Adam's Reviews > The Death of the Liberal Class

The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
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's review
May 28, 11

it was amazing
bookshelves: appleton-public-library, history, non-fiction, wealth-and-power-inequality, favorites
Recommended to Adam by: Alex Hiatt
Read from May 19 to 26, 2011

After seeing Hedges deliver this talk: I was intrigued to hear him develop his ideas in a book. Even so, I went into Death of the Liberal Class not expecting something as groundbreaking and incredible as it turned out to be.

Hedges' thesis is that there is a set of social instutions (press, liberal churches, universities, artists, labor unions, and the Democratic Party) that have historically advocated the interests of the poor, working, and middle classes against the exploitation of the corporate state. He calls these institutions the "liberal class," and this book is, as you might imagine, a declensionist narrative that illuminates how the liberal class went from its peak in the Progressive Era to its current washed-up state.

Hedges tells this story in journalistic fashion, quoting heavily from other authors (usually contemporaries of whichever period he's looking at) as well as from interviews he's done for the book. This lends a lot of credibility to the argument, and it also made the history a lot more interesting. And Hedges tells some really fascinating, compelling histories. My favorite was probably the Federal Theatre Project, a last-gasp of the liberal class after decades of World War I jingoist nationalism, anti-communist witchhunts, and the concomitant censorship of both. The FTP, a New Deal program, hired thousands of playwrites and actors and other people to write and perform politically aware drama that would get people engaged, particularly low-income people who normally are excluded from theatre. It was so successful at radicalizing and organizing people (art is powerful - when it isn't self-absorbed and inane) that it was the first New Deal project to be cancelled – and it had to cancelled quite violently, because its employees became very attached to it.

The broad historical story of the book is thus: Progressive Era great reformers were brutally quashed by the government during WWI, and never recovered. After that, anti-communist witchhunting kept grinding the movement down until, by the time they ended, the liberal class had internalized the formerly external censorship and limitations. There is still active censorship, of course – as Hedges himself found out quite vividly:

Now, the liberal class is almost entirely subordinated to the needs of the corporate state. Intellectuals act as the conscience of things like the war economy, granting it approval and moral legitimacy. More importantly, there is no serious radical liberal alternative like the old communist and anarchist movements in the Progressive Era. These radicals, Hedges argues, served a crucial role in shaping the discourse of the liberal class and in shifting perception of more moderate (but still radical by today's standards) reform movements, thereby making them more effective.

The liberal class is meant, ideally, to provide historical and ideological context to the exploitation of workers by the corporate state. Today, the class lacks both the organization and ideological coherence necessary to do that, and the contact with its intended 'constituents' needed for them to get the message and be galvanized by it. Hedges' analysis of the alternative – i.e., what happens when workers are exploited but there is no liberal class to organize their frustrations or vent them in reforms, is one of the high points of the book. It gives a clear historical view of movements like the Tea Party:

"The mechanisms of control, which usually work to maintain a high level of fear among the populace, have produced, despite these admissions of failure, the "patriotic" citizen, plagued by job losses, bankrupted by medical bills, foreclosed on his or her house, and worried about possible terrorist attacks. In this historical vacuum, the "patriotic" citizen clings to the privilege of being a patriot [..] The retreat into a tribal identity is a desperate attempt to maintain self-worth and self-importance at a time of deep personal and ideological confusion. The "patriotic" citizen, althoguh abused by the actual policies of the state, unfailingly supports widespread surveillance and permanent war."

Going even further, Hedges predicts that, without the safety valve of the liberal class' reforms, increasingly abused workers will be prey to the cruelest of galvanizing demagogues and even fascisms, as can already be observed, for instance, in the reaction to immigration.

The last chapter was the keystone of the entire work. It is at the same time harrowing, depressing, and inspiring. Hedges believes that there is little hope for the revitalization of the liberal class, and as such, the depredations of the corporate state against workers, against the environment, against foreign nations, will become increasingly severe and result in increasingly tragic instabilities and social hardships. However, he still believes that there is no appropriate, no moral, and no truly fulfilling way to live in response to such conditions than to resist the dominant culture, and to form communities with each other as we do so. This is something I believe in strongly right now.
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05/22/2011 page 59
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