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

(9 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This is an improved rewrite of a previously-posted (elsewhere) review of Chris Hedges’ newest book, Death of the Liberal Class, which I am republishing as part of a discussion, occurring at DK4 and elsewhere, on “imagining postcapitalism.”  Hedges offers readers an important narrative to explain the disappearance of left politics rather than as suggestions for any sort of reality which we can bring about after the collapse of capitalism.  Hedges clearly suggests a solution; yet its perceived improbability leads Hedges to predict disaster.  In light of the continuing conformity of thought that characterizes this era (as I’ve discussed it in this diary), Hedges’ pessimism seems appropriate to the times.

(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’ socialist cred is established especially well here.

I first found Death of the Liberal Class 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,” although some of them did not turn out to be particularly liberal.  (I will not name names.)

Hedges’ newest book starts with a short vignette of Ernest Logan Bell, a Tea Party candidate running for Congress in an era of widespread unemployment.  From there, Hedges suggests that the emotional impetus for angry people such as Bell is a byproduct of the current status of the “liberal class,” and proceeds to tell the story of the decline of said class:

Anger and a sense of betrayal: these are what Ernest Logan Bell and tens of millions of other disenfranchised workers express.  These emotions spring from the railure of the liberal class over the past three decades to protect the minimal interests of the working and middle class as corporations dismantled the democratic state, decimated the manufacturing sector, looted the US Treasury, waged imperial wars that can neither be afforded nor won, and gutted the basic laws that protected the interests of ordinary citizens.  (p. 6)

From there, Hedges shifts to a short history of the “liberal class,” from its birth and heyday in the Progressive era to its current partnership with corporate America.  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 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 Glenn Greenwald 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 my dissertation was wonderful, though, infused as it was with the “politics of culture” — I know mine was approved, 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 a “mirage” (p. 123).  Hedges’ depiction of the New Left contains a telling comment about what counts as the “left” in America today: “Even today, what passes for the left, the identity politics that all too often segregates rather than unites its adherents, lacks the sense of interconnectedness that disappeared with the lost world of American Communism.” (p. 123)  Apparently this is the actual “left” which DK4 is intended to reproduce.

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).  The postcapitalist future for Hedges is just another dark age.  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 meaningful in its call for resistance at all costs, its postcapitalist vision does not offer much in the way of motivation.  One doesn’t work “for” the coming dark age, one works for the renaissance to come thereafter.


Skip to comment form

    • banger on January 26, 2011 at 16:53

    …but he is still ever the preacher. He does dismiss the politics of the 60’s and misunderstands it pretty thoroughly. Yes, it did meld into the culture of narcissism described by Christopher Lasch in the seventies but it had some very important aspects that commentators ignore.

    1. Consciousness is important–are we really aware of what we are doing? Are we living fully or just programmed automatons–this critique which had, obviously, some simplistic aspects to it, actually was deeply rooted in cutlural developments in art, literature, science, philosophy and theology that were part of a clear path that started (for the sake of simplicity) after 1648 in a clear line of development.
    2. If you are going to claim egalitarianism and Jeffersonian principles throughout the world and yet very pointedly do the absolute opposite everywhere in the world then this is, as we used to say, “sick” and unsustainable.
    3. Life is for enjoyment so why do we restrict sexual activity to only some very narrow approved expressions of it? Why do we restrict the use of drugs that help us explore our own consciousness?
    4. The “New Left” was not rooted in socialism but in American democracy spiced by some Marxism–but just as important were critiques based on the existence of the unconscious.
    5. There was a real sense of disgust with the growth of corporate power not, again, from Marxists principles, but because “work” was not seen as the only reason to live. It was very noticable that, despite ideas promulgated in the 50’s, technology and increased productivity would not bring increased leisure but, as proved to be true, would only increase work and tie us as virtual serfs to the big corporations.

    The thing that I don’t like about Hedges is his humourlessness and tendency to not consider the deeper implications of what is going on and not describing why the American people have collectively chosen to go down a path that Hedges rightly classifies as a hopeless march to a form of feudalism. There are deeper reasons why people choose this path and this regime, despite the massive propaganda machinery, is the path most Americans approve of because it absolves them of the burden of responsibility in a world where certainty cannot, so they think but I disagree, can be found. It is this that those of us who took part in the 60’s cultural/political movements would be able to talk about if asked.

    • Diane G on January 27, 2011 at 22:36

    consideration is that Hedges exists as a Propagandist, or counter-propagandist if you will.

    He will, as most do (and I can be thoroughly guilty of) be sensational to get his agenda across and shock people into thinking outside the box. Without waking, the gloom and doom are possibilities.

    The 60’s were not part of a socialist revolution, or even political revolution in many ways… but in some ways had the effect of moving the dialogue left in this Country anyway.

    Bear with me. As I see it, it was one of the few movements of social unrest and public protests in world history that occurred in a time of economic boon, rather than born of economic stressors. It was only in part that draft that fueled it. It was fueled by what the Trilateral Commission called “an excess of democracy” – an educated class that had a pool of students from every socio-economic background, race and creed… that began to see their similarities and common goals thus demanded that systematic bigotry of every kind not be upheld as Law. It was an Ethical movement more than anything else, the awakening that learned men come to. Yes, I may sound elitist, but uneducated people do tend to fear “other” and scapegoat, rather understand what causes their ills.

    I understand Hedge’s frustration that actual Socialism, or Communism has been utterly crushed in the dialogue in the US. In fact, I was stunned to find out today that a Naturalization Panel asked a Canadian candidate for citizenry if she had “ever been involved in any Communist Party anywhere.” Seriously, WTF?

    I do agree that Liberals as a “class” have failed entirely to make any dent whatsoever in perpetuating any actual change. I mean, even the “New Deal” was a temporary relief valve meant to keep the downtrodden from joining the Communist party enmasse and taking out the Elite sector’s power monopoly.

    I have not yet read his book, but I read every nonfiction with the grain of salt “What is their intent, who is their target audience and what are they trying to sell me?”

    Then you glean whatever insights you find have merit and work it into the broader fabric of other things you have learned. Even this review will color my perceptions, yet not” “set them. I listen to everyone.

    Then I make up my own mind.

    PS: Hope to see these at WWL soon 🙂

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