30 June 2011

An Obituary for the 'Liberal Class'

We last encountered the journalist Chris Hedges denouncing atheists for their smug naivete, but in his new book the leftist author attributes the same sin, with variations, to an entire "liberal class." Death of the Liberal Class is Hedges's condemnation of an intelligentsia that has betrayed its heritage, not to mention its moral obligations, over the last century or so. He declares the liberals "dead" because they have failed to resist the global assertion of corporate power or defend the poor against capitalist extremism. He blames that failure on generations of compromises. Due to the Enlightenment, Hedges argues, liberals have an unjustified faith in perpetual progress and an insufficient appreciation of mankind's capacity for evil. In the Progressive Era, liberals adopted what Hedges considers a blind faith in the state as the vehicle for human improvement. That is, they put their faith in power instead of taking their rightful place on the side of the powerless, who are presumably doomed always to suffer from power. Later in the 20th century, liberals succumbed to the imperatives of professionalism and careerism, putting tenure or simple job security ahead of moral imperatives to denounce injustice. Later still, liberals joined the Beats, the hippies, the ad agencies et al, in adopting an essentially selfish ethic of personal fulfillment at the cost of compassion for simple poor folk. As a result, Hedges claims, liberals have lost the moral will to resist unchecked corporatism and the moral authority to lead any other resistance.

Here's a representative summation of Hedges's postmortem:

By silencing those who clung to moral imperatives, the liberal class robbed itself of the language and analytical means to make sense of the destruction. Liberals assumed that the engines of capitalism could be persuaded to exercise a rational self-control and beneficence -- a notion that would have gotten anyone who proposed it laughed out of old militant labor halls. The liberal class, seduced by the ridiculous dictum that the marketplace could be the arbiter of all human political and economic activity, handed away the rights of the working class and the middle class. Even after the effects of climate change became known, the liberal class permitted corporations to continue to poison and pollute the planet. The liberal class collaborated with these corporate forces and did so with a stunning gullibility. The short-term benefits of this collaboration will soon give way to a systems collapse.

The true militants of the American twentieth century, including the old communist unions, understood, in a way the liberal class does not, the dynamics of capitalism and human evil. They knew that they had to challenge every level of management. They saw themselves as political beings. They called for a sweeping social transformation....And for this they were destroyed. They were replaced with a pliant liberal class that spoke in the depoliticized language of narrow self-interest and pathetic 'buy American' campaigns.

If Hedges is more radical than the typical liberal, is he also more violent? He admits that "There are times -- and this moment in humane history may turn out to be one of them -- when human beings are forced to respond to repression with violence." But he adds immediately that "violence has inherent problems," the most obviously being that it brings violent but not necessarily conscientious people to the forefront. Depending on violence to save ourselves will only pit "monsters against monsters," he warns. Hedges is too much of a realist by his own rights to assume that any resistance can succeed at this late point in human history, but he does want people to resist, civilly if possible, disobediently if necessary. The essential quality for a true rebel, in his view, is a capacity for self-sacrifice. The rebel needn't necessarily sacrifice his life, but he must be willing to sacrifice personal comfort or security (job security in particular) to "nonhistorical" principles -- compassion above all for Hedges. The rebel must be driven by moral imperatives while disregarding practical worries. Moral acts "should be carried out, not because they are effective, but because they are right," he writes. Because every moral act sets a moral example, "no act of resistance is useless."

Hedges's jeremiad is bound to annoy many -- that was his intention. His condemnation of liberal professionalism is problematic, because it makes any liberal who has to earn to live suspect in his eyes. It would seem that if you'd like to have working-class intellectuals, you'd have to have a system that'll allow them to make a living thinking and teaching. Such a system should be less conformist and more tolerant of radicalism, but doing without one entirely on the assumption that tenure tames intellectual or moral inquiry would seem to mean that we'll have to leave intellect to a leisure class or else steer aspiring working-class thinkers to the priesthoods that were their only avenues of development in pre-modern times. Maybe that's part of why Hedges is so defensive about religion. I also resented Hedges's swipes at modernist culture, including his reprise of the old canard that the Abstract Expressionists were reactionaries because they rejected politicized art. Hedges apparently feels that politicized art is the only worthwhile kind, but that way lies philistinism, however compassionate.

My biggest complaint is that Death of the Liberal Class is a poor excuse for intellectual history. It is, in fact, a typical assemblage of circumstantial evidence of the sort conspiracymongers of all ideologies employ to prove the obvious corruption of those who disagree with them. I don't mean to deny that the "liberal class" is dead, but I think Hedges did his autopsy with a blowtorch. American culture has gone through a relentless dialectic process during which entrepreneurial ideologues have kept the left on the defensive through their monopolization of the premise of "freedom," a term that hardly appears in Hedges's book. The "right" has managed to label every "liberal" initiative as some kind of offense against "freedom," and liberals usually end up backpedaling and compromising because they have no answer to the "freedom" argument or no compelling alternate definition of the term to build their own arguments on. While Hedges makes some good points on the distinction to be drawn between individualism and mere selfishness, he has yet to show how he'd answer the charge that he's an enemy of freedom by making similar distinctions between freedom and mere greed. Hedges may believe that the world is so far gone that "freedom" is bound to become irrelevant in his envisioned future of small enlightened enclaves far from the "food deserts" of urban America. But "freedom" isn't irrelevant yet, and if he wants to accomplish something meaningful now, on top of his pertinent account of liberal impotence, he should write a book to help midwife the new birth of "freedom" that has to happen soon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Define "freedom" as you see it. Is it merely a state of mind? Is it a political state of existence? I'm not sure exactly what liberalism is, and I don't necessarily agree that it is dead, but I will say that modern American liberals are spineless, weak and cowardly - far to fearful of confrontation to go toe-to-toe with the greed-mongers and exploiters that make up the American "conservative" movement.
The fact that they don't even counter-attack the accusation that "liberalism=socialism=slavery" that is used far too often by the right, when they refuse to see that their defense of greed-motivated capitalism is a form of slavery in and of itself.