FLORIDA, September 27, 2012 — Has the election of Barack Obama really been a victory for American liberalism?
Many apparatchiks for the Democratic Party would certainly say so. A great many right-leaning Republicans would agree. Many journalists and scholars, though, believe the exact opposite.
In a detailed discussion with me, Chris Hedges, one of our time’s foremost investigative reporters, explained the sorry state of American news media. Now, he explains the fall of America’s formerly resilient liberal establishment — from the days of the New Deal to the dawn of Citizens United.
Hedges also tells us how he came to have such an extensive career in journalism, as well as what motivates him to continue his work.
Joseph F. Cotto: You have written about the five pillars of the liberal establishment. What are these and why are they so important?
Chris Hedges: The principle pillars of the liberal establishment are the liberal church and synagogue, the press, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions. These pillars permit self-criticism in a functioning democracy and make possible incremental and piecemeal reforms. These liberal pillars act as a vital safety valve to redress the grievances and suffering of the underclass.
They release enough steam to keep the system intact. This is what happened during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest achievement, as Conrad Black pointed out, was that he saved capitalism. Liberals in a functioning capitalist democracy are at the same time tasked with discrediting radicals, whether it is Martin Luther King, especially after he denounced the war in Vietnam, or later Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader.
The stupidity of the current corporate state is that it thought it could dispense with the liberal class. It thought it could shut off that safety valve in order to loot and pillage the country with no impediments. Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And this is why we are in such trouble.
Cotto: Without a functioning liberal establishment, what might become of the American political realm?
Hedges: We already see the consequences of the death of the liberal class. I described this in my book “Death of the Liberal Class,” as did the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, who refers to our system of governance in his book “Democracy Incorporated” as “inverted totalitarianism.” Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin writes, represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.”
Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader, and finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. The corporate forces behind inverted totalitarianism do not, as classical totalitarian movements do, boast of replacing decaying structures with a new, revolutionary structure. They purport to honor electoral politics, freedom and the Constitution. But they so corrupt and manipulate the levers of power as to make democracy impossible.
Inverted totalitarianism is not conceptualized as an ideology or objectified in public policy. It is furthered by “power-holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper consequences of their actions or inactions,” Wolin writes. But it is as dangerous as classical forms of totalitarianism. In a system of inverted totalitarianism, as the Citizens United ruling illustrates, it is not necessary to rewrite the Constitution, as fascist and communist regimes do. It is enough to exploit legitimate power by means of judicial and legislative interpretation.
This exploitation ensures that huge corporate campaign contributions are protected speech under the First Amendment. It ensures that heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations is interpreted as an application of the people’s right to petition the government. There is no national institution left that can accurately be described as democratic.
Cotto: Is there a central reason as to why the liberal establishment has, in your opinion, experienced such misfortune?
Hedges: The liberal class was never designed to be the political left. It was meant to be the bridge, the political center that kept peace between radical and populist movements and the elites. In the name of anti-communism, however, we destroyed our radical movements and hollowed out liberal institutions to render them largely ineffectual. An ineffectual liberal class means there is no hope of a correction or a reversal through the formal mechanisms of power. It ensures that the frustration and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression now in movements and protests that lie outside the confines of democratic institutions and the civilities of a liberal democracy.
By emasculating the liberal class, which once ensured that restive citizens could institute moderate reforms, the corporate state has created a closed political and economic system defined by polarization, gridlock, massive corruption and political charades.
Cotto: Many believe that the liberal establishment scored a huge victory with the election of Barack Obama. Do you find this to be the case?
Hedges: Barack Obama functions as a brand. He has demonstrated in big and small ways that he is no more a liberal, at least in the classical sense of being a liberal, than Bill Clinton who sold out the working class. Obama has served the corporate and security and surveillance state as assiduously George W. Bush. In fact, Obama’s assault on civil liberties has been worse, including his passage of section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes the military to detain U.S. citizens, strip them of due process and hold them in military facilities.
I sued the president over this law in federal court and Judge Katherine Forrest has issued to temporary injunction to invalidate section 1021. She is set to rule soon on whether this will become a permanent injunction. Corporations under Obama have continued to loot the Treasury. Our elected officials – look at the corporate dollars poured into the two election campaigns ‒ continue to have their palms greased by armies of corporate lobbyists. Our corporate media continues to divert us with inane celebrity gossip and trivia. Our imperial wars expand in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
The old engines of corporate power and the vast military-industrial complex under Obama have not been checked or halted from plundering the country. Corporations, which control our politics, no longer produce products that are essentially different, but brands that are different. Brand Obama did not threaten the core of the corporate state any more than did Brand George W. Bush. And brand Mitt Romney will be no different.
Cotto: How did you become such a prominent journalist? Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Hedges: I never set out to build a career. My career was not the point. I began as a freelance reporter in El Salvador in the early 1980s, propelled to go there because of the egregious human rights violations being committed by the government and the death squads, which when I arrived in El Salvador were killing between 700 and 1,000 people a month. My hero was and remains George Orwell. I spent two decades in many of the world’s most vicious conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia.
In all these conflicts I placed myself with the victims, whether in Gaza, Sarajevo or Kosovo. I sought to tell their stories. I was not, in the traditional sense, objective. How can you be objective about the suffering of children in war? I took risks because I was angry. But at the same time, like Orwell, I never lied on their behalf, and this means the lie of omission, which is still a lie. I often reported things that were not flattering to those who I empathized with, as did Orwell when he wrote “Homage to Catalonia.”
I had, and have, a deep commitment to the truth. And those who have this commitment often become management problems for they will push ahead with stories that the careerists, who run news organizations, would rather ignore because it upsets the elites.
This happened when I came back to the United States and publicly denounced the calls to invade Iraq. The New York Times issued me a formal reprimand. The paper told me I had to cease speaking publicly about the war, a demand that led me to leave the paper. I was saved only because my first book, “War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning,” sold over 300,000 copies. I have sort of failed upwards, with several of my subsequent books, including the latest, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” making the New York Times best seller list. But none of this was premeditated.
I sought and seek to tell the truth, or at least the truth so far as I can discern it, and have always been ready to accept the consequences. In many of the conflicts I covered this meant death for the many of the courageous reporters and photographers who were my colleagues.
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