Death of the Liberal Class

By Chris Hedges

With his intense commitment to social justice, freedom, and human rights, few would want to deny that Chris Hedges’ heart is in the right place.

Where his head is at is something else entirely.

In this latest call to arms, the prolific author and journalist (didn’t I just review Empire of Illusion last year?) describes the death of liberalism and the liberal class and its replacement by corporate elites.

It is a thesis that needs some unpacking.

We need to start with definitions. For liberalism we can borrow from John Gray and come up with a political philosophy that is individualist, egalitarian, universalist, and meliorist. Is this, however, what Hedges means? His own inclination seems to be more socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that), with his representative intellectual heroes being people like I. F. Stone and Eugene Debs. The origins of classical liberalism in notions of laissez-faire economics is hard to square with any of this, and especially Hedges’ distaste for today’s globalized capitalism.

It might help to move to concrete examples, to see who he sees as being a member of the “liberal class.” The “pillars of the liberal class,” in Hedges’ analysis, are a heterogeneous grab-bag made up of “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions.” At first blush, and indeed upon deeper reflection, I would have trouble considering any of these groups to be liberal, at least in the left-liberal socialist sense. But perhaps that is the point, since Hedges feels that each of them has sold out to “corporate money.” Though it’s not clear if they were ever much use at promoting progressive causes. Elsewhere Hedges affirms that the function of a liberal class is to give legitimacy – cover – to the power elite. It provides a kind of “safety valve” for disaffection with bad government. And here we need to emphasize: This is what the liberal class does when functioning properly. That the liberal class have now “become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power” is not a transformation of their basic social role, only a shift in the public’s perception of it.

Understood in this way we have to wonder if the death of the liberal class is a bad thing. This wasn’t murder, after all. Hedges is clear that the impotent cowards of liberalism committed suicide by turning away from a message of progressive social reform (remember, this isn’t classical liberalism we’re talking about here) in order to broadcast propaganda for the ruling elite. The liberal class lost its passion for taking sides – and in particular taking the side of the underdog – and chose to become “objective,” speaking in the professorial voice of corporate management.

The historical framework Hedges constructs locates the watershed for this transformation in the First World War:

The war launched the destruction of American cultures – for we once had distinct regional cultures – through mass communication. It would turn consumption into an inner compulsion and eradicate difference. Old values of thrift, regional identity that had its own iconography, aesthetic expression and history, diverse immigrant traditions, self-sufficiency, and a press that was decentralized to provide citizens with a voice in their communities, were destroyed by corporate culture. New desires and habits were implanted by corporate advertisers to replace the old. Individual frustrations and discontents could be solved, corporate culture assured the populace, through the wonders of consumerism and cultural homogenization. American culture, or cultures, were replaced with junk culture and junk politics And now, standing on the cultural ash heap, we survey the ruin.

Whew! This is writing with a hammer! But how convincing is it?

Not very. For all of the impassioned rhetoric, Hedges remains a dreamer. I don’t want that to seem as dismissive as I’m sure it sounds, but the book simply doesn’t put forward a coherent argument or reasonable plan for change. The liberal class and corporate elites remain vague entities. About the only thing we can say for sure about the former is that they are not the poor and working class. They are, however, capable of connecting with the underprivileged. In fact, making such a connection is essential:

The best opportunities for radical social change exist among the poor, the homeless, the working class, and the destitute [the destitute presumably being people other than the poor and the homeless]. As the numbers of disenfranchised dramatically increase, our only hope is to connect ourselves with the daily injustices visited upon the weak and the outcasts. Out of this contact we can resurrect, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement.

No offense, but if this is “our only hope” then we haven’t got one. The elites do a better job at connecting with the masses through nationalism, which has always smashed progressivism in the past and will no doubt do so again.

As for surviving environmental collapse and climate crisis . . . return once again to that pastoral dream of return to a simpler way of life in the Happy Valley:

If we build small, self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can perhaps weather the collapse. This task will be accomplished through the creation of communities with access to sustainable agriculture, able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture and largely self-sufficient. These communities will have to build walls against the electronic propaganda and fear that will be pumped over the airwaves. Canada will probably be a more hospitable place to do this than the United States, especially given America’s undercurrent of violence. But in any country, those who survive will need isolated areas of farmland distant from urban areas, which will see food deserts in the inner cities, as well as savage violence, spread outward across the urban landscape as produce and goods, become prohibitively expensive and state repression becomes harsher and harsher.

Walls against electronic propaganda? Is this M. Night Shyamalan’s Village? Isolated areas of farmland? Where are those? Millions starving in cities while these gentle oases thrive? Not if the angry, violent, urban masses have anything to say about it. And by the way: Do you know of anyone who would actually want to live on such communes? As I’ve argued before, with mounting exasperation, there is simply no way people are going to willingly go back to pre-modern lifeways. They’d rather die.

I like where Chris Hedges is coming from. It’s why I keep reading his books. But this is a rambling, disjointed effort. I hope before writing another (to be published next year?), he accepts the need for some deeper thinking as well as more strenuous editing.

Review first published online November 29, 2010.

%d bloggers like this: