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Challenging Casino Capitalism and Authoritarian Politics in the Age of Disposability

Posted on Jun 27, 2013
Monthly Review Press

By Henry A. Giroux, Monthly Review Press

This excerpt from Henry A. Giroux’s new book, “America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth” (2013, Monthly Review Press), first appeared at Truthout.


There is by now an overwhelming catalogue of evidence revealing the depth and breadth of the corporate- and state-sponsored assaults being waged against democracy in the United States. Indeed, it appears that the nation has entered a new and more ruthless historical era, marked by a growing disinvestment in the social state, public institutions, and civic morality. The attack on the social state is of particular importance because it represents an attempt to shift social protections to the responsibility of individuals while at the same time privatizing investments in the public good and undermining the bonds of communal solidarity. The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman makes this clear in his definition and defense of the social state:

A state is “social” when it promotes the principle of the communally endorsed, collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences. . . . And it is the same principle which lifts members of society to the status of citizens—that is, makes them stakeholders in addition to being stockholders, beneficiaries but also actors responsible for the benefits’ creation and availability, individuals with acute interest in the common good understood as the shared institutions that can be trusted to assure solidity and reliability of the state-issued “collective insurance policy.” The application of that principle may, and often does, protect men and women from the plague of poverty—most importantly, however, it stands a chance of becoming a profuse source of solidarity able to recycle “society” into a common, communal good, thanks to the defense it provides against the horror of misery, that is, of the terror of being excluded, of falling or being pushed over the board of a fast-accelerating vehicle of progress, of being condemned to “social redundancy” and otherwise designed to “human waste.”

Matters of politics, power, ideology, governance, economics, and policy now translate unapologetically into a systemic disinvestment in those public spheres that traditionally provided the minimal conditions for social justice, dissent, and democratic expression. The reign of the commodity, with its growing economy of individualism, privatization, and deregulation, offers a market solution for all of society’s problems. Yet, given that the apostles of neoliberalism work tirelessly to destroy with naked power the numerous essential institutions of social justice and social protections that exemplify the social state, it is clear that solving society’s problems is not their goal. Neoliberalism aims to enhance the wealth and power of those already rich. No longer responsive to the social contract and the preservation of labor, neoliberalism “shifts into a mode of elimination that targets most of us—along with our environment—as waste products awaiting managed disposal.” Unfortunately, neoliberalism, or what might better be called “casino capitalism,” has become the new normal.

Unabashed in its claim to financial power, self-regulation, and a survival of the fittest value system, neoliberalism not only undercuts the formative culture necessary for producing critical citizens and the public spheres that nourish them, it also facilitates the conditions for producing a bloated defense budget, the prison-industrial complex, environmental degradation, and the emergence of “finance as a criminalized, rogue industry.” It is clear that an emergent authoritarianism haunts a defanged democracy now shaped and structured largely by corporations. Money dominates politics; the gap between the rich and poor is ballooning; urban spaces are becoming armed camps; militarism is creeping into every facet of public life; and civil liberties are in shreds. Neoliberalism’s ideology of competition now dominates policies that define public spheres such as schools, allowing them to be stripped of a civic and democratic project and handed over to the logic of the market. Regrettably, it is not democracy, but authoritarianism, that remains on the rise in the United States as we move further into the twenty-first century.

The Politics of Fraud

The 2012 U.S. presidential election took place at a pivotal moment in this transformation away from democracy, a moment in which formative cultural and political realms and forces, including the rhetoric used by election candidates, appeared saturated with celebrations of war and social Darwinism. Accordingly, the possibility of an even more authoritarian and ethically dysfunctional leadership in the White House in 2013 caught the attention of a number of liberals and other progressives in the United States. American politics in general, and the 2012 election in particular, presented a challenge to progressives, whose voices in recent years have been increasingly excluded from both the mainstream media and the corridors of political power. Instead, the media played up the apocalyptic view of the Republican Party’s fundamentalist warriors, who seemed fixated on translating issues previously seen as non-religious—such as sexual orientation, education, identity, and participation in public life—into the language of a religious revival and militant crusade against evil.

How else to explain Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s claim that the struggle for the future is a “fight of individualism versus collectivism,” with its nod to McCarthyism and the cold war rhetoric of the 1950s? Or former senator Rick Santorum’s assertion that “President Obama is getting America hooked on ‘the narcotic of government dependency,’” promoting the view that government has no responsibility to provide safety nets for the poor, disabled, sick, and elderly.

There is more at work here than simply a ramped-up version of social Darwinism, with its savagely cruel ethic of “reward the rich, penalize the poor, [and] let everyone fend for themselves.” There is also a full-scale attack on the social contract, the welfare state, economic equality, and any viable vestige of moral and social responsibility. As Robert O’Self argues, the social contract is crucial to what it means for Americans to lead a decent life. At the same time, he wonders if there is a place for women in the Republican Party’s view of the contract. Of course, he could easily have added youth, people of color, immigrants, the elderly, and the unemployed. He writes:

The social contract is supposed to bind us together. It’s everything from Medicare to the Americans with Disabilities Act to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act. It is the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life. The social contract says that though our individual fates differ, we have a collective destiny, too. Many of us respond viscerally to comments from politicians like Mr. Akin because he leaves us wondering what place for women Republicans see in that collective future.

The Romney-Ryan appropriation of Ayn Rand’s ode to selfishness and self-interest is of particular importance because it offers not only a glimpse of a ruthless form of extreme capitalism in which the social contract is shredded, but also provides a testimony to a logic of cruelty and disposability in which the poor are considered “moochers,” viewed with contempt, and singled out to be punished. But this theocratic economic fundamentalist ideology does more. It destroys any viable notion of civic virtue in which the social contract and common good provide the basis for creating meaningful social bonds and instilling in citizens a sense of social and civic responsibility. The idea of public service is viewed with disdain just as the work of individuals, social groups, and institutions that benefit the citizenry at large are held in contempt.

As George Lakoff and Glenn W. Smith point out, casino capitalism creates a culture of cruelty, with “its horrific effects on individuals— death, illness, suffering, greater poverty, and loss of opportunity, productive lives, and money.” But it does more by crushing any viable notion of the common good and public life by destroying “the bonds that hold us together.” Under casino capitalism, the spaces, institutions, and values that constitute the public are now surrendered to powerful financial forces and viewed simply as another market to be commodified, privatized, and surrendered to the demands of capital. With market-driven zealots in charge of both parties, politics becomes an extension of war, and greed and self-interest trump any concern for the well-being of others. For the extremists who now control the Republican Party, in particular, reason is trumped by emotions rooted in absolutist certainty and militaristic aggression, and skepticism and dissent are viewed as the work of Satan.

At the same time, both Republicans and Democrats embrace the logic of casino capitalism in which Wall Street creates an economy focused on speculative, short-term investments “designed to make a killing rather than expanding the productive base of the economy.” Casino capitalism is the true religion of America and provides a common ground for both major parties, in spite of their differences on the role of government and the welfare state. Casino capitalism does not make tangible products needed to address basic human needs or foster broad-based prosperity as much as it “creates an infinite amount of paper assets that can be traded between individuals.” It is an economy that has become a playground for gamblers and bettors in which the dice are loaded in favor of the ultra-rich, bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial elite who operate on the assumption that “society’s resources are best allocated by profit-seeking individuals betting on short-term price movements in intangible or paper assets.” Casino capitalism thrives on a deregulated and ascendant financial sector that offers easy credit (particularly evident before the 2007 economic recession), cheap mortgages, and the seductive lure of a promising lifestyle built on ever burdening debt.

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