Posted in: Books & Arts

Liberalism’s Dying Days

By | December 3, 2010

How traditional liberalism gave way to corporate power

The Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges.

Nation Books, 2010. $24.95, 248 pp.

The ongoing recession, two interminable wars, and mounting populist rage are all symptoms of a systemic problem. So argues Christopher Hedges, a self-identified socialist and a former war correspondent for the New York Times. Hedges places the blame for these and other troubles squarely on the shoulders of what he calls the liberal class. Modern political liberals, he argues, are merely paying lip service to their old role as social critics, and have become complacent lackeys to corporate power. Historically-minded but full of biting critiques of recent policies and modern politics, Death of the Liberal Class is at once engaging and wildly excessive.

Corporate Conspiracy?

Hedges argues that the true spirit of the liberal class died after World War I. The hallmarks of the liberal class—constant striving for the improvement of society, advocacy for the underprivileged, exposure of corruption—have gradually been eroded since then. Today, Hedges believes, corporate interests exercise an inordinate amount of control over American life through their lobbying, campaign donations, and the mass media. For Hedges, nearly every institution is tarnished by the submission of liberal ideals to corporate power.

Hedges is alternately insightful and hyperbolic in his criticisms of modern liberalism. He often uses an axe where a scalpel would do. He is partial to making sweeping claims, such as, “The corporations, which grew tired of [Ralph] Nader’s activism, mounted a campaign to destroy him.” But these assertions often go unsupported—except by anecdotes. Hedges does detail Nader’s work to introduce major liberal reforms and the criticism he faced for his views, but his idea that Nader became unpopular because of a corporate conspiracy is more paranoid than probable.

Even more difficult for the reader is Hedges’s penchant for trying to dissect every facet of society, no matter how little he appears to know about it or how vague its relation to his thesis.   He pronounces that “iron control of the arts is vital to the power elite,” but the ensuing theory-laden discussion of art, spurned artists, and the corporate elite is unconvincing.

The Death of the Press

Hedges is at his best when writing about what he knows best: journalism. While his discussion of the press can tend toward self-pity, since Hedges was forced to leave the New York Times, it is the highlight of his book. Newspapers, Hedges argues, once used facts to expose the problems of the world but now simply “stultify readers with lists of facts.” He makes a compelling case that the press’s dedication to objectivity has gone too far and has made it less empowered to expose societal ills than it was in the heyday of muckraking journalism.

Hedges is an engaging writer, and his passion alone makes for a compelling read. It is easy to take many of his claims at face value simply because he writes with such certainty.  Indeed, much of the book seems less an argument to convince the skeptical than a cry to rally the faithful. “The corporate elite… has convinced the majority of citizens that there is no alternative,” asserts Hedges late in the book. “But we are not slaves. We have a choice.” The appropriate choice is clearly to follow Hedges’s radical creed and rebuild from the remnants of the liberal class, though exactly how to do so is left unclear.

A New Resistance

In the end, Hedges’s indictment of how corporate money finds its way into so-called “liberal” causes and institutions offers those of us who dare to refer to ourselves as liberal a lot to think about. However, while valid critiques of the liberal class are scattered throughout the book,  his apocalyptic predictions seem dubious. In his final chapter, Hedges imagines a not too distant future in which dissatisfaction with the government leads the country to open rebellion. “We must not waste our energy trying to reform or appeal to systems of power,” he writes. “That does not mean an end to resistance, but a very different form of resistance.”

Even if you are not ready to join Hedges’s resistance (peaceful though it may be), Death of the Liberal Class is a book all liberals should read to reassess their own role in American democracy. Even if only a small percentage of Hedges’s arguments are precisely true, there is no doubt a lot for the liberal class to fix, about itself and the world.

Caroline Cox ’14 is a Staff Writer.

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