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Violence, USA: The Warfare State and the Brutalizing of Everyday Life
Posted on May 2, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
Gun culture now rules American values, if not also many of US domestic policies. The National Rifle Association is the emerging symbol of what America has come to represent, perfectly captured in T-shirts worn by its followers that brazenly display the messages “I hate welfare” and “If any would not work neither should he eat.”(21) The relationship Americans have to guns may be complicated, but the social costs are less nuanced and certainly more deadly. In a country with “90 guns for every 100 people,” it comes as no surprise, as Gary Younge points out, that “more than 85 people a day are killed with guns and more than twice that number are injured with them.”(22) The merchants of death trade in a formative and material culture of violence that causes massive suffering and despair while detaching themselves from any sense of moral responsibility. Social costs are rarely considered, in spite of the endless trail of murders committed by the use of such weapons and largely inflicted on poor minorities. Violence has become not only more deadly, but flexible, seeping into a range of institutions, cannibalizing democratic values and merging crime and terror. As Jean and John Comaroff point out, under such circumstances a social order emerges that “appears ever more impossible to apprehend, violence appears ever more endemic, excessive and transgressive and police come, in the public imagination, to embody a nervous state under pressure.”(23) Public disorder becomes both a spectacle and an obsession and is reflected in advertising and other everyday venues—advertising can even “transform nightmare into desire…. [Yet] violence is never just a matter of the circulation of images. Its exercise, legitimate or otherwise, tends to have decidedly tangible objectives. And effects.”(24)
An undeniable effect of the warmongering state is the drain on public coffers. The United States has the largest military budget in the world and “in 2010-2011 accounted for 40% of national spending.”(25) The Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the American taxpayers between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion. What is more, funding such wars comes with an incalculable price in human lives and suffering. For example, the Eisenhower Study estimated that there has been over 224,475 lives lost, 363,383 people wounded and seven million refugees and internally displaced people.(26) But war has another purpose, especially for neoconservatives who want to destroy the social state. By siphoning funds and public support away from much-needed social programs, war, to use David Rothkopf’s phrase, “diminishes government so that it becomes too small to succeed.”(27)
The warfare state hastens the dismantling of the social state and its limited safety net, creating the conditions for the ultra-rich, mega corporations and finance capital to appropriate massive amounts of wealth, income and power. This has resulted in, as of 2012, the largest ever increase in inequality of income and wealth in the United States.(28) Structural inequalities do more than distribute wealth and power upward to the privileged few. They also generate forms of collective violence accentuated by high levels of uncertainty and anxiety, all of which, as Michelle Brown points out, “makes recourse to punishment and exclusion highly seductive possibilities.”(29) The merging of the punishing and financial state is partly legitimated through the normalization of risk, insecurity and fear in which individuals not only have no way of knowing their fate, but also have to bear individually the consequences of being left adrift by neoliberal capitalism.
In American society, the seductive power of the spectacle of violence is fed through a framework of fear, blame and humiliation that circulates widely in popular culture. The consequence is a culture marked by increasing levels of inequality, suffering and disposability. There is not only a “surplus of rage,” but also a collapse of civility in which untold forms of violence, humiliation and degradation proliferate. Hyper-masculinity and the spectacle of a militarized culture now dominate American society - one in which civility collapses into rudeness, shouting and unchecked anger. What is unique at this historical conjuncture in the United States is that such public expression of hatred, violence and rage “no longer requires concealment but is comfortable in its forthrightness.”(30) How else to explain the support by the majority of Americans for state sanctioned torture, the public indifference to the mass incarceration of poor people of color, or the public silence in the face of police violence in public schools against children, even those in elementary schools? As war becomes the organizing principle of society, the ensuing effects of an intensifying culture of violence on a democratic civic culture are often deadly and invite anti-democratic tendencies that pave the way for authoritarianism.
In addition, as the state is hijacked by the financial-military-industrial complex, the “most crucial decisions regarding national policy are not made by representatives, but by the financial and military elites.”(31) Such massive inequality and the suffering and political corruption it produces point to the need for critical analysis in which the separation of power and politics can be understood. This means developing terms that clarify how power becomes global even as politics continues to function largely at the national level, with the effect of reducing the state primarily to custodial, policing and punishing functions—at least for those populations considered disposable.
The state exercises its slavish role in the form of lowering taxes for the rich, deregulating corporations, funding wars for the benefit of the defense industries and devising other welfare services for the ultra-rich. There is no escaping the global politics of finance capital and the global network of violence that it has created. Resistance must be mobilized globally and politics restored to a level where it can make a difference in fulfilling the promises of a global democracy. But such a challenge can only take place if the political is made more pedagogical and matters of education take center stage in the struggle for desires, subjectivities and social relations that refuse the normalizing of violence as a source of gratification, entertainment, identity and honor.
War in its expanded incarnation works in tandem with a state organized around the production of widespread violence. Such a state is necessarily divorced from public values and the formative cultures that make a democracy possible. The result is a weakened civic culture that allows violence and punishment to circulate as part of a culture of commodification, entertainment and distraction. In opposing the emergence of the United States as both a warfare and a punishing state, I am not appealing to a form of left moralism meant simply to mobilize outrage and condemnation. These are not unimportant registers, but they do not constitute an adequate form of resistance.
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