Note: I was not going to comment further on Chris Hedges’ widely published essay, “The Cancer in Occupy,” 1 concerning tactics for Occupy Oakland (and by extension Occupy Wall Street) and condemning tactics he attributed to the Black Bloc. But after he appeared on May Day on Democracy Now! and renewed those claims without reflecting at all on what folks in Occupy had been saying, I’ve decided to publish this here, and in my forthcoming book, “What Is Direct Action? Lessons from (and to) Occupy Wall Street.” You can find out more about the book by writing to me at the email address above.
Chris Hedges has and continues to make valuable and often blistering critiques of what he calls “corporate capitalism,” and the role of both the Democratic and Republican parties in crushing civil liberties, enacting imperialist wars and ravaging the planet in the service of the 1 percent. He is an inspiring ally (and, strangely, “not a member,” in his own words) of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But he has zero experience as part of a radical organization or even in an affinity group, and it shows, especially when it comes to how to address differences of opinion and other concerns within a movement.
In fact, Hedges exhibits tremendous disdain for left movements that don't conform to his increasingly moralistic mold. His book, Death of the Liberal Class, “is one of the worst misreadings of history by an acclaimed writer on the Left that I've ever seen,” says Brian Tokar, a veteran participant in numerous direct action campaigns and also a professor at the Institute for Social Ecology and of environmental studies at the University of Vermont. “Hedges honestly believes that the New Left accomplished almost nothing, except for some key figures he likes, such as Howard Zinn and the Berrigans.” In that book, Hedges (incredibly, to me) writes that the New Left had “no political vision. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, with its narrator’s search for enlightenment, became emblematic of the moral hollowness of the New Left.” And he continues:
Protest in the 1960s found its ideological roots in the disengagement championed earlier by Beats such [as] by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Borroughs. It was a movement that, while it incorporated a healthy dose of disrespect for authority, focused again on self-indulgent schemes for inner peace and fulfillment. … These movements, and the counterculture celebrities that led them such as the Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, sought and catered to the stage set for them by the television cameras. Protest and court trials became street theater. Dissent became another media spectacle. Anti-war protesters in Berkeley switched from singing “Solidarity Forever” to “Yellow Submarine.” 2
Hedges misses completely the numerous contributions by participants in anti-war, Women’s, Black & Gay liberation, cultural, social justice and ecological movements of the last 50 years; he somehow also misses the dual power strategies for revolutionary societal transformation put forth by key sectors of the New Left (many of those crushed or co-opted by the State). The alienation from all aspects of capitalist society that so marked the New Left is invisible in Hedges’ critique. Hedges turns the ’60s generation’s struggle against one’s own oppression into, for him, a contemptible rejection of self-sacrifice on behalf of “others”:
The civil-rights movement, which was rooted in the moral and religious imperatives of jus- tice and self-sacrifice, what Dwight Macdonald called nonhistorical values, was largely eclipsed by the self-centeredness of the New Left, especially after the assassinations of Malcolm X in 1967 [sic – Malcom was killed on February 21, 1965, not ’67 – MC] and Martin Luther King Jr. a year later. And once the Vietnam War ended, once middle-class men no longer had to go to war, the movement disintegrated. The political and moral void within the counterculture meant it was an easy transition from college radical to a member of the liberal class.3
Hedges’ portrayals of the civil rights or trade union movements as “rooted in the moral and religious imperatives of justice and self-sacrifice” are true only if one leaves out all the Black people trying to register to vote and workers trying to organize into unions to better their own condition.
Hedges’ Invention Of An Intervening Liberal Class
While Hedges pulls no punches in excoriating liberalism today (and I agree with him there), he offers a cartoonish one-dimensional portrayal of the New Left. Hedges’ Christian-based umbrage dismisses those who choose to fight for their own liberation as well as for others. And it weakens Hedges’ strategies for effecting societal transformation. It also leaves him impossibly reliant on, strangely enough, appeals to a non-existant liberal “class” (the same sector he rips into elsewhere) to take up the revolution’s cause.
The real danger to the elite comes from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who are barred by a calcified system from advancement. Artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the under- class, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt.4
Hedges offers here a pale reflection of V.I. Lenin’s early argument (later modified) in What Is To Be Done? where Lenin posits that a “third party” was required to bridge the historical abyss — a tightly-knit cadre of professional revolutionaries, primarily from the intelligentsia, whose self-defined mission was to bring political questions and revolutionary answers into the working class movement from their up-till-then development outside of it, and thus transform it.5 For Marx and Engels on the other hand, consciousness is not some state of individual enlightenment to be attained from outside workers' struggles as a class. Class consciousness is part of an objective process inherent in, bound up with and emerging from those struggles, while for Hedges consciousness and “agency” come from elsewhere. In positing a “liberal class” and then blaming its demise on its failure to become more radical, Hedges ends up working to achieve one set of goals while much of the Occupy movement is working towards fulfilling a different set, requiring different strategies and tactics.
Hedges wants Occupy to engage in symbolic nonviolent civil disobedience which, he argues, would delegitimize corporate capitalism in the eyes of sufficient numbers of people who would then do what, exactly, to bring about his goal of a less predatory capitalism shorn of the corporate state? The closest he comes to explaining how this would occur is in his essay “Why the Occupy Movement Frightens the Corporate Elite”:
The end of these regimes comes when old beliefs die and the organs of security, especially the police and military, abandon the elites and join the revolutionaries. This is true in every successful revolution. It does not matter how sophisticated the repressive apparatus. Once those who handle the tools of repression become demoralized, the security and surveillance state is impotent. Regimes, when they die, are like a great ocean liner sinking in minutes on the horizon. And no one, including the purported leaders of the opposition, can predict the moment of death. Revolutions have an innate, mysterious life force that defies comprehension. They are living entities.
Still, and unlike Lenin (whom he deplores), Hedges provides no mechanism for how the system which he defines as corporate capitalism would be replaced. He royally denounces the black bloc sector within the Occupy movement and any tactic that foresakes or might tend to undermine symbolic civil disobedience as the motor for social change. My own view, as someone who has participated and been arrested in many civil disobedience actions, is that CD is a tactic that is obviously useful in many circumstances and at certain stages — especially for calling public attention to particular inequities — but of and by itself it is not and has never been a vehicle through which systemic change in the United States takes place. (I discuss this more fully below.) There is a dis – connect between the tactic and the goal Hedges wants it to achieve, a disconnect that the militant pacifist Dave Dellinger, for one (unlike Hedges, Dellinger was a strong supporter of the Black Panther Party) was always trying to resolve.
Was there ever a “liberal ‘class’ ”?
Hedges’ core thesis in “Death of the Liberal Class” is that up until World War I the liberal “class” served as an effective intermediary between social movements and the American corporate state, and that after World War I that model abruptly unravelled. But he fails to offer substantive analyses of the rise and fall of the working class and other radical movements in those periods. It is because he holds a superficial understanding of the history of social movements that he can today wrongly claim that liberalism was once a positive “intervention” by a class of individuals on behalf of social movements in earlier periods of capitalism — a time to which he would like to return. His sharp critiques are directed at the Democratic Party for having abandoned that liberalizing role. Hedges views symbolic civil disobedience within that framework, as a strategy for winning over liberals who do not participate in Occupy Wall Street, for example, but who are nevertheless potentially sympathetic and influential. They then would presumably intercede on behalf of the valid claims of social justice movements, just as (according to Hedges) they had done in the past.
The danger the corporate state faces does not come from the poor. The poor, those Karl Marx dismissed as the Lumpenproletariat, do not mount revolutions, although they join them and often become cannon fodder. … In every revolutionary movement I covered in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, the leadership emerged from déclassé intellectuals. The leaders were usually young or middle-aged, educated and always unable to meet their professional and personal aspirations. They were never part of the power elite, although often their parents had been. They were conversant in the language of power as well as the language of oppression. It is the presence of large numbers of déclassé intellectuals that makes the uprisings in Spain, Egypt, Greece and finally the United States threatening to the overlords at Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil and JPMorgan Chase. They must face down opponents who understand, in a way the uneducated often do not, the lies disseminated on behalf of corporations by the public relations industry. These déclassé intellectuals, because they are conversant in economics and political theory, grasp that those who hold power, real power, are not the elected mandarins in Washington but the criminal class on Wall Street.6
But liberalism was never the province of a separate class that interceded in the U.S. (positive or otherwise); rather, it was the ideology of the dominant arm of the U.S. ruling class itself during capitalism’s long period of expansion. Supposedly “liberal” issues like an end to racial slavery, the legalization of trade unions, and recognition of women’s and Black people’s right to vote served important economic functions for the Rockefeller-Roosevelt wing of the ruling class, enabling that sector to gain hegemony over other competing capitalist sectors. [See SideBar, below, for historical details.]
The real victories that were won came about through mobilizations of large numbers of workers taking direct action in critical economic sectors. Workers’ historic strikes and occupations of Ford and General Motors in the mid-1930s threatened to overturn the whole capitalist applecart, and they won from the Roosevelt administration the right for many (not all — not farmworkers or restaurant workers) to legally unionize. But today, as the production base in the U.S. declines, there is much less room to win reforms. Still, unions are less and less bound by the restrictions of that 1935 social compact. New possibilities open up; in fact, some unions have begun to express solidarity with Occupy and other social movements, and are even probing, however gingerly, the possibility of raising environmental, anti-war and other social policy issues for the first time in 60 or 70 years.
The argument with Hedges over whether, historically, a liberal sector of civil society interceded with the state on behalf of the working class (as Hedges argues) or whether liberal rearrangement of the workplace and related social policies were promulgated by the ruling class itself as a matter of its own economic class interest, is not a distinction without a difference. The institutions resulting from what Hedges sees as liberal working class victories in actuality were put into place to curtail radical influence and manage working class movements, not assist them. Hedges’ misinterpretation of history is telling, since his misreading greatly influences the goals and strategies he advises for today.
A Question of “Violence”
Hedges’ overarching misinterpretation of the history of the Left and radical movements in the U.S. leads him to propose misapplied goals and strategies for advancing them. Here, for instance, is how he sees what he calls the “failure” of the Black Panthers and other groups:
The Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and the Weather Underground Organization, severed from the daily concerns of the working class, became as infected with the lust for violence, quest for ideological purity, crippling paranoia, self-exaltation, and internal repression as the state apparatus they defied.7
While no one involved in those organizations would claim that they were without serious problems and internal contradictions, Hedges provides such a blanket (and convenient!) dismissal — let alone a Hollywood conception of who is “the working class” —
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