The lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, which looks set to make sweeping gains in the midterm elections, is the direct result of a collapse of liberalism. It is the product of bankrupt liberal institutions, including the press, the church, universities, labor unions, the arts and the Democratic Party. The legitimate rage being expressed by disenfranchised workers toward the college-educated liberal elite, who abetted or did nothing to halt the corporate assault on the poor and the working class of the last 30 years, is not misplaced. The liberal class is guilty. The liberal class, which continues to speak in the prim and obsolete language of policies and issues, refused to act. It failed to defend traditional liberal values during the long night of corporate assault in exchange for its position of privilege and comfort in the corporate state. The virulent right-wing backlash we now experience is an expression of the liberal class’ flagrant betrayal of the citizenry.
The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve. During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal. During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement. But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless. It offers nothing but empty rhetoric. It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant. It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass. And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule. The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.
Populations will endure repression from tyrants as long as these rulers continue to effectively manage and wield power. But human history has amply demonstrated that once those in positions of power become redundant and impotent, yet retain the trappings and privileges of power, they are swiftly and brutally discarded. Tocqueville observed that the French, on the eve of their revolution, hated the aristocrats about to lose their power far more than they had ever hated them before. The increased hatred directed at the aristocratic class occurred because as the aristocracy lost real power there was no decline in their fortunes. As long as the liberal class had even limited influence, whether through the press or the legislative process, liberals were tolerated and even respected. But once the liberal class lost all influence it became a class of parasites. The liberal class, like the déclassé French aristocracy, has no real function within the power elite. And the rising right-wing populists, correctly, ask why liberals should be tolerated when their rhetoric bears no relation to reality and their presence has no influence on power.
The death of the liberal class, however, is catastrophic for our democracy. It means there is no longer any check to a corporate apparatus designed to further enrich the power elite. It means we cannot halt the plundering of the nation by Wall Street speculators and corporations. An ineffectual liberal class, in short, means there is no hope, however remote, of a correction or a reversal through the political system and electoral politics. The liberals’ disintegration ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression in a rejection of traditional liberal institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy. The very forces that co-opted the liberal class and are responsible for the impoverishment of the state will, ironically, reap benefits from the collapse. These corporate manipulators are busy channeling rage away from the corporate and military forces hollowing out the nation from the inside and are turning that anger toward the weak remnants of liberalism. It does not help our cause that liberals indeed turned their backs on the working and middle class.
The corporate state has failed to grasp the vital role the liberal class traditionally plays in sustaining a stable power system. The corporate state, by emasculating the liberal class, has opted for a closed system of polarization, gridlock and political theater in the name of governance. It has ensured a further destruction of state institutions so that government becomes even more ineffectual and despised. The collapse of the constitutional state, presaged by the death of the liberal class, has created a power vacuum that a new class of speculators, war profiteers, gangsters and killers, historically led by charismatic demagogues, will enthusiastically fill. It opens the door to overtly authoritarian and fascist movements. These movements rise to prominence by ridiculing and taunting the liberal class for its weakness, hypocrisy and uselessness. The promises of these proto-fascist movements are fantastic and unrealistic, but their critiques of the liberal class are grounded in truth.
The liberal class, despite becoming an object of public scorn, still prefers the choreographed charade. Liberals decry, for example, the refusal of the Democratic Party to restore habeas corpus or halt the looting of the U.S. Treasury on behalf of Wall Street speculators, but continue to support a president who cravenly serves the interests of the corporate state. As long as the charade of democratic participation is played, the liberal class does not have to act. It can maintain its privileged status. It can continue to live in a fictional world where democratic reform and responsible government exist. It can pretend it has a voice and influence in the corridors of power. But the uselessness of the liberal class is not lost on the tens of millions of Americans who suffer the awful indignities of the corporate state.
The death of the liberal class cuts citizens off from the mechanisms of power. Liberal institutions such as the church, the press, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions once set the parameters for limited self-criticism and small, incremental reforms and offered hope for piecemeal justice and change. The liberal class could decry the excesses of the state, work to mitigate them and champion basic human rights. It posited itself as the conscience of the nation. It permitted the nation, through its appeal to public virtues and the public good, to define itself as being composed of a virtuous and even noble people. The liberal class was permitted a place within a capitalist democracy because it also vigorously discredited radicals within American society who openly defied the excesses of corporate capitalism and who denounced a political system run by and on behalf of corporations. The real enemy of the liberal class has never been Glenn Beck, but Noam Chomsky.
The purging and silencing of independent and radical thinkers as well as iconoclasts have robbed the liberal class of vitality. The liberal class has cut itself off from the roots of creative and bold thought, from those forces and thinkers who could have prevented the liberal class from merging completely with the power elite. Liberals exude a tepid idealism utterly divorced from daily life. And this is why every television clip of Barack Obama is so palpably pathetic.
Unions, organizations formerly steeped in the doctrine of class warfare and filled with those who sought broad social and political rights for the working class, have been transformed into domesticated junior partners of the capitalist class. Cars rolling out of the Ford and GM plants in Michigan were said to have been made by Ford-UAW. And where unions still exist, they have been reduced to simple bartering tools, if that. The social demands of unions early in the 20th century that gave the working class weekends off, the right to strike, the eight-hour workday and Social Security have been abandoned. Universities, especially in political science and economics departments, parrot the discredited ideology of unregulated capitalism and globalization. They have no new ideas. Artistic expression, along with most religious worship, is largely self-absorbed narcissism meant to entertain without offense. The Democratic Party and the press have become courtiers to the power elite and corporate servants.
Once the liberal class can no longer moderate the savage and greedy inclinations of the capitalist class, once, for example, labor unions are reduced to the role of bartering away wage increases and benefits, once public education is gutted and the press no longer gives a voice to the poor and the working class, liberals become as despised as the power elite they serve. The collapse of liberal institutions means those outside the circles of power are trapped, with no recourse, and this is why many Americans are turning in desperation toward idiotic right-wing populists who at least understand the power of hatred as a mobilizing force.
The liberal class no longer holds within its ranks those who have the moral autonomy or physical courage to defy the power elite. The rebels, from Chomsky to Sheldon Wolin to Ralph Nader, have been marginalized, shut out of the national debate and expelled from liberal institutions. The liberal class lacks members with the vision and fortitude to challenge dominant free market ideologies. It offers no ideological alternatives. It remains bound to a Democratic Party that has betrayed every basic liberal principle including universal healthcare, an end to our permanent war economy, a robust system of public education, a vigorous defense of civil liberties, job creation, the right to unionize and welfare for the poor.
“The left once dismissed the market as exploitative,” Russell Jacoby writes. “It now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps inversion.”
Capitalism, and especially corporate capitalism, was once viewed as a system to be fought. But capitalism is no longer challenged in public discourse. Capitalist bosses, men such as Warren Buffett, George Soros and Donald Trump, are treated bizarrely as sages and celebrities, as if greed and manipulation had become the highest moral good. As Wall Street steals billions of taxpayer dollars, as it perpetrates massive fraud to throw people out of their homes, as the ecosystem that sustains the planet is polluted and destroyed, we do not know what to do or say. We have been robbed of a vocabulary to describe reality. We decry the excesses of capitalism without demanding a dismantling of the corporate state. Our pathetic response is to be herded to political rallies by skillful publicists to shout inanities like “Yes we can!”
The liberal class is finished. Neither it nor its representatives will provide the leadership or resistance to halt our slide toward despotism. The liberal class prefers comfort and privilege to confrontation. It will not halt the corporate assault or thwart the ascendancy of the corporate state. It will remain intolerant within its ranks of those who do. The liberal class now honors an unwritten quid pro quo, one set in place by Bill Clinton, to cravenly serve corporate interests in exchange for money, access and admittance into the halls of power. The press, the universities, the labor movement, the arts, the church and the Democratic Party, fearful of irrelevance and desperate to retain their positions within the corporate state, will accelerate their purges of those who speak the unspeakable, those who name what cannot be named. It is the gutless and bankrupt liberal class, even more than the bizarre collection of moral and intellectual trolls now running for office, who are our most perfidious opponents.
Chris Hedges’ book “The Death of the Liberal Class” was released last week. He writes a column every Monday for Truthdig.