Death of the Liberal Class

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges — Harvard School of Divinity graduate, foreign correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author — turns it up a few notches in his latest work, Death of the Liberal Class, a searing indictment of the American left’s capitulation to the corporatism which Hedges believes is destroying democracy.

Hedges has always been opinionated — in American Fascists, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Empire of Illusion and more — but the tone of his current book goes much farther. It is the cry of the betrayed, as Hedges savages the educated liberal class which is his own natural constituency.

Hedges begins by explaining the historical role of the liberal class:

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.

Now, Hedges argues, corporatism has been so efficiently successful that it has eliminated its “safety valve”:

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 couriers 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.

The result, writes Hedges, is the hopeless anger and unfocused violence we see growing every day among the increasingly desperate poor. With no other voice, rising numbers of the embattled working class turn to the Limbaughs and Palins who echo their anger and fear. Hedges spares no scorn for the feckless academics who play by the new rules, and confine their unheeded criticisms of the corporate state to unread professional journals and specialist conferences which the media comfortably ignore. Hedges cites Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground [also the source of this blog’s title, as it happens] to make his point — and to foreshadow his solution:

In NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND he portrayed the sterile, defeated dreamers of the liberal class, those who hold up high ideals but do nothing to defend them. … The hypocrisy of the Underground Man dooms imperial Russia as it now dooms the American empire. It is the fatal disconnect between belief and action.

The result, writes Hedges, is what Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism”:

Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin writes, represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.” Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. … Corporate power purports, in inverted totalitarianism, to honor electoral politics, freedom, and the Constitution. But these corporate forces so corrupt and manipulate power as to make democracy impossible.

Hedges writes with bitter disdain of the “retreat” of the Left into “the embrace of French poststructuralist literary and cultural theory.” Marxist theorists, he notes, have been booted out of economics departments dominated by free-marketers and shunted safely into the humanities, where they can do no harm to the corporate class:

As long as academics write in the tortured vocabulary of specialization for seminars and conferences, where they are unable influence public debate, they are free to espouse any bizarre or “radical” theory.

Hedges chronicles at length the dismantling of the liberal class, tracing the growth and downfall of progressive politics in America during the 20th century. He writes glowingly of what he calls the “golden era” of reform in the years before WWI, an era crushed by the realities of the war. The progressivism of the 1930’s was likewise swept away by WWII. And the last remnants of progressive politics have now been swept away by a state of endless war, an Orwellian blanket of patriotic paranoia and corporate control:

Liberal and radical movements at the turn of the twentieth century subscribed to the fiction that human diligence, moral probity, and reform, coupled with advances in science and technology, could combine to create a utopia on earth. … No longer would the poor have to wait for heaven. Justice and prosperity would arrive through human institutions.


The years before WWI had offered hope to liberal reformers. … And then, with war declared, it was over. … The cultural and social transformation … follow-ing the war was much more than the embrace of an economic system or the triumph of undiluted nationalism. It was … part of a revolutionary rein-terpretation of reality. It marked the ascendancy of mass propaganda and
mass culture. … Mass propaganda obliterated an informed public.

The result of corporatism is that today’s liberal class is a bloodless self-parody of inner-directed academics, dependent on the corporate system which owns both them and the universities where they spend their talents. They are “underground men,” who dare not make too much noise or draw too much attention, lest they suffer the fate of their few heroic colleagues:

The liberal class was seduced by the ideology of progress — attained through technology and the amassing of national wealth, material goods, and comforts — and intimidated into supporting the capitalist destruction of reformist and radical movements. As long as the liberal class did not seriously challenge capitalism, it was permitted a place in the churches, the universities, the unions, the press, the arts, and the Democratic Party. Minimal reform, as well as an open disdain for Puritanism, was acceptable. A challenge to the sanctity of the capitalist system was not. Those who continued to attack these structures of capitalism, to engage in class warfare, were banished from the liberal cloisters.

For all the abuse Hedges heaps on the compromised and defanged liberal class, he has equal admiration for the few who risked and even embraced banishment, the intellectual and social heroes whose example he wants us to follow. Hedges devotes considerable space to the careers and ideas of activist thinkers like Noam Chomsky, the Berrigans, Howard Zinn, Ralph Nader, I. F. Stone, and Malcolm X. All of them, he notes, were or continue to be marginalized, hounded out of the liberal class by the liberal class itself, for rocking the boat too hard, for speaking the truth too loudly.

Yet he sees in their example the only hope for real reform. It’s time, Hedges writes, to join with the disenfranchised and the suffering in a new crusade of direct social action. The corporate state’s “inverse totalitarianism” will never be overthrown by timid textual analysis or superficial multicultural political correctness. It won’t be overthrown by participating in the sham democracy it has substituted for the real thing.

Reform from within is a futile illusion, Hedges warns. He approvingly quotes Philip Berrigan, who said with a cynicism born of experience, “If voting made any difference it would be illegal.” It’s time, Hedges challenges, to stop talking, and to start acting.


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