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The Ghost of Authoritarianism in the Age of the Shutdown

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Posted on Oct 18, 2013
psyberartist (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece first appeared at Truthout before the government shutdown was resolved.

In the aftermath of the reign of Nazi terror in the 1940s, the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote:

National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.

Adorno’s words are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them. The threat of authoritarianism to citizen-based democracy is alive and well in the United States, and its presence can be felt in the historical conditions leading up to the partial government shutdown and the refusal on the part of the new extremists to raise the debt ceiling. Adorno believed that while the specific features and horrors of mid-century fascism such as the concentration camps and the control of governments by a political elite and the gestapo would not be reproduced in the same way, democracy as a political ideal and as a working proposition would be under assault once again by new anti-democratic forces all too willing to impose totalitarian systems on their adversaries.

For Adorno, the conditions for fascism would more than likely crystallize into new forms. For instance, they might be found in the economic organization of a society that renders “the majority of people dependent upon conditions beyond their control and thus maintains them in a state of political immaturity. If they want to live, then no other avenue remains but to adapt, submit themselves to the given conditions.” In part, this speaks to the role of corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses that normalize anti-democratic ideologies and practices as well as to the paramount role of education in creating a subject for whom politics was superfluous. For Adorno, fascism in its new guise particularly would launch a systemic assault on the remaining conditions for democracy through the elimination of public memory, public institutions in which people could be educated to think critically and the evisceration of public spaces where people could learn the art of social citizenship, thoughtfulness and critical engagement. He also believed that the residual elements of the police state would become emergent in any new expression of fascism in which the corporate and military establishments would be poised to take power. Adorno, like Hannah Arendt, understood that the seeds of authoritarianism lie in the “disappearance of politics: a form of government that destroys politics, methodically eliminating speaking and acting human beings and attacking the very humanity of first a selected group and then all groups. In this way, totalitarianism makes people superfluous as human beings.”

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The American political, cultural, and economic landscape is inhabited by the renewed return of authoritarianism evident in the ideologies of religious and secular certainty that legitimate the reign of economic Darwinism, the unchecked power of capital, the culture of fear and the expanding national security state. The ghosts of fascism also are evident in what Charles Derber and Yale Magress call elements of “the Weimer Syndrome,” which include a severe and seemingly unresolvable economic crisis, liberals and moderate parties too weak to address the intensifying political and economic crises, the rise of far-right populist groups such as the Tea Party and white militia, and the emergence of the Christian Right, with its racist, anti-intellectual and fundamentalist ideology. The underpinnings of fascism are also evident in the reign of foreign and domestic terrorism that bears down on the so called enemies of the state (whistleblowers and nonviolent youthful protesters) and on those abroad who challenge America’s imperial mission; it is also visible in a growing pervasive surveillance system buttressed by the belief that everyone is a potential enemy of the state and should be rightfully subject to diverse and massive assaults on rights to privacy and assembly.

The return to authoritarianism can also be seen in the pervasive and racist war on youths, whether one points to a generation of young people saddled with unspeakable debt, poverty and unemployment, or the ongoing criminalization of behaviors that either represent trivial infractions, such as violating a dress code, or more serious forms of terrorism, such as incarcerating increasing numbers of low-income whites and poor minority youths. Americans live at a time when the history of those who have been cheated, murdered or excluded is being destroyed. Eliminated from this history are the collective narratives of struggle, resistance and rebellion against various forms of authoritarianism. We live in a time in which the politics of the moral coma is alive and well and is most visible in the ways in which the rise of the new extremism in the United States is being ignored. The repudiation of intellectual responsibility confirms what Leo Lowenthal once called the “regression to sheer Darwinism - or perhaps one should say infantilism,” along with any sense of moral accountability toward others or the common good. The government shutdown offers a clear case of a kind of historical and social amnesia and a rare glimpse of the parameters of the new authoritarianism.

During the past few decades, it has become clear that those who wield corporate, political and financial power in the United States thrive on the misery of others. Widening inequality, environmental destruction, growing poverty, the privatization of public goods, the attack on social provisions, the elimination of pensions and the ongoing attacks on workers, young protesters, Muslims and immigrants qualify as just a few of the injustices that have intensified with the rise of the corporate and financial elite since the 1970s. None of these issues are novel, but the intensification of the attacks and the visibility of unbridled power and arrogance of the financial, corporate and political elite that produces these ongoing problems are new and do not bode well for the promise of a democratic society.


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