Chris Hedges’ Mourning in America

Once Again – Death of the Liberal Class

So, let us assume for the moment that Chris Hedges is right and that, domestically and internationally, not only is the US every bit as much the proto-fascist juggernaut he suggests that it is, but that US liberals, who imagine they are the firewall against the full revenge of this storm, are in fact willing or unwilling accomplices in its advance.

This places Mr Hedges is nearly the same position as members of the left wing of the socialist party in 1932 in Germany. So, let us assume that that is where we are.

My recollection is not only that we lost that battle in spectacular fashion, but that in 1945, the liberal class picked up right where it had left off in 1941. Readers less familiar with this history may wish to recall (1) that liberal America was quite taken with Mr. Hitler and Mr. Mussolini; (2) that overall they were pleased in particular with Mr. Hitler’s anti-communism, his anti-Semitism, his hostility to homosexuality, his opposition to organized labor, and his defense of the traditional family; (3) that even FDR’s preparations for war were motivated less by moral outrage than by the huge sums the US had already sunk into Great Britain (which would then be lost) and fear over a world dominated by German economic and military superiority; but, therefore, (4) that it was only Pearl Harbor that created the political will to join the conflict.

When the Allies prevailed in 1945, no one in the US felt it necessary to examine the world system that had given rise to Stalin, or Hitler, or Mussolini. To the contrary, the liberal class was inclined to embrace Hannah Arendt’s ontologically fundamental lumping of all totalitarianisms in the same heap, which had the advantage that, unlike Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Arendt had also said some unkind things about capitalism and Israel and therefore could be considered unbiased.

Assuming we are now where the left wing of the German socialist party was in 1932, what then? Of course, in 1932, what Mr. Hedges calls the “liberal class” was quite pleased with Mr. Hitler. Do we then simply write them off? And then what? Compose incisive, vitriolic prose for the left-wing blogosphere? (I have done that and continue to do that.) Makes me feel good to write and to read. My brothers and sisters in 1932 were doing the same, right up until 1938-9, when they were forced into exile and underground.

Perhaps this is what we need to do. Perhaps the liberal class is lost to us. And perhaps we therefore need to brace ourselves for the inevitable carnage that disorganized capitalism provokes in its downward global spiral. Nothing more can be done. Organize, write, read, and act until we are silenced.

I have to wonder, however, whether this Manichean isolation of the liberal from the left did not in some ways accelerate and compound the violence that it deemed in any case inevitable. Because, from another vantage-point the liberal class was as much victim as perpetrator. And while its vision of the world and of Germany in 1932 was inclined to cast fascism in the best possible light, it should be remembered that the German Left’s demonization of liberal Germany made it all the easier for liberals to prefer Hitler over those on the Left who cast them as class enemies.

Am I mistaken to detect in Mr. Hedges’ characterization of the liberal class and, more specifically, the “death” of this class, a touch of the kind of rage a husband, wife, or child feels at the death of their beloved? And with such rage, is there not also a pang of guilt that my rage is irrationally complicit in the death of the beloved? Thus the self-loathing that not infrequently accompanies loss.

There is, however, another, more painful and less dramatic path. Because, of course, we inevitably see in the liberal class not only what it is, but what it could be; we want this class not so much to live up to its original promise as much as to grow out of its self-imposed adolescence (to use Kant’s expression). But, if I am not mistaken, this, our desire for the liberal class, is also our love for this class. We want it to be better, to recover from its illness, to wake up. But it is not, and so we are in mourning.

And, yet, notwithstanding our oedipal desire to make it so, the liberal class is not dead. As Mr. Hedges would be the first to admit, the liberal class is there, tepidly supporting minimal action on climate change, furtively complaining about the renewal of the Patriot Act, cheering with the President’s support of gay marriage or amnesty for children born of undocumented parents, but secretly wishing and hoping that this President would do more.

Mourning the death of the liberal class is, in my view, a cop out. It relieves us of the hard work of developing a language that reaches across the Manichean divide to, where possible, rescue members of the liberal class from their self-imposed adolescence.  And it releases us from culpability in the impending disaster. What else could we do? Nothing. And so we are absolved. Psychoanalysis warns us against such repetition, which, even if inevitable, at least deserves our notice. Is 1932 2012? Is the liberal class the Christian Democratic Party or the Liberal Party of 1932? But, then, what are we? Are we the Democratic Socialists? And, if so, then what then? Must we play our pre-assigned role?

I think not. Instead we must continue to develop language that aims at restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the halt, spirit to the depressed and dejected, and freedom to the captives, even or specially if they are captives by choice.

The time for mourning is over or at least premature. The time for work is at hand. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Work while it is still day.