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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 5)

There is more at work here than the usual right-wing promotion of bigotry and ignorance; there is the use of violent rhetoric and imagery that mimics the discourse of terrorism reminiscent of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, dangerous right-wing militia groups, and other American-style fascists. As Chris Hedges insists, “The language of violence always presages violence ”[37] and fuels an authoritarianism that feeds on such excesses and the moral coma that accompanies the inability of a society to both question itself and imagine an alternative democratic order. How else can one read the “homicidal rhetoric” that is growing in America as anything other than an obituary for dialogue, democratic values, and civic courage? What does it mean for a democracy when the general public either supports or is silent in the face of widely publicized events such as black and gay members of Congress being subjected to racist and homophobic taunts, a black congressman being spit on, and the throwing of bricks through the office windows of some legislators who supported the health care bill? What does it mean for a democracy when there is little collective outrage when Sarah Palin, a leading voice in the Republican Party, mimics the tactics of vigilantes by posting a map with crosshairs on the districts of Democrats and urges her supporters on with the shameful slogan “Don’t Retreat. Instead—RELOAD!” Under such circumstances, the brandishing of assault weapons at right-wing political rallies, the posters and signs comparing Obama to Hitler, and the ever-increasing chants to “Take Our Country Back” echoes what Frank Rich calls a “small-scale mimicry of Kristallnacht.” [38] Violence and aggression are now openly tolerated and in some cases promoted. The chants, insults, violence, and mob hysteria all portend a dark period in American history—an historical conjuncture in the death knell for democracy is being written as the media turn such events into spectacles rather than treat them as morally and politically repugnant acts more akin to the legacy of fascism than the ideals of an aspiring democracy. All the while the public yawns or, more troubling, engages fantasies of reloading.

Unfortunately, the problems now facing the United States are legion and further the erosion of a civic and democratic culture. Some of the most glaring issues are massive unemployment; a rotting infrastructure; the erosion of vital public services; the dismantling of the social safety net; expanding levels of poverty, especially for children; and an imprisonment binge largely affecting poor minorities of color. But such a list barely scratches the surface. In addition, we have witnessed in the last thirty years the restructuring of public education as either a source of profit for corporations or an updated version of control modeled after prison culture coupled with an increasing culture of lying, cruelty, and corruption, all of which belie a democratic vision of America that now seems imaginable only as a nostalgic rendering of the founding ideals of democracy.


1. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1968; New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 196.
2. I have taken this term from Stephen Jones,ed., The Dead That Walk (Berkeley,CA: Ulysses Press, 2010).
3. Editorial, “Wall Street Casino,” The New York Times (April 28, 2010), p. A24.
4. Some of the ideas come from Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, eds., Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead (Chicago: Open Court, 2010).
5. Arun Gupta, “Party of No: How Republicans and the Right Have Tried to Thwart All Social Progress,” (May 21, 2010).
6. Jonathan J. Cooper, “We’re All Arizonians Now,” Huffington Post (May 15, 2010).
7. See the excellent commentary on this issue by Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10. See also Justine Sharrock, “The Oath Keepers: The Militant and Armed Side of the Tea Party Movement,” AlterNet (March 6, 2010); and Mark Potok, “Rage on the Right: The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Report 137 (Spring 2010).
8. Paul Krugman, “Going to Extreme,” The New York Times (May 16, 2010), p. A23.
9. James Traub, “The Way We Live Now: Weimar Whiners,” The New York Times Magazine ( June 1, 2003). For a commentary on such intellectuals, see Tony Judt, “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” The London Review of Books 28:18 (September 21, 2006).
10. Cited in Carol Becker, “The Art of Testimony,” Sculpture (March 1997), p. 28.
11. This case for an American version of authoritarianism was updated and made more visible in a number of interesting books and articles. See, for instance, Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); and Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).
12. Cited in Paul Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now,” Toronto Star (November 27, 2005).
13. See Bertram Gross, Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1985).
14. Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 202.
15. Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” New York Review of Books (November–December 1995), p. 15.
16. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated.
17. Along similar theoretical lines, see Stephen Lendman, “A Look Back and Ahead: Police State in America,” CounterPunch (December 17, 2007). For an excellent analysis that points to the creeping power of the nation- al security state on American universities, see David Price, “Silent Coup: How the CIA Is Welcoming Itself Back onto American University Campuses,” CounterPunch 17:3 (January 13–31, 2010), pp. 1–5.
18. David Harvey,“Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” Monthly Review (December15, 2009).
19. Chris Hedges, “Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction,” TruthDig (January 24, 2010).
20. See Janine R. Wedel, Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
21. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Polity Press, 2007), pp. 57–58.
22. Ibid., p. 64.
23. Bigioni, “Fascism Then, Fascism Now.”
24. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Nature and Value of Equity,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 124–142.
25. Thomas L. Friedman, “A Manifesto for the Fast World, ”The New York Times Magazine (March 28, 1999).
26. Leo Lowenthal, “Atomization of Man,” False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1987), pp. 182–183.
27. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), pp. 2–3.
28. I have taken up this issue in my Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? (New York: Palgrave, 2009). For a series of brilliant commentaries on youth in America, see the work of Tolu Olorunda in The Black Commentator, Truthout, and other online journals.
29. Evelyn Pringle, “Why Are We Drugging Our Kids?,” Truthout (December 14, 2009),
30. Ibid.
31. See Nicholas Confessore, “New York Finds Extreme Crisis in Youth Prisons,” The New York Times (December 14, 2009), p. A1; Duff Wilson, “Poor Children Likelier to Get Antipsychotics,” The New York Times (December 12, 2009), p. A1; and Amy Goodman, “Jailing Kids for Cash,” Truthout (February 17, 2009).
32. Jake Tapper, “Political Punch: Power, Pop, and Probings from ABC News Senior White House Correspondent—Duncan: Katrina Was the ‘Best Thing’ for New Orleans School System,” ABC ( January 29, 2010).
33. Nathaniel Cary, “GOP Hopeful: People on Public Assistance ‘Like Stray Animals,’” Truthout ( January 23, 2010).
34. Cited in Frank Rich, “The State of Union Is Comatose, ”The New York Times (January 31, 2010).
35. See, for example, Patrick J. Buchanan, “Traditional Americans Are Losing Their Nation,” WorldNetDaily (January 24, 2010).
36. Frank Rich, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” The New York Times (March 28, 2010), p. WK10.
37. Chris Hedges, “Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’?,” TruthDig (March 29, 2010).
38. Rich, “The State of the Union Is Comatose,” p. WK10.

This article may not be published or reproduced without specific permission from Peter Lang Publishing.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, May 1, 2012 at 7:25 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 10:35 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 9:29 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 8:44 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 8:15 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 8:01 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 9:36 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 3:37 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 3:03 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 1:39 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 10:09 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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