Review of “Death of the Liberal Class,” by Chris Hedges, and “Hope in Troubled Times,” by Bob Goudzwaard et. al.

Review of

Death of the Liberal Class, by Chris Hedges (Alfred Knopf Canada, 2010)

and

Hope In Troubled Times:  A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises, by Bob Goudzwaard, Mark Vander Vennen and David Van Heemst (Baker Academic, 2007)

If you are at all prone to depression, you should avoid both of these books.  Each of them devotes a good deal of space to showing how troubled the world really is.  Hedges focuses on the failure of the liberal class in our society, on their having been co-opted by corporate power elites.  Goodzwaard et. al. provide a detailed description of worldwide poverty, environmental degradation, and widespread terrorism.

Hedges identifies the pillars of the liberal class as the media, the church, the university, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions (p.10).  He has a very exalted view of the liberal class.  “In a traditional democracy, the liberal class functions as a safety valve.  It offers hope for change and proposes gradual steps toward greater equality.  It endows the state and the mechanisms of power with virtue.  It also serves as an attack dog that discredits radical social movements, making the liberal class a useful component within the power elite” (p. 9).  But the tragedy is that the corporate state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims.  The liberal class has itself sold out to the corporate power of capitalism.  It is now anemic, decayed and frightened, unable to function as it was meant to.  The book is a long catalogue of the betrayals and failures of the liberal class.

But this raises a central question.  Why has the liberal class degenerated in the way in which Hedges describes in painful detail?  Why did it become such a helpless victim of corporate power?  Why did it sell out to the forces of global capitalism?  Surely such a colossal failure should make us begin to think that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberalism itself.  Michael Sandel has suggested that liberalism’s “vision of political discourse is too sparse to contain the moral energies of democratic life” (Democracy’s Discontent 1996, 323).  Indeed, there are problems with the very foundations of liberalism.  What is the basis of the moral values espoused by liberalism?  I would suggest that without a transcendent foundation, the moral vision of liberalism collapses. 

One can begin to see this when one looks at who is included in the liberal class.  Along with journalists and academics, Hedges includes the church.  Now this is interesting! Liberals are typically very hard on the church.  The church is most often associated with the Christian right, which has been recently demonised by Marci McDonald in The Armageddon Factor:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (Random House Canada, 2010).  So how can Hedges include the church in the liberal class?  Clearly he has a very particular segment of the church in mind – the liberal church that is preoccupied with such liberal values as tolerance, rights, equality, diversity, and inclusivism.  But, as many a survey has shown, the liberal church is on a downward spiral.   And this again raises the question, why? Is there perhaps also a weakness in the very foundations of the liberal church?   Indeed, the foundational weaknesses of the liberal church are parallel to the weaknesses of liberalism.  Without an affirmation of orthodox Christian doctrine, the moral vision of the liberal church is in fact hollow, and the church will not be able to withstand the forces of power elite within a society.

Hedges’ book concludes with this pessimistic analysis.  “We stand on the verge of one of the bleakest periods in human history, when the bright lights of civilizations will blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity” (p.196).  The only ray of hope, and it is slim indeed, is for individuals to engage in acts of rebellion.  But, how can the individual stand up against the collective powers of corporate capitalism?  And is not the call for individual resistance simply another expression of faith in the very liberalism that Hedges has found to be anemic and decayed.  And again, what are the moral foundations of such resistance? 

It is here where the analysis of Goudzwaard et. al. has so much to offer us?  I found the final section of this book dealing with hope most inspiring.  After a careful treatment of the problems of the world, you have an equally careful analysis of the theological underpinnings of hope.

While some of the problems identified in this work are the same as those identified by Hedges, the analysis of these problems is very different.  Goudzwaard et. al. talk instead about ideologies and idols.  Indeed, a fundamental tenet of liberalism, its belief in the inevitability of progress, has itself become a problem (pp. 24-5).  Thus we find that many of today’s problems seem to have developed immunity to our well-intended solutions.  “They have become like viruses that resist medicine or like pests that have developed a defense against pesticide”  (p. 31).  This book analyses four areas of spiraling problems in our world today – revolution, nationalism, global capitalism, and violence/war.  In each case we find ourselves becoming “more or less trapped inside the cocoon of an extremely narrow, reduced view or perspective that considers acceptable only the solutions that fall in line with the way Western society defines its further ‘progress’” (p.25).  Indeed, the language of “obsession” or even “possession” becomes appropriate as persons or societies place their faith or trust in things or forces that their own hands have made (p. 27).  But, unfortunately, these idols that we ourselves have made cannot deliver.  The gods we have created have betrayed us.

But there is room for hope according to Goudzwaard et. al.  The good news of the gospel is that after Jesus’ resurrection, “one can speak about evil only as a temporary counterpower, one whose effectiveness depends solely on enticing and seducing people with things like money, power, and the longing to survive” (p. 172).  These seductions occur in the hearts of people, and the hearts of people can be changed.  Idols can be smashed.  Ideologies can be individually and collectively undermined.  We are not at the mercy of fate or evil underground forces.  “In our view, this simple insight into the fundamentally limited scope of evil throws the door wide open to genuine and living hope” (p. 172).  Here it is important to note that this hope is not just a human creation.  We are not left to our own resources.  Instead, this hope rests ultimately in the God whom Christians confess and who has already fundamentally conquered the power of evil through his Son.  “Jesus is therefore worthy to hold ‘the whole world [including our future] in his hands’” (p. 172). 

What we need to do is to make sure that we see the bigger picture, and in so doing unmask the gods of our times – economic growth, technological progress, the free market, and even democracy (p. 181).  The Christian believes in instead in justice, love and truth, and he or she knows that these belong to the basic nature of reality itself (p. 182).  The Christian does not get caught up in the dead-end spirals of the idols and ideologies of our time.  Instead, with God’s help Christians move slowly, and patiently, and step by step, upward to a better way.

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