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Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism

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Posted on Dec 5, 2013
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By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility.
-Howard Zinn

In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers. As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, “The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” The relentless activity of thoughtlessness - worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism - undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden.

Civic engagement appears increasingly weakened, if not impotent, as a malignant form of casino capitalism exercises ruthless power over the commanding institutions of society and everyday existence, breathing new life into old clichés. Under casino capitalism, fantasy trumps logic, if not rationality. A sucker is still born every minute, and the house still wins. Looming dreams of riches and fame invariably descend into disappointment, defeat or addiction. Uncertainty and precariousness breed fear and insecurity instead of much-needed social reforms and a belief in a more just future. Austerity policies function as a form of trickle-down cruelty in which the poor are punished and the rich rewarded. Totalitarianism, once visible in its manifest evil, now hides in the shadow of a market logic that insists that each individual deserves his or her fate, regardless of the larger structural forces that shape it.

A savage market fundamentalism relentlessly denigrates public values, criminalizes social problems, and produces a manufactured fatalism and culture of fear while waging a fundamental assault upon the very conditions that make politics possible. Politics is now sapped of its democratic vitality just as traces of authoritarianism have seeped deeply into the economic and cultural structures of American life. As American society incorporates authoritarian elements of the past into its dominating ideology, modes of governance and policies, justice withers, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the American people to translate matters of civic literacy, social responsibility and the public good “back into the language of society.”

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Americans are increasingly inspired to think uncritically, disregard critical historical narratives, and surrender to pedagogies of repression. Under the Bush-Obama administrations, American education has been cleansed of any effort to produce students who have the power to think critically and imaginatively and is now preoccupied with producing young people unaware and unwilling to fight for the right to decent employment, access to a good life, decent health care, social justice and a future that does not mimic a corrosive and morally bankrupt present. The organized culture of forgetting, with its immense disimagination machines, has ushered in a permanent revolution marked by a massive project of distributing wealth upward, the militarization of the entire social order and an ongoing depoliticization of agency and politics itself. We no longer live in a democracy, which, as Bill Moyers points out provides the formative culture and economic conditions that enable people “to fully claim their moral and political agency.” This disembodied form of politics is not merely about the erasure of the language of public interests, informed argument, critical thinking and the collapse of public values, but a full-fledged attack on the institutions of civic society, the social contract and democracy itself. Under such circumstances, the United States has succumbed to forms of symbolic and institutional violence that point to a deep-seated hatred of democracy.

Under such circumstances, common sense displaces critical thinking, individual and social agency are emptied of political substance, and a collectively engaged democratic politics appears irrelevant in the face of an unquestioned “moral” authority that parades as destiny. The language of stupidity replaces reason as scientific evidence is disparaged or suppressed, thoughtful exchange gives way to emotional tirades, violence becomes the primary means for solving problems, and anger is substituted for informed arguments. Unsurprisingly, any viable sense of social responsibility disappears beyond the fortressed enclaves of ever-more-sequestered lives while various ideological fundamentalists assert their judgments of the world with a certainty that brands dissent, moral inquiry and critical questioning as excessive and threatening. Instead of affirming the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Audre Lord and other public intellectuals, Americans are inundated with the likes of Bill Gates, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin and other anti-public commentators and pundits. Intellectuals who have sacrificed their jobs, bodies and lives in order to alleviate the suffering of others have been replaced by the new “celebrity heroes” drawn from a corrupt corporate and political culture that lives off the suffering of others.

In the place of politically vibrant and intellectually energized public spheres, Americans suffer under the self-serving interests and demands, if not downright colonization, of immensely powerful corporations and the entertainment industry, which offer up the confessional spectacles of Dr. Phil, the televised shame culture of a host of TV programs, the increasing violence entrenched in celluloid Hollywood spectacles and the corporate values embedded in survival-of-the-fittest “reality” television shows. As society is increasingly organized around shared fears, escalating insecurities, manufactured uncertainties and an intensified post-9/11 politics of terror, the institutions of government appear to be immune to any checks on their power to render democratic politics both bankrupt and inoperable.

The language of the market now offers the primary index of what possibilities the future may hold, while jingoistic nationalism and racism register its apocalyptic underbelly. As a market economy becomes synonymous with a market society, democracy becomes both the repressed scandal of neoliberalism and its ultimate fear. In such a society, cynicism replaces hope, public life collapses into the ever-encroaching domain of the private while social ills and human suffering become more difficult to identify, understand, and engage critically. Zygmunt Bauman points out that “the exit from politics and withdrawal behind the fortified walls of the private” means not only that society has stopped questioning itself but also that those discourses, social relations and public spaces in which people can speak, exercise, and develop the capacities and skills necessary for critically encountering the world atrophy and disappear. The result is that “in our contemporary world, post 9/11, crisis and exception [have] become routine, and war, deprivation, and [the machineries of death] intensify despite ever denser networks of humanitarian aid and ever more rights legislation.”

In addition, the depoliticization of politics and the increasing transformation of the social state into the punishing state have rendered possible the emergence of a new mode of authoritarianism in which the fusion of power and violence increasingly permeates all aspects of government and everyday life. This mad violence creates an intensifying cycle rendering citizens’ political activism dangerous, if not criminal. On the domestic and foreign fronts, violence is the most prominent feature of dominant ideology, policies and governance. Soldiers are idealized, violence becomes an omniscient form of entertainment pumped endlessly into the culture, wars become the primary organizing principle for shaping relations abroad, and a corrosive and deeply rooted pathology becomes not the mark of a few individuals but of a society that, as Erich Fromm once pointed out, becomes entirely insane. Hannah Arendt’s “dark times” have arrived as the concentrated power of the corporate, financial, political, economic and cultural elite have created a society that has become a breeding ground for psychic disturbances and a pathology that has become normalized. Greed, inequality and oppressive power relations have generated the death of the collective democratic imagination.

Howard Zinn wrote in the early 1970s that the “world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country . . . in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.” Zinn’s words are more prescient today than when he wrote them more than 40 years ago. As American society becomes more militarized, civil liberties are under siege at all levels of government. Bush and Obama have participated in illegal legalities instituting state torture and targeted assassinations, among other violations. At the local level, police all over the country are expanding their powers going so far as to subject people to invasive body searches, even when they had been stopped for only minor traffic violations. One man in New Mexico was stopped for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. On the baseless claim of harboring drugs, he was taken to a hospital and underwent, without consent, eight anal cavity searches, including a colonoscopy. No drugs were found. When the police believe they have the right to issue warrants that allow doctors to perform enemas and colonoscopies without consent and anyone can be seized for such barbarous practices, domestic terrorism takes on a new and perilous meaning. Similarly, young people are being arrested in record numbers in schools that have become holding centers for low-income and minority youths.


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