The biggest challenge facing those who believe in social justice is to provide an alternative discourse, educational apparatuses and vision that can convince US citizens that a real democracy is worth fighting for.
The right-wing Republican sweep of Congress testifies to a massive memory and educational deficit among the US public and a failure among progressives and the left regarding how to think about politics outside of the established boundaries of liberal reform. The educative nature of politics has never been more crucial than it is now and testifies to the need for a new politics in which culture and education are as important as economic forces in shaping individual and social agency, if not resistance itself.
The cultural apparatuses owned by the financial elite are largely responsible for the political and social darkness that engulfs the American public. Americans are inhabiting a new moment in history in which the symbiosis among cultural institutions, power and everyday life has shaped the very nature of politics and the broader collective public consciousness with an influence unlike anything we have seen in the past. Economics drives politics and its legitimating apparatuses have become the great engines of manufactured ignorance. This suggests the need for the left and their allies to take seriously how identities, desires and modes of agency are produced, struggled over and taken up. The left and other progressives need to rethink Pierre Bourdieu’s insistence that the left “has underestimated the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle and have not always forged appropriate weapons to fight on this front” and in doing so have failed in its responsibility to address the educative nature of politics by challenging modes of domination “that lie on the side of the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle.” (1) Couple that understanding with the need for a more comprehensive vision of change and the necessity for broad-based social movements, and it may become possible once again to develop new opportunities for a new political language, forms of collective struggle and a politics for radical change rather than cravenly center-right reforms.
As Hannah Arendt and others told us many years ago, there is no democracy without an informed public. This is a lesson the right wing took very seriously after the democratic uprisings of the 1960s. This is not a matter of blaming the public but of trying to understand the role of culture and power as a vital force in politics and how it is linked to massive inequities in wealth and income. The financial state promotes a form of ideological terrorism and the key issue is how to expose it, and dismantle its cultural apparatuses with the use of the social media, diverse apparatuses of communication, new political formations, and ongoing collective educational and political struggles.
Relatedly, how can ideologies, policies and structures be made visible, challenged, and changed that play such a powerful role in the expanding forms of indebted citizenship, poverty and mass incarceration, that make students, low income groups and poor minorities desposable and unable to offer any collective resistance given their struggle either just to survive or suffer under harsh conditions of state repression.
Lies, misinformation and the spectacle of entertainment drive how issues are presented to the American public by the vast cultural machinery of education that extends from mainstream news to conservative think tanks. For instance, in the aftermath of the election, ABC, CBS, and NBC all claim that the government will be more sharply divided as a result of the Republican takeover of both houses of Congress. What the mainstream media fails to point out is that both parties have more in common than what divides them. They both support the consolidation of power in the hands of the financial and corporate elite. Both parties have passed policies that cut back on social provisions for the needy while providing tax breaks for the wealthy. Moreover both parties, as Arun Gupta points out, have enacted “policies that increase the wealth and power of those on the top of the economic pyramid.” (2) Both parties need the financial support of the financial elite to get elected in an authoritarian society in which money rules politics and kills any vestige of democracy. The established press is playing up Obama’s claim that he is willing to cooperate with the Republican Party as if this represents a new stage of partisanship among both parties. What is missed in this rush to judgment is that these parties have been cooperating for years on maintaining the privileges of the ultra-rich, corporations and bankers, while at the same time punishing the poor, unions, the working class, immigrants and poor minorities of color. The only major difference between these parties is that the Republicans wage naked class warfare without any apologies or political concessions while the Democrats offer a few painkillers to soften the blow. In some cases, Democratic leaders such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama outdid their Republican counterparts in consolidating class power, while imposing enormous hardships and misery on the poor and middle class.
Clinton expanded the punishing state, callously removed millions of poor women and children from the welfare system and repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, thereby paving the way for the financial crisis of 2007. Obama makes George Bush look tame given his unprecedented war on whistleblowers, his use of sweeping state secrecy doctrine, his escalating violations of civil liberties, his waging drone warefare that often resulted in the indiscriminate death of civilians, and his reckless establishment of an illegal kill list with the power to assassinate American citizens. To make matters worse, he refused to prosecute corrupt bankers, CIA agents who engaged in torture, and deported and imprisoned record numbers of immigrants.
In spite of what the established media claims, the election results contained a hidden order of politics that do not suggest a popular shift to the right, but a failure of both parties, especially the Democratic Party to address the popular needs and mood of the electorate. How else to explain that a number of states voted to raise the minimum wage. Joseph Kishore writing on the World Socialist Web Site gets it right in arguing:
“The democratic strategy of appealing to affluent layers of the middle class on the basis of identity politics while working with the Republicans to step up attacks on workers’ jobs, wages and living standards produced an electoral disaster. In a contradictory way, reflecting a system monopolized by two-right parties of big business, the election showed that appeals on the basis of race, gender and sexuality move only a small fraction of the population, while the broad masses of people are driven by more fundamental class issues—issues on which the Democrats have nothing to offer.” (3)
As Paul Buchheit points out, capitalism is spreading like a tumor in US society and the key is to cut out its ability to convince people that there are no other alternatives, that the market should govern all of social life including politics itself, and that the government’s only role is to protect the benefits of big business and the interests of the super-rich.
Terrorism and the culture of fear have become the glue holding together a society that relies more on ethical tranquilization and the forces of the punishing state than any semblance of social justice in order to protect the interests of the rich. Terror is no longer simply a reference to reveal foreign and domestic threats; however real, it has become an alibi for state terrorism, whether it be in the form of a massive state-sponsored spying apparatus, the gutting of social provisions, the criminalization of social problems, the war on women or the endless police violence used against innocent black youth.
The argument that things will now get much worse and push people into action is politically naive because there are never any political guarantees of how people will act in the face of massive repression. They could for all intents and purposes go either left or right. There are no guaranteed political outcomes in any society. Political outcomes have to be the result of coordinated struggles waged by mass movements using a diversity of tactics extending from boycotts and strikes to sit-ins and direct action.
The biggest challenge facing those who believe in social justice is to provide an alternative discourse, educational apparatuses, vision and modes of identification that can convince the US public that a real democracy is worth fighting for, and that such struggles need to begin immediately before the elected oligarchs and the financial interests they serve close down any hope of a future in which matters of justice and equality prevail.
2. Arun Gupta, “How the Democrats Became the Party of Neoliberals,” CounterPunch, (November 3, 2014).
3. Joseph Kishore, “The Democratic Party Implosion,” World Socialist Web Site (November 6, 2014).