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Living in the Age of Imposed Amnesia: The Eclipse of Democratic Formative Culture

We live in an age in which punitive justice and a theater of cruelty have become the defining elements of a mainstream cultural apparatus that trades in historical and social amnesia.

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We live in an age in which punitive justice and a theater of cruelty have become the defining elements of a mainstream cultural apparatus that trades in historical and social amnesia. How else to explain the electoral sweep that just put the most egregious Republican Party candidates back in power? These are the people who gave us Katrina, made torture a state policy, promoted racial McCarthyism, celebrated immigrant bashing, pushed the country into two disastrous wars, built more prisons than schools, bankrupted the public treasury, celebrated ignorance over scientific evidence (“half of new Congressmen do not believe in global warming” )(1) and promoted the merging of corporate and political power. For the public to forget so quickly the legacy of the injustices, widespread corruption and moral abyss created by this group (along with a select number of conservative democrats) points to serious issues with the pedagogical conditions and cultural apparatuses that made the return of the living dead possible. The moral, political and memory void that enabled this vengeful and punishing historical moment reached its shameful apogee by allowing the pathetic George W. Bush to reappear with a 44 percent popularity rating and a book tour touting his memoirs – the ultimate purpose of which is to erase any vestige of historical consciousness and make truth yet another casualty of the social amnesia that has come to characterize the American century.

Imposed amnesia is the modus operandi of the current moment. Not only is historical memory now sacrificed to the spectacles of consumerism, celebrity culture, hyped-up violence and a market-driven obsession with the self, but the very formative culture that makes compassion, justice and an engaged citizenry foundational to democracy has been erased from the language of mainstream politics and the diverse cultural apparatuses that support it. Unbridled individualism along with the gospel of profit and unchecked competition undermine both the importance of democratic public spheres and the necessity for a language that talks about shared responsibilities, the public good and the meaning of a just society. Politics is now defined through a language that divorces the ethical imagination from any sense of our ethical responsibilities. Consequently, it becomes increasingly more difficult to connect politics with the importance of what Tony Judt and Zygmunt Bauman have called the social question – with its emphasis on defining society in terms of public values, the common good, spiritual well-being and “an imagined totality woven of reciprocal dependence, commitment and solidarity.”(2)

Enforced forgetting subordinates public time to corporate time and eliminates those public spheres that might challenge it. Corporate time demands that we never stop moving – it is time organized around increased production, the speeding up of labor time and it embodies a resistance to any space or mode of time that would allow us to think critically about how time might be reconfigured to expand and deepen a democratic polity. Against this notion of corporate time with its construction of imposed forgetting, we need a language that embraces what might be called public time – a mode of time and space that resists the rapid-fire demand to keep moving, keep buying and stop thinking. Public time is not driven by the necessity to consume or lose oneself in the never-ending spectacles of sound-byte driven talk shows, reality television and celebrity culture. On the contrary, it registers a different understanding of time, rooted in the necessity to provide conditions in which people can slow down enough to be thoughtful, exercise informed judgments and engage in social relations that affirm solidarity, the public good and the need to struggle collectively to implement the promise of a democratic society. According to democratic theorist Cornelius Castoriadis, public time represents “the emergence of a dimension where the collectivity can inspect its own past as the result of its own actions and where an indeterminate future opens up as domain for its activities.”(3) For Castoriadis, public time puts into question established institutions and dominant authority. Rather than maintaining a passive attitude toward power, public time demands and encourages forms of political agency based on a passion for self-governing, actions informed by critical judgment and a commitment to linking social responsibility and social transformation. Public time legitimates those pedagogical practices that provide the basis for a culture of questioning, one that provides the knowledge, skills and social practices that encourage an opportunity for resistance, a space of translation and a proliferation of discourses. Public time unsettles common sense and disturbs authority while encouraging critical and responsible leadership. As Roger Simon observes, public time “presents the question of the social – not as a space for the articulation of pre-formed visions through which to mobilize action, but as the movement in which the very question of the possibility of democracy becomes the frame within which a necessary radical learning (and questioning) is enabled.”(4) Put differently, public time affirms a politics without guarantees and a notion of the social that is open and contingent. Public time provides a conception of democracy that is never complete and determinate, but constantly open to different understandings of the contingency of its decisions, mechanisms of exclusions and operations of power.(5) At its best, public time renders governmental power explicit, and in so doing, it rejects the language of ritualistic adherence and the abrogation of the conditions necessary for the assumption of basic rights and freedoms. Moreover, public time considers civic education the basis, if not essential dimension, of justice because it provides the conditions for individuals to develop the skills, knowledge and passions to talk back to power while simultaneously constructing forms of political agency that encourage public responsibility through active participation in the very process of governing.

If public time is crucial to creating democratic citizens, the formative culture that provides the pedagogical practices and public spheres that make public time possible as an essential condition for democracy must be incorporated into any serious notion of public values and politics. The waning of democratic public values and meaningful spirituality have become a serious crisis confronting American politics. While public values have for decades been in tension with dominant economic, political and social forces, the notion of the common good seems no longer capable of mobilizing a polity against the impassioned attacks of right-wing forces that now dominate political and cultural life in the United States. The neoliberal fervor for unbridled individualism, the disdain for community and the social state and the expressed hatred for the public good – readily identified by the right as pathological – have produced “a weakening of democratic pressures, a growing inability to act politically, [and] a massive exit from democratic politics and from responsible citizenship.”(6) When public values are invoked, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, they appear less for their recognizability and relevance for the present than as a symbol for what has been irrevocably lost.(7) Public values and the public good have now been reduced to nostalgic reminders of another era – associated, for example, with the New Deal or the Great Society in which the social contract was seen as crucial to meeting the needs of postwar Americans and fundamental to a substantive democratic order. Rather than viewed as a legacy that needs to be reclaimed, reimagined and renewed, visions of the public good and the public values they embody are consigned to the distant past, a passing curiosity like a museum piece, perhaps worth viewing, but not worth struggling to revive as either an ideal or a reality.

What is “new” about the long decline of public values in American society is not that they are again under attack, but how they have become irrelevant to the existing contemporary neoliberal order, which saps the foundation of social solidarity, weakens the bonds of social obligation and insists on the ability of markets to solve all social and individual problems.(8) In light of the recent spectacle of a right-wing fringe being treated by the media as respectable politicians riding the wave of the Tea Party movement, many progressives have pointed to the emergent shadow of authoritarianism that is overtaking the country. Surely, they are onto something important, but what they rarely do is talk about the formative culture that transforms genuine anger and political concerns into a right-wing political movement. While focusing criticism on the looniest personalities in this group – whether it be Sharon Angle, Michelle Bachman,or Christine O’Donnell – might offer some political capital and a certain amount of catharsis, the real focus should be on those pedagogical forces at work in American culture that allows these candidates to resonate so powerfully with the needs of people who are largely oppressed by the policies these candidates endorse. Noam Chomsky is entirely right in stating, “Ridiculing Tea Party shenanigans is a serious error, however. It is far more appropriate to understand what lies behind the movement’s popular appeal and to ask ourselves why justly angry people are being mobilized by the extreme right and not by the kind of constructive activism that rose during the Depression, like the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).”(9)

Any understanding of what popular needs are being mobilized by the right can only become productive if we illuminate how the educational force of the wider culture works to define, incorporate and colonize such needs. We need to focus attention on how, to quote Fritz Stern, popular “resentment against a disenchanted secular world [finds] deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.”(10) This is not merely a political question, but an important pedagogical one. Borrowing an insight from the great sociologist C. Wright Mills, the question to be posed is: How does the cultural apparatus in the United States function so powerfully and persuasively to connect the needs of so many Americans with the swindle of fulfillment offered by the ideologies of the extreme right? There is more at stake here than focusing on crass political ads. We need to understand better how conservative think tanks shape public opinion and policy; how the diverse sites of the old and new media reinforce a reactionary notion of common sense; and how market-driven values get normalized by erasing any viable understanding of history, memory, power, ideology and politics.

What is particularly troubling in American society is the absence of a formative culture necessary to construct questioning agents who are capable of dissent and collective action in an increasingly imperiled democracy. Sheldon Wolin, among others, has rightly insisted that the creation of a democratic formative culture is fundamental to enabling both political agency and a critical understanding of what it means to sustain a viable democracy. According to Wolin, “Democracy is not about bowling together but about managing together those powers that immediately and significantly affect the lives and circumstances of others and one’s self.(11) Wolin does not limit democracy merely to participation and accountability, nor does he connect it exclusively to matters of wealth redistribution and economic justice, though the importance of these issues should not be underestimated. Matters of justice, equality and political participation are foundational in a democracy, but it is important to recognize that they have to be supplemented by a vibrant formative culture for democracy to flourish. What Wolin recognizes is also crucial to both imagining and sustaining the dreamscape of an aspiring democracy are the institutions and practices of a formative culture that provide modes of thought and agency that constitute and support the very foundations of the culture. Wolin makes this clear in his insistence, “If democracy is about participating in self-government, its first requirement is a supportive culture, a complex of beliefs, values and practices that nurture equality, cooperation and freedom. A rarely discussed but crucial need of a self-governing society is that the members and those they elect to office tell the truth.”(12)

The importance of formative culture as a mode of civic education in the shaping of democratic values and critical agents can be found in the work of many theorists extending from Mills and Raymond Williams to Castoriadis and Wolin. What all of these theorists share is the recognition that pedagogy is central to any viable notion of politics and that various cultural and media sites help produce new subjects, who are summoned to inhabit the values, dreams and social relations of an already established social order. All of these theorists understand that the educational force of the wider culture and the sites in which it is produced and distributed demand a radical rethinking of politics itself. They all argue that education in the broadest sense – especially in light of the cultural centrality of the new media and the Internet in particular – must be viewed as essential to making connections between learning and social change and to comprehending fully the politics of the present historical conjuncture and the need to assert the claims of justice and democracy.

I am fearful that the American public and political system are at a treacherous and perhaps irreversible point in history. The oligarchies of power exhibit a deep disdain for democracy, and the public seems increasingly aware that their interests are being unmet and routinely dishonored. The disastrous effects of the choices made by the rich and powerful are painfully visible to the vast majority of people in the United States. Wall Street bankers and hedge fund managers rake in huge bonuses and exhibit an arrogance matched only by a contempt for those suffering under the weight of the current economic crisis. The financial elite scorn the social costs of their actions; they focus on an unflagging desire to make a profit at any expense. The new global elite no longer has any allegiance to the nation state, its people or its cultures. Negative globalization has made local politics irrelevant as financial power now travels unhampered by the boundaries or obligations of nation states. The flight from political accountability and state regulation has been matched by the flight from moral, social and political responsibility on the part of the rich and powerful. If progressives, radical social movements, religious institutions and major unions don’t address these issues as crucial pedagogical concerns and build the cultural apparatuses to challenge them, I fear that any vestige of democratic politics and knowledge will further disappear, while populist resentment will be almost completely harnessed to a pedagogical and political project that ironically restores class power to the mega-rich.(13) With 17 million Americans unemployed, three million losing their homes and over 51 million without health insurance, people are desperate for jobs, mortgage relief and health care they can afford. Without the necessary formative culture that can provide Americans with a language that enables them to recognize the political, economic and social causes of their problems, a politics of despair, anger and dissatisfaction can easily be channeled into a politics of violence, vengeance and corruption, feeding far right-wing movements willing to trade in bigotry, thuggery and brutality. As the corporate state shreds all of the nation’s social protections, it will take on the form of a punishing state and become more than willing to impose harsh disciplinary measures on those populations now considered disposable. The result will be a form of authoritarianism that brings about the utter collapse of democracy as a collective aspiration.

Recognizing how the social is being subordinated to market-driven interests points to the need to create new public spaces and the vocabulary for a politics in which a plurality of public spheres can promote, express and create the shared values necessary to a thriving democracy. Reclaiming the social as part of a democratic imagery entails making historical memory and the learning process central not simply to social change, but to the struggle to democratize the very character of American politics, institutional power and public discourse. We see evidence of this attempt to reclaim a democratic imagery in the profoundly important work done by Michael Lerner at Tikkun, Chris Hedges in his columns for Truthdig, Noam Chomsky’s various interventions, Bill Moyers’ legacy of critical documentaries, Amy Goodman’s important work for Democracy Now! and in independent media such as Truthout. We need to rally behind and support the public intellectuals, media outlets and growing social movements that are instrumental not only in providing the memory work needed to keep democracy alive, but also in developing the conditions for a vibrant formative culture to provide alternative values, knowledge, social relations and hope in the darkest of times.


1. Sarah Seltzer, “16 of the Dumbest Things Americans Believe – And the Right-Wing Lies Behind Them,” AlterNet (November 13, 2010). Online here. This term comes from William Greider, “Obama Without Tears,” The Nation (November 10, 2010). Online here.
2. Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” (New York: Penguin , 2010); Zygmunt Bauman, “Has the Future a Left?” Review of Education/Pedagogy/Cultural Studies (2007), p. 11.
3. Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Greek Polis and the Creation of Democracy,” Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 113-114.
4. Roger I. Simon, “On Public Time,” Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Unpublished paper, April 1, 2002, p. 4.
5. Simon Critchley, “Ethics, Politics and Radical Democracy – The History of a Disagreement,” Culture Machine.
6. Zygmunt Bauman, “The Individualized Society,” (London: Polity, 2001), p. 55.
7. Walter Benjamin, “The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire,” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), p. 160.
8. A partial list of excellent sources on neoliberalism includes: Pierre Bourdieu, “Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market,” (New York: The New Press, 1998); Pierre Bourdieu, “The Essence of Neoliberalism,” Le Monde Diplomatique (December 1998); Zygmunt Bauman, “Work, Consumerism and the New Poor,” (London: Polity, 1998); Noam Chomsky, “Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order,” (New York: Seven Stories, 1999); Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism,” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000); Anatole Anton, Milton Fisk and Nancy Holmstrom, eds., “Not for Sale: In Defense of Public Goods,”(Boulder: Westview Press, 2000); Alain Touraine, “Beyond Neoliberalism,” (London: Polity, 2001); Colin Leys, “Market Driven Politics,” (London: Verso, 2001); Randy Martin, “Financialization of Daily Life,” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Ulrich Beck, “Individualization,” (London: Sage, 2002); Doug Henwood, “After the New Economy,” (New York: The New Press, 2003); Pierre Bourdieu, “Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2,” trans. Loic Wacquant (New York: The New Press, 2003); David Harvey, “The New Imperialism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism,” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008); Jodi Dean, “Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies,” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); and Juliet B. Schor, “Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth,” (New York: Penguin, 2010); Kean birch and Vlad Mykhenko, “The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal-Liberalism,” (New York: Zed Books, 2010).
9. Noam Chomsky, “Outrage, Misguided,” In These Times (November 4, 2010).
10. Stern cited in Chomsky, “Outrage, Misguided.”
11. Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 259-260.
12. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated,” pp. 260-261.
13. David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

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