doubtful about the prospect of a mass movement emerging which can challenge that elite successfully, let alone the prospects for more egalitarian structures of power. Instead he advocates (non-violent) resistance in the form of small, individual acts undertaken more for their moral rightness than the chances of their contributing to a happy ending in our lifetimes. Those who would go on serving the role that the corrupted liberal class was supposed to would all but take vows of voluntary poverty to pursue their vocations of relieving misery, slowing the slide toward destruction, and upholding values like truth, justice and reason, the life of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Workers' movement providing an example of the kind of action he envisions.

Hedges' subject is a vast one, and a two hundred page book on it is necessarily the short version of the oft-told story of the bankruptcy of liberal institutions like the Democratic Party (Obama's chapter in which is already a well-established subject with the appearance of books like Paul Street's The Empire's New Clothes, Roger D. Hodge's The Mendacity of Hope and Tariq Ali's The Obama Syndrome during the past two years). Indeed, the book might be more appropriately titled Suicide of the Liberal Class, focusing as it does on the ways in which the class contributed to its own destruction. In particular, Hedges' focus is on the liberals' corruption by a combination of opportunism (the desire for patronage by the ambitious, the ruin of intellectuals by money) and fear (of appearing unpatriotic, or "soft on Communism"), rather than their strategic or tactical errors (like their elevation of identity politics over bread and butter issues, a story Todd Gitlin tells in The Twilight of Common Dreams).

Hedges also devotes little attention to events to both the liberals' left and right, despite the significance of events at both those ends of the political spectrum for the way in which this story played out. The frailty of the American radicalism that was so important to keeping liberals honest and relevant (a theme explored in works like Gabriel Kolko's Main Currents in American History, or Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks' It Didn't Happen Here) is never really examined.4 Likewise, the ascendancy of the far right within the Republican Party (memorably related by alienated Republican insiders like John Dean, Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind), and the way in which their time in government not only shifted the political terrain, but tied the hands of any would-be liberals succeeding them (a process Thomas Frank explored in The Wrecking Crew) is not discussed. Those looking for a really broad, full view of this history will have to supplement Hedges' book with a good deal of other reading.

Far more than most of these works, Death of the Liberal Class is a jeremiad, its author's anger nothing short of scathing, and the severity of its assessment of our situation deeply depressing. (Given that I've been studying societal collapse for a decade now, I don't say this lightly.) Hedges' personal religious beliefs strongly inform his view of the situation, from his harsh criticism of hedonism and the "cult of the self," to the kind of resistance he advocates, which is suggestive of the example of the early Christians.

The result is that even readers sympathetic to his broader position who happen not to share those particular beliefs may be put off by much of what he says. Certainly I found myself taking issue with his dismissal of any serious possibility of redressing the world's problems. (This can seem like a rejection of politics akin to those he criticized earlier generations of liberals for, if of a less obviously self-indulgent kind, as well as an abandonment of the responsibility to try and develop materially effective tools and strategies to deal with the situation.) Additionally, he seemed to me to slight the sciences (which can fairly be thought of as a bastion of the "liberal class"), even as he draws on science for his strongest argument for the dangers presented by our current trajectory – the likelihood of climate catastrophe. (I may also add here that it has long seemed to me that science and technology are certain to play a crucial role in any scenario in which we cope successfully with our ecological problems. Unfashionable as it may be, and dismaying as the technological stagnation of the last decade has been, far and away our best bet for a tolerable outcome is a "technological fix" that cuts the challenge down to size.)

Yet, it would be a mistake to dismiss Hedges' book as a rant or a screed. His passion may occasionally get the better of his style, but never his argumentation. Moreover, dire as his assessment is, there is no sense of tactical exaggeration, or the perverse eagerness to be validated by disaster that often appears in warnings of ecological doom. Rather there is a great deal of solid, well-grounded analysis here, informed by an impressive survey of the relevant literature, and Hedges recounts a great deal of history well worth knowing. His diagnosis of our political paralysis, the hollowness of our pieties and the role of liberalism's betrayals in this – the very heart of his critique – are especially compelling, and his defense of the value of the arts and humanities (so often slighted by others) is the strongest I have seen in some time. Indeed, after following Hedges' writing from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002) on, The Death of the Liberal Class struck me as a summary work, capping off a long period of reflection and study well worth the attention of those engaged by his earlier writing, and by those looking for an introduction to these issues as well.

1. By "power elite" C. Wright Mills referred to the men and women "in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society . . . the strategic command posts of the social structure" (The Power Elite, p. 4), corporate, state and military, which Mills viewed as interlocking, placing them in a common group with common interests - and quite distinct from the liberal elite described above.
2. Where the media is concerned, Hedges refers to Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman's critique of the press in Manufacturing Consent, which offers a "propaganda" model of the media in which the press is controlled by a high cost of operation subordinating it to business (from its need for expensive licensing to advertising revenue), its dependence on "sourcing" (e.g. government and business press releases) because of the high cost of investigative reporting, a sensitivity to the organized media criticism termed "flak," and the role "anti-Communism" has played "as a national religion" (Manufacturing Consent, p. 29).
3. Sheldon Wolin's theory of "inverted totalitarianism" describes a totalitarianism which has no demagogues or charismatic leaders, and no revolutionary structures and symbols (key trappings in the "classic" totalitarianism of Germany and Italy), but rather the preservation (and thoroughgoing corruption) of the old institutions and culture to support virtually complete corporate political control. Charlotte Twight's "participatory fascism" refers to a condition in which voter choice is reduced to the irrelevant.
4. American history in this respect is well worth comparing to that of Britain, where the Liberal Party was eclipsed by the left-of-center Labor Party, a story Pulitzer Prize-winner George Dangerfield recounts in his classic The Strange Death of Liberal England.

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