Book review: Chris Hedges, “Death of the Liberal Class”

Published online 21 November 2010.

Chris Hedges’ newest book is titled Death of the Liberal Class.  Hedges is clearly a sympathizer with the Old Left, and thus he counts as someone who is open to alternatives to global capitalism.  The problem here, as with Hedges’ other more recent writings, is that his narratives serve largely as explanations of the disappearance of left politics rather than as suggestions for the improvement of politics as it is.  Hedges clearly suggests a solution; yet its perceived improbability leads Hedges to predict disaster.

(photo copyright held by Chris Hedges)

It’s easy to be a Chris Hedges fan.  Hedges covered the war in the ’80s in El Salvador, as well as the ’90s war in Bosnia.  He’s not a defender of the capitalist system.  His column in Truthdig is one of the best things on the Internet.  Hedges’ anticapitalist cred is established especially well HERE.

I first found this book displayed prominently in the “Current Issues” section of Vroman’s Bookstore, a local bookstore in Pasadena, California.  Pasadena (along with its neighbor San Marino), is mentioned on the list of California’s 200 highest income zip codes — so it might be safe to say that a fair portion of the top of the wealth pyramid in California will at least have the chance to be exposed to Chris Hedges.  I view this as a good thing.  I went to school in Pasadena, with students most of whom were far wealthier than I, for a good portion of my life.  Most of my former classmates went on to careers in what Chris Hedges calls the “liberal class.”

In “Death of the Liberal Class,” Hedges declaims the “liberal class” as having been sold out to the political and economic powers-that-be — and thus being incapable of resistance.  It’s not exactly clear how the “liberal class” functions as a “class” with Hedges — there’s a sentence on page 10 where he refers to “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions — the pillars of the liberal class — have been bought off with corporate money”.  Thus the “liberal class” is defined broadly, as the liberals, the progressives, the professionals, and the intelligentsia.  A word to the wise: the product description on the Amazon.com page for this book suggests that “The Death of the Liberal Class examines the failure of the liberal class to confront the rise of the corporate state”.  If, however, the role of the “liberal class” is to build up this same corporate state, then it’s hard to imagine what sort of confrontation the writers at Amazon were imagining.

Amidst all of Hedges’ declaiming of the “liberal class” throughout this book, it’s likely to be missed that Hedges sees a “function” in the “liberal class.”  This is explained at the beginning of this book as follows:

In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve.  It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible.  It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality.  It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue.  It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite. (p. 9)

Hedges continues this description with what he sees as the fundamental problem of the liberal class in this era:

But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims.  Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite.  And reducing the liberal class to courtiers or mandarins, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric, shuts off this safety valve and forces discontent to find other outlets that often end in violence.  (p. 9)

Thus the liberal class, for Hedges, no longer offers an alternative politics to that of corporate domination and rampant militarism.  Hedges’ prose is of the pattern of historical exposition (of bad history) alternating with vignettes of individual personalities, mostly of those whom the author himself admires, individuals who have taken it upon themselves to stand up for the poor and downtrodden, individuals who have dissented from the ideology of the establishment and incurred its wrath as a result.  Thus throughout this book there are quotations from (and interviews with) various figures, revealing the depth of the sellout and the resultant catastrophe.  Chomsky is brought in for analysis (p. 33), and there are interviews with anonymous sources as to the catastrophe of Afghanistan. (pp. 44-54)

In the historical interlude of Chapter III (p. 59 et seq.) Hedges tells his version of World War I (accentuating moments of social regression: Hedges sees the war hysteria which accompanied World War I as the beginning of the regime of propaganda and of opinion management on a mass, scientific scale, as well as of America’s most distinctly fascist tendencies.).  After this, Hedges retells a discussion about history with playwright and director Karen Malpede (pp. 98-104).  The vignette about Malpede is about the Federal Theater Project of 1938-1939, followed by a discussion of Malpede’s own career.  Malpede’s own plays, like those of the Federal Theater Project, are deemed out-of-bounds for the liberal class, and so they do not receive much publicity.

Hedges continues his telling of American history beyond Chapter 3, alternating between quotes of historical figures and interviews of living individuals, through to the present moment.  A dramatic moment is in his retelling of when he was asked to deliver the 2003 commencement address at Rockford College, and then booed off of the stage by a slogan-chanting audience for having the temerity to question the war against Iraq.  (pp. 127-130)

Part of Hedges’ complaint about the sellout of the “liberal class” has to do with his sense that the liberal class fails “to acknowledge its own powerlessness.”  (p. 153)  For Hedges, the liberal class tends to do things which have no political power, like promote “postmodernism” in the universities, and then proclaim that things have been “politicized.”  This underdeveloped argument in Hedges’ book is actually one of his most powerful arguments — one can see that political discussion in America today is itself endemically suffused with conversations about things which aren’t really political.  Your decision to praise or not to praise Cenk Uygur or Barack Obama, for instance, is not political.

Along Hedges’ lines, I have an anecdote of my own to contribute.  Back in the day, in graduate school at The Ohio State University in the early 1990s, our professors used to beautify our quests (as graduate students) for degrees and eventual tenure-track positions as professors by telling us we were writing about the “politics of culture.”  That, I suppose, was to help us feel that what we were doing was “political” while we took classes on a campus largely concerned either with the fortunes of the football team or with the anticipation of Spring Break.  Of course, when the politics of politics does not grant one very much real power as against what Theodor Adorno called the “administered society,” or in contradiction of what Kees van der Pijl calls “capitalist discipline,” it’s hard to grant much authenticity to the idea of the “politics of culture.”  I suppose it made a wonderful dissertation, though — I know mine was approved, at any rate.

At any rate, Hedges’ argument about the “liberal class” rests upon a rather controversial version of American history.  For Hedges, there was a “liberal era” of American history (what the historians call the “Progressive Era”) which was abruptly terminated by America’s entry into World War I, and finished off entirely by McCarthyism after World War II.  (If you’d like to dig deeper into this controversy, I can recommend Sheldon Stromquist’s Reinventing “The People,” or Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism.)  At any rate, when America failed to support those who imagined alternatives to capitalism, Hedges saw the demise of the liberal class.

Hedges doesn’t seem to think anything of the “New Left” revolts of the ’60s in this regard; he judges them as narcissistic.  Generally I find this depiction of history to be a bit too neat; yet its obvious moral power shines through quite brightly.  His verdict on 20th century American history is that it marks the sellout of the “liberal class” to the corporations and the US government which they completely dominate.  There is no hope in the system for Hedges anymore.  Real social change will come from outside.  Survivalist tactics may allow for survival: “If we build small, self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can perhaps weather the collapse” (p. 205).  Civilization is likely to cave in at some point, and everyone is sitting around like sheep just waiting for it to happen.

Once credit dries up for the average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass, once the cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, once water and soil become too polluted or degraded to sustain pockets of human life, we will probably evolve into a system that closely resembles classical totalitarianism, characterized by despotic fiefdoms.  (p. 201)

Hedges also notes, in a rather apropos fashion, the enormous buildup of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, and the predictions of climate disaster which have accompanied said gases.

In the second-to-last chapter of this book, titled “Liberal Defectors,” Hedges lists a series of cultural heroes: Sydney Schanberg, Richard Goldstone, Norman Finkelstein, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, I.F. Stone, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X.  These are people who fought (and fight) for average people, and against capitalism, racism, war, oppression.  Cultural heroes, of course, cannot save the culture; we run into trouble when we substitute heroes for genuine transformation because heroes are typically revered rather than being imitated.

Obviously what is redemptive about Hedges’ discussions of history and of society is the reflection upon what a huge gap remains between notions of social progress and the state of society today.  The fact that it is accompanied by moral praise for the doing of good is helpful as well.  Thus while Hedges’ book is recommended, and helpful (if it isn’t just cherry-picked for the sake of a gratuitous swipe at “liberals,”) its lopsided emphasis upon “problem” might lead us to seek “solution” in greater detail.

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