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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

(Page 2)

Such failings are not reducible either to the moral deficiencies and unchecked greed of both major political parties or the rapacious power of the mega banks, hedge funds and investment houses. Those intellectuals writing to acknowledge the current state of politics in America understand the outgrowth of a mix of rabid racism, religious fundamentalism, civic illiteracy, class warfare and a savage hatred of the welfare state that now grips the leadership of the Republican Party. The new extremists and prophets of authoritarianism are diverse, and their roots are in what Chris Hedges calls the radical Christian right, Michael Lind calls the reincarnation of the old Jeffersonian-Jacksonian right and what Robert Parry and Andrew O’Hehir call racist zealots. All of these elements are present in American politics, but they are part of a new social formation in which they share, even in their heterogeneity, a set of organizing principles, values, policies, modes of governance and ideologies that have created a cultural formation, institutional structures, values and policies that support a range of anti-democratic practices ranging from the militarization of public life and acts of domestic terrorism to the destruction of the social state and all those public spheres capable of producing critical and engaged citizens.

Needless to say, all of these groups play an important role in the rise of the new extremism and culture of cruelty that now characterizes American politics and has produced the partial government shutdown and threatens economic disaster with the debt-ceiling standoff. What is new is that these various fundamentalist registers and ideological movements have produced a coalition, a totality that speaks to a new historical conjuncture, one that has ominous authoritarian overtones for the present and future. There is no talk among the new extremists of imposing only an extreme Christian religious orthodoxy on the American people or simply restoring a racial state; or for that matter is there a singular call for primarily controlling the economy. The new counter-revolutionaries and apostles of the Second Gilded age are more interested in imposing a mode of authoritarianism that contains all of these elements in the interest of governing the whole of social life. This suggests a historical conjuncture in which a number of anti-democratic forces come together to “fuse and form a kind of configuration” - a coming together of diverse political and ideological formations into a new totality. The partial government shutdown is a precondition and test run for a full coup d’état by the social formations driving this totality. And while they may lose the heated battle over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, they have succeeded in executing their project and giving it some legitimacy in the dominant media.

Hiding beneath the discourse of partisan politics as usual, the authoritarian face of the new extremism is overlooked in the dominant media by terms such as “the opposing party,” “hard-line conservatives” or, in the words of New York Times columnist Sam Tanenhous, the party of “a post consensus politics.” In fact, even progressives such as Marian Wright Edelman fall into this trap in writing that “some members of Congress are acting like children - or, more accurately, worse than children.” In this case, the anti-democratic ideologies, practices and social formations at work in producing the shutdown and the potential debt-ceiling crisis are not merely overlooked but incorporated into a liberal discourse that personalizes, psychologizes or infantilizes behaviors that refuses to acknowledge or, in fact, succumbs to totalitarian tendencies.

There is no sense in the mainstream liberal and conservative discourses that a new authoritarianism haunts the current notion and ideal of governance and is the culmination of what Hannah Arendt once viewed as a historical trend toward the limiting, if not elimination, of the political as it relates to and furthers the promise of a democracy to come. The wider contexts of power and politics disappear in these discourses. We get a glimpse of this erasure in a statement by former Texas congressman and Republican Party House majority leader Dick Armey. In commenting on the shutdown, Armey raises the issue of “How does a guy like Ted Cruz, who’s relatively new in town, who nobody knows, who hasn’t even unpacked his bags, drive this whole process?” What Armey ignores in this revealing and stark assessment is that the very cultural, economic and political conditions that he has helped to put in place along with a range of other right-wing ideologues helped to create the perfect storm for Cruz to appear and set in motion the authoritarian tendencies that have been percolating in the social order since the late 1970s.

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What is clear in the current impasse is that the Republican Party has held the U.S. government hostage, in part, because it disagrees with a health initiative that has been endorsed by a large segment of the American people, been deemed legal by the Supreme Court and played a significant role in getting Barack Obama re-elected. For some, these practices resemble a politics that appropriates the gangster tactics of extortion, but this understanding is only partially true. There is a deeper order of politics at work here, and there is more at stake than simply defunding the Affordable Care Act. As Bill Moyers points out, the attack on the Affordable Care Act is only one target in the sights of the new extremists. He writes:

Despite what they say, Obamacare is only one of their targets. Before they will allow the government to reopen, they demand employers be enabled to deny birth control coverage to female employees. They demand Obama cave on the Keystone pipeline. They demand the watchdogs over corporate pollution be muzzled, and the big, bad regulators of Wall Street sent home. Their ransom list goes on and on. The debt ceiling is next.

Moyers is correct, but his argument can be extended. What Americans are witnessing is a politics that celebrates a form of domestic terrorism, a kind of soft militarism and a hyper-masculine posturing in which communities are organized around resentment, racism and symbolic violence. With the partial government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis engineered by the extremists driving the Republican Party, the amount of human suffering, violence and hardships that many individuals and families are experiencing border on catastrophic and open up a whole new act in the theater of cruelty, state violence, human misery and the exercise of raw and savage power.


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