May 21, 2013
Hurricane Sandy in the Age of Disposability and Neoliberal Terror
Posted on Dec 5, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The growing legions of disposable populations cannot be separated from the ongoing attack by the apostles of neoliberalism on workers’ freedoms, women’s civil rights, public schools, the welfare state and other groups and institutions that get in the way of the extremely wealthy bankers, hedge fund managers and corporate CEOs who want to reshape America in the image of casino capitalism. America is awash in neoliberal culture of violence, which becomes all the more dangerous as the notion of moral conscience, like the notion of social agency, seems all but forgotten as moral obligations are reduced to the realm of self-obligations. Trapped in an unwillingness to translate private troubles into broader social considerations, the discourse of social protections is reduced to the vocabulary of charity and individual giving. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the overly washed elite have been discovering poverty while exoticizing the poor. Sarah Maslin Nir points critically to the elites’ immersion into poverty porn by noting their “voyeuristic interest in the plight of the poor, treating [their trip into disaster areas] as an exotic weekend outing.” She also notes the complaint of a female resident of a Rockaway project who stood by “as volunteers snapped iPhone photos of her as she waited in line for donated food and clothing.” The message was not lost on her as revealed by her comment that she and her friends felt as if they were “in a zoo.”
Privatized discourses and a war-against-all ethos increase the likelihood of the disappearance of those considered disposable and are reinforced by a stripped-down notion of responsibility, which alleviates the weight of moral conscience and social obligations. It undermines and destroys, when possible, those modes of social agency, collective structures and bonds of sociality capable of holding power accountable, resisting the anti-democratic pressures of neoliberalism and imagining visions that prioritize an investment in the public good over visions of happiness characterized by an endless search for immediate gratification. In a society in which “markets are detached from morals” and a market economy is transformed into a market society, market values increasingly shape areas of everyday life where they do not belong. As markets provide the only template by which to address all of society’s needs, money and expanding profit margins become the ultimate measure of one’s worth, and consuming the ultimate index of what it means to invest in one’s identity, relations with others and the larger society.
Social rights and nonmarket values no longer matter and consequently an increasing number of individuals and groups are removed from any kind of ethical grammar that would acknowledge those economic, political and social forces that produce their suffering and marginalization. Such groups are increasingly punished if they are homeless, poor, unemployed or in debt. Institutions once meant to abolish human suffering now produce it. Three strikes sentencing laws have “created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to back defendants.” We are living through what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton rightly calls a “death-saturated age” in which matters of violence, survival and trauma inescapably saturate everyday life. Such anti-democratic forces are not new, but they have been intensified and deepened under expanding neoliberal policies. They have also been reconfigured in more powerful and lethal ways through a frontal assault on the social contract, the welfare state and social protections. Positive visions of the good society and the importance of public values and civic life are being destroyed under the dominance of regressive and reactionary neoliberal institutions, ideologies, values and social relations. Market fundamentalism is the driving force of our times and it has destroyed the formative culture, rules of law, economic institutions, public spheres and governing structures necessary for a democracy to survive.
At first glance, America seems to be inured to the ongoing threat of ecological disasters, and indifferent to the plight of those disposable populations who suffer most from the increasing catastrophes - natural and human - that range from massive inequality and poverty, to droughts and floods that threaten the planet, but new visions are arising among young people across the United States and the globe who refuse to equate capitalism with democracy and accept a future shaped by the nightmarish imperatives of a neoliberal society. America needs a new language for politics, justice, compassion and the obligations of citizenship. The individual citizen cannot be reduced to the individual consumer, a democratic society cannot collapse into the image of the market, and human beings cannot be dehumanized and reduced to human waste, excess and disposability. Teddy Cruz is right in arguing that, “Democracy is not simply the right to be left alone. Rather it is defined by the co-existence with others in space, a collective ethos, regardless of social media, that unconditionally stands for [economic, political, and] social rights.” Democracy can only approach its promise when it protects all members of society. As Bauman argues, “Society can only be raised to the level of community as long as it effectively protects its members against the horrors of misery and indignity; that is, against the terrors of being excluded [and] being condemned to ‘social redundancy’ and otherwise consigned to [being] ‘human waste.’”
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