This essay first appeared in Truthout.
We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals and our banks destroy the economy.
What kind of society emerges when it is governed by the market-driven assumption that the only value that matters is exchange value, when the common good is denigrated to the status of a mall and the social order is composed only of individuals free to pursue their own interests? What happens to democracy when a government inflicts on the American public narrow market-driven values, corporate relations of power and policies that impose gross inequities on society and condemns young people to a life of precarity in which the future begins to resemble a remake of dystopian films such as Mad Max (1979), Brazil (1985), RoboCop (1987), Minority Report (2002), District Nine (2009), Comopolis (2012) and The Purge (2013). What makes American society distinct in the present historical moment is a culture and social order that has not only lost its moral bearings but produces a level of symbolic and real violence whose visibility and existence set a new standard for cruelty, humiliation and the mechanizations of a mad war machine, all of which serve the interests of the political and corporate walking dead – the new avatars of death and cruelty – that plunder the social order. [i]
The line between the spectacle of violence and the reality of everyday violence has become blurred, making it difficult to respond to and understand the origins of symbolic and institutional violence in the economic, political and social formations that now rule American society. Violence has become so normalized that it no longer has a history. That is, its political and economic structures have become invisible and the painful memories it evokes disappear quickly among the barrage of spectacles of violence and advertisements addressing us not as moral beings but as customers seeking new commodities, instant pleasure and ever-shocking thrills. At the same time, violence in America is fed by a culture of fear – shaped, in part, by a preoccupation with surveillance, incarceration and the personal security industry. And, as a result, American society has made “a sinister turn towards intense social control,” [ii] and a “political culture of hyper punitiveness.” [iii]
The tentacles of this high-intensity violence, now normalized, reach into every aspect of society – a spectacle that does not unsettle but thrives on more shocks, more bloodshed and more suffering. The political, corporate and intellectual zombies that rule America love death-dealing institutions, which accounts for why they rarely criticize the bloated military budget and the rise of the incarceration and punishing state. They embrace the demands of an empire that kills innocent people with automated drones and sanctions torture and are all too willing to raise their voices to fever pitch to promote war as the only viable tool of diplomacy. Witness the almost-hysterical displays of public anger by Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham over President Barack Obama’s decision to avert bombing Syria in favor of a diplomatic solution. State violence is now the sanctioned norm of rule in a society in which political fanatics, such as Senators Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio define policy according to a friend/enemy distinction and in doing so transform politics into an extension of war. Unrelenting in their role as archetypes of the hyper-dead, the tea party fanatics and their gutless allies spectacularize hatred and trade in fear, lies and misinformation while trying to hold the American public and the government hostage to their fanatical market-driven principles. We are witnessing the militarization of all aspects of American politics and life and one consequence is a growing authoritarianism in which democracy becomes its ultimate victim.
No sphere is immune from this madness. For instance, Ohio State University, as a result of a gift from military surplus, has added an armored military vehicle to its campus security forces – all the better to inculcate not only the values of militarization in young students but also a culture of fear, violence, thoughtlessness and insecurity. [iv] Local police forces now resemble SWAT teams and make clear that force is the most important way to address not just criminal behavior but also social problems. [v] Images of the police do not simply saturate television dramas, they have become the most visible humans occupying public schools.
Needless to say, violence is not just visible in the spectacle of entertainment or in the visibility of deep-rooted economic inequalities arrogantly defended by the rich; it is also discernible in the everyday actions and small change of daily interactions as the punishing state injects the ideology of violence into legislation designed to cripple and impose pain upon large segments of the population regarded as disposable, excess and unworthy of social supports. For instance, the cutting of $40 billion from the food stamp program (SNAP) by the mostly wealthy, white, right-wing extremists that make up the Republican Party members of the House of Representatives exemplifies the new face of a savage politics. In responding to the cuts, Timothy Egan, an opinion writer for The New York Times, stresses rightly the cruelty implicit in this piece of legislation and what it says about the extremists driving the Republican Party. He writes:
The Republican-dominated House passed a bill that would deprive 3.8 million people of assistance to buy food next year. … A Republican majority that refuses to govern on other issues found the votes to shove nearly 4 million people back into poverty, joining 46.5 million at a desperation line that has failed to improve since the dawn of the Great Recession. It’s a heartless bill, aimed to hurt. Republicans don’t see it that way, of course. They think too many of their fellow citizens are cheats and loafers, dining out on lobster. [vi]
What Egan fails to point out is that “an estimated 210,000 children will lose access to free school lunch programs and 55,000 jobs will be lost in the first year of cuts alone.” [vii] He also fails to mention that the war being waged on food stamps by the Republican Party is symptomatic of a larger war waged against the poor. Being poor in America means that one has no moral stature and is subject to a variety of state intrusions, such as drug testing, that assume that the poor are criminals. Being poor has become a crime and when coupled with the now-commonplace racially inflected language of “us vs. them” so prominent among right-wing politicians, the ugly poison of bigotry and racism once again is on full display as part of an effort to promote Jim Crow legislation, revealing the white supremacist ideology that characterizes the extremists leading the Republican Party. The new extremists are not simply political loons out of touch with America, as some critics describe them. They are the face of the emerging counter-revolution taking over the nation – an updated and kinder version of the fascist brownshirts now dressed in suits carrying black briefcases and living in guarded communities. They are the dark angels of violence and they trade in the mass psychology of fear and hate. They despise compromise and live by a take-no-prisoners political sensibility. They want to eliminate any vestiges of the government that provide social protections. As I mentioned previously, they also want to shut down the government and strip the American public of health care benefits while consolidating power in the hands of a party that, as former President Jimmy Carter pointed out, removed America from the pretense of being a functioning democracy. [viii] But they are not alone.
Behind Obama’s facile smile and Ivy League civility lies a not-so-hidden form of authoritarian politics and a mode of ethical barbarism that allows him to believe he has the right to kill people without any recourse to due process, destroy civil liberties and implement the policies of Wall Street gangsters. Whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning who are repulsed by the moral and political abuses of government and have courageously spoken out against such practices are labeled as traitors by the dominant media and many of the politicians bought off by the lobbyists who have made the Congress and White House their second home. [ix] Similarly, the same administration that refused to prosecute those government officials who tortured, maimed, imprisoned and abducted thousands of innocent human beings now condemn those whistleblowers such as Manning, Snowden and Aaron Swartz, who exposed the political conditions that created them in the first place.
The increasing militarization of American society is matched by its increasing depoliticization and its increasing incapacity to make moral judgments and act with compassion against the most shocking injustices. George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling are right in arguing that conservatives view the public as immoral and can imagine democracy only as “providing the maximal liberty to seek one’s self interest without being responsible for the interest of others. … Lack of success implies lack of discipline and character, which means you deserve your poverty.” [x] Moral responsibility is now in full flight, condemned to a bygone era when the social contract actually had some meaning. A moral coma has engulfed the United States, as individuals can no longer connect private troubles to broader social and systemic issues. The art of translation, which is crucial to any viable democracy, dissolves into the septic tank of celebrity culture and the dead zone of a market society exemplified in the growing infantilization of a citizenry shaped by the rapid proliferation of a culture of idiocy, civic illiteracy and authoritarianism.
Casino capitalism and its right-wing apostles lack any sense of ethics or respect for the social contract and spew feverishly an endless rhetoric of hate and vile over the airwaves. The unapologetic discourse of racism, humiliation and cruelty has become an industry for the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Michelle Malkin and politicians of the same ilk who relentlessly describe immigrants as vermin, denounce young student protesters as un-American, argue that women are undeserving of any control over their reproductive rights, resurrect the legacy of Jim Crow by denying poor minorities their voting rights and take pride in shaming those on welfare as lazy and undeserving of social benefits. For instance, “Georgia state Rep. Terry England compared women to farm animals while discussing an abortion measure on the Georgia state house floor.” [xi] But there is more at stake here than the poisonous rhetoric of racism and class warfare. There is also the rise of a punishing state, which now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 700 people per 100,000 in prison. This is a punishing machine whose mad violence elevates a hyper-punitiveness over any sense of compassion or respect for the other, especially those who are in need of decent health care, social services and the most basic right to a decent job and life of dignity. [xii] Mass shootings have become the new index of violence in America, but they pale in terms of human destruction and mass suffering with the infliction of hardship and misery imposed on millions of people daily in the United States under the regime of casino capitalism.
Evidence for the death of the American dream is everywhere: Millions of people have lost their homes and young people are living with the nightmare of a future without jobs, hopes and security, if not dignity. At the same time, many soldiers returning from the senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from a wide range of illnesses are given shoddy and sometime death-dealing treatment by the veterans’ hospitals. In some cases, they are turned into drug addicts because the hospitals, in their efforts to keep them quiet rather than give them proper treatment, over-prescribe painkillers. Unfortunately, such neglect does more than keep them quiet; it often results in their needless deaths. Poor children are denied proper health care and school lunches. The poverty rate in America grows to unimaginable numbers matched only by the increasing growth in income and wealth by the super-rich. The corporate educational reform movement teaches young people how to be stupid and dissolves all vestiges of creativity in the mad frenzy of an audit culture. At the same time, students find themselves in a job market that offers them little but dashed dreams and low-skill jobs, if they are lucky enough to find one.
The small change of human cruelty and a savage politics was evident recently in newspaper accounts about the rise of expensive condos in the Upper West Side of Manhattan that have one entrance for the rich and another for “working people who won a city lottery to obtain affordable apartments in the building.” [xiii] There is a larger politics at work here than the obvious class and racist implications. Connect the dots of this particularly racist and class-based policy to the rapidly proliferating decisions on the part of tea party politicians to produce policies that force the frail, poor and aged to choose between medicine and food. Or the decision on the part of the state of Nevada to dump “1,500 mental patients onto other states by putting them on Greyhound buses and sen[ding] them over state lines with no prior arrangements with families or other mental hospitals once they arrive.” [xiv] This is a new kind of authoritarianism that does not speak in the jingoistic discourse of empowerment, exceptionalism or nationalism. Instead, it defines itself in the language of cruelty, suffering and fear and it does so with a sneer and an unbridled disdain for those considered disposable. Neoliberal society mimics the search for purity we have seen in other totalitarian societies.
Right-wing market fundamentalists want to root out those considered defective consumers and citizens, along with allegedly unpatriotic dissidents. They also want to punish the poor and remove their children from the possibility of a quality public education. Hence, they develop schools that are dead zones of the imagination for most children and highly creative classroom environments free of the frenzy of empiricism and test-taking for the children of the rich. It gets worse. In Pennsylvania, right-wing Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter are intent on destroying the public school system. Instead of funding public schools, Corbett and Nutter are intent on crushing the teachers union and supporting vouchers and charter schools. They also are fond of claiming that money can’t help struggling public schools as a pretext for closing more than 23 schools “while building a $400 million state prison.” [xv] As Aaron Kase reports, “Things have gotten so bad that at least one school has asked parents to chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which, if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.” [xvi]
Vouchers and under-regulated charter schools have become the unapologetic face of a vicious form of casino capitalism waging war on the imagination while imposing a range of harsh and punitive disciplinary methods on teachers and students, particularly low-income and poor white minorities. [xvii] The vast stores of knowledge and human creativity needed by young people to face a range of social, economic and political problems in the future are not simply being deferred, they are being systematically destroyed. When the emancipatory potential of education does emerge, it is often couched in the deadening discourse of establishing comfort zones in classrooms as a way of eliminating any pedagogy that provokes, unsettles or educates students to think critically. Critical knowledge and pedagogy are now judged as viable only to the degree that they do not make a student uncomfortable. There is more at stake here than the death of the imagination; there is also the elimination of those modes of agency that make a democracy possible. In the face of such cruel injustices, neoliberalism remains mute, disdaining democratic politics by claiming there are no alternatives to casino capitalism.
Power in the United States has been uprooted from any respect for public value, the common good and democratic politics. This is not only visible in the fact that 1 percent of the population now owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth or took home “more than half of the nation’s income,” it is also evident in a culture that normalizes, legitimates and thrives in a politics of humiliation, cruelty, racism and class discrimination. [xviii] Political, moral and economic foundations float free of constraints. Moral and social responsibilities are unmoored, free from any sense of responsibility or accountability in a permanent war state. Repression is now the dominant mantra for all of society. As Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyons point out, the American public has been turned into “security addicts,” ingesting mistrust, suspicion and fear as the new common sense for a security state that seems intent on causing the death of everything that matters in a democracy. [xix] The surveillance state works hard to not only monitor our phone conversations or track our Internet communication but to turn us into consumers, ratchet up the desire to be watched and enforce new registers of social exclusion between those inside and outside the official temples of consumerism, social rights and captainship itself. Confining, excluding and vigilantism is one register of the new face of authoritarianism in the US.
As America enters a historical era dominated by an authoritarian repressive state, the refugee camp as a symbol of exclusion and suffering is everywhere, visible in the material encampments for the homeless, urban ghettoes, jails, detention centers for young people and in the tents propping up alongside highways that hold the new refugees from the suburbs who have lost their jobs, homes and dignity. The refugee camp also has become a metaphor for those who question authority, because they are increasingly rendered stateless, useless and undesirable. Critical thought is now considered dangerous, discomforting and subject to government prosecution, as is evident in the war being waged against whistleblowers in the name of national (in)security. [xx] The technologies of smart missiles hunt down those considered enemies of the United States, removing the ethical imagination from the horror of the violence it inflicts while solidifying the “victory of technology over ethics.” [xxi]
Sorting out populations based on wealth, race, the ability to consume and immigration status is the new face of America. The pathologies of inequality have come home to roost in America. [xxii] Moreover, as suffering increases among vast swaths of the population, the corporate elite and rich use the proliferating crises to extract more wealth, profits and resources. [xxiii] Crises become the new rationale for destroying the ideologies, values and institutions that give power to the social contract. [xxiv] The ethos of rabid individualism, hyper-masculinity and a survival-of-the-fittest ethic has created a society of throwaways of both goods and people. The savage ethic of economic Darwinism also drives the stories we now tell about ourselves.
The state of collective unconsciousness that haunts America has its deepest roots not only in the writings of Friedrich Hyek, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and other neoliberal philosophers but also in the increasing merging power of private-sector corporations that, as John Ralston Saul has argued, has its roots in the “anti-democratic underpinnings of Fascist Italy in particular, but also of Nazi Germany.” [xxv] Today this “corporatism [is] so strong it that it has taken the guts out of much of daily democratic life.” [xxvi] Combined with the power of the national surveillance state, it is fair to say, again quoting Saul, that “corporatism, with all of the problems attached to it, is digging itself ever deeper into our society, undermining our society.” [xxvii] Clearly, those words echoed a few years ago were not only prescient but vastly underestimated the growing authoritarianism in the United States, in particular. We now live in a society in which leadership has been usurped by models of corporate management, self-interest has triumphed over the ethical imagination and a respect for others is discarded for the crude instrumental goal of accumulating capital, regardless of the social costs. Intellectuals in too many public spheres have become either dysfunctional or they have sold out. Higher education is no longer the city on the hill. Instead it has become a corporate boardroom/factory in which Bill Gates wannabes govern the university as if it were an outpost of Wall Street. Outside of the boardrooms, intellectual violence prevails aimed largely at faculty and students, who are reduced to either grant writers or consumers. To make matters worse academic knowledge is drowning in firewalls of obtuseness, creating a world of dysfunctional intellectuals, at least those who have tenure. Those who don’t have such security are tied to the harsh rhythm and rituals of contingent subaltern labor and barely make enough money to be able to pay their rent or mounting debts – never mind engage in teaching critically and creatively while writing as a sustained act of dissent. At the same time, the wider culture is sinking under a flood of consumer and celebrity idiocy.
There are some who suggest that such critiques of the growing authoritarianism and repression in American society are useless and in the long run do nothing more than reinforce a crippling dystopianism. I think this line of argument is not only wrong but complicitous with the very problems it refuses to acknowledge. From a left suffocating in cynicism, there is the argument that people are already aware of these problems, as if neoliberal hegemony does not exist and that its success in building a consensus around its ideology as a mode of common sense is passé. At the same time, liberals detest such criticism because it calls into question the totality of American politics rather than focus on one issue and gestures toward a radical restructuring of American society rather than piecemeal and useless reforms. The call for such a restructuring rather than piecemeal reforms sends liberals into fits of hysteria. Of course, the right in all of its varieties views criticism as a virus that destroys everything they admire about America – a society in which democracy has been eviscerated and largely benefits the top ten percent of the population.
Most importantly, the banality of evil lies less in the humdrum cruelty of everyday relations but in its normalization, the depolicitizaton of culture and, at the present moment, in the reproduction of a neoliberal society that eradicates any vestige of public values, the ethical imagination, social responsibility, civic education and democratic social relations. The enemy is not a market economy but a market society and the breakdown of all forms of social solidarity that inform democratic politics and the cultural, political and economic institutions that make it possible. The authoritarianism that now shapes American society is not a matter of fate but one rooted in organized struggle and a vision built on the recognition that there are always alternatives to the existing order that speak to the promise of a democracy to come.
The contradictions of neoliberalism are unraveling, but the consensus that informs it is alive and well. And it is at that level of educational intervention that the war against market authoritarianism in all of its diverse forms has to be fought first. Commonsense has become the enemy of critical thought. Hope is no longer part of the discourse of the left, only a dreary sense of despair with no vision of how to imagine a radical democracy. Manufactured ignorance has become a virtue instead of a liability in a society ruled by the financial elite. And as such we have no serious crisis of ideas. Instead, we have a crisis of power relations and structures that needs a new political language if it is to be contested at the level of both a pedagogical and political struggle. The current neoliberal drive to ruthlessly extend the never-ending task of accumulating capital is matched only by its ruthless determination to produce a notion of common sense that reinforces the idea that there is no way to think beyond the present system. The American public needs to break the authoritarian dysimagination machine that affirms everyone as a consumer and reduces freedom to unchecked self-interest while reproducing subjects who are willingly complicit with the plundering of the environment, resources and public goods by the financial elite.
Class and racial warfare are alive and well in the United States. In fact, racism and the class warfare waged by right-wing politicians, bankers, hedge fund managers and the corporate rich are intensifying. Americans need to reject a politics in which public goods are demonized and eradicated, African-American youths become the fodder for wars abroad and the military-prison-industrial complex, the underclass disappears, public servants are disparaged, youths vanish into debt and despair and the middle class passes into oblivion. While politics must be connected to its material moorings, it is not enough to imagine a different future than the one that now hangs over us like a suffocating sandstorm. Those intellectuals, workers, young people, artists and others committed to a radical democracy need to develop a new vocabulary about how to think about the meaning of politics, human agency and the building of a formative culture through which organized collective struggles can develop in the effort to imagine a new and more democratic future.
There is a need for a systemic alternative to the existing system of global capitalism. But such an alternative will not happen unless the courage to take power is matched by the pedagogical imperative to address and inform a new cultural imaginary and mode of individual subjectivity and agency. Getting to the root of the problems facing the United States suggests building broad-based social movements that can imagine some form of democratic control over wealth, the use of direct action to challenge dominant economic institutions, the reclaiming of public spaces where the formative cultures of democracy can flourish, a need to shift resources away from militarization and wars to the needs of children and everyone else who believes that equality and democracy inform and enrich each other.
Martin Luther King Jr. railed against the triple evils of racism, militarism and economic exploitation. We need to add another evil to this list and it is the crushing of the imagination, critical thought and the destruction of free public and higher education. Judith Butler is right in arguing that any viable movement for a radical democracy needs not only to fight manufactured ignorance, economic inequality and racial injustice but also “produce a community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect … missing in a world that’s structured by neoliberal principles.” [xxviii] There are hints of such a movement now taking place all over the world and it is crucial to learn from these movements. The task is daunting, but until that happens, the savage politics that engulfs the United States will continue unabated and the winds of authoritarianism will gain in speed and destructiveness.
[iv] Eric Owens “The Cops at Ohio State Have an Armored Fight Vehicle Now,” The Daily Caller (September 17, 2013).
[v] See, for instance, Jodi Gummow, “The Shocking Tales of 11 of the Most Over the Top US Police Paramilitary Raids and the Innocent People they Victimized,” AlterNet (August 20, 2013). For an in-depth treatment of this issue, see Radley Blacko, The Rise of the Warrior Cop (Philadelphia: Persius Books, 2013).
[viii] Max Eternity, “President Carter Says America Has no Functioning Democracy,” Truthout (July 2013).
[x] George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, “Why Did Walker Win Wisconsin?” Truthout, (June 13, 2012).
[xi] Editorial, “Terry England, Georgia Republican Lawmaker, Compares Women To Farm Animals,” Huffington Post (March 2012).
[xii] Jeffrey S. Clair and Alexander Cockburn, “The origins of the Neoliberal War on the Poor,” CounterPunch (August 9-11, 2013).
[xiii] Sandy English, “New York City High-Rise to have Separate Entrances for Rich and Poor,” World Socialist Web Site (September 13, 2013).
[xvii] See, for instance, Diane Ravitch, “School privatization is a hoax, ‘reformers’ aim to destroy public schools our public schools aren’t in decline. And ‘reformers’ with wild promises don’t care about education — just profits,” Salon (September 15, 2013).
[xviii] Peter Z. Scheer, “New Record: Richest Americans Took Half of all Income in 2012,” TruthDig (September 11, 2013).
[xxii] See Robert Reich’s recent comments in Amy Goodman, “Inequality for All: Robert Reich Warns Record Income Gap is Undermining Our Democracy,” Democracy Now! (September 13, 2013).
[xxiii] See, for example, Paul Buchheit, “Five Ugly Extremes of Inequality in America – The Contrasts Will Drop Your Chin to the Floor,” AlterNet, (March 24, 2013) and Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality,” Monthly Review, (March 1, 2012).