May 25, 2013
Zombie Politics: Dangerous Authoritarianism or Shrinking Democracy - Part II
Posted on May 4, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
If it is true that a new form of authoritarianism is developing in the United States, undercutting any vestige of a democratic society, then it is equally true that there is nothing inevitable about this growing threat. The long and tightening grip of authoritarianism in American political culture can be resisted and transformed. This dystopic future will not happen if intellectuals, workers, young people, diverse social movements unite to create the public spaces and unsettling formative educational cultures necessary for reimagining the meaning of radical democracy. In part, this is a pedagogical project, one that recognizes consciousness, agency, and education as central to any viable notion of politics. It is also a project designed to address, critique, and make visible the commonsense ideologies that enable neoliberal capitalism and other elements of an emergent authoritarianism to function alongside a kind of moral coma and political amnesia at the level of everyday life. But such a project will not take place if the American public cannot recognize how the mechanisms of authoritarianism have had an impact on their lives, restructured negatively the notion of freedom, and corrupted power by placing it largely in the hands of ruling elites, corporations, and different segments of the military and national security state. Such a project must work to develop vigorous social spheres and communities that promote a culture of deliberation, public debate, and critical exchange across a wide variety of cultural and institutional sites in an effort to generate democratic movements for social change. Central to such a project is the attempt to foster a new radical imagination as part of a wider political project to create the conditions for a broad-based social movement that can move beyond the legacy of a fractured left/progressive culture and politics in order to address the totality of the society’s problems. This suggests finding a common ground in which challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion can become part of a broader challenge to create a radical democracy. We need to develop an educated and informed public—one that embraces a culture of questioning and puts into question society’s commanding institutions. Such a citizenry is crucial to the development of a critical formative culture organized around a project of autonomy and mode of politics in which, as Cornelius Castoriadis insists, broader concerns with power and justice are connected to the need “to create citizens who are critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes society’s movement…that is to say, a new type of regime in the full sense of the term.” We live in a time that demands a discourse of both critique and possibility, one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and viable social movements, democracy will slip out of our reach and we will arrive at a new stage of history marked by the birth of an authoritarianism that not only disdains all vestiges of democracy but is more than willing to relegate it to a distant memory.
This book was published just as the Obama administration finished its second year in office. Initially, hopes were high among large segments of the American public.
The long dark years of war, repression, secrecy, and corruption were rejected by popular vote, and a brighter day seemed on the horizon, or so it seemed. Obama spoke a political language that embodied hope, and his earnest embrace of the American dream appeared to represent the possibility of a more just future. Under Bush, the United States had come as close to authoritarianism as was possible without giving up all vestiges of democratic aspirations. The Bush/Cheney regime was the apotheosis of a new kind of politics in American life, one in which the arrogance of power and wealth transformed a limited social state into a mode of sovereignty that not only worked in the interests of rich and powerful corporations but also increasingly viewed more and more individuals and groups as disposable and expendable. As politics came to occupy the center of life itself, the welfare state was transformed into a corporate and punishing state. Problems were no longer viewed as in need of social and political remedies. Instead, they were criminalized, reduced to matters of law and order—when law and order weren’t suspended altogether. The defense of the common good, public values, and social protections moved from the center of political culture to the margins—reduced to an inconvenience, if not a threat to those who occupied the privileged precincts of power. In the midst of a militarized culture of fear, insecurity, and market-driven values, economics drove politics to its death-dealing limit, as crucial considerations of justice, ethics, and compassion were largely expunged from our political vocabulary, except as objects of disdain or a weak-kneed liberal nostalgic yearning. It seemed as if the living dead now ruled every commanding aspect of the culture, extending from the media to popular expression itself.
Tragically, little has changed since Barack Obama took office. The politics of corruption, death, and despair appear to define the Obama administration as much as they did the relentless eight years of the Bush regime. This book is an attempt to develop a new form of political critique forged out of what may seem an extreme metaphor, the zombie or hyper-dead. Yet the metaphor is particularly apt for drawing attention to the ways in which political culture and power in American society now work in the interests of bare survival, if not disposability, for the vast majority of people—a kind of war machine and biopolitics committed to the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which large segments of the population live under a state of siege, reduced to a form of social death. The zombie metaphor does more than suggest the symbolic face of power, it points dramatically to a kind of “mad agency that is power in a new form, death-in-life” agency without conscience and bereft of social democratic imagination or hope. This is what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics in which “death is the mediator of the present—the only form of agency left.” What is new about this type of politics is that it is not hidden, lurking in the shadows but appears daily and unremarkably in memos, reports, and policies justifying illegal legalities such as the use of state secrets, indefinite detention without charge, the massive incarceration of people of color, hidden prisons, a world of night raids, the bailout of corrupt corporations that led to the direct destitution of millions, and the full-fledged attack on a weakened oppositional culture of thoughtfulness and critique, itself all but left for dead. The figure of the zombie utilizes the iconography of the living dead to signal a society that appears to have stopped questioning itself, that revels in its collusion with human suffering, and is awash in a culture of unbridled materialism and narcissism. Though not of his making, this is now Obama’s challenge; and yet the politics of death and suffering continue unabated both in the United States and in America’s imperial adventures abroad.
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