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The Ghost of Authoritarianism in the Age of the Shutdown
Posted on Oct 18, 2013
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The assassins now in power are cultivating a culture of fear, vengeance and hatred not only directed at disposable populations such as the poor, low-income minority youths, whistleblowers, immigrants and those who are disabled, uninsured and unemployed - but also at civil liberties, labor unions, women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. Neoliberal common sense now colonizes everyday life and spreads the market-driven gospel of privatization, commodification, deregulation and free trade. Competitiveness, self-interest and decentralization are the new mantras governing society and provide the ideological scaffolding for “moulding identities and characterizing social relations.” The pursuit of the public good, social justice and equality has been replaced by the crude discourse of commerce, the drive for profits and “rational choice models that internalize and thus normalize market-oriented behaviour.” Entrepreneurial identities replace all modes of solidarity invested in democratic principles, and self-interested actors supplant the discourse of the public good. The production of capital, services and material goods “are at the heart of the human experience.”
The connection between private troubles and public considerations has been broken. The many problems the American people now face - from unemployment and poverty to homelessness - regardless of the degree to which they are caused by larger social, economic and political forces are now individualized, placed on the shoulders of the victims who are now solely responsible for the terror, hardship and violence they experience. The shutdown is not another example of an egregiously inept and morally corrupt group of politicians, it is a flashpoint registering the degree to which the United States has become an authoritarian state, one now governed by a system in which economics drives politics, irrationality trumps reason, the public good is canceled out by an unchecked narcissism and ethical considerations are subordinated to the drive for profits at any cost.
For those who have refused to participate in the willful amnesia that marks the contemporary slide into authoritarianism, the totalitarian practices of the past few decades have been quite clear. Domestic spying; secret prisons; kill lists; military aggression; the rise of corporatism; the death-dealing culture of hyper-masculinity, drones and the spectacle of violence; and a monochromatic media have not only registered a shift from state power to corporate power but also a move from the welfare state to the warfare state. Consumer sovereignty erases the rights and obligations of citizens and eviscerates ethical claims and social responsibilities from the meaning of politics. Government is viewed as the enemy, except when it benefits the rich, corporations and hedge fund executives. At the same time that social programs are viewed as a pathology and drain on the state, intellectuals are incorporated into a spectacle of conformity where they lose their voices and become normalized.
The hijacking of democracy by extremists in and outside of the government appears completely disassociated from the needs of the American people, and as such the instruments of dominant politics, power and influence appear unaccountable. And unaccountability is the stuff of political tyrants, not simply religious fanatics or market fundamentalists; it has been a long time in the making and has been fed by a relentless culture of fear, warfare, greed, inequality, unbridled power formations, the destruction of civil liberties and a virulent racism that has a long history in the United States and has gone into overdrive since the 1980s, reaching its authoritarian tipping point after the tragedy of 9/11.
Obama may not be responsible for the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis, but he can be charged with furthering a climate of lawlessness that feeds the authoritarian culture supportive of a range of political, economic and cultural interests. The American anti-war activist Fred Branfman argues that:
The new extremists in the Republican Party are simply raising the bar for the authoritarian registers and illegal legalities that have emerged under Bush and Obama in the past decade - including the bailing out of banks guilty of the worst forms of corporate malfeasance, the refusal to prosecute government officials who committed torture, the undermining of civil liberties with the passage of the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the establishment of a presidential kill list and the authorization of widespread surveillance to be used against the American people without full transparency.
The current crisis has little to do with what some have called a standoff between the two major political parties. It is has been decades in the making and is part of a much broader coup d’état to benefit the financial elite, race baiters, war mongers and conservative ideologues such as the right-wing billionaires, David and Charles Koch, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation policy hacks and other extremist individuals and organizations that believe that democracy poses a threat to a government that should be firmly in the hands of Wall Street and other elements of the military-industrial-surveillance-prison complex.
The willingness and recklessness of the new extremists to throw most of the American people, if not all vestiges of economic security and democracy, into political and economic chaos is a measure of the depth and degree to which the United States has become subject to a new form of authoritarianism. Not only has the shutdown caused the American public $300 million a day and portends a financial catastrophe, but it has shut down programs such as WIC that provide funding for “nearly nine million pregnant women, recent mothers, and their children under age five who rely on the program’s supplemental vouchers for healthy food, expensive infant formula, and other necessities. Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. are fed through the WIC program.” Nineteen thousand students in Head Start have lost their funding, 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed, and life-saving research for “children with serious medical needs has been affected.” In Maine, many of the poor will go without funds for heating, the Environmental Protection Agency has furloughed more than 16,000 workers, or 95 percent of its workforce, prompting what Sara Chieffo, the legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, has called “a polluter’s heyday.”
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