A Diagnosis of the Current Situation

 Chris Hedges is a former reporter for the New York Times, where he worked for fifteen years, four of those as Middle East Bureau Chief. Since becoming radicalized by his direct experience with US misdeeds in Iraq, he has consistently denounced American foreign policy and the role of the mainstream media as its accomplice.

This is a well-written and hard-hitting book. Hedges uses individual case stories to inject life into his narrative to great effect, from injured combat veterans in El Salvador, Israel and South America (54-58) to workers and peasants in the US, China and India whose lives have been severely affected by capitalism (28-32). However, he is undoubtedly at his best when analyzing the role of the media and propaganda in buttressing government policy. The third chapter of this book has a fascinating account of the role played by the Committee for Public Information (CPI), established a week after the US entered World War I. Headed by a former muckraker named George Creel, the CPI became one of the pioneering mass propaganda machines whose purpose as described by Creel himself was not only to support the war but also to discredit those who opposed US participation in the conflict.

New York Times Exposed

Hedges shows at some length how the mainstream media trivializes everything it touches. But he is particularly devastating in his exposure of the supposedly “objective journalism” practiced at the New York Times. Hedges was fired from the newspaper for his outspoken criticism of the Iraq War, especially his powerful antiwar commencement speech at Rockford College in Illinois in 2003. Meanwhile, his fellow reporter John Burns remained safely on his job after having publicly espoused support for the US war.

Similarly, Hedges notes that Abe Rosenthal, the neoconservative former executive editor of the Times, banned critics such as Noam Chomsky from being quoted in the newspaper, and decreed that no story involving Ralph Nader’s anti-corporate research could be published until the Times could secure a response from the relevant corporations. When the corporate world got word of Rosenthal’s decree, it simply refused to respond, thereby killing Nader’s coverage by the Times. According to Hedges, Nader’s disappearance from the “newspaper of record” had a snowballing effect and the other major newspapers and networks also ceased to report on his investigations.

Hedges’ account of what happened to Sydney Schanberg in the Times is another case in point. After having acquired a reputation for his coverage of Asia — Cambodia in particular (the movie The Killing Fields was based on his experiences in that country) — Schanberg was first appointed as metropolitan editor of the Times. After his removal from that position he was assigned a regular Op Ed column. Hedges writes that Schanberg’s concern for the homeless, the poor and the victims of developers in his writings earned him the contempt of Rosenthal who referred to him as the “resident Commie.” Schanberg did not last much longer at the paper.

The Liberal Class?

Hedges structures all his arguments around an overarching notion: the “liberal class” has died, and has left the way open to the unchallenged domination of the powerful. It is at this level that his writing becomes confusing and unconvincing.

For one thing, he treats class as exclusively based on political ideas (such as liberalism) and ignores the fundamental social and economic characteristics of a class. According to Hedges, the pillars of the “liberal class” are in “the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions,” which he says “have been bought off with corporate money and promises of scraps tossed to them by the narrow circles of power” (10). However, Hedges’ description of the constituent elements of his “liberal class” does not look anything like the components of a social class from a sociological perspective — mainstream or Marxist. It also includes institutions such as the media, whose owners are an important part of the capitalist class. Similarly, the unions, although many of them may be quite conservative, do not belong in the same social category as the media: they are not part of the capitalist class, or of what Hedges calls “the narrow circles of power.” With respect to the Democratic Party, liberals are a substantial group but still a minority within it, as they are inside the churches. And although the liberal presence is stronger in university faculties — but not as much among university administrators — and the arts, this does not result in a cultural or ideological hegemony over society at large.

Perhaps Hedges is trying to say that those important institutions have moved to the right in recent years. If that is all he means, he is probably correct and his book gives ample evidence in support of that view. Or perhaps he is trying to say that the political liberal wing of the “middle class” cannot be trusted and is likely to give in to the rulers. If that is what he means, he is right too, although it would certainly not be a new phenomenon: it can be traced back to as early as the 1848 revolutions in Europe. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that the “middle classes” are not the undifferentiated reactionary mass that Hedges’s analysis may be taken to imply, and that there are sections of those classes that can be moved politically.

As events in relatively recent American history show, there was a politically liberal wing of the middle classes that was pushed to the left by the impact of the labour upsurge of the 1930s. Hedges himself describes how liberals came together with radicals to support the Federal Theatre Project and other artistic left-wing endeavors in the thirties (89-90). The radical movements of the sixties – black, anti-war, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation — in their turn had a substantial influence on the political and cultural style of important sections of the middle class, particularly the educated. Even the mainstream press was to some degree compelled to respond to the pressure of the mass movements of those years. As Sydney Schanberg describes the role of the press in this context, “We do it in spurts. We discover the civil-rights movement. We discover the women’s rights movement. We go at it hell-bent because now it is kosher to write about those who have been neglected and treated like half-citizens. And then when things calm down it becomes easy not to do that anymore (cited by Hedges, 147-148).

Moral Witness or Social Movements?

If that is so, the issue becomes how to revitalize the movements of the past and encourage the growth of the newer ones like those trying to protect our gravely damaged environment. Hedges acknowledges the need to do something. His blueprint for such action is the pacifist Catholic Worker (CW) organization. Accordingly, he renounces violence — even when used on behalf of a just cause — because it corrupts, deforms and perverts people (198). He also rejects success as a goal of action, citing Dorothy Day, the CW’s founder and long-time leader: “Success, as the world judges it, should never be the final criterion for the religious and moral life, or for the life of resistance. Spirituality, she said, was rooted in the constant struggle to fight for justice and be compassionate, especially to those in need. And that commitment was hard enough without worrying about its ultimate effect” (157.)

Along similar lines, Hedges concludes that “Acts of resistance are moral acts. They take place because people of conscience understand the moral, rather than the practical, imperative of rebellion. They should be carried out not because they are effective, but because they are right” (205).

A politics that suggests that success is irrelevant to political action is bound to discourage popular participation in movements. One of the pillars upholding the hegemony of the capitalist class is the powerlessness experienced by working people. They usually don’t believe they can win a struggle to significantly change the social and political arrangements that oppress and exploit them. Often it is this sentiment and not a belief in the legitimacy of the system that paralyzes people and makes them opt for resignation instead of active resistance.

While many people believe in Lord Acton’s proclamation of the late nineteenth century that absolute power corrupts absolutely, they ignore the reality that absolute powerlessness creates its own kind of moral and political corruption. Hedges’ assumption that social movements that aim at the successful attainment of their goals – power — are unconcerned with morality is unfounded. Historians, such EP Thompson, have amply documented the profound, even if not fully articulated, ethical beliefs espoused by working-class movements in the past within the framework of a “moral economy” sometimes accompanied by the religious beliefs common among the oppressed.

Hedges’ view of protest is closely aligned with his cataclysmic view of our current situation. According to him, the Copenhagen summit on climate change was perhaps the last chance to save ourselves from ecological collapse. As he sees it, we stand on the verge of a barbarism that may last for decades, if not centuries; the working class has been wiped out; and corporate interests have seized every source of power. For Hedges, they cannot be defeated or even influenced by elections or popular movements. Therefore, significant structural change will not occur in our lifetime. His only alternative is to build small, self-contained structures that do as little harm as possible to the environment, engaged in sustainable agriculture, self-sufficient and able to sever themselves as much as possible from commercial culture so we can perhaps weather the collapse (194-195, 196,198, 205-206).

We are certainly living in a reactionary period in most of the advanced capitalist countries; liberalism (and social democracy) has definitively declined. The working class and other movements of the oppressed have been defeated, although they have not been smashed and terrorized as happened under fascism. But the roots of this defeat cannot be attributed to the misdeeds of the media or the betrayals of the “liberal class.” They may have been bought off; they may lack spine. But they themselves did not give rise to our current problems.

Instead, the crisis goes back to the late sixties and early seventies when the post-war boom came to an end and employers went on an international offensive that through the next thirty years ended up reorganizing capitalism. In the case of the US, capitalist neo-liberalism formed an alliance with a newly-politicized religious fundamentalism (rooted in a reaction to the cultural revolution of the sixties) to build a powerful right wing force.

As the time of this review, the Middle East has erupted with struggles that are shaking up US imperialism as well as the domestic ruling classes. Struggles recently broke out in Greece, the UK and other European countries to resist the capitalist onslaught provoked by the Great Recession. Latin America is no longer the pro-US monolith it was only a couple of decades ago (with the exception of Cuba). At home, there is a multinational working class with a very different occupational structure from that of thirty or forty years ago. This reconstituted working class will have to find new methods of struggle to fit its new realities, such as the gigantic protests of Latino immigrant workers less than five years ago. Chris Hedges chose to provide us with a left-wing, catastrophic version of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” Instead, we need to formulate ideas about how to extricate ourselves from our present predicament and move forward.

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba and has been involved in socialist politics for over fifty years. His new book Cuba Since the 1959 Revolution: A Critical Assessment will be released by Haymarket Books in the fall of 2011.