Neoliberalism and the Machinery of Disposability
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
Under the regime of neoliberalism, especially in the United States, war has become an extension of politics as almost all aspects of society have been transformed into a combat zone. Americans now live in a society in which almost everyone is spied on, considered a potential terrorist, and subject to a mode of state and corporate lawlessness in which the arrogance of power knows no limits. The state of exception has become normalized. Moreover, as society becomes increasingly militarized and political concessions become relics of a long-abandoned welfare state hollowed out to serve the interest of global markets, the collective sense of ethical imagination and social responsibility toward those who are vulnerable or in need of care is now viewed as a scourge or pathology.
What has emerged in this new historical conjuncture is an intensification of the practice of disposability in which more and more individuals and groups are now considered excess, consigned to zones of abandonment, surveillance and incarceration. Moreover, this politics of disappearance has been strengthened by a fundamental intensification of increasing depoliticization, conducted largely through new modes of spying and the smothering, if not all-embracing, market-driven power of commodification and consumption.
Citizens 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.” Within this machinery of social death, not only does moral blindness prevail on the part of the financial elite, but the inner worlds of the oppressed are constantly being remade under the force of economic pressures and a culture of fear. According to João Biehl, as the realpolitik of disposability “comes into sharp visibility . . . tradition, collective memory, and public spheres are organized as phantasmagoric scenes, [that] thrive on the “energies of the dead,” who remain unaccounted for in numbers and law.”
Economists such as Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have argued that we are in a new Gilded Age, one that mimics a time when robber barons and strikebreakers ruled, and the government and economy were controlled by a cabal that was rich, powerful and ruthless. And, of course, blacks, women and the working class were told to mind their place in a society controlled by the rich. What is often missing in these analyses is that what is new in the second Gilded Age is not just about the moral sanctioning of greed, the corruption of politics by big money, and the ruthlessness of class power.
What is unique is the rise of a brutal punishing-incarceration state that imposes its power on the dispossessed, the emergence of a surveillance state that spies on and suppresses dissenters, the emergence of vast cultural apparatuses that colonize subjectivity in the interests of the market, and a political class that is uninterested in political concessions and appears immune from control by nation states. The second Gilded Age is really a more brutal form of authoritarianism driven by what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton rightly calls a “death-saturated age,” in which matters of violence, survival and trauma now infuse everyday life.
Discarded by the corporate state, dispossessed of social provisions and deprived of the economic, political and social conditions that enable viable and critical modes of agency, expanding populations of Americans now find themselves inhabiting zones of abandonment marked by deep inequalities in power, wealth and income. Such zones are sites of rapid disinvestment, places marked by endless spectacles of violence, and supportive of the neoliberal logics of containment, commodification, surveillance, militarization, cruelty and punishment.
These zones of hardship and terminal exclusion constitute a hallmark signature and intensification of a neoliberal politics of disposability that is relentless in the material and symbolic violence it wages against the 99% for the benefit of the new financial elite. Borrowing from Hannah Arendt, one could say that capitalist expropriation, dispossession and disinvestment has reached a point where life has become completely unbearable for over half of the American public living in or near poverty.
Evidence of such zones can be seen in the war against immigrants, poor minorities, the homeless, young people living in debt, the long-term unemployed, workers, the declining middle class, all of whom have been pushed into invisible communities of control, harassment, security and the governing-through-punishment complex.
The promises of modernity regarding progress, freedom and hope have not been eliminated; they have been reconfigured, stripped of their emancipatory potential and subordinated to the logic of a savage market instrumentality and individualization of the social. Dispossession and disinvestment have invalidated the promises of modernity and have turned progress into a curse for the marginalized and a blessing for the super-financial elite. Modernity has reneged on its undertaking to fulfill the social contract, however disingenuous or limited, especially with regards to young people. Long-term planning and the institutional structures that support them are now weakened, if not eliminated, by the urgencies of privatization, deregulation, flexibility and short-term investments. Social bonds have given way under the collapse of social protections and the welfare state and are further weakened by the neoliberal insistence that there are only “individual solutions to socially produced problems.”
Neoliberalism’s disposability machine is relentlessly engaged in the production of an unchecked notion of individualism that both dissolves social bonds and removes any viable notion of agency from the landscape of social responsibility and ethical considerations. Absorbed in privatized orbits of consumption, commodification and display, Americans vicariously participate in the toxic pleasures of a mode of authoritarianism characterized by the reactionary presence of the corporate state, the concentration of power and money in the upper 1% of the population, the ongoing militarization of all aspects of society, and the ongoing, aggressive depoliticization of the citizenry.
In its current historical conjuncture, the authoritarian state is controlled by a handful of billionaires (eg., the Koch Brothers), their families (eg., the Waltons) and a select class of zombie-like financial and corporate elite who now control the commanding economic, political and cultural institutions of American society. Mechanisms of governance have been transformed into instruments of war. Violence has become the organizing force of a society driven by a toxic notion of privatization in which it becomes difficult for ideas to be lifted into the public realm. Under such circumstances, politics is eviscerated because it now supports a market-driven view of society that has turned its back on the idea that “Humanity is never acquired in solitude.” That is, society has come undone in terms of the social contract and in doing so has turned its back on most Americans whose lives and futures are no longer determined by social spaces that give them a voice and provide the conditions for autonomy, freedom and equality. This violence against the social mimics is not just the death of the radical imagination, but also a notion of banality made famous by Hannah Arendt, who argued that at the root of totalitarianism was a kind of thoughtlessness, an inability to think, and a type of outrageous stupidity in which, “There’s simply the reluctance ever to imagine what the other person is experiencing.”
The plight of disposable populations can be seen in the fact that millions of Americans are unemployed and are receiving no long-term benefits. Shockingly, the only source of assistance for one in 50 Americans “is nothing but a food stamp card.” Close to half of all Americans live on or beneath the poverty line while “more than a million public school students are homeless in the United States; 57 percent of all children are in homes considered to be either low-income or impoverished; and half of all American children will be on food stamps at least once before they turn 18 years old.” At the same time, the 400 richest Americans “have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined, that’s 50 percent of the entire country [while] the top economic 1% of the US population now has a record 40 percent of all wealth and more wealth than 90 percent of the population combined.”
Within this system of power and disposability, the ethical grammars that draw our attention to the violence of such suffering disappear while dispossessed populations lose their dignity, bodies, and material goods and homes. The fear of losing everything, the horror of the engulfing precarity, the quest to merely survive, and the impending reality of social and civil death have become a way of life for the 99% in the United States. Under the politics of disposability, the grammars of suffering, cruelty, and punishment have replaced the value of compassion, social responsibility and civic courage.
The severity of the consequences of this shift in modernity under neoliberalism among youth is evident in the fact that this is the first generation, as Zygmunt Bauman argues, in which the “plight of the outcast may stretch to embrace a whole generation.” He rightly argues that today’s youth have been “cast in a condition of liminal drift, with no way of knowing whether it is transitory or permanent.” Youth no longer occupy the hope of a privileged place that was offered to previous generations. They now inhabit a neoliberal notion of temporality marked by a loss of faith in progress along with the emergence of apocalyptic narratives in which the future appears indeterminate, bleak and insecure. Heightened prospects and progressive visions pale and are smashed next to the normalization of market-driven government policies that wipe out pensions, eliminate quality health care, raise college tuition, and produce a harsh world of joblessness, while giving millions to banks and the military. Students, in particular, now find themselves in a world in which heightened expectations have been replaced by dashed hopes and a world of onerous debt.
What has changed about an entire generation of young people includes not only neoliberal society’s disinvestment in youth and the permanent fate of downward mobility but also the fact that youth live in a commercially carpet-bombed and commodified environment that is unlike anything experienced by those of previous generations. Nothing has prepared this generation for the inhospitable and savage new world of commodification, privatization, joblessness, frustrated hopes, surveillance and stillborn projects. The present generation has been born into a throwaway society of consumers in which both goods and young people are viewed increasingly as redundant and disposable or they are merely valued as consumers and commodities. In this discourse, young people are not seen as troubled but viewed as a source of trouble; rather than viewed as being “at risk,” they are the risk and subject to a range of punitive policies.
The structures of neoliberal modernity do more than disinvest in young people and commodify them, they also transform the protected space of childhood into a zone of disciplinary exclusion and cruelty, especially for those young people further marginalized by race and class who now inhabit a social landscape in which they are increasingly disparaged as flawed consumers. With no adequate role to play as consumers, many youth are forced to inhabit “zones of social abandonment,” extending from bad schools to bulging detention centers to prisons. Youth have become a marker for a mode of disposability in which their fate is defined largely through the registers of a society that throws away resources, people and goods. These are zones where the needs of young people are not only ignored, but where many young people, especially poor minority youth, are subjected to conditions of impoverishment and punishment that underserve them and often criminalize their behavior. For example, with the hollowing out of the social state and the rise of the punishing state, the circuits of state repression, surveillance and disposability increasingly “link the fate of blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, poor whites, and Asian Americans” to a crime youth complex, which now serves as the default solution to major social problems. Within these “zones of abandonment” and social death, poor minority and low-income youth are viewed as out of step, place, and time and defined largely as “pathologies feeding on the body politic,” exiled to spheres of “terminal exclusion.”
As the welfare state is hollowed out, a culture of compassion is replaced by a culture of violence, cruelty and atomization. Within the existing neoliberal historical conjuncture, there is a merging of violence and governance and the systemic disinvestment in, and breakdown of, institutions and public spheres that have provided the minimal conditions for democracy. A generalized fear now shapes American society – one that thrives on insecurity, precarity, dread of punishment, and a perception of constant lurking threats. Americans occupy a historical conjuncture in which everything that matters politically, ethically and culturally is being erased – either ignored, turned into a commodity or simply falsified.In the United States and many other countries, the state monopoly on the use of violence has not only intensified since the 1980s, but is unashamedly sanctioned by the new extremists in power. Under the regime of neoliberalism, this new-found embrace of social Darwinism and the culture of violence has been directed against young people, poor minorities, immigrants and, increasingly, women. Abandoned by the existing political system, young people are placing their bodies on the line, protesting peacefully across the globe while trying to produce a new language, politics, long-term institutions, and “community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that is structured by neoliberal principles.” Such movements are not simply about reclaiming space but also about producing new ideas, generating new conversations, and introducing a new political language. While there has been considerable coverage in the progressive media since 2001 given to the violence being waged against the movement protesters in Brazil, the United States, Greece and elsewhere, it is important to situate such violence within a broader set of categories that enables a critical understanding of not only the underlying social, economic and political forces at work in such assaults, but also makes it possible to reflect critically on the distinctiveness of the current historical period in which they are taking place. For example, it is difficult to address such state-sponsored violence against young people without analyzing the devolution of the social state, emergence of a politics of disposability, and the corresponding rise of the warfare and punishing state.
The merging of the military-industrial-academic-cultural complex and unbridled corporate power points to the need for strategies that address what is specific about the current warfare state and the neoliberal project and how different interests, modes of power, social relations, public pedagogies, and economic configurations come together to shape its politics of domestic terrorism, cruelty, and zones of disposability. Such a conjuncture is invaluable politically in that it provides a theoretical opening for making the practices of the neoliberal revolution visible to organize resistance to its ideologies, policies and modes of governance. It also points to the conceptual power of making clear that history remains an open horizon that cannot be dismissed through appeals to the end of history or end of ideology. It is precisely through the indeterminate nature of history that resistance becomes possible and politics refuses any guarantees and remains open.
A number of neoliberal societies, including the United States, have become addicted to violence. War provides jobs, profits, political payoffs, research funds, and forms of political and economic power that reach into every aspect of society. As war becomes a mode of sovereignty and rule, it erodes the distinction between war and peace. Increasingly fed by a moral and political frenzy, warlike values produce and endorse shared fears as the primary register of social relations. Shared fears and the media-induced panics that feed them produce more than a culture of fear. Such hysteria also feeds the growing militarization of the police, who increasingly use their high-tech scanners, surveillance cameras and toxic chemicals on anyone who engages in peaceful protests against the warfare and corporate state. Images abound in the mainstream media of such abuses.
As a mode of public pedagogy, a state of permanent war needs willing subjects to abide by its values, ideology and narratives of fear and violence. Such legitimation is largely provided through a market-driven culture addicted to production of consumerism, militarism, and organized violence, largely circulated through various registers of popular culture that extend from high fashion and Hollywood movies to the creation of violent video games and music concerts sponsored by the Pentagon. The market-driven spectacle of war demands a culture of conformity, quiet intellectuals and a largely passive republic of consumers. But it also needs subjects who find intense pleasure in the spectacle of violence.
As the pleasure principle is unconstrained by a moral compass based on a respect for others, it is increasingly shaped by the need for intense excitement and a never-ending flood of heightened sensations. In this instance, unfamiliar violence such as extreme images of torture and death become banally familiar, while familiar violence that occurs daily is barely recognized and relegated to the realm of the unnoticed and unnoticeable. As an increasing volume of violence is pumped into the culture, yesterday’s spine-chilling and nerve-wrenching violence loses its shock value. As the need for more intense images of violence accumulates, the moral indifference and desensitization to violence grows, while matters of cruelty and suffering are offered up as fodder for sports, entertainment, news media, and other outlets for seeking pleasure.
Marked by a virulent notion of hardness and aggressive masculinity, a culture of violence has become commonplace in a society in which pain, humiliation and abuse are condensed into digestible spectacles endlessly circulated through extreme sports, reality TV, video games, YouTube postings, and proliferating forms of the new and old media. But the ideology of hardness and the economy of pleasure it justifies are also present in the material relations of power that have intensified across the globe since the 1970s. Conservative and liberal politicians alike now spend millions waging wars around the globe, funding the largest military state in the world, providing huge tax benefits to the ultra-rich and major corporations, and all the while draining public coffers, increasing the scale of human poverty and misery, and eliminating all viable public spheres—whether they be the social state, public schools, public transportation, or any other aspect of a formative culture that addresses the needs of the common good. State violence, particularly the use of torture, abductions, and targeted assassinations are now justified as part of a state of exception that has become normalized. A “political culture of hyper punitiveness” has become normalized and accelerates throughout the social order like a highly charged electric current.A symptomatic example of the way in which violence has saturated everyday life can be seen in the growing acceptance of criminalizing the behavior of young people in public schools. Behaviors that were normally handled by teachers, guidance counselors, and school administrators are now dealt with by the police and the criminal justice system. The consequences have been disastrous for young people. Not only do schools resemble the culture of prisons, but young children are being arrested and subjected to court appearances for behaviours that can only be termed as trivial. This is not merely barbarism parading as reform – it is also a blatant indicator of the degree to which sadism and the infatuation with violence have become normalized in a society that seems to take delight in dehumanizing itself.
As the social is devalued along with rationality, ethics, and any vestige of democracy, spectacles of war, violence, and brutality now merge into forms of collective pleasure that constitute an important and new symbiosis between visual pleasure, violence, and suffering. The control/punishing society is now the ultimate form of entertainment as the pain of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, has become the subject not of compassion but of ridicule and amusement. My emphasis here is on the sadistic impulse and how it merges spectacles of violence and brutality with forms of collective pleasure that often lend support and sway public opinion in favor of social policies and “lawful” practices that create zones of abandonment for youth. No society can make a claim to being a democracy as long as it defines itself through shared fears rather than shared responsibilities, especially in regards to young people. Widespread violence now functions as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that creates the foundation for sapping democracy of any political substance and moral vitality that might counter a politics of disposability more generally.
The prevalence of violence throughout American society suggests the need for a politics that not only negates the established order and the proliferating zones of disappearance and dispossession of subjects rendered useless or burdensome, but also imagines new radical visions in which the future diverges from the dark conditions of the present. In this discourse, critique merges with a sense of realistic hope, and individual struggles merge into larger social movements.
At the heart of the oppression experienced by young people and others are ideologies, modes of governance, and policies that embrace a pathological individualism, a distorted notion of freedom, and a willingness both to employ state violence to suppress dissent and abandon those suffering from a collection of social problems ranging from dire poverty and joblessness to homelessness. In the end, these are stories about disposability in which growing numbers of young people are considered dispensable and a drain on the body politic, the economy, and the sensibilities of the rich and powerful. Rather than work for a more dignified life, most young people now work simply to survive – that is, if they can find work – in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which getting ahead and accumulating capital, especially for the ruling elite, is the only game in town. In the past, public values have been challenged and certain groups have been targeted as superfluous or redundant. But what is new about the politics of disposability that has become a central feature of contemporary American politics is the way in which such antidemocratic practices have become normalized in the existing neoliberal order. A politics of inequality and ruthless power disparities is now matched by a culture of cruelty soaked in blood, humiliation and misery. Private injuries are not only separated from public considerations by such narratives, but accounts of poverty and exclusion have become objects of scorn. Similarly, all noncommercial public spheres where such stories might get heard are viewed with contempt, a perfect supplement to the chilling indifference to the plight of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.
As politics is disconnected from its ethical and material moorings, it becomes easier to punish and imprison young people than to educate them. From the inflated rhetoric of the political right to market-driven media peddling spectacles of violence, the influence of these criminogenic and death-saturated forces in everyday life is undermining our collective security by justifying cutbacks to social supports and restricting opportunities for democratic resistance. Saturating mainstream discourses with anti-public narratives, the neoliberal machinery of social death effectively weakens public supports and prevents the emergence of much-needed new ways of thinking and speaking about politics in the 21st century.
Before this dangerously authoritarian mindset has a chance to take hold of our collective imagination and animate our social institutions, it is crucial that all Americans think critically and ethically about the coercive forces shaping US culture – and focus our energy on what can be done to change them. It will not be enough only to expose the falseness of the propaganda pumped out by the commanding neoliberal cultural apparatuses. We also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for our children and ourselves. This demands a break from established political parties, the creation of alternative public spheres in which to produce democratic narratives and visions, and a notion of politics that is educative, one that takes seriously how people interpret and mediate the world, how they see themselves in relation to others, and what it might mean to imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise.
At stake here is more than a call for reform. The American public needs to organize around a revolutionary ideal that enables people to hold power, participate in the process of governing, and create public institutions and discourses capable of explaining and reversing chronic injustices and power relations evident everywhere in society. This is a revolution that not only calls for structural change, but for a transformation in the ways in which subjectivities are created, desires are produced, and agency itself is safeguarded as crucial to any viable notions of community and freedom. Democracy requires, at the very least, a type of education that fosters a working knowledge of citizenship and the development of individuals with the capacity to be self-reflective, passionate about the collective good, and able to defend the means by which ideas are translated into the worldly space of the public realm. It is not enough to wait for the Occupy Movement to revitalize itself. That is important, but is too limited a call for change. Such a struggle is impossible without an alliance among unions, working people, students, youth, educators, feminists, environmentalists and intellectuals. In particular, organized labor, students, educators, and youth have to provide the base of a broader organization and social movement designed to dismantle casino capitalism.
Such an alliance has to be built around defending the common good, public values, economic and racial justice and environmental sustainability. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the biggest threat to the Gilded Age autocrats is solidarity and rightly so. The time has come for a surge of opposition in the name of democracy, one designed to save the planet from destruction and for a social order in which economic justice is matched with a reverence for care for the other. Politics becomes meaningless without a vision, a willingness to develop a radical collective imagination rooted in a formative culture that nourishes a vibrant sense of critique, civic courage, and sustained collective struggle. Any struggle that matters will have to reimagine and fight for a society in which it becomes possible once again to dream the project of a substantive democracy. This means, as Ulrich Beck has pointed out, looking for politics in new spaces and arenas outside of traditional elections, political parties, and “duly authorized agents.” It suggests developing public spaces outside of the regime of predatory corporatism and engaging in a type of counter politics that shapes society from the bottom up.