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Zombie Politics, Democracy, and the Threat of Authoritarianism - Part I

Posted on Apr 30, 2012
Peter Lang Publishing

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

A Turn to the Dark Side of Politics

The American media, large segments of the public, and many educators widely believe that authoritarianism is alien to the political landscape of American society. Authoritarianism is generally associated with tyranny and governments that exercise power in violation of the rule of law. A commonly held perception of the American public is that authoritarianism is always elsewhere. It can be found in other allegedly “less developed/civilized countries,” such as contemporary China or Iran, or it belongs to a fixed moment in modern history, often associated with the rise of twentieth-century totalitarianism in its different forms in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union under Stalin. Even as the United States became more disposed to modes of tyrannical power under the second Bush administration—demonstrated, for example, by the existence of secret CIA prisons, warrantless spying on Americans, and state-sanctioned kidnaping—mainstream liberals, intellectuals, journalists, and media pundits argued that any suggestion that the United States was becoming an authoritarian society was simply preposterous. For instance, the journalist James Traub repeated the dominant view that whatever problems the United States faced under the Bush administration had nothing to do with a growing authoritarianism or its more extreme form, totalitarianism. [9] On the contrary, according to this position, America was simply beholden to a temporary seizure of power by some extremists, who represented a form of political exceptionalism and an annoying growth on the body politic. In other words, as repugnant as many of Bush’s domestic and foreign policies might have been, they neither threatened nor compromised in any substantial way America’s claim to being a democratic society.

Against the notion that the Bush administration had pushed the United States close to the brink of authoritarianism, some pundits have argued that this dark moment in America’s history, while uncharacteristic of a substantive democracy, had to be understood as temporary perversion of American law and democratic ideals that would end when George W. Bush concluded his second term in the White House. In this view, the regime of George W. Bush and its demonstrated contempt for democracy was explained away as the outgrowth of a random act of politics— a corrupt election and the bad-faith act of a conservative court in 2000 or a poorly run election campaign in 2004 by an uncinematic and boring Democratic candidate. According to this narrative, the Bush-Cheney regime exhibited such extreme modes of governance in its embrace of an imperial presidency, its violation of domestic and international laws, and its disdain for human rights and democratic values that it was hard to view such antidemocratic policies as part of a pervasive shift toward a hidden order of authoritarian politics, which historically has existed at the margins of American society. It would be difficult to label such a government other than as shockingly and uniquely extremist, given a political legacy that included the rise of the security and torture state; the creation of legal illegalities in which civil liberties were trampled; the launching of an unjust war in Iraq legitimated through official lies; the passing of legislative policies that drained the federal surplus by giving away more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts to the rich; the enactment of a shameful policy of preemptive war; the endorsement of an inflated military budget at the expense of much-needed social programs; the selling off of as many government functions as possible to corporate interests; the resurrection of an imperial presidency; an incessant attack against unions; support for a muzzled and increasingly corporate-controlled media; the government production of fake news reports to gain consent for regressive policies; the use of an Orwellian vocabulary for disguising monstrous acts such as torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques”); the furtherance of a racist campaign of legal harassment and incarceration of Arabs, Muslims, and immigrants; the advancement of a prison binge through a repressive policy of criminalization; the establishment of an unregulated and ultimately devastating form of casino capitalism; the arrogant celebration and support for the interests and values of big business at the expense of citizens and the common good; and the dismantling of social services and social safety nets as part of a larger campaign of ushering in the corporate state and the reign of finance capital?

Authoritarianism With a Friendly Face

In the minds of the American public, the dominant media, and the accommodating pundits and intellectuals, there is no sense of how authoritarianism in its soft and hard forms can manifest itself as anything other than horrible images of concentration camps, goose-stepping storm troopers, rigid modes of censorship, and chilling spectacles of extremist government repression and violence. That is, there is little understanding of how new modes of authoritarian ideology, policy, values, and social relations might manifest themselves in degrees and gradations so as to create the conditions for a distinctly undemocratic and increasingly cruel and oppressive social order. As the late Susan Sontag suggested in another context, there is a willful ignorance of how emerging registers of power and governance “dissolve politics into pathology.” [10] It is generally believed that in a constitutional democracy, power is in the hands of the people, and that the long legacy of democratic ideals in America, however imperfect, is enough to prevent democracy from being subverted or lost. And yet the lessons of history provide clear examples of how the emergence of reactionary politics, the increasing power of the military, and the power of big business subverted democracy in Argentina, Chile, Germany, and Italy. In?spite of these histories, there is no room in the public imagination to entertain what has become the unthinkable—that such an order in its contemporary form might be more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character. [11]

Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent, and civil liberties. It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic, which leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not a different form of authoritarianism. In this context, it is worth remembering what Huey Long said in response to the question of whether America could ever become fascist: “Yes, but we will call it anti-fascist.” [12] Long’s reply suggests that fascism is not an ideological apparatus frozen in a particular historical period but a complex and often shifting theoretical and political register for understanding how democracy can be subverted, if not destroyed, from within. This notion of soft or friendly fascism was articulated in 1985 in Bertram Gross’s book Friendly Fascism, in which he argued that if fascism came to the United States it would not embody the same characteristics associated with fascist forms in the historical past. There would be no Nuremberg rallies, doctrines of racial superiority, government-sanctioned book burnings, death camps, genocidal purges, or the abrogation of the U.S. Constitution. In short, fascism would not take the form of an ideological grid from the past simply downloaded onto another country under different historical conditions. Gross believed that fascism was an ongoing danger and had the ability to become relevant under new conditions, taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences, and political relations. [13] Similarly, in his Anatomy of Fascism, Robert O. Paxton argued that the texture of American fascism would not mimic traditional European forms but would be rooted in the language, symbols, and culture of everyday life. He writes: “No swastikas in an American fascism, but Stars and Stripes (or Stars and Bars) and Christian crosses. No fascist salute, but mass recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance. These symbols contain no whiff of fascism in themselves, of course, but an American fascism would transform them into obligatory litmus tests for detecting the internal enemy.” [14] It is worth noting that Umberto Eco, in his discussion of “eternal fascism,” also argued that any updated version of fascism would not openly assume the mantle of historical fascism; rather, new forms of authoritarianism would appropriate some of its elements, making it virtually unrecognizable from its traditional forms. Like Gross and Paxton, Eco contended that fascism, if it comes to America, will have a different guise, although it will be no less destructive of democracy. He wrote:

Ur-Fascism [Eternal Fascism] is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be much easier for us if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Blackshirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. [15]

The renowned political theorist Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Incorporated, updates these views and argues persuasively that the United States has produced its own unique form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism.” [16] Wolin claims that under traditional forms of totalitarianism, there are usually founding texts such as Mein Kampf, rule by a personal demagogue such as Adolf Hitler, political change enacted by a revolutionary movement such as the Bolsheviks, the constitution rewritten or discarded, the political state’s firm control over corporate interests, and an idealized and all-encompassing ideology used to create a unified and totalizing understanding of society. At the same time, the government uses all the power of its cultural and repressive state apparatuses to fashion followers in its own ideological image and collective identity.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, May 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm Link to this comment

The games declined in the 5th Century as Christianity (whose leaders disapproved of the games) became more influential.  They were gradually supplanted by theatrical productions and chariot races.  Or so Wikipedia says.

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By Mondobizarro, May 1, 2012 at 11:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The better metaphor might come from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Folks
everywhere wake up one day and find themselves ready to fight to the death - not
for their own freedom, but for that of an abstract notion, the market.  As if a
market being unconstrained represents some kind of moral imperative.

A zombie is easy to mark - as is a jackbooted, swastika’d, Nazi. But the pod-
people look just like us, and they won’t rest until we think and believe just like

It’s particularly ironic to be writing this today, as the entire country celebrates the
assassination of a sickly old man in his pajamas. If you’re one of those who
considers this a triumph, rather than a missed opportunity to put terrorism itself
on trial, you may be closer to a pod-person than you think.

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By felicity, May 1, 2012 at 10:29 am Link to this comment

Didn’t ‘entertainment’ for the masses in the Roman
coliseum get more and more gruesome, grotesque and
violent during the dying days of the Empire?

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, May 1, 2012 at 9:44 am Link to this comment

balkas:  All indicators show very clearly that there will be no enlightenment.

Infact the trend towards deliberate stupidity and denial has been in place for close to as long as authoritarianism.

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By balkas, May 1, 2012 at 9:15 am Link to this comment

ok, so, really—as noticed by ages and sages, first of all, and
recently by communists—we’ve had for millennia in some
regions near utter or utter diktatorship of select few over
vast numbers of people.
and there appear only two ways to end the ‘elite’
diktatorship: by a revolution or by an enlightenment.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, May 1, 2012 at 9:01 am Link to this comment

Many people seem to like authoritarianism.  Although this taste is spread across the nominal political spectrum, in the past I’ve taken some care to point out its particular appearances among those who call themselves progressives.

It could be, then, that the ruling class is happily giving the people what they want, gratified by the desire of the ruled to accept rulers.  It’s a kind of tragic romance, certain to end in tears.  But nothing seems to cure the love-smitten.

Actual zombies, though, seem to be worn out at the moment.

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By gerard, April 30, 2012 at 10:36 pm Link to this comment

“—...more nuanced, less theatrical, more cunning, less concerned with repressive modes of control than with manipulative modes of consent—what one might call a mode of authoritarianism with a distinctly American character.”
  Personally, though I found this article very interesting and worthwhile, there were some statements I wanted to question.  The above is one.
  As I observe the degree of authoritarianism increasing rapidly, day by day, I find it obvious, theatrical and although modes of control are more cunning in the sense that they are mostly kept as secret as possible, the media are so obvious in “manipulating consent” that one stumbles over the “message” every time one turns on the TV.
  What is stunning is that so many people (with insufficient education) are deceived and resistant to being undeceived. 
  Here’s how I account for that fact:  None of us want to believe that the United States of America has turned against democracy and that government has no respect for us. Those with more education, tend to both resent the facts and to propose that we (or somebody else somewhere) will “fix” things or “come to their senses.”  Those with less education, being already unable to understand compications yet still feeling victimized, are angry, sullen and defensive-aggressive.
  The increases in authoritarianism have happened relatively rapidly, as government fear and ineptitude mount. The country is huge—and seriously divided by class, race and status. We have no way of talking together productively. “The Lonely Crowd”. There is little to no creative guidance anywhere—only reaction, confusion and government-sponsored fear (“surveillance”, joblessness,future uncertainties, and repression right when openness is most needed!).
  The vacuum in leadership is very dangerous, I feel.
We need a true statesman—thoughtful, measured, wise and broadminded. We need broad public cooperation.  Nothing less will fill the gap.

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OzarkMichael's avatar

By OzarkMichael, April 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm Link to this comment

Nothing is so hip and with it as two tired cliches welded together in one book title:

“Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism”

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vector56's avatar

By vector56, April 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm Link to this comment

My thoughts exactly americanme; too many here long for the day for America to become something she never was.

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By william manson, ph.d., April 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Urgently important. The covert (irrational) motives
behind this politics of cruelty and barbarism. 
Complementary insights are to be found in writings of
psychoanalysts Justin Frank (on Bush’s sadism); and
more broadly, Erich Fromm on authoritarianism,
destructiveness and political “necrophilia.”

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americanme's avatar

By americanme, April 30, 2012 at 11:09 am Link to this comment

THREAT of authoritarianism?

How can something be threatening if it’s been the mode of operation for a number of decades?

In fact, as many decades as I can remember—and that’s almost 7.

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