May 25, 2013
Youth in Revolt
Posted on Feb 2, 2013
All of these issues are important, but what must be addressed in the most immediate sense is the danger the emerging police state in the United States poses not just to the young protesters occupying a number of American cities but to democracy itself. This threat is particularly evident in the results of a merging of neoliberal modes of discipline and education with a warlike mentality in which it becomes nearly impossible to reclaim the language of obligation, compassion, community, social responsibility, and civic engagement. And unless the actions of young protesters, however diverse they may be, are understood alongside a robust notion of the social, civic courage, communal bonds, and the imperatives of a vital democracy, it will be difficult for the American public to challenge state violence and the framing of protest, dissent, and civic engagement as un-American or, worse, as a species of criminal behavior.
Although considerable coverage has been given in the progressive media to the violence being waged against the Occupy protesters, these analyses rarely go far enough. I want to build on these critiques by arguing that it is important to situate the growing police violence within a broader set of categories that both enables a critical understanding of the underlying social, economic, and political forces at work in such assaults and allows us to reflect critically on the distinctiveness of the current historical period in which they are taking place. For example, it is difficult to address such state-sponsored violence against young people and the Occupy movement without analyzing the devolution of the social state and the corresponding rise of the warfare and punishing state.’ The notion of historical conjuncture is important here because it both provides an opening into the diverse forces shaping a particular moment and allows for a productive balance of theory and strategy to inform future interventions. That is. it helps us to address theoretically how youth protests are largely related to and might resist a historically specific neoliberal project that promotes vast inequalities in income and wealth, creates the student-loan debt bomb, eliminates much-needed social programs, privileges profits and commodities over people, and eviscerates the social wage.
Within the United States, the often violent response to nonviolent forms of youth protest must also be analyzed within the framework of a mammoth military-industrial state and its commitment to war and the militarization of the entire society. The merging of the military-industrial complex and unchecked finance capital points to the need for strategies that address what is specific about the current warfare state and the neoliberal project that legitimates it. That is, what are the diverse practices, interests, modes of power, social relations, public pedagogies, and economic configurations that shape the politics of the punishing state? Focusing on the specifics of the current historical conjuncture is invaluable politically in that such an approach makes visible the ideologies, policies, and modes of governance produced by the neoliberal warfare state. When neoliberal mechanisms of power and ideology are made visible, it becomes easier for the American public to challenge the common assumptions that legitimate these apparatuses of power. This type of interrogative strategy also reclaims the necessity of critical thought, civic engagement, and democratic politics by invoking the pedagogical imperative that humans not only make history but can alter its course and future direction.
For many young people today, human agency is denned as a mode of self-reflection and critical social engagement rather than a surrender to a paralyzing and unchallengeable fate. Likewise, democratic expression has become fundamental to their existence. Many young people are embracing democracy not merely as a mode of governance, but more importantly, as Bill Moyers points out, as a means of dignifying people “so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.” Human agency has become a vital force to struggle over as part of an ongoing project in which the future remains an open horizon that cannot be dismissed through appeals to the end of history or end of ideology. But to understand how politics refuses any guarantees and resistance becomes possible, we must first understand the present. Following Stuart Hall. I want to argue that the current historical moment, or what he calls the “long march of the Neoliberal Revolution,” has to be understood not only through the emergent power of finance capital and its institutions but also in terms of the growing forms of authoritarian violence that it deploys and reinforces. I want to address these antidemocratic pressures and their relationship to the rising protests of young people in the United States and abroad through the lens of two interrelated crises: the crisis of governing through violence and the crisis of what Alex Honneth has called “a failed sociality”—which currently conjoin as a driving force to dismantle any viable notion of public pedagogy and civic education. If we are not to fall prey to a third crisis—“the crisis of negation”—then it is imperative that we recognize the hope symbolized and embodied by young people across America and their attempt to remake society in order to ensure a better, more democratic future for us all.
The Crisis of Governing through Violence
The United States is addicted to violence, and this dependency is fueled increasingly by its willingness to wage war at home and abroad. As Andrew Bacevich rightly argues, “war has become a normal condition [matched by] Washington’s seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft.” But war in this instance is not merely the outgrowth of policies designed ‘to protect the security- and well-being of the United States. It is also, as C. Wright Mills pointed out. part of a “military metaphysics”—a complex of forces that includes corporations, defense industries, politicians, financial institutions, and universities. The culture of war provides jobs, profits, political payoffs, research funds, and forms of political and economic power that reach into every aspect of society. War is also one of the nation’s most honored virtues. Its militaristic values now bear down on almost every aspect of American life. Similarly, as the governing-through-violence complex becomes normalized in the broader society, it continually works in a variety of ways to erode any distinction between war and peace.
Increasingly stoked by a moral arnd political hysteria, warlike values produce and endorse shared fears and organized violence as the primary registers of social relations. The conceptual merging of war and violence is evident in the ways in which the language of militarization is now used by politicians to address a range of policies as if they are operating on a battlefield or in a war zone. War becomes the adjective of choice as policymakers talk about waging war on drugs, poverty, and the underclass. There is more at work here than the prevalence of armed knowledge and a militarized discourse; there is also the emergence of a militarized society in which “the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks.” And this choice of vocabulary and slow narrowing of democratic vision further enable the use of violence as an instrument of domestic policy.
How else to explain that the United States has become the punishing state par excellence, as indicated by the hideous fact that while it contains “5 percent of the Earth’s population, it is home to nearly a quarter of its prisoners”? Senator Lindsay Graham made this very clear in his rhetorical justification of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act by stating “that under this Act the U.S. homeland is considered a ‘battlefield.’” The ominous implications behind this statement, especially for Occupy movement protesters, became obvious in light of the fact that the act gives the US government the right to detain “U.S. citizens indefinitely without charge or trial if deemed necessary by the president…. Detentions can follow mere membership, past or present, in ‘suspect organizations.’”
Since 9/11, the war on terror and the campaign for homeland security have increasingly mimicked the tactics of the enemies they sought to crush and as such have become a war on democracy. A new military urbanism has taken root the United States as state surveillance projects proliferate, signaling what Stephen Graham calls “the startling militarization of civil society—the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification, and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life.” This is partly evident in the ongoing militarization of police departments throughout the United States. Baton-wielding cops are now being supplied with the latest military equipment imported straight from the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan. Military technologies once used exclusively on the battlefield are now being supplied to police units across the nation: drones, machine-gun-equipped armored trucks, SWAT-type vehicles, “digital communications equipment, and Kevlar helmets, like those used by soldiers used in foreign wars.” The domestic war against “terrorists” (code for young protesters) provides new opportunities for major defense contractors and corporations to become “more a part of our domestic lives.” As Glenn Greenwald points out, the United States since 9/11
These domestic paramilitary forces also undermine free speech and dissent through the sheer threat of violence while often wielding power that runs roughshod over civil liberties, human rights, and civic responsibilities. Given that “by age 23, almost a third of Americans are arrested for a crime,” it is not unreasonable to assume that in the new militarized state the perception of young people as predators, threats to corporate governance, and disposable objects will intensify, as will the growth of a punishing state that acts out against young protesters in increasingly unrestrained and savage ways. Young people, particularly poor minorities of color, have already become the targets of what David Theo Goldberg calls “extraordinary power in the name of securitization ... [viewed as] unruly populations ... [who] are to be subjected to necropolitical discipline through the threat of imprisonment or death, physical or social.”
Shared fears and the media hysteria that promotes them produce more than a culture of suspects and unbridled intimidation. Fear on a broad public scale serves the interests of policymakers who support a growing militarization of the police along with the corporations that supply high-tech scanners, surveillance cameras, riot extinguishers, and toxic chemicals—all of which are increasingly used with impunity on anyone who engages in peaceful protests against the warfare and corporate state. Images abound in the mainstream media of such abuses. There is the now famous image of an eighty-four-year-old woman looking straight into a camera, her face drenched in a liquid spray used by the police after attending a protest rally. There is the image of a woman who is two months pregnant being carried to safety after being pepper-sprayed by the police. By now, the images of young people being dragged by their hair across a street to a waiting police van have become all too familiar. Some protesters have been seriously hurt, as in the case of Scott Olsen. an Iraq War veteran who was critically injured in a protest in Oakland in October 2011. Too much of this violence is reminiscent of the violence used against civil rights demonstrators by the enforcers of Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.
No longer restricted to a particular military ideology, the celebration and permeation of warlike values throughout the culture have hastened the militarization of the entire society. As Michael Geyer points out, militarization can be defined as “the contradictory and tense social process in which civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.” As the late Tony Judt put it, “The United States is becoming not just a militarized state but a military society: a country where armed power is the measure of national greatness, and war, or planning for war, is the exemplary (and only) common project.” But the prevailing intensification of American society’s permanent war status does more than embrace a set of unifying symbols that promote a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, conformity over dissent, the strong over the weak, and fear over responsibility. Such a move also gives rise to a “failed sociality” in which violence becomes the most important tool of power and the mediating force in shaping social relationships.
A state that embraces a policy of permanent war needs willing subjects to abide by its values, ideology, and narratives of fear and violence. Such legitimation is largely provided through people’s immersion in a market-driven society that appears increasingly addicted to consumerism, militarism, and the spectacles of violence endlessly circulated through popular culture. Examples of the violent fare on offer extend from the realm of high fashion and Hollywood movies to extreme sports, video games, and music concerts sponsored by the Pentagon. The market-driven celebration of a militaristic mind-set demands a culture of conformity, quiet intellectuals, and a largely passive republic of consumers. It also needs subjects who find intense pleasure in spectacles of violence.
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