June 19, 2013
Beyond the Politics of the Big Lie
Posted on Jun 19, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
More recently, The New York Times reported that soon after President Obama took office, “he cut a closed-door deal with the powerful pharmaceutical lobby [abandoning] his support for the reimportation of prescription medicines at lower prices.”(6) For the Times, this back-door deal signified “to some disillusioned liberal supporters a loss of innocence, or perhaps even the triumph of cynicism.”(7) In actuality, it signified a powerful new mode of capitalism that not only controls the commanding heights of the economy, but has now also replaced political sovereignty with an aggressive form of corporate governance. The state and elite market forces, perhaps inseparable before, have become today both inseparable and powerfully aligned. From Reagan’s assault on the values of the welfare state to Obama’s bailout of the mega banks and the refusal to end the Bush tax cuts, corporate sovereignty as the pre-eminent mode of US politics is hard to miss. And the surrender of politics to corporate rule and an amalgam of antidemocratic forces is not a one party affair. As Bill Moyers and Michael Winship have argued, “since 1979, 377 members of the Forbes 400 list or richest Americans have given almost half a billion dollars to candidates of both parties, most of it in the last decade. The median contribution was $355,100 each.”(8)
As is well known, President Clinton implemented deregulation policies that led directly to the economic crisis of 2008, while at the same time enacting welfare reforms that turned a war on poverty into a war on the poor. In fact, the most radical economic measures that Clinton undertook “related to further deregulation of the economy [amounting to] some of the most comprehensive deregulatory reforms of the 20th century.”(9) Similarly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy not only increased the power of mega corporations and financial services to influence policy for the benefit of Wall Street titans and the rich more generally, but also largely punished the middle class and the poor. The Citizens United Supreme Court ruling made especially visible the hidden operations behind contemporary politics: big money translates into political power. The economist Joseph Stiglitz is correct in insisting that, “We’ve moved from a democracy, which is supposed to be based on one person, one vote, to something much more akin to one dollar, one vote. When you have that kind of democracy, it’s not going to address the real needs of the 99%.”(10) Stiglitz’s point is right in one sense, though the current political system has nothing substantively to do with democracy and everything to do with a new form of authoritarianism shaped by the converging interests of the financial elite, religious fundamentalists, anti-public intellectuals and corporate political powerbrokers.
This new mode of authoritarian governance is distinct from the fascism that emerged in Germany and Italy in the mid part of the twentieth century. As Sheldon Wolin has pointed out, big business in this new mode of authoritarianism is not subordinated to a political regime and the forces of state sovereignty, but now replaces political sovereignty with corporate rule. In addition, the new authoritarianism does not strive “to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, [but] promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility [through] a pervasive atmosphere of fear abetted by a corporate economy of ruthless downsizing, withdrawal or reduction of pension and health benefits; a corporate political system that relentlessly threatens to privatize Social Security and the modest health benefits available, especially to the poor.”(11) According to Wolin, all the elements are in place today for a contemporary form of authoritarianism, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism.”
The current corrupt and dysfunctional state of American politics is about a growing authoritarianism tied to economic, political and cultural formations that have hijacked democracy and put structural and ideological forces in place that constitute a new regime of politics, not simply a series of bad policies. The solution in this case does not lie in promoting piecemeal reforms, such as a greater redistribution of wealth and income, but in dismantling all the institutional, ideological and social formations that make gratuitous inequality and other antidemocratic forces possible at all. Even the concept of reform has been stripped of its democratic possibilities and has become a euphemism to “cover up the harsh realities of draconian cutbacks in wages, salaries, pensions and public welfare and the sharp increases in regressive taxes.”(14)
Instead of reversing progressive changes made by workers, women, young people, and others, the American public needs a new understanding of what it would mean to advance the ideological and material relations of a real democracy, while removing American society from the grip of “an authoritarian political culture.”(15) This will require new conceptions of politics, social responsibility, power, civic courage, civil society and democracy itself. If we do not safeguard the remaining public spaces that provide individuals and social movements with new ways to think about and participate in politics, then authoritarianism will solidify its hold on the American public. In doing so, it will create a culture that criminalizes dissent, and those who suffer under antidemocratic ideologies and policies will be both blamed for the current economic crisis and punished by ruling elites.
What is crucial to grasp at the current historical moment is that the fate of democracy is inextricably linked to a profound crisis of contemporary knowledge, characterized by its increasing commodification, fragmentation, privatization and a turn toward racist and jingoistic conceits. As knowledge becomes abstracted from the rigors of civic culture and is reduced to questions of style, ritual and image, it undermines the political, ethical and governing conditions for individuals to construct those viable public spheres necessary for debate, collective action and solving urgent social problems. As public spheres are privatized, commodified and turned over to the crushing forces of turbo capitalism, the opportunities for openness, inclusiveness and dialogue that nurture the very idea and possibility of a discourse about democracy cease to exist.
The lesson to be learned in this instance is that political agency involves learning how to deliberate, make judgments and exercise choices, particularly as the latter are brought to bear on critical activities that offer the possibility of change. Civic education as it is experienced and produced throughout an ever-diminishing number of institutions provides individuals with opportunities to see themselves as capable of doing more than the existing configurations of power of any given society would wish to admit. And it is precisely this notion of civic agency and critical education that has been under aggressive assault within the new and harsh corporate order of casino capitalism.
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