Beyond Orwellian Nightmares and Neoliberal Authoritarianism
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
To be corrupted by totalitarianism, one does not have to live in a totalitarian country.
– George Orwell
Central to George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society was a government so powerful that it not only dominated all of the major institutions in a society, but it also was quite adept at making invisible its inner workings of power. This is what some have called a shadow government, deep state, dual state or corporate state. In the deep state, politics becomes the domain of the ultra-wealthy, the powerful few who run powerful financial services, big corporations and the imperious elite of the defense industries and other components of the military-industrial complex. Corporate interests such as ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies, megabanks such as Bank of America, and defense industries such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are powerful lobbying groups and as such have control of the major seats of political power and the commanding institutions necessary to insure that the deeply anti-democratic state rules in the interests of the few while exploiting and repressing the many.
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A recent Princeton University study analyzed policy initiatives passed under the influence of the deep state from 1981 to 2002 and concluded that rather than being a democracy, however weak, the United States had become an oligarchy where power is effectively wielded by “the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military.” Bill Blunden adds to this description with a useful map of the interpenetrating elements and overlapping layers of interest that make up the deep state. He writes:
The American Deep State, or what Colonel Fletcher Prouty called the Secret Team, is a structural layer of political intermediaries: non-governmental organizations (e.g. National Endowment for Democracy, Ford Foundation), lobbyists (e.g. Chamber of Commerce, AIPAC), media outlets (e.g. Time Warner, News Corp), dark money pits (e.g. Freedom Partners, NRA), and private sector contractors (e.g. Booz Allen, SAIC) that interface with official government organs (CIA, Department of Defense). This layer establishes a series of informal, often secret, backchannels and revolving doors through which profound sources of wealth and power outside of government can purchase influence. . . . the American Deep State is a fundamentally anti-democratic apparatus that caters to the agenda of heavily entrenched elites.
This is a state in which people participate willingly in their own oppression, often out of deep insecurity about their freedom and the future. This is a mode of governance in which individual and social agency are in crisis and begin to disappear in a society in which 99 percent of the public, especially young people, low-income groups and minorities of class and color are considered disposable. The rulers of the deep state no longer care about the social contract and make no concessions in their ruthless pursuits of power and profits. One consequence is the creation of a state and society that no longer believes in social investments and is more than willing to condemn young people, often paralyzed by the precariousness and instability that haunts their lives and future, to a savage form of casino capitalism.
The rulers of the deep state no longer care about the social contract and make no concessions in their ruthless pursuits of power and profits.
Poverty, joblessness, low wage work and the threat of state-sanctioned violence produce among many Americans the ongoing fear of a life of perpetual misery and an ongoing struggle simply to survive. Insecurity coupled with a climate of fear and surveillance dampens dissent and promotes a kind of ethical tranquilization fed daily by the mobilization of endless moral panics, whether they reference immigrants flooding the American Southwest, ISIS thugs blowing up malls or Ebola spreading through the homeland like a mad, out-of-control, death-dealing infectious disease. Such conditions more often than not produce withdrawal, insecurity, paranoia and cynicism rather than rebellion among the US populace. Under such conditions, the call for collective rebellion appears more like a joke for late-night comics than a serious rethinking of politics and an attempt to engage in collective actions fuelled by the need to reclaim and struggle over the promises of a radical democracy.
Politics and power are now on the side of lawlessness as is evident in the state’s endless violations of civil liberties, freedom of speech and constitutional rights, mostly done in the name of national security. Lawlessness wraps itself in government dictates such as the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, Military Commissions Act and a host of other legal illegalities. These would include the “right of the president “to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists,” use secret evidence to detain individuals indefinitely, develop a massive surveillance Panopticon to monitor every communication used by citizens who have not committed a crime, employ state torture against those considered enemy combatants, and block the courts from prosecuting those officials who commit such heinous crimes.The ruling corporate elites have made terror rational and fear the modus operandi of politics.
The “deep state” empties politics of all vestiges of democratic rule while attempting, on the one hand, to make its machinery of power invisible and, on the other, to legitimate neoliberal ideology as a matter of common sense.
Power in its most repressive forms is now deployed not only by the police and other forces of repression such as the 17 US intelligence agencies, but also through a predatory and commodified culture that turns violence into entertainment, foreign aggression into a video game and domestic violence into goose-stepping celebration of masculinity and the mad values of militarism. Meanwhile, the real violence used by the state against poor people of color, women, immigrants and low-income youth barely gets mentioned, except when it is so spectacularly visible that it cannot be ignored, as in the shooting death by a white police officer of the young black man, Michael Brown. The “deep state” empties politics of all vestiges of democratic rule while attempting, on the one hand, to make its machinery of power invisible and, on the other, to legitimate neoliberal ideology as a matter of common sense. The decisions that shape all aspects of the commanding institutions of society are made largely in private, behind closed doors by the anonymous financial elite, corporate CEOs, rich bankers, the unassailable leaders of the military-industrial complex, and other kingpins of the neoliberal state. At the same time, the cultural apparatuses of casino capitalism wage an aggressive pedagogical assault on reason, thoughtfulness, critical dialogue and all vestiges of the public good. Valuable resources and wealth are extracted from the commons in order to maximize the profits of the rich while the public is treated to a range of distractions and diversions that extend from “military shock and awe overseas” to the banalities of a commodified culture industry and celebrity-obsessed culture that short-circuits thought and infantilizes everything it touches.
Underlying the rise of the authoritarian state and the forces that hide in the shadows is a hidden politics indebted to promoting the fog of historical and social amnesia. The new authoritarianism is strongly indebted to what Orwell once called a “protective stupidity” that corrupts political life and divests language of its critical content. Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a poisonous public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war and exploitation. Even as markets unravel and neoliberalism causes increased misery, “the broader political and social consensus remains in place,” suggesting that the economic crisis needs to be matched by a similar crisis in consciousness, ideas, language and values.
Yet, even as the claims and promises of a neoliberal utopia have been transformed into a Dickensian nightmare and the United States succumbs to the pathologies of political corruption, the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the 1%, and the use of the criminal justice system as the default machinery of the punishing state for dealing with the United States’ social problems, Orwell’s dark fantasy of a fascist future continues without massive opposition. With the rise of what John Feffer calls “participatory totalitarianism,” the rich get more powerful just as the middle and working classes sink into economic and existential despair and young people are saddled with debts and the prospect of a future of low-skill jobs and a limited sense of dignity and hope. What all of this suggests is that the real crisis is not simply around the growing inequality in wealth and power accompanied by the more visible use of state violence and an arrogant display of hatred for both democracy and the disadvantaged, but also a dismantling of what Hannah Arendt called “the prime importance of the political.”
Democracy is not compatible with capitalism but is congruent with a version of democratic socialism in which the wealth, resources and benefits of a social order are shared in an equitable and just manner.
Underlying the carnage caused by neoliberal capitalism is a free market ideology in which individuals are cut off from the common good along with any sense of compassion for the other. Economic Darwinism individualizes the social by shredding social bonds that are not commodified and in doing so depoliticizes, atomizes and infantilizes the broader public. All problems are now defined as a problem faulty character and a deficient sense of individual responsibility. At the same time, freedom is reduced to consumerism and self-interest becomes the only guiding principle for living one’s life. What is crucial to recognize is that the central issues of power and politics can lead to cynicism and despair if capitalism is not addressed as a system of social relations that diminishes – through its cultural politics, modes of commodification and market pedagogies – the capacities and possibilities of individuals and groups to move beyond the vicissitudes of necessity and survival in order to fully participate in exercising some control over the myriad forces that shape their daily lives. If neoliberal authoritarianism is to be challenged and overcome, it is crucial that intellectuals, unions, workers, young people and various social movements unite to reclaim democracy as a central element in fashioning a radical imagination that foregrounds the necessity for drastically altering the material and symbolic forces that hide behind a counterfeit claim to participatory democracy. This means imagining a radical democracy that can provide a living wage, decent health care, public works and massive investments in education, child care and housing for the poor, along with a range of other crucial social provisions that can make a difference between living and dying for those who have been cast into the ranks of the disposable. This means at the very least recognizing that government has a responsibility to serve the public good rather than the financial and corporate interests of the rich and powerful who are driving the United States into the dark recesses of authoritarianism.
Democracy is not compatible with capitalism but is congruent with a version of democratic socialism in which the wealth, resources and benefits of a social order are shared in an equitable and just manner. Democracy as a promise means that society can never be just enough and that the self-reflection and struggles that enable all members of the community to participate in the decisions and institutions that shape their lives must be continually debated, safeguarded and preserved at all costs. The rebuilding of a radical democracy must be accompanied with placing a high priority on renewing the social contract, embracing the demands of the commons and encouraging social investments. These are only a few of the issues that should be a central goal for the development of a broad-based, radical social movement. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that reviving the radical imagination, as a call to reclaim a radical democracy, be understood as simply a pragmatic adjustment of the institutions of liberal democracy or a return to the social democracy of the New Deal and Great Society.
On the contrary, any rethinking of the political can only be comprehended as part of a radical break from liberalism and formalistic politics if there is to be any move toward a genuine democracy in which matters of equality, power and justice are central to what can be called a radical democratic politics. Such a task necessitates a politics and pedagogy that not only expand critical awareness and promote critical modes of inquiry but also sustain public connections and promote strategies and organizations that create not simply ruptures, such as massive demonstrations, but real changes that are systemic and long standing. If such a politics is to make any difference, it must be worldly; that is, it must incorporate a critical public pedagogy and an understanding of cultural politics that not only contemplates social problems but also addresses the conditions for revitalized forms of democratic political exchange and enables new forms of agency, power and collective struggle. The collapse of the United States into neoliberal authoritarianism signals not simply a crisis of politics and democracy, but a crisis of ideas, values and agency itself. Hence, calling for a revival of the educative nature of politics is more than simply a call to find ways to change consciousness; it is first and foremost an attempt to understand that education is at the center of a struggle over what kinds of agency will be created in the interest of legitimating the present and producing a particular kind of future. This is an imminently educative, moral and political task, and it is only through such a recognition that initial steps can be taken to challenge the powerful ideological and affective spaces through which neoliberalism produces the desires, identities and values that bind people to its forms of predatory governance.
All calls for the left to revitalize itself so it can become a formidable force in US politics will fail if it does not take seriously the educative nature of politics.
The moral, political and economic violence of neoliberalism must be made visible, its institutional structures dismantled, and the elite interests it serves exposed. The fog of historical, social and political amnesia must be eliminated through the development of educational programs, pedagogical practices, ideological interventions and public narratives that provide the critical and analytical tools to enable the public to analyze both underlying ideologies and institutions of neoliberal capitalism as well as the intellectual and economic resources needed to provide meaningful alternatives to the corporate authoritarianism that passes itself off as an updated mode of democracy. Stanley Aronowitz, Adolph Reed and Barbara Epstein, among others, have all argued recently that the left needs a broad-based political movement that can provide real alternatives to the established money and power of the deep state, but for that to happen the left has to develop narratives that capture the imagination of the public so that they can willingly invest in the struggle against the smokescreens used by contemporary versions of authoritarian rule. Chris Hedges has argued that totalitarian states survive in part through orchestrated forms of historical amnesia that not only misrepresent or eliminate any radical vestige of public memory, but also are sustained through what he calls a “state induced stupidity.” He is certainly correct in claiming that the crisis in historical memory often leads to a failure to remember the struggles on the part of women, gays, workers, young people, people of color and others to secure their freedoms, civil rights and opportunity to learn how to govern rather than simply be governed by an oppressive state.
For Hedges, public memory is crucial for organizing what he calls massive demonstrations and prolonged acts of civil disobedience in order to challenge the authoritarian state. But the question remains regarding how a public largely indifferent to politics and paralyzed by the need to just survive while caught in a crippling cynicism can be moved from “an induced state of stupidity” to a political formation willing to engage in various modes of resistance extending from “mass protests to prolonged civil disobedience.” In part, Hedges argues that terrifying intellectual and moral paralysis produced by the ruling elite must be offset by the development of alternative public spheres in which the left can change the terms of the debate in US culture and politics. I think it is crucial that the struggle against neoliberalism focuses on those forms of domination that pose a threat to those public spheres essential to developing the formative cultures that nourish modes of thinking, analysis and social formations necessary for a radical democracy. At the very least, such spheres would include the mainstream and alternative media, public and higher education, and other cultural apparatuses such as the new social media.
In addition, the left has to do more than chart out the mechanisms through which neoliberal authoritarianism sustains itself. And for too many on the left this means simply understanding the economic determinants that drive neoliberal global capitalism. While this structural logic is important, it does not go far enough. As Stuart Hall has insisted, “There’s no politics without identification. People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition, and without that moment of recognition” any effort to change the way people inhabit social relations of domination will fail. Pierre Bourdieu takes this logic further in arguing that the left has often failed to recognize “that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical, and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” He insists, rightly, that it is crucial for the left and other progressives to recognize that intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for challenging this form of domination by developing tactics “that lie on the side of the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle.”
All calls for the left to revitalize itself so it can become a formidable force in US politics will fail if it does not take seriously the educative nature of politics. Stanley Aronowitz is one of the few people on the left who has taken matters of subjectivity, education and politics seriously. Not only has he fully recognized that we are in a new historical moment in which a powerful relationship now exists among cultural institutions, political power and everyday life, but he has also proposed a three pronged program to address the new forms of domination, which includes reviving the radical imagination, launching a comprehensive education program and opening a conversation about the creation of a new left political formation. In the first instance, he argues for a revival of the radical imagination as part of a larger project “to reinvent democracy in the wake of the evidence that, at the national level, there is no democracy – if by ‘democracy’ we mean effective popular participation in the crucial decisions affecting the community. Democracy entails a challenge to private property in productive activities and large-scale enterprises.” Aronowitz refuses to accept minimalist notions of democracy in which elections become the measure of democratic participation. Far more crucial in his call for change is the development of a formative culture in which the American public can imagine forms of democratic self-management of what he calls “key economic, political, and social institutions.”
Second, he insists that the left needs to develop a comprehensive educational program that would include a range of pedagogical initiatives from developing a national online news channel to creating alternative schools for young people in the manner of the diverse workers’ socialist schools that existed in the 1930s and 1940s. Third, he argues that the assault by neoliberalism is so widespread that the left needs to develop a comprehensive vision of politics that “does not rely on single issues.” Following Herbert Marcuse, he believes rightly that the “truth is in the whole” and that it is only through an understanding of the wider relations and connections of power that the left can overcome misplaced concreteness, isolated struggles and modes of identity politics that become insular and self-sabotaging.
Particular injustices must be understood not only with respect to the conditions and contexts in which they develop but also in terms of their relationship to the larger social order. This means developing modes of analysis capable of connecting particular instances of struggle to more generalized notions of freedom; it suggests developing theoretical frameworks in which it becomes possible to translate private troubles into broader, more systemic conditions. At stake here is an attempt to develop a more general understanding of liberty, freedom and equality, and to recognize the necessity for modes of analysis that connect the dots. This is a particularly important goal given that one reason why the left has been so fragmented politically is because it has failed to develop a wider political and ideological umbrella that enables it to connect a range of problems, including extreme poverty, the assault on the environment, the emergence of the permanent warfare state, the abolition of voting rights, the assault on public servants, women’s rights and social provisions, and a range of other issues which when analyzed in isolation further erode the possibilities for a radical democracy. Neoliberalism stands for the death of democracy and any movement that is going to successfully challenge this historically specific mode of authoritarianism will have to attack all of the dominating mechanisms of casino capitalism in both their symbolic and material economies. This suggests understanding how issues interconnect, mutually inform and bleed into each other.
Jerome Roos is right in arguing that in an age of unspeakable brutalities it is more necessary than ever that the left confront not only the symptoms but the root causes of the new authoritarianism and this demands building broad-based movements that
disarm . . . neoliberal control mechanisms, rekindle the radical imagination and begin the painstaking construction of a transnational political project [in which single-issue-based movements can] look beyond their own internal differences to recognize their common interest in a collective struggle, and only by restoring hope through the achievement of concrete victories and the construction of actual alternatives, can grassroots movements begin to push back the rising tide of monstrosity and call into being a new social order of universal emancipation and radical democracy.
There is one caveat here that cannot be forgotten. The fight against neoliberalism and the related anti-democratic tendencies that inform it must not settle for reforming a system that is as broken as it is dangerous, if not pathological in the violence and misery it produces. Any viable struggle must acknowledge that if the current modes of domination are to change, a newly developed emphasis must be placed on creating the formative culture that inspires and energizes a faith in the culture and systems of power relations and popular participation that would characterize a radical democracy. Such a struggle will not emerge out of demonstrations but out of a vision that is boldly democratic, organizations that are durable and long standing, and strategies that take seriously what it means to make politics meaningful in order to make it both critical and transformative. The new US authoritarianism has emptied democracy of any substantive meaning. The time has come to do more than reclaim and recover democracy’s legacy of liberal traditions. While such a task is not unimportant, it does not go far enough. There is a real need for progressives and others to radicalize these traditions, offer new vocabularies and visions for change, and think beyond a future that is nothing more than a cheap imitation of the present. Radical democracy inspires fear in the ruling elite just as it must inspire and energize diverse groups to reclaim their moral and political agency in order to step into a future in which the current nightmare of US authoritarianism has faded into memory.
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