The Liberal Elite has Betrayed the People They Claim to Defend - Chris Hedges on RAI (5/7)

On Reality Asserts Itself with Paul Jay, Chris Hedges says the Democratic Party used to watch out for the interests of labor and even for the poor. But that all changed under Bill Clinton. Although Clinton, like Obama, continues to speak in that feel-your-pain language of traditional liberalism, they’ve completely betrayed the very people that they purport to represent and defend. This episode was produced on July 22, 2013.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself. We’re continuing our series of interviews with writer Chris Hedges. And if you haven’t seen the other parts, I suggest you go back and watch from part one forward, ’cause then this will all make more sense. But if you don’t want to, it will probably still make some sense.

Now joining us again in the studio in Baltimore is Chris Hedges. He’s a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, a senior fellow at the Nation Institute, and he writes a regular column at Truthdig.

Thanks again.


JAY: Millions of people unemployed, millions of people have lost their houses, and for a long time the left was saying the crash is coming, the crash is coming, the people will rise up. Well, the crash came, and some people rose up, but not in the kind of critical numbers that would have shaken or, as in the previous episode you said, terrified the elites. Why?

HEDGES: Because the traditional liberal elite divorced itself from the issue of justice to embrace for the last few decades issues such as gender equality, multiculturalism, identity politics, all of which I support. But while they busied themselves with these activities, the working class was being destroyed through NAFTA and the outsourcing of jobs, the stagnation, in essence reduction of the minimum wage.

The Democratic Party used to watch out for the interests of labor and even for the poor. But that all changed under Bill Clinton. Although Clinton, like Obama, continues to speak in that feel-your-pain language of traditional liberalism, they’ve completely betrayed the very people that they purport to represent and defend.

JAY: And even the previous ones, I mean, Truman on, they had a chance many times, for example, to undo Taft-Hartley, you know, terrible anti-labor legislation, and they never undid it.

HEDGES: They never did, although Truman did try to push through universal health care.

JAY: The union movement and union leadership, you know, at times during Democratic administrations can get critical, but when push comes to the shove they never threaten the Democrats in any way. And maybe the worst example of it has been with the Obama administration where in the leadup to the election Obama promises them EFCA, the Employee Free Choice Act, which was going to make it easier to organize unorganized workers. In the first two years, where they control both houses, it doesn’t come forward, and of course afterwards you never see it, and now we don’t even hear it again. And I interviewed John Sweeney at the time, head of the AFL-CIO, and I said, what are you going to do if President Obama doesn’t pass this? He’s going to pass it. He’s going to pass it. He’s never going to betray us. And, of course, he did betray them, and the union movement was out again in the next election just as if nothing had happened.

HEDGES: Right. Well, these people, I mean, the heads of these unions pull down salaries that are five times what the rank and file pulls down. They negotiate deals, such as they did with the auto bailout, where their most senior unionized workers have their wages reduced and the auto companies are allowed to hire new workers at $14 an hour without benefits. So they sell out the younger workers to protect, to an extent, older workers. They have no kind of vision of what kind of a country they want to create, i.e. one that would actually respond to the needs of the working class. And, you know, I think they’re pretty bankrupt. I mean, they have become part of the establishment. And rhetorically they can get up and say all the right things in the same way that Barack Obama can get up and say all the right things, but in the end, you know, it’s Wall Street and the corporations that are pulling the strings on the puppets.

JAY: I talked to a behind-the-scenes organizer for the unions. He advises them on policy and things. And I asked him, why do you guys not contend for some kind of leadership of the Democratic Party? And his answer was: well, Wall Street is the only one–pro-Democratic Party Wall Street is the only one with enough cash to beat the Republicans, so we can’t take them on.

HEDGES: Right. And the unions don’t–I mean, the Democrats will still take their money, but, you know, it’s a fraction of the money that fills the coffers of the Democratic Party. Most of the money comes from, you know, these massive Wall Street firms and corporations that can dwarf anything that the union can provide.

JAY: And perhaps it goes back to something you were saying before as well about how the liberal elites, you said, kind of got disassociated from working-class issues. So the fight within the unions for what kind of leadership, for what kind of union, it kind of was going on somewhere over here, and the left was somewhere over there. And not that there weren’t activists in the unions fighting, but they were kind of on their own.

HEDGES: Well, and meanwhile the working class was being decimated, so that now our working class is largely enveloped within the service sector, where, you know, couples will have two or three different jobs with no kind of benefits, no kind of [incompr.] Walmart nation. There is no force within either of the established political parties that are willing to stand up and defend the interests, even on the issue of minimum wage. That’s only going to, again, come by stepping outside the formal mechanisms of power and beginning to build movements, as we saw with the Chicago teachers strike. I mean, let’s remember that the Chicago teachers strike was fighting against a Democratic mayor, not just any mayor, but one of the pillars of the Democratic establishment, Rahm Emanuel, that they had to essentially remove the traditional leadership. And that’s really going to be the future, that we’re going to be fighting–we’re fighting both parties. We’re not fighting one party.

JAY: And the teachers were willing to make the sacrifice to fight when they had a leadership that wanted to go there.

HEDGES: That’s right.

JAY: In the beginning of the interview, I asked you why the left hasn’t been able to take more advantage of this moment, and you talked a bit about the failure of the liberal elite. But why should a people’s movement, why should a working-class movement, why should it matter what the liberal elite does or doesn’t do? I mean, one would assume the liberal elite, when push comes to shove, are a part of the elite.

HEDGES: Yes, they are. That is, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the role of the liberal establishment, to act as a kind of safety valve, to ameliorate the suffering and respond to some of the grievances of the underclass to right the system, which is again, going back to the New Deal, precisely what happened. Roosevelt and Henry Wallace functioned as traditional liberal leaders functioned. And they keep the system afloat.

Now, the problem is that the radical movements that were able to push the liberal elites to respond have been destroyed. We don’t have any anymore. In the long war against our internal and external enemies in the name of anti-communism, they’ve been utterly decimated, culminating in the 1950s with these huge purges. Ellen Schrecker has written two good books about this. You know, thousands, thousands of high school teachers, social workers, artists, directors, journalists like I. F. Stone were pushed out. I. F. Stone–.

JAY: And particularly trade unionists.

HEDGES: And trade unionists. So you end up with these distortions like, in the 1960s, Meany and Kirkland, who support Nixon’s war in Indochina, denounce the hippies in the street. I mean, when Joe Sacco and I did our book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, one of the chapters is out of southern West Virginia. Now, pre-World War I, Mother Jones was a hero to the miners, like John Lewis and all of these radical figures. Now it’s Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann.

Why is that? It’s because there’s been a divorce of radical movements from the working class and radical ideologies from the working class. And the way that divorce came about is that those who had these kind of broad social visions which challenged the primacy of corporate capitalism got pushed out of the system. They’re not there anymore. And so now at a moment of crisis–and we are certainly in a moment of crisis–we lack the movements which can give expression to the suffering of our underclass, and our liberal elites which once responded to those movements have been eviscerated and essentially are corporate stooges.

JAY: And it kind of goes together. When the movement’s so weak, a lot of the elite says, well, we don’t need to safety valve, ’cause the pressure’s not building.

HEDGES: Well, that’s precisely the problem. There is no pressure from the other side. And the liberal elites, you know, while they can speak in a rhetoric that is reminiscent of that rhetoric–and Obama does it, certainly–serves their paymasters, which are Wall Street and defense contractors and the fossil fuel industry.

JAY: Are you seeing any positive signs? For example, people are enthused about Bernie Sanders getting elected in Vermont. There’s the–what do you make of some of the third-party options? The Green Party didn’t have a lot of electoral success, but they did run a lot of candidates. What significance does this kind of stuff have?

HEDGES: Right. I voted for the Green Party as a kind of protest vote, just as I voted for Nader before that. And I think the more of us who are willing to step outside the system and in essence vote that way, the more we can begin to build pressure.

But electoral politics is a very minor part of what we have to do. What we really have to do is build mass movements that muck up the system enough that we can begin to interfere with the mechanisms of power. And what I’m talking about are strikes, disruption of public transportation, which we would see in France, for instance, farmers driving their tractors into the middle of Paris. It’s that kind of stuff that we’re going to have to build. And we’re not going to build that any other way than, you know, almost starting all over again.

JAY: So what’s holding people back? I mean, we’re in a very difficult situation for millions of people, but we’re not seeing that. And, you know, the liberal elite being weak in some ways, you should–one could follow the logic–then there should be more reason for this to be happening, not less.

HEDGES: Well, because the mechanisms of control, as any Walmart worker will tell you, are quite severe. I mean, the moment there’s a whisper of organizing in a Walmart store, there’s–the corporate jet flies in with all their strike union breakers.

JAY: Although there was some success recently with some of these strikes.

HEDGES: The forces arrayed against us, the security and surveillance state knows the moment anything is going to be organized. They’ve essentially shut down all public space for any kind of serious dissent because they don’t want to see a resurrection of the Occupy movement. We are the most surveilled, monitored, eavesdropped, controlled, watched population in human history, and I speak as somebody who covered the Stasi state in East Germany. We are kept in a state of perpetual fear that we could lose our jobs [incompr.] so many people in this country now are living at subsistence level. To lose their job is catastrophic. We are seeing the corporate state dismantle programs that once provided benefits like unemployment payments or social programs to the poor, to the elderly, to students, to make us even more frightened and more easily manipulated. I mean, there’s a kind of awful logic to what they’re doing. And, you know, it is–those forms of repression are quite effective. We have shifted, I think, from a democratic state to a species of corporate totalitarianism.

Our media is, you know, largely drivel. Celebrity gossip will dominate even the nightly news programs of the three major networks. MSNBC, you know, will spin the court gossip one way. Fox spins it another, but it’s the same stupid gossip. Neither of those cable companies covered the National Defense Authorization Act, our challenge.

JAY: But you said in an earlier episode–and I agree with you–the moment will come.

HEDGES: Yes, it will come.

JAY: You know, right now they’ve been able to kind of mitigate, limit the effects of this crisis, but a lot of it has to do with a lot of hokey-pokey going on by the Fed. You know, the underlying wages either are stagnant or going down. The unemployment is really not going down. I mean, the real economy is in as bad a shape as it was.

HEDGES: Right. But how, if it comes, will it be localized? And if it’s localized, it can be dealt with locally. Will it have a kind of broad national vision? Will it articulate a new system of power to replace the old system?

JAY: But, see, that’s what I’m concerned about as a citizen, I mean, whatever the journalist hat is supposed to be here, which is–. I was at dinner the other night with some people having somewhat similar conversation, why isn’t there a mass movement and all of this, and I was saying, be careful what you wish for. You know. If there was a big explosion tomorrow, you know, would any progressive force actually be ready for it? Because it could easily, as you said in an earlier episode, a segment of the interview, you know, the right could grab hold of this as well.

HEDGES: Well, right-wing populism or fascism is a very real possibility. And I think that we are particularly vulnerable to that because our progressive populist and radical movements virtually don’t exist, and because the liberal center is so discredited. If you go back and read Dostoevsky Notes from UndergroundDemons, Dostoevsky was obsessed–I mean, that’s what Notes from Underground is about–with a liberal class that is superfluous, that no longer has any actual authority or power within the society and has become a joke.

I saw the same thing in the breakdown of Yugoslavia, which I covered as a correspondent, where you had a liberal center that in essence is paralyzed. It can’t respond. And that’s what’s happened. We have a system of political paralysis that responds only to the dictates of the corporate elite, not to the needs and the rights of the citizenry.

And so when you have the figures like Obama who continue to speak in that traditional language of liberalism and yet cannot respond to chronic unemployment, underemployment, you know, foreclosures, bank repossessions, and everything else, and in fact are running a system where the assaults against the underclass are only getting worse, then what happens is there becomes a deep disdain for not only liberal ideology but traditional liberal institutions–you saw the same thing in Weimar–so that when there is an uprising, oftentimes people want nothing to do with not only liberal elites, but the supposed liberal values, quote-unquote, that these elites were purportedly espousing.

And that is a very real danger, because when you have figures like Obama that present themselves as traditional liberals and yet are unable to be effective in terms of dealing with the suffering and the misery of the underclass, that–and this is what happened in Yugoslavia–that when things exploded, you vomited up these very frightening figures–Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudman–in the same way that the breakdown in Weimar vomited up the Nazi Party. And that’s what frightens me, because we don’t have the movements, the populist movements on the left, and because we live in a system of political paralysis.

So Dostoevsky said that, you know, that system leads to what he calls an age of moral nihilism, and ultimately violence, which is what at the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s dream is about. So–and Dostoyevsky was nothing if not deeply prescient about where that was going.

So I’m frightened, I’m frightened, because without these movements, you know, we are not immune to these kinds of forces should we suffer economic collapse coupled with environmental catastrophe, which of course creates economic disruption–$70 billion of damage in the last hurricane season. We had a lot of hurricanes in category two, tornadoes and hurricanes the size of we’ve never seen in human history. These aren’t going away. So, you know, we could really see ourselves headed for a very disturbing kind of dystopia.

JAY: Okay. One more segment. I think it will be the second-to-final segment. We’re going to ask the question: so what should people watching this do next? And then the final segment is going to be viewer questions, which we promised we would do. So please join us for the continuation of our series of interviews with Chris Hedges on Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.



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