Hedging Our Bets?

Liberal class is dead in the U.S. But what about Canada?
December 1, 2010

Last month in this space I bemoaned the mounting power and influence of ultra-conservative politicians and business leaders. I attributed their alarming success at the polls mainly to their ownership and control of the commercial media and right-wing think-tanks – propaganda organs used to demonize progressive ideas and sanctify the free-market ideology of the right.

     In retrospect, this was probably too simplistic an explanation. For one thing, it gave all the credit for the right’s resurgence to the strategic superiority of its leaders while largely overlooking the failure of leaders on the left to oppose them.

     Chris Hedges, in his new book Death of the Liberal Class, is not nearly so tolerant of the forces and institutions on the left, or the people who set their priorities and platforms. In fact, he puts most of the blame for the rise of the right directly on them.

     As you’ll see when you read the article based on his book (pages 22-23), he accuses what he calls the “liberal class” of turning their backs on the middle and working class. In the recent mid-term elections in the United States, jobless and impoverished American voters, bereft of their traditional defenders on the left, turned to the extremists on the right to vent their anger and frustration.     

     Hedges’s scathing indictment spares none of the institutions on the left in the U.S. The Democratic party, the universities, the arts, labour unions, the church, the press – all have failed, he says, to do anything to halt “the corporate assault on the poor and the working class over the past 30 years.”

     Instead, their token efforts on behalf of the growing permanent underclass in the U.S. have been confined to empty rhetoric and hand-wringing. “The liberal class 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.”

     Liberal class leaders in the U.S., of course, have been outraged by Hedges’s relentless attack. But they have difficulty trying to discredit him. He can’t be easily dismissed as a crank or a radical left-wing extremist. His record as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of several other best-selling books speaks for itself. His outspoken denunciation of U.S. liberals is hard to refute, given their obvious reluctance to confront the corporate state, other than with an occasional weak remonstration. They may not be dead as a class, as Hedges claims, but they may well have forfeited the right to continue calling themselves liberals.

     Hedges has made a few appearances in Canada promoting his book. He has been asked, of course, whether his excoriation of liberals as a class in the U.S. applies also to progressives and their institutions in Canada. He doesn’t go that far, but he does point out that Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff, leaders of the current federal government and official opposition, were both ardent supporters of the unjustified U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. He also points to the brutal police mistreatment of peaceful protesters at the G-8 summit in Toronto earlier this year as a sign that democracy and civil rights may be no more secure here than they are in the U.S.

     He could also have slammed the opposition parties in Parliament for their ineptitude in allowing a minority far-right party to govern the country for the past five years as if it had a decisive majority of seats.

     The commercial media in Canada, though mouthpieces of the corporate state, may be slightly less clangorous than their American counterparts. Our universities may be slightly less skewed to the right in their curricula, our unions hobbled more by bad labour laws and free-trade-empowered employers than by any inherent loss of fortitude. The failure of our working class political party, the NDP, to develop an agenda that presents an alternative democratic vision for the country is more difficult to defend; but there is still hope it will regain the revolutionary spirit that animated its founders when they adopted the Regina Manifesto.

     Hedges’s book is not unrelievedly pessimistic. He doesn’t see much hope for the Democratic party to resume its intended role as a champion of liberal values; but on the other hand he hasn’t given up on civil society to launch a strong grassroots movement with the same objective.

     He points out that the victories of the campaigns against slavery, for the emancipation of women, for civil liberties, for ending the Vietnam war, for the minimum wage and the right to strike were all won primarily through mass movements and demonstrations by committed citizens – not by political parties or governments. Most of their leaders (e.g., Emily Pankhurst, Martin Luther King) never held political office. Governments eventually passed the necessary legislation, but only when convinced they risked electoral defeat if they didn’t.

     Being a stubborn optimist myself, I’d like to think a similar mass movement could be mobilized to overthrow corporate rule, reinstate real democracy, and thus create a world blessed with social and economic justice, global peace, and a protected environment.

     We have to hope that such a mobilization of progressive organizations and individuals will materialize – and before it’s too late. But the barriers to be overcome this time are much more formidable than they were for those who struggled for fairness and equality in the past.

     The leading opponents of slavery did have the support (eventually) of some influential politicians: William Wilberforce in Britain, Abe Lincoln in the U.S. The women’s movement had its elected political supporters, too (e.g., Agnes MacPhail, Nellie McClung), and there were many prominent authors, academics, artists, and other cultural icons who also raised their voices on behalf of those denied basic rights and freedoms.

     The situation today, however, is not nearly so conducive to the success of mass movements. Corporations have become so powerful that they now control the dominant global economic system as well as the governments of most countries. They own the mass media outlets. The would-be prominent champions of social and economic justice have been marginalized and ridiculed. Even the academics who dare to sound the alarm about global warming or the unfair distribution of wealth risk being discredited by the PR flacks of the corporations that benefit from pollution and poverty.

     This overpowering influence of multinational corporations has stifled dissent and made a travesty of allegedly democratic governance. It has entrenched an economic system that feeds, parasitically, on the planet’s dwindling natural resources. It has brainwashed millions (perhaps billions) of the victims of the corporate state who otherwise might be enlisted in a mass movement to save them -- and everyone else in the world -- from economic, social, and environmental collapse.

     Little wonder that so many organizations and individuals – even those who retain their grip on sanity and reality – have sunk into despair and apathy. The prospect of challenging such a monstrous, despotic, world-encompassing enemy is daunting. Little wonder so many erstwhile liberals have decided they have no choice but to collaborate with corporate masters they detest but now see as invulnerable. 

     Chris Hedges may unwittingly be adding to this malaise of hopelessness with his latest book, but his intent is to warn those of us who remain undaunted that we can no longer rely on most of the organizations and institutions that initiated progressive movements in the past. To keep depending on them to mount an effective grassroots campaign against corporatism and plutocracy would be to risk further delay in getting such a broad-based movement started.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA’s Senior Editor.)