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Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability

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Posted on Apr 10, 2014

Photo by Steve A Johnson (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

In the United States and many other countries, the state monopoly on the use of violence has not only intensified since the 1980s, but is unashamedly sanctioned by the new extremists in power. Under the regime of neoliberalism, this new-found embrace of social Darwinism and the culture of violence has been directed against young people, poor minorities, immigrants and, increasingly, women. Abandoned by the existing political system, young people are placing their bodies on the line, protesting peacefully across the globe while trying to produce a new language, politics, long-term institutions, and “community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that is structured by neoliberal principles.” Such movements are not simply about reclaiming space but also about producing new ideas, generating new conversations, and introducing a new political language. While there has been considerable coverage in the progressive media since 2001 given to the violence being waged against the movement protesters in Brazil, the United States, Greece and elsewhere, it is important to situate such violence within a broader set of categories that enables a critical understanding of not only the underlying social, economic and political forces at work in such assaults, but also makes it possible to reflect critically on the distinctiveness of the current historical period in which they are taking place. For example, it is difficult to address such state-sponsored violence against young people without analyzing the devolution of the social state, emergence of a politics of disposability, and the corresponding rise of the warfare and punishing state.

The merging of the military-industrial-academic-cultural complex and unbridled corporate power points to the need for strategies that address what is specific about the current warfare state and the neoliberal project and how different interests, modes of power, social relations, public pedagogies, and economic configurations come together to shape its politics of domestic terrorism, cruelty, and zones of disposability. Such a conjuncture is invaluable politically in that it provides a theoretical opening for making the practices of the neoliberal revolution visible to organize resistance to its ideologies, policies and modes of governance. It also points to the conceptual power of making clear that history remains an open horizon that cannot be dismissed through appeals to the end of history or end of ideology. It is precisely through the indeterminate nature of history that resistance becomes possible and politics refuses any guarantees and remains open.

A number of neoliberal societies, including the United States, have become addicted to violence. War provides jobs, profits, political payoffs, research funds, and forms of political and economic power that reach into every aspect of society. As war becomes a mode of sovereignty and rule, it erodes the distinction between war and peace. Increasingly fed by a moral and political frenzy, warlike values produce and endorse shared fears as the primary register of social relations. Shared fears and the media-induced panics that feed them produce more than a culture of fear. Such hysteria also feeds the growing militarization of the police, who increasingly use their high-tech scanners, surveillance cameras and toxic chemicals on anyone who engages in peaceful protests against the warfare and corporate state.  Images abound in the mainstream media of such abuses.

As a mode of public pedagogy, a state of permanent war needs willing subjects to abide by its values, ideology and narratives of fear and violence.  Such legitimation is largely provided through a market-driven culture addicted to production of consumerism, militarism, and organized violence, largely circulated through various registers of popular culture that extend from high fashion and Hollywood movies to the creation of violent video games and music concerts sponsored by the Pentagon. The market-driven spectacle of war demands a culture of conformity, quiet intellectuals and a largely passive republic of consumers. But it also needs subjects who find intense pleasure in the spectacle of violence.

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As the pleasure principle is unconstrained by a moral compass based on a respect for others, it is increasingly shaped by the need for intense excitement and a never-ending flood of heightened sensations. In this instance, unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death become banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized and relegated to the realm of the unnoticed and unnoticeable. As an increasing volume of violence is pumped into the culture, yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching violence loses its shock value. As the need for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grows, while matters of cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other outlets for seeking pleasure.

Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings, and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified across the globe since the 1970s. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations, and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery, and eliminating all viable public spheres—whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good. State violence, particularly the use of torture, abductions, and targeted assassinations are now justified as part of a state of exception that has become normalized. A “political culture of hyper punitiveness” has become normalized and accelerates throughout the social order like a highly charged electric current.


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