Robert McChesney says, “Henry Giroux has outdone himself with America’s Addiction to Terror…. Giroux chronicles the death spiral of contemporary US capitalist society, and why young people are on the verge of a revolt the likes of which has not been seen for generations. We are very fortunate to have this book.” Order your copy with a donation to Truthout today!
Henry A. Giroux – the founder-animator of Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project, a member of Truthout’s board of directors and a frequent contributor – currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire Chair in Critical Pedagogy at the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning. He is also a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University. The Toronto Star named Giroux one of 12 Canadians changing the way we think. Giroux’s most recent books include Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle, co-authored with Brad Evans (City Lights Books, 2015), Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2015) and the just-issued America’s Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016). Giroux agreed to speak with retired Truthout editor Leslie Thatcher about terrorism, utopia and crisis in the United States.
Leslie Thatcher: Henry, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about America’s Addiction to Terrorism. Could you start our discussion by defining what you mean by “terrorism,” “addiction” and “America?”
Henry A. Giroux: When I wrote this book, one of the things I was very concerned about was the way the United States since 9/11 was appropriating the notion of terrorism in a very limited and self-serving, if not dangerous, way. Terrorists were officially defined as people who target and attack Western societies. In this case, a terrorist is an outsider, generally imagined as a Muslim, who poses a threat or commits an act of violence associated with a foreign enemy. What was lost in this definition, one largely reproduced and legitimated in the media, was how the American government used terrorism to extend the power of the state, principally what I call the punishing-surveillance state. As the “war on terror” developed, the very character of American life changed.
“The ‘war on terrorism’ feeds off a kind of addiction to fear and violence.”
The “war on terror” morphed into a war on democracy and civil liberties – functioning largely as an act of domestic terrorism. Under such circumstances, not only has the notion of the future been canceled out, but the very idea of democracy has been fractured. At the same time, the “war on terror” has been used to mobilize a culture of fear in order to accelerate both the militarization of everyday life and further concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the financial elite. As the “war on terror” began to mimic the terroristic practices it claimed it was fighting against, the shadow of an authoritarian state emerged as evidenced in the celebration of spectacles of violence and a hyper-masculinity, the militarization of policing, the attack on the social state, the rise of the surveillance state, unapologetic justifications for state torture, a state-supported assassination list, drone warfare, the war on immigrants, the expansion of the incarceration state and the war on whistleblowers. All this barely touches the growing illegalities that emerged under the banner of the “war on terror.” These are some of the overt ways the West manipulates terrorism to extend its power over every aspect of American life. Discourses of terrorism are also used to justify the creation of new markets: the defense industries, the arms industries, private security companies and a range of commanding economic spheres that profit enormously from the “war on terrorism.”
The United States is now addicted to violence because the “war on terror” relies on an extreme fear and hatred of those considered enemies. As a result, it feeds the machinery of permanent warfare by constantly inventing a demonized Other. I think basically that terror is now such a central part of the political nervous system in the United States that it’s become the major organizing principle of society. The discourse of war, violence and fear now largely mold our conception of ourselves, our relations to others and the larger world. The defining vocabularies of American life undercut the possibility of challenging the assumption that violence is the most important tool for addressing social problems. In this instance, the “war on terrorism” has created a war culture that works through various cultural apparatuses from the schools to the mainstream media to produce what amounts to a society steeped in violence. The United States is a country saturated in the discourse of war and violence, and this is partly evident in the widespread use of metaphors of war, extending from the wars on drugs and crime, to the “war on terror” and the so-called war on Christmas.
The “war on terror” not only transforms politics into a pathology to paraphrase Susan Sontag, but it also serves to up the collective pleasure quotient by making extreme violence enjoyable to watch. Americans appear to indulge obsessively in watching violence. Violence is now the essence of how we solve our problems and how we enjoy our pleasure in the absence of genuine and more ethical pleasures – solidarity, community, compassion – that we’d find in an actual democracy.
“The state’s failure to solve social problems doesn’t prove that government doesn’t work; it proves that government only works for the 1%.”
I think it is safe to say that the “war on terrorism” feeds off a kind of addiction to fear and violence, one that permeates our politics, modes of entertainment and sports. Fear and violence serve as a mode of control in our schools, social services and, in a more obvious sense, in the repressive state apparatuses such as the courts, police and politics itself. Violence becomes a kind of depoliticizing drug for the larger public – those who are the victims of a savage neoliberal economic order. And you have to remember: Addiction often takes place behind our backs. We often don’t realize that it’s happened. It often seems to operate seamlessly and powerfully through forms of affective and ideological management that mirror a cruel and normalized market-based society that divorces actions from social costs, elevates self-interests over social needs, sells off public goods, produces a massive and death-dealing machinery of social inequality and kills the imagination, if not the spirit itself, by erasing the conditions that promote dialogue and thoughtfulness. The “war on terrorism” has further undermined historical memory, erased traces of the welfare state and filled the present with a poisonous ideology of privatization, unchecked individualism and rampant consumerism.
The elites are hooked on a poisonous lifestyle, economy and culture in which they’re the high priests. Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein’s claim, “We do God’s work,” is the best example. Many elites screw people over in the name of God, so ignorant are they about the carnage they produce. For them, market principles take on the form of a kind of religious fundamentalism and the neoliberal economy becomes their church and pulpit. A growing body of social science research suggests that among the ultra-rich, there are widespread signs of sociopathic traits – a lack of empathy, suffocating narcissism, an inclination to cheat, a willingness to disconnect actions from any sense of ethical consideration and a propensity to engage in lawlessness. We’ve returned to the ancient philosophy of fixed social hierarchies without the religion. We call it economic insight. We now live in a society produced, as Bill Black says, in the criminogenic elite institutions of higher education. Remember it was the elites reared at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and at other elite schools that brought us Vietnam, Iraq, state-sanctioned torture and a host of other warlike and violent policies.
Are “violence” and “terrorism” synonyms or is there a useful distinction between the two?
Terrorism for me is largely a form of state violence – the violence propagated by the state. This is not to suggest that individuals cannot commit acts of violence labeled as terroristic. But what is often lost in this definition is the scope and practice of state terrorism. A lot of people talk about what happened in Flint, Michigan, as environmental racism, the canceling out of democratic governance, the greed of politicians or the failure of regulatory bodies, and all of these claims in a limited way are true. But what happened in Flint is also a form of state violence, a type of domestic terrorism imposed by a regime of neoliberalism against people who are Black and poor and considered disposable. When we talk about the systematic practice of disposability that affects everyone from poor Black people to youth to the middle class, that is a central register of state terrorism.
We see it in the death of the social state, the expanding criminalization of behavior such as fining people who feed the homeless or arresting students in schools for violating dress codes or in the belief that there is no way to connect private problems with larger systemic issues because the ideology of the neoliberal state insists there are no problems that aren’t individual. This individualizing of the social, the collapse of public considerations into private issues or lifestyle considerations – all amount to forms of state terrorism. Such practices impose a political logic that no longer cares for certain and ever-expanding categories of people who are now considered excess, a burden to the financial elite and the bottom line.
“We need a new and flourishing generation of public intellectuals, who can use their scholarship to address major social problems.”
Traces of this form of domestic terrorism are not hard to find and are evident in the political tragedies that produced the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, ignored the needs of those displaced by Hurricane Sandy, contaminated the water on Navajo land through uranium mining, and now resulted in hundreds of children and adults being poisoned by the domestic terrorists who created the crime scene we see unfolding in Flint, Michigan. And it gets worse: In the face of such massive and unnecessary suffering, the apostles of neoliberalism responsible for such suffering often turn around and argue that the victims of such crimes deserved what happened to them. In this case, the state imposes massive forms of violence on people and then retreats and rejects any responsibility for their actions. This is truly the degeneration of politics into a pathology. The state’s failure to solve social problems doesn’t prove that government doesn’t work; it proves that government only works for the 1%.
Under such conditions, the United States has become a country soaked in violence, indifferent to its expanding culture of cruelty and unapologetic about its racist, militant and hate-filled discourses. This is a form of terrorism without apologies. The US has degenerated into a state of political and ethical recklessness. When major presidential candidates such as Donald Trump call Mexican immigrants rapists, call for denying abortions even to women who have been raped or argue that we are first and foremost a white Christian nation, it is not difficult to hear in these statements the discourse of racial purity, the echoes of a logic when taken to extremes that condones mass violence and genocide. When Donald Trump tells a crowd of his supporters that he wanted to punch a protester in the face and the mainstream press barely comments on the issue critically, I believe that is symptomatic of a country now ruled by a form of domestic terrorism. When the neoliberal disimagination machine erases memories of resistance, democratic principles, hope, justice and the search for the truth, the formative culture that allows democracy to breathe and regenerate is put on life support. What feeds domestic terrorism is the elimination of historical consciousness, public memory and what might be called traditions of dissent and a vital democracy. Under such conditions, the “war on terrorism” thrives in a manufactured eternal present wedded to spectacle and the aesthetics of violence.
You refer to the original terrorism of slavery and the present inflection point in state terrorism as Hiroshima, but what about the settlement of this hemisphere by Europeans? How are these historical sins inscribed in our present conjuncture?
The United States is a country born in violence and its “fix” – to continue the addiction metaphor – is to promote the erasure of historical memory and the erasure of social responsibility. In the past, a politics of disposability was either erased from public memory or it was defined conveniently as a distortion – a mistake at odds with the United States’ defining democratic ideals. History was whitewashed and resurrected as a moment of celebration – Thanksgiving and Columbus Day serve as two reminders. The era of mass distortion seems to have taken a backseat to the notion that all the United States has to do is to proclaim itself as a democracy and that empty expression of pseudo patriotism eliminates the need for any kind of reflection regarding its domestic and foreign policies. Democracy has been emptied out of any viable meaning and its ritualized invocation allows the US to be proud of what it should be ashamed of. The US policy of perpetual war and the expansion of the military-industrial-surveillance-incarceration complex have taken on an Orwellian overtone and are justified under the aegis of promoting democracy. Proponents of this new order proudly state that this is how freedom works in a market-based society that weeds out the weak from the strong. We have heard this language before, and it is not the discourse of democracy. On the contrary, it is the vocabulary of totalitarianism, one that is updated for the 21st century.
Although you address structural violence, regularly, I continue to find that people do not understand what that means. Can you explain structural violence, its impact on all our lives and its relevance to the thesis of this book?
Where structural violence really tends to manifest itself is in the massive reorganization of the basic structures of the welfare state, especially since the late 1970s in the United States. Hence, the attack on social welfare, the dismantling of public goods, the privatization of schools, the rise of the national insecurity state and surveillance, the increasing power of money in driving politics, the increase in poverty and homelessness, and a whole gamut of policies implemented to change the structure of the United States from a social state to a punishing state. These are all structural phenomena. When Trump talks about building a wall to keep out immigrants, that’s an infrastructure put in place to support a specific racist ideology.
Structural violence refers to those policies that weaken some institutions (such as public schools) and strengthen others (such as policing). Moreover, the ways in which these structures operate reflect highly racist and class-specific policies – not just the militarization of policing, but also the criminalizing of Black social behaviors. What we see happening in poor cities such as Ferguson, Missouri, all across the United States is not just bad policing, but also the implementation of ideological, political and economic structures and policies designed to exercise a form of state violence. Think about how the police and judicial system in Ferguson basically was used to extort money from its residents by imposing on them daily fines for trivial infractions such as the grass being too high.
One stunning example of structural violence is the changing structure of public education. Once everyone considered the schools as a public good; there might be a debate about whether critical education or a more instrumental education was more appropriate, but everyone understood the schools were a public good. Now, education is a private right and an entitlement for the privileged classes. The ruling elites from both political parties along with their corporate backers have waged a vicious attack on public schools, teachers’ unions and teachers themselves. Schools have been privatized, underfunded and forced into modes of “teaching to the test” that kill the imagination; all of this is designed to destroy one of the most important democratic public spheres in the United States.
In UnDivided, a dystopian novel for teens, one leader shuns recreational television, reflecting, “When you’re a prisoner of society, you shouldn’t play at escape.” How does this illuminate the role of popular culture in public pedagogy? And where does the whole notion of “entertainment” lead us? Explain how consumerism and celebrity culture mimic a form of terrorism.
Where I begin with a question like that is to think about the fact that the economic crisis of 2008 was not matched by a crisis in ideas and that it is crucial to recognize that forms of domination also operate pedagogically by creating the frames of reference, commonsense assumptions and ideological scaffolding that shape identities, values and social relations. Given the enormous suffering and misery that neoliberalism produces, it is clear that its continued existence could not be won without the support of affective, symbolic, ideological and political discourses in a variety of public spheres. Neoliberalism does not dominate only through economic structures. It also creates a vast pedagogical machine that produces identities, values and social relations that imitate the needs and demands of a market-based society. What this suggests is that the financial elite have been very successful both in creating the institutions that mold identities to mimic the market and in eliminating the institutions that can generate a critical informative culture, one that produces socially responsible agents willing to hold power accountable.
Consumerism and celebrity culture constitute two elements of a type of manufactured ignorance designed to distract and undermine the ability of people to develop modes of solidarity and to define citizenship as more than the practice of consuming. Consumerism limits the demands of citizenship, undermines social responsibility and promotes a withdrawal from the public realm. It celebrates exchange values over social values and privatizes existence by legitimating the notion that everyone should be viewed and treated as a commodity. Relatedly, celebrity culture not only collapses the meaning of life into the everyday existences of the rich and famous, but also it exacerbates the drive for instant gratification, the fantasies of success, the triumph of lifestyle over substance, the endless refashioning of the self, the commercialization of identity and the utopias of self-sufficiency. Such forces create subjects with a limited sense of agency. These are subjects who cannot see beyond the private orbits in which they live and thus become incapable of translating private troubles into broader systemic problems. That’s one form of addiction.
This is a form of terrorism waged at the level of ideology, the production of limited modes of agency, and the undermining of a formative critical culture. The symbolic and pedagogical weapons of neoliberalism do great violence to the public spheres, values and ideas central to sustaining the agents and institutions necessary for a real democracy. Everything is done to create consumers; freedom is identified as the ability to do whatever you want: That’s an exceedingly powerful ideology. Until the formative cultures are created for engaged agency, a new subjectivity, society will tip into fascism.
You write in the book about how the entertainment industry uses violence to “produce pleasure, indulge voyeurism” and mobilize our darkest instincts. This conditioning to be violent induces trauma, according to nonviolence scholar Michael Nagler. The more unequal societies are, the worse life expectancy is, even for the rich. So what’s wrong with our rich people?
As I mentioned previously, grossly unequal societies appear to create ruling elites that border on or fully embrace sociopathic behavior. They live in an insular world with no sense of reality and no social consciousness, and they are excessively narcissistic. They do not view social responsibility as a condition of agency and find it extremely difficult to understand the plight of people who do not live in their insular cultures and gated communities. They’ve been educated to be zombies. They do not produce institutions that address and alleviate social problems – they create such problems. The degree to which that kind of pathology becomes sedimented in our society, buttressed by gaping inequalities in wealth, income and power, means that the ultra-rich will become a more concentrated and powerful group and that the damage to both human beings and the planet will escalate.
My own interest lies less in charting the pathology of political zombies than in the trauma produced by racism, state violence and neoliberalism, and how these forces work to affect people who are the victims of such regimes of oppression. The real question for me is not how to understand our elites, but how to remove them from the reins of power. For me, they have become a symbol of social and political death, toxicity and mass trauma.
We no longer live in an age of long-term possibilities. The certainties of a long-term job, a better future and hope have disappeared in the age of what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity. We now occupy an era of precarity, uncertainty and insecurity. Yet, these conditions do not constitute some inevitable historical evolution. They are politically and socially constructed and just as they were made by human beings, they can be unmade. I think it is precisely this concern about imagining a future that is not a repeat of the present that offers an inroad into addressing the current crisis of historical and political agency at work in the United States. I’m concerned with how you mobilize existential despair away from a paralyzing cynicism and depoliticizing dynamic into a sense of political outrage that can be marshaled into collective action. Trauma is not a psychic phenomenon alone, but can also be a steppingstone to mobilization.
A recent article documenting announcements to contractors about Pentagon funding opportunities concludes, “the US military wants to mine the world’s social media footprint to suppress the risk of popular social movements undermining the status quo, at home and abroad” by manipulating target populations’ cognition. How does such a program evince “America’s addiction to terrorism?”
This is truly an updated version of what Margaret Thatcher called the war to win the hearts and minds of the public in the service of free-market fundamentalism. The use of new technologies to monitor dissent, suppress critical thinking and disable any mode of engaged individual and social agency reveals not just an attack on privacy but political freedom itself. These kinds of draconian measures speak to a ruling elite that hates democracy and are addicted to keeping the rule of capital in power at any costs. Surely, such violations of civil liberties must be viewed as a form of domestic terrorism, a violence waged at the very freedoms and rights that give meaning to a robust democracy.
Such actions must be viewed as part of a more comprehensive hard war organized around the expansion of the punishing state while the soft war is a war waged over the meaning of agency, identity, subjectivity and values. The soft war aimed at what you labeled the targeting of cognition is really an assault on the imagination itself and the institutions that produce the conditions for real critically empowered teaching and learning. That’s why we have the assault on the schools in every country that subscribes to the neoliberal ideology. The hidden politics of this ideological war, what the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci calls hegemony, is that it functions in a way so that it becomes normalized and removed from the realm of the political. On the contrary, the war against democracy, critical agency and thinking itself is now disguised as educational reform, entertainment or a crucial element of the spectacle of violence. In this instance, the right-wing political, religious and economic fundamentalists have mobilized powerful forms of public pedagogy and cultural apparatuses that work quite well in thrusting people into a sense of despair, cynicism and hopelessness. “Ideology without apologies” is something new. We see a total break from any sense of compromise, dialogue or compassion. We see an ideology that no longer needs to apologize, no longer cares – an ideology that exercises ruthless violence. It’s a lawlessness that laughs at people.
Your recent article for Truthout on “Exile as a Space of Disruption in the Academy” evokes many of the more utopian themes of America’s Addiction to Terrorism. Could you describe for our readers either your utopian ideal for academia – or for society as a whole?
There are three pre-requirements for being able to think in utopian terms – that is, in terms that are capable of producing a militant form of hope that not only imagines a better society but also inspires collective action based on such desires. First, a utopian imaginary must embrace history as a resource, willing to engage its “dangerous” memories and to use it as a resource for challenging those discourses that have frozen the present. Second, educators, artists, intellectuals, workers, young people and others must find a way to construct not only a discourse of merciless critique but also a discourse of possibility. Thirdly, politics has to be reinvented so as to recognize that power is now global and that politics is still tied to nation-states.
Members of the financial elite now float beyond the dictates of the state; they use technologies that do not recognize borders; they have no allegiances to a sense of place. As a result, we must develop a politics that is global, built on international alliances, rooted in the vision and project of a radical democracy, and willing to move beyond single-issue politics to embrace a more comprehensive understanding of politics, power and social struggle. This presents a particular challenge for young people, especially young people of color, who have been written out of the script of democracy both in the Unites States and abroad.
This is one reason why we should celebrate the Black Lives Matter movement, given its willingness to both address ideological and structural forms of violence and to do so as part of a broader effort to build an international democratic movement for economic, social and racial justice. Of course, central to such a politics is the need to struggle over those institutions in which education is central to shaping modes of agency, values and social relations. Public and higher education matter in this sense and are worth fighting over just as it is crucial to struggle over both established and alternative public spheres and media outlets. We need a new and flourishing generation of public intellectuals, both in and out of the academy, who can use their scholarship to address major social problems, work with young people and become part of larger social movements. The left is too fragmented and must find ways to come together. Moreover, they must make education central to politics.
Describe the ideal citizen. How do we who have internalized the terrorist system move toward that ideal?
The ideal citizen is someone who’s more than a consumer: someone informed, who takes ethics seriously, thinks critically, does not support self-interest as the only guiding principle for agency, and who can distinguish between democracy and legalized injustice. We need to ask how we can help to create economic, social and political conditions so people can do more than survive, so they can embrace their lives as a work in progress, a work of art filled with enormous possibilities rooted in a society that provides the political, personal and social rights that allow such behavior to unfold. For example, any viable democracy must create a social wage so time becomes a luxury rather than a deprivation. We should live to improve our lives and the lives of others with great compassion, dignity and a sense of justice. Large numbers of people should not be struggling just to survive, condemned to the perils of economic and political deprivation.
Political rights and personal rights are useless without social rights: When you have to devote all your energy to survival, you cannot care about who occupies political office, who else is suffering or how to address social problems and work collectively with others to undo social injustices. We must create the material conditions so people have some control over their lives and can break out of survival mode and the addiction to terrorism. We must provide access to forms of knowledge: history, science, politics, economics; embrace modes of education that liberate the imagination and delink education from the instrumental logic of becoming a good worker. We must create conditions such that people have some control over the institutions that shape their lives. Citizens must become stakeholders with power in and over crucial issues such as education, health care and economic equality. We need to provide all citizens with a sense of dignity and the power to have some control over the forces that shape their lives.
How does “the state” use the terrorism we read about in the mainstream media to legitimate its own forms of terrorism?
It manipulates terrorism to extend its power over all the commanding institutions of society. It mobilizes fear to legitimate itself and further concentrate class power of the 1%. A culture of fear is cultivated in order to justify the need for more surveillance, prisons and schools that are modeled after jails. Terrorism is the discourse of social exclusion, borders, walls, gated communities and the production of what Zygmunt Bauman has called disposable human beings. Underlying this machinery of terminal exclusion are the metrics of war, the fear of vulnerability, the militarization of all social problems and an embrace of permanent war. At a deeper level, there are traces of the fear of contamination and the poisonous logic of racial purity. At stake here is a warlike mentality with a paranoid edge, one that views everyone else as a potential terrorist. And I should say it’s a specific notion of fear so limited, it paralyzes people and legitimates police, the surveillance state etc. It’s about curtailing civil liberties and bombing other countries. When the West uses its notion of terrorism, it’s entirely to extend its own power.
Fear has multiple registers. But under the guise of state terrorism, it is individualized, limited to the fear against one’s self. A more social understanding of fear, one that points to eradicating conditions such as poverty, the threat of nuclear war and ecological disaster, among others, is erased. These are fears in the service of democracy. These are very legitimate fears that have been erased by the military-oriented state, which blows its chosen fears out of all proportion. Of course, the other side of this is that the narrowing of the conditions that prompt real fears are not only expunged, but the conditions are created in which it becomes difficult for people to connect the dots in a world that is deregulated, fragmented and unable to comprehend how power works through a comprehensive set of connections.
Here’s the classic example going back to our discussion about Flint. You have thousands of children suffering potentially from the impact of lead poisoning produced under a heartless regime of neoliberal corporate managers, and yet nobody is talking about this as an act of domestic terrorism. This is an act of violence that is a state-engineered crisis designed in order to lower corporate taxes and increase the profits of the financial elite, and it is done on the backs of children. And this act of domestic terrorism is repeated endlessly with the defunding of public schools, health care, public transportation and other vital services. Flint is not an isolated event; it is symptomatic of the forms of domestic terrorism implemented under the neoliberal, neoconservative and religious fundamentalists now in control of the American government.
Please discuss the crucial distinction you make in the book between crisis and catastrophe.
I think that what the difference between crisis and catastrophe suggests is a marked fault line between two different periods in American society. After World War II, there were crises but also a sense of hope. Crises such as the Great Depression, poverty, racism and other important issues would arise that were seen as a challenge to be confronted, challenges that demanded a collective response, one in which, for example, the state could be used to use its resources to meet such challenges. In this instance, crisis signified both a challenge and a moment of opportunity. After 1980, when the notion of a collective response to a crisis was disparaged (see for example, the response to Hurricane Katrina), crisis was transformed from a challenge that had to be met to a catastrophe that people had to endure and live with. The rhetoric of catastrophe haunts the current historical moment and is a sign of the times in which the American public has succumbed to a mix of anger and visions of gloom.
This retreat into a society of individuals that had no sense of the public good not only undermined the state as a productive resource for the common good, but also reinforced and normalized the notion that all problems were to be laid at the feet of the individual, which in many cases only left them with attempts to survive crisis neither of their making nor problems they could fix by themselves. Part of the logic of normalization and depoliticization reinforced the notion that in the transition from crisis to catastrophe nothing could be done except to learn how to survive the effects of catastrophe. We live in the age of apocalypse and the latter is defined largely as entertainment rather than a continuing crisis in democracy itself. The apocalypse suggests nothing should be done; we can survive or we should call in a superman who probably will do nothing but teach us how to survive.
Whom do you see as the audience for this book?
When I write, I am always thinking about the necessity to reach a variety of publics. Hence, I try to write in ways that are both rigorous and accessible, attempting to reach people who want to understand their own existential malaise within a complex of broader political forces while at the same time developing a vocabulary that has not been hijacked by neoliberalism. We tend to underestimate the existence of individuals who can think critically, want to be informed and are searching for vocabularies in which they can identify forces producing the often perilous conditions under which they live. Many people are suffering existentially because they see the corruption all around them but do not know how to think through it politically, using a discourse outside of the normalized ideologies that offer no outside, only the vocabulary of accommodation, surrender and depoliticization.
I write for people who are looking for language that can challenge common sense, and awaken an identification in which they are willing to invest themselves in the process of self-reflection and collective struggle. I write to raise questions in order to invite people into a discourse in which they can see themselves and their problems and find a way to begin to think about how to respond in holding power accountable and learn how to govern rather than merely be governed. Writing in this instance becomes a practice of critique and an act of witnessing. I humbly seek to offer some tools to address the growing inequality, racism, poverty and abuse of corporate power that characterizes the present historical moment. But I also write as a public intellectual because I think academics have a responsibility to use their skills and knowledge to address important social issues.
If we are to challenge the plague of authoritarianism in its different registers, progressives must not only argue in terms of economic democracy, but also come to grips with the ideological dimensions and underpinnings of the current historical moment. Matters of finance have to be addressed especially through a call for economic democracy, but we must also address the ideological architecture of common sense that convinces people to embrace market-based ideologies, values and social relations. For example, the notion that self-interest and possessive individualism constitute the most basic organizing principle of society must be challenged along with the notion that the only relations that matter are exchange relations and that the only obligation of citizenship is to consume and discard goods, services and, in many cases, people.
I write in part to undermine the neoliberal discourses of consumerism, choice, markets, privatization, unchecked self-interests and a host of other right-wing descriptors that tie people to a savage neoliberal society by largely claiming that such categories are neutral. But I also write to address a range of anti-democratic forces that exceed the notion of neoliberalism and extend from religious fundamentalism to the repression of civil liberties. Much of my work is also premised on the assumption that education is not simply a tool for indoctrination but also fundamental to democracy itself. Education for me is central to politics, and I believe that pedagogy in and outside of the schools and higher education must be troubling, unsettling and willing to address the disaster of meaninglessness that now makes so many people vulnerable.
I believe that one obligation of the writer is to try to understand how the very processes of learning constitute the political mechanisms through which identities – individual and collective – are shaped, desired, mobilized, experienced, and take on form and meaning. Pedagogy must be seen as the practice of the possible, an act of translation connecting the private to the public, the nurturing of the imagination, and an intervention into the possibility of a different future. This book attempts to write about things in context, provide a comprehensive understanding of terrorism and try to explain what has gone wrong in the United States. Civic commitments matter, and hopefully they are embodied in what this book does. James Risen echoes a crucial reason for both this book and for what I write. He argues rightly that if writers “ever stop uncovering abuses of power, and ever stop publishing stories about those abuses, we will lose our democracy.” On a more specific level, writing serves a more personal function. Having been isolated politically and in some ways professionally for the past few decades, writing helps me to breathe, to connect with others, to cultivate an image of the public good, to engage in acts of solidarity and to labor constantly in a state of wakefulness. I can’t imagine living if I could not write.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.