Book Review: Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges

Hands down, this is the best book I’ve read this year. Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges won a Pulitzer Prize, so I’m clearly not the only one who thinks highly of it.

Hedges answers the question I (and many others) have been asking for several years: What the heck happened to the Democratic Party in this country? But Hedges goes far beyond party politics to examine how and why the liberal class and our institutions (universities, unions, newspapers, etc.) have become so weak as to not even remotely cause a threat when basic civil liberties or human rights are infringed upon.

From the back of the jacket:

“Liberals conceded too much power to the 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.”

The interesting thing is that Hedges doesn’t take simple potshots at the modern liberal class, nor does he even settle for platitudes about the last-great-Democrat FDR. Rather, he can trace the diminishment of the liberal class back to World War I when the federal government mobilized liberal thinkers and creative types for the war effort in the Committee for Public Information. Especially in and after World War II, these types of government agencies perfected modern advertising and marketing, utilizing the creativity and intelligence of the citizens it employed for war profiteering, political games and corporate power.

So while, at times, the federal government has supported education (land grant universities), art (NEA-funded artists, theaters, etc.), social services and spurts of public works, each time the liberal class was co-opted, used, then given relatively secure, tenured, honored places in society that caused (surprise!) a drift towards the political middle and an overall silencing. Those who were vocal, prominent and who refused to be bought were often silenced just by the weight of the “system” (censorship, blacklisting in the media, the electoral college and two-party politics as some examples).

In addition to the past, Hedges outlook on the future is not entirely optimistic. In the chapter “Rebellion” he predicts the possibility of rebellion, but first, or maybe only, “a system that closely resembles classical totalitarianism, characterized by despotic fiefdoms” after the oil-based economy collapses and China cashes in on all of our debt and life for the average citizen becomes drastically more desperate (no jobs, no credit, no consumer goods, dwindling food availability, water rationing, etc.).

Nonetheless, Hedges inspired me. He gave me information that went beyond party politics and right down to the bone of moral aptitude and action. This is where he got me: “The rebel refuses to be bought off by foundation grants, invitations to the White House, television appearances, book contracts, academic appointments or empty rhetoric.”

When I put down Death of the Liberal Class, I looked around at my student loans, the type of car I own, recent purchases, credit card debt, even the soda I was drinking and thought, “Ah, I’ve been bought and silenced in my own way here. Now, how to unplug from it all?”

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