Authoritarianism, Class Warfare and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
This piece first appeared at Truthout.
Right-wing calls for austerity suggest more than a market-driven desire to punish the poor, working class and middle class by distributing wealth upwards to the 1%. They also point to a politics of disposability in which the social provisions, public spheres and institutions that nourish democratic values and social relations are being dismantled, including public and higher education. Neoliberal austerity policies embody an ideology that produces both zones of abandonment and forms of social and civil death while also infusing society with a culture of increasing hardship. It also makes clear that the weapons of class warfare do not reside only in oppressive modes of state terrorism such as the militarization of the police, but also in policies that inflict misery, immiseration and suffering on the vast majority of the population.
Capitalism has learned to create host organisms and in the current historical conjuncture one of those organisms is young people, who are forced to live under the burden of crushing debt. Moreover in the midst of a widening inequality in wealth, income and power, workers, single mothers, youth, immigrants and poor people of color are being plunged into either low-paying jobs or a future without decent employment. For the sick and elderly, it means choosing between food and medicine. Austerity now drives an exchange relationship in which the only value that matters is exchange value and for students that means paying increased tuition that generates profits for credit companies while allowing the state to lower taxes on the rich and mega corporations.
Both neoliberal-driven governments and authoritarian societies share one important factor: They care more about consolidating power in the hands of the political, corporate and financial elite than they do about investing in the future of young people and expanding the benefits of the social contract and common good.
Under this regime of widening inequality that imposes enormous constraints on the choices that people can make, austerity measures function as a set of hyper-punitive policies and practices that produce massive amounts of suffering, rob people of their dignity and then humiliate them by suggesting that they bear sole responsibility for their plight. This is more than the scandal of a perverted form of neoliberal rationality; it is the precondition for an emerging authoritarian state with its proliferating extremist ideologies and its growing militarization and criminalization of all aspects of everyday life and social behavior. Richard D. Wolff has argued that “Austerity is yet another extreme burden imposed on the global economy by the capitalist crisis (in addition to the millions suffering unemployment, reduced global trade, etc.).” He is certainly right, but it is more than a burden imposed on the 99%; it is the latest stage of market warfare, class consolidation and a ruthless grab for power waged on the part of the neoliberal, global, financial elite who are both heartless and indifferent to the mad violence and unchecked misery they impose on much of humanity.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, casino “capitalism proceeds through creative destruction. What is created is capitalism in a ‘new and improved’ form – and what is destroyed is the self-sustaining capacity, livelihood and dignity of its innumerable and multiplied ‘host organisms’ into which all of us are drawn/seduced one way or another.” Creative destruction armed with the death-dealing power of ruthless austerity measures benefits the financial elite while at the same time destroying the social state and setting the foundation for the punishing state, which now becomes the default institution for those pushed out of the so-called promise of democracy. Both neoliberal-driven governments and authoritarian societies share one important factor: They care more about consolidating power in the hands of the political, corporate and financial elite than they do about investing in the future of young people and expanding the benefits of the social contract and common good.
The stories that now dominate the European and North American landscape are not about economic reform; instead, they embody what stands for common sense among market and religious fundamentalists in a number of mainstream political parties: shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful, and destroy government programs that help the disadvantaged, elderly and sick; attacks on women’s reproductive rights; attempts to suppress voter ID laws and rig electoral college votes; full-fledged assaults on the environment; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; and an ongoing attack on unions, social provisions, and the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful health care reform. These stories are endlessly repeated by the neoliberal and neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking the blood and life out of everyone and everything they touch – from the millions killed in foreign wars to the millions at home forced into underemployment, foreclosure, poverty or prison.
The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interests over the common good.
Right-wing appeals to austerity provide the rationale for slash-and-burn policies intended to deprive government-financed social and educational programs of the funds needed to enable them to work, if not survive. This is particularly obvious in the United States, though it is even worse in countries such as Portugal, Ireland and Greece. Along with health care, public transportation, Medicare, food stamp programs for low-income children, and a host of other social protections, public goods and social provisions are being defunded or slashed as part of a larger scheme to dismantle and privatize all public services, goods and spheres. The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interests over the common good. The educational goal of expanding the capacity for critical thought and the outer limits of the imagination has given way to the instrumental desert of a mind-deadening audit culture. We cannot forget that the deficit arguments and austerity policies advocated in its name are a form of class warfare designed largely for the state to be able to redirect revenue in support of the commanding institutions of the corporate-military-industrial complex and away from funding higher education, health care, a jobs program, a social wage, workers’ pensions and other crucial public services. Of course, the larger goal is to maintain the ongoing consolidation of class power in the hands of the 1%.
I also want to argue that austerity measures serve another purpose conducive to the interests of the financial elite. Such measures also produce ideologies, policies and practices that depoliticize large portions of the population, particularly those who are unemployed, cast out, homeless, tied to low-paying jobs, experiencing devastating poverty, suffering under the weight of strangulating debt and struggling just to survive. For example, in Greece, where austerity policies have aggressively been put into place, belt-tightening measures have left millions in misery while leaving the resources and lifestyles of the rich untouched. The unemployment rate in Greece hovers around 27 percent. “Suicides have shot up. Cars sit abandoned in the streets. People sift garbage looking for food [and] about 900,000 of the more than 1.3 million who are out of work have not had a paycheck in more than two years, experts say. Similar problems face the rest of Europe as well as the United States.
Politically paralyzed under the ideological fog of a hyper-individualism that insists that all problems are the responsibility of the very individuals who are victimized by larger systemic and structural forces, it is difficult for individuals to embrace any understanding of the common good or social contract, or recognize that the private troubles that plague their lives are connected to larger social issues, and that nothing will change without the necessity of engaging in collective action with others to dismantle the neoliberal system of violence and cruelty.
Austerity measures not only individualize the social; they also produce massive disparities in wealth, income and power that impose immense constraints on people’s well-being, freedom and choices, while serving to undermine any faith in government, politics and democracy itself.
Austerity measures not only individualize the social; they also produce massive disparities in wealth, income and power that impose immense constraints on people’s well-being, freedom and choices, while serving to undermine any faith in government, politics and democracy itself. The distrust of public values and egalitarian approaches to governance coupled with a wariness, if not a disdain for group solidarities and compassion for the other, nourish and promote a dislike of community engagement, social trust and democratic public spheres. Austerity produces a world without safety nets or the social and political formations that embrace democratic forms of solidarity. Clinging “fiercely to neoliberal ideals of untrammeled individualism and self-reliance,” many young people not only embrace therapeutic models of selfhood but develop a deep distrust, if not resentment, of any notion of the social and shun obligations to others.
Austerity measures purposely accentuate the shark cage relations emphasized by the economic Darwinism of neoliberalism and in doing so emphasize a world of competitive hyper-individualism in which asking for help or receiving it is viewed as a pathology. The notion that one should only rely on one’s self-interest and sense of resilience functions largely to privatize social problems and depoliticize those who buy into such a logic. The danger here is that the sense of atomization and powerlessness that neoliberalism produces also makes people prone to extremist politics. That is, the distrust of the social contract, government, democratic values and class-based solidarities also nourishes the conditions that give birth to extremist groups who demonize immigrants, push a strident nationalism and appeal to calls for racial purity as a way of addressing the misery many people are experiencing, all the while deflecting attention away from the poisonous violence produced by neoliberalism and ways in which it can be confronted and challenged through a host of democratic approaches that reject austerity as a tool of reform.
By eroding the middle class and punishing working and poor people of color, it becomes difficult for radical movements to emerge, and consequently politics gets emptied of any hope for a democratic future. In the midst of a culture of survival and the normalization of violence, thoughtlessness prevails as time becomes a deprivation focused largely on the need to simply stay alive. Under such circumstances, time becomes a burden, making it difficult for individuals to think critically, grapple with complex problems and resist neoliberal notions of citizenship, which define citizens largely as consumers. As critical thought withers and citizenship turns into a pathology, democracy is reduced to matters of self-interest and falls prey not only to a depoliticizing cynicism, but also a call for anti-democratic alternatives such as the demand for “illiberal democracy,” which is taking place in Hungary and “is characterized by extreme nationalism, free-market capitalism designed to promote the interests of the state, government control of the media and concentrated power in the executive branch of the government.”
The turn to authoritarian capitalism is on the rise and can be found in “Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.” The principles of authoritarian capitalism are also on full display in the austerity policies pushed without apology by Republican Party extremists and their Democratic Party cohorts in the United States. Channelling Ayn Rand, right-wing politicians such as Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio argue for the most extreme austerity policies under the guise that moral weakness and greediness are the debased characteristics of those citizens struggling for financial support and social provisions in the age of austerity. In this discourse, it is not surprising that austerity measures find their ideological legitimation in the notion that self-interest is the foundational element of agency and that selfishness is the highest civic virtue. Rand’s insistence that “there is no such thing as society” when coupled with an aggressive assault on all things public and social does more than disparage democracy; it becomes a blueprint for the rise of fascism. Even liberals such as Paul Krugman are sounding the alarm in the midst of rising inequality and the emergence of totalitarian ideologies that make the circumstances ripe for the appeal and rise of totalitarian ideologies that gave birth to the horrors of fascism and Nazism in Europe in the 1930s.
Austerity measures within the current configurations of power represent the undercurrent of a new form of authoritarianism.
Austerity measures within the current configurations of power represent the undercurrent of a new form of authoritarianism – one that refuses political concessions and has no allegiances except to power and capital. There is no hope in trying to reform neoliberal capitalism, because it is broken and cannot be simply reformed. Nor is there any hope in believing that the Democratic Party can be used to fix the system given that the rich liberal elite fund it. As Bill Blunden reminded me in a personal correspondence, “the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements who quack like progressives but answer to billionaires.” John Stauber gets it right in arguing that the financialization of US society is, among other things, a money machine for the Democratic Party and that the latter’s notion of reform is dead on arrival. Any notion that the rich elite, the 1% are going to fund “radical, democratic, social and economic change” is as disingenuous as it delusional. Neoliberal capitalism is a pathology, and it needs to be replaced by a form of radical democracy that refuses to equate capitalism with democracy. These may be dark times, but the drumbeat of resistance is growing among workers, the poor, people of color, young people, artists, educators and others. The key is to form social movements and political parties that have a comprehensive view of politics and struggle, one imbued with the spirit of collective resistance and the promise of a radical democracy. The cycle of brutality, suffering and cruelty appears overwhelming in light of the normalization of the intolerable violence produced by the politics of austerity and neoliberalism. The realms of imagination that would lead to a new vocabulary of struggle, politics and hope appear in short supply. Yet, even as time is running out, the struggle has to be waged. What has been produced by humans, however inhuman and powerful, can be undone. History is open and not sutured as the apostles of casino capitalism would have us believe.
The stakes in this battle are high because the struggle is not simply against austerity measures but the institutions and economic order that produce them. One place to begin in such a struggle is with a new sense of politics driven by a notion of educated hope. Hope turns radical when it exposes the violence of neoliberalism – acts of state and corporate aggression against democracy, humanity and ecological stability itself. Hope has to make the workings of power visible and then it has to offer thoughtful critiques of this machinery of death. But hope must do more than critique, dismantle and expose the ideologies, values, institutions and social relations that are pushing so many countries today into authoritarianism, austerity, violence and war.
Hope can energize and mobilize groups, neighborhoods, communities, campuses and networks of people to articulate and advance insurgent discourses in the movement toward developing higher education as part of a broader insurrectional democracy. Hope is an important political and subjective register that can not only enable people to think beyond the neoliberal austerity machine – the chronic and intergenerational injustices deeply structured into all levels of society – but also to advance forms of egalitarian community that celebrate the voice, well-being, inherent dignity and participation of each person as an integral thread in the ever-evolving fabric of a living, radical democracy. Hope only matters when it turns outward, confronts the obstacles in its path and provides points of identification that people find meaningful in order to become critical agents capable of engaging in transformative collective action.
The financialization of neoliberal societies thrives on a cruel, hyper-individualistic, survival-of-the-fittest ethic. This is the ethic of barbarians, the thoughtless and cruel financial elite. While fear and state violence may be one of their weapons, the politics of austerity is truly one of their strongest forms of control because it imposes a poverty of mind and body that produces not just a crisis of agency but its death. It is time to take social change seriously by imagining a future beyond the austerity policies and power relations that define the misery and violence of a neoliberal social order. It is also time for human beings to discover something about the potential of their own sense of individual and social agency, one that inspires, energizes, educates and challenges with the full force of social movements against those undemocratic forces that make a mockery of social, economic and political justice. As Pierre Bourdieu once argued, the time is right for the collective production of realist utopias, and with that time comes the need to act with passion, courage and conviction.