By Chris Hedges
Reviewed by Mark Powell
Writing Workshop Participant ’10
Nation Books, 248 pp., $24.95
To his admirers Chris Hedges is less a cultural critic than an Old Testament prophet. To his critics he is a scold. But the best way to view Hedges may be as an embodiment of Chekhov’s injunction that the job of the artist is not “to solve the problem, but to state the problem correctly.”
Historically, Hedges argues, such bastions of liberalism as universities, labor unions, the press, and mainstream religious institutions held the line against “the worst excesses of power.” That is no longer the case. The liberal class is dead not because those institutions have ceased to matter, Hedges contends—the liberal class is dead because it has become yet another cog in the vast machine that is the corporate state.
It is easy to react against Hedges’ diatribes but difficult to argue with his conclusions. Hedges outlines the permanent war economy warned against by Eisenhower and fully realized by his successors; traces the dismantling of organized labor and the rise of politics as spectacle; and sketches the devolution of the civil rights movement into an identity politics that willfully ignores the three-headed (and structural) evils of racism, poverty, and militarism.
Hedges’ portrayal of the 20th century, while objectively correct, feels selective. At times I found myself nodding my head at his conclusions while disagreeing with how those conclusions were drawn. The final chapter is a cri de coeur for rebellion, and it is here, as a latter-day Amos, that Hedges is at his best.
Though perhaps not as insightful as his previous book, Empire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class is a bracing, sometimes terrifying read.
Mark Powell is assistant professor of English at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Mark attended the Collegeville Institute’s writing workshop Believing in Writing in 2010.