The Struggle Against Dystopia
by Henry A. Giroux
Neoliberalism’s disimagination machines, extending from schools to print, audio, and screen cultures, are now used to serve the forces of ethical tranquilization as they produce and legitimate endless degrading and humiliating images of the poor, youthful protesters, and others considered disposable. The public pedagogy and market-driven values of neoliberalism constitute a war zone that suppresses any vestige of critical thought while creating the conditions and policies for expanding the boundaries of terminal exclusion. Viewed as unworthy of civic inclusion, immigrants, youth, protesters and others deemed alien or hostile to the mechanizations of privatization, consumption, and commodification are erased from any viable historical and political context. Such groups now fill the landscape of neoliberalism’s dream world. Vast numbers of the American public are now subject to repressive modes of power that criminalize their behavior and relegates them to those public spaces that accelerate their invisibility while exposing them to the harsh machinery of social death.
The neoliberal politics of disposability with its expanding machineries of civic and social death, terminal exclusion, and zones of abandonment constitute a new historical conjuncture and must be addressed within the emergence of a ruthless form of casino capitalism, which is constituted not only as an economic system but also a pedagogical force rewriting the meaning of common sense, agency, desire, and politics itself. The capitalist dream machine is back with huge profits for the ultra-rich, hedge fund managers, and major players in the financial service industries. In these new landscapes of wealth, exclusion, and fraud, the commanding institutions of a savage and fanatical capitalism promote a winner-take-all ethos and aggressively undermine the welfare state while waging a counter revolution against the principles of social citizenship and democracy.
Politics and power are now on the side of lawlessness as is evident in the state’s endless violations of civil liberties, freedom of speech, and the most constitutional rights, mostly done in the name of national security. Lawlessness wraps itself in repressive government policies such as the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, Military Commissions, and a host of other legal illegalities. These would include the “right of the president “to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists,” use secret evidence to detain individuals indefinitely, develop a massive surveillance panoptican to monitor every communication used by citizens who have not committed a crime, employ state torture against those considered enemy combatants, and block the courts from prosecuting those officials who commit such heinous crimes. The ruling corporate elites have made terror rational and fear the modus operandi of politics.
Power in its most repressive forms is now deployed not only by the police and other forces of repression such as the 17 American intelligence agencies but also through a predatory and commodified culture that turns violence into entertainment, foreign aggression into a video game, and domestic violence into goose-stepping celebration of masculinity and the mad values of militarism. The mediaeval turn to embracing forms of punishment that inflict pain on the psyches and the bodies of young people, poor minorities, and immigrants, in particular, is part of a larger immersion of society in public spectacles of violence. Under the neo-Darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest, the ultimate form of entertainment becomes the pain and humiliation of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, who are no longer an object of compassion, but of ridicule and amusement. Pleasure loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which misery is celebrated as a source of fun. High octane violence and human suffering are now considered consumer entertainment products designed to raise the collective pleasure quotient. Brute force and savage killing replayed over and over in the culture now function as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears engaged in a process of cannibalizing its own youth. It gets worse. The visibility of extreme violence in films such as John Wick (2014) and The Equalizer (2014) offer one of the few spaces amid the vacuity of a consumer culture where Americans can feel anything anymore.
Needless to say, extreme violence is more than a spectacle for upping the pleasure quotient of those disengaged from politics; it is also part of a punishing machine that spends more on putting poor minorities in jail than educating them. As American society becomes more militarized and “civil society organizes itself for the production of violence,” the capillaries of militarization feed on and shape social institutions extending from the schools to local police forces. The police, in particular, have been turned into soldiers who view the neighbourhoods in which they operate as war zones. Outfitted with full riot gear, submachine guns, armoured vehicles, and other lethal weapons imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Iran, their mission is to assume battle-ready behaviour. Is it any wonder that violence rather than painstaking neighbourhood police work and community outreach and engagement becomes the norm for dealing with alleged ‘criminals’, especially at a time when more and more behaviours are being criminalised? Is it any wonder that the impact of the rapid militarization of local police forces on poor black communities is nothing short of terrifying and symptomatic of the violence that takes place in advanced genocidal states? For instance, according to a recent report produced by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement entitled Operation Ghetto Storm, “police officers, security guards, or self-appointed vigilantes extra judicially killed at least 313 African-Americans in 2012…This means a black person was killed by a security officer every 28 hours.” The report suggests that ‘the real number could be much higher’. Michelle Alexander adds to the racist nature of the punishing state by pointing out that “There are more African American adults under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Meanwhile the real violence used by the state against poor minorities of color, women, immigrants, and low income adults barely gets mentioned, except when it is so spectacularly visible and cruel that it cannot be ignored as in the case of Eric Garner who was choked him to death by a New York City policeman after he was confronted for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.
The authoritarian state empties politics of all vestiges of democracy given that the decisions that shape all aspects of the commanding institutions of society are now made largely in private, behind closed doors by the anonymous financial elite, corporate CEOs, rich bankers, the unassailable leaders of the military-industrial complex, and other kingpins of the neoliberal state. At the same time, valuable resources and wealth are extracted from the commons in order to maximize the profits of the rich while the public is treated to a range of distractions and diversions that extend from “military shock and awe overseas” to the banalities of a commodified culture industry and celebrity obsessed culture that short-circuits thought and infantilizes everything it touches. In the end, as Chomsky points out this amounts to an attempt by a massive public relations industry and various mainstream cultural apparatuses “to undermine democracy by trying to get uninformed people to make irrational choices.”
Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a poisonous public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war, and exploitation. Even as markets unravel and neoliberalism causes increased misery, “the broader political and social consensus remains in place” suggesting that the economic crisis is not matched by a similar crisis in consciousness, ideas, language, and values. Underlying the rise of the authoritarian state and the forces that hide in the shadows is a hidden politics indebted to promoting crippling forms of historical and social amnesia. The new authoritarianism is strongly indebted to what Orwell once called a “protective stupidity” that corrupts political life and divest language of its critical content.
Yet, even as the claims and promises of a neoliberal utopia have been transformed into a Dickensian nightmare as the United States, and increasingly Canada, succumb to the pathologies of political corruption, the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the 1 percent, the rise of the surveillance state, and the use of the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with social problems, Orwell’s dark fantasy of a fascist future continues without massive opposition. Domestic terrorism now functions to punish young people whenever they exercise the right of dissent, protesting peacefully, or just being targeted because they are minorities of class and color and considered a threat and in some cases disposable, as was recently evident in the killing by a white policemen of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The emergence of the warrior cop and the surveillance state go hand in hand and are indicative not only of state-sanctioned racism but also of the rise of the authoritarian state and the dismantling of civil liberties. Brutality mixed with attacks on freedom of dissent and peaceful protest prompts memories of past savage regimes such as the dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. The events in Ferguson speak to a history of violence in United States that Americans have chosen to forget at their own risk. Historical amnesia takes a toll. For instance, amid the growing intensity of state terrorism, violence becomes the DNA of a society that not only has a history of forgetting, but also refuses to deal with larger structural issues such as massive inequality in wealth and power, a government that now unapologetically serves the rich and powerful corporate interests, the growing militarization of everyday life, while elevating the power of money to an organising principle of governance. What all of this suggests is a dismantling of what Hannah Arendt called “the prime importance of the political.”
Underlying the carnage caused by neoliberal capitalism is a free market ideology in which individuals are cut off from the common good along with any sense of compassion for the other. Economic Darwinism individualizes the social by shredding social bonds that are not commodified and in doing so depoliticizes, atomizes, and infantilizes the broader public. All problems are now defined as a problem of faulty character and a lack of individual resilience and responsibility. At the same time, freedom is reduced to consumerism and a modern day version of narcissism becomes the only guiding principle for living one’s life. Only under such circumstances can a book titled Selfish written by the vacuous Kim Kardashian and filled with 2000 selfies be published and celebrated in the mainstream media, mirroring a deeply disturbing principle of the larger society. What is crucial to recognize is that the central issues of power and politics can lead to cynicism and despair if casino capitalism is not addressed as a system of social relations that diminishes—through its cultural politics, modes of commodification, and market pedagogies—the capacities and possibilities of individuals and groups to move beyond the vicissitudes of necessity and survival in order to fully participate in exercising some control over the myriad forces that shape their daily lives.
What exists in the United States today and increasingly in Canada is fundamentally a new mode of politics, one wedded to a notion of power removed from accountability of any kind, and this poses a dangerous and calamitous threat to democracy itself, because such power is difficult to understand, analyze, and counter. The collapse of the public into the private, the depoliticization of the citizenry in the face of an egregious celebrity culture, and the disabling of education as a critical public sphere makes it easier for neoliberal capital with its hatred of democracy and celebration of the market to render its ideologies, values, and practices as a matter of common sense, removed from critical inquiry and dissent.
With privatization comes a kind of collective amnesia about the potential democratic role of government, the importance of the social contract, and the importance of public values. For instance, war, intelligence operations, prisons, schools, transportation systems, and a range of other operations once considered public have been outsourced or simply handed over to private contractors who are removed from any sense of civic and political accountability. The social contract and the institutions that give it meaning have been transformed into entitlements administered and colonized by largely the corporate interests and the financial elite. Policy is no longer being written by politicians accountable to the American public. Instead, policies concerning the defense budget, deregulation, health care, public transportation, job training programs, and a host of other crucial areas are now largely written by lobbyists who represent mega corporations. How else to explain the weak deregulation policies following the economic crisis of 2007 or the lack of a public option in Obama’s health care policies? Or, for that matter, the more serious retreat from any viable notion of the political imagination that “requires long-term organizing—e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security.” The liberal center has moved to the right on these issues while the left has become largely absent and ineffective. Yet the fight for developing a radical democracy must continue on a domestic and global scale.
Well, this is a case in which reality exceed imagination. I bet that Rod Serling, the creator of the famous series “The Twilight Zone” couldn’t imagine such a scenario. And neither George Orwell could probably ever imagine, that one day, people would have the devices which describe in his famous book “1984” inside their houses, but they would press the button on their own will, due to their brain addiction, without actually anyone to enforce them to do it. That through the propaganda and the psychological terror, people would elect governments-servants of the systemic establishment through false democratic processes, leading themselves to deeper poverty and enslavement. That people would even reproduce the propaganda, although they would stop believe to the mouthpieces speaking through the devices.
Generations of pragmatists grow with cliches like "this is the best society we can have", or, "humans are what they are and will never change". Thus, ethic, in many cases, ends to be a kind of luxury and replaced by a crude economic pragmatism and an extreme cynicism. [...] The concept of Liberty itself tends to disappear permanently inside increasingly militarized societies of private armies.