Every so often, you’ll read a book or an opinion piece or something else that is revelatory. It changes your outlook on some aspect of the world. Today, I read such a piece, concerning the erosion of liberal power in this country over the past 30 years and its effect.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably aware of the steady climb in corporate power and the corresponding loss of liberal power since about 1980. The narrative, which I do believe, goes that after the social revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, corporations realized that they needed to stay on top, and so they organized. They out-organized us.
In his column this week, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges examines a theme he has talked about a few times in the past: that loss of liberal power, which he calls the “collapse of liberalism.”
The liberal class…refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state.
Although I haven’t read Hedges’ entire new book on the subject, from the article the crux of his argument is that the great liberal institutions of America, along with their elite liberal leaders, accepted the recent explosion of corporate power, rather than resisting it, in order to get access and comfort in this brave new world of ours. Labor unions have largely become complacent rather than militant, universities have become corporatized and teachers of the corporate capitalist ideology, so-called liberal politicians have become promoters of the free market rather than critics of it, and so on.
“The left once dismissed the market as exploitative,” Russell Jacoby writes. “It now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion.”
This isn’t just a loss for those who would like to see liberal ideals implemented. Hedges goes on to explain that historically liberals – again, particularly the liberal elite, or “the liberal class” – have played a crucial role in the stability and success of our government (in some cases, that could be argued to have been a bad thing, but now, as fascism presents itself as a possibility, liberalism starts to look more appealing):
The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal. During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement…
…The death of the liberal class cuts citizens off from the mechanisms of power. Liberal institutions such as the church, the press, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions once set the parameters for limited self-criticism and small, incremental reforms and offered hope for piecemeal justice and change. The liberal class could decry the excesses of the state, work to mitigate them and champion basic human rights. It posited itself as the conscience of the nation. It permitted the nation, through its appeal to public virtues and the public good, to define itself as being composed of a virtuous and even noble people. The liberal class was permitted a place within a capitalist democracy because it also vigorously discredited radicals within American society who openly defied the excesses of corporate capitalism and who denounced a political system run by and on behalf of corporations. The real enemy of the liberal class has never been Glenn Beck, but Noam Chomsky.
What is meant by that last part, about radicals and Noam Chomsky? Well, it expands upon what I said above in the parentheses. Liberals weren’t just a source of reform and a kind of mainstream societal conscience. They were also a “safety valve,” as Hedges says, preventing radicals from gaining too much credibility or power.
For instance, when socialists, like the Wobblies and the Socialist Party, started having electoral and broader movement success (even electing two electing two members of Congress), the progressive movement stepped in. Progressives were largely middle to upper class and desired not to dismantle capitalism, but to change it. In the words of Howard Zinn, from the indespensible People’s History”:
Robert Wiebe sees in the Progressive movement an attempt by the system to adjust to changing conditions in order to achieve more stability. “Through rules with impersonal sanctions, it sought continuity and predictability in a world of endless change. It assigned far greater power to government . .. and it encouraged the centralization of authority.” Harold Faulkner concluded that this new emphasis on strong government was for the benefit of “the most powerful economic groups.”
Gabriel Kolko calls it the emergence of “political capitalism,” where the businessmen took firmer control of the political system because the private economy was not efficient enough to forestall protest from below. The businessmen, Kolko says, were not opposed to the new reforms; they initiated them, pushed them, to stabilize the capitalist system in a time of uncertainty and trouble.
While this seems to be in contrast to the positive things Hedges says about the former liberal class, that is not entirely so. Yes, this is a side of liberalism which could be argued to be bad – Zinn certainly thinks that the limitation of radical change is bad. However, reforms were passed and even though, in the words of Zinn, “fundamental conditions did not change,” this is just one example of the liberal class performing its historical role of a “safety valve.”
Although a powerful liberal class did work to prevent fundamental change at that point in history, we now stand at a different point in history. We are faced with corporate power that surpasses that even of the Gilded Age. We are faced with an emerging quasi-fascist movement. These things could have, in the past, been prevented or ameliorated by the liberal class. Now, however, as Hedges writes,
The death of the liberal class, however, is catastrophic for our democracy. It means there is no longer any check to a corporate apparatus designed to further enrich the power elite. It means we cannot halt the plundering of the nation by Wall Street speculators and corporations. An ineffectual liberal class, in short, means there is no hope, however remote, of a correction or a reversal through the political system and electoral politics. The liberals’ disintegration ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression in a rejection of traditional liberal institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
Rather than the system correcting itself through a safety valve – even if that safety valve has been flawed in the past – we could now be in a situation where “the political system and electoral politics” are insufficient to deal with our problems. This can be seen through the kabuki that seems to have overtaken real problem-solving in government, like the endless debate that took place over a public option in the “health care reform” that was really meek insurance reform, even though the public option had been bargained away early on.
The danger of this is that the right is calling liberals out on their illegitimacy, and utilizing liberal’s failure to create a faux populist movement. Once again, Hedges:
The collapse of the constitutional state, presaged by the death of the liberal class, has created a power vacuum that a new class of speculators, war profiteers, gangsters and killers, historically led by charismatic demagogues, will enthusiastically fill. It opens the door to overtly authoritarian and fascist movements. These movements rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the liberal class for its weakness, hypocrisy and uselessness. The promises of these proto-fascist movements are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth.
Hedges presents a scary, almost apocolyptic vision of our nation. Whether entirely correct or not, it is worth considering and perhaps being taken into account in a kind of self-examination for all of the self-declared liberals or progressives reading this. And while you’re at, consider this:
Most people prefer to believe their leaders are just and fair even in the face of evidence to the contrary, because once a citizen acknowledges that the government under which they live is lying and corrupt, the citizen has to choose what he or she will do about it. To take action in the face of a corrupt government entails risks of harm to life and loved ones. To choose to do nothing is to surrender one’s self-image of standing for principles. Most people do not have the courage to face that choice. Hence, most propaganda is not designed to fool the critical thinker but only to give moral cowards an excuse not to think at all.