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The Ghost of Authoritarianism in the Age of the Shutdown

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Posted on Oct 18, 2013
psyberartist (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

It gets worse. Thousands of safety inspectors for the Federal Aviation Administration no longer on the job because of the shutdown will not be able to perform “included inspections for the de-icing of aircraft on the tarmac and checks that pilots do not fly longer than allowed.” As Think Progress has pointed out, this heavy-handed exercise of raw power means more people will get sick because routine food inspections by the FDA will be dramatically reduced, cutbacks in the staff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will put the country at risk for the spread of infectious diseases, many low-income poor will be cut off from needed nutritional assistance, agencies that conduct workplace inspections and ensure worker safety will not be on the job, and the work of public health researchers may be set back for years. In fact, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, which already were underfunded for years, are “scrambling to recall furloughed employees to deal with a dangerous food-borne salmonella outbreak and a lethal Hepatitis outbreak in Hawaii.”  As Michal Meurer and Candice Bernd point out, food-borne illnesses pose a real and dangerous threat to the American public, and the government shutdown should be seen as part of a broader right-wing plan to dismantle regulatory agencies, regardless of the lethal impact they may have on the American people. The food safety system is in crisis not for lack of resources and expertise but because of willful recklessness put into place through the right-wing policies of the new authoritarianism. There is more at work here than the recklessness of Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and other Tea Party Republicans, bankrolled by a handful of billionaires; there is also the echo of authoritarianism that now saturates the American cultural and political landscape, endlessly normalizing itself in the media and other cultural apparatuses that showcase and normalize its corrupt politics, racist and class-based ideologies and culture of cruelty, all enabled under the sanctity of the market and in the name of state security. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis signal the depth and degree to which the United States has become subject to a new form of authoritarianism.

A new type of criminal regime now drives American politics, one devoid of any sense of justice, equality and honor. It thrives on fear, the false promise of security and an egregious fusion of economic, religious and racist ideologies that have become normalized. This new dystopia wants nothing more than the complete destruction of the formative culture, collectives and the institutions that make democracy possible. Inequality is its engine, and disposability is the reward for large segments of the American public. It ideologies and structure of politics often have been hidden from the American public. The shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis have forced the new authoritarianism out of the shadows into the light. The lockdown state is on full display with its concentrated economic power and the willingness of the apostles of authoritarianism to push millions of people into ruin. Paraphrasing Eric Cazdyn, all of society is now at the mercy of a corporate, religious, and financial elite just as “all ideals are at the mercy of [a] larger economic logic.” The category of hell is alive and well in the racist and imperial enclaves of the rich, the bigoted, the bankers and hedge fund managers.

The question that remains is how can politics be redefined through a new language that is capable of articulating not only what has gone wrong with the United States but how the forces responsible can be challenged in new ways by new social formations and collective movements?  The crisis caused by the shutdown needs to be addressed through a discourse in which the ghosts and traces of historical modes of authoritarianism can be revealed in tandem with its newly revised edition. This is a daunting task, but too much is at stake to not take it up. The authoritarianism that rules American society functions as more than an apology for inequality, the ruthlessness of the market and the savage costs it imposes on the American public; it also represents a present danger that cannot be repeated in the future. Authoritarianism in its present form in America is the result of the formative culture, modes of civic education and sites of public pedagogy necessary for a viable democratic society degenerating into caricature, or what Adorno called an “empty and cold forgetting.” The ghost has become a reality, although it has been reconfigured to adjust to the specificity of the American political, economic and cultural landscape in the 21st century. In 2004, I wrote a book titled The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. What is different almost a decade later is a mode of state repression and an apparatus of symbolic and real violence that is not only more pervasive and visible but also more unaccountable, more daunting in its arrogance and disrespect for the most fundamental elements of justice, equality and civil liberties.

The new authoritarianism must be exposed as a politic of disaster and a new catastrophe, one that is rooted in large-scale terror and the death of the civic imagination. It has to be contoured with a sense of hope and possibility so that intellectuals, artists, workers, educators and young people can imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise.  If we have entered into an era of what Stanley Aronowitz calls “the repressive authoritarian state,” there are signs all over the globe that authoritarianism in its various versions is being challenged in countries that extend from Egypt and Greece to Chile and Mexico. The radical imagination is alive, but it has to be a site of struggle by those committed to creating a new politics, modes of identity, social relations, power arrangements and moral values that offer the glimpse of political and economic emancipation.

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