Ever since the fall of the former Soviet Union, symbolized by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, those on the left have faced a dilemma: with marxism and, by extension, socialism discredited, and capitalism reigning unopposed throughout most of the world, including even in China, the left has no direction. Without socialism as at least a beacon to which a humane society can aspire, the left has appeared lost, dazed, and bankrupt of real ideas. Reading Chris Hedges’ recent Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books: 2010) has crystallized these thoughts for me and given them a historical underpinning. For what Hedges does in his book is trace the beginning of the left’s decline to World War I and its aftermath. Here is what he writes early on: the liberal era, which had been getting stronger in the early 20th century with the rise of populism, unions, women’s rights, housing for the poor, and socialism as a legitimate political movement,
effectively ended with World War I. The war, which shattered liberal optimism about the inevitability of human progress, also consolidated state and corporate control over economic, political, cultural and social affairs. It created mass culture, fostered through the consumer society the cult of the self, led the nation into an era of permanent war, and used fear and mass propaganda to cow citizens and silence independent and radical voices within the liberal class (p. 7).
Hedges goes on to demonstrate with persuasive detail the sad story of how this happened.
To begin with, Hedges makes clear that the liberal class—including the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions—has, or should have, an important function in a democracy: it “functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change…It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue” (p. 9). But when the liberal class is cowed into submission by repression, or is bought off by corporate money and power, it retreats into narrow specialization, a cult of the self, and endless discussion. This is exactly what happened, Hedges demonstrates, in the period during and after World War I. The irony is that the crippling of liberals was done by one of the arch liberals of the time, President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had to find a way, in 1917, to get the American public to favor joining a war that had already gone on for three bloody years in Europe. It was a war that over 90% of Americans wanted no part of, seeing it primarily as a “rich man’s war” promoted mainly by bankers to salvage the loans they’d made to allied nations and by corporations manufacturing munitions. In order to effect the massive opinion shift that was needed—i.e. from isolationism to war mania—Wilson agreed with several advisors to implement, a week after he declared war on April 6, 1917, a massive public relations campaign: he set up the Committee for Public Information or CPI, commonly known as the Creel Commission after its head, George Creel. Creel and his huge committee employed writers, artists, filmmakers, poster designers, and over 7500 speakers to turn public opinion against the evil “Huns” and in favor of “saving democracy.” One example of the Commission’s work was the poster, still famous today, of Uncle Sam pointing his finger with the words, “I Want You.” Creel himself considered the CPI “a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.” The words, from his 1920 memoir, How We Advertised America, were prophetic, for not only did the Commission succeed in drumming up massive support for the war and violent hatred towards Germans, both abroad and in America, but it also prefigured the imminent rise of mass advertising, mass propaganda, and the consumer culture that has dominated America ever since. Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) went straight from his post in the CPI to becoming a major figure on Madison Avenue, advocating the same mass propaganda tools for commercial advertising that he had used to promote the war. As Bernays noted in his seminal book, Propaganda (1928), “It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind” (Hedges, p 80; emphasis added).
The effect of all this propaganda, and its adoption by corporate America, was not only the emasculation of the liberal class, but its co-optation into accepting the idea that the proper function of an American was not to be an active informed citizen, but to consume. Progress, which liberals had earlier located in the improvement of life for the disadvantaged and an ever-more direct voice for the masses in government, had become technological progress: the steady production of consumer goods allegedly designed to make life easier and more pleasant. The emotional appeals that had worked so well to move public opinion about the war were now employed to induce Americans to want what they did not need, and to consider the satisfying of such created desires the be-all and end-all of existence. As Hedges summarizes it,
The war destroyed values and self-perceptions that had once characterized American life and replaced them with fear, distrust, and the hedonism of the consumer society. The new mass propaganda… effectively vilified all who did not speak in the language imparted to the public by corporations and the state. For these reasons, it presaged a profound cultural and political shift. It snuffed out a brief and robust period of reform in American history, one that had seen mass movements, enraged at the abuses of an American oligarchy, sweep across the country and demand profound change. The rise of mass propaganda, made possible by industrial warfare, effectively killed populism (p. 62)
From then on, according to Hedges, with the brief exception of a period of populism during the Depression-era 1930s via such organizations as the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the liberal class became a handmaiden to the power elite. Even the counterculture of the 1960s, according to Hedges, aside from its mild successes in protesting the Vietnam war, retreated into the hedonism and disengagement that was initiated by the Beats, and really goes back to the liberal retreat in World War I. As Hedges puts it,
The counterculture of the 1960s, like the commodity culture, lured adherents inward. It set up the self as the primary center of concern. It, too, offered affirmative, therapeutic remedies to social problems that embraced vague, undefined, and utopian campaigns to remake society. There was no political vision (p. 110).
The churches, the universities, the unions, and the Democratic Party had and have a similar lack of vision, a similar preoccupation with the self, a similar impatience with the long hard work of political change, and a similar tendency to be bought off by power. Induced or seduced to count on “the state as an agent of change,” they ended up “abetting the consumer society, the cult of the self, and the ascendancy of the corporate state” (p. 110).
When it comes to solutions for us today, Hedges does not hold out much hope. Though he himself has become one of the more radical activists in the nation, suing the government recently in a challenge to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012 permitting indefinite detention, he refuses on principle to advocate or engage in violence. Indeed, he is clear that since the flaccid liberal class lacks both the capacity and the imagination to lead the revolt he sees as necessary, “revolt…will come from the right, as it did in other eras of bankrupt liberalism in Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Tsarist Russia” (196). Still, for Hedges, an acceptable, and perhaps sole form of revolt for radicals on the left remains: refusal and noncooperation. Even knowing that reform of the system as it now stands is hopeless; even convinced that corporate money has bought off all the democratic levers of legislation and power, including the current political operatives up to and including Barack Obama; even so, Hedges still counsels that those of good conscience must act, rebel, resist, despite the minimal chances for success:
Acts of resistance are moral acts. They take place because people of conscience understand the moral, rather than the practical, imperative of rebellion. They should be carried out not because they are effective, but because they are right. (205).
This leads us to the dilemma stated at the beginning. With the actions of states becoming ever more viciously repressive, with the world on the brink of mass extinctions, global warming, and a thousand other insults due to the piratic and exploitative practices of corporate capitalists on a global scale, where can the left go? What direction can there be for people with vision, with a conscience? For Hedges, the answer lies not in revolution, which seeks to create a new power structure (and all revolutions in recent history have proven to be as corrupt as what they replaced), but in rebellion; rebellion as a continuing revolt against power. Basically, if I understand him correctly, this means refusing to submit. It means rebelling to assert, if not our power, at least our humanity. I have written about this before, as a comment on one of my favorite literary creations, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. Bartleby’s inimitable and unforgettable explanation for his refusal to move out of the office he’d been asked to leave because of his total noncompliance (he stopped working or leaving after office hours, but would only sit facing the wall), was: I prefer not to. It is clear that Melville was using him as an example of someone who simply refuses, without seeking agreement or mercy or sympathy or anything else, to cooperate with business as usual. The great contemporary philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, refers to something similar as ‘Bartleby politics.’ Here is how Hedges puts his version in ending his cri du coeur:
The indifference to the plight of others and the cult of the self is what the corporate state seeks to instill in us. That state appeals to pleasure as well as fear, to crush compassion. We will have to continue to fight the mechanisms of that dominant culture, if for no other reason than to preserve, through small, even tiny acts, our common humanity…As distinct and moral beings, we will endure only through these small, sometimes imperceptible acts of defiance. This defiance, this capacity to say no, is what mass culture and mass propaganda seeks to eradicate. As long as we are willing to defy these forces, we have a chance, if not for ourselves, then at least for those who follow. As long as we defy these forces, we remain alive. And, for now, this is the only victory possible. (217)
Whether others will agree with him is not at all certain; the incentives to simply ‘cultivate one’s own garden’ are compelling. What everyone must take account of, however, is Chris Hedges’ singular gift for laying out the problems we all face, and his urging to us all not to yield to either cynicism or false hope, but to rely on that basic human gift that endures when all else fails: defiance, the ability to say NO. After all is said and done, it is that which terrifies those in power. It is that which, if there is to be salvation, will comprise it.