Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism
Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility.
In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers. As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, “The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” The relentless activity of thoughtlessness – worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism – undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden.
Civic engagement appears increasingly weakened, if not impotent, as a malignant form of casino capitalism exercises ruthless power over the commanding institutions of society and everyday existence, breathing new life into old clichés. Under casino capitalism, fantasy trumps logic, if not rationality. A sucker is still born every minute, and the house still wins. Looming dreams of riches and fame invariably descend into disappointment, defeat or addiction. Uncertainty and precariousness breed fear and insecurity instead of much-needed social reforms and a belief in a more just future. Austerity policies function as a form of trickle-down cruelty in which the poor are punished and the rich rewarded. Totalitarianism, once visible in its manifest evil, now hides in the shadow of a market logic that insists that each individual deserves his or her fate, regardless of the larger structural forces that shape it.
A savage market fundamentalism relentlessly denigrates public values, criminalizes social problems, and produces a manufactured fatalism and culture of fear while waging a fundamental assault upon the very conditions that make politics possible. Politics is now sapped of its democratic vitality just as traces of authoritarianism have seeped deeply into the economic and cultural structures of American life. As American society incorporates authoritarian elements of the past into its dominating ideology, modes of governance and policies, justice withers, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the American people to translate matters of civic literacy, social responsibility and the public good “back into the language of society.”
Americans are increasingly inspired to think uncritically, disregard critical historical narratives, and surrender to pedagogies of repression. Under the Bush-Obama administrations, American education has been cleansed of any effort to produce students who have the power to think critically and imaginatively and is now preoccupied with producing young people unaware and unwilling to fight for the right to decent employment, access to a good life, decent health care, social justice and a future that does not mimic a corrosive and morally bankrupt present. The organized culture of forgetting, with its immense disimagination machines, has ushered in a permanent revolution marked by a massive project of distributing wealth upward, the militarization of the entire social order and an ongoing depoliticization of agency and politics itself. We no longer live in a democracy, which, as Bill Moyers points out provides the formative culture and economic conditions that enable people “to fully claim their moral and political agency.” This disembodied form of politics is not merely about the erasure of the language of public interests, informed argument, critical thinking and the collapse of public values, but a full-fledged attack on the institutions of civic society, the social contract and democracy itself. Under such circumstances, the United States has succumbed to forms of symbolic and institutional violence that point to a deep-seated hatred of democracy.
Under such circumstances, common sense displaces critical thinking, individual and social agency are emptied of political substance, and a collectively engaged democratic politics appears irrelevant in the face of an unquestioned “moral” authority that parades as destiny. The language of stupidity replaces reason as scientific evidence is disparaged or suppressed, thoughtful exchange gives way to emotional tirades, violence becomes the primary means for solving problems, and anger is substituted for informed arguments. Unsurprisingly, any viable sense of social responsibility disappears beyond the fortressed enclaves of ever-more-sequestered lives while various ideological fundamentalists assert their judgments of the world with a certainty that brands dissent, moral inquiry and critical questioning as excessive and threatening. Instead of affirming the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Audre Lord and other public intellectuals, Americans are inundated with the likes of Bill Gates, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin and other anti-public commentators and pundits. Intellectuals who have sacrificed their jobs, bodies and lives in order to alleviate the suffering of others have been replaced by the new “celebrity heroes” drawn from a corrupt corporate and political culture that lives off the suffering of others.
In the place of politically vibrant and intellectually energized public spheres, Americans suffer under the self-serving interests and demands, if not downright colonization, of immensely powerful corporations and the entertainment industry, which offer up the confessional spectacles of Dr. Phil, the televised shame culture of a host of TV programs, the increasing violence entrenched in celluloid Hollywood spectacles and the corporate values embedded in survival-of-the-fittest “reality” television shows. As society is increasingly organized around shared fears, escalating insecurities, manufactured uncertainties and an intensified post-9/11 politics of terror, the institutions of government appear to be immune to any checks on their power to render democratic politics both bankrupt and inoperable.
The language of the market now offers the primary index of what possibilities the future may hold, while jingoistic nationalism and racism register its apocalyptic underbelly. As a market economy becomes synonymous with a market society, democracy becomes both the repressed scandal of neoliberalism and its ultimate fear. In such a society, cynicism replaces hope, public life collapses into the ever-encroaching domain of the private while social ills and human suffering become more difficult to identify, understand, and engage critically. Zygmunt Bauman points out that “the exit from politics and withdrawal behind the fortified walls of the private” means not only that society has stopped questioning itself but also that those discourses, social relations and public spaces in which people can speak, exercise, and develop the capacities and skills necessary for critically encountering the world atrophy and disappear. The result is that “in our contemporary world, post 9/11, crisis and exception [have] become routine, and war, deprivation, and [the machineries of death] intensify despite ever denser networks of humanitarian aid and ever more rights legislation.”
In addition, the depoliticization of politics and the increasing transformation of the social state into the punishing state have rendered possible the emergence of a new mode of authoritarianism in which the fusion of power and violence increasingly permeates all aspects of government and everyday life. This mad violence creates an intensifying cycle rendering citizens’ political activism dangerous, if not criminal. On the domestic and foreign fronts, violence is the most prominent feature of dominant ideology, policies and governance. Soldiers are idealized, violence becomes an omniscient form of entertainment pumped endlessly into the culture, wars become the primary organizing principle for shaping relations abroad, and a corrosive and deeply rooted pathology becomes not the mark of a few individuals but of a society that, as Erich Fromm once pointed out, becomes entirely insane. Hannah Arendt’s “dark times” have arrived as the concentrated power of the corporate, financial, political, economic and cultural elite have created a society that has become a breeding ground for psychic disturbances and a pathology that has become normalized. Greed, inequality and oppressive power relations have generated the death of the collective democratic imagination.
Howard Zinn wrote in the early 1970s that the “world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country . . . in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.” Zinn’s words are more prescient today than when he wrote them more than 40 years ago. As American society becomes more militarized, civil liberties are under siege at all levels of government. Bush and Obama have participated in illegal legalities instituting state torture and targeted assassinations, among other violations. At the local level, police all over the country are expanding their powers going so far as to subject people to invasive body searches, even when they had been stopped for only minor traffic violations. One man in New Mexico was stopped for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. On the baseless claim of harboring drugs, he was taken to a hospital and underwent, without consent, eight anal cavity searches, including a colonoscopy. No drugs were found. When the police believe they have the right to issue warrants that allow doctors to perform enemas and colonoscopies without consent and anyone can be seized for such barbarous practices, domestic terrorism takes on a new and perilous meaning. Similarly, young people are being arrested in record numbers in schools that have become holding centers for low-income and minority youths.Growing inequality in wealth and income have destroyed any vestige of democracy in America. Twenty individuals in the United States, including the infamous Koch brothers, have a total net worth of more than half a trillion dollars, about $26 billion each, while “4 out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.” More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are living with their parents while mega corporations and wealthy farmers get huge government subsidies. We blame the poor, homeless, unemployed and recent graduates suffocating under financial debt for their plight as if individual responsibility explains the ballooning gap in wealth, income and power and the growing state violence that supports it. Poor people end up in debtor jail for not paying parking tickets or their bills while the corrupt heads of banks, hedge funds and other financial services who engage in all manner of corruption and crime, swindling billions from the public coffers, are rarely prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The new global market tyranny has no language for promoting the social good, public well-being and social responsibility over the omniscient demands of self-interest, crippling the radical imagination with its relentless demands for instant pleasure, a compulsive pursuit of materialism and a Hobbesian belief in war-of-all-against all ethic. Increasingly, the social and cultural landscapes of America resemble the merging of malls and prisons. American life suffers from the toxin of socially adrift possessive, individualism and a debilitating notion of freedom and privatization. Both of which feed into the rise of the surveillance and punishing state with its paranoiac visions of absolute control of the commanding heights of power and its utter fear of those considered disposable, excess and capable of questioning authority.
Authoritarianism has a long shadow and refuses simply to disappear into the pages of a fixed and often forgotten history. We are currently observing how its long and dynamic reach extends from the dictatorships of Latin America in the 1970s to the current historical moment in the United States. We witness its darkness in the market ideologies, modes of disappearance, state-sanctioned torture, kill lists, drone murders of innocent civilians, attacks on civil liberties, prosecutions of whistleblowers and the rise of a mass incarceration state that now connects us to the horrors that took place in the dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I was reminded of this recently when I received a passionate and insightful letter from Dr. Adriana Pesci, who offers this warning to Americans by drawing on the horrors of the killing machine that fueled the military dictatorship in Argentina. She writes:
I have also noticed the ongoing creation, by people such as you, of a new language designed to counteract the offensive of the neoliberal system. Latin America started going through this process some 15 years ago, and is still at it, at much human cost and after a horrendous history of repression and torture that dates from some 35 or 40 years back. The centurions of the system are very unimaginative and their responses are very predictable once you studied them for a while. This is how it was possible for many left leaning Latin Americans to know by early 2003, and before the debacle of Abu Graib was made public, that the American forces’ use of systematic torture in Iraq was sanctioned from the top down, and that there were no excesses or errors (“excess,””errors” were those same words used by the dictatorships throughout Latin America).
In the past few years, and because I follow the news regularly, I have noticed a slow but steady evolution of the United States towards what I can only call a variation on a theme. It reminds me of my past as a very young person in Argentina, the same methods, the same words, the same excuses. I wish I could warn those at risk. I wish to pass along what I know, because I have a sense of foreboding. I would like to believe that our experiences can be used by others to make their suffering less, and I would like to believe, that the language that was created to describe, denounce and punish what was done to us in the name of neoliberalism and development is the patrimony of humankind and it is there to be used to defend ourselves from the attacks of a dehumanizing system that would like to chew us, ground us to a pulp and spit us all.
Historical consciousness matters because it illuminates, if not holds up to critical scrutiny, those forms of tyranny and modes of authoritarianism that now parade as common sense, popular wisdom or just plain certainty. In this case, the American public will not repeat history as farce (as Marx once suggested) but as a momentous act of systemic violence, suffering and domestic warfare. If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States. In part, this is because we are witnessing the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods that empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of unchecked individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life while the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom but facing the grim choice between survival and dying.
As the government deregulates and outsources key aspects of governance, turning over the provisions of collective insurance, security and care to private institutions and market-based forces, it undermines the social contract, while “the present retreat of the state from the endorsement of social rights signals the falling apart of a community in its modern, ‘imagined’ yet institutionally safeguarded incarnation.” Moreover, as social institutions give way to machines of all-embracing surveillance and containment, social provisions disappear, the exclusionary logic of ethnic, racial and religious divisions render more individuals and groups disposable, excluded from public life – languishing in prisons, dead-end jobs or the deepening pockets of poverty – and effectively prevented from engaging in politics in any meaningful capacity. The specters of human suffering, misfortune and misery caused by social problems are now replaced with the morally bankrupt neoliberal discourses of personal safety and individual responsibility. At the same time, those who are considered “problems,” excess or disposable disappear into prisons and the bowels of the correctional system. The larger implications that gesture toward a new authoritarianism are clear. Angela Davis captures this in her comment that “according to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.” The invisibility of power feeds ignorance, if not complicity itself. Under such circumstances, politics seems to take place elsewhere – in globalized regimes of power that are indifferent to traditional political geographies, such as the nation state, and hostile to any notion of collective responsibility to address human suffering and social problems.
We live at a time in which the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of ideas, education and agency. What must be remembered is that any viable politics or political culture can emerge only out of a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality, and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy.
Young people, artists, intellectuals, educators and workers in the United States and globally are increasingly addressing what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values and commitments, the erosion of its public spheres and the widely promoted modes of citizenship that have more to do with forgetting than with critical learning. Collectively, they provide varied suggestions for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. In opposition to the attacks on democratic institutions, values and modes of governance, activists all over the globe are offering an incisive language of analysis, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.
Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market values trump ethical considerations enabling the economically privileged and financial elite to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. Those without the luxury of such choices pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must work more than they ever have to make ends meet. Moreover, in the face of the 2008 economic crisis caused by gangster financial service institutions such as J.P. Morgan, Bank of America, Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Barclay and Merrill Lynch, among others, the middle class is dissolving into the jaws of a death-machine that has robbed them of their homes, health care, jobs and dignity.The ruling elites have taken flight from any sense of social and ethical responsibility and their willing and active repression of conscience has opened the door to new forms of authoritarianism in which the arrogance of corporate power finds its underside in a hatred of all others that threaten its power. Some contemporary theorists suggest that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement is in a state of terminal arrest or has simply come to an end. However, too little attention is paid to what it means to think through how the struggle over democracy is inextricably linked to creating and sustaining public spheres where individuals can be engaged as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only as autonomous political agents but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. The growth of cynicism in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical, economic and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency, ethics and meaning for a substantive democracy.
In opposition to the attacks on critical thought, engaged citizenship, the discourse of hope and the erosion of “the public character of spaces, relations, and institutions,” young people, workers, intellectuals, artists and environmentalists are once again taking seriously Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s insistence “to hang on to intellectual and real freedom” and to ensure that thinking does not become “immune to the suggestion of the status quo,” thus losing its “secure hold on possibility.” Increasingly, young people and others concerned about a substantive democracy are taking political stands; they are becoming more willing to cross boundaries, join questions of understanding and power, and bring into being with passion and conscience new ways of engaging with the world. In doing so, this diverse group of activists, intellectuals and concerned global citizens is intervening in the world on several registers.
Such groups, while in their infancy, are determined to unmask society’s most pernicious myths, restage power in productive ways, rescue the promise of social agency from those places where it has been denied, and further the ethical and political imperative to provide an accurate historical account of the racial state and racial power. More and more, youths and others marginalized by race and class are refusing the dominant scripts of official authority and the limitations they impose upon individual and social agency. Progressives and oppositional groups are rethinking what it would mean to engage spaces of neglect and human suffering such as schools, shelters, food banks, union halls and other sites of potential resistance as starting points from which to build unfamiliar, potential worlds of hope, learning and struggle. In the process of thinking seriously about structures of power, state formation, race, sexuality, technology, class and pedagogy, these new modes of resistance never substitute moral indignation for the hard work of contributing to critical education and enabling people to expand the horizons of their own sense of agency and collectively challenge structures of power.
From Québec and Athens to Paris and New York City, these emerging collective movements bristle with a deeply rooted refusal to serve up well-worn and obvious truths, reinforce existing relations of power or bid retreat to an official rendering of common sense that promotes “a corrosive and demoralizing silence.” What emerges in these distinct but politically allied voices is a pedagogy of disruption, critique, recovery and possibility, one that recognizes that viable politics cannot exist without will and awareness, and that critical education motivates and provides a crucial foundation for understanding and intervening in the world. Freedom in this discourse means learning how to think critically and act courageously – refusing to substitute empowering forms of education for mind-deadening training and numbing methods of memorizing data and test taking.
Collectively these emerging movements of resistance are developing an understanding of politics that demands not only a new language but also necessitates a broader vision, sense of organization and robust strategies that are critical and visionary. This commitment translates into a pedagogy and politics capable of illuminating the anti-democratic forces and sites that threaten human life; at the same time, its visionary nature cracks open the present to reveal new horizons, different futures and the promise of a global democracy. And yet, under the reign of casino capitalism, racist xenophobic nationalisms and other anti-democratic forces, notions of citizenship are increasingly privatized, commodified or subject to various religious and ideological fundamentalisms that feed a sense of powerlessness and disengagement from democratic struggles, if not politics itself. The culture of cruelty is alive and well as casino capitalism presents misfortune as a weakness and the logic of the market instructs individuals to rely on their own wits if they fall on hard times, especially because the state has washed its hands of any responsibility for the fate of its citizens. Hope is in the air, but it is crucial to recognize that the creeping authoritarianism descending upon the United States will not give up power easily, if at all. Consequently, an impatient patience proceeds slowly and persistently offers the formative culture necessary for feeding a radical imagination waiting to manifest itself concretely in a new vision, social movement and fierce urgency of struggle.
Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, involving the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites and the renewal of civic courage among citizens, residents and others who wish to address pressing social problems. Hope says “no” to the totalizing and common-sense discourse of the neoliberal present; it contains an activating presence that opens current political structures to critical scrutiny, affirms dissent and pluralizes the possibilities of different futures. In this sense, hope is a subversive force. In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, young people and other activists are resurrecting a language of resistance and the pedagogical condition necessary for providing a sense of opposition and engaged struggle. Clearly, hope as a practice of freedom is not an individual indulgence but rather a crucial part of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible. It is a narrative that embodies the reality of struggles ahead and the recognition that in such struggles there are moments of possibility, new worlds, different relationships and more justice.
The philosopher Ernst Bloch provides essential theoretical insights into the importance of hope. Bloch believes that hope cannot be removed from the world and is not “something like nonsense or absolute fancy; rather it is not yet in the sense of a possibility; that it could be there if we could only do something for it.” As a discourse of critique and social transformation, hope in Bloch’s view foregrounds the crucial relationship between critical education and political agency, on the one hand, and the concrete struggles needed to give substance to the recognition that every present is incomplete, on the other.
Hope becomes political rather than Disneylike when it is anticipatory rather than messianic, mobilizing rather than therapeutic, revealing rather than romanticizing. The longing for a more humane society in this instance does not collapse into a retreat from the world but emerges out of critical and practical engagements with present behaviors, institutional formations, and everyday practices. Hope does not ignore the multiplying dimensions of human suffering, exploitation and social relations; on the contrary, it acknowledges the need to sustain the “capacity to see the worst and offer more than that for our consideration.” If democracy is to once again become a rallying cry for massive global struggles, hope has to become a political and ethical referent, which shows us how to believe “that in this moment in our history we have something of great import to accomplish by exercising an optimism of the intellect in order to open up ways of thinking that have for too long remained foreclosed.”
Hence, hope is more than a politics – it is also a practice that provides the foundation for enabling human beings to learn about their potential as moral and civic agents. Hope is the outcome of those pedagogical practices and struggles that draw upon public memory, dangerous knowledge and repressed lived experiences, while at the same time linking individual responsibility with a progressive sense of social change. As a form of utopian longing, educated hope opens up horizons of comparison by evoking not just different histories but also different futures; at the same time, it serves as “a major resource as the weapon against closure.” Critical and educated hope is a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, makes authority accountable, and becomes an activating presence in promoting social transformation.
Judith Butler is right in insisting that “For me there is more hope in the world when we can question what is taken for granted, especially about what it is to be human.” What Butler and many others now recognize is that any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unravelling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”The project of asking questions that make power accountable, of reclaiming politics from exile, must strike a careful balance between leaving itself forever open to future questions and acting decisively to change the lived experience of ever-expanding ranks of dispossessed and disposable peoples. Reclaiming politics requires a form of educated hope that accentuates how politics is played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of educated hope is not to liberate the individual from the social – a central tenet of neoliberalism – but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social.
Hope as a subversive, defiant practice should provide a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential, it has to be grounded in a vision and educational project that has some hold on the present. In opposition to an age of profound pessimism, hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it mobilizes visions, agents, organizations and strategies while reclaiming an ethic of compassion, justice and collective struggle for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the ongoing struggle for a global democracy. The greatest threat to social justice and democracy is the disappearance not only of critical discourses that allow us to think outside of and against the demands of official power but also those spaces where politics can even occur, where people can learn and assert a sense of critical agency, embrace the civic obligation to care for the other and refuse to take “shelter where responsibility for one’s actions need not be taken by the actors.” If neoliberalism displaces any obligation to the future in favor of short-term financial gains, one goal of organized democratic resistance is to connect writing, pedagogy and politics to the obligations everyone has to a democratic politics and future that can renew the principles of social justice and collective responsibility. This is not a short-term endeavor but a long term investment that demands more than demonstrations. It demands a vision, participatory politics, organizational structures and strategies that move between the local and the global.
An inclusive democratic politics must be responsive to the varied needs of the citizens who comprise it. To facilitate critical thought and nurture the flexibility, it requires public intellectuals and other socially responsible activists to offer better questions, work with social movements and help enact policies that serve democratic interests. This suggests creating public spheres and formative cultures that enable conversations in which acts of critical recovery unleash possibilities that have been repressed by official history or caught in the trap of existing social realities. In an age when the dominant tendency among academics is to follow power and fashion, there is a need for intellectuals, educators, artists and others to exhibit a strong sense of political conviction and an admirable civic courage in their willingness to speak against the status quo, take risks and struggle to give history back to those who are increasingly removed from the political sphere.
There is more at stake here than saying no, making power visible and recognizing that our individual and collective experiences are not dictated by fate. There is also the challenge of confronting the actual with the possible, of pulling hope down to earth, of making sure that the possibilities we engage with address real problems and concrete expressions of domination and power. In addition, there is the need to translate our theoretical concerns into public action, lift up the level of discourse to connect our civic institutions and public spheres to the dynamics of everyday life and give worldly expression to critical work and necessary social change. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for recognizing ourselves as bearers of rights and responsibilities – the precondition of our being human – who can assume the task of governance instead of simply being governed. We lack the basis for raising questions about the goals and aims of our society and what we want our society as a whole to accomplish, especially in the context of the challenge of creating a global democracy. In short, we lack what makes a democratic politics viable.
One task that can be used to reclaim the political and the spirit of civic courage is to recognize and critically interrogate how the radical imagination, especially among young people is being suppressed. The structural forces include subjecting students to a form of debt-servitude that crushes their sense of agency and ties them to long reach of the banks and financial services. Many students also have little time to think, write, dissent and organize collectively because they are now a disposable population who are either unemployed or working long hours in menial and soul-draining jobs. Those who are in school are being educated under disciplinary controls and pedagogies of repression that kill the creative spirit and offer young people a future of dead-end work and political conformity. Young people also are growing up at a time when every institution they inhabit has become an inspection and surveillance regime intent on watching them, treating them like criminals and subjecting them to a culture of fear.
Conformity and political dysfunction is also the outgrowth of a market-driven world view in which everything is individualized and privatized, cleansed of any sense of either ethical responsibility or an analytic framework that understands the power of systemic oppression. Right-wing ideology, which reinforces either a dead-end consumerism as a way of life or a religious fundamentalism that robs young people of any sense of agency, further erodes the production of those modes of identity, values and ideals necessary to be a critical and engaged citizen. The structures and ideologies of these anti-democratic forces are part of the new neoliberal machinery of social and civil death that have become powerful forces for depoliticizing both the young and old. The structures, ideologies, power relations and cultural apparatuses that commodify, punish and remove young people from the discourse of democracy must be interrogated, challenged and transformed. For example, public schools must be reclaimed as democratic public spheres dedicated to the practice of freedom. Schools need to be defended as a public good, not a private right or limited entitlement for the rich. Not only must they be redefined through democratic forms of participation, access and self-management, they must also be financed equitably and dedicated to educating all young people as compassionate, critical, thoughtful and knowledgeable citizens. Moreover, after 40 years of being deskilled and positioned as mind-numbing technicians, public-school teachers need to regain control of their classrooms, to be allowed autonomy over the conditions of their labor and to be given the opportunity to shape their classrooms and participate in school governance. In addition, students need to be exposed not only to the archives of different cultures, intellectual traditions and disciplines, they also need to be encouraged to think for themselves, to be provided with the capacities to be self-educated and to learn to connect what they know to what it means to learn how to govern rather than be governed.
In addition, young and older people need jobs. This suggests not simply a jobs program but a refiguring of political and economic power in which wealth, resources and income would be distributed fairly and resources invested in those institutions that make up the commons, public life, and are essential to any democracy. Public schools, independent media, health care, the social wage are just a few of the fundamental issues that need to be addressed as part of a robust and collective struggle for an insurrectional democracy. There is as urgent need for left and progressive groups to challenge the structures and ideological dominance of mainstream cultural apparatuses whose emphasis on market values, identities and social relations are politically irresponsible and ethically dangerous. There is also an imperative need for alternative public spheres in which non-commodified values, identities, subjectivities and values are nurtured in the name of a new understanding of what justice, freedom and democracy mean as they inform each other as part of the social good.
For the last 33 years Americans have been told that the only thing they have in common are the very values, practices and relations that separate them and make it difficult for people to comprehend what a real democracy might look like. Unchecked individualism, privatization, gated communities, commodification, unbridled worship of the profit motive, deregulation, policies that benefit the rich and powerful, and a survival of the fittest ethic have become gospel in a society marked by massive inequalities in wealth, income and power. Shared obligations and claims have been relegated to the private realm, handed over to for-profit-delivery services agencies or charities. Access to quality health care, wages, jobs, education and basic services are now a function of privilege and wealth. Democracy has been subverted by a ruthless, updated form of class warfare in which the social contract has been destroyed and wealth and force have triumphed over justice and compassion. Americans are in the midst of a democratic deficit and a surplus of authoritarian and anti-democratic practices. This is not to suggest that democracy is dead in the United States as much as to indicate the need for its ideals to be reclaimed and struggled over by opening up a new conversation about politics, justice, long-term organization strategies and the meaning of democracy in the age of casino capitalism.Increasingly, there are many active movements for resistance emerging in the United States. These include groups protesting environmental destruction, the squashing of worker rights, the lowering of wages, the war on youth, voter suppression efforts, the attack on women’s reproductive rights, the ongoing production of toxic trade agreements, the reach of the mass incarceration state, the ruthless accumulation of wealth by the upper 1 percent, the Walmartization of America, and the economic terrorism wielded by major corporations to scare workers into giving up pensions, accept poverty-level wages and abandon workers’ rights. These movements are important because they have started a new conversation about the emptying-out of democracy, the suffering caused by massive inequality in wealth and income, and the rise of the punishing state. But they will fail unless they convert their singular interests into a shared set of collective goals, a shared project for reclaiming the ideology, space and policies that govern a democracy. This is not a call to give up single-issue struggles but to expand their efforts at resistance and change by finding a common ground among these diverse efforts around which they can build a national and international movement for taking back public goods, the commons and democracy itself.
Reform is necessary but not enough. Democracy is not in crisis; it is moribund, its ideals reduced to either Disney-inspired nostalgia or misappropriated to legitimate its opposite. The United States now lives under the weight of a mode of authoritarianism that needs to be resisted and dismantled. This means moving beyond the call for piecemeal reform. One starting point might be to invent a new language and understanding of politics so as to address the root of the problem Americans face. Rethinking the discourse of politics provides the groundwork for waging struggles to bring under democratic control those economic, political, social and cultural modes of power and politics that have defaulted on democracy and subjected the vast majority of Americans to an unimaginable amount of misery, hardship and suffering. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, the United States in its current form needs to be robbed of its tyrannical power and transformed. The fulfilment of that prophecy comes with a price – humiliation, jail, loss of employment – but the alternative is worse and points to a growing national security, corporate and surveillance state and species of authoritarianism that encourage a range of anti-democratic practices – profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; the pursuit of ethno-racial purity; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of civil liberties; the practice of torture; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, responsible dissent, and public dialogue.
What the American public needs to address is that the United States is no longer on the brink of authoritarianism – rather, it has moved; it is at the stage where every effort is made on the side of corporate, political imagination and financial elites to make sure that the current reign of tyranny is neither challenged nor held accountable. Being indignant is not enough. The time has come to define the possible in an entirely new way. At the very least, this suggests building new social movements, organizations and strategies rooted in the power of the radical imagination, one that is capable of generating new terrains of struggle, practices of freedom and forms of educated hope that make possible what Jacques Derrida once called “the promise of a democracy to come.”