The Ghost of Authoritarianism in the Age of the Shutdown
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout before the government shutdown was resolved.
In the aftermath of the reign of Nazi terror in the 1940s, the philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote:
National Socialism lives on, and even today we still do not know whether it is merely the ghost of what was so monstrous that it lingers on after its own death, or whether it has not yet died at all, whether the willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.
Adorno’s words are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them. The threat of authoritarianism to citizen-based democracy is alive and well in the United States, and its presence can be felt in the historical conditions leading up to the partial government shutdown and the refusal on the part of the new extremists to raise the debt ceiling. Adorno believed that while the specific features and horrors of mid-century fascism such as the concentration camps and the control of governments by a political elite and the gestapo would not be reproduced in the same way, democracy as a political ideal and as a working proposition would be under assault once again by new anti-democratic forces all too willing to impose totalitarian systems on their adversaries.
For Adorno, the conditions for fascism would more than likely crystallize into new forms. For instance, they might be found in the economic organization of a society that renders “the majority of people dependent upon conditions beyond their control and thus maintains them in a state of political immaturity. If they want to live, then no other avenue remains but to adapt, submit themselves to the given conditions.” In part, this speaks to the role of corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses that normalize anti-democratic ideologies and practices as well as to the paramount role of education in creating a subject for whom politics was superfluous. For Adorno, fascism in its new guise particularly would launch a systemic assault on the remaining conditions for democracy through the elimination of public memory, public institutions in which people could be educated to think critically and the evisceration of public spaces where people could learn the art of social citizenship, thoughtfulness and critical engagement. He also believed that the residual elements of the police state would become emergent in any new expression of fascism in which the corporate and military establishments would be poised to take power. Adorno, like Hannah Arendt, understood that the seeds of authoritarianism lie in the “disappearance of politics: a form of government that destroys politics, methodically eliminating speaking and acting human beings and attacking the very humanity of first a selected group and then all groups. In this way, totalitarianism makes people superfluous as human beings.”
The American political, cultural, and economic landscape is inhabited by the renewed return of authoritarianism evident in the ideologies of religious and secular certainty that legitimate the reign of economic Darwinism, the unchecked power of capital, the culture of fear and the expanding national security state. The ghosts of fascism also are evident in what Charles Derber and Yale Magress call elements of “the Weimer Syndrome,” which include a severe and seemingly unresolvable economic crisis, liberals and moderate parties too weak to address the intensifying political and economic crises, the rise of far-right populist groups such as the Tea Party and white militia, and the emergence of the Christian Right, with its racist, anti-intellectual and fundamentalist ideology. The underpinnings of fascism are also evident in the reign of foreign and domestic terrorism that bears down on the so called enemies of the state (whistleblowers and nonviolent youthful protesters) and on those abroad who challenge America’s imperial mission; it is also visible in a growing pervasive surveillance system buttressed by the belief that everyone is a potential enemy of the state and should be rightfully subject to diverse and massive assaults on rights to privacy and assembly.
The return to authoritarianism can also be seen in the pervasive and racist war on youths, whether one points to a generation of young people saddled with unspeakable debt, poverty and unemployment, or the ongoing criminalization of behaviors that either represent trivial infractions, such as violating a dress code, or more serious forms of terrorism, such as incarcerating increasing numbers of low-income whites and poor minority youths. Americans live at a time when the history of those who have been cheated, murdered or excluded is being destroyed. Eliminated from this history are the collective narratives of struggle, resistance and rebellion against various forms of authoritarianism. We live in a time in which the politics of the moral coma is alive and well and is most visible in the ways in which the rise of the new extremism in the United States is being ignored. The repudiation of intellectual responsibility confirms what Leo Lowenthal once called the “regression to sheer Darwinism – or perhaps one should say infantilism,” along with any sense of moral accountability toward others or the common good. The government shutdown offers a clear case of a kind of historical and social amnesia and a rare glimpse of the parameters of the new authoritarianism.
During the past few decades, it has become clear that those who wield corporate, political and financial power in the United States thrive on the misery of others. Widening inequality, environmental destruction, growing poverty, the privatization of public goods, the attack on social provisions, the elimination of pensions and the ongoing attacks on workers, young protesters, Muslims and immigrants qualify as just a few of the injustices that have intensified with the rise of the corporate and financial elite since the 1970s. None of these issues are novel, but the intensification of the attacks and the visibility of unbridled power and arrogance of the financial, corporate and political elite that produces these ongoing problems are new and do not bode well for the promise of a democratic society.Such failings are not reducible either to the moral deficiencies and unchecked greed of both major political parties or the rapacious power of the mega banks, hedge funds and investment houses. Those intellectuals writing to acknowledge the current state of politics in America understand the outgrowth of a mix of rabid racism, religious fundamentalism, civic illiteracy, class warfare and a savage hatred of the welfare state that now grips the leadership of the Republican Party. The new extremists and prophets of authoritarianism are diverse, and their roots are in what Chris Hedges calls the radical Christian right, Michael Lind calls the reincarnation of the old Jeffersonian-Jacksonian right and what Robert Parry and Andrew O’Hehir call racist zealots. All of these elements are present in American politics, but they are part of a new social formation in which they share, even in their heterogeneity, a set of organizing principles, values, policies, modes of governance and ideologies that have created a cultural formation, institutional structures, values and policies that support a range of anti-democratic practices ranging from the militarization of public life and acts of domestic terrorism to the destruction of the social state and all those public spheres capable of producing critical and engaged citizens.
Needless to say, all of these groups play an important role in the rise of the new extremism and culture of cruelty that now characterizes American politics and has produced the partial government shutdown and threatens economic disaster with the debt-ceiling standoff. What is new is that these various fundamentalist registers and ideological movements have produced a coalition, a totality that speaks to a new historical conjuncture, one that has ominous authoritarian overtones for the present and future. There is no talk among the new extremists of imposing only an extreme Christian religious orthodoxy on the American people or simply restoring a racial state; or for that matter is there a singular call for primarily controlling the economy. The new counter-revolutionaries and apostles of the Second Gilded age are more interested in imposing a mode of authoritarianism that contains all of these elements in the interest of governing the whole of social life. This suggests a historical conjuncture in which a number of anti-democratic forces come together to “fuse and form a kind of configuration” – a coming together of diverse political and ideological formations into a new totality. The partial government shutdown is a precondition and test run for a full coup d’état by the social formations driving this totality. And while they may lose the heated battle over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, they have succeeded in executing their project and giving it some legitimacy in the dominant media.
Hiding beneath the discourse of partisan politics as usual, the authoritarian face of the new extremism is overlooked in the dominant media by terms such as “the opposing party,” “hard-line conservatives” or, in the words of New York Times columnist Sam Tanenhous, the party of “a post consensus politics.” In fact, even progressives such as Marian Wright Edelman fall into this trap in writing that “some members of Congress are acting like children – or, more accurately, worse than children.” In this case, the anti-democratic ideologies, practices and social formations at work in producing the shutdown and the potential debt-ceiling crisis are not merely overlooked but incorporated into a liberal discourse that personalizes, psychologizes or infantilizes behaviors that refuses to acknowledge or, in fact, succumbs to totalitarian tendencies.
There is no sense in the mainstream liberal and conservative discourses that a new authoritarianism haunts the current notion and ideal of governance and is the culmination of what Hannah Arendt once viewed as a historical trend toward the limiting, if not elimination, of the political as it relates to and furthers the promise of a democracy to come. The wider contexts of power and politics disappear in these discourses. We get a glimpse of this erasure in a statement by former Texas congressman and Republican Party House majority leader Dick Armey. In commenting on the shutdown, Armey raises the issue of “How does a guy like Ted Cruz, who’s relatively new in town, who nobody knows, who hasn’t even unpacked his bags, drive this whole process?” What Armey ignores in this revealing and stark assessment is that the very cultural, economic and political conditions that he has helped to put in place along with a range of other right-wing ideologues helped to create the perfect storm for Cruz to appear and set in motion the authoritarian tendencies that have been percolating in the social order since the late 1970s.
What is clear in the current impasse is that the Republican Party has held the U.S. government hostage, in part, because it disagrees with a health initiative that has been endorsed by a large segment of the American people, been deemed legal by the Supreme Court and played a significant role in getting Barack Obama re-elected. For some, these practices resemble a politics that appropriates the gangster tactics of extortion, but this understanding is only partially true. There is a deeper order of politics at work here, and there is more at stake than simply defunding the Affordable Care Act. As Bill Moyers points out, the attack on the Affordable Care Act is only one target in the sights of the new extremists. He writes:
Despite what they say, Obamacare is only one of their targets. Before they will allow the government to reopen, they demand employers be enabled to deny birth control coverage to female employees. They demand Obama cave on the Keystone pipeline. They demand the watchdogs over corporate pollution be muzzled, and the big, bad regulators of Wall Street sent home. Their ransom list goes on and on. The debt ceiling is next.
Moyers is correct, but his argument can be extended. What Americans are witnessing is a politics that celebrates a form of domestic terrorism, a kind of soft militarism and a hyper-masculine posturing in which communities are organized around resentment, racism and symbolic violence. With the partial government shutdown and the looming debt ceiling crisis engineered by the extremists driving the Republican Party, the amount of human suffering, violence and hardships that many individuals and families are experiencing border on catastrophic and open up a whole new act in the theater of cruelty, state violence, human misery and the exercise of raw and savage power.The assassins now in power are cultivating a culture of fear, vengeance and hatred not only directed at disposable populations such as the poor, low-income minority youths, whistleblowers, immigrants and those who are disabled, uninsured and unemployed – but also at civil liberties, labor unions, women’s reproductive rights and voting rights. Neoliberal common sense now colonizes everyday life and spreads the market-driven gospel of privatization, commodification, deregulation and free trade. Competitiveness, self-interest and decentralization are the new mantras governing society and provide the ideological scaffolding for “moulding identities and characterizing social relations.” The pursuit of the public good, social justice and equality has been replaced by the crude discourse of commerce, the drive for profits and “rational choice models that internalize and thus normalize market-oriented behaviour.” Entrepreneurial identities replace all modes of solidarity invested in democratic principles, and self-interested actors supplant the discourse of the public good. The production of capital, services and material goods “are at the heart of the human experience.”
The connection between private troubles and public considerations has been broken. The many problems the American people now face – from unemployment and poverty to homelessness – regardless of the degree to which they are caused by larger social, economic and political forces are now individualized, placed on the shoulders of the victims who are now solely responsible for the terror, hardship and violence they experience. The shutdown is not another example of an egregiously inept and morally corrupt group of politicians, it is a flashpoint registering the degree to which the United States has become an authoritarian state, one now governed by a system in which economics drives politics, irrationality trumps reason, the public good is canceled out by an unchecked narcissism and ethical considerations are subordinated to the drive for profits at any cost.
For those who have refused to participate in the willful amnesia that marks the contemporary slide into authoritarianism, the totalitarian practices of the past few decades have been quite clear. Domestic spying; secret prisons; kill lists; military aggression; the rise of corporatism; the death-dealing culture of hyper-masculinity, drones and the spectacle of violence; and a monochromatic media have not only registered a shift from state power to corporate power but also a move from the welfare state to the warfare state. Consumer sovereignty erases the rights and obligations of citizens and eviscerates ethical claims and social responsibilities from the meaning of politics. Government is viewed as the enemy, except when it benefits the rich, corporations and hedge fund executives. At the same time that social programs are viewed as a pathology and drain on the state, intellectuals are incorporated into a spectacle of conformity where they lose their voices and become normalized.
The hijacking of democracy by extremists in and outside of the government appears completely disassociated from the needs of the American people, and as such the instruments of dominant politics, power and influence appear unaccountable. And unaccountability is the stuff of political tyrants, not simply religious fanatics or market fundamentalists; it has been a long time in the making and has been fed by a relentless culture of fear, warfare, greed, inequality, unbridled power formations, the destruction of civil liberties and a virulent racism that has a long history in the United States and has gone into overdrive since the 1980s, reaching its authoritarian tipping point after the tragedy of 9/11.
Obama may not be responsible for the government shutdown and the debt ceiling crisis, but he can be charged with furthering a climate of lawlessness that feeds the authoritarian culture supportive of a range of political, economic and cultural interests. The American anti-war activist Fred Branfman argues that:
Under Mr. Obama, America is still far from being a classic police-state of course. But no President has done more to create the infrastructure for a possible future police-state. This infrastructure will clearly pose a serious danger to democratic ideals should there be more 9/11s, and/or increased domestic unrest due to economic decline and growing inequality, and/or massive global disruption due to climate change.
The new extremists in the Republican Party are simply raising the bar for the authoritarian registers and illegal legalities that have emerged under Bush and Obama in the past decade – including the bailing out of banks guilty of the worst forms of corporate malfeasance, the refusal to prosecute government officials who committed torture, the undermining of civil liberties with the passage of the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the establishment of a presidential kill list and the authorization of widespread surveillance to be used against the American people without full transparency.
The current crisis has little to do with what some have called a standoff between the two major political parties. It is has been decades in the making and is part of a much broader coup d’état to benefit the financial elite, race baiters, war mongers and conservative ideologues such as the right-wing billionaires, David and Charles Koch, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Americans for Prosperity, the Club for Growth, the Heritage Foundation policy hacks and other extremist individuals and organizations that believe that democracy poses a threat to a government that should be firmly in the hands of Wall Street and other elements of the military-industrial-surveillance-prison complex.
The willingness and recklessness of the new extremists to throw most of the American people, if not all vestiges of economic security and democracy, into political and economic chaos is a measure of the depth and degree to which the United States has become subject to a new form of authoritarianism. Not only has the shutdown caused the American public $300 million a day and portends a financial catastrophe, but it has shut down programs such as WIC that provide funding for “nearly nine million pregnant women, recent mothers, and their children under age five who rely on the program’s supplemental vouchers for healthy food, expensive infant formula, and other necessities. Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. are fed through the WIC program.” Nineteen thousand students in Head Start have lost their funding, 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed, and life-saving research for “children with serious medical needs has been affected.” In Maine, many of the poor will go without funds for heating, the Environmental Protection Agency has furloughed more than 16,000 workers, or 95 percent of its workforce, prompting what Sara Chieffo, the legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, has called “a polluter’s heyday.”It gets worse. Thousands of safety inspectors for the Federal Aviation Administration no longer on the job because of the shutdown will not be able to perform “included inspections for the de-icing of aircraft on the tarmac and checks that pilots do not fly longer than allowed.” As Think Progress has pointed out, this heavy-handed exercise of raw power means more people will get sick because routine food inspections by the FDA will be dramatically reduced, cutbacks in the staff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will put the country at risk for the spread of infectious diseases, many low-income poor will be cut off from needed nutritional assistance, agencies that conduct workplace inspections and ensure worker safety will not be on the job, and the work of public health researchers may be set back for years. In fact, the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration, which already were underfunded for years, are “scrambling to recall furloughed employees to deal with a dangerous food-borne salmonella outbreak and a lethal Hepatitis outbreak in Hawaii.” As Michal Meurer and Candice Bernd point out, food-borne illnesses pose a real and dangerous threat to the American public, and the government shutdown should be seen as part of a broader right-wing plan to dismantle regulatory agencies, regardless of the lethal impact they may have on the American people. The food safety system is in crisis not for lack of resources and expertise but because of willful recklessness put into place through the right-wing policies of the new authoritarianism. There is more at work here than the recklessness of Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and other Tea Party Republicans, bankrolled by a handful of billionaires; there is also the echo of authoritarianism that now saturates the American cultural and political landscape, endlessly normalizing itself in the media and other cultural apparatuses that showcase and normalize its corrupt politics, racist and class-based ideologies and culture of cruelty, all enabled under the sanctity of the market and in the name of state security. The shutdown and debt ceiling crisis signal the depth and degree to which the United States has become subject to a new form of authoritarianism.
A new type of criminal regime now drives American politics, one devoid of any sense of justice, equality and honor. It thrives on fear, the false promise of security and an egregious fusion of economic, religious and racist ideologies that have become normalized. This new dystopia wants nothing more than the complete destruction of the formative culture, collectives and the institutions that make democracy possible. Inequality is its engine, and disposability is the reward for large segments of the American public. It ideologies and structure of politics often have been hidden from the American public. The shutdown and debt-ceiling crisis have forced the new authoritarianism out of the shadows into the light. The lockdown state is on full display with its concentrated economic power and the willingness of the apostles of authoritarianism to push millions of people into ruin. Paraphrasing Eric Cazdyn, all of society is now at the mercy of a corporate, religious, and financial elite just as “all ideals are at the mercy of [a] larger economic logic.” The category of hell is alive and well in the racist and imperial enclaves of the rich, the bigoted, the bankers and hedge fund managers.
The question that remains is how can politics be redefined through a new language that is capable of articulating not only what has gone wrong with the United States but how the forces responsible can be challenged in new ways by new social formations and collective movements? The crisis caused by the shutdown needs to be addressed through a discourse in which the ghosts and traces of historical modes of authoritarianism can be revealed in tandem with its newly revised edition. This is a daunting task, but too much is at stake to not take it up. The authoritarianism that rules American society functions as more than an apology for inequality, the ruthlessness of the market and the savage costs it imposes on the American public; it also represents a present danger that cannot be repeated in the future. Authoritarianism in its present form in America is the result of the formative culture, modes of civic education and sites of public pedagogy necessary for a viable democratic society degenerating into caricature, or what Adorno called an “empty and cold forgetting.” The ghost has become a reality, although it has been reconfigured to adjust to the specificity of the American political, economic and cultural landscape in the 21st century. In 2004, I wrote a book titled The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. What is different almost a decade later is a mode of state repression and an apparatus of symbolic and real violence that is not only more pervasive and visible but also more unaccountable, more daunting in its arrogance and disrespect for the most fundamental elements of justice, equality and civil liberties.
The new authoritarianism must be exposed as a politic of disaster and a new catastrophe, one that is rooted in large-scale terror and the death of the civic imagination. It has to be contoured with a sense of hope and possibility so that intellectuals, artists, workers, educators and young people can imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise. If we have entered into an era of what Stanley Aronowitz calls “the repressive authoritarian state,” there are signs all over the globe that authoritarianism in its various versions is being challenged in countries that extend from Egypt and Greece to Chile and Mexico. The radical imagination is alive, but it has to be a site of struggle by those committed to creating a new politics, modes of identity, social relations, power arrangements and moral values that offer the glimpse of political and economic emancipation.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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