Death of the Liberal Class


By Chris Hedges

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For decades the liberal class was a defense against the worst excesses of power. But the pillars of the liberal class — the press, universities, the labor movement, the Democratic Party, and liberal religious institutions — have collapsed. In its absence, the poor, the working class, and even the middle class no longer have a champion.

In this searing polemic Chris Hedges indicts liberal institutions, including his former employer, the New York Times, who have distorted their basic beliefs in order to support unfettered capitalism, the national security state, globalization, and staggering income inequalities. Hedges argues that the death of the liberal class created a profound vacuum at the heart of American political life. And now speculators, war profiteers, and demagogues — from militias to the Tea Party — are filling the void.


I / Resistance
To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate
of human beings and their natural environment, indeed,
even of the amount and use of purchasing power, would
result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity
“labor power” cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately,
or even left unused, without affecting the human individual
who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity. In
disposing of a man’s labor power the system would, incidentally,
dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity
of “man” attached to the tag. Robbed of the protective covering
of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from
the effects of social exposure; they would die as the victims of
acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and
starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods
and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military
safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw material
—Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation1
ERNEST LOGAN BELL, an unemployed twenty-five-year-old Marine Corps veteran, walks along Route 12 in Upstate New York. A large American flag is strapped to the side of his green backpack. There is a light drizzle and he is wearing a green Army poncho. Short, muscular, and affable, with his brown hair in a close military crop, Bell tells me when I stop my car that he is on a six-day, ninety-mile, self-styled “Liberty Walk” from Binghamton to Utica. He plans to mount a quixotic campaign to challenge Democratic incumbent Rep. Michael Arcuri in the 24th Congressional District as the Republican candidate. Bell has camped out along the road for three nights and stayed in cheap motels the other nights. He opposes the health-care bill recently passed by the Democratic-majority Congress, calls for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, advocates the abolishment of the Federal Reserve, is against the Federal Government’s Wall Street bailouts, and wants to see immediate government relief for workers, including himself, trapped in prolonged unemployment. He carries a handwritten sign: “End the Fed,” echoing the title of a book by U.S. Representative Ron Paul he keeps in his backpack, along with a copy of U.S. Constitution for Dummies by Michael Arnheim. He says he plans to deliver Paul’s book to Arcuri’s office in Utica.
“I just walked through the town of Norwich,” he says as a car passes and the driver honks in support, “and there is a strong Tea Party movement there”:
The Tea Party movement, for the most part, is just a bunch of disgruntled
Americans. They know something is wrong and they are
ready to be engaged. A lot of the people in my area who are in the Tea
Party are Democrats. People are confused. They are shell-shocked.
They don’t know what to think. But acting like these problems started
January 20 [the date of the presidential inauguration] is absurd. To
single out the current president and not the presidents before him is
not productive for trying to figure out what is going on.2
Bell, who lives in Lansing, New York, is the new face of resistance. He is young, at home in the culture of the military, deeply suspicious of the Federal Government, dismissive of the liberal class, unable to find work, and angry. He swings between right-wing and left-wing populism, expressing admiration for both Paul and U.S. Representative Dennis Kucinich, as well as the Tea Party movement. He started out as a supporter of John McCain in the last presidential election but soured on the Arizona senator and the Republican Party’s ties to Wall Street. He ended up not voting in that election. He has raised about $1,000 from neighbors and friends for his own campaign. Adept at martial arts, he made it to the semifinals of the 2010 Army National Guard Combative Championship at Fort Benning in Georgia, where, in his last bout, he suffered a broken nose, bruised his opponent’s ribs and thighs, and lost in a split decision.
“I am truly terrified when I think about our future,” he says:
I believe all signs point to a real systemic economic collapse in the
near future, maybe even before the midterm elections. I believe this is
why many incumbents are stepping down. They seem to know what
is coming and of course the rats are jumping ship and taking their
pensions with them. There will be nothing the government or the Fed
can do to slow the pain, no more tricks in the bag. I assure you it’s
going to hurt everyone, except of course, the corporate and banking
elite. I say let the empire collapse; sometimes we must die to be
reborn. The political system as it stands offers little hope for influencing
real change or social justice. I propose we attempt to reverse this
coup d’état by attempting a coup of our own. First, we must try to
retake the traditional means of control, power and discourse by
restoring integrity to our sold-out democratic election system. Unfortunately,
this will probably do little good but it is a worthy effort. It is
our patriotic duty to resist tyranny. We must break these chains of
oppression and restore our government to principles based on liberty
and justice for all. I am not confident that standing outside buildings
with signs is going to provide any fundamental power shifts, as power
is not often transferred without a struggle. Inalienable rights are not a
courtesy of the Federal Government. We must stand in the streets and
refuse to be silenced. We must reject corporate-controlled politics
and focus on rebuilding a localized political structure and society. A
revolution is the only alternative to complete surrender and defeat.
Cold, hard suffering and pain will be the only hope for a real revolution,
and this is all but guaranteed. At this point protest must be
transformed into acts of defiance. We must be bold.
Bell grew up in Oakwood, a small town in East Texas between Dallas and Houston. His father struggled with alcoholism and is now in recovery. His parents, who frequently fought, separated, and reunited, divorced when Bell was thirteen. His mother was left to raise Bell, along with his younger brother (currently in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division) and his younger sister in a one-bedroom apartment. There was little money, and his mother worked sporadically at odd jobs. There were eighteen people in his high-school graduating class. With few jobs in Oakwood, Bell, along with several of his classmates, joined the military.
“My father worked two jobs to support us; he suffered from the disease of alcoholism but is a good guy and tried to be supportive father,” Bell says:
My mom had her own set of problems. She is now living in a oneroom
shack. She had breast cancer four years ago and has no insurance
and is living in poverty. I know the system is not working. She
lives at the little house, a one-bedroom cabin on her mother’s land,
where me and my brother lived off and on when my parents were
arguing. We lived in several different houses and apartments with
both my mom and dad. I left home when I was seventeen, drifting
between friends’ houses, then moved back to Oakwood, where I finished
high school, living with my grandparents, who had a profound
effect on my life and values. My life was inconsistent, chaotic, and
working-class. I believe this environment helped develop my character
and perspective. I have to give credit where it’s due. My dad tried.
“You couldn’t stay in Oakwood, Texas, and have a job,” he adds.
Bell moved to upstate New York two years ago after leaving the Marine Corps to be near Shianne, his three-year-old daughter. He and the girl’s mother are separated. Bell found work as a carpenter with a traveling construction crew. He earned $14.50 an hour and could sometimes make as much as $800 a week. Then the financial meltdown knocked the wind out of the local economy.
“Everybody in my apartment building has had their hours cut, are unemployed, or have taken minimum-wage jobs,” he says. “I was laid off last year. I try to find work as an independent carpenter. I don’t have health insurance.”
The dearth of work, which left him attempting to survive at times on $600 a month, saw him enlist last year in the New York National Guard, even though it means almost certain deployment to Afghanistan. The enticement of a $20,000 signing bonus was too lucrative to pass up. The National Guard unit he joined recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.
“We are training to go back to Afghanistan,” he says. “The fact that they are still using Army National Guard, state-level troops, to police the streets of Afghanistan is not good. These units are really overstretched. We do not get the benefits. We don’t get health insurance like active-duty military. But the guard gets deployed just as much. Some of these guys have been on three and four tours.
“I got out of the Marine Corps and went back to Texas for ten months and was involved in the John McCain campaign,” he says:
I really got disillusioned with the neoconservatism. I had never been
involved in politics. The idea that we needed all these troops all around
the world “defending freedom,” as they called it, when we were actually
engaged in nation-building and supporting special interests that drive
these wars, was something I began to understand. As far as foreign and
economic policy, I could see there was no difference between the two
main political parties. There is a false left/right paradigm which diverts
the working class from the real reasons for their hardships.
“The winters [in New York State] are really hard,” Bell says:
There are less jobs and the heating costs are high. I pay about $200 a
month for electric and gas. I live really cheaply. I don’t have cable. I
don’t go out or spend money that is not necessary. It is a struggle. But
at least I have not had to devote forty hours a week to a minimumwage
job that does not pay me a living wage. People here are really
hurting. The real underemployment rate must be at least twenty percent.
A lot of people are working part-time jobs when they want fulltime
jobs. There are many people like me, independent contractors
and small business owners, who can’t file for unemployment insurance.
Unemployment [coverage] is not available to me because I
worked as a 1099, a self-employed contractor, even when I worked for
the construction company.
“People are scared,” he says. “They want to live their lives, raise their children, and be happy. This is not possible. They don’t know if they can make their next mortgage payment. They see their standard of living going down.”
Bell says he and those around him are being pushed off the edge. He says he fears the social and political repercussions.
“I hope there is a populist revolution,” he says:
We have to take the corporate bailouts and the money we are sending
overseas and use that money in our communities. If this does not
happen there will be more anger and eventually violence. When
people lose everything they start to lose it. When you can’t find a job,
even though you look repeatedly, it leads to things like random
shootings and suicides. We will see acts of domestic terrorism. The
state will erode more of our civil liberties to control mass protests.
We are seeing some student protests, but we will see these on a wider
scale. I hope the protests will be constructive. I hope people will not
resort to extreme measures. But people will do what they have to do
to survive. This may mean things like food riots. The political establishment
better work very fast to take the pressure off.
Anger and a sense of betrayal: these are what Ernest Logan Bell and tens of millions of other disenfranchised workers express. These emotions spring from the failure of the liberal class over the past three decades to protect the minimal interests of the working and middle class as corporations dismantled the democratic state, decimated the manufacturing sector, looted the U.S. Treasury, waged imperial wars that can neither be afforded nor won, and gutted the basic laws that protected the interests of ordinary citizens. Yet the liberal class continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues. It refuses to defy the corporate assault. A virulent right wing, for this reason, captures and expresses the legitimate rage articulated by the disenfranchised. And the liberal class has become obsolete even as it clings to its positions of privilege within liberal institutions.
Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. It argued for noninterference or independence under the rule of law. It incorporates a few aspects of ancient Athenian philosophy as expressed by Pericles and the Sophists, but was a philosophical system that marked a radical rupture with both Aristotelian thought and medieval theology. Classical liberalism has, the philosopher John Gray writes,
four principle features, or perspectives, which give it a recognizable
identity: it is individualist, 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 openended
improvability, by use of critical reason, of human life.3
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) laid the foundations for classical liberalism. The work of these theorists was expanded in the eighteenth century by the Scottish moral philosophers, the French philosophes, and the early architects of American democracy. The philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) redefined liberalism in the nineteenth century to call for the redistribution of wealth and the promotion of the welfare state.
The liberal era, which flourished in the later part of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, was characterized by the growth of mass movements and social reforms that addressed working conditions in factories, the organizing of labor unions, women’s rights,universal education, housing for the poor, public health campaigns, and socialism. This liberal era effectively ended with World War I. The war, which shattered liberal optimism about the inevitability of human progress, also consolidated state and corporate control over economic, political, cultural, and social affairs. It 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. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, put in place only when the capitalist system collapsed, was the final political gasp of classical liberalism in the United States. The New Deal reforms, however, were systematically dismantled in the years after World War II, often with the assistance of the liberal class.
A mutant outgrowth of the liberal class, one that embraced a fervent anticommunism and saw national security as the highest priority, emerged after World War I in the United States. It was characterized by a deep pessimism about human nature and found its ideological roots in moral philosophers such as the Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, although Niebuhr was frequently misinterpreted and oversimplified by those seeking to justify political passivity and imperial adventurism. This brand of liberalism, fearful of being seen as soft on communism, struggled to find its place in contemporary culture as its stated value systems became increasingly at odds with increased state control, the disempowerment of workers, and the growth of a massive militaryindustrialcomplex. By the time Cold War liberalism shifted into a liberal embrace of globalization, imperial expansion, and unfettered capitalism, the ideals that were part of classical liberalism no longer characterized the liberal class.
What endures is not the fact of democratic liberalism but the myth of it. The myth is used by corporate power elites and their apologists to justify the subjugation and manipulation of other nations in the name of national self-interest and democratic values. Political theorists such as Samuel Huntington wrote about the carcass of democratic liberalism as if it was a vibrant philosophical, political, and social force that could be exported abroad, often by force, to those they deem less civilized. The liberal class, cornered and weak, engaged in the politically safe game of attacking the barbarism of communism—and, later, Islamic militancy—rather than attempting to fight the mounting injustices and structural abuses of the corporate state.
The anemic liberal class continues to assert, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that human freedom and equality can be achieved through the charade of electoral politics and constitutional reform. It refuses to acknowledge the corporate domination of traditional democratic channels for ensuring broad participatory power. Law has become, perhaps, the last idealistic refuge of the liberal class. Liberals, while despairing of legislative bodies and the lack of genuine debate in political campaigns, retain a naïve faith in law as an effective vehicle for reform. They retain this faith despite a manipulation of the legal system by corporate power that is as flagrant as the corporate manipulation of electoral politics and legislative deliberation. Laws passed by Congress, for example, deregulated the economy and turned it over to speculators. Laws permitted the pillaging of the U.S. Treasury on behalf of Wall Street. Laws have suspended vital civil liberties including habeas corpus and permit the president to authorize the assassination of U.S. citizens deemed complicit in terror. The Supreme Court, overturning legal precedent, ended the recount in the 2000 Florida presidential election and anointed George W. Bush as president.
“A decayed and frightened liberalism,” as C. Wright Mills put it, was disarmed by “the insecure and ruthless fury of political gangsters.” The liberal class, found it was more prudent to engage in empty moral posturing than confront the power elite. “It is much safer to celebrate civil liberties than to defend them, and it is much safer to defend them as a formal right than use them in a politically effective way. Even those who would most willingly subvert these liberties, usually do so in their very name,” Mills wrote. “It is easier still to defend someone else’s right to have used them years ago than to have something yourself to say now and to say it now forcibly. The defense of civil liberties—even of their practice a decade ago—has become the major concern of many liberal and once leftward scholars. All of which is a safe way of diverting intellectual effort from the sphere of political reflection and demand.”4
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.
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 courtiers 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 inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.
The liberal class refuses to recognize the obvious because it does not want to lose its comfortable and often well-paid perch. Churches and universities—in elite schools such as Princeton, professors can earn $180,000 a year—enjoy tax-exempt status as long as they refrain from overt political critiques. Labor leaders make lavish salaries and are considered junior partners within corporate capitalism as long as they do not speak in the language of class struggle. Politicians, like generals, are loyal to the demands of the corporate state in power and retire to become millionaires as lobbyists or corporate managers. Artists who use their talents to foster the myths and illusions that bombard our society live comfortably in the Hollywood Hills.
The media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions—the pillars of the liberal class—have been bought off with corporate money and promises of scraps tossed to them by the narrow circles of power. Journalists, who prize access to the powerful more than they prize truth, report lies and propaganda to propel us into a war in Iraq. Many of these same journalists assured us it was prudent to entrust our life savings to a financial system run by speculators and thieves. Those life savings were gutted. The media, catering to corporate advertisers and sponsors, at the same time renders invisible whole sections of the population whose misery, poverty, and grievances should be the principle focus of journalism.
In the name of tolerance—a word the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., never used—the liberal church and the synagogue refuse to denounce Christian heretics who acculturate the Christian religion with the worst aspects of consumerism, nationalism, greed, imperial hubris, violence, and bigotry. These institutions accept globalization and unfettered capitalism as natural law. Liberal religious institutions, which should concern themselves with justice, embrace a cloying personal piety expressed in a how-is-it-with-me kind of spirituality and small, self-righteous acts of publicly conspicuous charity. Years spent in seminary or rabbinical schools, years devoted to the study of ethics, justice, and morality, prove useless when it comes time to stand up to corporate forces that usurp religious and moral language for financial and political gain.
Universities no longer train students to think critically, to examine and critique systems of power and cultural and political assumptions, to ask the broad questions of meaning and morality once sustained by the humanities. These institutions have transformed themselves into vocational schools. They have become breeding grounds for systems managers trained to serve the corporate state. In a Faustian bargain with corporate power, many of these universities have swelled their endowments and the budgets of many of their departments with billions in corporate and government dollars. College presidents, paid enormous salaries as if they were the heads of corporations, are judged almost solely on their ability to raise money. In return, these universities, like the media and religious institutions, not only remain silent about corporate power but also condemn as “political” all within their walls who question corporate malfeasance and the excesses of unfettered capitalism.
Unions, organizations formerly steeped in the doctrine of class struggle and filled with members who sought broad social and political rights for the working class, have been transformed into domesticated negotiators with the capitalist class. Cars rolling off the Ford plants in Michigan were said to be made by UAW Ford. But where unions still exist, they have been reduced to simple bartering tools, if that. The social demands of unions in the early twentieth century that gave the working class weekends off, the right to strike, the eight-hour workday, and Social Security, have been abandoned. Universities, especially in political science and economics departments, parrot the discredited ideology of unregulated capitalism and have no new ideas. The arts, just as hungry as the media or the academy for corporate money and sponsorship, refuse to address the social and economic disparities that create suffering for tens of millions of citizens. Commercial artists peddle the mythical narrative, one propagated by corporations, self-help gurus, Oprah and the Christian Right, that if we dig deep enough within ourselves, focus on happiness, find our inner strength, or believe in miracles, we can have everything we desire.
Such magical thinking, a staple of the entertainment industry, blinds citizens to corporate structures that have made it impossible for families to lift themselves out of poverty or live with dignity. But perhaps the worst offender within the liberal class is the Democratic Party. The party consciously sold out the working class for corporate money. Bill Clinton, who argued that labor had nowhere else to go, in 1994 passed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which betrayed the working class. He went on to destroy welfare and in 1999 ripped down the firewalls between commercial and investment banks to turn the banking system over to speculators. Barack Obama, who raised more than $600 million to run for president, most of it from corporations, has served corporate interests as assiduously as his party. He has continued the looting of the U.S. Treasury by corporations, refused to help the millions of Americans who have lost their homes because of bank repossessions or foreclosures, and has failed to address the misery of our permanent class of unemployed.
Populations will endure the repression of tyrants, as long as these rulers continue to manage and wield power effectively. But human history has demonstrated that once those in positions of power become redundant and impotent, yet insist on retaining the trappings and privileges of power, their subject populations will brutally discard them. Such a fate awaits the liberal class, which insists on clinging to its positions of privilege while at the same time refusing to play its traditional role within the democratic state. The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power. And as corporate power pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs, the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being abandoned and discarded. The death of the liberal class means there is no check to a corporate apparatus designed to enrich a tiny elite and plunder the nation. An ineffectual liberal class means there is no hope, however remote, of a correction or a reversal. It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and middle classes will find expression outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
In killing off the liberal class, the corporate state, in its zealous pursuit of profit, has killed off its most integral and important partner. The liberal class once ensured that restive citizens could settle for moderate reforms. The corporate state, by shutting down reform mechanisms, has created a closed system defined by polarization, gridlock, and political theater. It has removed the veneer of virtue and goodness provided by the liberal class. The collapse of past constitutional states, whether in Weimar Germany or the former Yugoslavia, was also presaged by the death of the liberal class. The loss of the liberal class creates a power vacuum filled by speculators, war profiteers, gangsters, and killers, often led by charismatic demagogues. It opens the door to totalitarian movements that rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the liberal class and the values it claims to champion. The promises of these totalitarian movements are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth.
Liberals have also historically discredited radicals within American society who have defied corporate capitalism and continued to speak the language of class warfare. The fate of the liberal class is tragic. It has been annihilated by the corporate state it supported, while it willingly silenced radical thinkers and iconoclasts who could have rescued it. By refusing to question the utopian promises of unfettered capitalism and globalization, and by condemning those who did, the liberal class severed itself from the roots of creative and bold thought, from the only forces that could have prevented it from being subsumed completely by the power elite. It was at once betrayed and betrayed itself.
The death of the liberal class means a new and terrifying political configuration. It permits the corporate state to demolish, without impediment, the last vestiges of protection put into place by the liberal class. Employees in public-sector unions—one of the last havens from the onslaught of the corporate state—are denounced for holding “Cadillac health plans” and generous retirement benefits. Teachers’ unions in California and New Jersey are attacked by corporate pundits and politicians who portray teachers as parasites thriving at taxpayer expense. The establishment of charter schools will help hasten the extinction of these unions. The increasing restrictions imposed on public-sector employees, despite their ostensible union protection, are draconian and illustrate the corporate state’s final attack on unionized workers. In turn, labor organizations (for the diminishing number of workers who still have unions) facilitate the disempowerment and impoverishment of workers. In April 2009, teachers at the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights, New York, saw lawmakers cut their budgets by some $600,000 a year. Union representatives not only were powerless to halt the ruling, but also failed to warn the teachers about it. A contract passed in the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, in December 2009 summarily increased class sizes, froze teachers’ wages, and cut health-care benefits. The concessions were accepted by the United Teachers of Richmond, even though teachers in the district voted overwhelmingly for a strike, which the union refused to call.
The liberal class cannot reform itself. It does not hold within its ranks the rebels and iconoclasts with the moral or physical courage to defy the corporate state and power elite. The corporate forces that sustain the media, unions, universities, religious institutions, the arts, and the Democratic Party oversaw the removal of all who challenged the corporatism and unfettered capitalism. By the 1980s, political philosophers, such as Sheldon Wolin, who attacked the rise of the corporate state, were no longer printed in publications such as the New York Review of Books or the New York Times. Radical clerics, such as Father Daniel Berrigan, spent the later part of their careers harassed by church authorities. Economists, such as Michael Hudson, who attacked the financial bubble and system of casino capitalism, had difficulty finding academic employment. Those left in these institutions lack the vision and fortitude to challenge dominant free-market ideologies. They have no ideological alternatives, even as the Democratic Party openly betrays every principle the liberal class claims to espouse: nonprofit health care; an end to our permanent war economy; high-quality, affordable public education; a return of civil liberties; jobs and welfare for the working class.
Since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the corporate state has put the liberal class on a death march. Liberals did not protest the stripping away of the country’s manufacturing base, the dismantling of regulatory agencies, and the destruction of social service programs. Liberals did not decry speculators, who in the seventeenth century would have been hanged, as they hijacked the economy. Liberals retreated into atrophied institutions. They busied themselves with the boutique activism of political correctness. The liberal class was eventually forced in this death march to turn itself inside out, championing positions it previously condemned. That it did so with almost no protest exposed its moral bankruptcy.
“The left once dismissed the market as exploitative,” Russell Jacoby writes. “It now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion.”5
The greatest sin of the liberal class, throughout the twentieth century and into the early part of this century, has been its enthusiastic collusion with the power elite to silence, ban, and blacklist rebels, iconoclasts, communists, socialists, anarchists, radical union leaders, and pacifists who once could have given Ernest Logan Bell, as well as others in the working class, the words and ideas with which to battle back against the abuses of the corporate state. The repeated “anti-Red” purges of the twentieth-century United States, during and after both World Wars, and continuously from the 1950s until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, were carried out in the name of anticommunism, but in reality proved to be devastating blows to popular social movements. The old communists in the American labor movement spoke in the language of class struggle. They understood that Wall Street, along with corporations such as BP, is the enemy. They offered a broad social vision that allowed even the non-communist left to employ a vocabulary that made sense of the destructive impulses of capitalism. But once the Communist Party, along with other radical movements, was eradicated as a social and political force in the 1940s and 1950s, once the liberal class took government-imposed loyalty oaths and collaborated in the hunts for phantom communist agents, the country was robbed of the ability to make sense of the struggle with the corporate state. The liberal class became fearful, timid, and ineffectual. It lost its voice. It became part of the corporate structure it should have been dismantling. It created an ideological vacuum on the left and ceded the language of rebellion to the far right.
Capitalism was once viewed by workers as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Donald Trump, are treated as sages, celebrities and populists. The liberal class functions as their cheerleaders. Such misguided loyalty, illustrated by environmental groups that refuse to excoriate the Obama White House over the ecological catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, ignores the fact that the divide in America is not between Republican and Democrat. It is a divide between the corporate state and the citizen. It is a divide between capitalists and workers. And, for all the failings of the communists, they got it.
Fear is a potent weapon in the hands of the power elite. The fear of communism, like the fear of Islamic terrorism, was used to suspend civil liberties, including freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and the right to organize—values the liberal class claims to support. In the name of anticommunism, the capitalist class, terrified of the numerous labor strikes following World War II, rammed through the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, culminating with a congressional override of President Harry Truman’s veto. It was the most destructive legislative blow to the working class until NAFTA. It was fear that in 2001 allowed the state to push through the Patriot Act, practice extraordinary rendition, and establish offshore penal colonies where we torture detainees stripped of their rights. Fear led us to embrace the endless wars in the Middle East. Fear allowed us to stand meekly by as Wall Street helped itself to billions of taxpayer dollars. The timidity of the liberal class leaves it especially prone to manipulation.
The organs of mass propaganda used by the power elite to make us afraid employ the talents of artists and intellectuals who come from the liberal class. The robber barons of the late nineteenth century turned to police, goons, vigilantes, and thugs to beat up the opposition. The work of justifying corporate power is now carried out by the college-educated elite, drawn from the liberal class, who manufacture mass propaganda. The role of the liberal class in creating these sophisticated systems of manipulation has given liberals a financial stake in corporate dominance. It is from the liberal class that we get the jingles, advertising, brands, and mass-produced entertainment that keep us trapped in cultural and political illusions. And the complicity of the liberal class, cemented by the corporate salaries the members of that class earn, has sapped intellectual and moral independence. It is one of the great ironies of corporate control that the corporate state needs the abilities of intellectuals to maintain power, yet outside of this role it refuses to permit intellectuals to think or function independently.
As Irving Howe pointed out in his 1954 essay “This Age of Conformity,” the “idea of the intellectual vocation, the idea of a life dedicated to values that cannot possibly be realized by a commercial civilization, has gradually lost its allure. And, it is this, rather than the abandonment of a particular program, which constitutes our rout.”6 The belief that capitalism is the unassailable engine of human progress, Howe wrote, “is trumpeted through every medium of communication: official propaganda, institutional advertising and scholarly writings of people who, until a few years ago, were its major opponents.”
“The truly powerless people are those intellectuals—the new realists—who attach themselves to the seats of power, where they surrender their freedom of expression without gaining any significance as political figures,” Howe wrote. “For it is crucial to the history of the American intellectuals in the past few decades—as well as to the relationship between ‘wealth’ and ‘intellect’—that whenever they become absorbed into the accredited institutions of society they not only lose their traditional rebelliousness but to one extent or another they cease to function as intellectuals” [italics in original]. 7
Hope will come with the return of the language of class conflict and rebellion, language that has been purged from the lexicon of the liberal class. This does not mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of working class enslavement, but we have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed. We have to grasp, as Marx and Adam Smith did, that corporations are not concerned with the common good. They exploit, pollute, impoverish, repress, kill, and lie to make money. They throw poor families out of homes, let the uninsured die, wage useless wars to make profits, poison and pollute the ecosystem, slash social assistance programs, gut public education, trash the global economy, plunder the U.S. Treasury and crush all popular movements that seek justice for working men and women. They worship money and power. And, as Marx knew, unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force that consumes greater and greater numbers of human lives until it finally consumes itself. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the perfect metaphor for the corporate state. It is part of the same nightmare experienced in postindustrial pockets, in the old mill towns of New England and the abandoned steel mills in Ohio. It is a nightmare that Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Afghans, mourning their dead, live each day.
In the late nineteenth century, Fyodor Dostoyevsky saw Russia’s useless liberal class, which he satirized and excoriated, as presaging a period of blood and terror. In novels such as Demons, he wrote that the impotence and disconnection of the liberal class, the failure of liberals to defend the ideals they espoused, led to an age of moral nihilism. 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 main character in Notes from Underground carries the bankrupt ideas of liberalism to their logical extreme. He eschews passion and moral purpose. He is rational. He accommodates a corrupt and dying power structure in the name of liberal ideals. 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.
“I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect,” the Underground Man writes. “And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something. Yes, sir, an intelligent man of the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure—primarily a limited being.”

From the Hardcover edition.


On Sale
Nov 29, 2011
Page Count
256 pages
Bold Type Books

Chris Hedges

About the Author

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He spent nearly two decades as a correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, with fifteen years at the New York Times. He is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Empire of Illusion; Death of the Liberal Class; War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning; and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which he co-wrote with Joe Sacco. He writes a weekly column for the online magazine Truthdig. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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