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Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability

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Posted on Apr 10, 2014

Photo by Steve A Johnson (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

Under the regime of neoliberalism, especially in the United States, war has become an extension of politics as almost all aspects of society have been transformed into a combat zone. Americans now live in a society in which almost everyone is spied on, considered a potential terrorist, and subject to a mode of state and corporate lawlessness in which the arrogance of power knows no limits. The state of exception has become normalized.  Moreover, as society becomes increasingly militarized and political concessions become relics of a long-abandoned welfare state hollowed out to serve the interest of global markets, the collective sense of ethical imagination and social responsibility toward those who are vulnerable or in need of care is now viewed as a scourge or pathology.

What has emerged in this new historical conjuncture is an intensification of the practice of disposability in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess, consigned to zones of abandonment, surveillance and incarceration. Moreover, this politics of disappearance has been strengthened by a fundamental intensification of increasing depoliticization, conducted largely through new modes of spying and the smothering, if not all-embracing, market-driven power of commodification and consumption.

Citizens are now reduced to data, consumers, and commodities and as such inhabit identities in which they increasingly “become unknowables, with no human rights and with no one accountable for their condition.” Within this machinery of social death, not only does moral blindness prevail on the part of the financial elite, but the inner worlds of the oppressed are constantly being remade under the force of economic pressures and a culture of fear. According to João Biehl, as the realpolitik of disposability “comes into sharp visibility . . .  tradition, collective memory, and public spheres are organized as phantasmagoric scenes, [that] thrive on the “energies of the dead,” who remain unaccounted for in numbers and law.”

Economists such as Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have argued that we are in a new Gilded Age, one that mimics a time when robber barons and strikebreakers ruled, and the government and economy were controlled by a cabal that was rich, powerful and ruthless. And, of course, blacks, women and the working class were told to mind their place in a society controlled by the rich. What is often missing in these analyses is that what is new in the second Gilded Age is not just about the moral sanctioning of greed, the corruption of politics by big money, and the ruthlessness of class power.

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What is unique is the rise of a brutal punishing-incarceration state that imposes its power on the dispossessed, the emergence of a surveillance state that spies on and suppresses dissenters, the emergence of vast cultural apparatuses that colonize subjectivity in the interests of the market, and a political class that is uninterested in political concessions and appears immune from control by nation states. The second Gilded Age is really a more brutal form of authoritarianism driven by what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton rightly calls a “death-saturated age,” in which matters of violence, survival and trauma now infuse everyday life.

Discarded by the corporate state, dispossessed of social provisions and deprived of the economic, political and social conditions that enable viable and critical modes of agency, expanding populations of Americans now find themselves inhabiting zones of abandonment marked by deep inequalities in power, wealth and income. Such zones are sites of rapid disinvestment, places marked by endless spectacles of violence, and supportive of the neoliberal logics of containment, commodification, surveillance, militarization, cruelty and punishment.

These zones of hardship and terminal exclusion constitute a hallmark signature and intensification of a neoliberal politics of disposability that is relentless in the material and symbolic violence it wages against the 99% for the benefit of the new financial elite. Borrowing from Hannah Arendt, one could say that capitalist expropriation, dispossession and disinvestment has reached a point where life has become completely unbearable for over half of the American public living in or near poverty.

Evidence of such zones can be seen in the war against immigrants, poor minorities, the homeless, young people living in debt, the long-term unemployed, workers, the declining middle class, all of whom have been pushed into invisible communities of control, harassment, security and the governing-through-punishment complex.

The promises of modernity regarding progress, freedom and hope have not been eliminated; they have been reconfigured, stripped of their emancipatory potential and subordinated to the logic of a savage market instrumentality and individualization of the social. Dispossession and disinvestment have invalidated the promises of modernity and have turned progress into a curse for the marginalized and a blessing for the super-financial elite. Modernity has reneged on its undertaking to fulfill the social contract, however disingenuous or limited, especially with regards to young people. Long-term planning and the institutional structures that support them are now weakened, if not eliminated, by the urgencies of privatization, deregulation, flexibility and short-term investments. Social bonds have given way under the collapse of social protections and the welfare state and are further weakened by the neoliberal insistence that there are only “individual solutions to socially produced problems.”

Neoliberalism’s disposability machine is relentlessly engaged in the production of an unchecked notion of individualism that both dissolves social bonds and removes any viable notion of agency from the landscape of social responsibility and ethical considerations. Absorbed in privatized orbits of consumption, commodification and display, Americans vicariously participate in the toxic pleasures of a mode of authoritarianism characterized by the reactionary presence of the corporate state, the concentration of power and money in the upper 1% of the population, the ongoing militarization of all aspects of society, and the ongoing, aggressive depoliticization of the citizenry.

In its current historical conjuncture, the authoritarian state is controlled by a handful of billionaires (eg., the Koch Brothers), their families (eg., the Waltons) and a select class of zombie-like financial and corporate elite who now control the commanding economic, political and cultural institutions of American society.


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