"Notes from Death of the Liberal Class"

Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books, 2010)

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is "not done" to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was "not done" to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfasionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
— George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press"

Chapter I: Resistance (pp. 1-18)

"In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hop for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite.
     But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims. Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And reducing the liberal class to courtiers and mandarins, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric, shuts off this safety valve and forces discontent to find other outlets that often end in violence.
     The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist." pp. 9-10

     "The liberal class refuses to recognize the obvious because it does not want to lose its comfortable and often well-paid perch." p. 10

     "The media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, the 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. Journalists, who prize access to the powerful more than they prize truth, report lies and propaganda to propel us into war in Iraq. Many of these same journalists assured us it was prudent to entrust our life savings to a financial system run by speculators and thieves. Those life savings were gutted. The media, catering to corporate advertisers and sponsors, at the same time renders invisible whole sections of the population whose misery, poverty, and grievances should be the principle of focus of journalism." p. 10

     "... magical thinking, a staple of the entertainment industry, blinds citizens to corporate structures that have made it impossible for families to lift themselves out of poverty or live with dignity. But perhaps the worst offender within the liberal class is the Democratic party." p. 11

Chapter II: Permanent War (pp. 19-58)

“Since the end of World War I, the United States has devoted staggering resources and money to battling real and imagined enemies. It turned the engines of the state over to a massive war and security apparatus. These battles, which have created an Orwellian state illusion of permanent war, neutered all opposition to corporate power and the tepid reforms of the liberal class. ... Permanent war is the most effective mechanism used by the power elite to stifle reform and muzzle dissent. A state of war demands greater secrecy, constant vigilance and suspicion. It generates distrust and fear ... It degrades and corrupts education and the media. It wrecks the economy. It nullifies public opinion. And it forces liberal institutions to sacrifice their beliefs for a holy crusade, a kind of surrogate religion, whether it is against the Hun, the Bolshevik, the fascist, the communist, or the Islamic terrorist. The liberal class in a state of permanent war is rendered impotent.” p. 19

“... the magic elixir, the potent opiate that rendered a population passive and willing to be stripped of power, was a state of permanent war.” p. 20

“Permanent war, which reduces all to speaking in the simplified language of nationalism, is a disease. It strips citizens of rights. It reduces all communication to patriotic cant. It empowers those who profit from the state in the name of war. And it corrodes and diminishes democratic debate and institutions.” p. 20

“U.S. military spending, which consumes half of all discretionary spending, has had a profound social and political cost. Bridges and levees collapse. Schools decay. Domestic manufacturing declines. Trillions in debt threaten the viability of the currency and the economy. The poor, the mentally ill, the sick, and the unemployed are abandoned. Human suffering is the price for victory, which is never finally defined or attainable.” p. 21

“The imposition of fear ensures that the corporations that wrecked the country cannot be challenged. Fear keeps us penned in like livestock.” p. 21

    “I served the first half of my tour at the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC), where I was part of a small team working closely with the ANA to set up the country's first officer basic course for newly commissioned Afghan lieutenants,” a U.S. Army first lieutenant told me. He asked not to be identified by name. “During the second half of my tour, I left Kabul's military schoolhouse and was reassigned to an embedded tactical training team, or ETT team, to help stand up a new Afghan logistics battalion in Herat.” p. 48

    “Afghan soldiers leave the KMTC grossly unqualified,” said this lieutenant, who remains on active duty. “American mentors do what they can to try and fix these problems, but their efforts are blocked by pressure from higher, both in Afghan and American chains of command, to pump out as many soldiers as fast as possible.” p. 49

    “Afghan soldiers are sent from the KMTC directly to active-duty ANA units. The units always have American trainers, known as a “mentoring team,” attached to them. The rapid increase in ANA soldiers has outstripped the ability of the American military to provide trained mentoring teams. The teams, normally composed of members of the Army Special Forces, are now formed by groups of American soldiers, plucked more or less at random, from units all over Afghanistan. p. 49

    “This is how my entire team was selected during the middle of my tour: a random group of people from all over Kabul – air force, navy, army, active-duty, and national guard – pulled from their previous assignments, thrown together and expected to do a job that none of us were trained in any meaningful way to do.” The officer said:

    “You're lucky enough if you had any mentorship training at all, something the army provides in a limited capacity at premobilization training at Fort Riley, [Kansas,] but having none is the norm,” he said.”Soldiers who receive their premobilization training at Fort Bragg [North Carolina] learn absolutely nothing about mentoring foreign forces aside from being given a booklet on the subject, and yet soldiers who go through Bragg before being shipped to Afghanistan are just as likely to be assigned to mentoring teams as anyone else.” p. 49

. . .

“The real purpose of American advisers assigned to ANA units, however, is not ultimately to train Afghans but rather to function as liaisons between Afghani units and American firepower and logistics. The ANA is unable to integrate ground units with artillery and air support. It has no functioning supply system. It depends on the U.S. military to do basic tasks. The United States even pays the bulk of ANA salaries.” p. 50

. . .

    "But what disturbs advisers most is the widespread corruption within the ANA, which has enraged and alienated local Afghans and proved a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban."
    "In the Afghan logistics battalion I was embedded with, the commender himself was extorting a local shopkeeper, and his staff routinely stole from the local store," the adviser said:

. . .

    "We currently spend some $4 billion a month in Afghanistan. . . ."
    "What are we doing? Were is this money going?"
    "Look to the civilian contractors. These contractors dominate the lucrative jobs in Afghanistan. The American military, along with the ANA, is considered a poor relation. And war, after all, is primarily a business." p. 51

. . .

    “What was once done by the military, concerned with tactical and strategic advancement, is now done by war profiteers, concerned solely with profit. The aims of the military and the contractors are in conflict. Any scaling down of the war or withdrawal means a loss of business for corporations. But expansion of the war, as many veterans will attest, is making the situation only more precarious.” p. 52

“... Peace and profit are ultimately contradictory forces at work in Afghanistan.” p. 52

    “We hear … almost nothing about the huge profits made by contractors. ... only ten percent of the money poured into Afghanistan is used to ameliorate the suffering pf Afghan civilians. The remainder is swallowed by contractors who siphon the money out of Afghanistan and into foreign bank accounts.” p. 52

“... Only the CEOs and executive officers of war-profiteering corporations find satisfactory returns on their investments.” p. 53

    “Public manifestations of gratitude are reserved for veterans who dutifully read from the script handed out to them by the state. The veterans trotted out for viewing are those who are compliant and palatable, those we can stand to look at without horror, those willing to go along with the lie that war is the highest form of patriotism. “Thank you for your service,” we are supposed to say. These soldiers are used to perpetuate the myth. We are used to honor it.” p. 56

“Despair and suicide grip survivors. It is estimated that as many Vietnam veterans committed suicide after the war as were killed during it.” p. 57

“The disparity between what we are told or what we believe about war and war itself is so vast that those who come back are often rendered speechless.” p. 58.

Chapter III: Dismantling the Liberal Class

    “World War I ushered in the modern era. The war bequeathed industrial killing – wars fought with machines and sustained by industrial production – as well as vast wartime bureaucracies, which could for the first time administer and organize impersonal mass slaughter over months and years that left hundreds of thousands dead in an instant, many of whom never saw their attackers. ... A nation's entire industrial and organizational capacity, as well as its centralized systems of information and internal control, could be harnessed for war. World War I gave birth to the terrible leviathan of total war.
    Just as ominously, the war unleashed radical new forms of mass propaganda and mass manipulation that made it possible to engineer public opinion through the technical innovations of radio, cinema, photography, cheap mass publications, and graphic art....” p. 61

    "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 propaganda designed to appeal to emotions rather than disseminate facts, proved adept at driving competing ideas and values underground. It 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

“The mass propaganda established during the war, which included journalists, entertainers, artists, and novelists, became the model for twentieth-century corporate and government advertising and publicity. The selling of the Iraq war by the administration of George W. Bush was lifted from the playbook of the CPI, as was the tactic used by ExxonMobil to use $16 million to fund a network of forty-three “grass roots” organizations opposed to the science of climate change, recurit scientists to publish non-peer-reviewed articles challenging the scientific evidence, and repeated placement of these “experts” on the national airwaves to manufacture public confusion. The use of these propaganda techniques has permitted corporations to saturate the airwaves with images and slogans that deify mass consumer culture. And it has meant the death, by corporate hands, of news.” pp.73-74

    “After the war, as Stuart Ewen told me when we met in New York, all systems of public discourse, communication, and expression were “systematically designed to avoid including any information or knowledge that might encourage people to evaluate the situation.” Mass propaganda obliterated an informed public. “Except for those who seek out information internationally or through nontraditional sources, … the entire picture of the universe that is provided to people is reduced to a comic strip.”
    By the late 1920s, for example, you have the emergence of a fairly elaborate social psychological apparatus designed to take the temperature of public emotions, not for the purpose of reporting on what people feel but for the purpose of shaping what people feel,” Ewen said:

    “The liberal class, believing it had to fit its ideas into the new sloganeering of mass communications, began to communicate in the childlike vocabulary and simplistic sound bites demanded by commercial media....” p. 88

    “The cultural embrace of simplification, as MacDonald warned, meant reducing a population to speaking in predigested cliches and slogans. It banished complexity and further pushed to the margins difficult, original, or unfamiliar ideas. The assault on radical and original thought, which by definition did not fit itself into the popular cultural lexicon, saw art forms such as theater suffer.” p. 88

Chapter IV: Politics as Spectacle

“...liberal principles were egregiously betrayed to protect careers, to preserve access to the powerful. Liberals conceded too much to the power elite. The tragedy of the liberal class and the institutions it controls is that it succumbed to opportunism and finally to fear. It abrogated its moral role. It did not defy corporate abuse when it had the chance. It exiled those within its ranks who did. And the defanging of the liberal class not only removed all barriers to neofeudalism and corporate abuse but also ensured that the liberal class will, in its turn, be swept aside.” The disease of the liberal class is the specious, supposedly 'professional' insistence on objectivity. Before the rise of commercial newspapers, journals of opinion existed to influence public sentiment via arguments – not to stultify readers with lists of facts. … Liberal institutions, which were created as instruments of reform. One by one, these institutions cuccumbed to the temptation of money, the jargon of patriotism, belief in the need for permanent war, fear of internal and external enemies, and distrust of radicals, who had once kept the liberal class honest. And when it was over, the liberal class had nothing left to say.” p. 139

“... the New Deal Democrats who understood that a democracy is not safe if it does not give its citizens an acceptable standard of living and protect the state from being hijacked by private power are gone. The remnants of the liberal class, and the hollow institutions they inhabit, flee from those who speak in the strange and unfamiliar tongue of liberty and justice.” p. 140

Chapter V: Liberal Defectors

“...But as the state was slowly hijacked by corporations, a process that began after World War I, accelerated after World War II and was completed with ruthless efficiency over the past thirty years, the liberal class purged itself of the only members who had the fortitude and vision to save it from irrelevance.” p. 141

“The final phase of total corporate control, which began with Ronald Reagan, saw the steady assimilation of corporate ideology into liberal thought. It meant that the liberal class was forced to discard the principle tenets of liberalism. The liberal class, its institutions controlled by corporations, was soon mouthing the the corporate mantra that economics and the marketplace, rather than human beings, should guide political and economic behavior. Free-market capitalism, a distinctly illiberal belief system, soon defined liberal thought.” p. 142

“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 was complicit in the rise of a new global oligarchy and the crushing poverty visited in globalization’s wake on the poor and the working class. It abetted the decline of the middle class – the very basis of democracy. It has permitted, in the name of progress, the dismantling of the manufacturing sector, leaving huge pockets of post industrial despair and poverty behind.” p. 142

“But it would be a mistake to assume that the liberal class was simply seduced by the utopian promises of globalism. It was also seduced by careerism. Those who mouthed the right words, who did not challenge the structures being cemented into place by the corporate state, who assured the working class that the suffering was temporary and would be rectified in the new world order, were rewarded. They were given public platforms on television and in the political arena. They were held up to the wider society as experts, sages, and specialists. They became the class of wise men and women who were permitted to explain in public forums what was happening to us at home and abroad. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a cheerleader for the Iraq war and globalization, became the poster child for the new class of corporate mandarins. And although Friedman was disastrously wrong about the outcome of the occupation, as he was about the effects of globalization, he continues, with a handful of other apologists, to dominate the airwaves.” p. 142

“My initial support for the war [in Iraq] was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community, namely the disposition and incentives to supoort wars to retain political and professional credibility,” wrote Leslie Gelb in Foreign Policy in a mea culpa for the whole liberal establishment after the invasion of Iraq. “We ‘experts’ have a lot to fix about ourselves, even as we ‘perfect’ the media. We must redouble our commitment to independent thought, and embrace, rather than cast aside, opinions and facts that blow the common – often wrong – wisdom apart. Our democracy requires nothing less.” p. 143

“Independent thought, as Gelb and many of those who backed the war understood, is an instant career killer. Doors shut. No longer are you invited on the television talk shows, given grants, feted in the university, interviewed on CNN, invited to the Council on Foreign Relations, given tenure, or asked to write op-ed pieces in the New York Times. There is no cost to being wrong if the policies of the power elite are lauded. There is, however, a tremendous cost to being defiant, even if that defiance is prescient and correct. The liberal class, seeking personal and financial advancement as well as continued entree into the inner circles of power, is not concerned with the moral but the practical.” p. 143

“Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take,” wrote Edward Said. “You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; you hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.” p. 143

“For an intellectual these habits of mind are corrupting par excellence,” Said went on. “If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life, if is the internalization of such habits [emphasis added].” p. 143

“. . . despite the abuse and vilification that any outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and self-determination earns for him or herself, the truth deserves to be spoken, represented by an unafraid and compassionate intellectual.” p. 144

“Once intellectuals transfer their allegiance to the practical aims of power and material advantage, they emasculate themselves as intellectuals.” p. 144

“... [Benda] “. . . humanity did evil for two thousand years but honored good.” But once the intellectuals began to “play the game of political passions,” those who had “acted as a check on the realism of the people began to act as its stimulators.” p. 145

“... most member of Congress, then as now, had become corporate employees.” p. 191

Chapter VI: Rebellion