Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges (Nation Books, N.Y., 2010)
I have been reading another book. Usually I only read one book at a time, but as this book promised to confirm most everything I believe, how could I resist from reading it immediately? Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who spent almost twenty years as a foreign correspondent and fifteen years at the New York Times. A fellow of the Nation Institute, he is currently a columnist for Truthdig and also writes for a number of other publications.
By the liberal class Hedges has in mind such disparate groups as labor unions, universities, (what used to be) the Democratic Party, churches, socialists, communists, feminists, and all those who fought stubbornly and successfully for social reforms that had to do with working conditions in factories, the organization of labor unions, civil and women’s rights, universal education, public health, housing for the poor, and socialism. They were successful in that they did bring about the 40 hour work week, the eight hour work day, collective bargaining, at least token holidays, and they also made inroads on civil and women’s rights. They were vocal and active and had a significant presence in our affairs.
The liberal era flourished during the later years of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. The four basic tenets of classical liberalism, as written by John Gray (a philosopher):
“…it is individualistic, in that it asserts the moral primacy of the person against any collectivity; egalitarian, in that it confers on all human beings the same basic moral status; universalist, affirming the moral unity of the species; and meliorist, in that it asserts the open-ended improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life.”
It is Hedges argument that liberalism of this sort began its demise following WW I, which shattered the optimism of the liberals about the inevitability of human progress, but more importantly, consolidated state and corporate control over political, economic, social and cultural affairs. According to Hedges it also “…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.”
Thus was brought about over time the death of the liberal class. Organizations like the Communist Party were quickly forced out of the political scene entirely, the Socialists soon followed. Indeed, socialism has been demonized to the point that many would sooner die than see socialism in America (even though America is importantly socialist already). All other remnants of liberalism were slowly seduced or forced into the new corporate controlled culture or were simply ignored. While unions were still permitted their character changed dramatically as they began to become involved in working with management rather than against it. Liberal churches also succumbed to the demands of the new corporate culture and began to conform. Universities that had once been bastions of academic freedom and sometimes held radical or even semi-radical beliefs were slowly changed into something more akin to business schools, as budgets for the humanities and arts fell more and more by the wayside in favor of professional schools like Business, Medicine, and Nursing. The idea of a university as a place for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has by now disappeared entirely as the primary reason for attending a university or college is believed to be to get a job. The university itself has become a kind of trade school. The Democratic Party itself became much more conservative to resemble the Republican Party more and more, so we now often hear complaints that we really have only a one party system. This has been accomplished through propaganda and the creation of a mass culture that places importance on the self and material possessions rather than community.
In this new culture we now have there is little tolerance for radicals of any kind, or for that matter even anyone who offers a serious challenge to the status quo. If you don’t conform you soon find yourself ignored, isolated, mocked, and sometimes vilified. The media, now controlled by a very small number of corporations, can make or break candidates at will. Consider what happened to Al Gore, John Kerry, or Howard Dean, all of whom had their campaigns destroyed mainly by the media. Look at what they do to people like Dennis Kucinich by mostly ignoring him and not taking his candidacy seriously. People like Chomsky continue their criticisms but are painted as merely disgruntled radicals. Bernie Sanders, God bless him, is virtually a one man campaign against corruption, but (horrors) he’s a socialist! Ralph Nader, for example, has received this treatment to the point where he has trouble even getting a hearing anymore.
This business of bringing about conformity through the media began during WWI when President Wilson formed The Committee for Public Information (CPI). This was headed by a man named George Creel and “Its goal was not, as Creel confessed simply to impart pro-war messages but to discredit those who attempted to challenge the nation’s involvement in the conflict.” He was very successful at this so that news that had once reflected local discourses and public discussions came to be dictated from above (sound familiar). And never forget the great communist scare of the 1950’s when dozens of perfectly respectable citizens were blacklisted and lost their jobs, university professors that never recovered, actors and writers, a few of whom did survive.
I cannot tell you as forcefully and completely as Hedges has in this book the forces now aligned against a liberal society. He has made a case for the former liberal class selling out to the powers that be and the obstacles that now stand in the way of a just, sensible, and compassionate society. I would urge all serious people to read this fine book. Of course if you are as cynical as I am at times, you might argue that by suggesting merely rebellion rather than revolution Hedges has himself sold out to the system.