Chris Hedges’ Vision & Nightmare: Is There a Human Future?

Richard Lichtman

The Death of the Liberal Class
by Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2010, 256 pages, $25 hardcover.

THERE ARE FEW writers today who can bring to vision the articulate passion that Chris Hedges directs against the present corporate system; its vile and self-satisfied destructiveness, and the symboitic collusion between this structure of perversion and the betrayal engaged in by “the liberal class.” I believe this aspect of Hedges’ perspective is vitally important and obvious to any reader who begins with the sense that our political culture is in a descending spiral of decay.

In this review, I intend no disavowal of the validity of Hedges’ critique of the direction of our society. Indeed it has been a profound failure of “the left” to treat moral critique as less significant than economic and political analysis. A movement that lacks moral outrage and a vision of a better world is without any hope of success.

The reality of the moral corruption in our situation is often trenchantly illuminated by Hedges’ analysis. Primarily, I will direct my remarks here to the explanation Hedges offers for the current and deepening morass, beginning with the problematic definitions of “liberalism” and “the liberal class.”

At the beginning of this age of rapidly coagulating corruption, the ideals of classical liberalism, while never free of hypocrisy, served as a moral compass with which to locate one’s self, even if against their ever-receding existence. But now, when these ideals have all but vanished, the task becomes considerably more difficult.

One can respond in rage, or grief, or condemnation — or in the initiation of radical practice to replace the putrefying cloaca with an edifice more appropriate to human existence. Chris Hedges knows a great many possible alternatives, and his choice of response is the essence of this work.

“Anger and a sense of betrayal” (6) are appropriate responses to our situation, but what is the historical trajectory of its emergence? How, exactly, did we come to be where we are? This question elicits from Hedges an account that in its visionary naiveté serves more to confound our understanding than to illuminate it.

The difficulty appears early in the book with this assertion:

“Classical liberalism was formulated largely as a response to the dissolution of feudalism and church authoritarianism. It argued for non-interference or independence under the rule of law. It incorporates a few aspects of ancient Athenian philosophy as expressed by Pericles and the Sophists, but was a philosophical system that marked a radical rupture with both Aristotelian thought and medieval theology.” (6-7)

Citing the British political philosopher John Gray, Hedges maintains that classical liberalism is founded on the principles of the primacy of the person; egalitarian recognition of universal moral status; the moral unity of the species and a continual view of human progress (an assumption which Gray finds highly dubious).

The founders, as Hedges sees it, were Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke, whose works were later modified by the French philosophes, the founders of early American democracy and in the 19th century by such writers as John Stuart Mill. (7)

One difficulty with this account is that none of the individuals named as the proprietors of early liberalism ultimately believed in the primacy of the person, human equality, and the moral unity of the species. It is clear that Spinoza did not believe in the equality of women and men, while Locke and the founders of American “democracy” did not hold that all are equal, and Mill supported a system of property-based voting.

But this is not the main difficulty. The fundamental issue resides in the fact that the account is wholly ideological, in the Marxist sense of the term: it treats ideas as original factors in human society, independent of their socio-economic embeddedness.

Whether Hedges is right about Aristotelian philosophy is not relevant. What is crucial is what does not appear — the fact that classical liberalism was the ideological articulation of the growing presence of capitalism and the façade of capitalist legitimacy.

Hedges presents a very different account, one that regards capitalism and liberalism as separate entities. “In killing off the liberal class,” he writes, “the corporate state, in its zealous pursuit of profit, has killed off its most integral and important partner.”

“Partner” indeed! The primary functions of liberalism from its inception were first, an attempt to create a coherent articulation of the system of capitalism (as in Smith’s construction in The Wealth of Nations), and secondly the idealization of the system and, consequently, its justification.

Liberalism has always served as the moral pretense of capitalism, the compelling reason that this structure of economic power should be respected, and a warning that significant action against it would prove both morally unfounded and practically impossible.

A Moral or Structural Failure?

This failure to understand the primary nature and function of liberalism is the source of the enormous misunderstanding that follows. Because Hedges begins with an idealistic and glorified misunderstanding of liberalism, he is fated at a crucial point in his argument to regard its current corruption as wholly a moral failure rather than the outcome of developments inherent in the structure of capitalism itself.

From this follows his sense that the current situation is one of implacable disaster and his further advocacy of a hyper-moralist romantic rebellion, to be measured not by its possible success in altering the current system but in accordance with Camus’ sense of the absurd and Hegel’s vision of the “beautiful soul,” of which Hegel himself was contemptuously critical.

Before developing these latter notions more fully it is necessary to return to Hedges’ analysis and its conception of liberalism and class. The problem resides in the very notion of “the liberal class” — the book’s foundation as presented in its title. It is for this reason that I called attention to the notion of “the liberal class” by placing the phrase in quotation marks.

In fact there is no such thing as “the liberal class.” The very notion betrays the absence of the social understanding that undermines Hedges’ account. A class is a social grouping of individuals related to each other on the ground of their relation to the economic system in which they function. Capitalism traditionally can be seen as involving those who own and control capital; those whose exploited labor is the source of the accumulation of that capital; and those who act as facilitators and ideological interpreters of the relation between these two basic classes of exploiter and exploited. As Marx noted in Volume III of Capital:

“The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labor is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship…. which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence …” (Ch. 47)

There are certainly critical questions that need to be put to Marx’s account, but on the whole, it is a profoundly more useful starting point than Hedges’ disregard of the foundational importance of the structure of economic exploitation. It is clear, however, and unfortunate, to realize that Hedges is basically unacquainted with Marx. In a discussion supporting the language of class conflict he asserts:

“This does not mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of working class enslavement, but we have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx employed.” (17)

This is a truly terrible passage not simply because it grievously misunderstands Marx, or is incomprehensible in affirming that we need to speak in the vocabulary of Marx while denying his perspective — as though language were separable from the theory which is the context of its meaning. Most of all, it is repellent because it repeats the most common vilification of Marx, itself the result of consistent and prolonged reactionary falsification of Marxist theory in every avenue of the institutions of media, school and religion this reactionary force controls.

The Fallacy of Timeless Values

In a later passage, perhaps in an attempted criticism of what Hedges may take as Marx’s theory of ideology as a manifestation of historical class perspective, he draws upon Dwight Macdonald to the effect that:

“(A)ny movement that did not pay fealty to the nonhistorical values of truth, justice, and love inevitably collapsed. Once any class bowed to the practical dictates required by effective statecraft and legislation, or the call to protect the nation, it lost its voice…. Macdonald criticized Marxists for the same reason he criticized the liberal class: both subordinated ethics to another goal. By serving history and power, the liberal class, like the Marxists, surrendered their power and moral authority to the state.” (112)

And what precisely is the “nonhistorical” character of truth, justice and love? For the bourgeoisie, as Marx noted innumerable times, freedom meant the right to be free of social obstruction, the right to buy and sell in the marketplace. For Marx and the socialist movement he represented it meant something very different. For Plato and Aristotle it meant, when it was discussed at all, something very different again.

Which of these views and innumerable others that have crossed paths in the history of Western thought is the “nonhistorical value” to be respected? Indeed these values are not only differently understood but, in fact, differently constituted in diverse historical periods.

Has Hedges considered that the most dangerous revision of “value” is that which reifies the current assessment into a permanent and universal condition? The account he gives is hardly sufficient to justify any particular position, but it is asserted with conviction that it is self-evident.

At this point we may well demand of Hedges an explanation of the source of this decline of universal truths. He responds to the demand in the following way, asserting one of the root convictions of his position:

“The naïve belief in human progress through science, technology, and mass production further eroded these nonhistorical values. The choice was between serving human beings and serving history, between thinking ethically and thinking strategically.” (112)

The assumption here (again echoing John Gray) appears to be that “progress” is either a useless or dangerous conception or, on the other hand, that it occurs, when it does, through moral development alone. The stark dichotomy asserted here is between permanent universal truth and historical strategies. The notion that science and morality might have some interdependence and inform each other is not entertained as a possibility.

But Hedges’ conviction goes further than any such consideration. For he sweepingly declares:

“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.” (84)

He further cites the British historian Sidney Pollard to the effect that the governing assumption of the time was that transformation exists in history, consisting of “irreversible changes in one direction only, and this direction was toward improvement.” The liberal class, he asserts, embraced the state as a tool for progress; it was, and remains, “distinctly utopian.”

Let’s admit that the inevitability of progress and state benevolence was a distinctive and widespread 20th century delusion, propagated especially by those intellectual currents that attached themselves to the growth and “civilizing mission” of corporate power and capitalist imperialism. The myth of inevitable progress was not shared by those Marxist or other radical tendencies that understood the brutal and genocidal qualities of imperial conquest, the destruction of indigenous cultures or the menaces of modern society manifested in the rise of fascism, nuclear weapons and the like.

Classical liberalism, in Hedges’ view, had once possessed a healthy dose of skepticism about human perfectibility and was acutely aware of the nature and potency of evil.” (84) The church itself became “liberalized” however, and the Social Gospel, in the teaching of those like Walter Rauschenbusch, “replaced a preoccupation with damnation and sin with a belief in human progress.” (84) The failure here appears to be the conviction that “Salvation could be achieved through human agencies.” (85)

A wary reader might even begin to suspect that Hedges has more and more come to deplore the loss of sin and damnation (at least at the social if not individual level, a view which in fact he explicitly states in I Don’t Believe in Atheists.)

Is There a Way Out?

Given this very brief summary of Hedges’ deeply pessimistic account of our current state of affairs — a perspective, as I noted earlier, which for limitations of space I have denuded in large measure, thereby eliminating much of the detailed accusation that marks the rhetoric of the presentation, and with which I have considerable agreement — and knowing something of what ought not to be pursued, the question that confronts us all is “what is to be done?”

Hedges has an answer, which is an articulation of the single and ultimate command: Rebel. But keep in mind what we are required to rebel against. “All resistance must recognize that the corporate coup d’etat is complete. We must not waste our energy trying to reform or appeal to systems of power. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does mean very different forms of resistance.” (193)

Our task, as the 19th century Russian writer Herzen asserted, is not to save this dying system, but to replace it. “We think we are the doctors. We are the disease .… The economic devastation of global capitalism will soon be matched by ecological devastation. The liberal class’s decision to abet the destruction of the global economy was matched by its tacit decision to abet the corporate destruction of the ecosystem on which human life depends.” (193)

If, however, the ecosystem is in fact in the process of irreversible destruction, all alternatives would seem to be not only utopian but futile. For Hedges asserts that environmental science informs us that the process of destruction inherent in our ecological system has reached a point at which it cannot be redeemed.

Attempts of a few valiant activists to restrain the polluting nations at the Copenhagen Conference failed. “The liberal class continued to bind itself to systems that, in theological terms, have become systems of death.” (193) For, as Hedges continues:

“Enlightenment rationality does not and will not dominate human activity. The human race is about to be abruptly reminded of the fragility of life and the danger of hubris. Those who exploit human beings and nature are bound to an irrational lust for power and money that is leading to collective suicide.

“The liberal class…did not grasp, perhaps because liberals do not read enough Marx (sic), the revolutionary and self-destructive nature of unfettered capitalism.” (194)

Putting aside the surprising positive attribution of wisdom to Marx, whose writings I cannot recall as supporting the notion of “collective suicide” (although The Communist Manifesto did recognize the possibility of “the common ruin of the contending classes”) the warning is certainly worth careful consideration and I do not intend to deny its significance. The question remains, what is a credible response to this situation?

Hedges presents a vivid picture of collapse: communities suffering internal fragmentation and “economic despair” can retreat into a “form of primitive tribalism, without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community and the planet which will leave us as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us.” On the other hand, therefore:

“It is imperative that, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, communities nurture the intellectual and artistic traditions that make possible a civil society, humanism and the common good. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us…but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours.” (196)

In regard to this theologically inspired vision of a Mad Max oasis in the presence of a surrounding totalitarian nightmare, or worse, the question cannot be gainsaid — why would the larger social system of corporate dominated anti-humanist destruction of human values permit these retreats to exist, and how would they be populated with decent human beings given the pervasive destructiveness that has permeated the populations of the present polluted and vaporous miasma? Further, how would we choose the fortunate, superior few to populate these luminous sanctuaries, leaving the remainder to rot?

Hedges has been too successful in drawing his portrait of current corruption to suddenly persuade us that points of light still flicker in the heavens of death and decay. However, he himself seems confused by the prospect of the nightmare of the extinction of society as we know it.

In regard to violence against the menacing state he asserts that there “are times — when human beings are forced to respond to repression with violence…” even while asserting that “…violence has inherent problems … for when you ingest the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms, and perverts you…Violence must be avoided, although finally not at the expense of our own survival.”

Amidst the turmoil of these reflections Hedges adds another plank to his convoluted edifice: nonviolent acts of disobedience against corporate power and its assault on the ecosystem “will keep us whole.” (198)

Why then are we so passive as a people facing the oppressive power of the corporate state? “Our passivity is due, in part, to our inability to confront the awful fact of extinction, either our own inevitable mortality or that of the human species.” (198-199)

Surviving the Collapse

So, in the midst of a social and political account of human degradation we are presented with a faux-existentialist account of our dilemma. This is not an irrelevance, but a premonition of the final stroke of the argument. Turning the myth of inevitable progress on its head, the implication of Hedges’ phantasmagoria is that the very illusion of limitless progress and ultimate happiness is the mode of “magical thinking” whose total failure will propel us into a radically opposed form of response to our imploding condition.

“Once credit dries up for the average citizen, once massive joblessness creates a permanent and enraged underclass, once the cheap manufactured goods that are the opiates of our commodity culture vanish, once water and soil become too polluted or degraded to sustain pockets of human life, we will probably evolve into a system that closely resembles classical totalitarianism, characterized by despotic fiefdoms. Cruder, more violent forms of repression will be employed…” (201)

It appears that Hedges cannot contain himself from keeping the previously noted retreats of culture from dissolving now into “degraded … pockets of human life.” In a thrust of vicious anti-human reversal, nature, which has been destroyed, assures that its own destruction will kill off the species responsible for its murder.

There is a fascination here with death, decay, destruction and the final act of the murder of those responsible for the crime. Death and destruction appear to have a murderous hold on the author, who engages it with a relish that is truly astonishing. “This time the game is over. Collapse this time around will be global. We will disintegrate together. The ten-thousand-year experiment of settled life is about to come to a crashing halt.”(202)

This is no longer social analysis of any kind; it is rather a venting of a profound and overwhelming manic depression. “Copenhagen was perhaps the last chance to save ourselves.”(204) The word “perhaps” is a failure of nerve. We have already been informed that “the game is over.”

Yet over or not, “If we build small, self-contained structures, ones that do as little harm as possible to the environment, we can perhaps weather the collapse.” All this in the presence of “state repression (that) becomes harsher and harsher.” We appear to be left with one alternative, acts of resistance:

“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…the supreme act of faith, the highest form of spirituality. Any act of resistance is its own justification. It cannot be measured by its utilitarian effect.” (205)

I will grant that there may be a certain austere and valuable posture in this contention. It proceeds from the final, but ultimately despairing judgment that if you cannot change “them,” you will at least prevent “them” from changing you. But this last act of defiance is undoubtedly your last act, for while it can be seen as heroic, it cannot be seen as withstanding the blow which will be driven down upon you — and your fellows.

This may be considered justified as a final, heroic act of extinction. But how can more than a miniscule fragment of the population be imagined to engage in even so indwelling an act, when so few seem able to commit themselves under conditions far less horrendous than those being contemplated in this ghastly future?

Can nothing more promising be contemplated? Ultimately, as before, Hedges wavers. He reminds us that when the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoffer was hanged in April of 1945 his last words were: “For me this is the end, but also the beginning.”

Perhaps Bonhoffer believed it was a beginning, given the metaphysic to which he was dedicated. Otherwise, this is an empty declaration, except for those who have come to know of it after their death, and are moved by the conviction to continue in their own struggles.

Hedges informs us that this death was an act “that nurtured life.” (206) This may be so, but only in the presence of those for whom the struggle for a better life has not been abdicated. “We must resist and trust that resistance is worthwhile… Our communities will sustain us.”

This assertion seems to me to lack persuasiveness, given the seeming premise that our communities will have already been devastated by the infestation of that moral collapse that Hedges has so passionately foretold.

“The capacity to refuse to cooperate offers us the only route left to personal freedom and a life of meaning. Camus is right about the absurdity of existence. He is also right about finding meaning and self-worth in acts of rebellion that eschew the practical for the moral.” (216)

If our concern with the well-being of fellow human beings is considered the “practical” rather than “moral” alternative, Hedges is possibly right. But the dichotomy proposed between the moral and the practical is so ultimately stark and unintelligible as to render the perspective sterile.

The term “practical” seems to be used as a designation of ill repute. It is however, a derivative of “practice,” and the world will be remade, if at all, not by collective suicide but by devotion to principled, cooperative, informed and dedicated practical transformation.

Beautiful Souls or Struggling Humanity?

In The Phenomenology Hegel, in his account of morality, confronts those (Kant perhaps) who preserve their purity by avoiding the hardness of the world. He refers to this condition of the “moral self” as the “beautiful soul,” and of it he notes that it has:

“lost the power of externalizing itself, the power to make itself into a thing and to endure being. It lives in anxiety lest it should stain its resplendent interior with action or being. In order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from reality and takes refuge in self-willed impotence.” (The section “Conscience: the Beautiful Soul”)

As an astute scholar has paraphrased Hegel’s view of the “beautiful soul:”

“(It) contents itself with an assertion of the value of the good will irrespective of its place in reality. Value is withdrawn from the objective world and placed wholly within the mind. From this point of view the actual consequences of action are irrelevant to its worth; the motive is the essence.

“This view, in the end, involves utter pessimism. Of course it is not willing to concede this, and claims to have an element of good in it. No one can fail to feel that his own humanity is quickened and strengthened when he sees some heroic stricken soul round whom the shades have gathered stand steadfast in his loneliness, looking death and hell in the face undismayed…The hero is master of himself; he himself is a reality, and helps to give the world as a whole its character.

“But if the real were in truth alien to the ideal, the self would be utterly empty and too ghostly to be heroic.” (Reyburn, Hegel’s Ethical Theory, 192-193)

There is ultimately, in Hedges’ account, too much fascination with helplessness and impotence. The hyperbolic, romanticized embrace of powerlessness is certainly reminiscent of Camus, whom Hedges seems greatly to admire. Camus seems to have cherished a form of defeatism that led inevitably to the “absurd.” What emerges from this perspective is not morality but a hyper-transcendental “moralism” that leaves the world intact and, as Hegel noted, preserves its own quiet at the expense of a struggle for change:

Do we know that this struggle will be successful? Of course not. We do not in this world ever know enough to be certain of success or failure. We are therefore obligated to attempt virtue, love and justice for we cannot, despite the attempt of some to alleviate us of our struggle, concede. “Politics,” said Max Weber,

“is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth — that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.”

The nurturing of such passion and perspective is our task, and while it is necessary, as Chris Hedges has convinced us, to recognize the impoverishment of this world, it is also necessary to understand the historical forces that have brought such destitution into existence and consequently, the counter-forces that may halt and reverse its advance.

This is a practical enterprise in the best sense of the term, a life work that Marx and others have advanced and that we are morally obligated to pursue both in theory and practice. But to begin along this path we will need to embrace the virtue of understanding the world wholly, both in its historical and moral dimensions. For these are not finally separable; they are reflections of each other, the “interior” and “exterior” of the human condition in their reciprocal reflections.

September/October 2011, ATC 154