Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review: Death of the Liberal Class

I just finished reading Pulitzer Prize winning author Chris Hedges’ eighth book, The Death of the Liberal Class, which was published in October, 2010. It is the sixth book by him that I’ve read.

What Hedges means by the Liberal Class is a group of institutions that together play an important and essential role in a democratic society. These institutions include academia, the press, the arts, liberal churches, labor unions, and, at times, the Democratic Party. Through truth telling these institutions help to shape public opinion and constrain the worst impulses of imperialism, war-mongering, and the greed of unchecked capitalism. The Liberal Class draws from a deep well of human wisdom that through literature, art, history, philosophy, and theology that instructs as to what it means to be human and reminds us of the perils of greed, wrath, and arrogance.

According to Hedges the Liberal Class has suffered a steady decline over the past century. The last one hundred years has been a prolonged dying process. Curiously, Hedges identifies the first decade of the twentieth century as a golden age for the Liberal Class. He cites the power of labor unions, the success of the Communist and socialist politicians, the work of journalists like Upton Sinclair, and the passage of laws protecting citizens such as the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

However, beginning with World War I and continuing for the next hundred years, the institutions that form the Liberal Class have retreated from fulfilling their own highest calling. They’ve managed to shoot themselves in the foot and have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of by the Power Elite. (The Power Elite refers to greedy corporations who are willing to sacrifice the lives and wellbeing of others for their own gain.) The earliest betrayals of the Liberal Class came during WWI when the Liberal Class failed to question government propaganda, silenced critics from within its own ranks, and joined up with the drumbeat for war.

Such betrayals, of course, have only increased over the course of the last century. There were, of course, the purges of McCarthyism and, later, the booing of Michael Moore and the New York Times and Thomas Friedman functioning as a cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq. The Obama presidency, according to Hedges, demonstrates the utter inability of the liberal class to stand up to the power elite.

Hedges argues that the American state has succumbed to inverse totalitarianism. What Hedges means by inverse totalitarianism, to use a source from outside of the book, is something akin to what Friedrich Nietzsche describes in his observation that, “Submission to powerful, frightening, indeed terrible persons, to tyrants and army leaders, is felt to be far less painful than this submission to unknown and uninteresting persons, such as all magnates of industry are.” Inverse totalitarianism, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation, puts the banality in the banality of evil. It is not submission to a charismatic leader. It is being crushed by unchecked corporate control and the “unknown and uninteresting persons” behind this control.

Some of Hedges’ analysis comes off at times as a stretch. His book is short and suffers from his attempts to make his analysis all-encompassing. He writes with an overhanded moral and ideological fury that spares nothing in its path. This works when he is critiquing environmental degradation. It doesn’t work as well when he is critiquing modern art. It is unfortunate that he devotes so much space in his writing to these digressions because I believe he does deserve to be taken seriously on his most serious points.

In all of his books Hedges manages to be a better diagnostician than a doctor. He is able to describe what is wrong; he is far less able to advise us as to a cure. Whereas Hedges has been known to present us with a few less-than-satisfactory suggestions in some of his other books, Hedges ends Death of the Liberal Class by sounding his most hopeless note.

Hedges forecasts doom. He says that nothing can save us from the Scylla and Charybdis of corporate control and environmental destruction. Hedges advises us to form communities of resistance in which small enclaves of people grow their own food and preserve moral education and humanistic learning. He advises us against violent resistance because of violence’s corrupting influence.

If you’ve read Death of the Liberal Class, I’d love to discuss your reaction to the book and how this book has shaped the way you think about the current political realities in the United States.