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In the Dead Zone of Capitalism: Lessons From Chicago on the Violence of Inequality

Posted on Jun 6, 2013
swanksalot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

The ruthless ethos of predatory capitalism is now producing a more intense and wide-ranging spectacle of symbolic and real violence.  State violence now finds its counterpart in the white male rage aimed at the poor, minorities, students, and protesters - a rage that appears rampant among the police, Republican Party politicians, gun advocates, right-wing Christian extremists and most Tea Party members.  And this hyper-masculine propensity for violence is endlessly legitimated in television shows that celebrate serial killers, Hollywood films that drench audiences with extreme spectacles of violence and a surfeit of video games that turn first-shooters into heroes. Abroad, such violence assumes a real life dimension as drones kill innocent people, soldiers murder women and children for sport (the Kill Team in Afghanistan), and demented soldiers mimic the comic book and film superheroes whose mission appears to be to rid Gotham City of the poor (the murdering rampage of Sergeant Robert Bales in Afghanistan.

The violence produced in a growing dystopian authoritarian state is now sanctioned in a class and racially skewed justice system in which people are given long prison sentences for smoking marijuana but not for defrauding the public out of billions of dollars. Major banks such as HSBC launder money for terrorists, defraud millions of their financial assets and destroy all vestiges of a social democracy. They are not only considered too big to be held accountable but extolled as the vanguard of educational reform, propped up as icons in a tawdry celebrity culture and allowed to determine policies at the highest levels of government. This is about more than the arrogance of power. It is about the death of justice and democracy. This is a culture in which inequality in wealth, income, and power breeds more than social and economic disparities; it also produces a kind of moral blindness and spiritual vacuum that overtakes politics, justice and any viable vision of the good society. In a society plagued and battered by a ruling financial and corporate elite that embraces and suffers from an ethical coma, it becomes more difficult for the American public to recognize the machinery of corporate domination, greed and abuse that increasingly revels in a culture of cruelty.

The weakening of public values has created a power elite marked by a self-righteous coldness that takes delight in and makes a sport out of the suffering of others. The lifestyles of the poor are portrayed in the media as a form of poverty porn in which “the worst and weakest moments of people’s lives are [portrayed] as funny and entertaining.” Is it any wonder that within the last decade there has been a proliferation on the Internet of “Bum Videos,” in which homeless people are videotaped as they are beaten by young people, who view such violence as a form of entertainment?  The descent into barbarism is now matched by the elimination of the discourse of compassion and the proliferation of abuses hurled at the poor, immigrants and others viewed as outside the pale of economic Darwinism. In fact, the current neoliberal era unscrupulously embraces the take-no-prisoners attitude of a culture of cruelty and the widespread violence it produces. We have seen this before in the robber barons of the first Gilded Age, but what is new in the current historical juncture are the widespread social and moral sanctions given to the ethos of greed and cruelty, along with the intensification and visibility of spectacles of violence.  The new elite is building what Robert Jay Lifton once called “a death-saturating age” in which the growing extremes of wealth are matched by an increasing number of cultural representations and public policies that relish the practice of throwing away and abandoning not just resources and goods but also people.

The signs of such a culture of cruelty can be witnessed in the pronouncements of wealthy politicians insisting that students who receive free meals should work for their food. They are evident in the discourse of conservative media pundits and anti-public intellectuals who argue that poverty is a personal failing and demand that the poor be punished by slashing their meager benefits. Of course, this would mean punishing almost half of the American public who are in or near poverty. We hear it in the words of prominent Republicans such as Newt Gingrich, who has denounced child labor laws as “truly stupid” while suggesting that poor youth should be put to work in schools as janitors. We hear it from hypocrites such as Tennessee congressman Stephen Fincher, a Republican who wants to cut $20 billion from food stamp legislation, justifying such cuts by quoting the Bible. As it turns out, Fincher personally collected nearly $3.5 million in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2012. We see the culture of cruelty displayed in the horrifying echoes of the crowds that cheered when Representative Ron Paul in a Republican debate argued that if a young man who did not purchase health insurance found himself with a deadly illness, then he should have to bear the burden alone, and the government had no responsibility to provide health care that would prevent him from dying. In other words, society should look the other way as he died. We catch a glimpse of such a culture in the despicable practices of a Bronx bus company that once offered tours billed as “a ride through a real New York City ‘GHETTO.’” But the culture of cruelty is perhaps most evident in the increasing criminalization of school children who more often than not inhabit schools in which the police harass and punish them for trivial behavior infractions.


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Unfortunately, rarely is the culture of cruelty and the suffering it causes for young people connected to larger neoliberal forces produced by a militarized form of casino capitalism. We can catch a glimpse of how these forces impact each other in the recent decision by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to close down 50 public schools, mostly inhabited by poor minorities, impacting some 30,000 students. Emanuel’s decision to close down a record number of public schools is one more recent example of a savage, racist neoliberal system at work that uses the politics of austerity and consolidation to further disenfranchise the unskilled young of the inner city. Of the 50 schools targeted to be closed, 49 serve elementary school children, “90 percent of whom are African American (in a district that is only 40% African American).” This is a policy in which there is a high threshold of violence that reveals the operations of a machinery of power, death and destruction committed to destroying all communal relationships.

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