The Death of the Liberal Class

No, I’m not misquoting the title of George Dangerfield’s classic work.  This is the title of a new book examining the US experience by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author Chris Hedges to be published in the UK on 18th November 2010 (H/T  the Information Clearing House).   He outlines his thesis in this video lecture (45 minutes) and joins many dots in a thought-provoking way; I shall certainly be adding it to my reading list.  

He starts by observing that we now live in an image-based culture where the images we consume are put together by for-profit corporations who understand very well (very cynically you might say) that we confuse how we feel with knowledge.   He started out to write a book on how one of the key pillars of the liberal establishment, the commercial media, had become complicit with the power elite and had stopped telling their readership about anything that would embarrass that elite.   It turned out that his publisher only wanted a book promoting the mythic version of the press where they remain heroic defenders of the American Way and all their problems are down only to the loss of circulation and revenue.   He declined to endorse that narrative and moved to another publisher.

In reformulating the book, he realised that in fact not just the press but all the pillars of the Liberal establishment have gradually collapsed over recent decades (the other pillars he identifies are the liberal church, universities, culture and the Democratic Party).   This matters, Hedges asserts, because the Liberal class play the vital role of a safety valve and creates a mechanism by which reform within the system is possible – for instance the New Deal, Civil Rights legislation and so on. 

The roots of the collapse are traced back to the efforts by President Wilson and the banks to sell an unpopular First World War to the electorate. What came out of this effort was essentially the first system of modern mass propaganda based on the appreciation that what moves people is not reason but the manipulation of emotion.  After the war the ‘graduates’ of this programme moved to Madison Avenue and modern advertising was born.   During the war the Hun was demonized but immediately the war was over the focus of demonization moved seamlessly onto ‘Reds’;  internally this was developed into a state of  permanent fear, the notion that American democracy was at risk from enemies within.   The Liberal classes proved unequal to the task of resisting this mood and started turning on their own.

He dates the serious rise of the corporate state to Reagan and his dismemberment of anti-trust (anti-monopoly) legislation but is particularly hard on Clinton who he says set out to attract corporate campaign funds safe in the knowledge that the working class had nowhere else to go, politically speaking.   In fund-raising terms this was a great success;  by 1990s the Democrats had achieved funding parity with the Republicans and although they continued to speak in the same language as before they actually did the opposite, serving the moneyed interests rather than the electors so that in the 2006 Congressional elections, for example, they campaigned against the Iraq War but once in office increased funding and troop levels.   This sell out to the moneyed interests has left ordinary people politically dispossessed, hence the rage of grass-roots movements like the Tea Party, the militias and the Christian Right.

Tea Party anger that might have been directed against Wall Street has instead been skillfully (though fairly transparently) channelled and redirected against Washington by right-wing corporate interests organised by Dick Armey (Republican leader in the House of Representatives from 1995-2003).   Popular anger has also been whipped up against the liberal class and he believes this is justified.  Traditionally the Democrats looked out for the interests of the working class but have sold workers out (and now the middle classes as well) for corporate funding so that the Obama Presidency is essentially George W Bush’s third term; it has delivered exactly what a putative McCain Presidency would have delivered. 

Recent years have seen codified destruction of the law, the suspension Habeas Corpus, illegal wire taps, escalating imperial wars, looting the Treasury to bail out Wall Street and Health Care Reforms that amount to a $400 billion subsidy to corrupt for-profit insurance companies who have no compunction about holding a sick child hostage if it will increase their profit margin.  Meanwhile corporate interests drive discussion on the airwaves with courtiers who act as pundits. 

The mounting rage and anger can no longer be expressed within the system and the consequence is that many have retreated into a narcissistic, self-centered, bitter place and an age of moral nihilism.  And the reason the system doesn’t work isn’t Sarah Palin or the other usual suspects but because the liberal class has failed. 

Himself a son of the manse who has been to seminary, Hedges has seen close up the retreat of the liberal church in the face of the rise of the religious right, a movement which by any traditional understanding of Christianity is heretical, incorporating the worst aspects of American chauvinism and imperialism as if Jesus came to make us wealthy or promote warmongering.   The whole language of Christianity has been hijacked.  In short, America is heading for a neo-feudal, oligarchic society that uses a bloated prison system to keep the lid on while in the wake of the dispossesion of the underclass come all the attendant problems of social breakdown – substance-abuse, domestic abuse and so on.   

This provides the context for the growth of the religious right.  As the reality-based world becomes unbearable people take refuge in a world-view disconnected from reality, heretical in terms of traditional teaching, full of magical thinking and obsessed with visions of apocalyptic outcomes when everything will be made right.  This explains why the fundamentalists are impossible to debate with – they are terrified of being pushed back into the real world.

He suggests that this amounts to a kind of inverted totalitarianism.  Instead of a demagogue there is the anonymity of the corporate state;  it purports to be loyal to the constitution, the electoral system and national iconography but has actually so corrupted the levers of power as to render the citizens impotent.  The result is a coup d’etat in slow motion in which the corporate state has won and the people have lost.  Everything is commodified, everything has its value determined by the market  – culture, human beings and the natural world – and all will be exploited by corporate power until they collapse.  That is why the environmental crisis is intimately connected to the economic crisis.  Societies that cannot regulate capitalist forces cannibalize themselves until they die.  In this context Obama has functioned for the corporate state as a brand, a way for it to associate itself with progressive politics and confuse passive consumers. 

He does not think that it is any longer possible to salvage either the environment or the country through electoral politics, he even expects food will soon become a political weapon.   From now on all resistance is local and the rebuilding will have to be done locally.   Top-down has never worked in American democracy.  Quoting Karl Popper, he notes that most people who are attracted to power are either mediocre (Obama) or venal (Bush).   The imperative of the liberal classes is to defend the vulnerable and the question is how to make the powerful afraid of the people. 

So, what lessons can we draw for this side of the Pond?

Well, for starters ‘liberal’ has a somewhat different meaning in the US, perhaps nearer what we would call social democrat but in the scheme of things I don’t think this matters; as an analysis I think his is about right. 

What strikes me is what a fragile thing democracy is and how easily the system can collapse in the face of a ‘control fraud’ – i.e. a successful grab for the levers of power as a prequel to annexing all of society’s resources for a tiny elite.   The epidemic of foreclosure fraud  going on at present illustrates just how far the corrupt Wall Street elite are above the law; no-one has yet gone to jail and Team Obama is deeply complicit in spinning blatant fraud as ‘sloppy paperwork’ and the like.

We are in much better order than the US but I suspect this owes as much to luck as to good judgement or clear-sighted resistance.  We have had the BBC maintaining a reasonably non-partisan news flow compared with the horrors of Fox (aka Faux) News, we have mostly managed to keep the big money out of politics, and we have kept some sense of public propriety.    However, Blair did his level best to lead us down the American route and neither the Labour Party’s own internal democracy nor Parliamentary oversight proved effective in controlling him.  We should worry about this and, in particular, should revisit our own internal party systems to ensure that future leaders remain, per Popper, afraid of and answerable to the members.

But there is no room for complacency.   Neither Labour or the Liberal Democrats have developed a coherent understanding of the challenges we face; Labour spent its years in office working with a reheated version of Thatcherism but with higher public spending; the Liberal Democrats dissented but could never articulate an alternative hoping always for a hung Parliament when they would … err … run things better.   Both parties have preferred to remain, each in their own particular way, deeply conservative and that is at root why neither is in power now on their own account.  Meanwhile, and in sharp contrast, the Tories have proved remarkably flexible, repeatedly morphing into whatever shape necessary to win power.  For the moment that means relatively liberal because that is the least explored corner of political real estate, in the longer term it could be very dangerous indeed.

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