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Cultures of Violence in the Age of Casino Capitalism

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Posted on Dec 19, 2013
Hakan Dahlstrom (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. - Nelson Mandela

Guy Debord once argued that the spectacle suggests society’s desire for sleep. He was enormously prescient, and his words and work are more important today than when they were first written. The spectacle has been energized and reworked under the forces of neoliberalism and now promotes a mix of infantilism, brutality, disposability and lawlessness. As the visibility of extreme violence is endlessly reproduced in various cultural apparatuses and screen cultures, it functions increasingly, alongside a range of other economic and political forces, to legitimate a culture of cruelty and disposability in everyday life. Pleasure is now colonized in the service of violence, reinforcing Rustom Bharacuha’s claim that “there is an echo of the pornographic in maximizing the pleasure of violence.”

Casino capitalism feeds on the spectacle, whitewashing history while ensuring the triumph of form over substance. Violence is not simply glorified, it is also spectacularized in more graphic, stirring and dazzling digitally induced dramatic depictions. Violence is the new state-supported and institutionalized obscenity, parading as both entertainment and an honorific social ideal to celebrate those who inhabit its repressive state apparatuses - from its war machine to its local police regimes. Violence and politics are no longer separate but permeate each other in contemporary American society, contributing “to the suppression of the very conditions necessary to build a [democratic social order and] polity.”  Such violence promotes a state of moral, emotional and intellectual anesthesia in which real violence seems technically imperfect compared to its Hollywood, television and screen culture versions, not to mention its celebration of an idiotic celebrity culture, which constitutes an assault on the very spirit of agency and the radical imagination. One consequence is that society now resembles a war machine as the welfare state is transformed into the punishing state and death zones proliferate.

In the face of the latest school shooting in Centennial, Colorado, a young teenage boy allegedly seeking revenge for being thrown off the debating team decides to goes on a murderous rampage. The roots of such violence are not merely personal, lying in the realm of some unfathomable emotional disturbance. They are also part and parcel of those varied educational and cultural conditions that give meaning to such behavior, suggesting that such violence is a normal and acceptable way to relieve anxiety, tension, and resolve problems.  A social pathology and collective amnesia both hides the deeper structural and symbolic dimensions for such violence and produces a weak moral and political response.  What are we to make of a mainstream media, along with the American public that appears more concerned about Kim Kardashian flaunting her post-baby body than about the Obama administration ordering a drone strike in Yemen that killed 17 innocent civilians who were part of a wedding party? 

Where is the public outrage when an increasing number of behaviors are criminalized by the punishing state? For instance, why are parents and others not up in arms when states such as Mississippi impose “felony charges on schoolchildren for ‘crimes’ like throwing peanuts on a bus” or when law enforcement agencies place children as young as 11 on a sex offender registry for “playing doctor” with a relative, again according to Human Rights Watch”? These types of violence become rampant in a society when aesthetic and economic criteria displace moral considerations and the search for intense pleasure and profits replaces the search for justice. The police state thrives in the midst of a culture of infantilization and the spectacles of violence. A collective amnesia provides the precondition for authoritarian brutality.

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This flight from social, political and ethical responsibility finds another expression in American government’s indifference, if not complicity, in the increasing mass shootings, the slaughter of school children in the streets and schools, and the increasing violence of local police forces around the country. State and corporate violence merge in the looting of public treasuries, the defunding of public schools, the elimination of social provisions, the creation of policies that expand poverty, homelessness, lack of health care, and those conditions necessary for a semblance of human dignity and agency. Getting ahead is a distant memory for most people who are now preoccupied with merely surviving on a daily basis. Instead of security, the corporate state provides a culture of fear, precarity, and surveillance.  Rather than being a model of justice and social responsibility, the state has become a prototype of lawless governance and a symbol of corruption, punitiveness, and greed.

As civil liberties are shredded and powerful corporate and political force engage in a range of legal illegalities, the state itself becomes a model for corruption and violence. Violence has become not only the foundation of corporate sovereignty, it has also become the ideological scaffolding of common sense.  Under casino capitalism, the state has become the enemy of justice and offers a prototype for types of misguided rebellion that mimic the lawlessness enshrined by corporate sovereignty and the repressive state apparatuses.  Under such circumstances, the force of action does not reside in deliberation, compassion, justice, equality and freedom. On the contrary, it lies in the celebration of the warfare state and its illegal modes of domestic policing and surveillance.

The state of exception has become the rule serving to legitimate illegality and normalizing violence and force as the only mediating dynamic worth utilizing to solve problems. In addition, subjectivity itself has become both hyper-masculinized, transformed, and subordinated to the celebration of an aggressive, violent and hyper-competitive war machine. Evidence of the hardening of the culture and the ongoing visibility of a pathological form of hyper-masculinity abounds in polices that amount to a permanent war on the poor, women, immigrants, workers, public servants, Muslims, poor minorities and those adults marginalized by class and race. The visibility of such violence is on full display in Hollywood films, which as A. O. Scott points out depict, if not celebrate, “a society defined by brutal masculine authority, the pathology of which infects the family, the economy and the state.”


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