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The Courtiers and the Tyrants
Posted on Sep 18, 2016
By Chris Hedges
Thomas Frank’s marvelous scorched-earth assault on the Democratic Party and professional elites in his book “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?” has one fatal flaw. Frank blames the liberal class, rather than the corporations that have seized control of the centers of power, for our descent into political dysfunction and neofeudalism.
Yes, self-identified liberals such as the Clintons and Barack Obama speak in the language of liberalism while selling out the poor, the working class and the middle class to global corporate interests. But they are not, at least according to the classical definition, liberals. They are neoliberals. They serve the dictates of neoliberalism—austerity, deindustrialization, anti-unionism, endless war and globalization—to empower and enrich themselves and the party. The actual liberal class—the segment of the Democratic Party that once acted as a safety valve to ameliorate through reform the grievances and injustices within our capitalist democracy and that had within its ranks politicians such as George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Magnuson and Frank Church and New Deal Democrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt—no longer exists. I spent 248 pages in my book “Death of the Liberal Class” explaining the orchestrated corporate campaign to erase the liberal class from the political landscape and, more ominously, destroy the radical labor and social movements that were the real engines of social and political reform in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Democratic and the professional elites whom Frank excoriates are, as he points out, morally bankrupt, but they are only one piece of the fake democracy that characterizes our system of “inverted totalitarianism.” The problem is not only liberals who are not liberal; it is also conservatives, once identified with small government, the rule of law and fiscal responsibility, who are not conservative. It is a court system that has abandoned justice and rather than defend constitutional rights has steadily stripped them from us through judicial fiat. It is a Congress that does not legislate but instead permits lobbyists and corporations to write legislation. It is a press, desperate for advertising dollars and often owned by large corporations, that does not practice journalism. It is academics, commentators and public intellectuals, often paid by corporate think tanks, who function as shameless cheerleaders for the neoliberal and imperial establishment and mock the concept of independent and critical thought.
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During Barack Obama’s administration there has been near-total continuity with the administration of George W. Bush, especially regarding mass surveillance, endless war and the failure to regulate Wall Street. This is because the mechanisms of corporate power embodied in the deep state do not change with election cycles. The election of Donald Trump, however distasteful, would not radically alter corporate control over our lives. The corporate state is impervious to political personalities. If Trump continues to rise in the public opinion polls, the corporate backers of Hillary Clinton will start funding him instead. They know Trump will prostitute himself to money as assiduously as Clinton will.
Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d’état in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.
The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.
Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.
“It laid out a strategy to attack democracy in America,” Ralph Nader said of the Powell memo. “He basically said to the business community, you’ve got to hire a lot more lobbyists swarming over Congress, you’ve got to pour a lot more money into their campaigns, both parties’, Republican and Democrat. You’ve got to get out on the campuses and get right-wing speakers to combat progressive speakers.”
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