[14 January 2011]
When reading Chris Hedges, one should always keep a shaker of salt nearby. This is because for every well-considered thought, there are at least one or two froth-flecked fulminations that don’t pass muster. This was particularly a problem in his last book, Empire of Illusion, which substituted a broadbore crankiness about modern America (overfed, overstimulated, anti-intellectual, and underengaged) for social critique.
For Hedges’ new warning about how we’re all going to Hell, Death of the Liberal Class, however, something is different. The usual problems are there, his reflexive sneering and overindulgence of the need to name-check, not to mention a buckshot approach to the issues at hand which brings down some innocent bystanders along the way. However, this time, the primary thrust of his critique is not only dead-on, it’s something close to terrifying.
Hedges’ thesis is based on a cause-and-effect formulation. First, as noted in that head-snapper of a title, is that what was once known as the “liberal class” is essentially extinct in America. While never quite strictly defining this strata of people in sociological terms, Hedges provides a thumbnail history of classical liberal thought going back centuries to the writings of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Locke, and having at its core a belief in the bedrock importance of basic, universal moral rights for the individual “against any collectivity” (Hedges quoting philosopher John Gray).
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, intellectuals, reformers, religious leaders, and organizers formed a bulwark of sorts against the depredations of the capitalist state. The devastation of World War I, and the mockery its rampant slaughters seemed to make of optimistic ideals of human progress, not only essentially crushed these forward-thinking movements but also:
…consolidated state and corporate control over economic, political, cultural, and social affairs. It created mass culture, fostered through the consumer society the cult of the self, led the nation into an era of permanent war, and used fear and mass propaganda to cow citizens and silence independent and radical voices within the liberal class. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, put in place only when the capitalist system collapsed, was the final political gasp of classical liberalism in the United States.
The long-term effect of the long, sad decline of America’s liberal thinkers is, to Hedges’ mind, simple and devastating. The ideals of liberal progressives, whether put forth at the head of large rallies or in editorials and books, he argues, were useful to the country as a whole for being a kind of safety valve for discontent. With the liberal class in place as a conduit for the inevitable discontents of the populace, progressive change could be seen as a natural part of the societal working order. Things were getting done, change was on the way.
But now, that’s no longer the case. Hedges argues that starting particularly in the Cold War, when leftist thinkers felt cowed into proving their patriotic bona fides by ratcheting up their anti-communist rhetoric, liberals and the left have continually weakened their own status. During the postwar years, the American left continually whittled away at its own moral imperative, until “talk about revolution gave way to psychoanalysis” and the extent of many self-proclaimed liberals’ progressive actions consist of brand loyalties, like buying a Mac instead of a PC. It’s not a hard argument to believe for anybody who has any familiarity with the thin gruel that passes for progressive policy in the new-millennium Democratic party, and one that Hedges puts forward with particular clarity.
Where the danger comes, Hedges says, is not just that liberal thought has been essentially consigned to a neutered margin, where leftist thinkers carp about this or that conservative outrage but never really engage with the core problems. To his point of view, religious leaders (who, it’s difficult to conceive of in these times, once directly entered the political fray on the side of the poor and downtrodden, not megachurch-attending, middle-class suburbanites) are symptomatic of this problem. “Moral platitudes” are the coin of the modern institutional religious realm, which “avoids genuine confrontations with the power elite.”
When the left refuses to truly attack the corporate elite roots of economic and political disenfranchisement in this country, then, it leaves a vacuum. To Hedges, this is the danger that America faces, once the inchoate frustration of growing income inequality and disempowerment comes to a boil:
With its reformist and collaborative ethos, the liberal class lacks the capacity or the imagination to respond to this discontent. It has no ideas. Revolt, because of this, will come from the right, as it did in other eras of bankrupt liberalism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Tsarist Russia. That this revolt will be funded, organized, and manipulated by the corporate forces that caused the collapse is one of the tragic ironies of history. But the blame lies with the liberal class. Liberals, by standing for nothing, made possible the rise of inverted and perhaps soon classical totalitarianism.
Being the writer that he is, Hedges at times veers wildly off course. In his need to find modern-day fighters for the cause worthy of being lauded, he seems to be grasping at straws. This is particularly true in his attempts to place halos on the heads of the likes of truly problematic figures like Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, not to mention his surprisingly naïve assertion that political theater, such as written by Tony Kushner, could ever have much relevance to mainstream society.
This doesn’t in the end detract much at all, however, from Hedges’ main argument. This is a blowtorch of a book aimed directly at the self-congratulatory organs of the American left, who too often want to soft-peddle any critiques of the system itself, in favor of arguing over style and method (exactly the kind of empty-headed symbolism favored by the 2008 campaign of Barack Obama). Death of the Liberal Class is potent, furious, and utterly necessary.