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.