An Inverted Totalitarianism?

Former foreign correspondent Christopher Hedges was on NHPR’s The Exchange recently, talking about the ideas in his new book, Death of the Liberal Class. (Neal Conan also interviewed him on Talk of the Nation earlier in November, and some of my notes are from that interview as well.)

Hedges’ main point is that liberal institutions — Democrats, churches, the press, artists and academia, and trade unions — have sold out to corporations, purged radicals from the ranks, and in essence have now marginalised themselves, allowing the creation of a permanent underclass in the U.S.

“On all the structural fundamental issues, there is no difference between the Democrats and Republicans;  they both serve corporate interests.”

Liberal institutions are those that provide a safety valve to prevent the excesses of corporate culture, that provide the channels by which widespread  egregious suffering and injustices can be redressed through incremental reform and legislation (rather than by revolution or not at all), and that prevent those within power from carrying out egregious forms of abuse. They are “a middle ground between radical movements … and a capitalist or corporate elite.” Liberal institutions ought to provide consumer protections, strong public education, civil rights, safeguards for working men and women, etc.  When they atrophy, when there’s a coup d’etat in slow motion by the corporate state, “then the concerns of citizens can’t be redressed through these traditional mechanisms;” this is extremely dangerous, fomenting rage and anti-democratic (anti-government) and anti-liberal sentiments, such as we are seeing now.

And liberal individuals don’t get off easily, either:

Hedges blames “atomization [Hannah Arendt’s word], that disconnection from people. We all are retreating into virtual worlds. We are mesmerized by very powerful forms of propaganda. We confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge. We’ve not held fast to moral imperatives that I think characterized the great social movements of the 19th and the 20th century, and we’re paying a terrific price for that.”

Hedges believes that in the U.S. we have an inverted totalitarianism. It’s totalitarianism but instead of politics as sacred, it’s economics that’s sacred. Inverted totalitarianism “finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state.”  In such a system, the economic well-being of the corporate elite is the foremost value and goal.

[It’s hard to doubt this when politicians won’t pay for a few more weeks of unemployment benefits by not continuing tax cuts for people who earn more than $1M per year.] Similarly, Hedges says that the first bailout bill for corporations was not supported by the American people — calls to legislators ran 100:1 against – yet it passed anyway.

Among the other points Hedges makes:

  • Those who define themselves as liberals, like Bill Clinton, thrust a knife into the back of the working class via NAFTA (1994). It’s destroyed the working class.
  • Trade unions, esp after WWII, became handmaidens of the cold war ideology, just as the ACLU, churches, and the government itself  did, holding anti-Communist witch hunts in which thousands of people were thrust out of institutions and jobs by being labelled as Communists, though they were actually people with a broad social vision. By the 1960s, unions were very antagonistic to the civil rights movement and to the anti-war movement; that division between working class and progressive movements that  sought to transform society– a division which didn’t exist in the early 1900s and which is a legacy of the cold war —  proved to be deadly for the unions. It has disempowered the working class and those who seek to create a more equitable country.
  • The deregulation of the FCC (under Clinton) has created a media in which a few corporations control almost everything most Americans see or hear, shutting out many issues from the national debate, such as a single-payer health care system.
  • Hedges lived in Europe for many years and saw other, much more efficient and successful heathcare systems. On a moral level it is legally permitted in the U.S. to “hold sick children hostage” while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to get health care for them; “this is the perverted system we’ve fallen into. It’s unconscionable for a country of our resources.” Yet the facts of single-payer were locked out of the debate by the corporatised media.   Corporations determine what is the middle ground, they determine the terms of a so-called reasonable debate.  With regard to healthcare, the fundamental problem is that the for-profit healthcare system IS the problem, and until we abolish it we can’t talk about any meaningful healthcare reform.
  • My note: That is what it feels like to read or listen to news, from almost any source. I listen to NPR primarily, as well as reading from a variety of liberal and conservative sources online, plus the Wall Street Journal, and I notice when an NPR story or headline feels slanted differently from another story I’ve heard on the same topic, perhaps even from another program on NPR, and I wonder why it’s being reported the way it is, or why other elements of the story aren’t being discussed or even mentioned at all. I was frustrated during the so-called healthcare debate leading up to the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” signed into law in March of this year, by the lack of in-depth consideration and analysis of other countries’ forms of healthcare. NPR has a section on its website called Healthcare For All, with lots of stories about successful and less successful European models; they all aired in July 2008 — as part of the Taking the Measure of Health Care in America series —  not 2009 or 2010, when the national reform ‘debate’ was going on.
  • In his talk with Neal Conan, Hedges says: “we are a society utterly awash in lies, of public relations industries, spin doctors, and they create — have powerful mechanisms to create and disseminate information that are quite effective in shaping the debate.
  • People who have a conscious and stand up and speak out have no influence now within the Democratic party. It’s a competition between the parties for corporate dollars, not a competition for citizen’s rights. The people who rise in liberal institutions are “irrelevant compromisers.”
  • Corporate capitalism: Corporations’ message is that the American worker has to become competitive; what they’re really saying is that they have to be competitive with prison or slave labour.

Other areas where liberal institutions have weakened themselves and failed the citizens [I didn’t fact-check; I’m just reporting Hedges’ comments]:

  • Welfare reform and deregulation of the banking system: Passed during Clinton’s administration by Democrats in order to raise money from corporations — this rationale was stated explicitly by Clinton.
  • FISA Reform Act, under Obama, which made retroactively legal what is illegal (warrantless wireapping). The telecomm companies wanted it passed and it was. Obama has codified illegalities internationally and domestically that were put in place by Bush.
  • A refusal to deal with climate change because  of the interests of the natural gas and coal industries.
  • The looting of the Treasury on behalf of Wall Street.


Near the end of the interview, Hedges says that, as in Dostoevsky, defeated dreamers become cynical and apathetic. I thought about that. I’m not a defeated dreamer, and I don’t feel cynical or apathetic. I care. I just think politics is not the way to create a better world or a more just, loving, compassionate, free, and beautiful society. Politics, because it involves people with desires, is almost inevitably tied to power, ego, identity, so those with the power (money or other forms) will call the shots. Ideally, in a democracy, the people have the power, because they have the numbers to vote politicians in and out, but when they either don’t have accurate information from the media (which are owned by the powerful) or when they perceive little or no difference between the parties (who are owned by the powerful, in Hedges’ view), then the system doesn’t work, and the people are powerless to effect change politically.

I think that liberal institutions can bring about greater fairness, freedom, openness, cooperation, and benefits for all people; but politics operates within those institutions, too, even among people who have general agreement of principles, and it can lead to the kind of disintegration of institutions, like the unions, that Hedges describes.

Bottom line for Hedges: Optimistically: Resistance will “come through movements. And the true correctives to American democracy have always been outside of the formal systems of power.” Pessimistically: He suggests that we are headed in the U.S. toward “centuries of barbarism” if “we don’t address the ecological crisis,” and in the NHPR interview, that we are heading towards “moral nihilism.” He says that “if we don’t wake up and take major correctives very soon, then the future, I think, looks very bleak.”

Bottom line for me: Revelation is possible; and with revelation, change of heart; and with change of heart, a path away from fear, attachment to ego, and morality itself with its insider-outsider judgments, and towards redemption, compassion, and restoration. That said, I also see the future as bleak, because we seem to have created a system that rewards rivalry.


Note: Hedges has some interesting recent columns on the same topics, including Real Hope Is About Doing Something (29 Nov); Power and the Tiny Acts of Rebellion (22 Nov), which begins “There is no hope left for achieving significant reform or restoring our democracy through established mechanisms of power;” and Do Not Pity the Democrats (12 Sept), with a swath of Ralph Nader’s words.


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