The Struggle Against Dystopia
by Henry A. Giroux
The shadow of Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society with its all-embracing reach of surveillance and repression now works its way through American politics like a lethal virus. Orwell’s dystopian apparition of a totalitarian society with its all-embracing reach of surveillance and repression has come to fruition, reshaping the American body politic in the guise of a poorly orchestrated Reality TV show. As Orwell rightly predicted, one of the more significant characteristics of an authoritarian society is its willingness to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing dissent. But Orwell was only partly right. Today, rather than just agressively instill a sense of fear, dread and isolation, contemporary totalitarian commitment also wins over large number of individuals through appeals to our most debased instincts projected on to hapless others. Our lurid fascination with others’ humiliation and pain is often disguised even to ourselves as entertainment and humor, if perhaps admittedly a little perverse. Under the new authoritarianism fear mixes with the endless production of neoliberal commonsense and a deadening coma-inducing form of celebrity culture. Huxley’s Soma now joins hands with Orwell’s surveillance state.
State terrorism works best when it masks the effects of its power while aggressively producing neoliberal commonsense through diverse cultural apparatuses in order to normalize the values and conditions that legitimate its reign of terror. For instance, Umberto Eco argues that one element of authoritarianism is the rise of an Orwellian version of newspeak, or what he labels as the language of “eternal fascism,” whose purpose is to produce “an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax [whose consequence is] to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” Dwight Macdonald, writing in the aftermath of World War II and the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, argues that as more and more people are excluded from the experience of political agency and exhibit “less and less control over the policies” of their governments, ethics is reduced to the status of mere platitudes and politics becomes banal. What has become clear to many Americans is that the electoral system is bankrupt. As the political process becomes more privatized, outsourced, and overrun with money from corporations and billionaires, a wounded republic is on its death bed, gasping for life. In addition, as the state becomes more tightly controlled, organized, and rationalized by the financial elite, politics and morality are deprived of any substance and relevance, thus making it difficult for people to either care about the obligations of critical citizenship or to participate in the broader landscape of politics and power. Far easier to wax ironic or cynical.
For Orwell, the state was organized through traditional forms of authoritarian political power. What Orwell could not have imagined was the reconfiguration of the state under a form of corporate sovereignty in which corporations, the financial elite, and the ultra-rich completely controlled the state and its modes of governance. Hyper-capitalism was no longer merely protected by the state, it has become the state. As is well known, the fossil fuel companies, megabanks, and defense industries such as Boeing, General dynamics Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin now control the major seats of political power and the commanding institutions necessary to insure that the deeply anti-democratic state rule in the interests of the few while exploiting and repressing the many. This was recently made clear by a Princeton University scientific study that analyzed policies passed by the U.S. government from 1981 to 2002 and discovered that vast majority of such policies had nothing to do with the needs and voiced interests of the American people. As the authors pointed out, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Put bluntly, the study made clear that the opinions of the public per se simply do not count. The study concluded that rather than being a democracy the United States had become an oligarchy where power is effectively wielded by “the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military.”
As a result of this mode of governance, individual and social agency are in crisis and are disappearing in a society in which 99 percent of the public, especially young people and minorities of class and color are considered disposable. At a time when politics is nation-based and power is global, the rulers of the Orwellian state no longer care about the social contract and make no compromises in their ruthless pursuits of power and profits. The social contract, especially in the United States, is on life support as social provisions are cut, pensions are decimated, and the certainty of a once secure job disappears. The new free-floating global elite are unrestrained by the old rules of politics and not only refuse to make any political concessions, they also no longer believe in long-term social investments and are more than willing to condemn those populations now considered disposable to a savage form of casino capitalism.
Isolation, privatization, and the cold logic of a mad version of neoliberal rationality have created new social formations and a social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy, and long term commitments. In the manner of Huxley’s cautionary forewarning, people now participate willingly in their own oppression. Neoliberalism has created a society of ruling brutes for whom pain and suffering are now viewed as entertainment, warfare a permanent state of existence, and militarism as the most powerful force shaping masculinity. Politics has taken an exit from ethics and thus the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. This is the ideological script of political zombies who, as Alain Badiou points out, now control a lifeless version of democracy. Atomization, emotional self-management, and the ideology of self-interests are the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. Terror now takes the form of the atomization of individual agency and the politics of a moral coma. Poverty, joblessness, low wage work, and the threat of state sanctioned violence produce among many Americans the ongoing fear of a life of perpetual misery and an ongoing struggle simply to survive. Collective paralysis now governs American society, reinforced by a fixed hedonism. Risk taking is individualized through a shameless appeal to resilience. Insecurity coupled with a climate of fear and surveillance dampens dissent and promotes a kind of ethical tranquilization fed daily by the mobilization of endless moral panics, whether they reference immigrants allegedly storming American borders or foreign terrorists blowing up shopping centers. Such conditions more often than not produce withdrawal, insecurity, paranoia, and cynicism rather than rebellion among the American populace.
Americans now live under a form of casino capitalism that revels in deception, kills the radical imagination, depoliticizes the public, and promulgates what might be called an all-embracing punishing state. Idealism and hope for a better future has been replaced by a repressive disciplining machine and a surveillance state that turns every space into a war zone, criminalizes social problems, and legitimates state violence as the most important practice for addressing important social issues. The carceral state and the surveillance state now work together to trump security over freedom and justice while solidifying the rule of the financial elite and the reigning financial services such as banks, investment houses, and hedge funds, all of which profit from the expanding reach of the punishing state. Americans now live in what Robert Jay Lifton once described as a “death-saturated age” as political authority and power have been transformed into a savage form of corporate governance and rule. The United States has moved from a market economy to a market society in which all vestiges of the public good and social contract are viewed with disdain and aggressively eliminated.
The basic elements of casino capitalism and its death wish for democracy are now well known: government should only exists to protect the ruling elite; self-interest is the only organizing principle of agency, risk is privatize; consumption is the only obligation of citizenship; sovereignty is market-driven; deregulation, privatization, and commodification are legitimate elements of the corporate state; market ideology is the template for governing all of social life, exchange values are the only values that matter, and the yardstick of profit is the only viable measure of the good life and advanced society. With the return of the new Gilded Age, not only are democratic values and social protections at risk, but the civic and formative cultures that make such values and protections central to democratic life are being eviscerated. At the heart of neoliberalism in its diverse forms is the common thread of breeding corporate and political monsters, widespread violence, the decimation of political life, and the withdrawal into private.
We are witnessing the emergence of new forms of repression that echo the warnings of Aldous Huxley and reach deeply into the individual and collective psyches of the populace. Extending Huxley’s analysis, I want to argue that under regimes of neoliberalism, material violence is matched by symbolic violence through the proliferation of what I call disimagination machines. Borrowing from Georges Didi-Huberman’s use of the term, “disimagination machine,” I extend its meaning to refer to images, along with institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics, and collective resistance. The “disimagination machine” is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to an idiotic celebrity culture and advertising apparatus that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue. Put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.
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.