Chris Hedges, in The Death of the Liberal Class, argues that Democratic Party liberalism has always functioned to divert energy away from real social change into pseudo-reforms that don’t really threaten ruling class power.
Here is how it works. Liberals and Democrats are given a seat at the table of power as long as they weaken working class movements. Their task is to formulate and promote modest reforms, offering just enough in concessions to undermine support for real, radical social change. They serve like a regulator valve on a boiler, releasing just enough steam to keep it from exploding.
Their task is to divide the working class and undermine the left. They present themselves as the true friends of ordinary people. They present themselves as offering modest but reasonable and attainable reforms, while the left offers only bitter class conflict and the dark politics of communism.
Hedges shows how liberalism, and its political expression in the Democratic Party, entered a period of crisis around the time of the Reagan Presidency. What was the crisis? They had performed their role all too well. American politics had been successfully sterilized of any trace of the left. Real social change was dead. Unions were toothless. Socialism, not to mention communism, had long since been driven off the scene.
Make no mistake, liberals were tolerated only so long as they served the ruling class. Unlike the Republicans, who are unapologetic representatives of class power, liberals and Democrats had to earn their supper.
Liberals were always bitter enemies of the left. They enthusiastically supported the Cold War. They supported the brutal anticommunist wars in Korea and Indochina. They supported the red scares that eventually drove communism, socialism, and the left itself out of American politics.
Their role was basically this: divide and conquer. Split the working class away from any genuine mass based political movements that could challenge and threaten capitalism and the ruling class.
But they succeeded too well. By the Reagan era there was little left in American politics to challenge the power of capital. And with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, it was all over. Liberals had served their purpose and were no longer needed. Liberalism, which had been for decades a respectable political position, became the butt of jokes: “Will the last liberal in the room please turn out the lights?”
In our era, the liberals and the Democratic Party have reconstituted themselves. They have found a new means to serve capital. They have abandoned the working class entirely: working class people are now just a “basket of deplorables”—liberals are not even discreet in their contempt. Instead, they champion an array of social issues that appeal to women, minorities, and upper-middle class managers and professionals. None of these issues challenge or threaten class power.
And they are still the masters of divide and conquer. Here is how a recent article at the World Socialist Web Site describes what Democrats have become:
Their special role, under conditions of immense and deepening economic inequality and social polarization, is to deliberately fracture the population along the lines of gender, race and sexual orientation, in order to prevent a unified struggle by the entire working class—black, white, Hispanic and Asian, male and female, gay and straight—against the capitalist class.
Once upon a time liberals and Democrats carried out their mission by actually offering the working class something—not much—but something: Social Security, Medicare. But today they, and their masters in the ruling class, have nothing to offer working people at all—nothing. Only increasing austerity and social degradation.
But their mission is still the same: divide and conquer.
- Hedges, Chris. Death of the Liberal Class. NY: Nation Books, 2010.
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