Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans, Truthout
By Henry A. Giroux and Brad Evans, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
The 20th Century is often termed the “Century of Violence.” And rightly so, given the widespread devastation of an entire continent during the two Great Wars; the continued plunder and suppression of former colonial enclaves; the rebirth of extermination camps in the progressive heart of a modern Europe; the appalling experiments in human barbarism that decimated Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the torture and symbolic acts of disappearance so endemic in Latin America; the passivity in the face of ongoing acts of genocide; the wars and violence carried out in the name of some deceitful humanitarian principle. This legacy of violence makes it difficult to assess this history without developing profound suspicions about the nature of the human condition and its capacity for evil.
One of the particular novelties of this period was the emergence of dystopia literature and compelling works of art that proved integral to the lasting critique of totalitarian regimes. Indeed, some of the most appealing prose of the times was not put forward by recognized political theorists or radical philosophers, but the likes of Yevgeny Zamyatin, H.G. Wells, George Orwell and Aldus Huxley, among others, who managed to reveal with incisive flair and public appeal the violence so often hidden beneath the utopian promise of technologically driven progress. Dystopia in these discourses embodied a warning and a hope that humankind would address and reverse the dark authoritarian practices that descended on the 20th century like a thick, choking fog.
Hannah Arendt understood how the authoritarian violence of the 20th century needed a broader frame of reference. The gulags, death camps and the torture chambers of Argentina and Chile soon gave way to the harrowing experimental camps of the colonies, which would all too quickly blowback into the metropolitan homelands. The utopian promise of the Enlightenment thus contained within it the violence and brutalities embedded in the logic of instrumental rationality and the unchecked appeal to progress and ideological purity, all of which was later rehearsed within the most terrifying fictions and rewritten with the same devastating effect for those expendable millions that made up a veritable continent of suffering we could rightly map as the globally dispossessed.
We live, however, in a different political moment. The state is no longer the center of politics. Neoliberalism has made a bonfire of the sovereign principles embodied in the social contract. Nor can we simply diagnose 21st century forms of oppression and exploitation by relying on well-rehearsed orthodoxies of our recent past. With power and its modalities of violence having entered into the global space of flows – detached from the controlling political interests of the nation-state, utilizing technologies far beyond those imagined in the most exaggerating of 20th century fictions, the dystopian theorists of yesteryears prove to be of limited use. Hope appears increasingly to have fallen prey to predatory formations of global capitalism and its engulfing webs of precarity that have reduced human life to the task of merely being able to survive. Individual and collective agencies are not only under siege unlike any other time in history, but have become depoliticized, overcome by a culture of anxiety, insecurity, commodification and privatization
More specifically, as we move away from any belief in the virtues of unending progress and its claims of lasting peaceful settlement, to the contemporary state of neoliberal rule whose crises-laden mantra now openly suggests unlimited progress for the very select few, the vast majority are asked to live a barely sustainable precariousness. The need to accept that our present societies are fundamentally insecure by design and that the future is a terrain of endemic and unavoidable catastrophe is taken as a given in most policy circles. Dystopia, in other words, is no longer the realm of scientific fiction – as suggested, for instance, by a number of recent climate reports warning that the planet is in grave danger. It is the dominant imaginary for neoliberal governance and its narcissistic reasoning.
If Theodore Adorno was right to argue that Apocalypse already occurred with the realization of the Holocaust and the experience of World War II, what has taken its place is a discourse signaling the normalization of a catastrophic imaginary that offers few means for possible escape. Despite their relation to “end of times narratives,” as Jacob Taubes once noted, there is perhaps something different at work here between the pre-modern apocalyptic movements and the shift toward catastrophic reasoning that has come to define the contemporary moment. For all their nihilism and monotheistic servitude, at least the apocalyptic movements could imagine a better world than already existed.
Our collective consciousness, if not our subjectivity and agency, have been colonized such that the future is littered with the corpses of the present and can only alternatively look backwards rather than forward. How else can we account for the revival of “communist” discourses on the political left and state “fascistic” discourses on the right if not through the appeal to a world that once appeared more secure? Even accepting that the terms can be reinvented, given the histories of violence associated with their recent past, surely their reappearance highlights the poverty and lack of confidence in the human capacity to rethink the world today? How did we become so vulnerable, losing all collective faith in our combined and creative efforts?
It is within this historical conjuncture and the current savagery of various regimes of neoliberal capitalism that we conceived the need to develop a paradigm that focused on the intensification of what we called the politics of disposability. This requires taking our analysis beyond 20th century frames of analysis to look at the ways in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess by the onslaught of global forces that no longer offer the possibility of alternative futures. It talks precisely to those contemporary forms of disposability that have become so normalized; the burden of the guilt is placed on the shoulders of the victims, while the most pernicious of systemic abuses continues to hide things in plain sight. And it develops a critical angle of vision that goes well beyond the mere authentication of lives as simply born vulnerable to question the systemic design for oppression and exploitation that produces humans as some expendable category.Dystopian politics has become mainstream politics as the practice of disposability has intensified and more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess, consigned to “zones of abandonment,” surveillance and incarceration. The expansive politics of disposability can be seen in the rising numbers of homeless, the growing army of debt-ridden students whose existing and future prospects remain bleak, those lacking basic necessities amid widening income disparities, the surveillance of immigrants, the school-to-prison pipeline and the widespread destruction of the middle class by new forms of debt servitude. Citizens, as Gilles Deleuze foresaw, are now reduced to data, consumers and commodities and, as such, inhabit identities in which they increasingly become unknowables, with no human rights and with no one accountable for their condition.
There is something, however, more at stake here than the contemporary plight of those millions forced to live in intolerable conditions. What makes the contemporary forms of disposability so abhorrent is precisely the way it shapes disposable futures. The future now appears to us as a terrain of endemic catastrophe and disorder from which there is no viable escape except to draw upon the logics of those predatory formations that put us there in the first place. Devoid of any alternative image of the world, we are merely requested to see the world as predestined and catastrophically fated. Frederic Jameson’s claim then that it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism” is more than a reflection on the poverty of contemporary imaginations. It is revealing of the nihilism of our times that forces us to accept that the only world conceivable is the one we are currently forced to endure: a world that is brutally reproduced and forces us all to become witness to its spectacles of violence that demand we accept that all things are ultimately insecure by design. In this suffocating climate, the best we can hope for is to be connected to some fragile and precarious life support system that may be withdrawn from us at any moment. Hope has dissolved into the pathology of social and civil death and the quest for mere survival. For if there is a clear lesson to living in these times, it is precisely that the lights can go out at any given moment, without any lasting concern for social responsibility. This is simply the natural order of things (so we are told) and we need to adapt our thinking accordingly.
Little wonder that we have seen a revival in these times of all sorts of monstrous fictions. As Jane and Lewis Gordon explain, “Monsters of disaster are special kinds of divine warning. They are harbingers of things we do not want to face, of catastrophes, and we fear they will bring such events upon us by coming to us.” Only a decade or so ago, citizens feared the wrath of robots – terminators and cyborgs – who wanted to destroy us, the legacy of a highly rationalized, technocratic culture that eludes human regulation, even comprehension. Now, those who are not part of a technocratic elite appear helpless and adrift, caught in the grips of a society that denies them any alternative sense of politics or hope. This raises some important questions on the advent of monstrosity, not least the fascination in popular culture today with the figure of the zombie, which has its own distinct politics. The zombie genre can be traced to earlier critiques of capitalism, with the undead in particular appearing at a time when the shopping mall started to become a defining symbol of modernity. Zombies here would become the embodiment of a political form, one that lost all sense of the past and had no future to speak of. The only performance it knew was the desire for violence as it was suspended in a state of temporal purgatory, which offered no means of escape. To become a zombie was to be devoid of any political, ethical and social claim or responsibility other than the eventual completion of the nihilistic project.
The contemporary resurrection of this metaphorical figure in today’s popular culture is most revealing. It speaks to both the nihilistic conditions in which we live, along with the deadly violence of neoliberal regimes of power and the modes of political subjectivity it seeks to authenticate/destroy. As Keir Milburn and David Harvie have noted:
Neoliberalism no longer “makes sense”, but its logic keeps stumbling on, without conscious direction, like a zombie: ugly, persistent and dangerous. Such is the “unlife” of a zombie, a body stripped of its goals, unable to adjust itself to the future, unable to make plans. It can only act habitually as it pursues a monomaniacal hunger. Unless there is a dramatic recomposition of society, we face the prospect of decades of drift as the crises we face – economic, social, environmental – remain unresolved. But where will that recomposition come from when we are living in the world of zombie-liberalism?
One of the most remarkable recent examples of this genre that offers a truly potent exposition of contemporary nihilism is represented in Marc Forster’s World War Z. While the source of the outbreak remains somewhat elusive in the movie, from the outset Forster situates the problem in connection to contemporary concerns of the biosphere and the all-too-real mutation of viruses capable of destroying a world with little care or responsibility for its social habitat. The movie further amplifies the relevance of this genre for exposing the futility of states as societies, while emphasising the bio-political dimensions to power wherein it is widely accepted today that anybody and anything can become the source of contamination. Nobody is safe and no location might provide sanctuary. Indeed, while the burning of Manhattan offers a provocative screening of potential devastation brought about by widespread human abandonment, it is the penetration of the walls of Jerusalem that will no doubt unsettle many.However, instead of following the conventional deconstruction of the zombie here as revealing of the death of subjectivities brought about by commodification, on this occasion there is more to be gained by analyzing the survivors. Let’s be under no illusions, what the score narrates, the best that can be imagined, is pure survival. Indeed, the only way to survive is by engaging in a form of self-harm by using a lethal microbe as a form of “camouflage” so that the health of the body no longer registers, hence the body is no longer a target for the undead. It is also further revealing that the eventual fate of the survivors is not in any way certain, as the final scenes tell that this is merely the start of a perpetual state of violence that allows for some strategic gains, but remains ultimately a state infested with the decay of a political and social order that might never recover its humaneness. The movie as such is perhaps less meditation on the already dead, than on the fate of those who are hoping to survive the everywhere war. For they are also denied the possibility of another world, forced to partake instead in a world of personal risk and deadly infection that continually puts their destiny as political subjects who are able to transform the world for the better into question. This is political nihilism taken to the nth degree. The most violent of conditions that renders the will to nothingness, the start and ending for all collective actions and viable notions of human togetherness.
Such a vision of the world is actually far more disturbing than the dystopian fables of the 20th century. Our condition denies us the possibility of better times to come as the imagined and the real collapse in such a way that we are already living amongst the ruins of the future. All we can seemingly imagine is a world filled with unavoidable catastrophes, the source of which, we are told, remains beyond our grasp, thereby denying us any possibility for genuine systemic transformation in the order of things. How else can we explain the current fetish with the doctrine of resilience if not through the need to accept the inevitability of catastrophe, and to simply partake in a world that is deemed to be “insecure by design”? This forces us to accept narratives of vulnerability as the authentic basis of political subjectivity regardless of the oppressive conditions that produce vulnerable subjects (thereby neutralizing all meaningful qualitative differences in class, racial and gendered experiences). So we are encouraged to lament this world, armed only with the individualistic hope that the privileged elite might survive better than others. For the majority, this in fact represents a reversal of the Darwinian logic, for here all life is subject to the continual descent of the human until the battle is eventually lost. Perhaps that is what economists really had in mind when they coined the phrase “trickle-down” as it operated out of the realms of theoretical abstraction and affected the lives of millions.
And yet, despite living in such politically catastrophic times, there remain reasons to be optimistic. People will always resist what they find patently intolerable. This alone is sufficient enough reason to continue to have faith in the human condition. For they show time and time again that an act of resistance worthy of its name is precisely a creative act that leads to the creation of new forms of thinking and alternative ways of living. History is replete with examples of the globally dispossessed challenging those who would make them vulnerable with a dignified confidence that refuses to get caught up in some violent dialectic that is capable only of recreating the world in a mirror image of that which is already experienced. In this regard, we might add that the greatest weapon in our political arsenal today remains the power of the imagination. As Chris Hedges recently argued:
It is through imagination that we can recover reverence and kinship. It is through imagination that we can see ourselves in our neighbors and the other living organisms of the earth. It is through imagination that we can envision other ways to form a society. The triumph of modern utilitarianism, implanted by violence, crushed the primacy of the human imagination. It enslaved us to the cult of the self. And with this enslavement came an inability to see . . . Imagination, as Goddard wrote, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two – as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend – the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”
Never have we required with more urgency a new political imaginary that can take us out of the poverty of contemporary forms of catastrophe reasoning, which prove to be politically catastrophic and lead to civil and social death. Power has always feared those who have dared to think differently. It has always sought to pathologize and medicalize those who dared to imagine the alternatives instead of conforming. This is not incidental, for it is precisely in the realm of the imagination that we can rethink the world anew. Indeed, since power cannot deny humans the metaphysical ability to imagine better worlds, for that is what ultimately defines the human condition as such, the power of the imagination as affirmatively conceived is by definition always and already engaged in forms of political struggle as it refuses to accept the rehearsed orthodoxy of the present. To dare to imagine otherwise is always the start of a new form of hope that doesn’t passively wait for historical forces to provide rescue. Having resolute faith in the belief that it is humanely possible to transform the world for the better, the power of imagination moves us beyond the cynicism of the times which, no longer simply the dominant position held by the sad militants of critical theory, has become the preferred intellectual stance of those in power.