“Disposable Futures”: Critique of Violence

2015.5.4.BookCover.main(Image: City Lights Books)How does neoliberalism hold us back from participating in civic life? In Disposable Futures, Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux analyze how today’s dominant economic system uses privatization, mass media and the spectacle of violence to neutralize and control the public. Click here to make a contribution to Truthout and order the book now!

The following excerpt from the first chapter of Disposable Futures is entitled “Critique of Violence”:

Imagine a world where spectacles of violence have become so ubiquitous that it is no longer possible to identify any clear civic, social, or ethical qualities in the enforced social order. Imagine a world where those who live on the margins of such a social order are condemned for their plight, while those who control the political processes prosper from those very policies that bring about social abandonment and human destruction. Imagine a world where the technological promise of human connectivity is supplanted by forms of surveillance that encourage citizens to actively participate in their own inescapable oppression. Imagine a world that proclaims an end to the brutality of colonialism, all the while continuing to consciously vilify, target, incarcerate, and kill those of a different color. Imagine a world where the forces of militarism have become so ingrained that they are inseparable from the daily functioning of civic life. Imagine a world where the institutions tasked with producing the most brilliant and publicly engaged minds are put to the service of an uncompromising war machine. And imagine a world that has lost all faith in its ability to envisage – let alone create – better futures, condemning its citizens instead to a desolate terrain of inevitable catastrophe. The great tragedy of the current historical moment is that we can imagine this world all too easily, for it is the picture of the world that dominates the realities of our present condition. It is a world most people experience on a daily basis – a world that has become normalized and for which there is no immediate alternative – a world we understand as neoliberalism.

To see more stories like this, visit “Can You Imagine a Future That Isn’t ‘Disposable’?”

Neoliberal power is unmediated in its effects on people as it operates throughout the global space of unregulated flows. Whereas in an earlier industrial period capital was largely rooted and peoples migrated, for the most part today capital flows while peoples are contained. What becomes of sovereignty in this economically driven environment is a military and policing protectorate put to the service of global capital in ways that work by condemning the already condemned. At the same time, neoliberal ideology, policies, and modes of governing are normalized as if there is no outside or alternative to capitalism. As corporate power replaces political sovereignty, politics becomes an extension of war and all public spaces are transformed into battle zones. Not only are all vestiges of the social contract, the safety net, and institutions of democracy under siege, but so too are all public spheres that support non-market values such as trust, critical dialogue, and solidarity. How else to explain Heartland Institute President Joseph Best denouncing public schools as “socialist regimes.” Paul Buchheit is right in arguing that “privatizers believe that any form of working together as a community is anti-American. To them, individual achievement is all that matters. They’re now applying their winner-take-all profit motive to our children.” They are also punishing those individuals, groups, and institutions that refuse the individualized and cut throat values of a market-driven casino capitalism.

At the same time, under the interlocking regimes of neoliberal power, violence appears so arbitrary and thoughtless that it lacks the need for any justification, let alone claims to justice and accountability. It is truly as limitless as it appears banal. All that matters instead is to re-create the very conditions to further and deepen the crises of neoliberal rule. Violence, with its ever-present economy of uncertainty, fear, and terror, is no longer merely a side effect of police brutality, war, or criminal behavior; it has become fundamental to neoliberalism as a particularly savage facet of capitalism. And in doing so it has turned out to be central to legitimating those social relations in which the political and pedagogical are redefined in order to undercut possibilities for authentic democracy. Under such circumstances, the social becomes retrograde, emptied of any democratic values, and organized around a culture of shared anxieties rather than shared responsibilities. The contemporary world, then – the world of neoliberalism – creates the most monstrous of illusions, one that functions by hiding things in plain sight. We see this most troublingly played out as its simulated spectacles of destruction are scripted in such a way as to support the narrative that violence itself is enjoying a veritable decline as a result of liberal influence and pacification. Howard Zinn understood this perversion better than most:

I start from the supposition 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 and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don’t have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.[1]

There is no greater task today than to develop a critique of violence adequate to our deeply unjust, inequitable, and violent times. Only then might we grasp the magnitude and depths of suffering endured on a daily basis by many of the world’s citizens. Only then might we move beyond the conceit of a neoliberal project, which has normalized violence such that its worst manifestations become part of our cultural “pastimes.” And only then might we reignite a radical imagination that is capable of diagnosing the violence of the present in such a manner that we have the confidence to rethink the meaning of global citizenship in the twenty-first century.

Following on from the enduring legacy and inspiration of Zinn and other cautionary voices of political concern such as Paulo Freire, our critique begins from the supposition that mass violence today must be understood by comprehending the ways in which systemic cruelty is transformed into questions of individual pathology. What is more, with the burden of guilt placed on the shoulders of the already condemned, those whose lives are rendered disposable, we must question more rigorously the imaginaries of violence, which instigate a forced partaking in a system that encourages the subjugated to embrace their oppression as though it were their liberation. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in the doctrine of “resilience” which, as critiqued elsewhere, forces us to accept our vulnerabilities without providing us with the tools for genuine transformation of those systematic processes that render us insecure in the first place.[2] Neoliberalism’s culture of violence is reinforced by what Zsuza Ferge calls the “individualization of the social,”[3] in which all traces of the broader structural forces producing a range of social problems such as widening inequality and mass poverty disappear. Under the regime of neoliberalism, individual responsibility becomes the only politics that matters and serves to blame those who are susceptible to larger systemic forces. Even though such problems are not of their own making, neoliberalism’s discourse insists that the fate of the vulnerable is a product of personal issues ranging from weak character to bad choices or simply moral deficiencies. This makes it easier for its advocates to argue that “poverty is a deserved condition.”[4]

Systematic violence has never been “exceptional” in the history of capitalistic development. How might we explain David Harvey’s apt description of capitalist expansion as “accumulation by dispossession,”[5] if the rise of capitalism did not signal the advent of a truly predatory social formation? Indeed, even the contemporary advocates of neoliberal markets recognize that their notion of a “just world” depends on coercion and violence as a way to enforce capitalism’s uneven distribution of wealth and impoverishment.

As the Oxford economic historian Avner Offer explained to Chris Hedges, “those who suffer deserve to suffer.”[6] The neoliberal model is, after all, “a warrant for inflicting pain.”[7] The regime of neoliberalism is precisely organized for the production of violence. Such violence is more than symbolic. Instead of waging a war on poverty it wages a war on the poor – and does so removed from any concern for social costs or ethical violations. Such a brutal diagnosis argues in favor of a neoliberal model despite its perverse outcomes: “It is perhaps symptomatic that the USA, a society that elevates freedom to the highest position among its values, is also the one that has one of the very largest penal systems in the world relative to its population. It also inflicts violence all over the world. It tolerates a great deal of gun violence, and a health service that excludes large numbers of people.”[8]

Its effects in the United States are evident in the incarceration of more than 2.3 million people, mostly people of color. Not only are 77 percent of all inmates people of color, but, as Michelle Alexander has pointed out, as of 2012 “more African-American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.”[9] The necropolitics of neoliberal policies is evident in the unnecessary deaths of up to 17,000 more Americans each year because partisan ideologues opted out of the expansion of the Medicare program offered by the Obama administration.[10] Across the globe, violence creeps into almost all of the commanding institutions of public life, extending from public schools to health care apparatuses. Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano knew the impacts of neoliberalism’s theater of cruelty better than most: “Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others – the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neo-colonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.”[11]

Zygmunt Bauman has taken this further by showing us how the most appalling acts of mass slaughter have been perfectly in keeping with the modern compulsion to destroy lives for more progressive times to come.[12] Acts of non-violence, in fact, are the exceptional moments of our more recent history. They also confirm Hannah Arendt’s insistence that power and violence are qualitatively different.[13] There is no doubt something truly powerful, truly exceptional, to the examples set by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and indigenous movements such as the Zapatistas of Mexico, whose choice of non-violence as an insurgent strategy reveals more fully the violence of oppressive contemporary regimes. Violence easily deals with violence on its own terms. Carlos Marighella was wrong to suggest otherwise.[14] What violence, however, cannot deal with, except by issuing more violence, remains the power of a dignified response and movements of collective resistance by those who refuse to get caught up in a cycle of cruelty that corrupts every good intention. Frantz Fanon was most clear in this respect.[15] Who are the “wretched,” after all, if not those who fail to see that their recourse to violence only produces a mirror image of that which was once deemed intolerable?

Our history – the history of our present – is a history of violence. Beneath the surface of every semblance of peace, it is possible to identify all too easily the scars of sacrifice and the bloodshed of victims whose only error was often to be born in a cruel age. There are many ways in which we could try to make sense of this burden of sacrificial history. Why do so many continue to die for the sake of the living? Why do we continue to protect inhuman conditions through the endless wars fought in the name of humanity? Why is killing so often presented as necessary? How is it that the police in the United States can kill blacks at a rate twenty-one times higher than whites and not only act with impunity but respond to protests by the larger public almost exclusively with massive militarized responses, as if the use of violence is the only legitimate form of mediation to any problem that emerges in the larger society? While all these questions are important, it is precisely the spectacle that most perturbs us here. For it is through the spectacle of violence that we begin to uncover the abilities to strip life of any political, ethical, and human claim. Violence seeks to curate who and what is human even though the physical body might still be in existence. When violence becomes normalized and decentered, the disposability of entire populations becomes integral to the functioning, the profiteering, and the entrenchment of the prevailing rationalities of the dominant culture. Such violence, in other words, offers the most potent diagnosis of any political project by revealing what is deemed culturally acceptable and socially normalized.

There is an important point to stress here regarding the logics of brutality. Violence is easily condemned when it appears exceptional. This also unfortunately precludes more searching and uncomfortable questions. Normalized violence, by contrast, represents a more formidable challenge, requiring a more sophisticated and learned response. Exposing more fully how these normalized cultures of cruelty shape the historic moment is the main purpose of this work, as it is integral to the critical imagination and those forms of political agency necessary for successfully living in a nonviolent and civilian future.

Our motivation for writing this book is driven by a commitment to the value of critical pedagogy in countering mechanisms of dehumanization and domination at play in neoliberal societies and beyond. We have no time whatsoever for those who reason that violence may be studied in an “objective” or “rational” way. There are no neutral pedagogies indifferent to matters of politics, power, and ideology. Pedagogy is, in part, always about both struggle and vision—struggles over identities, modes of agency, values, desires, and visions of the possible. Not only does the apologetics of neutrality lead to the most remiss intellectualism when the personal experience of violence is reduced to emotionless inquiry, but it also announces complicity in the rationalizations of violence that depend upon the degradation of those qualities that constitute what is essential to the human condition. Thus, education is by definition a form of political intervention. It is always disentangling itself from particular regimes of power that attempt to authenticate and disqualify certain ways of perceiving and thinking about the world. The larger issue is that not only only is education central to politics, but the educative nature of politics begins with the assumption that how people think, critically engage the world, and are self-reflective about the shaping of their own experiences and relations to others marks the beginning of a viable and oppositional politics.

We dare to perceive and think differently from both neoliberal rule and the increasingly stagnant and redundant left, which does little to counter it. The world that we inhabit is systematically oppressive and tolerates the most banal and ritualistic forms of violence. It educates us of the need for warfare; it prizes, above all, the values of militarism and its conceptual apparatus of “civic soldierology.” It sanctions and openly celebrates killings as if they are necessary to prove our civilization’s credentials. It takes pride, if not pleasure, in punishing peoples of distinct racial and class profiles, all in the name of better securing society. It promotes those within that order with characteristics that in other situations would be both criminalized and deemed pathological.[16] And it invests significantly in all manner of cultural productions so that we develop a taste for violence, and even learn to appreciate aesthetics of violence, as the normal and necessary price of being entertained.

This book inevitably draws upon a number of critical visionaries whose fight for dignity cannot be divorced from their intellectual concerns. The spirit of the late Paulo Freire in particular is impressed upon each of these pages.[17] His critical pedagogy was unashamedly tasked with liberating both the oppressed and their oppressors from the self-perpetuating dynamics of subjugation. Freire’s prose echoed the humanizing call for a more just, literate, and tolerant world. He remains a strong influence in the field of education and in other areas of practice that require thinking about the possibility of an ethics of difference that resists violence in all its forms.

The power and forcefulness of Freire’s works are to be found in the tensions, conflicts, poetry, and politics that make it a project for thinking about (non)violence meaningfully. Siding with the disempowered of history – those at the raw ends of tyranny – Freire’s work calls for a more poetic image of thought that is a way of reclaiming power by reimagining the space and practice of cultural and political resistance. His work thus represents a textual borderland where poetry slips into liberation politics, and solidarity becomes a song for the present begun in the past while waiting to be heard in the future. Freire, no less trenchant in his critique of illegitimate rule, refuses to dwell in hopelessness. His resistance is empowering because it is infused with a fearless belief in people’s abilities and finds reasons to rejoice in the transformative possibilities of living:

The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.[18]

Freire is not only our source of inspiration. Nearly a century ago Walter Benjamin responded to the tyranny of his times by writing his famous “Critique of Violence.”[19] Ours is a different age. And yet the need for a critique adequate to our times is as pressing as ever. We are not lacking in knowledge of our own oppression. Let’s be sure of that. Oppressive power reveals enough of its violent traces for even a casual cartographer to expose its deceptions or else retreat into conspiracy. What we do lack is a rigorous critique of the historical moment and its varied modes of imaginative resistance. Such modes of artistic imagination are as important as contemporary sources of oppression are in mediating suffering in the service of established contemporary power. This requires a critique of violence that once again encourages us to think beyond its necessity, so as to make clear that in a world in which violence is normalized, it once again becomes possible to imagine the unimaginable, particularly the notion that collective resistance not only is possible but can transform the world with confidence.

Hence, while authors like Steven Pinker cloud our perception by claiming the current era is the least violent era in human history, relying upon crude per capita human death rates etc.,[20] it takes only a slightly different angle of vision to see the current social order’s full range of preventable violence: impoverishment, financial predation, malnutrition, mass incarceration, and rapidly accelerating deforestation, ecological degradation, and irreversible biocide. Pinker would do well to acknowledge that political violence is poorly understood if it simply refers to a failure of liberal modernity. Political violence cannot be reduced to such a crude and reductionist metric. Indeed, conventional demarcations between times of war and times of peace, zones of security and zones of crises, friends and enemies, have long since evaporated. We live in complex and radically interconnected societies, whose social morphology has radically altered our sense of the world such that we are taught to accept insecurity as the natural order of things.[21] This is fully in keeping with the proliferation of media output, factual and fictional, that bombards us continuously with images of violence and catastrophe for subtle political gain. Indeed, what is new about the current historical conjuncture is not only a commodified popular culture that trades in extreme violence, greed, and narcissism as a source of entertainment, but the emergence of a predatory society in which the suffering and death of others becomes a reason to rejoice rather than mourn. Extreme violence has become not only a commodified spectacle, but one of the few popular resources available through which people can bump up their pleasure quotient.

Our critique begins from the realization that violence has become ubiquitous, “settling like some all-enveloping excremental mist … that has permeated every nook of any institution or being that has real influence on the way we live now.”[22] We cannot escape its spectre. Its presence is everywhere. It is hardwired into the fabric of our digital DNA. Capitalism in fact has always thrived on its consumption. There is, after all, no profit in peace. We are not calling here for the censoring of all representations of violence as if we could retreat into some sheltered protectorate. That would be foolish and intellectually dangerous. Our claim is both that the violence we are exposed to is heavily mediated, and that as such we are witness to various spectacles that serve a distinct political function, especially as they either work to demonize political resistance or simply extract from its occurrence (fictional and actual) any sense of political context and critical insight. Moving beyond the spectacle by making visible the reality of violence in all of its modes is both necessary and politically important. What we need then is an ethical approach to the problem of violence such that its occurrence is intolerable to witness.

Exposing violence is not the same as being exposed to it, though the former too often comes as a result of the latter. The corrupting and punishing forms taken by violence today must be addressed by all people as both the most important element of power and the most vital of forces shaping social relationships under the predatory formation of neoliberalism. Violence is both symbolic and material in its effects and its assaults on all social relations, whereas the mediation of violence coupled with its aesthetic regimes of suffering is a form of violence that takes as its object both memory and thought. It purges the historical record, denying access to the history of a more dignified present, purposefully destroying the ability to connect forms of struggle across the ages. Memory as such is fundamental to any ethics of responsibility. Our critique of violence begins, then, as an ethical imperative. It demands a rigorous questioning of the normalized culture of violence in which we are now immersed. It looks to the past so that we may understand the violence of our present. It looks to the ways that ideas about the future shape the present such that we learn to accept a world that is deemed to be violent by design. This requires a proper critical reading of the way violence is mediated in our contemporary moment; how skewed power relations and propagators of violence are absolved of any wider blame in a pedagogical and political game that permits only winners and losers; how any act of injustice is made permissible in a world that enshrines systemic cruelty.


1. Howard Zinn, “The Problem Is Civil Obedience,” in Howard Zinn, The Zinn Reader: Writings On Disobedience and Democracy (New York: Seven Stories, 1997), p. 404.

2. On this, see Brad Evans and Julian Reid, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (Cambridge: Polity, 2014).

3. Zsuza Ferge, “What are the State Functions that Neoliberalism Wants to Eliminate?” in Antole Anton, Milton Fisk, and Nancy Holmstrom, eds., Not for Sale: In Defense of Public Goods (Boulder: Westview, 2000), p. 183.

4. Lynn Parramore, “Exclusive Interview: Joseph Stiglitz Sees Terrifying Future for America If We Don’t Reverse Inequality,” AlterNet, (June 24, 2012). www.alternet.org/economy/155918/exclusive_interview%3A_joseph_stiglitz_sees_terrifying_future_for_america_if_we_don%27t_reverse_inequality

5. David Harvey, “The New Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession,” Socialist Register (2004), pp. 63-87.

6. Chris Hedges, “Suffering? Well You Deserve It,” Truthout (March 2, 2014). www.truthdig.com/report/item/suffering_well_you_deserve_it_20140302

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Michelle Alexander, “The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare,” Tom Dispatch (March 25, 2012). www.tomdispatch.com/post/175520/best_of_tomdispatch%3A_michelle_alexander,_the_age_of_obama_as_a_racial_nightmare/

10. Karen Garcia, “The Culling of the American Herd,” Truthout (February 14, 2014). https://truthout.org/opinion/item/22388-the-culling-of-the-american-herd

11. Eduardo Galeano, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), p. 2.

12. See, in particular, Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989).

13. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harvest Books, 1969).

14. Carlos Marighella, The Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerilla (Montreal: Abraham Guillen, 2002).

15. See Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin Books, 1990).

16. On this, see Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar’s insightful movie The Corporation (2003). Also see William Deresiewicz, “Capitalists & Other Psychopaths,” New York Times (May 12, 2012). www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/opinion/sunday/fables-of-wealth.html

17. Paulo Freire’s most famous book is Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2006).

18. Ibid., p. 39.

19. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz (New York: Shocken, 1986), pp. 277-300.

20. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (London: Viking, 2011).

21. See Evans and Reid, Resilient Life.

22. Michael Thomas, “There Will Be Violence, Mark My Words,” Newsweek (December 28, 2011). www.readersupportednews.org/opinion2/279-82/9142-the-big-lie

Copyright © 2015 by Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, City Light Books.