Hedges Laments The 'Death Of The Liberal Class' From organizing workers to preventing war, journalist Chris Hedges argues that liberals have surrendered the good fights to corporations and ruling powers. In Death of the Liberal Class, Hedges slams the Democratic Party, churches, unions, the media and academia for failing Americans.
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Hedges Laments The 'Death Of The Liberal Class'

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Hedges Laments The 'Death Of The Liberal Class'

Hedges Laments The 'Death Of The Liberal Class'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Economic collapse almost certain to spiral into violence and totalitarianism, environmental disaster. Writer Chris Hedges argues that he knows who's responsible for that bleak future: the Democratic Party.

Churches, unions, the media, artists and academia, the liberal establishment, as he calls them. Whether the motive was fear, careerism or self-preservation, Hedges argues that timid liberals marginalized themselves, purged the radicals in their own ranks and sold out.

Without a powerful liberal class to check the excesses of capitalism and corporate power, global warming and class warfare could inaugurate centuries of barbarism, he writes.

Well, liberals, do you believe your institutions and causes have failed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR senior foreign editor Loren Jenkins on foreign policy after the midterms. But first, my old friend and colleague Chris Hedges joins us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "Death of the Liberal Class." And Chris, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (Author, "Death of the Liberal Class"): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And all of that from a product of the liberal class.

Mr. HEDGES: Yes. It's kind of, I suppose, a lover's quarrel with the liberal class.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: A little bit more like a quarrel, you pronounced - presiding over the post-mortem here.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, you know, I have liberal institutions are absolutely vital for a democracy. They are that mechanism or safety valve that makes incremental and piecemeal reform possible.

You saw it with the collapse of capitalism in the 1930s. It was labor unions and independent press, a progressive wing of the Democratic Party led by Roosevelt and Henry Wallace that made possible the New Deal.

We saw it again with the civil rights movement, with the grievances of African-Americans. There was a mechanism within the system with which to redress those grievances, and I argue that that safety valve has been turned off. The mechanism no longer exists. And I think we saw that with the last elections.

CONAN: Well, let's take those institutions one at a time. For example, you say the Democratic Party, a lot of people would say that, in some ways, the election before this last one was a redemption of the promises of Martin Luther King.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I think we've had two years to find out that that was not the case. And I think you're right that many people felt and believed and yearned for that kind of a change. But we didn't get it.

What we got was a Democratic Party that I think, since the Clinton administration, has rather cravenly served corporate interests and refused to restructure the society, confront the permanent war economy and make the kind of changes that I think many people who invested their hopes in Barack Obama expect for and wanted.

CONAN: Well, many of those people, perhaps, but you don't win elections in this country running to the left.

Mr. HEDGES: No, you don't. But I think that the system is teetering close towards dysfunction, and that for millions of Americans, including the 15 million unemployed Americans, half of whom have been jobless for 21 weeks or more, the suffering is becoming acute.

We are coming close to creating a kind of permanent underclass. I mean, the figures alone I think are staggering. Having just written a story out of Camden, New Jersey for The Nation magazine, which is out this week, which per capita is the poorest city in the country, when you get up close and see the human cost of what this has done - these foreclosures, these bank repossessions - the fact that one in eight Americans and one in four children depend on food stamps to survive, you know, 40 million Americans in poverty, tens of millions of Americans in a category called near-poverty, and this system has failed to respond.

It has not in any way ameliorated their difficulty and their pain, and I think in a functioning democracy, when you have functioning liberal institutions, you would be able to begin to respond to these problems. Instead, we pass a jobs bill that provides $15 billion in tax credits to corporations. That's not a solution.

CONAN: Yet you point at it yourself. You cited the example of the Great Depression. Things were very much worse - not to denigrate or play down the true suffering that's going on today - but things were very much worse in the 1930s. And a lot of people would argue it was not the New Deal that brought the economy around. It was the Second World War.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, you're right. In terms of unemployment, that's true. But remember that the New Deal created millions of jobs through the Federal Works Program. It gave us Social Security. It provided emergency measures.

Remember the end of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" is about these government-run camps that migrants from the Dust Bowl can finally eat and survive and take care of their families.

So there was heavy government intervention. And I think that with the economic meltdown and real unemployment, as the Los Angeles Times estimates, running around 17 percent by the time you count people who are either stopped looking for work or have poorly paid part-time jobs.

And, you know, people who have these part-time jobs in places like Wal-Mart, you work 28 hours a week, your real wages put you below the poverty line. The staggering numbers of people, 8,000 people a day for the last two years, have been thrown out of their homes.

And yet we've not responded to this crisis. Yes, it has not, as you correctly point out, reached the levels of the Great Depression. But many reputable economists, including Paul Krugman in today's New York Times, warns that if we don't radically change our tact, it will.

CONAN: Yet, well we'll move on to academia, an institution in which you've also spent a fair amount of your time.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, there's been a, you know, a kind of withering of the humanities, those - the liberal arts education that asks the broad questions, the - challenges structures and assumptions and a corporatization of all universities.

Especially if you look at state universities, departments have to raise their own funds, their own grants, often their own salaries. This is pretty hard to do if you're in the Classics Department.

You've had the rise of for-profit universities and a kind of purging within economics departments and business schools of people who challenged what I would call the utopian vision of globalization, the idea that somehow the marketplace should determine human behavior and guide human activity - although I don't think there's anything in about 3,000 years of economic history to justify it.

So, yeah. What we've done is create, in essence, vocational schools. So education is becoming increasingly vocational. Even in the elite schools, where I've taught - Princeton, Columbia, NYU - we create classes of systems managers, people who know Lawrence Summers would be the perfect example of this: highly astute and intelligent in a kind of analytical way. And yet I think they only know how to service a particular system.

So, you know, banking collapses can be laid at the feet of Summers, who was, in 1999, the secretary, the Treasury secretary under Clinton. And yet he's brought back in to the Obama White House to handle the mess that he created.

CONAN: Specifically, you wrote that universities shifted Marxist analysis away from economic departments - most of which had been taken over by free-market ideologues, anyway - to disciplines within the humanities where Marxist critique would not threaten systems of power.

Shifted Marxist analysis away from economic departments. Marxism was perhaps the one of the great catastrophic failures of the 20th century.

Mr. HEDGES: Without question. And it created a way to essentially find another mechanism to enslave the working class. And yet I don't think you can be literate in terms of understanding political discourse if you're not familiar with Marx, that the language of class warfare, the understanding of how unrestricted capitalism works was something that Marx did understand.

I mean, I'm with you. I mean, Marxism is also a kind of utopianism like globalization, like fascism, like any other ism that justifies human suffering for that ultimate paradise. And this dislocation of the American working class, the destruction of the manufacturing base, nine percent of our working class now works in manufacturing, was always justified because of that panacea that would be provided by the global marketplace. Well, it didn't turn out that way.

CONAN: You also champion the Marxist, the communist unions, the American communist unions, including the Wobblies.

Mr. HEDGES: Yeah. Well, The Wobblies were probably better described as anarchists rather than communists. But the communists, along with the anarchists, along with the socialists, created a broad kind of popular front that, on the eve of World War I, were really changing, reconfiguring, the United States.

You had not only socialist mayors elected in some - a few dozen cities, you had "Appeal to Reason" or "The Masses." These socialist publications had broad appeal. In 1912, Eugene Debs brought in a million votes, and the power elite was disturbed by it.

They were unsettled by it. And we saw with, essentially, World War I, Dwight MacDonald writes about how, you know, the war was the rock on which progressive movements broke. And I think that's correct.

When you look at the rise of mass propaganda under the Creel Commission or Committee for Public Information, the inculcation of fear, the uniformity of opinion - because, of course, as soon as World War I ended, the hated Hun became the hated Red, the internal witch hunts - I think all of that weakened and decimated liberal institutions to our detriment.

CONAN: Yet on the eve of World War II, did you not have those same unions and those same communists in league with the fascists as they carved up Eastern Europe?

Mr. HEDGES: Exactly. And that, of course, deeply discredited the communist movement. Remember with the breakdown of capitalism, a lot of people on the left flirted with communism. And what soured them on communism was precisely the pact that was signed between Stalin and Hitler and the abrupt about-face and hypocrisy on the part of the communist movement which swung from being virulently anti-fascist to suddenly being allied with the fascists. So, without question.

But I think that that radical left - and I, you know, I share all of your distaste for communism for and orthodox Marxism. The important point is that these radical movements held fast against powerful corporate interests. And it's really because of them that we got things like the eight-hour working day and the 40-hour week and pensions and, you know, Social Security.

I mean, these were all a product of these movements. And while, you know, it -the communist unions were not something I would have joined, I think that our country was impoverished for their decimation.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges about his book, the "Death of the Liberal Class." Liberals, do you believe your institutions and causes have failed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

In his latest book, Chris Hedges excoriates liberals and liberal institutions for failing America. The liberal class, he writes, continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues. It refuses to defy the corporate assault of virulent right wing, for this reason captures and expresses the legitimate rage articulated by the disenfranchised. And the liberal class has become obsolete, even as it clings to its positions of privilege within liberal institutions.

You can learn more about Chris Hedges' five pillars of the liberal class and how each one has failed in an excerpt from "Death of the Liberal Class" at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And liberals, do you believe your institutions and causes have failed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Jerry. Jerry's on the line from O'Fallon in Missouri.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon. I think I kind of misinterpreted the - your guest's point of view, but I certainly do agree. I mean, if we want to start listing some radical liberal ideas, we might start with the elimination of child labor and then a six-day workweek and then a five-day workweek, state-sponsored land-grant universities, which we have in virtually, I guess, all 50 states, access to education to the common person.

And a lot of people take these for granted, and yet the word liberal is still considered almost an epithet. And I do agree that no one seems to be able to address the fact that there are people among us that are less privileged, less fortunate by no fault of their own.

I think we have come to a position where the easy - the philosophy to fall back on is, of course, to blame the victim, because they obviously did something wrong, which is a strange kind of superstition. But I think a lot of people really don't understand what the liberal philosophies of, say, 100 years ago -because you were speaking about the Wobblies, how many people even know, you know, what the IWW really was - and simply don't understand that, you know, that that has brought us to where we have gotten to, and we're kind of receding from that point.

And, of course, if you look across the ocean to Western Europe, they have what many people would call an extremely liberal, you know, six weeks vacation, government-guaranteed pensions. And I think their quality of life and their stability and crime rates, et cetera, are much more favorable than our own.

CONAN: Well, Chris Hedges, I think you might argue Jerry makes your point by pointing out that all of those accomplishments he talks about were the progress of the, well, progressive movement and the labor movement 100 years ago.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, the liberal class was a bridge. It was a kind of middle ground between radical movements, many of which we have mentioned, and a capitalist or corporate elite.

And there was a kind of collusion with the class, whereby reform was not radical. Reform was, as Karl Popper argues it should be, piecemeal and incremental, and that in fact that liberal class becomes absolutely vital, especially in times of turmoil or disquiet to maintaining stability.

And so much of what we do take for granted, as your caller correctly points out, is the product not simply of the liberal class, but of the pressure of these popular movements which have now largely been decimated.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the call.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ian, Ian with us from Mililani in Hawaii.

IAN (Caller): Yeah, hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

IAN: Thanks. I wondered if two things might also be killing the liberal - the progressive agenda in the United States. I wondered what your guest might think of how much of a progressive agenda might have gotten some legs and gotten some results if it wasn't for the Senate, you know, the Senate, where basically, you know, progressive and liberal ideas go to die because if you don't have 60 votes and a filibuster-proof majority, nothing that, for instance, some of the more progressive items that came out of the House through legislation got just fell dead in the Senate.

And then the other part was the corporate-controlled media seems to be a complete reversal of what the media in a free-press role is supposed to be in a democratic society.

And I hate to criticize NPR, too, Neal. But to some extent, I think that even outlets that are more thoughtful like NPR don't - you know, they focus on the chatter between shades of gray and not on real differences, on how we got to this point and what different alternatives there are to overcome problems and just for the focus on the debate between talking heads.

I hate to do that to you, but...

CONAN: That's quite well, this is a point that Chris raises in his book, both directly and obliquely, because NPR, like some other institutions he describes as liberal, well, very much adheres to the idea that we should try to be objective and present both sides, which he describes as - well, he worked for both institutions for quite a while, the New York Times longer than he did for National Public Radio. But Chris, you say that's a false position and absurd.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, you know, there's a difference between news and truth. News is about recording an event, an occurrence. Truth is about something else.

One can have a story that's factual. The New York Times printed many of them in the lead-up to the war - at least the quotes and the interviews that they carried with White House officials were correct. But they turned out to be untrue.

And I think that there's a kind of cynicism and I don't want to pick on outlets like the New York Times or NPR, which still do journalism. Commercial media has largely, in my mind, walked out on journalism completely for celebrity gossip...

CONAN: I think they still have ads in the New York Times. But go ahead. Yeah.

Mr. HEDGES: And so, you know, my concern is that there's a kind of cynicism, where, you know, you give one side that may you may very well, in the middle - sit in the middle of the studio, know is untrue and then give another side that's untrue, and somehow that's balanced.

And I think that there are you know, we are a society utterly awash in lies, of public relations industries, spin doctors, and they create - have powerful mechanisms to create and disseminate information that are quite effective in shaping the debate.

I mean, I think the health care issue is a good one in that Physicians for a National Health Plan out of Harvard Medical School, all made up of doctors, critiqued the health plan, you know, laid out, I think, a case as to why our for-profit health care industry is inefficient, doesn't work. Thirty-three cents out of every dollar goes towards corporate profits. Forty-five thousand Americans died last year because they couldn't afford medical care.

Made a strong case for a public option, and in essence, they couldn't be heard. They couldn't be heard because commercial media outlets locked them out, and they were literally locked out of the debates in the Democratic primaries because the only persons carrying their banner, Dennis Kucinich, wasn't allowed to participate in most of the debates.

So yeah, there's been a terrible corrosion within the media, and, you know, Neal can tell you when we began working in Latin America, all of the major networks had bureaus, reporters. They went out. They reported. They produced. That's all vanished.

CONAN: Ian, thanks very much for the call. Chris, I wanted to read something else you wrote: The liberal class, believing it had to fit ideas into the new sloganeering of mass communications, began to communicate in the childlike vocabulary and simplistic soundbites demanded by commercial media.

Intellectual debate, once a characteristic of the country's political discourse, withered. The liberal class became seduced by the need for popular appeal, forgetting, as MacDonald wrote, that, quote, "as in arts and letters, communicability to a large audience is an inverse ratio to the excellence of a political approach. This is not a good thing. As in art, it is deforming and a crippling factor."

In other words, any idea that becomes popular is, by definition, deformed?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, popular discourse is not built around ideas. It's built around cliches and jargon. You know, most you know, and your program remains one of the exceptions. I mean, most times that people have on the airwaves is reduced to three or six minutes.

And you can't really explain ideas. You can throw our recognizable cliches that are sort of flags or signals for ideas. But to step outside the box and critique the liberal class and not be a member of the Republican Party or the Tea Party or it's difficult because it's not easily reducible to digestible slogans, or what Robert Jay Lifton would call thought-terminating cliches.

CONAN: Well, here's an email from Louise(ph) in Anchorage: I say as this lifelong 63-year-old, proud, unreconstructed liberal: Yes, yes, yes, liberalism has failed miserably. It has failed in commitment. It has failed in message. We have lost our compass. If we don't get it back, we will lose our country.

Liberal is not a pejorative. We've gotten too comfortable and too afraid to offend. My 30-year-old daughter summed it up well. She stopped attending the Quaker meeting in Seattle, a faith in which she was raised, because they would bake a casserole for any cause, but none of them would go to jail for anything.

And that raises one of the last chapters of your book, when you talk about resistance. What is to be done now?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, I don't think it's going to come through mainstream liberal mechanisms. I think it's going to come through movements. And the true correctives to American democracy have always been outside of the formal systems of power: The Liberty Party that fought slavery, the suffragists, the civil rights movement, the labor movement.

None of these people achieved power in a formal sense, and yet reshaped the nation. And I think that we have to go back to remaining fast to these moral imperatives.

It used to be that within the liberal class or liberal institutions, we cared about the plight of the working class.

And the working class, especially since the passage of NAFTA by Bill Clinton in 1994, has been destroyed. We have allowed corporations to, in some cases, literally pack up manufacturing or factories and ship them overseas. And we've not recovered from that. The service sector, the high-tech industry that was supposed to save us has now all been outsourced to places like India or China. And we forgot that we should've stood fast with that class and not with liberal institutions and with the Democratic Party who betrayed the working class.

CONAN: Here's an email from Linda(ph) in Boone, North Carolina. I think the liberal institutions have become splintered by new technologies and media exposure and, thus, have lost their leverage. I believe this has been part of the conservative agenda.

Just building off that, among the heroes you cite in the book is the great journalist I.F. Stone, who, of course, published his own weekly out his basement for a long period of time. Don't you think the Internet provides the opportunity to spawn a generation of Izzy Stones?

Mr. HEDGES: No. It provides a method of communication. The problem is that -you know, Izzy Stone charged for his weekly and, I think, by the end, had a circulation of about 80,000. And on the Internet, it's very - most people don't get paid. So it becomes very, very hard. I mean, we had this remarkable period in American journalism courtesy of Newsprint where Newsprint had a monopoly in connecting sellers with buyers. Now, with the new forms of electronic communication, these sellers no longer need Newsprint to connect with buyers.

And that period made it possible for journalists to earn a middle class salary. You know, a paper like The New York Times would invest - I mean, when I was in the Balkans, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Balkan bureau, which I ran for them during the war, towards the end of the war in Yugoslavia. That's vanishing. Large city newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer or the San Francisco Chronicle are struggling financially, going in and out of bankruptcy, and they're not going to be replaced. The Internet isn't going to replace that.

So I worry that, you know, first of all, whole cities will go dark. I mean, who's going to go down to the courts? Who's going to do the police reporting? Who's going to monitor city hall? In the end, you have to pay rent. And while there is some good journalism done on the Internet, I think one of the things that disturbs me is there's very little reporting done on the Internet. I mean, most people on the Internet don't even pick up a phone. There's a lot of great and insightful commentary.

But I - reporting is a skill that I value very, very deeply and it's a skill that if we lose, our democracy will, I think, suffer and be impoverished for it.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Hedges about his new book, "Death of the Liberal Class."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Chris, the last chapter of your book is bleak. You envision a future - I was not exaggerating at the top, where - centuries of barbarism.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, that's what we're facing just if we don't address the ecological crisis. And all the climate change reports are out there. It is a crisis. It is an emergency. Those are not my words. Those are Hansen's words from NASA and other climate scientists who follow this. Polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate. Methane chimneys are sipping up from the permafrost, and we're not responding. We go to Copenhagen and sit by passively as Kyoto is shredded.

The economic crisis, I think, is tied to the environmental crisis. When you unfetter corporate entities, when you have unfettered capitalism, everything is turned into a commodity, human labor as well as the natural world, and they are both exploited until exhaustion or collapse. And what we're creating or allowing to be created by not checking against this corporate state or rise of corporate power is not only a kind of neofeudalism but a kind of willful suicide by not confronting the destruction of the ecosystem on which human life depends. So if we don't wake up and take major correctives very soon, then the future, I think, looks very bleak.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. Caroline(ph), Caroline with us from Anchorage.

CAROLINE (Caller): Thank you so much. My question had to do with the individual. What happened to the individual liberal that stood back and let this happen? Was it a universal sweep of greed, as I saw happening in the late '60s, early '70s? And unless our life is on the line, as it was when people protested the Vietnam War, people just don't seem to want to connect to what's going on to other people.

Mr. HEDGES: Yeah. Hannah Arendt calls it atomization, that disconnection from people. And I think that that is an important point. We all are retreating into virtual worlds. We are mesmerized by very powerful forms of propaganda. We confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. We've not held fast to moral imperatives that I think characterized the great social movements of the 19th and the 20th century, and we're paying a terrific price for that.

CAROLINA: One thing you said, which I wanted to emphasize, I was having an argument or perhaps I should say a discussion with a friend. And my complaint was that we do not fund education evenly. And since we don't know where genius lands within the population, whenever we lose whole groups of people, the poor in disenfranchised schools, that we suffer. And their comment was, they had no problem with a permanent underclass to fight our wars. And it was all I could do to restrain myself from slugging them. But being - trying to be non-violent, that was not an option. But there is an attitude that is just beyond evil in my mind.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, that's what corporatism is about. It's about the creation of a kind of oligarchic state between masters and serfs. And you look at City College in New York before Nelson Rockefeller destroyed it. It was one of the great universities in America. And look at the leadership class that was produced by that university. These were usually first generation immigrants, people with no money. Yet, of course, amazingly bright, who had so many things to contribute to our country.

And the destruction of the educational system is one that is essentially empowers this tiny plutocracy and continues the perpetuation of the power elite and disenfranchise and essentially denies the kinds of tools and skills to a broader population that a democracy needs. And you cannot sustain a democracy in an oligarchic state. It's something that Plutarch and Thucydides understood and wrote about very well in ancient Athens.

CONAN: Chris Hedges, thanks, as always, for your time. Appreciate it.

Mr. HEDGES: Thanks, Neal.

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