Thursday, August 4, 2011

Chris Hedges' "Death of the Liberal Class"

I enjoyed this book as I fussed with it all the way through. Hedges makes very clear that he holds somebody like myself in low esteem. I count myself as liberal and progressive. Hedges has nothing but contempt for pantywaists who are not "real revolutionaries" like he is. But I look back over history and see so many altruists like Hedges who used their grand revolutionary rhetoric to allow them to "dispose" of inconvenient people. Stalin and Mao certain were "revolutionary" in their handling of those who didn't toe party line (which ended up being not a political theory but a personal psychopaths daily vacillations).

So, I enjoy the book for its walk down memory lane. But I don't trust a word from Hedges. I distrust his politics. I think real change comes via democracy bottom up and requires education and long time frames. He thinks "revolution" comes via an revolutionary clique who "know best" and have the steely nerves to impose their will on a recalcitrant people. They do this as they shower them with words treacly sweet about their concern for these people but the revolutionaries' actions prove they really care not a whit for real people. They love the abstract "people" that they can manipulate with their honeyed words.

Here is a bit where Hedges lets go his rant against Liberals:
The liberal class refused to resist the devolution of the U.S. democratic system into shat Sheldon Wolin calls a system of inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin writes, represents "the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry." Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. The corporate forces behind inverted totalitarianism do not, as classical totalitarian movements do, replace decaying structures with new, revolutionary structures. They do not import new symbols and iconography. They do not offer a radical alternative. Corporate power purports, in inverted totalitarianism, to honor electoral politics, freedom, and the Constitution. But these corporate forces so corrupt and manipulate power as to make democracy impossible.
I reject the idea that the US is a totalitarian state. I don't think elections in the US are empty gestures. But I do believe any political movement that convinces people that they live in a deligitimated society and that elections are a useless fraud are asking for a society that blows up with revolutionary violence. History is pretty clear that almost every "revolution" fails to deliver the promises and all too often delivers a worse, a more oppressive state, than what it claimed to want to "fix". Hedges is literally playing with ideological dynamite and not warning his reader that taking this stuff too seriously could mean that his world can be blown apart and replaced by something much more grim. Further, Hedges completely rejects evolution in favour of revolution, but history shows that social movements that slowly but persistently fight for political change are the ones that truly deliver on their promises.

Here is an example of how he believes that Communism was wonderful because it provided as "sense of interconnectedness". Yep, all that hand holding in the gulag or in front of a firing squad, that's what Communism delivered:
The New Left that rose in the 1960s, was, as the historian Ellen Schrecker writes, "a fractured, deracinated movement that could never reconstruct the ideological and cultural unity of its predecessors or overcome its own divisions. Even today, what passes for the left, the identity politics that all too often segregates rather than unifies its adherents, lacks the sense of interconnectedness that disappeared with the lost world of American Communism." Protests rather than disrupt manufacturing or the systems run by the power elite, usually became, as happened in the protests during the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, a media spectacle. The left and the right played their roles before the cameras. Politics had become theatre.
I could throw similar ridiculous charges at Hedges "revolutionary history". The revolutionists of 1789 were not the same as 1848 or 1871, or the progressive movement at the turn of the 20th century in the US, or the Wobblies of 1905-1925, or the CIO of the 1930s, etc. Every generation gets its own "revolutionaries". Hedges longs for the day when you seized "the factories". Guess what! The factories are gone. Hedges is nostalgic for a Communist past and workers seizing factories that don't exist.

Hedges is in a hurry. He is part of that doom-and-gloom club who are convinced that we are going to hell in a handbasket. This would be persuasive except this same lament has been around as long as humans have lived in cities:
Our environment is being dramatically transformed in ways that soon will make it difficult for the human species to survive. We must direct our energies toward building sustainable, local communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort. The liberal class, which clings to the decaying ideologies used to justify globalism and imperialism, which has refused to defy the exploitation of galvanize behind militants to halt the destruction of the ecosystem, has become a useless appendage. The decimation of our manufacturing base, the rise of the corporate state, and the contamination of our environment could have been fought by militant movements and radicals, but with these voices banished, there were no real impediments to the self-destructive voices of corporate power.
I don't buy this "end of times" pessimism. I've observed 6 decades and I can personally attest that the quality of life has improved, the air is cleaner, I'm pretty sure less people die of pollution now than in the past, and I'm darn sure that "global warming" is over-the-top fear-mongering like the 1960s "population bomb" or the swine flu will kill you or the bird flu will kill you, etc.

I find Hedges to be a luddite. His rant against technology and globalization is ridiculous. His mentor, Marx, made jokes about the idiocy of the rural life, but here is Hedges 150 years later waxing nostalgic for the small farm where work was so hard that most fled it for the "satanic mills" of the industrial age. I had great grandparents who were still rural and I know their life was much harder than their children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren. But that is the glorious life that Hedges wants to turn his militant revolutionaries out to fight so that we can all "enjoy" his particular vision of utopia. I wish "revolutionaries" would realize they have no right to tell me what I enjoy or don't enjoy. One thing I certainly don't enjoy: somebody sticking a gun in my face and force marching me back to a "rural life" the way Pol Pot did to the millions of Cambodians.

The book is full of factual material that is well worth reading (I particularly like chapter 3 on the first half of the 20th century). But I don't recommend the book because the poor reader has to be knowledgeable enough to separate the "true facts" from the political propaganda and half-truths that Hedges layers in. The "liberal class" isn't a class and it isn't dying. A liberal today would feel very uncomfortable in the company of a liberal from 1820. The world changes. Hedges cleaves to "eternal truths", the kind of utopian theory that bashes the sweet promises of radicals to bits and either leaves the world in the hands of psychopaths (Mao, Stalin) or leaves a wistful nostalgia for what could have been (the New Left, Fabians, Owenites). I'll stick to the later. They won't shoot your or put you in a gulag. Hedges is just another "revolutionary", i.e. a petty tyrant who wants to frog march you into their idea of "the good society". I saw enough of these self-important "revolutionaries" in the 1960s and 70s. And I've read enough about the 19th and 20th century to see that Hedges is just another fanatic who would impose his "vision" on people at the end of a gun if he could.

The book is worth reading, but be warned. Hedges is a far left crazy who, like a fundamentalist religious nut, thinks he has a special dispensation to impose his values on you. He completely misunderstands "liberalism" because it isn't the militant "revolutionary" that he wants it to be. Liberals believe in real freedom. Hedges believes he has the right to impose his "revolution" on you. He thinks liberalism failed because it hasn't come out with a "revolutionary program". But liberalism is founded on individual freedom, not collectivist repression. Hedges is so wrapped up in his top-down project to reshape society that he fails to recognize this.

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