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Reclaiming the Radical Imagination

Posted on Jan 13, 2014
sydney g (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout.

A society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war. - Lewis Lapham

The Gilded Age is back, with huge profits for the ultrarich, hedge fund managers and the major players in the financial service industries. In the new landscapes of wealth, exclusion and fraud, the commanding institutions of a savage and fanatical capitalism promote a winner-take-all ethos and aggressively undermine the welfare state and wage a counter revolution against the principles of social citizenship and democracy. The geographies of moral and political decadence have become the organizing standard of the dreamworlds of consumption, privatization, surveillance and deregulation. For instance, banks such as JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and other investment companies including Barclays, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, and UBS prosper from subterfuge and corruption. They also have been transformed into punishing factories that erode the welfare state while pushing millions into hardship and misery and relegating an entire generation of young people into a state of massive unemployment, debt, and repression.  The profits seem endless and the lack of moral responsibility unchecked as the rich go on buying sprees soaking up luxury goods in record numbers. The New York Times reports that dealers of high-end luxury cars cannot keep up with the demand. Indulging in luxury items is no longer a dirty word for the ultrarich in spite of living in a society wracked by massive unemployment, inequality and poverty. One example provided by the Times, without either irony or criticism, points to “Matt Hlavin, an entrepreneur in Cleveland who owns seven businesses, mostly in manufacturing, bought three Mercedes last year: a $237,000 SLS AMG and a $165,000 S63 AMG for himself, and a $97,000 GL550 sport utility vehicle for his wife.”  This example of shameless consumption reads like a scene out of Martin Scorsese’s film The Wolf of Wall Street, which portrays the financial elite as infantilized frat boys out of control in their unquenchable craving for greed, sex, power, and every other debauchery imaginable. At a time when the United States has descended into forms of political and moral amnesia, massive inequity and high levels of poverty, coupled with narratives of excess and over-the-top material indulgence, have become normalized and barely receive any critical commentary in the mainstream media.

It gets worse. As the zombies of casino capitalism rake in unprecedented amounts of wealth, they appear to take delight in mocking and humiliating the poor and disadvantaged as if they are not only responsible for their suffering but deserve such hardships in spite of the fact they are not accountable for the difficulties in which they find themselves. Those with little power or wealth are now seen not only as morally degenerates but as disposable, subject to the whims of the market and outside any consideration of compassion or justice. Yet there is more at work here than a moral deficit or the kind of pathological daring and willingness to remove oneself from any sense of compassion for others. There is also a culture of cruelty willfully reproduced by a rabid form of casino capitalism that measures human worth in cost-benefit analysis and accrues and consolidates power in the interests of the top one percent of the population.

The new extremists balk at extending unemployment benefits or providing food stamps for young children. Yet, they have no trouble offering millions in subsidies to corporate interests or lowering taxes for the ultrarich corporations. Obscene wealth couples with the arrogance of power as billionaires such as the Koch brothers make 3 million dollars an hour from their investments while simultaneously calling for the abolishment of the minimum wage. CEO salaries reach into the financial stratosphere, while the middle and working classes increasingly face impoverishment and misery.  In 2012, the “top 10 percent took in half of the country’s total income” while the top 1 percent took more than one-fifth (22.5 percent) of the income earned by Americans. In the midst of the upward redistribution of wealth, misery proliferates, and the commanding institutions of society are increasingly more divorced from maters of ethics, social responsibility and social costs. This is evident as the ranks of homeless children grow exponentially, while corporate fat cats fund various groups to lobby against health care policies and social provisions for the poor. It is also evident in the growing ranks of people on food stamps, an increase in the homeless population, especially among children. Moreover, 46.2 percent of the American population lives in poverty.


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Republicans claim they are now concerned about addressing poverty, especially since the general public rightly views them as heartless, cruel and indifferent to the hardships experienced by people who are unemployed and lack food, shelter, health care and any sense of hope. Yet, the hypocrisy of the apostles of casino capitalism is on full display in a commentary by The New York Times which states: “But at the same time that the party is shifting its focus to poverty, many Republicans are pushing for deep cuts to food assistance programs and unemployment insurance, while 11 million Americans are jobless and poverty rates remain elevated in the wake of the recession.” For the right-wing extremists dominating government, the courts and cultural life, talk about choice and agency is divorced from social responsibility and the emphasis on individual responsibility is nothing more than a cheap trick to divert the public’s attention away from larger structural and systemic problems facing the United States.

We now live under a form of casino capitalism that revels in deception, kills the radical imagination, depoliticizes the American public and promulgates what might be called disimagination factories and punishing machines. Idealism has been replaced by a repressive punishing machine and a surveillance state that turns every space into a war zone, criminalizes social problems and legitimates state violence as the most important practice for addressing important social issues. Racism now fuels a mass incarceration system that expands the reach of the punishing state to those viewed as excess and excluded from American society. The carceral state and the surveillance state now work together to trump security over freedom and justice while solidifying the rule of the financial elite and the reigning financial services such as banks, investment houses and hedge funds, all of which profit from the expanding reach of the punishing state. The drug war has become a war on racial minorities just as the war on poverty has become a war on the poor.

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