Let’s Shut Down the Authoritarian Machine

Trump’s ominous tweet about how his supporters might “demand” that he stay in office for more than two terms is the latest proof that his authoritarian ideology has little regard for the law. The tweet also reflects Trump’s strong desire to use threats of violence, if necessary, to reshape the political landscape and mode of governance.

Other recent evidence of the rising threat of authoritarianism in the U.S. include Trump’s continuing efforts to run roughshod over Congress with the most recent attempt being his urging former staff members not to respond to House subpoenas and his attempts “to block Congress from obtaining documents about the census citizenship question.” Trump’s authoritarian politics is also evident in his embrace of and fascination with dictators and demagogues, his promotion of a militarized foreign policy that threatens war with Iran, and his ongoing criticism of mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post as “enemies of the people.” Moreover, his abuses of executive privilege reflect new levels of disdain for the separation of power; his attempts to prevent the full Mueller report from being handed over to Congress are just one example of this.

As these incidents show, we live in dangerous times, or what might be called the Age of Jackals: that is, an era ruled by the architects of an apocalyptic nationalism, regressive populism, and brutally repressive and racist forms of authoritarianism.

Right-wing populism is washing away the most basic institutions of democracy in countries that extend from the United States to Brazil. Authoritarians such as Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are now invited to the White House in which they receive an endorsement for their policies of repression, their crushing of dissent, their use of state violence, and their much-publicized hatred of democracy. Trump appears to pride himself on flouting the law, making a mockery of justice, enriching his personal wealth through corrupt business practices, and using the office of the presidency to enhance what even timid liberals such as the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt call “the global standing of authoritarianism.” Increasingly, authoritarian and fascist movements pose a threat to those they deem disposable, such as Black youth, intellectuals critical of the corrupt Jackals in power, and social movements fighting to save the planet.

The project of addressing the rise of authoritarianism both in the United States and abroad takes on a new urgency as the power of financial capital consolidates its forces over the commanding institutions of society, turning them into workstations for propaganda, social sorting, violence and disposability. The normalization of terror is now matched by the normalization of the spectacle as everyday life is treated as a Reality TV show that endlessly replays the virtues of extreme competition and a survival-of-the fittest ethos.

The Age of Jackals is the outgrowth of a new political formation that I call neoliberal fascism. This is a historical conjuncture in which neoliberalism and its updated form of finance capital have produced massive degrees of inequality, extreme austerity measures, and ever-expanding attacks on the welfare state. The consequences have been a merging of popular anger and declining hopes for social mobility and a decent life, combined with an intensifying discourse of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism. The current manifestation of finance capital has merged the elements of a fascist politics with the hostile death-dealing machinery of a market fundamentalism, as I discuss in The Terror of the Unforeseen.

We now live in a world in which there appear to be few alternatives to a ravaging global capitalism — a world in which existing authoritarian societies announce themselves as the only viable reality. Under such circumstances, it may appear that all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. This is an age dominated by dangerous narratives that are free of evidence, that bulge with misrepresentations, and that are adamant about destroying any semblance of not just truth, but morality, social responsibility and justice. For the Jackals, language, thinking, memory and civic values function like an autoimmune system threatening to weaken their power and modes of legitimation. As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, language becomes emptied of meaning, filled with the blighted values of commercialization, the lure of the spectacle, and the ever-growing registers of corruption.

One consequence is that everything touched by rabble-rousing power becomes a performance and fodder for a mainstream media eager to increase their ratings. Discourses that invoke historical memory and take on the task of moral witnessing while interrogating the abuse of power are derided as fake news or dismissed as being irrelevant in light of the reigning assumption by those demagogues occupying the highest political offices arguing that democratic socialist society is no longer worth pursuing and that all that is left is illiberal “democracy” — code for the suppression of political and civil liberties in return for authoritarian notions of security. This attack on democratic socialism appears to be more than a rhetorical flourish, especially since more and more members of the public are supportive of democratic socialist policies, especially as articulated by Bernie Sanders, who is arguing for affordable health care, an Economic Bill of Rights, a living wage, economic security, independence from the dictates of a market society, and a full-fledged attack on massive inequalities in wealth and power.

As the Trump administration makes clear, truth, justice and social responsibility have no place in the Age of Jackals. Power is written in the language of economics rather than ethics, justice and compassion. Language has been turned on its head to mean its opposite. “Freedom” now often signifies the freedom to hate, “work” now often means wage slavery. Individualism is now defined exclusively as a part of an ethos of ruthless competition, self-interest is the enemy of solidarity and compassion, and social atomization, bolstered by an emphasis on individual responsibility, is elevated to a virtue, all while “justice” is used to refer to legal illegalities. The Jackals want to break away from history not only by rewriting it in their own regressive interests, but also by erasing the haunting and lingering ghosts of a fascist politics to which they have sold their souls. Lies are no longer subtle, just as the violence waged against children and undocumented immigrants becomes a badge of honor for Trump and his cowardly and corrupt minions. State violence for the Jackals across the globe is the organizing principle of the societies they rule.

The Jackals are drunk on greed and power and are willing to kill the planet and any vestige of decency and economic and social justice in order to gorge themselves on wealth. If anyone doubts that capitalism breeds iniquitous amounts of greed and wealth and that its endpoint is fascism, take into account the fact that three white men — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett — have more wealth collectively than the bottom 50 percent of the population. Bear in mind that global power and wealth concentrated in few hands give rise not only to massive repression and misery, but also to unthinkable acts of violence and cruelty. Consider the consequences of neoliberal policies that operate according to the idea that economic and property rights are more important than human rights. Such policies refuse to recognize health care as a basic right that should be free, deny tuition-free college, obstruct laws for raising the minimum wage, and denounce necessary environmental reforms such as the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, these policies maintain massive degrees of inequality, as millions of Americans are forced to choose between food and health care, between paying their bills and medicine, as they work 80 hours a week simply to be able to survive.

In the age of Jackals, reason loses its power to inform judgment. Truth, like capital and trade, is now flexible, making it easier to deny even a modicum of rational judgment, allowing what late academic Elisabeth Young-Bruehl called the “intrusion of criminality into politics.” The Jackals feed on fear, a war culture and a culture of cruelty. Language is weaponized and masculinity is militarized. At the heart of the militarization of societies run by Jackals is a profound sense of emptiness, a destruction of civic values and the public institutions that nurture them. Trump, as the Jackal-in-chief, offers tyrants across the globe a newfound energy to legitimate their authoritarian values, policies and oppressive actions. Under such circumstances, the United States becomes a model for a form of governmentality in which, as Zygmunt Bauman once argued in Liquid Evil, “everything that matters is denied and everything that embodies evil is reinvented.” As the politics of lying moves from the margins to the center of power, Trump’s false cries of “fake news” wield enormous political and pedagogical influence, while accelerating and normalizing an endless stream of actual fake news and misrepresentations. Ignorance becomes the breeding ground for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, and allows the powerful to weaponize everyday discourse.

Trump’s attack on the truth resonates with a larger culture of speed, instant gratification and consumerism. Coupled with a society that worships celebrity culture, the spectacularization of power makes it easier for Trump and his associates to rehabilitate fascist ideas, principles and a political culture. At the core of Trump’s disdain for reason and truth is a full-fledged attack on the institutions that promote the habits, sensibilities, values, dispositions and culture that produce critically engaged citizens and sustain a strong democracy. The crucial lesson here is that without informed citizens, a critical press and critical agents, the power of democratic institutions along with established checks and balances wither, and the threat of 21st-century authoritarianism becomes more imminent.

The current age of Jackals constitutes both a crisis of politics and a crisis of history, memory, agency and education. What is different about Trump is that he basks in his role and is unapologetic about enacting policies that further enable the looting of the country by the ultrarich (including him) and by megacorporations. Trump represents a reemergence of a past that should terrify us. Trump’s ultranationalism, racism, policies aimed at social cleansing, his love affair with some of the world’s most heinous dictators and his hatred of democracy echo a period in history when the unimaginable became possible, when genocide was the endpoint of dehumanizing others, and the mix of nativist and nationalist rhetoric ended in the horrors of the concentration camp.

Andrea Pitzer, the author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, says that such camps already exist in the United States, explaining that she defines concentration camps as “mass detention of civilians without trial.”

Citing Pitzer, Esquire writer Jack Holmes argues:

The government of the United States would never call the sprawling network of facilities now in use across many states “concentration camps,” of course…. But by Pitzer’s measure, the system at the southern border first set up by the Bill Clinton administration, built on by Barack Obama’s government, and brought into extreme and perilous new territory by Donald Trump and his allies does qualify…. These kinds of detention camps are a military endeavor: they are defensible in wartime…. But inserting them into civil society, and using them to house civilians, is a materially different proposition. You are revoking the human and civil rights of non-combatants without legal justification.

Trump represents and enables the age of Jackals — a distinctive and dangerous form of American-bred authoritarianism. Of course, Trump is only a symptom of the apocalyptic forces of racism, xenophobia, nativism, consumerism and neoliberalism-induced forms of misery that have been brewing for some time. Tom Engelhardt believes that Trump is the product of a blowback induced by a number of factors. He writes:

The Donald clearly arrived on the scene as blowback — the CIA term of tradecraft Johnson first put into our everyday vocabulary — from at least two things: an American imperium gone wrong with its never-ending wars, ever-rising military budgets, and ever-expanding national security state, and a new “gilded age” in which three men and the .01% have one of their own, a billionaire, in the Oval Office. (If you want to add a third blowback factor, try a media turned upside down by new ways of communicating and increasingly desperate to glue eyes to screens as ad revenues, budgets, and staffs shrank and the talking heads of cable news multiplied.)

Trump is both the outcome and symptom of a past that needs to be remembered, analyzed, and engaged for the lessons it can teach us about the present. In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, citizenship and justice that has real substance and lifts the veil from the lies and misrepresentations that normalize the neoliberal capital machinery of death. What is needed is a language of militant possibility: what Gregory Leffel calls a language of “imagined futures,” one that “can snap us out of our present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there and inspire heroic commitment.” Such a language needs to “remember” that the history of the first Gilded Age is being reproduced today as the distance between the wealth of the financial elite and the bottom half of the population grows exponentially while the planet heats up, ice caps melt, and millions of plants and animal species become extinct.

The Jackals are spreading updated forms of fascism throughout the globe and in part they do so through forms of civic illiteracy distributed by the oligarchs in control of the new digital platforms and landscapes, which know only one rule — make money in spite of the consequences. Neoliberal fascism is the new toxin that empowers the Jackals, who live off the energies and lives of the walking dead. They inhabit a space produced in the fusion of neoliberal policies of austerity, militarism, xenophobia, social and economic discrimination, racial hatred, and the impoverishment of civic life and culture.

As Marx pointed out, violence is the midwife of capitalism, and as Adorno made clear, fascism is capitalism’s endpoint. Under the brutal strictures of finance capital — a more brutal stage of capitalism — the line separating democracy and violent oppression disappears. In an age in which the Jackals spread powerful forms of market, religious, political, and ideological fundamentalism, a new brutalism appears in which everything sinks into chaos while producing a political earthquake. How else to explain the rise of what Nancy Fraser describes as

the metastasization of finance; the proliferation of precarious service-sector McJobs; ballooning consumer debt to enable the purchase of cheap stuff produced elsewhere; conjoint increases in carbon emissions, extreme weather, and climate denialism; racialized mass incarceration and systemic police violence; and mounting stresses on family and community life thanks in part to lengthened working hours and diminished social supports.

Cynicism is embedded in the social fabric as the Jackals use their cultural apparatuses to wage war against criticism, dissent and forms of political resistance willing to imagine a future that does not imitate a dystopian present. The power of the Jackals is intimately connected to their ability to produce disimagination machines, cultural apparatuses that both normalize their putrid ideologies of privatization, deregulation, unchecked individualism and commodification, and close off the possibility of imagining new radical horizons. What must be remembered here is that neoliberal fascism cannot be understood narrowly as simply an economic system. It also functions as a form of public pedagogy and mode of persuasion and rationality intent on naturalizing its own worldview. Most importantly, it works through a range of cultural apparatuses to depoliticize by colonizing justifiable forms of mass anger and redirecting them into cesspools of hatred aimed at those populations considered disposable.

There is no worthwhile politics without a realistic and critical understanding of the world in which one lives. We must engage in a spirited criticism of the range of existing and widening forms of oppression that extend from racism and mass incarceration to an assault on public provisions, public good, education and the planet. However, we must also look forward. There is no sense of agency unless individuals can imagine a future in which a democratic socialist society matters and is worth struggling for. The first step in getting rid of the Jackals is to build a strong anti-capitalist movement, one capable of uniting a vast array of social movements under the banner of a radical socialist democracy. The war against the Jackals and their neoliberal fascist societies needs to call for a deep restructuring of power outside of the ethos of capitalism, a restructuring not afraid to call for a democratic and political revolution. No form of resistance will succeed without developing a new narrative, language and politics willing to link struggles for political and economic change with struggles for social equality and social justice.

History is open. It is time to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, especially if we want to imagine and fight for alternative futures and horizons of possibility. We need to stoke the radical imagination to make sure that justice never goes dead in us and that no society is ever just enough. It is time to shut down the authoritarian machine that has descended upon the globe.