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Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism

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Posted on Dec 5, 2013

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

Growing inequality in wealth and income have destroyed any vestige of democracy in America. Twenty individuals in the United States, including the infamous Koch brothers, have a total net worth of more than half a trillion dollars, about $26 billion each, while “4 out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.” More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are living with their parents while mega corporations and wealthy farmers get huge government subsidies. We blame the poor, homeless, unemployed and recent graduates suffocating under financial debt for their plight as if individual responsibility explains the ballooning gap in wealth, income and power and the growing state violence that supports it. Poor people end up in debtor jail for not paying parking tickets or their bills while the corrupt heads of banks, hedge funds and other financial services who engage in all manner of corruption and crime, swindling billions from the public coffers, are rarely prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The new global market tyranny has no language for promoting the social good, public well-being and social responsibility over the omniscient demands of self-interest, crippling the radical imagination with its relentless demands for instant pleasure, a compulsive pursuit of materialism and a Hobbesian belief in war-of-all-against all ethic. Increasingly, the social and cultural landscapes of America resemble the merging of malls and prisons. American life suffers from the toxin of socially adrift possessive, individualism and a debilitating notion of freedom and privatization. Both of which feed into the rise of the surveillance and punishing state with its paranoiac visions of absolute control of the commanding heights of power and its utter fear of those considered disposable, excess and capable of questioning authority.

Authoritarianism has a long shadow and refuses simply to disappear into the pages of a fixed and often forgotten history. We are currently observing how its long and dynamic reach extends from the dictatorships of Latin America in the 1970s to the current historical moment in the United States. We witness its darkness in the market ideologies, modes of disappearance, state-sanctioned torture, kill lists, drone murders of innocent civilians, attacks on civil liberties, prosecutions of whistleblowers and the rise of a mass incarceration state that now connects us to the horrors that took place in the dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I was reminded of this recently when I received a passionate and insightful letter from Dr. Adriana Pesci, who offers this warning to Americans by drawing on the horrors of the killing machine that fueled the military dictatorship in Argentina. She writes:

I have also noticed the ongoing creation, by people such as you, of a new language designed to counteract the offensive of the neoliberal system. Latin America started going through this process some 15 years ago, and is still at it, at much human cost and after a horrendous history of repression and torture that dates from some 35 or 40 years back. The centurions of the system are very unimaginative and their responses are very predictable once you studied them for a while. This is how it was possible for many left leaning Latin Americans to know by early 2003, and before the debacle of Abu Graib was made public, that the American forces’ use of systematic torture in Iraq was sanctioned from the top down, and that there were no excesses or errors (“excess,”“errors” were those same words used by the dictatorships throughout Latin America).


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In the past few years, and because I follow the news regularly, I have noticed a slow but steady evolution of the United States towards what I can only call a variation on a theme. It reminds me of my past as a very young person in Argentina, the same methods, the same words, the same excuses. I wish I could warn those at risk. I wish to pass along what I know, because I have a sense of foreboding. I would like to believe that our experiences can be used by others to make their suffering less, and I would like to believe, that the language that was created to describe, denounce and punish what was done to us in the name of neoliberalism and development is the patrimony of humankind and it is there to be used to defend ourselves from the attacks of a dehumanizing system that would like to chew us, ground us to a pulp and spit us all.

Historical consciousness matters because it illuminates, if not holds up to critical scrutiny, those forms of tyranny and modes of authoritarianism that now parade as common sense, popular wisdom or just plain certainty. In this case, the American public will not repeat history as farce (as Marx once suggested) but as a momentous act of systemic violence, suffering and domestic warfare. If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States. In part, this is because we are witnessing the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods that empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of unchecked individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life while the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom but facing the grim choice between survival and dying.

As the government deregulates and outsources key aspects of governance, turning over the provisions of collective insurance, security and care to private institutions and market-based forces, it undermines the social contract, while “the present retreat of the state from the endorsement of social rights signals the falling apart of a community in its modern, ‘imagined’ yet institutionally safeguarded incarnation.” Moreover, as social institutions give way to machines of all-embracing surveillance and containment, social provisions disappear, the exclusionary logic of ethnic, racial and religious divisions render more individuals and groups disposable, excluded from public life - languishing in prisons, dead-end jobs or the deepening pockets of poverty - and effectively prevented from engaging in politics in any meaningful capacity. The specters of human suffering, misfortune and misery caused by social problems are now replaced with the morally bankrupt neoliberal discourses of personal safety and individual responsibility. At the same time, those who are considered “problems,” excess or disposable disappear into prisons and the bowels of the correctional system. The larger implications that gesture toward a new authoritarianism are clear. Angela Davis captures this in her comment that “according to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.” The invisibility of power feeds ignorance, if not complicity itself. Under such circumstances, politics seems to take place elsewhere - in globalized regimes of power that are indifferent to traditional political geographies, such as the nation state, and hostile to any notion of collective responsibility to address human suffering and social problems.

We live at a time in which the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of ideas, education and agency. What must be remembered is that any viable politics or political culture can emerge only out of a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality, and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy.

Young people, artists, intellectuals, educators and workers in the United States and globally are increasingly addressing what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values and commitments, the erosion of its public spheres and the widely promoted modes of citizenship that have more to do with forgetting than with critical learning. Collectively, they provide varied suggestions for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. In opposition to the attacks on democratic institutions, values and modes of governance, activists all over the globe are offering an incisive language of analysis, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.

Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market values trump ethical considerations enabling the economically privileged and financial elite to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. Those without the luxury of such choices pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must work more than they ever have to make ends meet. Moreover, in the face of the 2008 economic crisis caused by gangster financial service institutions such as J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Barclay and Merrill Lynch, among others, the middle class is dissolving into the jaws of a death-machine that has robbed them of their homes, health care, jobs and dignity.

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