Sunday, April 17, 2011

The God That Failed

Death of the Liberal Class – Chris Hedges, 2010

Met a real Democratic Party ‘liberal’ lately? Do you think they care about poverty? Or war? Or foreclosures? Or unemployment? Or even the environment? Most of them are economically very comfortable, and their wallet speaks for itself. But they do spend a lot of time telling you how stupid the right-wingers are, and how Sarah Palin is a loser. Or Glenn Beck. Or any number of obvious targets. And how bad Islam is. And that is it. That is the extent of their 'outrage' and knowledge. It’s more about cultural politics than anything else - a mirror reflection of the religious right's focus on culture instead of essentials.

Chris Hedges is an enraged, former member of the liberal ‘class.’ He was the son of a protestant preacher, a Master of Divinity at Yale and a former long-time journalist for the NY Times. According to him, the liberal class are the journalists, professors, artists, religious clergy, labor union leaders and members of the Democratic Party who have betrayed the working class and the majority of the population, and have instead grown to love, or at least compromise with, the ‘free market.’ And in the process, sold their soul to the devil. His moment of truth was when he publicly opposed the Iraq War at a commencement address in 2003, and was fired from the Times for it.

Hedges wants to borrow parts of Marxism – without Marx, of course – to reinvigorate a moral, left opposition to corporate control. As he puts it: “We have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed.” He should start with the title of his book. Hedges liberal 'class' is really a part of the American petit-bourgeoisie - the non-business owners, professional side.Hedges describes the present weakness of the liberal ‘class’ as similar to historical situations like Weimar Germany and pre-revolutionary, Checkovian Russia. To Hedges, capital needs a strong liberal class, but when that class disintegrates or becomes house-broken, capital’s worst elements are no longer internally restrained.

Hedge’s book is part of a trend attacking liberalism. 2006’s “Disappearance of the Liberal Intellectual,” by Eric Lott and 2006’s ‘Strange Death of the Liberal Intellectual,” essay by Tony Judt were predecessors. In a way, this book is the liberal’s “God That Failed.” Though it is odd that the term 'neo-liberalism' is not used in this book, I think Hedges is correct in seeing liberalism itself as the dead thing. Hedges always sides with small groups and heroic individuals (a la Camus) or intellectuals (Tillich, Neibur) as the main alternative to corporatism and fascism. He identifies the liberal slide into corporatism beginning with the First World War, a war which froze or destroyed the building populist, labor and socialist movements. The liberals enlisted on the side of Wilson’s ‘war to end all wars’ and the ‘war for democracy.’ As usual, these wars were couched in ‘humanitarian’ and ‘progressive’ slogans. And, as always, the liberals 'believed' them.

In separate chapters, Hedges takes on the permanent war society promoted by the liberal class. He takes on journalists who merely reprint the statements of government officials and think tanks, and no longer report on facts; artists who have no interest other than providing entertainment; clergy who are too timid to speak against right-wing religion and war and have retreated into ‘contemplation;’ professors who focus on microscopic issues to avoid conflict; labor officials who cannot break with liberalism and have betrayed their members. And as he calls it the ‘worst of the bunch,’ the Democratic Party, which makes betrayal a standing requirement. He defends the pariahs of American society – courageous truth-tellers like Ralph Nader, Michael Moore, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, IF Stone, professors Richard Goldstone and Norman Finkelstein, journalist Sydney Schanberg and others. Hedges prefers intellectuals who not merely describe the world, but also the world’s contradictions. Of course, it has been said that the first duty of philosophy is the criticism of God and religion. And Hedges has a pronounced moral slant which looks for all the world like the musings of a former seminarian.

Downplaying Labor

Hedges, to my mind, generalizes frequently, and while hilariously correct in many instances, misses details that do not fit into his schema. Like labor. He says that the whole labor movement has been lost since 1948’s Taft-Hartley. And indeed, Taft-Hartley represented a severe counter-attack by capital against the brief spring in the 1930s. As did the anti-communist purges in the unions (and the Farmer-Labor Party), as well as the McCarthyite movement which accompanied it. The 1948 Progressive Party’s Henry Wallace campaign was the last gasp of that time. However, labor still held some kind of clout in American society until well into the 1970s. Labor’s second moment of political truth was really Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers – a seemingly skilled and white collar union. It’s third was Clinton’s passage of NAFTA. And its fourth is the present attack on public unions. In fact, it could be argued that labor activism in the 1970s lead to Reagan’s action (preceded by Jimmy Carter’s calling out the troops on the miners strike in 1978, thus signaling Democratic Party support for anti-labor measures…). The book, “Rebel Rank and File” chronicles the 1970s period of labor activism, mostly from below. Steve Early’s new book, “Labor’s Civil War” also covers this period, much of it inspired by activists from the left. So while Hedges wants to celebrate certain parts of the Marxism, he doesn’t seem to extend it to a thorough understanding of the working class movement.

Downplaying the Left

Hedges calls himself, at times, a socialist, of sorts. That is certainly commendable. In this book, however, he does not. He largely dismisses the 1960s-1970s new left’s concern with the working class, stereotyping the new left as a ‘mirage,’ as being only transient cultural rebels. Au contraire! Here is Hedges: “Only a few hundred radical Maoists, many of them living in communes in cities such as San Francisco, broke with SDS and took jobs in factories … but they were a tiny minority.” Other than this Life Magazine description of the left, he’s is definitely wrong. In SDS, one large section lead by Progressive Labor formed the “Worker Student Alliance” and encouraged students into the labor movement. After the split in SDS, every left grouping went into the factories, except the Weathermen. Black leftists went into the factories in Detroit and other cities. The SWP, an ostensibly Trotskyist formation, turned to labor a little later, and sent their cadre into the factories too. I know of no faction that did not, except the social democrats. This represented thousands and thousands of activists. But the ‘left’ as it exists seems to be a political opponent of Hedges, and therefore he has to minimize what it did. Certainly, ‘liberals’ and social-democrats were not going into factories. They were busy getting prestigious white-collar jobs and sucking on their wine glasses. They were busy blocking with the union leaders who had made their peace with capital. Hedges himself never clocked in at a factory – or even thought of it.

Downplaying the Mass Movement

Hedges does say we need to ‘…nurture, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement.” Hedges, like his other books, revisits the various progressive ‘stations of the cross’ – Thomas Merton, Deitrich Bonhofer, Father Berrigan and Dorothy Day – to illustrate what ‘true’ opposition to decaying capitalism means. However, he also talks about being like the ‘medieval monks,’ who had to preserve a ‘the moral culture’ for the future, in agricultural communities. Other than the obvious absurdity of in-grown theocrats carrying 'civilization' on their backs, Hedges here lays out a perspective of isolated communities creating fortresses of resistance. At the same time, Hedges says: “The fantasy of wide-spread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that – a fantasy.” He makes no mention of creating a new populist labor party to contest for power. Well, then, is the only role of a movement to hand out bowls of soup? Hedges, to his credit, does not disown self-defensive violence by classes and communities. However, he denounces Marx as ‘violent,’ as if defending yourself is not exactly what Marx advocated.

Of course, this is the key question. Various people looking on the present reality either throw up their hands (party on!), advocate retreat into protected dugouts, or theorize about complete overthrow. Hedges, like most commentators outside the revolutionary left, tends to come down on the middle alternative. At any rate, his book is a welcome addition to the literature against the not-so-hidden enemy – liberalism / neo-liberalism. Capital has two main ideologies, and sometimes the whispers of 'friends' are more dangerous than the howling of overt enemies.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, April 17, 2011

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