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Why Don’t Americans Care About Democracy at Home?

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Posted on Oct 3, 2012
david_shankbone (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece originally appeared at Truthout.

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” —James Baldwin

Four decades of neoliberal policies have given way to an economic Darwinism that promotes a politics of cruelty. And its much vaunted ideology is taking over the United States.[1] As a theater of cruelty and mode of public pedagogy, economic Darwinism undermines all forms of solidarity capable of challenging market-driven values and social relations. At the same time, economic Darwinism promotes the virtues of an unbridled individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for community, social responsibility, public values and the public good. As the welfare state is dismantled and spending is cut to the point where government becomes unrecognizable - except to promote policies that benefit the rich, corporations and the defense industry - the already weakened federal and state governments are increasingly replaced by the harsh realities of the punishing state and what João Biehl has called proliferating “zones of social abandonment” and “terminal exclusion.”[2]

One consequence is that social problems are increasingly criminalized, while social protections are either eliminated or fatally weakened. Another result of this crushing form of economic Darwinism is that it thrives on a kind of social amnesia that erases critical thought, historical analyses and any understanding of broader systemic relations. In this instance, it does the opposite of critical memory work by eliminating those public spheres where people learn to translate private troubles into public issues. That is, it breaks “the link between public agendas and private worries, the very hub of the democratic process.”[3] Once set in motion, economic Darwinism unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws and political considerations collapse into the injurious and self-indicting discourse of character. As George Lakoff and Glenn Smith argue, the anti-public philosophy of economic Darwinism makes a parody of democracy by defining freedom as “the liberty to seek one’s own interests and well-being, without being responsible for the interests or well-being of anyone else. It’s a morality of personal, but not social, responsibility. The only freedom you should have is what you can provide for yourself, not what the Public provides for you to start out.”[4] Put simply, we alone become responsible for the problems we confront when we can no longer conceive how larger forces control or constrain our choices and the lives we are destined to lead.

Yet, the harsh values and practices of this new social order are visible - in the increasing incarceration of young people, the modeling of public schools after prisons, state violence waged against peaceful student protesters and state policies that bail out investment bankers but leave the middle and working classes in a state of poverty, despair and insecurity. Such values are also evident in the GOP Social-Darwinist budget plan that rewards the rich and cuts aid for those who need it the most. For instance, the Romney/Ryan budget plan “proposes to cut the taxes of households earning over $1 million by an average of $295,874 a year,”[5] but at a cruel cost to those most disadvantaged populations who rely on social programs. In order to pay for tax reductions that benefit the rich, the Romney/Ryan budget would cut funds for food stamps, Pell grants, health care benefits, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits and other crucial social programs.[6] As Paul Krugman has argued, the Ryan budget “isn’t just looking for ways to save money [it’s] also trying to make life harder for the poor - for their own good. In March, explaining his cuts in aid for the unfortunate, [Ryan] declared, ‘We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.’”[7] Krugman rightly replies, “I doubt that Americans forced to rely on unemployment benefits and food stamps in a depressed economy feel that they’re living in a comfortable hammock.”[8] As an extremist version of neoliberalism, Ryanomics is especially vicious towards American children, 16.1 million of whom currently live in poverty. Marian Wright Edelman captures the harshness and savagery of the Ryan budget passed in the House of Representatives. She writes:
Ryanomics is an all out assault on our poorest children while asking not a dime of sacrifice from the richest 2 percent of Americans or from wealthy corporations.

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Ryanomics slashes hundreds of billions of dollars from child and family nutrition, health, child care, education and child protection services, in order to extend and add to the massive Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires at a taxpayer cost of $5 trillion over 10 years. On top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent, the top income bracket would get an additional 10 percent tax cut. Millionaires and billionaires would on average keep at least an additional quarter of a million dollars each year and possibly as much as $400,000 a year according to the Citizens for Tax Justice.[9]

Under the euphemism of a politics of austerity, we are witnessing not only widespread cuts in vital infrastructures, education and social protections, but also the emergence of policies produced in the spirit of revenge aimed at the poor, the elderly and others marginalized by race and class. As Robert Reich, Charles Ferguson, and a host of recent commentators have pointed out, this extreme concentration of power in every commanding institution of society promotes predatory practices and rewards sociopathic behavior. Such a system creates an authoritarian class of corporate and hedge-fund swindlers that reaps its own profits by

placing big bets with other people’s money. The winners in this system are top Wall Street executives and traders, private-equity managers and hedge-fund moguls, and the losers are most of the rest of us. The system is largely responsible for the greatest concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top since the Gilded Age of the 19th century, with the richest 400 Americans owning as much as the bottom 150 million put together. And these multimillionaires and billionaires are now actively buying the 2012 election - and with it, American democracy.[10]

Unfortunately, the American public has remained largely silent, if not also complicitous with the rise of a neoliberal version of authoritarianism. While young people have started to challenge this politics and machinery of corruption, war, violence and death, they represent a small and marginalized part of the movement that will be necessary to initiate massive collective resistance to the aggressive violence being waged against all those public spheres that further the promise of democracy in the United States. The actions of student protesters and others have been crucial in drawing public attention to the constellation of forces that are pushing the United States into what Hannah Arendt called “dark times.” The questions now being asked must be seen as the first step toward exposing dire social and political costs of concentrating wealth, income and power into the hands of the upper one percent.

Neoliberal Ideology and the Rhetoric of Freedom

In addition to amassing ever expanding amounts of material wealth, the rich now control the means of schooling and education in the United States. They have disinvested in critical education, while reproducing notions of common sense that incessantly replicate the basic values, ideas and relations necessary to sustain the institutions of economic Darwinism. Both parties support educational reforms that increase conceptual illiteracy. Critical learning is now reduced to mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge and authority. This type of rote pedagogy, as Zygmunt Bauman points out, is “the most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for [robbing] it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense.”[11]

This type of market-driven illiteracy has eviscerated the notion of freedom, turning it largely into the desire to consume and invest exclusively in relationships that serve only one’s individual interests. Citizens are treated by the political and economic elite as restless children and are “invited daily to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping.”[12] Shallow consumerism coupled with an indifference to the needs and suffering of others has produced a politics of disengagement and a culture of moral irresponsibility. Language has been stripped of the terms, phrases and ideas that embrace a concern for the other. With meaning utterly privatized, words are reduced to signifiers that mimic spectacles of violence, designed to provide entertainment rather than thoughtful analysis. Sentiments circulating in the dominant culture parade either idiocy or a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, while anti-public rhetoric strips society of the knowledge and values necessary for the development of a democratically engaged and socially responsible public.

In such circumstances, freedom has truly morphed into its opposite. Neoliberal ideology has construed as pathological any notion that in a healthy society people depend on each other in multiple, complex, direct and indirect ways. As Lewis Lapham points out, “Citizens are no longer held in thoughtful regard ... just as thinking and acting are removed from acts of public conscience.”[13] Economic Darwinism has produced a legitimating ideology in which the conditions for critical inquiry, moral responsibility and social and economic justice disappear. The result is that neoliberal ideology increasingly resembles a call to war that turns the principles of democracy against democracy itself. Americans now live in an atomized and pulverized society, “spattered with the debris of broken interhuman bonds”[14] in which “democracy becomes a perishable commodity”[15] and all things public are viewed with disdain. Increasingly, it appears the only bond holding American society together is a perverse collective death-drive.


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