Death of the Liberal Class
|Death of the Liberal Class|
|Dewey Decimal||320/ .510973—dc22|
|LC Class||JC574.2.U6H43 2010|
Death of the Liberal Class is a non-fiction book by American author and journalist Chris Hedges published in October 2010 by Nation Books. It falls into the literary genre of the jeremiad, which has a long tradition in the United States. According to Hedges, it is a book that chronicles the destruction of populist and radical movements within society, particularly in the United States. The destruction of popular movements, particularly within a functioning liberal democracy, has baleful consequences for its polity because, as Hedges explains at some length, these movements are the mechanism by which a democratic society can "open up," thereby maintaining their status as a real and operative "open society," borrowing this latter concept from the work of Karl Popper.
Therefore, Death of the Liberal Class argues that social movements, having up until now provided "all the true correctives to American democracy," have been undercut by those very same liberal institutions that had once, just a few generations ago, provided both tacit and direct support. This role reversal occurred as a consequence of what Hedges sees as the corporate takeover, management, and co-opting of the traditional liberal institutions in the USA, notably the labor unions, press, churches, universities and the Democratic Party. The "liberal class" consists of the people who fill the ranks of these institutions, i.e., union bosses, journalists, clergy, teachers, politicians, as well as the bureaucrats and technocrats who fill the various intermediary and functionary roles.
Table of Contents
- The book consists of the following six (6) chapters and titles
- I - Resistance
- II - Permanent War
- III - Dismantling the Liberal Class
- IV - Politics as Spectacle
- V - Liberal Defectors
- VI - Rebellion
The epigraph to the book is from George Orwell:
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
Falling into the long American tradition of the jeremiad, Death of the Liberal Class makes a number of sustained arguments. As a critique of the so-called "liberal class", its main argument is that a breach has now occurred between the liberal class and the radical social and political movements it once supported or sympathized with. This rupture is a fatal wound from which the liberal class cannot recover because these movements are the repository of new ideas. The "death" of the liberal class naturally follows from, and is the direct consequence, of this dearth of new ideas. Now the situation is such that the "liberal class" is cut-off from the sustained energy and life-blood that new ideas provide. Hedges shows in the book how, in the United States, movements such as the anti-slavery movement, the suffrage and Civil Rights movement were able to have a significant influence on the historical, political, and social landscape of their own time. But furthermore, what had been their initial phase of birth and growth, moves now into an "older" mature phase that continues to resonate to this day. It joins and circulates in the "common" parlance and civil discourse amidst the citizenry.
This central argument is sustained by various secondary arguments and themes in the book. One of these themes is an examination of how it is even possible (in the first place) for popular movements to have real and lasting influence. Death of the Liberal Class argues that such movements must start from the "bottom" of any social structure. It is here at the "bottom" that a populist spirit can take hold and begin to have a grass roots appeal before its dynamic moves on to having mainstream appeal. The role of liberal institutions is to sort out, and finally chooose, from amongst the welter of dynamic social and political forces moving and vying for position within the culture-at-large, which of those movements they, finally, will support. And furthermore, these same liberal institutions will convince the various elites within the society, to lend credence to the various popular causes and allow them to gain institutional access.
Hedges goes to great pains to show that real changes for a society may, or may not, be "vertical": that is, come from the "top" where the Power Elite operate (a concept Hedges borrows from C. Wright Mills and whose ideas he makes ample use of in this book). Rather, healthy change for a society is real and sustainable because the most significant populist and social movements never achieve "formal positions of power". And this is crucial to any movement having long term viability. A movement has the ability to both sustain itself and have real influence because it avoids bowing to the dictates of what Hedges calls statecraft, which are the formal mechanisms that any state uses to manage power while maintaining the support of the masses.
Instead, popular movements (or any movement for social and political change) embrace what Hedges calls "nonhistorical values", a term he borrows from Dwight Macdonald. According to Macdonald, nonhistorical values include ideas such as truth, justice, and love and it is to these values that real social and political movements must "pay fealty". Instead, a movement's influence erodes when it jettisons these "nonhistoric" values in favor of "historical values." Historical values are defined as a belief that human progress comes through science, technology, and mass production. This is another theme examined by Hedges in the sustained polemic of Death of the Liberal Class, that embracing this kind of belief in human progress has eroded these other nonhistorical values. Finally, the "liberal class" is always faced with a choice, Hedges argues, and that
choice was between serving human beings and serving history, between thinking ethically and thinking strategically.
By serving history and power, the "liberal class" surrendered their power and moral authority to the state. It's an authority they cannot get back, because when the State holds these powers, it will not give them up without a mass movement making such demands. This restates an overarching theme of Death of the Liberal Class. According to Hedges, capitulation by the "liberal class" has allowed the takeover of "statecraft" by corporations who, now unchecked by an independent intellectual class and the popular movements that gave them viability, wield enormous influence in the legal, legislative, and financial centers of power. This corporate coup d'etat was accomplished in the United States, says Hedges, because corporations have no loyalty to a nation-state, especially those corporations that are multinational.
Summarizing this book's trajectory: The liberal class plays a vital role in a democracy, and posits itself as the conscience of the nation. It permits us to define ourselves as a good and noble people. Most importantly, the liberal class offers a safety valve for popular frustrations and discontentment by discrediting those who talk of profound structural change. Once this class loses its role, then democracy breaks down and the liberal class becomes an object of ridicule and hatred. The Death of the Liberal Class examines the failure of the liberal class to confront the rise of the corporate state and the consequences of a bankrupt liberalism, making the liberal class irrelevant to society at large and ultimately the corporate power elite they once served.
In February 2013, British filmmaker Temujin Doran released his film Obey, a movie based on “Death of the Liberal Class”. Doran says the film "charts the rise of the Corporate State, and examines the future of obedience in a world of unfettered capitalism, globalisation, staggering inequality and environmental change". The film is made "entirely out of footage found on the web".
- "Chris Hedges keynote speech at Left Forum closing plenary in NYC - Sunday, March 18th". YouTube. 2012-03-29. Retrieved 2012-04-21.
- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press," unprinted introduction to Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040
- Hedges, Chris. Death of the Liberal Class (p. 112). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition (2010-10-19).
- Documentaries : Studiocanoe
- Obey: How the Rise of Mass Propaganda Killed Populism | Brain Pickings