Many thanks to Robert Mittenthal for recovering this essay for me.
Death Of The Liberal Class, nonfiction by Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2010
I have enormous respect for Chris Hedges. I look forward each Monday to his column at Truthdig and have read, thus far, two of his nonfiction books: Empire of Illusion: The End Of Literacy And The Triumph Of Spectacle, and Death Of The Liberal Class. His writing is forceful, lucid, cogent. His insights into the social and political malaise of the United States are stunning and razor-edged. A graduate of Harvard, he has had abundant experience as a journalist, having spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times. He has won the Pulitzer, and was quoted at the beginning of the movie The Hurt Locker, from his bestselling book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning : “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
Hedges, too, has become an addiction. At least since Reagan assumed office in 1980, I have had an unsettling feeling about living in the United States. I am quite positive I am not alone. Those of us in the middle class have felt under assault by an unregulated, predatory and corrupt corporate juggernaut and witness to the rapid erosions of benign government legislation designed to protect the poor, the environment, and education. One senses a profound, ubiquitous evil engulfing the globe with war, exploitation, and toxic nuclear waste. I need writers like Chris Hedges to explain the sources and perplexing behaviors of groups such as the Tea Partiers, Christian fundamentalists, devious, profit-grubbing corporate CEOs such as Tony Hayward or Jeffrey Immelt, who Obama recently appointed to head his outside panel of economic advisers. That’s like appointing the thug who just mugged you to be in charge of your retirement plan.
Obama is a mystery. I voted for him. Big mistake. The choice, once again, of the lesser of two evils, I knew Obama wasn’t a progressive, but a center-right, savvy politician, who would most likely support the kind of nefarious legislation Clinton signed into actuality when he was in office, noxious bills like NAFTA and the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but would, at the very least, end the insanely stupid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the abysmal dark stain on humanity that is Guantanamo. I was wrong. Obama turned out to be way worse than Clinton. Worse, even, than Bush. Hard to believe. But there it is: increased militarism, more erosion of our civil rights, more torture and human rights abuses, and the biggest bank robbery in history. So much for Obama’s “change you can believe in.” Yeah, right.
It would seem countraindicated to read books on political science and contemporary culture when times are this evil. Why make yourself more miserable by dwelling in it? But that’s not at all how I look at it. If I had a mysterious disease, I would want to know as much about it as possible, in order to feel a modicum of hope and control, even if it meant an immersion in information with the potential to make me feel worse. And so I read Hedges, and many others: Ted Rall, Henry Giroux, Morris Berman, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Lewis Lapham, James Kunstler and Howard Zinn. And listen to lots of progressive radio: Mike Malloy especially. Stephanie Miller and her pal Hal Sparks drive me crazy. They continue to be apologists for Obama. Hedges has a very strong and particular appeal because he has been a witness to war and genocide. He has seen this things up close. He saw the Balkans dissolve into sulfurous, bloody ruin. He knows what fascism looks like. He knows what seething, internecine hatred can do. But when I read, in Death Of The Liberal Class, that the core qualities of corporate capitalism (the cult of the self, political cynicism, hedonism, abandonment of the urban centers) were promoted, fueled, and nourished by the Beats, I about fell out of my chair.
You’ve frigging got to be kidding.
Hedges draws much of his argument from a book by Lawrence Lipton titled The Holy Barbarians. I have not read this book. It could be there are more compelling arguments to be found in Lipton’s book that support the idea of hedonistic amorality in Beat culture leading to the kind of rampant consumerism infecting contemporary life, but the central charges that Hedges lists are wobbly and unconvincing. Here is an excerpt:
Lawrence Lipton, who wrote a book on the Beats called The Holy Barbarians, argued that the Beats “expropriated” from the upper classes their arts, sings, and “privilege of defying convention.” The Beats, like the Bohemians who populated Greenwich Village after World War I, also flaunted a self-indulgent hedonism that mirrored the ethic of the consumer culture. Lipton called this “the democratization of amorality.” The Beats in the 1950s aided the dissipation of the intellectual class by abandoning urban centers, where a previous generation of public intellectuals such as Jane Jacobs or Dwight Macdonald, lived and worked. They romanticized the automobile and movement. Russell Jacoby points out in The Last Intellectuals that the Beats had a peculiarly American “devotion to the automobile, the road, and travel, which kept them and then a small army of imitators crisscrossing the continent,” as well as a populist “love of the American people.” The Beats not only bolstered the ethic of consumption and leisure as opposed to work, but also they “anticipated the deurbanization of America, the abandonment of the cities for smaller centers, suburbs, campus towns, and outlying areas.”
This is patent nonsense. It sounds like Lipton and Jacoby are basing their arguments on a very shallow reading of Kerouac’s On The Road. Yes, speed and movement are a large dynamic fueling the excitement and lust for adventure and life experience at the heart of Kerouac’s seminal novel, but it has nothing whatever to do with consumerism or leisure or the avoidance of work. On The Road is a clean, open celebration of spontaneity and raw, immediate experience. It is ferociously anti-materialistic and celebrates the joys of a life unsullied by Babbitry and pedestrian ambitions. It offers a vision of life based on feeling and fellowship. There is a great deal of compassion, sympathy, and above all humanity in the lines of this wonderful novel. There is nothing in it remotely sympathetic to the kind of regimented, predatory, depersonalizing obduracy of the corporate mindset.
The corporate appetite is pure, unadulterated id. It is reptilian. It is driven solely by profit. By greed. By ruthless competition. It attacks and eats everything in its path that it can use to further its growth. It has more in common with a Tyrannosaurus Rex chomping on the neck of a hapless hadrosaur than the HOLY GOOFS and desolate angels of Kerouac’s books, mad with energy, covered with sweat and throbbing veins saying “Yes, yes, yes,” to everything life has to offer. If that’s consumerism, I want in.
Hedges does not begin with the beats in his criticism of artistic complaisance among the avant garde; he goes further back in time to the art-for-art movement of the belle epoch and dada and surrealism of the early 20th century. He criticizes these movements for turning away from the social injustices of the working class and indulging in a spectacle of Bohemian whimsy and sybaritic excess. “Artistic expression,” he writes, “soon became void of social purpose. It created, as [Malcolm] Cowley wrote, ‘the religion of art’ that ‘inevitably led into blind alleys.’”
I would counter that with something Michael McClure wrote in Scratching The Beat Surface: “For the artist or animal there is but one religion. At first glance it is simple. As simple as the animal (a sessile polyp or sea cucumber) or as complex as the animal’s nervous system – as with a dolphin, a panda, or a man. The religion is being itself.”
Hedges argument is an old one. I have heard it many times before. Art must shoulder its burden of social injustice, fight for the liberty and dignity of humankind, elevate the masses with its message of fairness and justice for all, or relinquish its title to integrity and virtue. If art refuses these distinctions, it is of no value. It is craven and decadent. It merely feeds the narcissistic vanities of the bourgeois, furthers the ambitions of the powerful elite.
I could not disagree more vehemently. This argument fails to recognize the reality of art. Its truest essence. Art, in order to be art at all, must first be free of any and all forms of utility. It becomes a political force by virtue of its own internal dynamic. “It refuses,” wrote Herbert Marcuse in his essay “Art as Form of Reality,” “to be for the museum or mausoleum, for the exhibitions of a no longer existing aristocracy, for the holiday of the soul and the elevation of the masses - it wants to be real.”
Being real means being autonomous. Being dangerous and quiet and seditious as the breath in a clarinet. Being detached from the empirical world in order to bring forth another world. Being liberal and beautiful as the black air in Maldoror. Thick and muscular as the tongue of an adrenalin tiger exploring a stick of incendiary henna. Lush as a daydream and twice as brash. Volcanic. Spiral. Soaked in infinity. A castle of milk groveling in arbitrary taffeta. Hot as veins and labial as a red rag bristling with beets. “Art is transcendent in a sense which distinguishes and divorces it from any 'daily' reality we can possibly envisage,” Marcuse further elaborates.
No matter how free, society will be inflicted with necessity - the necessity of labour, of the fight against death and disease, of scarcity. Thus, the arts will retain forms of expression germane to them - and only to them: of a beauty and truth antagonistic to those of reality. There is, even in the most 'impossible' verses of the traditional drama, even in the most impossible opera arias and duets, some element of rebellion which is still 'valid'. There is in them some faithfulness to one's passions, some 'freedom of expression' in defiance of common sense, language, and behaviour which indicts and contradicts the established ways of life. It is by virtue of this 'otherness' that the Beautiful in the traditional arts would retain its truth. And this otherness could not and would not be cancelled by the social development. On the contrary: what would be cancelled is the opposite, namely, the false, conformist and comfortable reception (and creation!) of Art, its spurious integration with the Establishment, its harmonization and sublimation of repressive conditions. Then, perhaps for the first time, men could enjoy the infinite sorrow of Beethoven and Mahler because it is overcome and preserved in the reality of freedom. Perhaps for the first time men would see with the eyes of Corot, of Cezanne, of Monet because the perception of these artists has helped to form this reality.