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In the Twilight of the Social State: Rethinking Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History

We no longer live in an age in which history’s “winged messengers” bear witness to the suffering of millions.

Angelus Novus, 1920, by Paul Klee. From the collection of Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Part of the Series

Responding in 1940 to the unfolding catastrophes perpetrated by the rise of fascism in Germany, Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and literary critic, wrote his now famous “Thesis on the Philosophy of History.” In the ninth thesis, Benjamin comments on Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus.” He writes:

“Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.(2)

The meaning and significance of Benjamin’s angel of history has been the subject of varied interpretations by philosophers, literary critics, and others.(3) Yet, it still offers us a powerful lesson about a set of historical conditions marked by a “catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”(4) In this instance, catastrophe both undermined any hope of democracy in Europe and gave rise to the dark forces of a brutal authoritarianism and the industrialization of death. In the midst of such a crisis, Benjamin’s angel is frozen in time, paralyzed by a storm called “progress” that pulls him into the future without being able to “awaken the dead” or mend the catastrophe at his feet.

For Benjamin, the storm of progress was a mode of modernity gone askew and a deceit that made a claim on happiness rather than the horrors of destruction, constituting a set of conditions that unleashed a barrage of unimaginable carnage and suffering in the 1930s and 1940s. The utopian belief in technologically assisted social improvement had given way to a dystopian project of mad violence that would inevitably produce the context for Benjamin to take his own life in 1940. According to Benjamin, the horrors of the past made it difficult to believe in progress as a claim on and history as a narrative of the advancement of human civilization. In fact, as Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, the overdetermined force of history was not just at stake in Benjamin’s narrative, but also the notion that “we are pulled forward by future happiness – [when] in fact, [as Benjamin noted], we are pushed from behind by the horror of destruction we keep perpetrating on the way.”(5) Within this narrative, Benjamin’s angel of history would be at home today And, yet, even in the darkest times, there were people brave enough to struggle for a more progressive understanding of history and a more promising democratic future, waging that the catastrophes of the past and the false claims of a history propelled by predetermined laws and order building imperatives could be prevented through a kind of memory work and politics in which such atrocities were acknowledged and condemned as part of a larger project of freedom, collective struggle and social justice.

Like the angel of history in Benjamin’s rendering of Klee’s painting, the American public is surrounded by another catastrophe of history visibly invisible in the horrible suffering produced by two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic recession exacerbating already high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness now spreading like a poisonous blight across the American landscape. But unlike the forces constricting Benjamin’s angel, the storm that pins the wings of the current diminutive angel of history is more intense, more paralyzing in its hyper-materialistic visions and more privatizing in its definition of agency. The historical forces producing this storm and its accompanying catastrophes are incorrigibly blind to the emergence of a “pulverized, atomized society spattered with the debris of broken inter-human bonds and their eminently frail and breakable substitutes.”(6) This is best exemplified in the now infamous and cruel tenets of a harsh neoliberalism stated without apology by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in their mutual insistence that “government is the problem not the solution” and “there is no such thing as society.”

Social progress has ceded the historical stage to individual actions, values, tastes and personal success, just as any notion of the common and public good that once defined the meaning of progress is rendered as pathological, the vestige of a kind of socialist nightmare that squelches any possibility of individual freedom and responsibility. If progress even in its mythic register was once associated, however flawed, with lifting the populace from the bondage of necessity, suffering and exploitation, today it has been stripped of any residual commitment to the collective good and functions largely as a kind of nostalgic relic of a historical period in American history in which a concept of the social state “was not always a term of opprobrium” or a metaphor for state terrorism.(7) The language of progress, however false, has been replaced by the discourse and politics of austerity – which is neoliberal code for making the working and middle classes bear the burden of a financial crisis caused by hedge fund operators, banking and investment houses and the mega-rich.(8)

The catastrophe that marks the current historical moment no longer wraps itself in the mantle of progress. On the contrary, the storm brewing in the United States and other parts of the globe represent a kind of anti-progress, a refusal to think about, invest in or address the shared responsibilities that come with some vision of the future and “the good society.” Composing meaningful visions of the good society that benefit citizens in general, rather than a select few, are now viewed as “a waste of time, since they are irrelevant to individual happiness and a successful life.”(9) Bounded by the narrow, private worlds that make up their everyday lives, the American public has surrendered to the atomizing consequences of a market-driven morality and society and has replaced the call for communal responsibility with the call to further one’s own interests at all costs. The social and its most significant embodiment – the welfare state – is now viewed as an albatross around the neck of neoliberal notions of accumulation (as opposed to “progress”). Society has become hyper-individualized, trapped by the lure of material success and stripped of any obligation to the other. Bauman argues that in such a society:

[I]ndividual men and women are now expected, pushed and pulled to seek and find individual solutions to socially created problems and implement those solutions individually using individual skills and resources. This ideology proclaims the futility (indeed, counter productivity) of solidarity: of joining forces and subordinating individual actions to a “common cause.” It derides the principle of communal responsibility for the well-being of its members, decrying it as a recipe for a debilitating “nanny state” and warning against care for the other leading to an abhorrent and detestable “dependency.”(10)

Our contemporary angel of history has been transformed into a “swarm of angels of biographies – a crowd of loners,”(11) whose wings are stuck in a storm propelled by the hatred of democracy and a contempt for any claim on the future in which the state functions to offer even a modicum of social protection. And while Benjamin’s angel of history rightfully disputes the false claims of an order-building progress, he has been replaced by a multitude of privatizing corporate beholden angles, who cede any notion of society and collective vision – reduced to wingless messengers trapped in their own biographies and individual experiences, cut off from any viable notion of society and its fundamental social solidarities. At the same time, the storm that pins the wings of the contemporary angels of history is fueled by an intense disdain for the social state, which Bauman describes in the following manner:

A state is “social” when it promotes the principle of communally endorsed, collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences. It is primarily that principle – declared, set in operation and trusted to be in working order – that recast the otherwise abstract idea of “society” into the experience of felt and lived community through replacing the “order of egoism” (to deploy John Dunn’s terms), bound to generate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion, with the “order of equality,” inspiring confidence and solidarity. It is the same principle which lifts members of society to the status of citizens, that is, makes them stakeholders in addition to being stockholders: beneficiaries, but also actors – the wardens as much as the wards of the “social benefits” system, individuals with an acute interest in the common good understood as a network of shared institutions that can be trusted and realistically expected, to guarantee the solidity and reliability of the state-issued “collective insurance policy.”(12)

We no longer live in an age in which history’s “winged messengers” bear witness to the suffering endured by millions and the conditions that allow such suffering to continue. Thinking about past and future has collapsed into a presentism in which the delete button, the utter normalization of a punishing inequality and the atomizing pleasures of instant gratification come together to erase both any notion of historical consciousness and any vestige of social and moral responsibility owed as much to future generations as to the dead. The “winged messengers” have been replaced by a less hallowed breed of anti-public intellectuals, academics, journalists and artists who now cater to the demands of the market and further their careers by becoming cheerleaders for neoliberal capitalism. The legacy now left by too many intellectuals has more to do with establishing a corporate-friendly brand name than fighting economic and social injustices, translating private into public issues, or creating genuine public spheres that promote critical thought and collective action. Whatever “winged messengers” do exist are either banished to the margins of the institutions that house them or excluded by the dominant media that have now become a mouthpiece for corporate culture and the new global rich.

As history is erased and economics becomes the driving force for all aspects of political, cultural and social life, those institutional and political forces that hold the reins of power now become the purveyors of social death, comfortably ensconced in a political imaginary that wreaks human misery on the planet as the rich and powerful reap huge financial gains for themselves. The principal players of casino capitalism live in the highly circumscribed time of short-term investments and financial gains and are more than willing to close their eyes to the carnage and suffering all around them, while they are sucked into the black hole of the future. As the social state is eviscerated by an all-embracing market fundamentalism, society increasingly becomes a machine for destroying the power of civic culture and civic life, proliferating the ideologies and technologies of what is increasingly and unequivocally becoming a punishing state. And, paraphrasing, Achille Mbembe, politics becomes a form of social death in which “the future is collapsed into the present.”(13)

Though helpless to control what he saw, Benjamin’s angel of history recognized that the past, present and future were inextricably linked in a constellation of ideas, events, social practices and relations of power that mutually inform each other. History offered no guarantees, and while it could often paralyze and punish, the potentially revolutionary ideal that gave it mythic status was organized around an understanding of social improvement that was partly connected to the unfinished business of human possibility and betterment. Of course, Benjamin rejected such a view. His angel of history is caught up in a storm that paralyzed human agency while putting the myth of the inevitability of progress to rest. But storms pass, and hope as a condition for conceptualizing a future of sustainable progress can offer space and time for reflection, for developing modes of individual critique and collective agency capable of addressing and dismantling those sites of agony and wretchedness made visible in the afterglow of historical consciousness. The problems confronting Americans today are very different from what Benjamin faced in the years before his suicide in 1940, but they share with the past a dangerous and threatening element of authoritarianism evident in the force and power of their ability to eliminate from public discussion what Judt has called the social question and what I have referred to as the punishing state.(14)

In an age when personal and political rights are undermined by the lack of economic rights, the utter reliance upon a stripped-down notion of individual freedom and choice coupled with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility turns people away from those larger forces that nonetheless determine (but not over determine) their varied daily experiences. Moreover, the ongoing privatization, commodification, militarization and deregulation that now shape American society produce a range of crises and problems that extend far beyond the reach of the isolated and atomized individual. Within this dystopian neoliberal economic order, “the language of rights has changed: citizens have become ‘customers’; passengers and hospital patients have become ‘clients’; poverty has become criminalized and ‘extreme poverty’ has become a ‘pathological condition’ rather than a reflection of structural injustice – a ‘pathological dysfunction’ of those who are poor, rather than the structural dysfunction of an economic system that generates and reproduces inequality.”(15) How else to explain increasing numbers of people being thrown in jail because they have failed to pay their debts or young people being booked and jailed because they violated a trivial rule such as breaking a school dress code.(16) But there is more at work here than a society without social protections, there is also a cruel and deadly ideology of privatization and punishment in which the importance of the social responsibility, public goods and public values is completely erased from a language derived from ideas based in marketing, commodification and brand loyalty.

As the United States moves, in Bauman’s terms, from a society of producers to a society of consumers, the state increasingly becomes an “executor of market sovereignty” and is further transformed as the much needed protections of the social state are replaced by its policing functions.(17) If Benjamin’s angel of history were to serve, once again, as an insightful witness to the multiple catastrophes facing the United States today, it would be stuck in an equally dangerous storm being produced by casino capitalism. But rather than looking down on such catastrophes, the angel would be blindfolded and its arms would be handcuffed behind its back while its wings remained paralyzed. Caught in the winds of a society in which the global corporation abandoned all to the Darwinian shark tank, the angel of history cannot bear witness to this new culture of cruelty – so ubiquitous is it that one fails to notice – nor can it alert us to the new threats facing democracy itself. On the contrary, it now symbolizes how society functions to make all elements for bearing witness and hope, however problematic, fodder for the age of excess and the new politics of disposability. This is a kind of politics in which the only value that matters is the bottom line, and the most revered political practice is what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” – the ruthless appropriation of the few resources that allow the downtrodden to survive in order to augment capitalist class power.(18) The angel of history has been transformed into a symbol of death, a symbol that could only emerge from a society that no longer has any ethical consciousness and incessantly expands its politics of disposability to those elements of the population who are now regarded as failed consumers, workers and critics.

The survival-of-the-fittest ethic and its mantra of doing just about anything to increase profits now reach into every aspect of society and are widely dispersed as a form of public pedagogy in the dominant and new media. Disposability and social death replace civic life with a culture of greed and cruel spectacles, which have become a register of how difficult it is for American society to make any claims on the ideal or even promise of a democracy to come. As the realm of democratic politics shrinks and is turned over to market forces, social bonds crumble and any representation of communal cohesion is treated with disdain. Under the reign of casino capitalism, freedom is stripped of its social responsibilities and moral considerations are banished from politics. As the realm of the social disappears, public values and any consideration of the common good are erased from politics, while the social state and responsible modes of governing are replaced by a punishing state. Evidence of such a transformation is evident as social problems are increasingly criminalized; a war is waged on the poor rather than on poverty; debtor prisons reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ novels emerge to torment impoverished Americans ;(19) social welfare agencies are increasingly modeled after prisons; young people are more than ever being warehoused in schools that inflict dead time upon their minds and bodies; unprecedented mass racialized incarceration continues unabated; and the punishment apparatus increasingly inserts itself into every sphere of American society while derailing the project of democracy in multiple ways.(20) The rise of the punishing state merges the former functions of the welfare state with crime control, incarcerates over 2.3 million people considered disposable factions of the working class and underprivileged and legitimates punishment and crime control as a mode of governance and cultural practice.(21)

As shared responsibilities give way to individual fears, human suffering and hardship disappear behind the disparaging discourse of individual responsibility in which the poor, unemployed, homeless and hungry bear the ultimate blame for their own misfortune. The neoliberal appeal to self-responsibility and the politics of shame now function as a kind of parlor magic in making disappear any trace of the larger social and systemic forces wreaking havoc on American society. In this discourse of privatization, there are no public or systemic problems, only individual troubles with no trace or connection to larger social forces. Market infatuation with profits and self-interest not only erodes public values and the moral dimensions of the larger social order, but also creates the conditions for a state whose governance is now outsourced to corporate interests. And as the corporate state replaces the democratic state, however minimal its current form, there is nothing to bind ordinary citizens to the notion of democratic governance and a social state. Instead, the state becomes an object of both disdain and fear.

Rage, vengeance, fear, insecurity and state violence increasingly give rise to a culture of cruelty, producing an ugly moral crisis that extends far beyond the walls of the prison, courts and criminal justice system. Within the larger apparatuses of cultural representation, we increasingly are confronted by images, discourses and signs that reveal punishment and cruelty as practices moving through the American landscape and serve as both commentary and entertainment, normalizing the domestic terrorism, massive human suffering and moral irresponsibility that have come to define American society. This should not be surprising in a society in which politics are entirely driven by a Darwinian corporate ideology and a militaristic mind set that atomize the individual, celebrate the survival of the fittest and legitimate “privatization, gross inequalities and an obsession with wealth,” regardless of the collective moral depravity and individual and social impoverishment produced by such inequities.(22)

The collapse of the social state with its state protections, public values and democratic governance can be seen in how the Bush and Obama administrations embraced the logic of the market, and farmed out government responsibilities to private contractors, who undercut the power of the welfare state while waging a war on human dignity, moral compassion, social responsibility and life itself. Everything is up for sale under this form of economic Darwinism, including prisons, schools, military forces and the temporary faculty hired to fill the ranks of a depleted academy. Evidence of such a Darwinian ideology and militaristic mind set is visible in the attack on working people and labor unions, the waging of two unnecessary wars and the destruction of the nation’s safety net; it is also well-illustrated in images so cruel and inhuman that they serve as flashpoints signaling not only a rupture from the ideals of democracy, but also an embrace of anti-democratic tendencies that testify to an emerging authoritarianism in the United States.

One such frightening image appeared recently in the national media when, in rural Tennessee, firefighters “looked on as a house burned because the family who lived in it had not paid the $75 annual fire-protection fee. Their home was destroyed – along with three puppies that were inside.”(23) The owner of the home, Gene Cranick, claimed that he had simply forgot to pay the $75 dollar annual fee for fire protection, and when the firefighting team finally arrived – because it threatened the surrounding homes of people who had paid the fee – he offered to pay the subscription fee. The firemen not only refused to take the fee, but they stood by and joked as the family pleaded for their help and the home burned to the ground.(24) Such acts of cruelty are not limited to a specific moronic group of alleged public servants. This horrendous act of moral negligence was also echoed among many conservative commentators. For example, one of the most prominent conservative television and radio hosts, Glenn Beck, defended the cruel actions of the firefighters claiming it was necessary to prevent people from “‘sponging off’ their neighbors…. while Beck defended the firefighters, an on-air sidekick made fun of Mr. Cranick for trying to get the fire put out – and mocked his southern accent.”(25) Such events seem unimaginable in a country that defines itself as democratic society and pridefully presents to the world its legacy of “shared purpose and common institutions.”(26) Even after the gross display of government irresponsibility surrounding the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its needless death and destruction – all of which might have served as a wake-up call – the flight from social responsibility and the demands of the ethical imagination continues. This is amply evident in the ongoing refusal on the part of the American public to remember the consequences of turning state power over to corporations and privatized interests. It just may be that the cult of privatization and the worship of corporate power have not only eviscerated public services, but also engulfed a large number of Americans in a kind of moral coma, allowing them and “state-run agencies [to abandon] the care and responsibility of individuals.”(27)

A similar example of the neoliberal culture of cruelty was on full display when the conservative Gov. of Arizona, Jan Brewer, cut funding for certain organ transplants from the state’s Medicaid program. Many patients who had been on a donor list for more than a year were notified by the state that they were no longer on the list and that the only way they could get a life-saving transplant would be to pay for it themselves. Transplants that had been authorized for nearly 100 people were revoked as a cost-cutting measure. As Marc Lacey pointed out in The New York Times, “Many doctors say the decision amounts to a death sentence for some low-income patients, who have little chance of survival without transplants and lack the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to pay for them.”(28) Most of the people on the list are too poor to pay for the procedure and, as such, are now victims of a law that truly made them disposable by imposing a death sentence on them. What is especially disturbing about this case is that the cuts were justified on the grounds that patients who receive certain transplants do not live very long, and yet the statistics used to justify the state legislators’ decision were based on incomplete data.(29) Neoliberalism’s disdain for social protections and its embrace of a politics of disposability become even more obvious when it was reported that “the same state whose representatives filed a lawsuit challenging [Obama’s] new health care law because it requires people to purchase health insurance … decided to cut the health insurance of heart transplant patients.”(30) Advocates of neoliberal austerity measures, given their hatred of Obama’s health plan, were more than willing to mandate a life sentence to the ailing poor rather than give them an option to get health insurance that might have saved their lives. It gets worse. Governor Brewer claimed the state will save $4.5 million by enacting the law, while the same legislature that enacted Brewer’s death law “decided to spend $1.2 million to ‘build bridges for endangered squirrels over a mountain road so they don’t become roadkill.'”(31) As one commentator put it, “Yes, they are willing to spend more than a million dollars to save five squirrels a year, but not to give someone a new heart. Now that’s a heartless death panel.”(32) The promise of a collective identity and common purpose is upended in these examples and far too many others to record here. Undoubtedly, these examples raise the question of what kind of society we have become. The question left unasked by the proponents of a ruthless neoliberal agenda, but demanding an answer from the rest of us, is what kind of future we want our children to inherit.

At a frightening speed, Americans are abandoning public values, public goods and a sense of common purpose that are integral to the social state and were expressed historically in its noble struggle for human rights, social services and public provisions during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We seem to have given up on social policies that lend protections and exhibit compassion to those crippled by the misfortune of bad health, poverty and the lack of the most basic necessities for survival. It seems unimaginable in the current cutthroat climate to remember or once again hear President Roosevelt’s call for all Americans to support an economic Bill of Rights in his fourth State of the Union address:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.(33) [Emphasis added.]

Benjamin’s angel of history has now been blinded and can no longer see the destruction beneath its feet or the storm clouds paralyzing its wings. It is now stuck in a storm without a past and lacking any consideration of the future. Concern with the social good has been replaced by an obsessive investment with self-interest; combative relations have replaced any shared sense of purpose; and a desire to prevent injustice has been superseded by a desire for instant fame and the sordid glamor of celebrity culture. The new age of precariousness has been downsized in importance as the new Gilded Age and those it privileges take center stage. The task of continually creating a democracy has been replaced by the struggle to continually create new markets that offer the promise of nearly unimaginable financial gain. As Bauman points out, morality has become painless, “stripped of obligations and executive sanctions, ‘adapted to the Ego-priority.'”(34) Under such circumstances, democratic politics, if not politics itself, is held hostage to the rapacious greed of the ultra-rich and mega corporations as inequality in wealth and income spread through the country like a raging wildfire.

As we move into the second Gilded Age with its reproduction of massive inequalities and a life of privilege for the few, we are confronted with a level of suffering that is unprecedented. While the following statistics cannot portray the level of existential pain caused by the inequalities that produce so much unnecessary suffering, they do provide snapshots of those structural forces and institutions that increasingly make life difficult for millions of Americans under a ruthless form of economic Darwinism. Such statistics also bring home the importance of going beyond just criticizing in the abstract the values and rationality that drive neoliberal market fundamentalism. As Slavoj Zizek has rightly pointed out, when it comes to the neoliberal-driven crisis, the social and economic problem that must be addressed forcefully is the growing gap and antagonism between the included and the excluded.(35) And this gap must not only be made visible, but it must be confronted with pedagogical care around the question of whether democracy is still an appropriate name for the United States’ political system given the gulf, if not chasm, between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged.(36)

One measure of how the economic elite is destroying America and waging a war on the poor, working class and middle class can be seen in the fact that, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. Over 44 million people or one in seven Americans live below the poverty line.(37) In recent years, the steepest rise in poverty has taken place among children, with some experts predicting that six million kids will be living in poverty in next decade.(38) In addition, over 50 million people cannot eat without food stamps, and a stunning 50 percent of US children will use food stamps to eat at some point in their childhood. Regarding health insurance, a staggering 50 million have none, a figure that becomes even more disturbing when a runaway unemployment rate of 20 percent is factored into the equation. If we count all the “uncounted workers – ‘involuntary part-time’ and ‘discouraged workers’ – the unemployment rate rises from 9.7 percent to over 20 percent.”(39) On top of this, we have three million people who are homeless, while over five million have lost their homes; by 2014, it has been predicted that this last figure will rise to 13 million. The standard of living for the average American plummeted during the economic crisis – “the median American household net worth was $102,500 in 2007 and went down to $65,400 in 2009.”(40) Meanwhile, against such staggering poverty, loss, human despair and massive inequality in wealth and income, the top 1 percent of the population has massively increased its wealth and power. For instance, Matt Tiabbi claims that the top 1 percent has seen its share of the nation’s overall wealth jump from 34.6 percent before the crisis in 2007 to over 37.1 percent in 2009. The top corporate executives collect a salary that gives them $500 for every $1 earned by the average worker. The wages of the 75 wealthiest Americans “increased from $91.2 million in 2008 to an astonishing $518.8 million in 2009. That’s nearly $10 million in weekly pay!”(41) As Robert Reich points out, “The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us.”(42) In addition, the top 1 percent owns 70 percent of all financial assets, an all-time record. In light of these trends, it is hardly surprising to read that “the 400 richest families have a combined wealth of $1.57 trillion more than the combined wealth of 50% of U.S. population”(43) and that “the top 1% took in 23.5% of nation’s pretax income in 2007 – up from less than 9 percent in 1976.”(44) In spite of the fact that every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar,(45) Wall Street handed out $150 billion to its executives.(46) As David McGraw points out, “100% of these bonuses are a direct result of our tax dollars, so if we used this money to create jobs, instead of giving them to a handful of top executives, we could have paid an annual salary of $30,000 to 5 million people.”(47) And as the “‘bonus culture’ of greed, ambition and excess”(48) continues, middle- and working-class families are ending up in food pantries, homeless shelters or worse. Yet, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, claims that the “bonus culture” produced by the current crop of financial zombies is “doing God’s work.”(49) Without any irony intended, Blankfein publicly asserts this arrogant comment knowing full well that, under the grip of the recession caused by those “doing God’s work,” teachers are experiencing massive layoffs; public servants are taking salary and benefit cuts; schools are hemorrhaging under a lack of resources; and the war in Afghanistan endlessly siphons off financial resources needed by the federal and state governments to address the nation’s housing, employment and economic crises.

Under the reign of the punishing state, those experiencing poverty are seen as the problem and become an easy target for mobilizing middle-class fears about not just the poor, the disabled, immigrants and others who may depend on social services, but also the social services themselves and the policies that make them possible. Even as inequality deepens and the ultra-rich wreak havoc on the globe, the dominant media focus on so-called welfare cheaters, while right-wing politicians go out of their way to associate poverty and dependency with a culture of crime and immorality. The social state is portrayed as a “nanny” and those who partake of its services represented as childish, lazy and lacking any sense of individual responsibility. One example of this discourse can be found in a statement by former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who compared people with pre-existing health conditions to burned out houses. In this instance, Huckabee was criticizing Obama’s health care plan, which requires insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions.(50) We also see the attack on the poor and welfare policies being magnified as part of the right-wing call for austerity. Punitive sanctions against the poor combine with a kind of class and racial cleansing as right-wing politicians block legislation for schools to provide free meals to thousands of hungry children, eliminate public transportation systems, lay off thousands of civil servants, cancel school programs that benefit the poor and ask parents to pay for school supplies.(51) The politics of austerity is not about rethinking priorities to benefit the public good. Instead, it has become part of a discourse of shame, one that has little to do with using indignation to imagine a better world. On the contrary, shame is now used to wage a war on the poor rather than poverty, on young people rather than those economic and political forces that undermine their future and on those considered other rather than on the underlying structures and ideologies of various forms of state and individual racism.

We need to return to Benjamin’s angel of history in order to reimagine what it means to reconstruct a social state that invests in people rather than in the rich, mega corporations, the prison-industrial complex and a permanent war economy. We need to imagine how the state can be refigured along with the very nature of politics and economics in order to eliminate structural inequality, racism and militarism. Once again, Americans must recognize that something is “profoundly wrong with the way we live today”(52) and that the obsession with wealth, war and violence is at odds with those democratic ideals often invoked in the name of freedom, justice and equality.

Just as we need a new language for talking about public values, shared responsibilities and the common good, we also need a language for connecting the war at home with the war abroad. War is rarely about real defense or national honor, as the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. Not only are these two wars draining the public treasury, they are also partly responsible for budget cuts at home that aim at balancing federal and state budgets on the backs of the poor, minority youth, working people and the elderly. Robust war spending is matched by the massive cutting of school budgets at home. The United States spends $1.1 million per year to put a single soldier in Afghanistan, but refuses to bail out public schools, rescue universities that are suffering massive budget cuts or reinvest in its crumbling national infrastructure. We offer paltry aid to support public libraries or to assist students who now absorb massive debts to finance their education, while potentially spending over $1.8 trillion to cover the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other operations associated with the war on terror.(53) Instead of using these funds for crucial domestic programs that could develop jobs, public works programs, health initiatives, housing and education, the punishing state with its permanent war machine spreads death and destruction through the organization and production of violence. The punishing state not only locks up more people than any other country in the world, but also, as Tom Englehardt states, “puts more money into the funding of war, our armed forces and the weaponry of war than the next 25 countries combined. We garrison the planet in a way no empire or nation in history has ever done.”(54) With such a war mentality, economy and values ruling the United States, we see daily the destruction of human lives and the exacerbation of massive inequalities that now permeate every aspect of American life. War has become a poison that legitimates the corporate state, on the one hand and works in tandem with the punishing state on the other. At the same time, it feeds an inequality that rots American society from within as it turns over matters of democratic governance and rule to corporate swindlers, military leaders and right-wing ideologues. Judt gets it right when he argues:

Inequality, then, is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe…. Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.(55)

If we are to imagine another type of society than the one we have, we will have to once again put the social question on the political agenda in order to understand how “the pathologies of inequality and poverty – crime, alcoholism, violence and mental illness – have all multiplied commensurately,”(56) and how we might take up the challenge of addressing the symptoms of social dysfunction through a concerted effort to embrace communal freedom, social investments, social rights, civic duties and a vocabulary for translating private troubles into public issues. The return of the social question necessitates invoking a public language and a new set of questions regarding “What should be done to alleviate the suffering and injustices to which the urban working masses [are] now exposed and how [is] the ruling elite of the day to be brought to see the need for change?”(57) The social question also demands that we make visible what C. Wright Mills calls the forces of “organized irresponsibility [that] prevail everywhere,”(58) which functions to dissolve crucial social solidarities, undermine compassion, disparage mutual responsibility and disband the bonds of social obligation itself.(59) But if we are to put the social question back on the agenda, we will first have to acknowledge, like Benjamin’s angel of history, the “catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”(60) That catastrophe lies in a brutal and ruthless form of economic Darwinism that shreds the social fabric of the state, eviscerates the importance of the social question and creates the conditions for a society resembling Thomas Hobbes’ war of all against all, a survival-of-the-fittest social order in which the flight from freedom and responsibility becomes the default mechanism for upholding a machinery of exploitation, cruelty, inequality and militarism.

Not only has the American public lost its ability, perhaps even its will, to talk about public values such as sharing, caring and preserving, but it can no longer distinguish between a market-driven society and a democratic society. As Sheldon Wolin has insisted, the supportive culture for a viable democracy – “a complex of beliefs, values and practices that nurture equality, cooperation and freedom”(61) – is incompatible with the market-driven values of neoliberalism and their emphasis on a crude consumerism, over-the-top materialism, brutal competition, a culture of lying, a possessive individualistic ethic and an aggressive battle to privatize, deregulate and commodify everything.

The promise of democracy and economic justice and social rights necessitates a new language of public purpose, rationality and formative culture embedded in democratic public values, collective struggles and a social movement willing to fight for a new kind of politics, democracy and future. We don’t need privatized utopias, but models of a democratic society and social state in which public values and democratic interests are expressed in a range of economic, political and cultural institutions. We need a new army of critical and passionate winged messengers alert to the need for progressive social solidarities, social agency, collective action and a refusal to stare hopelessly at the rotting corpses, gated communities and the walking dead that turn the promise of democracy into an advertisement for global destruction.

I would like to thank Zygmunt Bauman, Grace Pollock and Susan Giroux for their thoughtful comments on this article. Of course, I am ultimately responsible for the narrative that unfolds.


1. Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” (New York, New York: The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 119
2. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), pp. 257-258.
3. See, for instance, the brilliant reading provided by O.K. Werckmeister, “Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, or the Transfiguration of the Revolutionary into the Historian,” Critical Inquiry 22 (Winter 1996), pp. 239-267.
4. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
5. This comes from a personal correspondence with Zygmunt Bauman dated January 2, 2011.
6. Ibid.
7. Terry Eagleton, “Reappraisals: What Is the Worth of Social Democracy?” Harper’s Magazine (October 2010), p. 77. For an extended analysis of the importance of the social state, see Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land.” (New York: Penguin, 2010). For a series of extended commentaries on the social state, see: Zygmunt Bauman, “Freedom From, In and Through the State: T.H. Marshall’s Trinity of Rights Revised”, Theoria, (December, 2005), pp. 13-27 Online here; Zygmunt Bauman, “Has the Future a left?” The Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies (2007), pp. 1-26; Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (London: Polity Press, 2007); Zygmunt Bauman, “Consuming Life” (London: Polity Press, 2007); Zygmunt Bauman, “Happiness in a society of individuals,” Soundings, (Winter 2008), pp. 19-28; Zygmunt Bauman, “The Art of Life,” (London: Polity Press, 2008).
8. Richard D. Wolff, “Austerity: Why and for Whom?” In These Times (July 15, 2010). For a full-length study of how neoliberalism caused the financial crisis, see Gerad Dumenil and Dominique Levy, “The Crisis of Neoliberalism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
9. Zygmunt Bauman, “The Art of Life” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), p. 88.
10. Ibid.
11. This comes from a personal correspondence with Zygmunt Bauman dated January 2, 2011.
12. Zygmunt Bauman, “Consuming Life,” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), p. 140.
13. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”, translated by Libby Meintjes, Public Culture, 15:1 (2003), pp. 37.
14. Judt, “Ill Fares the Land.”
15. Zygmunt Bauman, “Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p. 4.
16. See Michael Edwards, “Pragmatic Witness: Debtor’s Prison Making a Comeback?” (September 30, 2010).
17. Bauman, “Living on Borrowed Time,” p. 66.
18. David Harvey, “Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition,” Monthly Review (December 15, 2009).
19. Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt, “In Jail for Being in Debt,” Minnesota Star Tribune (June 9, 2010).
20. Michelle Brown, “The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle” (New York: New York University Press, 2009), pp. 6-7.
21. Loic Wacquant, “Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).
22. Eagleton, “Reappraisals,” p. 77.
23. Adam Cohen, “Should Tennessee Fireman Have Let the House Burn?” Time with CNN (October 13, 2010).
24. Faiz Shakir et al., “Conservatism’s Trial By Fire,” Progress Report (October 7, 2010).
25. Cohen, “Should Tennessee Fireman Have Let the House Burn?”
26. Tony Judt, “What Is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy?” New York Review of Books, Vol. 56, No. 20 (December 17, 2009).
27. Zygmunt Bauman, “Liquid Fear” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), pp. 154-155.
28. Marc Lacey, “Arizona’s Cuts Financing for Transplant Patients,” New York Times (December 2, 2010), p. A1.
29. Marc Lacey, “Transplants Cut, Arizona is Challenged by Survivors,” New York Times (December 18, 2010), p. A18.
30. Dpolitico, “Arizona Death Panels: State Revokes Funding for Heart Transplants, Opts to Save Squirrels” End Politics As Usual (November 17, 2010).
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.
33. Franklin D. Roosevelt, “State of the Union Message to Congress – January 11, 1944,” The American Presidency Project, accessed December 30, 2010.
34. Bauman, “The Art of Life,” p. 41.
35. Slavoj Žižek, “First as Tragedy Then as Farce” (New York: Verso, 2009), pp. 99-100.
36. Ibid.
37. Erik Eckholm, “Recession Raises Poverty Rate to a 15-Year High,” New York Times (September 16, 2010), p. A1.
38. Les Christie, “Poverty in the U.S. Spikes,” CNNMoney (September 23, 2010).
39. David DeGraw, “The Economic Elite Have Engineered an Extraordinary Coup, Threatening the Very Existence of the Middle Class,” AlterNet (February 15, 2010).
40. Matt Taibbi, “The Tea Party Moron Complex,” AlterNet (November 14, 2010).
41. David Cay Johnston, “Scary New Wage Data,” Tax Justice Network (October 25, 2010).
42. Robert Reich, “The Perfect Storm,” Truthout (October 10, 2010).
43. David DeGraw, “The Richest 1% Have Captured America’s Wealth – What’s It Going to Take to Get It Back?” Alter Net (February 17, 2010).
44. Frank Rich, “Who Will Stand Up to the Superrich?” New York Times (November 13, 2010), p. WK8.
45. Ibid.
46. DeGraw, “The Richest 1%.”
47. Ibid.
48. Gesa Helms, Marina Vishmidt and Lauren Berlant, “Affect and the Politics of Austerity: An Interview Exchange with Lauren Berlant,” Variant 39/40 (Winter 2010), pp. 3-6.
49. Douglas McIntyre, “Goldman Sachs CEO Blankfein Says Firm is Doing ‘God’s Work,'” Daily Finance (November 9, 2009).
50. William Rivers Pitt, “Sick Bastards,” Truthout (September 22, 2010).
51. Michael Cooper, “Governments Go to Extremes as the Downturn Wears On,” New York Times (August 6, 2010), p. A1, A11; Paul Krugman, “America Goes Dark,” New York Times (August 8, 2010), p. A19.
52. Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” pp. 1-2.
53. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11” (Washington: Congressional Research Service, September, 2010).
54. Tom Engelhardt, “An American World War: What to Watch for in 2010,” Truthout (January 3, 2010). For a detailed study of these issues, see Andrew J. Bacevich, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010); and Chalmers Johnson, “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic” (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006).
55. For a recent detailed critique of inequality, see Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” (London: Allen Lane, 2009). See also “Dollars & Sense and United for a Fair Economy,” eds., “The Wealth Inequality Reader,” 2nd edition (Boston: Dollars & Sense, 2008).
56. Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” p. 175.
57. Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” p. 174.
58. C. Wright Mills, “The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society” in C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 18.
59. These ideas are take from Stuart Hall in Len Terry, “Traveling ‘The Hard Road to Renewal’: A Continuing Conversation with Stuart Hall,” Arena Journal 8 (1997), pp. 39-58.
60. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” p. 257.
61. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 260-261.

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