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Hope in a Time of Permanent War

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Posted on Sep 6, 2013
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By Henry A Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

Democratic hope poses the important challenge of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. Judith Butler is right in insisting that “there is more hope in the world when we can question what is taken for granted, especially about what it is to be human.” Bauman extends this insight by arguing that the resurrection of any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose, as he puts it, is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unraveling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.” Neither the death of hope, its commodification nor its romanticization are enough to explain the absence of struggle in the United States. Mass ignorance matters, as does a political economy that manufactures it, but at stake here are larger issues about those modes of education, socialization and the production of subjects in American society that willingly buy into their own oppression and subjugation.

The fear of taking power has deeper roots in the American public than simply the plague of not knowing. While the pedagogical nature of politics cannot be disavowed, it must be supplemented into a deeper understanding of how capitalism subverts people’s needs, how depth psychology works through dominant cultural apparatuses as part of a broader public pedagogy that cripples the spirit, redirects the drive for pleasure and subverts the imagination. This is a different war waged by neoliberal society - not just on the body and mind but on the individual and collective psyche. And if the left and progressives are to address this element of low-intensity warfare on the home front they will have to connect hope to a sustained inquiry, as Aronowitz argues, over the shaping of the political and cultural unconscious. Outrage has gone astray, losing its moral and political moorings, and has been absorbed in self-deprecation, depression, cynicism, a fear of the other, a hatred of poor minorities, a distrust of the Arab world and a disgust for democratic social bonds.

War has become not simply a strategy but a way of life in the United States. It has been elevated to an all-encompassing ideology and politics that includes a view of all citizens as potential terrorists in need of surveillance and an ongoing attack on dissidents, critical journalists, educators and any public sphere capable of questioning authority. Hope provides a potential register of resistance, a new language, a different understanding of politics and a view of the future in which the voices of the public are heard rather than silenced. Hope also accentuates how politics might be played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of hope is not to liberate the individual from the social - a central tenet of neoliberalism - but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social.

Democratic hope is a subversive, defiant practice that makes power visible and interrogates and resists those events, social relations and ideas that pose a threat to democracy. It refuses to escape into firewall of obtuse academic discourse removed from the problems of everyday life, it rejects the alleged neutrality of mainstream media, rebuffs the discourse of idiocy and simplification that characterizes celebrity culture, and it disallows a sterile and empty discourse of common sense, which wages a war on informed criticism, the imagination and the very possibility of imagining a better world. Hope at its best provides a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between passion, vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation, on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential it has to be grounded in a pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice, and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the ongoing struggle for a global democracy.

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Yet, such hopes do not materialize out of thin air. They have to be nourished, developed, debated, examined and acted upon to become meaningful. And this takes time, and demands what might be called an “impatient patience.” When outrage dissipates into silence, crippling the mind, imagination, spirit, and collective will, it becomes almost impossible to fight the galloping forces of authoritarianism that beset the United States and many other countries. But one cannot dismiss as impossible what is simply difficult, even if such difficulty defies hope itself. Bauman is right, once again, in arguing that “As to our hopes: hope is one human quality we are bound never to lose without losing our humanity. But we may be similarly certain that a safe haven in which to drop its anchor will take a very long time to be found.” As the current administration tries to persuade the American public and a cravenly Congress that military intervention is necessary in Syria, Obama is betting against hope - against the possibility that his investment in war, state violence and secrecy will be challenged by the American public. There is more at stake here than a military strike against Syria, there is the Hobbesian imaginary of endless permanent war and the presence of a security-warfare state that can only imagine violence as a solution to whatever problem it identifies. The future of American society lies in opposition to the warfare state, its warfare culture, its mad machinery of violence and its gross misdeeds. State violence is not a measure of greatness and honor. Such violence trades in incredulous appeals to security and fear mongering in its efforts to paralyze the impulse for justice, the culture of questioning, and the civic courage necessary to refuse and oppose complicity with state terrorism. Hope turns radical when it exposes the acts of aggression against injustices perpetuated by a militarized state that can only dream of war. But hope does more than critique, dismantle, and expose the ideologies, values, institutions, and social relations that are pushing so many countries today into authoritarianism. It begs for more than a retreat into the language of criticism by developing a renewed sense of what it means to imagine otherwise, rethink a more just sense of the future, reclaim the principles of a real democracy, and organize a political discourse that inhabits not common sense but reflective sense, good sense—a sense that the struggle is not over and demands a broad based social movement in which the struggle for a new democratic global social order can be constructed.


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