By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
A version of this piece first appeared at Truthout.
A tragedy of errors: nobody knows any more who is who. The smoke of the explosions forms part of the much larger curtain of smoke that prevents all of us from seeing clearly. From revenge to revenge, terrorism obliges us to walk to our graves. I saw a photo, recently published, of graffiti on a wall in NYC: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.
The American public rightfully expressed a collective sigh of relief and a demonstration of prodigious gratitude towards law enforcement authorities when the unprecedented manhunt for the Boston marathon bombers came to an end. The trauma and anxiety felt by the people of Boston and to some degree by the larger society over the gratuitously bloody and morally degenerate attacks on civilians was no doubt heightened given the legacy of 9/11. Since the tragic events of that historical moment, the nation has been subjected to “a media spectacle of fear and unreason delivered via TV, news sites and other social media;” it has also been engulfed in a nationwide hysteria about Muslims. Moreover, the American public has been schizophrenically immersed within a culture of fear and cruelty punctuated by a law-and-order driven promise for personal safety, certainty, and collective protection that amounted to a Faustian bargain with the devil, one in which Americans traded constitutional rights and numerous civil liberties for the ever expanding presence of a militarized security and surveillance state run by a government that has little regard for human rights or the principles of justice and democracy.
The collective expressions of relief, compassion, and adulation were reasonable and appropriate once the threat from the Boston marathon bombers had ended. But such feelings are short-lived in a country that infamously is losing its capacity to question itself, embracing instead a mode of historical amnesia “in which forgetting has become more important than learning.” What is needed in the aftermath of this tragedy is a critical and thoughtful analysis about what the significance of locking down an entire city meant not simply for the present or the future of urban living, but for democracy itself. Locking down Boston was generally left unquestioned by the mainstream media, though a number of progressive and left intellectuals raised serious questions about the use and implications of the tactic, particularly the abridging civil liberties, squelching dissent, and legitimating the spectacle of the war machine. For example, Michael Schwalbe argues that he was troubled by what lockdown foreshadows with its connotation of authoritarian control, its expanding use, and its ongoing normalization in American society. He writes:
When I hear that authorities have locked down a school, a workplace, a transit system, a cell phone network, or a city, the subtext seems unmistakable: We are now in control. Listen carefully and do as you are told. What I hear is the warden saying that communication will flow in one direction only, and that silence and obedience are the only options.
Other critics suggested the lockdown represented a massive overreaction that was symptomatic of a larger social crisis. Steven Rosenfeld argued that “beyond lingering questions of whether the government went too far by shutting down an entire city and whether that might encourage future terrorism, a deeper and darker question remains: why is America’s obsession with evil so selective?” This was an important point and was largely ignored by most commentators on the tragedy. Implicit in Rosenfeld’s question is why the notion of security and safety are limited to personal security and the fear of attacks by terrorists rather than the rise of a gun culture, the shredding of the safety net for millions of Americans, the imprisonment of one out of every 100 Americans, or the transformation of public schools into adjuncts of the punishing and surveillance state.
Lockdown as a policy and mode of control misrepresents the notion of security by reducing it to personal safety and thereby mobilizing fears that demand trading civil liberties for increased militarized security. The lockdown that took place in Boston serves as a reminder of how narrow the notion of security has become in that it is almost entirely associated with personal safety but never with the insecurities that derive from poverty, a lack of social provisions, and the incarceration binge. Most importantly, it now serves as a metaphor for how we address problems facing a range of institutions including immigration detention centers, schools, hospitals, public housing, and prisons. Lockdown is the new common sense of a militarized society, the zone of unchecked surveillance, policing, and state brutality. Some have argued that because the people of Boston were only advised to stay inside while police in paramilitary formation flooded the city, it is not fair to suggest there was a lockdown. The real concern here should focus on what it means when the national security state is out in full force in a particular city and no longer finds it necessary for them to actually impose martial law. Rather than give orders, all that is necessary is for the state to give advice, and thus be able to mimic a military occupation without the necessity of even bothering with consent.
Security in this instance is reduced to issues of law and order and mirrors a Hobbesian free-for-all, a world that “reveres competitiveness and celebrates unrestrained individual responsibility, with an antipathy to anything collective that might impede market forces”—a world in which the Darwinian survival of the fittest ethos rules and the only values that matter are exchange values. In this panopticon-like social order, there is little understanding of society as a public good, of the importance of providing public necessities such as decent housing, job programs for the unemployed, housing for the poor and homeless, health care for everyone, and universal education for young people.
In a society where critical analysis and explanation of violent attacks of this nature are dismissed as terrorist sympathizing, there is a stultifying logic that assumes that contextualizing an event is tantamount to justifying it. This crippling impediment to public dialogue may be why the militarized response to the Boston marathon bombings, infused with the fantasy of the Homeland as a battlefield and the necessity of the paramilitarized surveillance state, was for the most part given a pass in mainstream media. Of course, there is more at stake here than misplaced priorities and the dark cloud of historical amnesia and anti-intellectualism, there is also the drift of American society into a form of soft authoritarianism in which boots on the ground and the securitization of everyday life now serve either as a source of pride, entertainment, or for many disposable groups, a source of fear.
Yet, in the immediate aftermath of the marathon bombing, shock and collective dislocation left little room to think about the context in which the bombing took place or the implications of a lockdown strategy that hints at the broader danger of exchanging security for freedom. Any attempt to suggest that the overly militarized response to the bombings was less about protecting people than legitimating the ever expanding reach of military operations to solve domestic problems was either met with disdain or silence in the dominant media. Even more telling was the politically offensive reaction to such critics and the intensity of a right-wing diatribe that used the Boston marathon bombing as an excuse to further the expansion of the punishing state with its apparatuses of militarization, surveillance, secrecy, and its embrace of lawless states of exception. Equally repulsive was how the Boston bombing produced an ample amount of nativist paranoia about immigrants and the quest for an “enemy combatant” behind every door.
In the midst of the emotional fervor that followed the bloody Boston marathon bombings, various pundits decried any talk about a possible militarized overreaction to the event and the hint that such tactics pointed to the dangers of a police state. One critic in a moment of emotive local hysteria referred to such critics as “outrage junkies,” claimed they were “masturbating in public,” and insisted he was washing his hands of what he termed “bad rubbish.” This particular line of thought with its discursive infantilism and echoes of nationalistic jingoism ominously hinted that what happened in Boston could only register legitimately as a deeply felt emotional event, one that was desecrated by trying to understand it within a broader historical and political context.
Another register of bad faith was evident in the comments of right-wing pundits, broadcasting elites, and squeamish liberals who amped up the frenzied media spectacle surrounding the marathon bombing. Many of them suggested, without apology, that the country should be grateful for an increase in invasive searches, the suspension of constitutional rights, the embrace of total surveillance, and the ongoing normalization of the security state and Islamophobia. One frightening offshoot of the Boston marathon bombing was the authoritarian tirade unleashed among a range of government officials that indicated how close dissent is to being treated as a crime and how under siege public space is by the forces of manufactured terrorism. For example, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) used the attacks in an effort to undo immigration reform, no longer concealing his disdain for immigrants, especially Muslims and Mexicans. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) argued that President Obama should not only deny Tsarnaev his constitutional rights by refusing to read him his Miranda Rights, but also hold him as “an enemy combatant for intelligence gathering purposes.” As one commentator pointed out, “This is pretty breathtaking. Graham is suggesting that an American citizen, captured on American soil, should be deprived of basic constitutional rights.” Graham is simply arguing what many Americans have experienced since the tragic attack of September 11, 2001. The boundaries between the military and civilian life have been abolished just as the boundaries between the “innocent and quality, between suspects and non-suspects” have become increasingly blurred. The international claim of solidarity that took place in the aftermath of September 11th, in which a number of countries insisted that “We are all Americans”, has given way in American society to the zombie-like notion that “We are all potentially enemy combatants”. There is more at stake here than hyped-up security or the rise of the surveillance state, there is a militarizing logic of war and authoritarianism that can translate into the death of democracy.
Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) reasserted his long standing racism by repeatedly arguing that the greatest threat of terrorism faced by the U.S. “is coming from the Muslim community” and that it might be time for state and federal authorities to spy on all Muslims. According to King, “Police have to be in the community, they have to build up as many sources as they can, and they have to realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there,” adding that “we can’t be bound by political correctness.” King seems to think that dismissing the rhetoric of political correctness provides a rationale for translating into policy his Islamophobia and the national hallucination it feeds. Of course, King and others are simply channeling the racism of the cartoonish Ann Coulter who actually suggested that all “unauthorized immigrants in the United States might be terrorists.” This nativist paranoia is not new and has a long and disgraceful legacy in American history.
What is new in the current historical moment is how easily nativist paranoia and a culture of cruelty have become normalized and generated an acceptable public lexicon more characteristic of state terrorism and a military state than a “free and open” democracy. For instance, New York State Sen. Greg Ball (R), channeling Dick Cheney, took this logic of state terrorism to its inevitable end point, reminding Americans of the degree to which the United States has lost its moral compass, when he sent a message from his Twitter account, suggesting that the authorities torture Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As Ball put it, “So, scum bag #2 in custody. Who wouldn’t use torture on this punk to save more lives?” There is more at work here than an evasion of principle, to say nothing of international law. There is an erasure of the very notion of a substantive and democratic polity, and a frightening collective embrace of an authoritarianism that points to the final rasp of democracy in the United States. Such unconsidered remarks should compel us to examine the state’s use of lockdown procedures within a savage market driven society that sanctions the return of the 19th century debtor’s prisons in which people are jailed—and their lives ruined—for not being able to pay what amounts to trivial fines. The culture of punishment and cruelty is also evident in the attempt on the part of some West Virginia Republican Party legislators who are pushing for a policy that would force low-income school children to work in exchange for free lunches. The flight from ethical responsibility associated with the rise of the punishing state and the politics of the lockdown is also evident in the willingness of police forces around the country to push young children into the criminal justice system. More specifically, there is a frightening, even normalized willingness in American life to align politics and everyday life with the forces of militarization, law enforcement officials, and the dictates of the national security state.
The lockdown and ongoing search for those responsible for the Boston marathon bombings was an eminently political event because it amplified the dreadful potential and real consequences of the never-ending war on terror and the anti-democratic processes it has produced at all levels of government along with an increasing diminishment of civil liberties. The script has become familiar and includes the authorized use of state sponsored torture, the unchecked power of the president to conduct targeted assassinations, the use of warrantless searches, extraordinary renditions, secret courts, and the continuing monitoring of targeted citizens. Another consequence of the war on terror and the increasing use of military drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan is that many innocent children and adults are being killed and, as Noam Chomsky points, such attacks are terrorizing villagers, turning them into enemies of the United States-something that years of jihadi propaganda had failed to accomplish…. There was no direct way to prevent the Boston murders. There are some easy ways to prevent likely future ones: by not inciting them.”
Since 9/11 we have witnessed the rise of a national-security-surveillance state and the expansion of a lockdown mode of existence in a range of institutions that extend from schools and airports to the space of the city itself. The meaning of lockdown in this context has to be understood in broader terms as the use of military solutions to problems for which such approaches are not only unnecessary but further produce authoritarian and anti-democratic policies and practices. Under such circumstances, not only have civil liberties been violated in the name of national security, but the promise of national security has given rise to policies which are punitive, steeped in the logic of revenge, and support the rise of a punishing state whose echoes of authoritarianism are often lost in the moral comas that accompany the country’s infatuation with war and the militarization of everyday life.
Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian, succinctly insists that Boston marathon bombings is a political event because it “connects to larger questions about our culture and because it was infused with all kinds of political messages about Muslims, about radicalism, about what the proper role of the police and the military are in the United States.” While there has been some criticism over what was perceived as the unnecessary imposition of a lockdown in Boston, and especially Watertown, what has been missed in many of these arguments is that the U.S. is already in lockdown mode, which has been intensifying since 9/11. A number of critics have raised questions about the abridgement of civil rights and the specter of excessive policing after the marathon bombing as one-off events, but few have discussed the continuity and expansion of the logic of lockdown predating September 11 which can be traced back to the massive incarceration of disproportionate numbers of people of color beginning in the early 1970s.
This history has been addressed by Christian Parenti, Tom Englehardt, Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and others and need not be repeated here, but what does need to be addressed is how the concept and tactic of the lockdown has moved far beyond the walls of the prison and now shapes a whole range of institutions, making clear how the United States has moved into a lockdown mode that is consistent with the precepts of an authoritarian state. While the Boston lockdown was more of a request for the public to stay inside, it displayed all of the attributes of martial law, especially in Watertown where house-to-house searches took on the appearance of treating the residents as feared criminals.
Lockdown cannot be understood outside of the manufactured war on terrorism and the view, aptly expressed by Lindsey Graham, that the Boston marathon bombing “is Exhibit A of why the homeland is the battlefield.” Graham’s comments embrace the dangerous correlate that everyone is a possible enemy combatant and that domestic militarization and its embrace of perpetual war is a perfectly legitimate practice, however messy it might be when measured against democratic principles, human rights, and the most basic precepts of constitutional law. Lockdown as a concept and strategy gains its meaning and legitimacy under specific historical conditions informed by particular modes of ideology, governance, and policies.
At a time when the United States has embraced a number of anti-democratic practices extending from state torture to the ruthless militarized logic of a Darwinian politics of cruelty and disposability, the symbolic nature of the lockdown is difficult to both ignore and remove from the authoritarian state that increasingly relies on it as a form of policing and disciplinary control. This becomes all the more obvious by the fact that the lockdown in Boston appears to be a major overreach compared to the response of other countries to terrorist acts. As Michael Cohen, a correspondent for The Guardian, points out:
The actions allegedly committed by the Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, were heinous. Four people dead and more than 100 wounded some with shredded and amputated limbs. But Londoners, who endured IRA terror for years, might be forgiven for thinking that America over-reacted just a tad to the goings-on in Boston. They’re right – and then some. What we saw was a collective freak-out like few that we’ve seen previously in the United States. It was yet another depressing reminder that more than 11 years after 9/11 Americans still allow themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the “threat” of terrorism.
Some would argue that locking down an entire city because a homicidal killer was on the loose can be attributed to how little experience Americans have with daily acts of terrorism, unlike Israel, Baghdad, and other cities which are constantly subject to such attacks. While there is an element of truth to such arguments what is missing from this position is a different and more frightening logic. Americans have become so indifferent to the militarization of everyday life that they barely blink when an entire city, school, prison, or campus is locked down. In a society in which everyone is treated as a potential enemy combatant, misfit, villain, or criminal “to be penalized, locked up or locked out,” it is not surprising that institutions and policies are constructed that normalize a range of anti-democratic practices. These would include everything from invasive body searches by the police and the mass incarceration of people of color to the ongoing surveillance and securitization of schools, workplaces, the social media, Internet, businesses, neighborhoods, and individuals, all of which mimic the tactics of a police state. At a time when prison, poverty, and a culture of cruelty and punishment inform each other and ensnare more and more Americans, the “governing-through-crime” complex moves across America like a fast-spreading virus. In its wake, Mississippi schoolchildren are handcuffed for not wearing a belt or the wrong color shoes, young mothers who cannot pay a traffic ticket are sent to jail; and according to Michelle Alexander “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”
These examples are not merely anecdotal. They point to the alarming degree to which lockdown becomes a central tool and organizing logic in controlling those growing populations now considered disposable and subject to the machinery of social and civil death. The racist grammars of state violence that emerged during and in the aftermath of the lockdown of Boston speak to a connection between the violence of disposability that haunts American life and the increasing reliance on the state’s use of force to implement and maintain its structures of inequality, abusive power, and domination. Within this system of control and domination, matters of moral, social, and political responsibility are silenced in the name of securitization, even as efforts to pass legislation on gun control are routinely displaced by the assertion of individual rights. For instance, Americans rightly mourn the victims of the Boston bombings but say nothing about the ongoing killing of hundreds of children in the streets of Chicago largely due to the abundance of high-powered weaponry and the gratuitous celebration of the spectacle of violence in American culture. Nor is there a public outcry and mourning for the tragic deaths of over 200 children killed as a result of drone attacks launched by the Obama administration on Afghanistan and other countries alleged to harbor terrorists. Evil, when deployed by the American media and its complicit politicians, becomes at once too broad and too narrow, but insistently self-serving. Evil is always lurking out there in some objectively defined place, fixed spaces, and territories but never within those who seize upon the category to distance themselves for the crimes they are complicity with.
Accordingly, the rush to lockdown must be understood within a wider military metaphysics, informed by the dictates of an increasingly authoritarian society, the ongoing war on terror, and the establishment of the permanent warfare state, which now moves across and shapes a wide range of sites and institutions. As a metaphysic, lockdown is an essential mode of governance, ideology, faith, and practice that defines everyone as a soldier, enemy combatant, or a willing client of the security state. Among the most severe implications is that the war on terror actively wages a war on the very possibility of judgment, informed argument and decision, and critical agency itself. More specifically, the lockdown mode is hostile to dissent, the questioning of authority, and its disciplinary practices are steeped in a long history of abuse extending from harassing prison inmates, turning schools into prisons, transforming factories into slave labor camps, bullying student protestors, criminalizing social activists, transforming black and brown communities into armed camps, and treating public housing as a war zone. It is a practice that emerges out of the glorification of war and the appeal to a state of emergency and exception. Moreover, the values and practices it legitimates blur the lines between the wars at home and abroad and the ongoing investment in the culture of war and machineries of death. Citizens are now produced to serve the national security state and “civic virtues such as freedom, equality and citizenship are threaded into the militarized national narrative of conquest and conversion.”
Tom Englehardt has eloquently argued that the National Security Complex, with its “$75 billion or more budget” continues to accelerate and that “the Pentagon is, by now, a world unto itself, with a staggering budget at a moment when no other power or combination of powers comes near to challenging this country’s might.” Moreover, under the guise of the war on terror, the Bush and Obama administrations have “lifted the executive branch right out of the universe of American legality. They liberated it to do more or less what it wished, as long as ‘war,’ ‘terrorism,’ or ‘security’ could be invoked. Meanwhile, with their Global War on Terror well launched and promoted as a multigenerational struggle, they made wartime their property for the long run.”
The lockdown mode exalts military authority and thrives in a society that “can no longer even expect our public institutions to do anything meaningful to address meaningful problems.” One indication of the militarization of American society is the high social status now accorded to the military itself and the transformation of soldiers into uniformly heroic subjects and objects of national reverence. As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out,
What is most remarkable is not the growth in the number of soldiers in the United States but rather their social stature…Military personnel in uniform are given priority boarding on commercial airlines, and it is not uncommon for strangers to stop and thank them for their service. In the United States, rising esteem for the military in uniform corresponds to the growing militarization of the society as a whole. All of this despite repeated revelations of the illegality and immorality of the military’s own incarceration systems, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, whose systematic practices border on if not actually constitute torture.
At the same time, military values no longer operate within the exclusive realm and marginalized space of the armed forces or those governing structures dedicated to defense. On the contrary, the ideas, values, profits, and war talk emerging from the national security sector shape the everyday lives of civilians, creating what Charles Derber and Yale Magrass call a militarized society, which, as they put it,
develops a culture and institutions which program civilians for violence at home as well as abroad. War celebrates the heroism of soldiers who use the same style weapons and ammunition used by the mass shooters at Newtown, Los Angeles or Columbine. A warrior society values its armed forces as heroic protectors of freedom, sending a message that the use of guns [and the organized production of violence are] morally essential.
Ulrich Beck is right in arguing that the “Military is to democracy as fire is to water.” He writes that military values define:
the life of a person [as ] worth less than the lump of flesh in which he dwells. If democracy demands the individual’s will, the military demands his subordination. If, in the former case, all power originates from the people, then, in the latter all orders come from above. …Wherever one looks, it is the same: democracy means openness, questioning, power-sharing, transparent decisions. Military is a synonym for secret, command, killing, strictly prohibited. There is no need to recite the rest.
Military values of pride, heroism, sacrifice, and valor in America have become one of the few sources of civic pride. This helps to explain a few things. First, the public’s silence in the face of not only the eradication and suppression of civil liberties, public values and democratic institutions by the expanding financial elite and military-industrial-complex. Second, and related, the transformations of a number of institutions into militarized spheres more concerned about imposing a punitive authority rather than creating the conditions for the production of an engaged and critical citizenry. Lockdown signals the rise of an anti-politics, the rise of a new authoritarianism—an era of liminal drift in which democracy does not merely get thinned out but begins to morph into dangerous forms of militarization that do not support open dialogue, debate, transparency, or public accountability. Since when are SWAT teams viewed as the highest expression of national honor?
Militarism thrives on the mass produced culture of fear and the spectacle of violence. It abhors dissent and flourishes in an ever expanding web of secrecy. Both Bush and Obama have used the cult of secrecy and the threat of punishment to silence whistleblowers, allow those who have committed torture under the government direction to go free, and refused those who have been “interrogated” illegally to take their case to the courts. In the age of illegal legalities, the rule of law disappears into a vast abyss of secret memos, personal preferences, classified documents, targeted killings, and secret missions conducted by special operations forces. Tom Engelhardt rightly argues that America has become a country wedded to the ethical-stripping fantasy that the rule of law not only still prevails but applies to everyone. He writes:
What it means to be in such a post-legal world—to know that, no matter what acts a government official commits, he or she will never be brought to court or have a chance of being put in jail—has yet to fully sink in. In reality, in the Bush and Obama years, the United States has become a nation not of laws but of legal memos, not of legality but of legalisms—and you don’t have to be a lawyer to know it. The result? Secret armies, secret wars, secret surveillance, and spreading state secrecy, which meant a government of the bureaucrats about which the American people could know next to nothing. And it’s all ‘legal.’
Pervasive secrecy in the age of the lockdown suggests that the United States has more in common with authoritarian regimes than with flourishing democracies. Yet the American people still believe they live in what is touted in the mainstream media and right-wing cultural apparatuses as a country that represents the apogee of freedom and democracy. As Brian Terrell argues, “prisons and the military, America’s dominant institutions, exist not to bring healing to domestic ills or relief from foreign threats but to exacerbate and manipulate them for the profit of the wealthiest few, at great cost and peril for the rest of us”? Why aren’t people pouring into the streets of American cities protesting the rise of the prison and military as America’s dominant institutions?
What will it take for the American public to connect the increasing militarization of everyday life to the ways in which the prison-industrial complex destroys lives and for-profit corporations have the power to put poor people in jails for being in debt. Or for that matter when school authorities punish young children by putting them in seclusion rooms while on a larger scale the U.S. government increasingly relies on solitary confinement in detaining immigrants. When will the American people link images of the “shattered bodies, dismembered limbs, severed arteries …and terrified survivors” to the reports of over 200 young children killed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia as a result of drone attacks launched by faux video gamers sitting in dark rooms in cities thousands of miles away from their targets? In the face of the Boston marathon bombings, the question that haunts the American public is not about our capacity for compassion and solidarity for the victims of this tragedy but how indifferent we are to the conditions that too readily have turned this terrible tragedy into just another exemplary register of the war on terror and a further legitimation for the military-industrial-national security state.
Violence and its handmaidens, militarism and military culture, have become essential threads in the fabric of American life. We live in a culture in which a lack of imagination is matched by diminishing intellectual visions and a collective refusal to challenge injustices, however blatant and corrosive they may be. For instance, a political system completely corrupted by big money is barely the subject of sustained analysis and public outrage. The mortgaging of the future of many young people to the incessant greed of casino capitalism and the growing disparities in income and wealth does little to diminish the public’s faith in the fraud of the free market. The embarrassing judgments of a judicial system that punishes the poor and allows the rich to go free in the face of unimaginable financial crimes boggles the mind. The challenge facing Americans is not the illusory dream of winning the war on terror but those undemocratic economic, political, and cultural forces that hold sway over American life, intent on destroying civic society and any vestige of agency willing to challenge them.
Young people, especially those in the Occupy movement, the Quebec protesters, and the student resisters in France, Chile, and Greece seem currently to represent the only hope we have left in the United States and abroad for a display of political and moral courage in which they are willing individually and collectively to oppose the authority of the market and an expanding state of lockdown while still raising fundamental questions about the project of democracy and why they have been left out of it. Salman Rushdie has argued that political courage has become ambiguous and that the American public, among others, has “become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma” or even worse, are blamed increasingly for upsetting people given their willingness to stand against and challenge orthodoxy or bigotry. Gone, he argues, are the writers and intellectuals who opposed Stalinism, capitalist tyranny, and the various religious and ideological orthodoxies that transform thinking and critically engaged critics into anti-intellectual fundamentalists and political cowards. In short, willing accomplices of the abused of power.
Of course, there are brave counter examples of brave intellectuals and artists all over the world such as Ai Weiwei, Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Stuart Hall, Arundhati Roy, and others who do not tie their intellectual capital to the possibility of a summer cruise, the rewards provided to those who are silent in the face of injustices or sell their souls to defense intelligence agencies who offer research funds. Nor do they participate in Fox News-like apparatuses that offer anti-public intellectuals instant celebrity status and substantial reward for demonstrating the pedagogical virtues of keeping the public politically illiterate while making it easier to push the informed and thoughtful to the margins of society. An Noam Chomsky has pointed out, these are pseudo intellectuals whose most distinguishing feature is not only “acceptance within the system of power and a ready path to privilege, but also the inestimable advantage of freedom from the onerous demands of thought, inquiry, and argument.”
American culture powers a massive disimagination machine in which historical memory is hijacked as struggles by the oppressed disappear, the “state as the guardian of the public interest is erased,” and the memory of institutions serving the public good evaporates. At the same time reinscriptions of violence define notions of a dangerous and hardened notion masculinity in which men (and increasingly women) have to learn to be tough, deny vulnerability, learn to punish and kill and experience it as pleasure, endure humiliation in the face of military authority, and be willing to sacrifice limbs, mental stability, body parts, and life itself. In opposition to this culture and machinery of death, there is a need to reclaim the memories of diverse democratic movements in order to reimagine a politics capable of resurrecting democratic institutions of governance, culture, and education; moreover, the educative nature of politics has to be addressed in order to develop both new forms of individual and collective agency and vast social networks that can challenge the global concentration of economic and political power held by a dangerous class of financial and wealthy elites.
Gayatri Spivak has argued that “without a strong imagination, there can be no democratic judgment, which can imagine something other than one’s own well-being.” The current historical conjuncture dominated by the discourse and institutions of neoliberalism and militarization present a threat not just to the economy but to the very possibility of imagining an alternative to a machinery of punishment, isolation, and death that now reaches into every aspect of daily life. A generalized fear now shapes American society, one that thrives on insecurity, precarity, dread of punishment, and a concern with external threats. Any struggle that matters will have to imagine and fight for a society in which it becomes possible once again to dream the project of a substantive democracy. This means, as Ulrich Beck has pointed out, looking for politics in new spaces and arenas outside of traditional elections, political parties, and “duly authorized agents.” It suggests developing public spaces outside of the regime of casino capitalism and developing a type of counter politics, one engaged in the shaping of society from the bottom up. Central to such a challenge is the educational task of inquiring not only how democracy has been lost under the current regime of neoliberal capitalism with its gangster rulers and utter disregard for its production of organized irresponsibility and injustice but also how the project of democracy can be retrieved through the joint power and efforts of workers, young people, educators, minorities, immigrants, and others. At the present historical moment, lockdown culture is being disrupted in many societies. A fight for democracy is emerging across the globe led by young people, workers, and others unwilling to live in societies in which lockdown becomes an organizing tool for social control and repression. The future of democracy rests precisely with such groups both in the United States and abroad who are willing to create new social movements built on a powerful vision of the promise of democracy and the durable organizations that make it possible.
Brian Birke (CC BY 2.0)
A deserted Federal Street in Boston on April 19, the day of the manhunt for marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.