26 October 2010

The Agenda with Steve Paikin: Death of the Liberal Class (Video & Analysis)

Last Friday, I was one of the panel on TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. The featured guest was Chris Hedges, author of the recently published Death of the Liberal Class. In it, Hedges argues that traditional, liberal institutions - the liberal church, universities, labour unions, the press, and the Democratic Party in the U.S. - have sold out to corporatist/capitalist interests. They are thus no longer able to fulfil what he claims are their proper and useful role in society, namely, to act as a mitigating channel for dissent and dissatisfaction among the populace, providing a means to deflect massive, disruptive, structural changes. There was a featured interview with Hedges, and then the "debate" - the panel on which I participated with Hedges, and two others espousing the political right-wing, more corporatist views, Reihan Salam, and Tony Keller.

I think I did reasonably well, even though the conversation was themed on geo-political policy, economics, hegemonic brinkmanship during the run-up to the Iraq invasion, and whose life experience - Salam's or Hedges's - was more apropos to a reading of the hollowing out and decay of contemporary America. None of these are especially my ken, but I managed to hold my own (when I could get a few words in edge-wise).

Some observations: Of most concern, and perhaps most telling, was Salam's neo-liberal approach, validated by his personal success in light of the fact that his parents were immigrants from Bangladesh, and he grew up in a depressed part of Brooklyn. His story is exemplary of the archetypal, if mythical, American Dream Fable, but represents a particular instance of privilege that he does not afford to those whose livelihoods have been pulled out from under them by the very deregulations and so-called free-market economy that Salam and his right-wing think tank cronies espouse. Salam's claim that those so dispossessed, whose own "American Dreams" have become a series of waking nightmares, have simply migrated elsewhere to greener pastures is laughable, and certainly defies simple observation. Indeed, his attempt to refute economic statistics by counting the economic benefit of living on food stamps is ludicrous. His challenge to Hedges's case can perhaps best be summed up in his opening statement: "I just could not recognize the reality that I know from my daily life." And that, for most neo-liberal corporatists on the political right-wing, is the problem.

Tony Keller, on the other hand, is not as Ebenezer Scrooge-ish in his analysis as is Salam. In my opinion, Keller's perceptual limitation comes from his inability to understand the principles of complexity. He cannot see a "conspiracy" among all the various factors that, taken together, have "conspired" to disrupt the fabric of civil society (even though Hedges does not use a conspiracy metaphor). To Keller, who seems to espouse an old-style laissez-faire market approach, the interconnectedness among the various forces at work in a capitalist-driven society is invisible. He seemingly cannot understand that independently occurring economic and social factors do not necessarily have to deliberately collude to enable the type of emergent patterns that we are experiencing as a result of the apparent liberal sell-out that Hedges names. Keller's position is that human history has been a story of progress, and that progress is good (with a relatively minor concession made for the fact that not all progress has been unproblematic... oh really?!).

My own position (at the 4 minute point in the video) is simple to state: the constructs that gave us corporatism, capitalism, the liberal class, and modernity itself are now obsolesced, and we need a new framework in which to observe, theorize, understand, and undo the dysfunctions that we have clearly visited upon ourselves, and the wider world. That Salam is willingly blind to such disruption and dysfunction is not only sad, but naive in the extreme. That Keller cannot understand the connectedness that defines the contemporary world (UCaPP, for those who are playing along at home), represents the constraint of Industrial Age, managerial socialization. Arguments from neither of these simplistic contexts are useful; rather, they serve to bolster ignorance - literally, the learned ability to ignore much that is politically, ethically, and morally problematic in our world in favour of that which is instrumental, efficient, and merely economic.

Hedges's argument is useful and even truthy as far as it goes - that there has been a de facto collusion among predominantly economically driven forces, and those that have traditionally provided more progressive mitigation against the selfish, consumptive inclinations of that mythical, and anything-but-rational beast, homo economicus. The solution, in my view, is two-fold. First, we can recognize that, historically speaking, we are in the midst of a massive cultural transition from an epoch largely defined by the Enlightenment that solidified into modernity, to one that is being structured (although that term itself is problematic and must be taken in its broadest sense) by conditions of UCaPP, and has yet to emerge into a stable, homeostatic form. This suggests one particular inevitability: that the Salams and Kellers of the world will inevitably shuck off this mortal coil, and in their places will stand men and women who have been socialized into a more mutually responsible and collectively accountable sensibility. That final understanding, namely, that we are all responsible for and accountable to ourselves, each other, and the world at large - be it natural, built, material, or social - will inevitably dominate intelligent and reasoned discourse.

Second, we can hasten the day of societal institutions transforming to become more in-tune with this contemporary dynamic by adopting a worldview and analytic frame which are themselves more consistent with UCaPP conditions. Although I am an obviously an advocate of Valence Theory (that emerged from my doctoral research) and the ideas I express in No Educator Left Behind, as being quite useful in this regard, similar frameworks that recognize complexity and acknowledge a socially just economics would be equally acceptable and useful, at least to me, and likely to those of the more progressive persuasion as well.

What is not acceptable in a contemporary context is the penchant of the fogey generation - men like Reihan Salam and Tony Keller - to continue to apply 19th and 20th century principles to the analysis of our 21st century reality. And even Chris Hedges is at somewhat of a loss, as he continues to apply a distinctly Industrial Age model as the theme for a possible alternative.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I come to your blog via a blog post by an Agenda producer on the Chris Hedges episode of The Agenda.

I appreciated your contribution in that episode.. as a much needed counterweight to the other two neoliberal, right-wing views. I thought the debate was fair and balanced in that both sides had a chance to make their case and then it was up to the viewer to decide which side they felt had a better grasp on reality.

What seemed quite telling to me was that the people on the other side, i.e, Tony Keller and Reihan Salam, have clearly not been exposed to viewpoints such as Hedges' and yours. Or if they have, they have tended to dismiss those arguments as those of the "loony-left"/conspiracy theorists.

Let me first say that I am an unapologetic leftist/socialist, so my sympathies clearly lies with Chris Hedges and your side. I thought you did a reasonable job but I thought you and Chris Hedges were quite weak when it came to explaining exactly whose interests were served by the Iraq war. It's not as simple as saying corporate/financial interests motivated the Iraq war. It seems the words "American imperialism" are verboten in polite, mainstream media even though it is the glaring elephant in the room, and anyone who hasn't been indoctrinated by Western mainstream media understands and recognizes that the Middle-East is clearly a geopolitically important region of the world because of its vast oil reserves, and one of the key goals of American foreign policy since WW-II has been to ensure control of the Middle-Eastern oil reserves.

The issue isn't about access.. as Middle-Eastern regimes are happy to sell their oil to the world market (what else do they have, really, after all ? They have no functioning economies and nothing to offer the world except their oil). The issue is really about control: having a US military footprint and military bases in various oil-producing countries in the MIddle-East makes sure countries can't just shut-off the oil to the world market in the form of retaliation against the US and the West for whatever future acts of aggression the West, US and Israel commit in the Middle-East. Also, allowing US oil companies access to the oil fields means these US companies have a cut of the vast profits from these oil fields, which is something the US was denied in Iraq. Saddam had invited China, Russian and French oil companies to develop Iraq's oil fields, shutting US oil companies out. So you can damn be sure that various US oil company interests that were intimately connected to the Bush /Cheney administration had much to benefit from Iraq being invaded and Saddam being overthrown, with the promise of American oil companies being invited to a post-Saddam Iraq.

The idea that the US really thought Iraq was a threat to it is laughable, and I wish you and Chris Hedges had stressed that point more. The Middle-East is also important to some elements of the neoconservative cabal who came into power with Bush II because of Israel. I'm not talking about Paul Wolfowitz, who was really a liberal internationalist at heart. I'm talking about people like Douglas Feith and various other neocons, for whom ensuring Israeli dominance in the Middle-East is key to ensure Israel can continue to colonize whatever Palestinian land it hasn't stolen and colonized yet, impose its will on, and slaughter the Palestinians and neighbours like the Lebanese with impunity without any strong Arab or Muslim state being there to offer a deterrence. Hence taking out what was perceived to be the strongest Arab/Muslim threat to Israel at the time, Iraq, was fundamental in the neoconservative agenda and motivation for invading Iraq.

Anonymous said...


When it comes to Chris Hedges' critique of the corporate state, what Chris Hedges is saying is nothing particularly new. Noam Chomsky has been saying the exact same things for years now, if not decades. Chomsky's analysis of the political economy of the mass-media in the US (and in Western capitalist democracies in general) is invaluable in understanding how and why the media serves the interests of state and corporate power first and foremost, and helps to disseminate state and corporate propaganda and thereby "manufacture consent". This isn't a "conspiracy theory" but an institutional analysis.

But of course Chomsky and his critiques of the mass-media, of capitalism, of America's violent, murderous imperialistic foreign policy throughout the 3rd world, have been shunned from mainstream intellectual discourse.. certainly by the right-wing for obvious reasons, but also by a certain group of smug, white, Western liberals of the likes of Tony Keller, who continue to sneer at Chris Hedges' (and Chomsky's) analysis and critique of state and corporate power as "conspiracy theories". Again, that Chomsky has been proven correct and prescient in his analysis and critique of the American imperial power-structure, and in his critique of corporate power, while Western and American liberal institutions were busy defending and promoting neoliberal ideology, and helping to enable the Iraq war, among other American imperial ventures, is a testament to the utter moral and intellectual bankruptcy of American/Western liberalism.

Chomsky has warned right from the start about the inherent tension between democracy and capitalism, which should be obvious to anyone with anyone with the slightest bit of common sense. This is something he has been most prescient about, and which Western liberalism seems incapable of accepting. For a while, after the Cold War, Western liberals were indulging in smug, self-congratulatory paens - "End of History", etc, and had completely swallowed the right-wing, neoliberal ideology associating capitalism with democracy and freedom.

If you want to understand the root of the problem with Western liberalism, it has to start with liberalism's incorrect belief that capitalism is compatible with democracy, or even worse, as neoliberals like Milton Friedman et.al. believed, that capitalism is essential to creating the conditions that enable democracy. This view is completely incorrent, and the problems Chris Hedges describes today vis a vis the corporate state that is the US are simply the logical end-results of capitalism. Contrary to what Western liberals like Tony Keller believe, capitalism is inherently a hierarchial, anti-democratic, coercive power-system. Western Liberalism grew out of the same period of time as the development of capitalism and the age of Western colonialism and was implicated in those processes, and so liberalism from its beginnings became associated with a strong belief in the virtues of capitalism. But capitalism today is not the same kind of entrepreneural, individualistic capitalism that existed during the Enlightenment. Capitalism may have been a beneficial revolutionary force in helping to overturn the social and economic order of feudalism and absolutism that prevailed pre-Enlightenment, but very few Enlightenment thinkers foresaw capitalism mutating and mestastizing to its current state, whereby large, multi-national corporations and unaccountable concentrations of private power serve the interests of a small elite at the expense of everyone else, and are able to subvert and corrupt the political and democratic institutions of the state.

Anonymous said...


This is where Chomsky has been right all along, and liberals like Tony Keller and his fellow neoliberals wrong. Liberal democratic theory during the Enlightenment was developed as a response to the oppressive power-structures and institutions of that time, which were the state, monarchy and the church. But what is missing in Western liberalism is an understanding and recognition of capitalism as a hierarchical, oppressive, anti-democratic power-structure, and an understanding of corporate power as an anti-democratic, corrupting force and institution, in addition to the other oppressive power-structures and institutions that Western liberalism developed as a response to during the Enlightenment. The kind of multinational, globalized capitalism, or the corporation as it exists today, and especially in the US where it has the same rights as citizens, with its vast financial resources and ability to corrupt and subvert the political sphere through propaganda and through legalized bribery of government officials, did not exist during the Enlightenment when Western liberalism was developing.

And so classic liberalism tends to favour the least state intervention, with the foolish and naive belief that the only oppressive power-structures to be wary of are the state, the government and the chuch and that left to itself, the "free market" and capitalism will help provide economic power and freedom to citizens.

But classical liberalism proved to be a failure, and led to the Great Depression, after which adjustments to capitalism were made in the form of more state regulation. This version of American liberalism, i.e., the Keynsian welfare state with strong state regulation and rules that shunned the market utopianism of classic-liberalism, prevailed until the 1970s, after which the American and British ruling classes started to rebel against this form of liberalism for various reasons which I won't get into now. These attacks on the Keynsian welfare state in the US and the UK manifested themselves in the form of Reaganism and Thatcherism, during which time neoliberal ideology (which was really the same market utopianism of classical liberalism with some minor adjustments) took hold, resulting in the undoing of various regulations and restrictions that had been put during the New Deal after the disaster of the Great Depression.

Anyway.. the main point I'm trying to make is this: capitalism is simply not compatible with democracy. Unfortunately, Western liberalism is incapable of accepting that fundamental truth. The problems Chris Hedges describes are the logical end-result of capitalism. What is needed is an Enlightenment 2.0 that recognizes that capitalism and private concentrations of vast, unaccountable corporate power are also oppressive power-structures and anti-democratic forces, in addition to the anti-democratic forces and institutions that were identified as oppressive in Enlightenment 1.0, i.e., the state, government, and the church. Until Western liberalism corrects its glaring blindspot, it will continue to fail as a moral and intellectual force capable of dealing with the challenges of the corporate state that Chris Hedges passionately decries.

Mr. Purple said...

"And even Chris Hedges is at somewhat of a loss, as he continues to apply a distinctly Industrial Age model as the theme for a possible alternative."

A good point, and one that should have been articulated in the panel.

Even though Chris admits that "bringing the right people to rule" (paraphrasing) is *not* an effective strategy, he does seem to advocate a "grasping of the reins" through an accumulation of unofficial power.

But to what end?

The resurrection of the liberal class (or, more specifically: its functions) seems relatively meaningless in a system that is all but obsolete, and fundamentally unsustainable.