The author of several non-fiction books, including the best-selling War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Empire of Illusion, Death of the Liberal Class, and The World As It Is, he is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City.
Could you discuss what you see as the dying or dead liberal class and what is happening now that is different from, say, 1990 or 1980?
CH: Well, there’s been a slow collapse of liberal institutions. A kind of steady decline of labor unions, the press, liberal religious institutions, the Democratic party, so that they no longer . . . well, they speak in the traditional language of liberalism, but they no longer protect liberal values.
The decline of the Democratic party is perhaps most dramatic if you look at the Clinton administration and how there was quite a conscious effort to win corporate money, to do corporate bidding. You had a democratic administration that forced through NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), which was the single greatest legislative betrayal of the working class since the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act. They deregulated the banking system, deregulated the SEC, destroyed welfare . . . this was all done by a Democratic administration.
We now live in an era where liberal institutions no longer function, or at least no longer have their traditional role within society. Anybody who cares about fundamental issues of wars and worker’s rights and habeas corpus and protections against corporate malfeasance at this point has to be very naive to think that the Democratic Party is going to carry out any kind of meaningful reform on any of those fronts.
A lot of the evidence you use to support your worldview comes from American examples. With America’s declining power and influence, is it still a matter of ‘as goes America, so goes the world’? Could China or another emerging power take the baton and do some of the things that the US refuses to do with regard to climate, workers’ rights, etc.?
CH: What we’re doing is replicating China’s totalitarian capitalism, where workers have no rights; all kinds of regulations, including environmental regulations, are gutted; there are no labor laws; people are treated like chattle. That’s what globalization is about, and China is at the forefront of it. When American workers are told that they need to be competitive in the global marketplace, they’re being told that they have to be competitive with prison labor, in essence.
What about Brazil? Or the new Latin American union?
CH: The United States has allowed corporate forces, in the way other countries have not, to hollow itself out, dismantle the manufacturing base, run up the largest deficits in human history, allow its infrastructure to be destroyed. I think we have probably gone further than anyone else in terms of the corporate assault, in the sense of dismantling prosperity. That wasn’t true in China, where most people were poor to begin with. But we once had a prosperous and protected working class, and we allowed corporations to reconfigure our system into form of neo-feudalism. Latin America is a little different in that they’ve tried to fight back.
SG: Why do the labor unions have less power now than they did in the 60s or 50s or 40s?
CH: Because they’ve been broken. Only 12% of the American workforce in unionized. And there’s a huge assault on public sector unions. Look at the new batch of Republican governors.
SG: Talk about the modern rebel.
CH: Camus described it better than anyone: someone who is perpetually alienated from power, someone who is different from a revolutionary in the sense that you are always alienated from centers of power. This is the Julien Benda vision of the world, where you have two sets of principles—justice and truth, and privilege and power—and the closer you get to privilege and power, the more you compromise justice and truth. I think that in order to maintain a democratic system you need large movements in society committed to issues of justice and truth. To put pressure on the power elite, to make sure that those issues are honored by institutions and by people who hold positions of power.
SG: So last December when you were arrested during an anti-war protest in Layfayette Park with Daniel Ellsberg, did that accomplish what you had hoped? Were you surprised
at the lack of media coverage?
CH: No. It’s all we have left. If we sit around and wait for the Democrats to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they’ll never be ended. Theirs has been a long history, including 2006, where the Democrats largely took over control of the Congress over the Iraq war and yet continued to fund, and even expand, the war.
SG: Why do you think more journalists in the US aren’t defending Julian Assange?
CH: Cowardice. He certainly functions the same way The New York Times functioned of the publication of Dan Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. Assange didn’t leak the documents, he received leaked documents, which is what The New York Times did when Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to them. There is no difference.
SG: So what made journalists more afraid now than they were in the 1970s?
CH: The whole news industry is more afraid because it’s dying. It doesn’t have the economic or political power that it once had.
SG: Would you consider yourself more activist than journalist now?
CH: No, I don’t think so. I speak out on a lot of issues, but I’m no more an activist than I. F. Stone was an activist.
SG: Your style of writing has changed since you wrote for The New York Times. What prompted this change?
CH: Well, you’re not allowed to write like that. The forms of American journalism are very constrictive, and you work within those forms if you work for an institution like the New York Times.
SG: Do you write in the style that you do because you want to motivate as well as inform?
CH: I think any journalist writes because they want to effect change, even the good journalists at The New York Times. And I was very careful about what assignments I took. I didn’t go to Washington and cover the White House. I didn’t work for business. I went to the Balkan world and covered conflicts—conflicts that often my own country had a position in, or a role in. I put myself in a certain amount of physical jeopardy to give a voice to people who, without my presence, wouldn’t have one. And there was a place for this within The New York Times. Those were the only jobs that I accepted and the only jobs that I did. So I don’t think that the change in my work is as dramatic as it might appear. Volunteering to go into Sarajevo during the war when it was being hit with 2,000 shells a day was, I think, completely consistent with the kind of work I do now.
SG: The writing is a bit more lyrical now.
CH: Lyrical? (laughs) Well, that’s because I don’t have layers of editors destroying my prose. I think, once freed from the heavy constraints that are imposed on journa-
lists at the Times, it wasn’t hard to find . . . it was liberating to be able to actually write stuff bluntly and passionately and without muting either my anger or commitment to issues of justice.
Still, any writer writes for himself, too, if they’re any good. You write to be as honest as you can. There’s nothing calculated about it.
SG: Is the artist playing his role in society now?
CH: Well, I think that that role is the same as any good writer has, which is to explicate sometimes unpleasant truths and speak about those forces that make possible transformation to a better individual and a better society. I mean, that’s certainly what the good artist does, and that’s what I think a good writer or journalist does. And yes, in individual cases, yes, it’s there in the world now. In terms of where we are in the country, it’s a pretty depressing place to be.
But people don’t reward you for virtue. If you think that the world is going to reward you for a virtuous act, then you are very naive. And when you carry out something that you think is right, the world won’t reward you, and you just have to live with that. If you think that you’re going to be lauded, praised, for doing what you believe is good, then you don’t understand how the world works.