In the midst of one of the greatest economic disasters the United States has ever faced, the Gilded Age and its updated “‘dreamworlds’ of consumption, property and power” have returned from the dead with zombie-like vengeance.(1) Poised now to take over either one or two houses of Congress, the exorbitantly rich along with their conservative ideologues wax nostalgically for a chance to once again emulate that period in 19th century American history when corporations ruled political, economic and social life, and an allegedly rugged entrepreneurial spirit prevailed unchecked by the power of government regulations. Wild West, casino capitalism, unhampered by either ethical considerations or social costs, has reinvented itself and become the politics of choice in this election year. Enthusiasm runs high as billions of dollars flow from hidden coffers into the hands of anti-public politicians, whose only allegiance is to power and the accumulation of capital.
In spite of almost unprecedented levels of inequality, hardship, human suffering and widespread public despair caused by the financial robber barons of Wall Street, the politics and values of Gilded Age excess are now celebrated by conservatives and Tea Party politicians, who define their retrograde politics as “having a flair for business, successfully [breaking] through the stultifying constraints that flowed from the New Deal” and using “their successes and their philanthropy [to make] government less important than it once was.”(2) There is more at work here than a neo-feudal world view in which the future can only be measured in immediate financial gains and the amassing of colossal amounts of economic and political power. Massive disparities in wealth and power along with the weakening of worker protections and the destruction of the social state are now legitimated through a set of market-driven values in which politics is measured by the degree to which it evades any sense of actual truth and turns its back on even a vestige of moral responsibility. Under casino capitalism, politics increasingly becomes a front for the legitimation and exercise of ruthless corporate power. As politics loses its social purpose, not only does the state increasingly resort to modes of punishment, but the rules of politics are eviscerated of any moral and social responsibilities. Robber barons now decide the rules, and one consequence of such actions is that politics loses all sense of moral direction. Indeed, under such circumstances, the pathologies of inequality and injustice that cripple viable democracies are now rendered as inevitable and often celebrated as both a cleansing element and condition of politics itself.
If the first rule of robber baron politics is to make power invisible, the second is to make it unaccountable and the third rule is to give as much power as possible to those who revel in barbaric greed, social irresponsibility, unconscionable economic inequity, corrupt politics, resurgent monopolies and an unapologetic racism (parading as an attack on political correctness no less). The mainstream media and its rarely changing talking heads may wax endlessly about the populist anger fueling the current political climate, but it is a tragic mistake to overlook the fact that populism driven by authoritarian politics, while supplying an unmistakable enthusiasm to the current phase of electoral politics, is distinguished by and should be analyzed critically for the threat it poses to a democratic society.
A marauding market fundamentalism now rules most aspects of American life and the ever present and aggressively marketed forces of insecurity, fear, racism and retrograde common sense have become the organizing elements shaping everyday life. Global flows of capital now work in tandem with the logic of deregulation, privatization and commodification, while democracy at home is invoked under the conceit of the all encompassing “war on government,” portrayed by Republicans in some cases as even more dangerous than al-Qaeda. This tawdry mobilization of fear and vitriol in the service of the most naked financial interests and elements of economic power is now staged as a 24-hour media performance that mimics the tawdriness and deceit of a rampant culture of corporate corruption and secrecy, now fully sanctioned by a Supreme Court, which in its 5-4 passage of the Citizens United decision, has willingly handed the government over to the Wall Street bankers, energy companies, insurance giants, hedge fund executives and the likes of the high flying stooges from the likes of Goldman Sachs. As finance capital reigns supreme over American society bolstered by the new and peculiar depoliticizing power of the corporate controlled media, democratization along with the public spheres needed to sustain it becomes an increasingly fragile if not dysfunctional project. Civic courage along with critical dissent are now in short supply, expunged to the margins of the alternative media and disdained by official power, even at the highest levels of government. Left and progressive critics are now described as whiners by both Obama and his politically and ethically deaf advisers. And while President Obama surfaced initially as someone who symbolized the antithesis of the moral vacuity and politics of illegality that characterized the Bush presidency, moral courage and civic leadership have been in short supply during his last two years in office. Rather than giving new life to the values of civic courage, economic justice and political idealism, Obama sacrificed such ideals to the advice of the gang of thieves who became his chief advisers. Consequently, Obama’s unwillingness to fight for the democratic ideals he gave lip service to during his election campaign has given way in the last few years to a willingness on the part of his administration to overlook both the crimes committed by the financial elite, who brought us the current economic recession, and the political elite, who savaged civil liberties and made an illegal war and torture itself officially state-sanctioned policies. Forever appealing to the ideal of post-partisan politics, Obama lost sight of his moral compass and his capacity to fight for the democratic ideals he gave lip service to in his presidential campaign. One small indication of his bad judgment and the cleansing nature of his Harvard University acquired cultural capital came early in his presidency when he chose Beyonce over the inimitable Etta James to sing the latter’s signature song “At Last” at his inaugural ball – a glimpse of the poor judgment and bad faith to come. James embodied the courage, poverty, bawdiness, passion, desire, history, suffering and perseverance of groups that Obama left behind once elected – a stark reminder of the kind of cultural and intellectual capital he would avoid as he began to surround himself with the alleged best and brightest.
Dark clouds are forming on the political and economic landscape of America, and while the precise nature of the current election is still unclear, one thing is resoundingly obvious. We have now entered another and more dangerous period of Gilded Age excess in which the primary political and economic forces dominating American life add up to what is unique about the current political conjuncture: its hatred of reason, freedom and democracy.(3) The possibilities of democracy are now addressed not through reason and critical debate, but with lies, stupidity, ignorance and a seething disdain for critical analysis, thoughtfulness and truth, all bought and sold through the power and money of goose-stepping billionaires such as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch, who view democracy as a disease that must be crushed.(4) In an age of great insecurity marked by a persistent fear of losing one’s job, house and control over the routines of daily life, the billionaire demagogues offer a politics without substance, shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and freedom without the benefit of social protections – and they do it by drowning out other voices through the sheer power of their deep pockets of wealth and power. There is no language about injustice and unfairness in these discourses, just the ramped up anger and noise of those who want to hand over all the social obligations of the state to private agencies so that “nothing remains to bind the citizen to the state but the fear of authority.” And as Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “The result … is an ‘eviscerated society,’ one stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found” in democratic states that celebrate rather than demonize the common good and public values.(5)
As the economy collapses and the call for austerity is used to punish the victims rather than perpetrators of economic corruption, the welfare state and social protections are relegated to a jaded memory. At the same time, a market ideology and morality reminiscent of the Gilded Age has once again become a triumphal success aggressively narrowing the meaning of freedom and the relevance of all public good and public institutions at odds with the logic of privatization and capital accumulation for the rich. With these transitions the more abstract concepts of individual agency and citizenship have been utterly devalued, stripped of any substantive meaning in an aspiring democracy. Right-wing politicians spend millions to win elections, distinguish themselves by calling for the dismantling of the social state and refer to those who need social services as burned out houses or jerks and freeloaders. The ideology of privatization is used to disparage not simply social services, but all public institutions whether they be schools, hospitals or transportation systems. Violence and a culture of cruelty now spread through the society like a wild fire and the costs can be seen in the suicides of gay teenagers, heartless images of firefighters laughing while a house burns down because the owners did not pay the required fee for the service, talking heads equating all Muslims with terrorists and billionaires such as Bill Gates calling for cuts in the pensions of hard working teachers. The survival-of-the-fittest ethic is no longer the narrative driving reality TV; it is now a central conception of politics and everyday life. Economic discourse now trumps social justice, reinforced by the ever popular chant of market evangelicals who unabashedly call for a society, if not a world, in which “all human activities and spaces can and should be absorbed into economic systems.”(6) But there is more at stake here than the rise of iniquitous relations of wealth and power and the profound hardships that ensue for most Americans, there is also the rise of a punishing state that increasingly views a number of everyday problems as matters of law and order. With a prison population of 2.3 million, the United States now incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world; it also resorts increasingly to governing through a crime complex to deal with social problems far removed from the discourse and culture of criminality. How else to explain the return of debtor prisons, the modeling of urban public schools after the culture of prisons, or the recent call by a county prosecutor in Michigan for a law that “could punish parents with jail time for repeatedly missing their children’s parent teacher conferences”?(7) As the state is removed from supplying public services, the only relationship the public increasingly has with it is one marked by suspicion and fear. The lesson here is that the rich get rewarded for their bad deeds as made clear in the Bush-Obama bailouts of the too-big-to-fail banking and investment houses of Wall Street, while the middle class and the poor are evicted from their homes under threat of criminal action or threatened with jail time if they don’t pay their soaring debts. Fraud in high places becomes an investment opportunity as indicated in the case of Angelo Mozilio, the godfather of subprime mortgages and the former chief executive of Countrywide who managed to pocket $521 million as a result of criminal practices, but was “punished” by the Securities and Exchange Commission by having to pay back only $47.5 million out of his own pocket. Crime truly pays, except for the poor and middle class.(8)
We have become a country in which democracy is no longer a viable dream; rather, it is a living nightmare haunting those who now control the reins of financial power, the media and the Supreme Court. What we are witnessing in the 2010 elections is the triumph of an “argument against politics, or at least against a politics that attempts to govern society in social rather than economic terms.”(9) If we are to believe Sharron Angle, Sarah Palin, John A. Boehner, and all the other cheerleaders for free-market fundamentalism, freedom only becomes meaningful when decoupled from any vestige of the social, while most welfare provisions are seen as benefiting those deemed immoral and lazy, if not utterly unworthy. Government responsibility only applies to servicing the defense budget, providing tax relief for the rich and providing handouts for corporations. When used to service the public good, government responsibility is disparaged by being called a form of socialism, a term that no longer has any meaning except to discredit an idea unacceptable to market-driven fundamentalists. At the same time, those who opposed the notion of social provisions and the social state now wrap themselves in the mantle of victims who are being unduly taxed and victimized by a government that is out of control. This is more than the hypocritical mourning of the super rich who somehow have become the primary victims of the Obama government, but also the hard-wired common sense ideology that floods the right-wing pedagogical machines such as Fox News. While it is often pointed out that there is a contradiction among railing against deficits while supporting two wars and supporting tax cuts for the ultra-rich, what is missed in this critique is that there is more at stake here than faulty logic, but also an unabashed support for a politics that despises democracy and welcomes an authoritarian economic system that largely benefits mega-financial corporations and the ultra rich.
One of the most distinctive features of politics in the United States in the last 30 years is the inexorable move away from the promise of equality, human dignity, racial justice and freedom – upon which its conception of democracy rests – to the narrow and stripped-down assumption that equates democracy with market identities, values and social relations. Hollowed out under a regime of politics that celebrates the trinity of privatization, deregulation and financialization, democracy has been replaced by a politics of disposability and a culture of cruelty. Driven by the imperative to accumulate capital and consume at all costs, the current form of casino capitalism rewards those who participate in casino capitalism with the protections of a devalued form of citizenship, while those who can’t take part as consumers are seen as “failed” and “ever more disposable.”(10) In this scenario, freedom is transformed into its opposite for the vast majority of the population as a small, privileged minority can purchase time, goods, services and security, while the vast majority increasingly are relegated to a life without protections, benefits and support. For those populations considered expendable, redundant and invisible by virtue of their race, class and youth, life becomes increasingly precarious. But if consumerism and an indifference to the common good are the defining features of citizenship under casino capitalism, a galloping inequality and the privileges it brings to powerful corporations and the ultra rich is the ultimate badge of acceptance and success.
Mounting signs of increasing redundancy, dispensability and social death are evident in the depression-level jobless rates in which one in six Americans are either unemployed or underemployed,(11) 44 million live in poverty, one in seven adults receive food stamps and 51 million people are without health insurance.(12) It gets worse. As David DeGraw points out:
we have over 50 million people who need to use food stamps to eat and a stunning 50 percent of U.S. children will use food stamps to eat at some point in their childhoods. Approximately 20,000 people are added to this total every day. In 2009, one out of five U.S. households didn’t have enough money to buy food. In households with children, this number rose to 24 percent, as the hunger rate among U.S. citizens has now reached an all-time high…. Over five million U.S. families have already lost their homes, in total 13 million U.S. families are expected to lose their home by 2014, with 25 percent of current mortgages underwater…. Every day 10,000 U.S. homes enter foreclosure. Statistics show that an increasing number of these people are not finding shelter elsewhere, there are now over 3 million homeless Americans and the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is single parents with children.(13)
Such statistics give new meaning to the slogan “live free or die.” The cost of this politics of disposability becomes clear in heartbreaking stories about 15.5 million young people who are living in poverty, dropping out of school in record numbers, suffer serious health problems that go untreated, or literally end up in prison. What advocates of casino capitalism ignore in their homage to market relations and individual responsibility as the essence of our national spirit are the growing numbers of bodies, the mounting despair, the ever-growing forms of social death and disposability under a regime of market-driven discourses and policies that support the irrational belief that the market can solve all problems. The collateral damage that reveals the lie of this allegedly unassailable form of common sense can be glimpsed in the fate of millions who are now homeless, out of work, out of luck and living in despair, as well as in the moral vacuum that has overtaken a country awash in the idiocy of celebrity culture, game shows and a dominant media that shamelessly refused to exercise any sense of political and moral accountability. Instead of focusing on the uncomfortable truths that emerge daily in the expanding narratives of despair and neglect facing millions of families caught in the grip of economic devastation, the country is treated daily to an infomercial provided by the ultra rich and aired through all the channels of the official cultural apparatus, urging us to mimic the very values that brought us the current recession and the ongoing human hardships it has produced.
Social and political death becomes the fate of more and more people just as the current crop of right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals argue that social problems can only be solved through the depoliticizing vocabularies of the therapeutic and emotional, often enmeshed in the rigid political and moral certainties of bigotry, intolerance, racism, ideological purity and religious fundamentalism. The language, values and policies of casino capitalism have become the template for solving all of society’s problems. As such, it employs the first rule of politics in which power becomes invisible and the root causes of our social, economic and political problems are simply canceled out through a shameless appeal to the discourse of self-help, personal responsibility and self-reliance, operating under the conceit of neutrality and efficiency, while effectively erasing everything required both to understand the demands of responsible citizenship and to address the major social issues of our time. As Frank Rich points out, casino capitalism has done more than create an economic crisis, it also offers a future for the United States in which an obscene inequality and economic unfairness drive young people into careers in which getting rich is their only motivation, public services collapse and a economically stressed middle class loses faith in government and turns its back on any sacrifice in favor of expanding the public good.(14) Young people are increasingly presented with a future in which there is no language of democracy, justice, solidarity and the public good. Instead, they offered a language that maximizes self interest, undermines any shared sense of purpose and devalues public service. Under such conditions the formative culture necessary for critical citizens and a vibrant democracy collapses into a Hobbesian world in which the competitive, self-absorbed, unattached, materialistic individual consumer is the only meaningful category of citizenship.
There are many commentators who believe this upcoming election is a referendum on the policies of Barack Obama and they are partly right. But more importantly, this election is a referendum on the call to do away with democracy once and for all, to make the politics of disposability a central feature of everyday life and to usher in a form of casino capitalism in which the democratic state is replaced by the corporate state. Obama’s failure of nerve now seems beside the point. His deplorable record has less to do with bailing out the rich, undermining crucial civil liberties and reinforcing the permanent war policies of the United States than with losing touch with any vestige of moral and civic courage in confronting myriad attacks on democratic life. His is the pathetic legacy of squandered public faith and support that ushered him into office; he could have drawn upon it to make power accountable while mobilizing those populations for whom democracy has always been more of an ideal than a reality. The collateral damage we now suffer is not only the frightening image of a soon to be governing party that embraces enthusiastically all of the sordid elements of casino capitalism, but one that will do its best to put democracy to rest once and for all.
1. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, “Introduction,” Evil Paradises (New York: The New Press, 2007), p. ix. On the return of the Gilded Age, see Michael McHugh, “The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States,” 1973-2001 (Lanham: University Press of America, 2006).
2. Louis Uchitelle, “The Richest of the Rich, Proud of new Gilded Age,” The New York Times (July 15, 2007). Online here.
3. Jacques Rancière, “Hatred of Democracy” (London: Verso, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder, Paradigm, 2008); Henry A. Giroux, “Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race and Democracy” (Boulder, Paragidgm, 2010).
4. See Lee Fang, “Memo: Health Insurance, Banking, Oil Industries Met with Koch, Chamber, Glenn Beck to Plot 2010 Elections,” Think Progress (October 20, 2010). Online here.
5. Terry Eagleton, “Reappraisals: What is the worth of social democracy?” Harper’s Magazine, (October 2010), p. 78.
6. Lawrence Grossberg, “Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics and America’s Future” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2005), p. 117.
7. Duborah Brunswick, “Prosecutor Proposes Jail Time for Parents Who Miss Teacher Conferrences,” CNN.com (October 21, 2010). Online here.
8. See Frank Rich, “What Happened to Change We Can Believe in?” The New York Times (October 23, 2010), P. WK10.
9. Ibid., p. 117
10. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” Public Culture 12: 2 (Duke University Press, 2000), p. 301.
11. Paul Krugman, “Defining Prosperity Down,” The New York Times, (August 1, 2010), p. A17.
12. Erik Eckholm, “Poverty Rate Rose Sharply in 2009, Says Census Bureau,” The New York Times, (September 16, 2010).
13. David DeGraw, “The Economic Elite Have Engendered an Extraordinary Coup, Threatening the Very Existence of the Middle Class,” Alter Net, (February 15, 2010). Online here.
14. Frank Rich, “What Happened to Change We Can Believe in?” The New York Times (October 23, 2010), P. WK10.