Death of the Liberal Class

Death of the Liberal ClassI just picked up Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class. It is an excellent book. He argues that the liberal class—basically, the professional class—has traditionally served as a counterbalance to corporate power. Over the past many decades, however, the corporate class has eroded and corrupted the liberal class so that it is now too small and too beholden to corporate interests to serve this critical function. But Hedges isn’t naive. He knows that the liberal class has always been in important ways dependent upon corporate power. The compelling case he makes is that a system that was always fragile has crumbled to bits, only to be replaced with corporate power alone. It is well worth reading.

Here he is sounding a lot like a reasonable me:

In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue. It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite.

But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims. Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And reducing the liberal class to courtiers or mandarins, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric, shuts off this safety valve and forces discontent to find other outlets that often end in violence.

The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has let it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist.

I am Rita

The Pleasure of HatingThere is a librarian who, on seeing me, is fond of yelling out, “Frank” in the Liverpudlian accept of the title character in the film Educating Rita. I find this charming. What’s more, I would only be too delighted to think of myself as the erudite and emotionally wounded Frank Bryan. I’ve always been fond of his big plunge into the dark side, and his vicious comment, “Found a culture, have you Rita? Found a better song to sing? No, you found a different song to sing, and on your lips it’s shrill and hollow and tuneless.”

What a cruel remark. But also: how true. At least, I always thought so.

This evening, I was reading William Hazlitt’s The Pleasure of Hating, a collection of essays, including that for which the book is titled.[1] And Hazlitt is nothing so much as a revaluation. First, he is a wonderful writer. As a 19th century British essayist, he commonly writes thousand word paragraphs. This is such a delight in a time when most magazines will only accept stories that are less than 2000 words. But more than the pure joy of the writing, Hazlitt is a radical thinker—both in his time and ours.

I have a new hero. And you are likely to hear much more about this great man from me.

Reading through these essays in an almost religious ecstasy, a thought came crashing into my mind: you are not Frank. Frank Bryan, that is. Certainly, I accept this song that I now sing is in no objective sense better than the song I was born to. But that isn’t the point. It is a matter of perspective. For Bryan, this was the song he was born to. For Rita and me, it is a song we’ve worked very hard to sing in key. Love is never objective, but that doesn’t make it any less fundamental. And those who feel that our song is shrill and hollow and tuneless have sunk to the point where all songs sound that way.


[1] Just to give you a taste of what Hazlitt is like, I offer you some quotes from the essay The Pleasure of Hating, which he wrote when he was exactly my age. Here is the essay in brief:

Pure good soon grows insipid, wants variety and spirit. Pain is a bittersweet, which never surfeits. Love turns, with a little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.

Here he could be writing about Frank Bryan, but then, I expect that Hazlitt knew more than a few of them:

We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves.

I marked this one because I thought it worthy of Dorothy Parker:

For my own part, as I once said, I like a friend the better for having faults that one can talk about. “Then,” said Mrs. —, “you will never cease to be a philanthropist!”

There is no question that Hazlitt liked the plays of Shakespeare very much. However, if people today were as broad minded on this subject, I would never feel the need to complain about That Bard:

To cry up Shakespeare as the God of our idolatry, seems like a vulgar, national prejudice: to take down a volume of Chaucer, or Spenser, or Beaumont and Fletcher, or Ford, or Marlowe, has very much the look of pedantry and egotism. I confess it makes me hate the very name of Fame and Genius when works like these are “gone into the wastes of time,” while each successive generation of fools is busily employed in reading the trash of the day…

The essay itself is an indictment of the writer and the reader:

As to my old opinions, I am heartily sick of them. I have reason, for they have deceived me sadly. I was taught to think, and I was willing to believe, that genius was not a bawd—that virtue was not a mask—that liberty was not a name—that love had its seat in the human heart. Now I would care little if these words were struck out of the dictionary, or if I had never heard them… Seeing all this as I do, and unraveling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understand, of indifference towards others and ignorance of ourselves—seeing infamy—mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.