Pessimism Porn: Chris Hedges's New Book Is a Depressing Journey Into the Liberal Mind Chris Hedges's new book, The Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books, November, 2010) exemplifies the limits of the liberal elite in critiquing itself, its double bind as it responds to the American state going haywire on empire, human rights, and capitalism. Exiled from his former position of privilege at the New York Times, Hedges has been busy impersonating past American Jeremiahs. Yet Hedges's narrative of "dissent" itself is the essence of failed liberalism.
Liberals are retreating farther and farther into defeatism, conspiracy theory, emotional darkness, and tunnel vision. Hedges's progression from War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002) to American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2007) to Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) to The Death of the Liberal Class (2010) represents the sorry spectacle of the boundaries of American liberalism in confronting horrors not included in its official creed.
Hedges's background as the son of a Presbyterian minister, and his sojourn at Harvard Divinity School, are the keys to his thought; religion always pulls him, even as he bemoans its abuse at the hands of the morally obtuse. Reinhold Niebuhr, the Christian realist who became virulently anti-communist and supported both World War II and the Cold War, is the most important influence on Hedges; Niebuhr's theological pessimism has been a dominant influence on post-World War II leaders, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (as Jesus was George W. Bush's favorite philosopher, so Niebuhr is Obama's favorite).
In War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges told us that the sensory quality of war belies our images of heroism and bravery. Having been a frontline reporter in war zones, Hedges felt qualified to offer the insight that war hollows out culture, as leaders mobilize nationalist myth to support aggression. Hedges reported from the Balkans and Central America, but felt no need to make the connection between American empire and the ravages of war. War is taken as an existential, depressing, unavoidable force.
Hedges tends to stay a couple of steps behind. When the Bush years were nearly over, in American Fascists he explained that there was no way to talk to Christian fundamentalists, and that the real danger was that in a time of economic crisis they may find broader footing. When the last wars of American empire had already peaked, in Empire of Illusion Hedges gave us a gloss on Daniel Boorstin's mid-twentieth-century insight that politics has become media spectacle; Boorstin's pseudo-event is the only way for politics to advance.
In Empire of Illusion, Hedges put together a compendium of the fully assimilated thought of Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Umberto Eco, Neal Gabler, Aldous Huxley, Walter Lippmann, C. Wright Mills, Ortega y Gassett, George Orwell, Neil Postman, David Riesman, and William H. Whyte. Like an eager but not very bright graduate student, he compiled the pessimistic thought of twentieth-century critics of mass culture, and applied it to contemporary case studies like Barack Obama's election, professional wrestling, and happiness studies.
Note the consistent, growing, Niebuhrian strand of pessimism: war is inevitable; Christian fundamentalists are beyond the pale of discourse; there is no escape from the tyranny of media.
Empire of Illusion seemed to promise a coming synthesis, a semblance of an original argument. In fact, Hedges has crashed and burned in The Death of the Liberal Class. He founders on this shallow proposition:
The media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions--the pillars of the liberal class--have been bought off with corporate money and promises of scraps tossed to them by the narrow circles of power.
The institutions of the liberal class have been bought off? Instead of any historical analysis of these institutions, Hedges insinuates that in some golden age they were resistant to being bought by the highest bidder. What are the social forces that compel institutions to compromise? Have unions ever been as exalted in America as they have been in Europe? Not being an atheist like Christopher Hitchens, Hedges accepts the church as an indispensable pillar of the liberal class. We live and die by the two parties, neither of which has a coherent class critique, unlike political parties in Europe. As for the arts, Hedges hankers for a public support system encouraging the arts to instruct us about the misery of workers. Does Hedges know where to look for radical art?
The so-called pillars of the liberal class are fundamentally anti-oppositional, at times shifting by degrees but remaining essentially pro-state, pro-corporation, pro-war, pro-capitalism.
Hedges claims that "Unions, organizations formerly steeped in the doctrine of class struggle and filled with members who sought broad social and political rights for the working class, have been transformed into domesticated junior partners of the capitalist class."
Like other populist-liberal commentators, Hedges lacks a theory of economics. At heart, he's a nationalist, as is true of our most vocal liberal critics today. They're uncomfortable with the gains of globalization for the rising economies of the world; they've bought into the dogma that advances for other countries necessarily diminish us; they've left behind the basic doctrines of comparative advantage and free trade, and become advocates of various forms of barriers and borders. It's become unfashionable to advocate free movement of labor and capital. While Hedges criticizes Christian fundamentalists for having adopted a fearful mindset, he shows himself no less fearful--toward what globalization portends for American economic dominance.
Globalization benefited enormous numbers of people in the 1990s and 2000s, however, and the world is not likely to retreat from it, even if America is having second thoughts. Can unions be mobilized around the concerns of the past when most workers are in the information/service economy rather than in the industrialized trades? This is more difficult than accusing union leaders of treason.
Lacking a consistent ideology, Hedges is in two minds about the alleged death of the liberal class: "Ironically, in killing off the liberal class, the corporate state, in its zealous pursuit of profit, has killed off its most integral and important partner." Hedges desires the resurrection of the liberal class which was complicit in bringing us to the point of ruin. He claims that the liberal class served the function of a valve, but if the valve was small, ineffective, and perverse, why should we lament its closure?
In a functioning democracy, liberal institutions set the parameters for limited self-criticism as well as small, incremental reforms. The liberal class is permitted to decry the worst excesses of power and champion basic human rights while endowing systems of power with morality and virtues they do not possess.
Is there a separate liberal class such as Hedges posits, or is it a convenient narrative hook--another "us" versus "them" mythology, the result of shallow, ahistorical thought? Hedges says:
Dick Cheney and George W. Bush may be palpably evil while Obama is merely weak, but to those who seek to keep us in a state of permanent war, such distinctions do not matter.... The liberal class...can no longer influence a society in a state of permanent war and retreats into its sheltered enclaves, where its members can continue to worship itself.
Who are "those" who want to keep us permanently at war? Are they separate from the liberal class? Did the liberal class--before George W. Bush--not endorse the first Persian Gulf War, or the Balkan wars? Hedges himself is a prime example of a member of the liberal class who has retreated into a sheltered enclave, where he continues to idealize his own unstinting moral rectitude. Shortly before Bush assumed power, this brand of liberal defeatism told us--as in Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture--that liberals should disengage from public life, and be like the medieval monks who preserved knowledge for future generations.
Hedges presents himself as being an exile from the corridors of power he previously frequented at the New York Times--his commencement speech after the start of the Iraq War brought on his personal apocalypse--but as his acknowledgments testify, he remains the beneficiary of the largesse of the same liberal class whose demise he loudly proclaims (generous funding from the Nation Institute, the Ford Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, etc.).
Certain vocal environmentalists are also in the habit of advocating retreat from civilization. The righteous should await inevitable collapse due to overpopulation, resource exhaustion, and catastrophic climate change. They may want to get some farmland in Vermont while they're at it, for a possible future in subsistence farming. Hedges fits right into this strain of thinking; it's individualism run amok, in fact, the backup plan for the lone moral individual when the lights go out on civilization.
The upward transfer of wealth, the demolition of civil liberties, and the rampant nationalism supporting permanent war are entirely valid criticisms. But what principled philosophy do these thoughts hang around? Criticism of social injustice becomes numbing if its various dimensions are repeated as facts in themselves, not connected together. So Hedges draws on Noam Chomsky, Sheldon Wolin, Denis Kucinich, and anyone else with a handy opinion about propaganda and war. He ends up mythologizing corporations as omnipotent behemoths over whom citizens have no control. The corporations, in fact, are us, aren't they? Who do the vast majority of us work for?
Euphemisms (which always imply lack of clarity) are rampant among the liberal class. Hedges is particularly fond of Sheldon Wolin's "inverted totalitarianism," which "finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state" rather than revolving around a charismatic leader. Rather than theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein, Tzvetan Todorov, David Harvey, Ulrich Beck, or Slavoj Zizek, Hedges relies on Wolin, who explains that we give up power voluntarily. This tautology promotes passivity. Someone else is doing it to us, by means of propaganda. When the means of propaganda were rather rudimentary, in Orwell's time, it made sense to depict the apparatus as an external omnipresent entity; when this reality has become fully realized, it no longer makes sense to speak of it as a hidden force manipulating us. Today, we happily give up privacy for transparently false promises of security. Where is the corporate state's sleight of hand in that?
Similarly, Hedges's focus on mass culture would have had more resonance when Edward Bernays and Dwight MacDonald were first fleshing out the ideas at mid-century; it was a force only then emerging. Now anyone empowered enough makes his own contribution to mass culture, particularly through the Internet. If spectacle leads to illusion, it also leads to fulfillment. Thus movies were the twentieth century's dominant art form, reflecting a continuous schism between the repressive and the expressive, a dream world split right down the ambiguous middle, opening possibilities for hidden talents within all of us. Movies are democracy at work. Hedges, however, betrays his Niebuhrian darkness when he says:
Liberal and radical movements at the turn of the twentieth century subscribed to the fiction that human diligence, moral probity, and reform, coupled with advances in science and technology, could combine to create a utopia on earth.
This is the dream of the enlightenment; Hedges is anti-humanist when he expresses the technocrat-manager-stakeholder's skepticism toward the dream of reason. Hedges's discomfort with utopia comes from the American liberal class's lack of access to any coherent ideology of class. Therefore, Hedges is compelled to seek refuge in a mythical image of intellectual liveliness that never was: "Intellectual debate, once a characteristic of the country's political discourse, withered" (in the 1920s). Was it robust and rigorous before the 1920s? The interwar years were some of our best for intellectual discourse, and it's revealing that Hedges would pick the period of high modernist achievement as the beginning of intellectual decline. But it fits into his template of the history of mass communications, so he dates it then.
On the arts, Hedges is utterly misinformed. Hedges ignorantly misinterprets the 1930s. Art does not need the sponsorship of the liberal class; arguably, art does best under conditions of general indifference, or even repression. Hedges actually admires examples of propaganda theater! Proletarian literature of the 1930s is mostly a forgettable product; Hedges has no aesthetic sense, and if a play or novel depicts class conflict directly, then that constitutes worthwhile art for him. About the Federal Theatre Project, Hedges notes: "It was the high point of American theater." He endorses Sinclair Lewis's didactic, deeply flawed It Can't Happen Here, because its ideas are politically significant. Hedges invariably mistakes pedestrian protest in art for the real thing, the avant-garde; thus his dismissal: "Abstract painting emerged as the artistic expression of this sterile form of rebellion, an outgrowth of the apolitical absurdist and Dada movements." Art makes the highest political statement not when it directly transcribes political discourse, but when it is saturated by a higher political vision--what Hedges, like Niebuhr, would call utopia.
In their disdain for the counterculture, liberal and conservative critics have much in common; a puritan streak of repression, a suspicion of the Dionysian instinct, comes through. Hedges says:
Protest in the 1960s found its ideological roots in the disengagement championed earlier by Beats such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.... The counterculture of the 1960s, like the commodity culture, lured adherents inward. It set up the self as the primary center of concern.Politics as spectacle is a half-century-old criticism that has outlived its usefulness. All ideas operate in the media environment now. So when Hedges says that with the counterculture, "dissent became another media spectacle," he's reverting to a venerable tradition in American liberalism of blaming the medium itself. When we blame the omnipotent medium, we signify the end of active citizenship. In a familiar criticism, Hedges castigates the New Left for abandoning doctrinal rigor: "The New Left of the 1960s turned out to be a mirage.... The left and the right played their roles before the cameras. Politics was theater." But media constantly evolves. What about the new media? Hedges discounts the capacity of art to exceed the bounds of media spectacle.
He goes on to echo the common criticism that Marxist critics have become coopted by literature and humanities departments, as multiculturalism has become an end in itself. Whether it's pessimism toward politics as spectacle or the absurdities of identity politics, Hedges fails to provide any positive vision--a convincing counterpoint to Bush's ludicrious "freedom agenda." Past critics of liberalism from within the tradition, such as Orwell, were committed to a set of social principles. Criticism without political commitment is an exercise in futility. When Hedges says about the media that the "pernicious reduction of the public to the role of spectators denies the media, and the public they serve, a political role," he underestimates the capacity of citizens to reshape the media landscape according to their needs. Hedges is so busy criticizing elite institutions that he has no time for citizens.
Artistic expression today, Hedges holds, "is sustained by a system of interlocking, exclusive guilds," and "those who insist on remaining independent of these guilds...are locked out." True enough, but Hedges seems to yearn for the dominance of the right guild--made up of print-oriented, media-decrying, puritan artists who'll humanize art by making it aspire to the state of politics.
In checking off all of today's bad guys, Hedges can't resist the easiest of all targets, globalization. It's here that liberal critics appear at their most foolish. Hedges says:
By the time the touted benefits of globalization...were exposed as a sham, it was too late. The liberal class had driven critics of this utopian fiction from their midst.... [The liberal class] abetted the decline of the middle class.... It has permitted, in the name of progress, the dismantling of the manufacturing sector, leaving huge pockets of postindustrial despair and poverty behind.
So globalization is utopian fiction too? Wanting to perpetuate globally uncompetitive manufacturing is like calling for the majority of people to have remained in the agriculture sector a hundred years ago. Workers in poorer countries are on the whole better off because of globalization; the United States needs to be more nimble in moving to higher planes of manufacturing and services. It's intellectual deceit to call globalizaton a "sham." Hundreds of millions of people moving out of poverty in China and India is a sham?
Globalization, at its best, is an embodiment of the utopian ideal of freedom, but Hedges has difficulty accepting the consequences of freedom. There will always be winners and losers, but what is not sustainable is obsolete manufacturing--such as old Detroit--because it leaves consumers everywhere poorer in the long run. How is Germany, for example, adapting to globalization? If Hedges were to address this question, he would have to enter the substance of economics, and then, instead of lamenting the departure of Marxist critics to the humanities departments, he would have to weigh the pros and cons of redistributive economic policy.
Like other liberal critics today, Hedges betrays his regressive patriotism in his nostalgia for the American middle class before the economic shocks of the 1970s. Always the clarion call is to rejuvenate the old middle-class--with its safe pensions and affordable mortgages--never to alleviate the difficulties of the working class. Is Hedges going to call for any substantive economic policies to alleviate the pain of the indigent, including immigrants? Universal health care and universal college education? His brand of cultural critique--"the half-baked ideas of globalism" and of the "new world order"--overlooks the pragmatic choices facing working people.
Hedges's contradictions reach a crescendo in his fruitless search for a neat conclusion. He quotes Father Daniel Berrigan: "It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual basis of some kind." Those of us without spiritual leanings are out of the preferred class. He may hate the media, and especially the New York Times which fired him, but he keeps emphasizing how crucial print newspapers are for democracy. He yearns for the good old days when the liberal class--church, media, Democratic party, universities--consisted of moralists not yet deformed by the heretic ideas of globalism and counterculturalism.
At one point--about when you'd expect him to seize you by the lapel and announce his grand doctrine--he suggests, in the context of radical social change, his plan of action:
Out of this contact [between the liberal class and the poor] we can resurrect, from the ground up, a social ethic, a new movement. We must hand out bowls of soup. Coax the homeless into a shower. Make sure those who are mentally ill, cruelly cast out on city sidewalks, take their medication.
In other words, benevolence and charity from the privileged liberal class toward the unfortunate others. This turns out to be a very conservative, incremental, and personalized message, for such a dire analysis.
Hedges's myopic, melancholy, self-righteous, elitist, detached, uncommitted, ultimately apolitical jeremiad, familiar from a century of American political discourse, has little traffic with structural explanations. The question should be, What is the prescription for the ordinary citizen to become guardian of his own moral role? Demonizing corporations is easy--they're the target du jour. Demonizing lobbyists is even easier.
Liberals need to answer, for their critique to have any meaning, these questions: Are they for or against globalization? And they can't hedge the answer by saying they're for "globalization with a human face," or some such fuzzy logic. Are they for unrestricted trade and capital flows and human mobility or not? If not, what do they propose in its place? Are they for media freedom, an unwavering stance on free speech, and if not, why not? Are they for or against empire? If they're against empire, then they should propose how to dismantle it. They can't be against empire, and yet be for "humanitarian intervention" (what gives America the right to be the world's policeman?), since this is the rubric used to justify every kind of war--the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to free Afghans and Iraqis.
The idea has been sold since the end of World War II by a certain class of American intellectual that utopia is a myth, that it leads inevitably to barbarism. In fact, utopia lies behind all progress. The enlightenment was utopian. Science is utopian. But like other environmental apocalyptics, Hedges even lays the environmental catastrophe, about whose imminent arrival he has no doubts, right at the feet of the enlightenment:
The fantasy that Enlightenment rationality will dominate human activity has collapsed before the brutal truth that those who seek to exploit human beings and nature commit collective suicide.... The death spiral, which will wipe out whole sections of the human race, demands a return to a radical militancy that asks the uncomfortable question of whether it is time to break laws that, if followed, ensure our annihilation.
So he's on the verge of calling for illegal actions to ward off the calamity, but of course he immediately backs off: "The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that--a fantasy." If Hedges even hinted otherwise, he would be unlikely to get the generous funding of the institutions of the allegedly defunct liberal class for his books.
Hedges shows that it's possible to dumb resistance down to nothing:
Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount.... Music, art, poetry, journalism, literature, dance, and the humanities, including the study of philosophy and history, will be the bulwarks that separate those who remain human from those who become savages. Why must resistance take these small, incremental forms? Because we stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.
This is straight out of James Howard Kunstler's fictions of catastrophe. Better throw in the economic catastrophists too--taking Nouriel Roubini, Naomi Klein, and Paul Krugman to extreme conclusions:
Once China and the oil-rich states begin to walk away from our debt, which one day has to happen, interest rates will skyrocket.... This is when inflation, most likely hyperinflation, will turn the dollar into junk. And at that point the entire system, beset as well by environmental chaos, breaks down.
Also throw in Jared Diamond, and a grim Malthusian pessimism:
Collapse this time around will be global. We will disintegrate together. And there is no way out. The ten-thousand-year experiment of settled life is about to come to a crashing halt.
There are environmentalists today who refute the gains of the Green Revolution and advocate a return to subsistence farming. Hedges echoes them:
If we build small, self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can perhaps weather the collapse.
In all this, Hedges reveals himself as a righteous member of the Brahmin class, unwilling to soil himself with commercial activity (the working class actually has to earn a living), positive thought, or inorganic foods. What does resistance consist of?
No act of resistance is useless, whether it is refusing to pay taxes, fighting for a Tobin tax, working to shift the neoclassical economics paradigm, revoking a corporate charter, holding global Internet votes, or using Twitter to catalyze a chain reaction of refusal against the neoliberal order.
He's throwing words around, hoping something will stick. How many of these acts of "resistance" (tweeting, Internet votes, refusing neoclassical economics) are open to average people? This anti-democratic message appropriates agency for the privileged alone. I'm waiting for Hedges to refuse to pay taxes as he gives up his fellowships and searches for self-fulfillment in the wilderness. But Hedges has preempted his own resistance. By no longer being part of the New York Times, he's searching for "moral autonomy," as a member of the "underclass." That's some underclass! He's been banished by one form of print culture! Borrowing from Neil Postman, Neal Gabler, and Russell Jacoby, Hedges says:
The death of the liberal class has been accompanied by a shift from a print-based culture to an image-based culture.... It has been supplanted by the wildfire anything-goes of the blogosphere, the social media universe, and cable television.
In the future, resistance will only be possible as long as one is "wedded to the complexity of print." And print is dead, so resistance is dead (except when Hedges publishes his own books). Moreover, the complex print people must be paid handsomely (echoes of Mark Helprin and Jaron Lanier):
The Internet, held out by many as a new panacea, is accelerating the cultural decline.... This means financial ruin for journalists, academics, musicians, and artists. Creative work too often is released for free to Web providers who use it as bait for corporate advertising.... The great promise of the Internet--to open up dialogue, break down cultural barriers, promote democracy, and unleash innovation and creativity--is yet another utopian dream.
Apparently, all of us Internet users have switches inside us, determining whether we behave as 'individuals or members of a mob"--as per Lanier. So the Internet is just an instrument of control. While the rest of us--who were never part of the liberal class to begin with--are mere switches, people like Hedges are the true dissidents. In a passage of grandiose delusion, he identifies with Vaclav Havel's description of his dissident status:
You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.
Can we have some joy back in liberalism? Some acceptance of risk, some objective valuation of danger, some appreciation of anarchy? We don't need elegies for the dead liberal class--we don't need to mythologize it. Hedges talks about how "important radical movements are for the vitality of the liberal class." This rather sounds like Arthur Schlesinger's "vital center," absorbing and coopting the more moderate possibilities of movement politics. I call this pessimism porn.