Why Is America in Decline? Chris Hedges on the U.S. Empire & Death of the Liberal Class (2012)
Death of the Liberal Class is a non-fiction book by American author and journalist Chris Hedges published in October 2010 by Nation Books. It falls into the literary genre of the jeremiad, which has a long tradition in the United States. According to Hedges, it is a book that chronicles the destruction of populist and radical movements within society, particularly in the United States. Since these movements are the principal force by which democratic societies “open up”, Death of the Liberal Class argues that social movements, which provided “all the true correctives to American democracy”, have been undercut by corporate co-opting of the traditional liberal forces of the USA, notably the labor unions, press, churches, universities and the Democratic Party. The “liberal class” consists of the people who fill the ranks of these institutions, ie., journalists, clergy, teachers, and politicians.
Falling into the long American tradition of the jeremiad, Death of the Liberal Class makes a number of sustained arguments. As a critique of the so-called “liberal class”, its main argument is that a breach has now occurred between the liberal class and the radical social and political movements it once supported or sympathized with. This rupture is a fatal wound from which the liberal class cannot recover because these movements are the repository of new ideas. The “death” of the liberal class follows from this dearth of new ideas, because the “liberal class” is cut-off from the sustained energy and life that new ideas provide. Hedges goes on to show in the book how, in the United States, movements such as the anti-slavery movement, the suffrage and Civil Rights movement were able to have a significant influence on the historical, political, and social landscape. This influence continues to resonate to this day.
This central argument is sustained by various secondary arguments and themes in the book. One of these themes is an examination of how it is even possible (in the first place) for popular movements to have real and lasting influence. Death of the Liberal Class argues that such movements must start from the “bottom” of any social structure. It is here at the “bottom” that a populist spirit can take hold and begin to have a grass roots appeal before its dynamic moves on to having mainstream appeal. Therefore, real changes for a society do not (and cannot) start at the top where the Power Elite resides (a concept Hedges borrows from C. Wright Mills and whose ideas he makes ample use of in this book). Since they do not start at the top, the most significant populist and social movements never achieve “formal positions of power”. However, this is crucial to any movement having long term viability. A movement has the ability to both sustain itself and have real influence because it avoids bowing to the dictates of what Hedges calls statecraft, which are the formal mechanisms that any state uses to manage power while maintaining the support of the masses.
Instead, popular movements (or any movement for social and political change) embrace what Hedges calls “nonhistorical values”, a term he borrows from Dwight Macdonald. According to Macdonald, nonhistorical values include ideas such as truth, justice, and love and it is to these values that real social and political movements must “pay fealty”. Instead, a movement’s influence erodes when it jettisons these “nonhistoric” values in favor of “historical values.” Historical values are defined as a belief that human progress comes through science, technology, and mass production. This is another theme examined by Hedges in the sustained polemic of Death of the Liberal Class, that embracing this kind of belief in human progress has eroded these other nonhistorical values. Finally, the “liberal class” is always faced with a choice, Hedges argues, and that choice was between serving human beings and serving history, between thinking ethically and thinking strategically.
By serving history and power, the “liberal class” surrendered their power and moral authority to the state. It’s an authority they cannot get back, because when the State holds these powers, it will not give them up without a mass movement making such demands. This restates an overarching theme of Death of the Liberal Class. According to Hedges, capitulation by the “liberal class” has allowed the takeover of “statecraft” by corporations who, now unchecked by an independent intellectual class and the popular movements that gave them viability, wield enormous influence in the legal, legislative, and financial centers of power. This corporate coup d’etat was accomplished in the United States, says Hedges, because corporations have no loyalty to a nation-state, especially those corporations that are multinational or transnational.