At an afternoon President’s Lecture Series seminar on 3 February at the University of Montana, Chris Hedges described the publishing history of his requiem for America, The Death of the Liberal Class. The Knopf publishing house rejected an early draft. The editors did not like his “negativity.” Appreciative readers of the book owe thanks to Nation Books, which, possessing a large capacity for negativity, published it in 2010.
In his University of Montana seminar, Hedges began by summarizing the main points of the book. Political liberalism once stood for government intervention on the side of workers and farmers against the country’s power elite. No more. The liberal tradition began to decline when, to save Wall Street’s loans to the Allies, America intervened in the Great War. The country would never be the same again. The onset of the Reagan era dramatically accelerated this decline. Liberals of the classic American type have gone missing, their places taken by faux-liberals, whose obsessive concern with identity politics is a poor substitute for a serious commitment to the common good. The corporate assault on the economic independence and well-being of the American people has taken place without effective liberal opposition. Worse, liberals by turns have been complicit or taken a leadership role in the assault. The globalized economy that has brought ruin to American workers and farmers has had bi-partisan support in Washington. In his book, Hedges only could see a decayed and frightened liberalism that lacked the inclination and the force to confront the investing classes and their political adjuncts. The universities, which once had played an honorable role in criticizing the status quo, had merged with the instruments of corporate oppression, approximately in the manner of the even more subservient news and entertainment media. Indeed, all the old pillars of the liberal order either had collapsed or turned traitor: the Democratic Party, labor, the institutional churches, and even art, which had dwindled into a trite display of technical innovations and, as a political force, had become imbecile. In 2010, he could not detect even a minuscule formation of a serious counter-offensive against the lords of creation. The only question at that time concerned, as he put it in the book’s most incendiary sentence, the moment when a violent reaction by the people would be justified. The terrifying situation described in the book, he wrote, “demands a return to radical militancy that asks the uncomfortable question of whether it is time to break laws that, if followed, ensure our annihilation.” Violence, he continued, must be avoided, “although finally not at the expense of our own survival.” He preferred non-violence, but “Why continue to obey the laws and dictates of our executioners?”
The seminar gave Hedges an opportunity to update his book. He spoke for an hour and then took questions from the audience. In his remarks, he did not describe a Lazarus-like return of the liberals from the dead. The crypt remained hermetically sealed, the cadavers inside insusceptible to reanimation. Kinetic energy, taking the forms it does in nature and in history, accounted for a quantum leap in the negativity so disprized by the editors at Knopf. Since the book’s publication, the revelations of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden have disclosed the existence of a government-run surveillance system that for intrusiveness and manipulation leaves even the imagination of George Orwell toiling in the rear. The government-operated technology of 1984 only took effect in Oceania, but our leaders have devised the most efficient spying apparatus in history or in literature and have the power to monitor the whole world. Since 2010, Hedges also has had three more years in which to observe President Obama. This added time for observation has confirmed Hedges in his conviction that the current President is an intelligent, well-spoken, and cynical version of George Bush, who at least can be given credit for actually believing the script that his neoconservative advisers put before him for recitation to the American people. In some ways, Obama is worse than Bush, according to Hedges. For example, he holds the record for invoking the Espionage Act of 1917, which remains an express prohibition, held in reserve by the government to use at its pleasure, on the First Amendment rights of the American people. For a former professor of Constitutional Law to go down in history as the Espionage Act President seems starkly and uniquely egregious to Hedges. Moreover, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, with its notorious Section 1021, which strips away the constitutional protection of due process. Under this provision, the government can arrest anyone accused of terror-related crimes and hold that individual without trial. President Obama, too, bore direct, personal responsibility, in Hedges’ telling, for shutting down the Occupy Movement, yet another infallible sign of the administration’s ultimate concern with maintaining the exploitative status quo, instead of challenging it in the interest of the people. The exploitation of human beings and the environment continues unabated. Wealth and political power remain concentrated in the hands of the nation’s top shareholders. The forces of death continue unimpeded, and they are driving society toward a future of neo-feudalism, if indeed there is to be any future at all, taking into account the dire ecological threats to the planet. If we are to have a future, we will need mass acts of civil disobedience against a system designed and operated for the empowerment and enrichment of an economic aristocracy, the paramount chiefs of which make the robber barons of the Middle Ages look like apostles of moral rectitude and social justice. Several times during the seminar and on other occasions during his UM visit, Hedges voiced pessimism about the world’s chances of pulling out of its American-driven nosedive into ultimate destruction and doom. Yet his fervor and passion contradicted the pessimism. He seems to be living by the adage that some battles are worth fighting, even if they are lost in advance.
9 February 2014