Friday, December 23, 2011

Musings on the Death of Liberalism and the Triumph of the Corporate State

I recently had my Comparative History class read Chris Hedges's book The Death of the Liberal Class. I had not read it before, which is one of the reasons I had my class read it. I have wanted to read Death for sometime and assigning it to a class for reading and discussion seemed a good way to make myself read a book and to get class discussion going about what has happened in the US since the "Reagan Revolution".

Hedges nicely lays out the thesis of The Death of the Liberal Class in the first chapter of the book, “Resistance”. In that chapter Hedges argues that the liberal class, which, he claims, arose as a response to the decline of feudalism and church totalitarianism, has, over the last thirty years of neo-liberal dominance, betrayed its very reason for being. Once the defenders of the rule of law, the supremacy of supreme reason, universal moral values, individualism, and moral egalitarianism, the liberal class has, argues Hedges, become, since the Thatcher and Reagan "revolutions", complicit with the corporate state. The liberal class in good corporate state fashion, claims Hedges, has helped purge leftists, leftists who once kept it honest, from its midst and from American mainstream political and economic culture in general. In the process it has given up its once cherished belief in human progress, and it has allowed the virulent right to capture populist rage, legitimate populist rage, against the government and against Wall Street. This failure of the liberal class has, argues Hedges, left the poor that the liberal class once sought to protect and whose vulnerable position it once sought to meliorate through social insurance and regulatory schemes, particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of capitalist oligarchic boom and bust society.

With the triumph of the corporate state a contradiction has reared its ugly head in Corporate State America, claims Hedges. Liberals, claims Hedges, are necessary to maintain several cherished liberal myths including the belief that everyone in America has an equal opportunity to become a millionaire or at least have a comfortable middle class life, and the myth that constitutional reforms that benefit the disenfranchised are possible through legal channels. After its successful purge of the American left by the corporate state, a purge founded on fears generated by the corporate state about communism, anarchism, and socialism, however, the corporate state, which always requires an enemy, has now turned its ire on its once liberal ally in the war against the left, and made it, the new internal enemy, an internal enemy, they claim, that is undermining the American way of life.

By turning liberals into the enemy at home, however, the corporate state has lost the buffer that liberals once provided, thanks to its promises of the possibility of reform and progress, between it and those who haven't by and large benefited from the joys of corporate America. And now that those liberal myths, liberal myths that were once partially true, that myth that every American can live the American dream and that the legal system can protect us from the worst aspects of corporate oligarchy, have been shattered, many populists, many disenfranchised populists, perhaps even without realizing it consciously, are angry at liberalism for failing them.

All of this has left liberals in a precarious position. Today all emasculated liberals can do is to go along with the main political arm of the corporate state, the Republican Party, and support things like deregulation, including deregulation of the banks, the elimination of firewalls between investment banks and commercial banks, acts that let loose casino capitalist speculators, welfare "reform", anti-union and anti-working class free trade agreements which have destroyed American manufacturing, the American working class, and American unions. And all the while, claims Hedges, they still haven’t fully recognised the obvious, that in the wake of the Reagan Revolution corporate elites fully control America ever more firmly, corporate elites who aren’t interested in the common good but only in their own financial gain, and that reforming this American corporate state is almost impossible. What we are left with, claims Hedges, using a term first used by political observer Sheldon Wolin, is “inverted totalitarianism”.

Hedges argues that liberal complicity with the constantly at war corporate state has corrupted once liberal churches, colleges and universities, artists, the media, and labour leaders all of whom have been allowed, by corporate oligarchs and their political minions, to play roles in the corporate state if they don’t play the class war card (think here about the criticism of Obama by Republicans for fanning the flames of class war recently). All of these once liberal institutions now speak the language of corporate accountability, of individualism and self-realisation, of getting ahead, and of the need for war, rather than the language of justice for the disenfranchised. Universities and colleges have become a breeding ground for systems managers for the political and economic bureaucracies of the corporate state. Professors gaze into texts as though they were crystal balls, praise multiculturalism, which is not a threat to the corporate elites, and write essays and tomes in languages that only they can understand rather than damn the inequality and injustice around them. Artists ever more detached from the wider world in which they live, have traded in social realism and a call for justice for abstraction and detachment from social issues.

After reading Hedges's The Death of the Liberal Class I have been thinking a lot about the liberal class and, in particular, about the academic liberal class. Some of the most incisive analyses of bourgeois academics and intellectuals, at least for me, are contained in two films made by Luis Bunuel, The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I have always found the characterisation of bourgeois dinner parties, bourgeois dinner parties as the opiates of the wanna be aristocratic less than masses (academic dinner parties have a bit more trendy intellectual and academic discussion), in both films to be a fairly accurate representation of this ritual.

I have to admit, nihilist that I am quickly becoming, that I am somewhat amused and bemused by academia, or at least parts of academia--I consider myself more of an intellectual who has been fortunate to be able to teach part time in the ivy halls (though perhaps, after writing this, not for much longer). I am amused and bemused by the apparent fact that some academics seem to think that by writing about (an imagined) ageism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, essays read by perhaps 200 people, they can change the world into an (equally imagined) utopia.

While "left leaning" academics have been navel gazing the right has, as Hedges notes, out manoeuvered them capturing, like pied pipers, the public discourse and the rhetorical contours of governmental policy (the government as evil rhetoric) and has used these as springboards to political power. As I write the corporate right is now living out its wet dream of cutting government, cutting education (ah, good old American anti-intellectualism or anti-higher education), and savaging the few unions that remain somewhat visible and viable in America today. Amidst the neo-liberal carnage academics, leftists, and social insurance liberals stand like deers before headlights. Occupy Wall Street is (was?) perhaps the only realistic attempt by those on the left to assault and escape this prison house of neo-liberal public rhetoric. It will be interesting to see whether OWS has provided the key by which liberalism can escape the gilded neo-liberal cage they have been imprisoned within and by which the American left can be reborn on a broader and less sectarian scale. At the moment it looks such a prospect doesn't have a proverbial snow balls chance in hell since, at least according to several polls more people fear big government than big corporate business and more people think the US is more a country of haves than of have nots. Apparently many Americans tune out any talk about inequality in America because they believe it to be inherently liberal or inherently socialist in nature. What can I say, ideological illusions generally trump reality.

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