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Posted on Jun 5, 2014
By Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans, Truthout
This piece first appeared at Truthout.
The 20th Century is often termed the “Century of Violence.” And rightly so, given the widespread devastation of an entire continent during the two Great Wars; the continued plunder and suppression of former colonial enclaves; the rebirth of extermination camps in the progressive heart of a modern Europe; the appalling experiments in human barbarism that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the torture and symbolic acts of disappearance so endemic in Latin America; the passivity in the face of ongoing acts of genocide; the wars and violence carried out in the name of some deceitful humanitarian principle. This legacy of violence makes it difficult to assess this history without developing profound suspicions about the nature of the human condition and its capacity for evil.
One of the particular novelties of this period was the emergence of dystopia literature and compelling works of art that proved integral to the lasting critique of totalitarian regimes. Indeed, some of the most appealing prose of the times was not put forward by recognized political theorists or radical philosophers, but the likes of Yevgeny Zamyatin, H.G. Wells, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, among others, who managed to reveal with incisive flair and public appeal the violence so often hidden beneath the utopian promise of technologically driven progress. Dystopia in these discourses embodied a warning and a hope that humankind would address and reverse the dark authoritarian practices that descended on the 20th century like a thick, choking fog.
Hannah Arendt understood how the authoritarian violence of the 20th century needed a broader frame of reference. The gulags, death camps and the torture chambers of Argentina and Chile soon gave way to the harrowing experimental camps of the colonies, which would all too quickly blowback into the metropolitan homelands. The utopian promise of the Enlightenment thus contained within it the violence and brutalities embedded in the logic of instrumental rationality and the unchecked appeal to progress and ideological purity, all of which was later rehearsed within the most terrifying fictions and rewritten with the same devastating effect for those expendable millions that made up a veritable continent of suffering we could rightly map as the globally dispossessed.
We live, however, in a different political moment. The state is no longer the center of politics. Neoliberalism has made a bonfire of the sovereign principles embodied in the social contract. Nor can we simply diagnose 21st century forms of oppression and exploitation by relying on well-rehearsed orthodoxies of our recent past. With power and its modalities of violence having entered into the global space of flows - detached from the controlling political interests of the nation-state, utilizing technologies far beyond those imagined in the most exaggerating of 20th century fictions, the dystopian theorists of yesteryears prove to be of limited use. Hope appears increasingly to have fallen prey to predatory formations of global capitalism and its engulfing webs of precarity that have reduced human life to the task of merely being able to survive. Individual and collective agencies are not only under siege unlike any other time in history, but have become depoliticized, overcome by a culture of anxiety, insecurity, commodification and privatization
More specifically, as we move away from any belief in the virtues of unending progress and its claims of lasting peaceful settlement, to the contemporary state of neoliberal rule whose crises-laden mantra now openly suggests unlimited progress for the very select few, the vast majority are asked to live a barely sustainable precariousness. The need to accept that our present societies are fundamentally insecure by design and that the future is a terrain of endemic and unavoidable catastrophe is taken as a given in most policy circles. Dystopia, in other words, is no longer the realm of scientific fiction - as suggested, for instance, by a number of recent climate reports warning that the planet is in grave danger. It is the dominant imaginary for neoliberal governance and its narcissistic reasoning.
If Theodore Adorno was right to argue that Apocalypse already occurred with the realization of the Holocaust and the experience of World War II, what has taken its place is a discourse signaling the normalization of a catastrophic imaginary that offers few means for possible escape. Despite their relation to “end of times narratives,” as Jacob Taubes once noted, there is perhaps something different at work here between the pre-modern apocalyptic movements and the shift toward catastrophic reasoning that has come to define the contemporary moment. For all their nihilism and monotheistic servitude, at least the apocalyptic movements could imagine a better world than already existed.
Our collective consciousness, if not our subjectivity and agency, have been colonized such that the future is littered with the corpses of the present and can only alternatively look backwards rather than forward. How else can we account for the revival of “communist” discourses on the political left and state “fascistic” discourses on the right if not through the appeal to a world that once appeared more secure? Even accepting that the terms can be reinvented, given the histories of violence associated with their recent past, surely their reappearance highlights the poverty and lack of confidence in the human capacity to rethink the world today? How did we become so vulnerable, losing all collective faith in our combined and creative efforts?
It is within this historical conjuncture and the current savagery of various regimes of neoliberal capitalism that we conceived the need to develop a paradigm that focused on the intensification of what we called the politics of disposability. This requires taking our analysis beyond 20th century frames of analysis to look at the ways in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. It talks precisely to those contemporary forms of disposability that have become so normalized; the burden of the guilt is placed on the shoulders of the victims, while the most pernicious of systemic abuses continues to hide things in plain sight. And it develops a critical angle of vision that goes well beyond the mere authentication of lives as simply born vulnerable to question the systemic design for oppression and exploitation that produces humans as some expendable category.
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