May 22, 2013
Zombie Politics: Dangerous Authoritarianism or Shrinking Democracy - Part II
Posted on May 4, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This is the second of a two-part series taken from Henry Giroux’s “Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism” (Peter Lang Publishing 2010), which first appeared online at Truthout. Read the first part here.
Needless to say, many would disagree with Wolin’s view that the United States is in the grip of a new and dangerous authoritarianism that makes a mockery of the country’s moral claim to being a model of democracy at home and for the rest of the world. For instance, liberal critic Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, refers to America’s changing political landscape as a “shrinking democracy.” For Reich, democracy necessitates three things: “(1) Important decisions are made in the open. (2) The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants. And (3) those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.” If we apply Reich’s notion of democracy, then it becomes evident that the use of the term democracy is neither theoretically apt nor politically feasible at the current historical moment as a description of the United States. All of the conditions he claims are crucial for a democracy are now undermined by financial and economic interests that control elections, buy off political representatives, and eliminate those public spheres where real dialogue and debate can take place. It is difficult to imagine that anyone looking at a society in which an ultra-rich financial elite and megacorporations have the power to control almost every aspect of politics—from who gets elected to how laws are enacted—could possibly mistake this social order and system of government for a democracy. A more appropriate understanding of democracy comes from Wolin in his claim that:
Wolin ties democracy not merely to participation and accountability but to the importance of the formative culture necessary for critical citizens and the need for a redistribution of power and wealth, that is, a democracy in which power is exercised not just for the people by elites but by the people in their own collective interests. But more importantly, Wolin and others recognize that the rituals of voting and accountability have become empty in a country that has been reduced to a lock-down universe in which torture, abuse, and the suspension of civil liberties have become so normalized that more than half of all Americans now support the use of torture under some circumstances. Torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, murder, and disappeared “enemy combatants” are typical practices carried out in dictatorships, not in democracies, especially in a democracy that allegedly has a liberal president whose election campaign ran on the promise of change and hope. Maybe it’s time to use a different language to name and resist the registers of power and ideology that now dominate American society.
While precise accounts of the meaning of authoritarianism, especially fascism, abound, I have no desire, given its shifting nature, to impose a rigid or universal definition. What is to be noted is that many scholars, such as Kevin Passmore and Robert O. Paxton, agree that authoritarianism is a mass movement that emerges out of a failed democracy, and its ideology is extremely anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and anti-socialistic. As a social order, it is generally characterized by a system of terror directed against perceived enemies of the state; a monopolistic control of the mass media; an expanding prison system; a state monopoly of weapons; political rule by privileged groups and classes; control of the economy by a limited number of people; unbridled corporatism; “the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; [and] an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness.” All of these tendencies were highly visible during the former Bush administration. With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there was a widespread feeling among large sections of the American public and its intellectuals that the threat of authoritarianism had passed. And yet there are many troubling signs that in spite of the election of Obama, authoritarian policies not only continue to unfold unabated within his administration but continue outside of his power to control them. In this case, antidemocratic forces seem to align with many of the conditions that make up what Wolin calls the politics of inverted totalitarianism.
I think it is fair to say that authoritarianism can permeate the lived relations of a political culture and social order and can be seen in the ways in which such relations exacerbate the material conditions of inequality, undercut a sense of individual and social agency, hijack democratic values, and promote a deep sense of hopelessness, cynicism, and eventually unbridled anger. This deep sense of cynicism and despair on the part of the polity in the face of unaccountable corporate and political power lends credence to Hannah Arendt’s notion that at the heart of totalitarianism is the disappearance of the thinking, dialogue, and speaking citizens who make politics possible. Authoritarianism as both an ideology and a set of social practices emerges within the lives of those marked by such relations, as its proponents scorn the present while calling for a revolution that rescues a deeply anti-modernist past in order to revolutionize the future.
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