Book Review: The Death of the Liberal Class
The Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Liberalism is pretty obviously dead. At the very least it’s out of ideas. Yet the important thing to understand about modern American liberalism, at least, is that not only is it a spent force, it’s also visionary, but only in the sense that it no longer sees much of anything.
Today, in order to call oneself a liberal, one doesn’t even really have to believe in anything. Radical politics in our time has come to mean the numbing quietude of the polling booth, the deadening platitudes of petition campaigns, car-bumper sloganeering, the contradictory rhetoric of manipulative politicians, the spectator sports of public rallies and finally, the knee-bent, humble plea for small reforms. Thus the liberal class, for Hedges, no longer offers an alternative politics to that of corporate domination and rampant militarism. But the point of the book, and this review for that matter, is not to disparage liberalism exactly. It is instead to point out that liberalism in America achieved the last of its great aims a half-century ago. Back before it sold out to powerful corporate interests.
In The Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges slams five specific groups and institutions -- the Democratic Party, churches, unions, the media and academia -- for failing Americans and allowing for the creation of a "permanent underclass." Hedges says that, for motives ranging from self-preservation to careerism, the "liberal establishment" purged radicals from its own ranks and, as a result, lost its checks on capitalism and corporate power. He says that this dynamic is also to blame for turning elite, Ivy League universities into, essentially, vocational schools. "We create classes of systems managers," Hedges says, "highly astute and intelligent in a kind of analytical way … [who] only know how to service a particular system." (In other words highly educated, although narrowly gifted, capitalist cucks).
The goals of today’s liberalism are minor and uninspiring. It has little else to do than tinker with the welfare state, ban things deemed dangerous or unhealthy and oppose conservatives. That has been the case for half a century. American liberalism’s last great triumphs came during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare. Since then it has accomplished no original reforms, only refined or expanded old ones. It’s true that liberals have won two major victories on personal autonomy: abortion rights in 1973 and same-sex marriage in 2015. But both came about as a result of court decisions. Neither of which could have passed the U.S. Congress.
In what is perhaps the best evidence that liberals are out of ideas is that they are busy regressing on the ones they do have. An obvious example: Liberals since John Stuart Mill’s time have espoused freedom of speech almost as a matter of religious faith, but one now finds astonishingly few liberals prepared to defend it in a principled way, and quite a few urging governments and corporations to censor unpopular views. Most liberals no longer see much of a problem with campus speech codes. And liberals often seem to believe that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech applies to everything but political speech.
Liberal democracies and center-left parties across Europe have reached a similar stasis. But stasis is itself the problem, because liberalism is a restless philosophy. It must always be doing something. To rest, or to express satisfaction with the state of things, is to become conservative. And it is a measure of liberalism’s lethargy that Democratic primary voters in 2020, for example, have fixated so exclusively on Donald Trump’s badness. Trump has inspired liberals in a way that nothing else has in many years. But soon he will be gone, and then what?
Anger and a sense of betrayal: these are what tens of millions of disenfranchised workers express. These emotions spring from the failure of the liberal class over the past three decades to protect the minimal interests of the working class as corporations dismantled the democratic state, decimated the manufacturing sector, looted the U.S. Treasury, waged imperial wars that can neither be afforded nor won, and gutted the basic laws that protected the interests of ordinary citizens. Yet the liberal class continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues. It refuses to defy the corporate assault. A virulent right wing, for this reason, captures and expresses the legitimate rage articulated by the disenfranchised. Making the liberal class obsolete even as it clings to its positions of privilege within liberal institutions.
A sizable portion of the Democratic electorate, especially its younger members, have wearied of this state of affairs. They want something more to do than tinker and emote. Who can blame them? But liberals, especially of the kind found in the Democratic Party, aren’t ready for revolution. They appear determined to choose a placeholder candidate, a man who offers no new ideas and talks mainly about the past. (Mr. Biden offers exactly the kind of backward-looking vision they seem to crave. A vision of an exhausted and empty-headed liberalism).
This is a blowtorch of a book aimed directly at the self-congratulatory organs of the liberal class, who too often want to soft-peddle any critiques of the system itself, in favor of arguing over style and method. Yet, now is the time for rational, creative, and humanitarian thinking about love and justice. And a serious reading of The Death of the Liberal Class could well get the process going. The book is both well-written and, more importantly, readable. And the author offers numerous sources in the text for further study by those who wish to explore further the implications of any of his points or historical discussions. It may be unsettling reading at times, but so is that foreboding feeling when you know things are very wrong, but you can't quite find the words to truly explain and describe those ills or their origins. Making this book both potent and furious. But also, utterly necessary.