The stories we tell about ourselves no longer speak to the ideals of justice, equality, liberty and democracy. Stories that once inspired our imagination now degrade it, treating it largely as a blank screen upon which to write advertisements that reduce our sense of agency to the imperatives of shopping. But these are not the only narratives that diminish the stories that allow us to imagine a better world. We are also inundated with stories that inhabit discourses of cruelty and fear that undermine communal bonds and tarnish any viable visions of the future. Stories that provided a sense of history, social responsibility, and respect for the public good were once told by our parents, churches, synagogues, schools and community leaders. Today, the stories that define who we are as individuals and as a nation are told by a right-wing and liberal media who largely channel the narratives of celebrities, billionaires and ethically frozen politicians who preach the mutually related virtues of the free market and a permanent war economy.
And these stories are all the more powerful because they seem to defy the force of rigorous translation, critical interrogation, and openness as they move almost effortlessly from think tanks and policymakers to the media and educational institutions. Burying alive the conditions of their own making, these stories enshrine both greed and massive disparities in wealth and income and also reproduce the workings of the market as a type of political theology that inscribes a sense of destiny – a tribute to Ayn Rand savagery and Margaret Thatcher’s notion that there is nothing beyond individual gain and the values of the corporate order.
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Some of these stories are quite familiar and now seem like common fare for market and religious fundamentalists in both mainstream parties: policies that embrace shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful and destroy government programs that help the poor, elderly and sick; attacks on women’s reproductive rights; attempts to suppress voter ID laws and rig electoral college votes; a full-fledged assault on the environment; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself; an ongoing attack on unions, on social provisions, and on the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful healthcare reform. These stories are the narratives of the neoliberal and neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking the blood and life out of everything they touch – from the millions killed in foreign wars to the millions incarcerated in our nation’s prisons.
All of these stories embody what might be called the swindle of fulfillment. That is, instead of fostering a democracy, they encourage a political and economic system controlled by the rich. Instead of a society that embraces a capacious social contract, they give us a social order that shreds social protections while privileging the wealthy and powerful and inflicting a maddening and devastating set of injuries upon workers, women, poor minorities, immigrants, and low- and middle-class young people. Instead of economic and political stability, they give us uncertainty and precarity, a world turned upside-down in which ignorance becomes a virtue and power a tool for ruthlessness and privilege rather than a resource for the public good. Every once in a while we catch a rather unadorned glimpse of what America has become in the narratives produced by politicians whose arrogance and quests for authority and privilege exceed their willingness to hide the narrow-mindedness, power-hungry interests, cruelty and hardship made clear in the policies they advocate.
Paul Ryan’s budget plan offers precisely such a narrative for the American public. It is a story that embodies a kind of savage violence that makes clear that those who occupy the bottom rungs of American society – whether they be low-income families, poor minorities of color and class or young failed consumers – are to be considered disposable, removed from ethical considerations and the grammar of human suffering. The outlines of Ryan’s budget are quite clear: He and his antediluvian Republican colleagues want to cut spending by $4.6 trillion by 2023. The cuts will fall largely on those individuals and groups who are already suffering, and will thus seriously worsen the lives of those people now hurting the most. The right-wing appeal to job-killing and provision-slashing austerity now functions as a kind of modern-day form of Chinese torture, inflicting a variety of cuts on a myriad of programs that add up to massive human suffering for the many and benefits only for a predatory class of zombie bankers, hedge fund managers, and financial elite that feed off the lives of the disadvantaged. As reported in The New York Times, Ryan’s budget eliminates
Medicare’s guarantee to retirees by turning it into a voucher plan; dispens[es] with Medicaid and food stamps by turning them into block grants for states to cut freely; repeal[s] most of the reforms to health care and Wall Street; shrink[s] beyond recognition the federal role in education, job training, transportation and scientific and medical research.
It gets worse: Ryan’s budget barely touches the military budget and reduces the top tax rate for the wealthiest Americans from 39.6 percent to 25 percent. Pell grants would be cut while big oil would retain billions in tax breaks. The general response from progressives and liberals is that Ryan’s budget is not new, that it represents a cruel hoax, that it is out of touch with reality, and that it represents a foolhardy attempt to roll back the Obama agenda or an American version of the tactics employed by the Taliban – keeping people stupid, oppressing women, living in a circle of certainty, and turning all channels of education into a mass propaganda machine. All of these positions touch on an element of Ryan’s story that reveals its underlying premises and the horrible consequences it would have for most Americans. But such commentaries do not go far enough. Ryan’s chronicle is about more than bad policy, policies that favor the rich over the poor, or a burst of Tea Party idiocy. Ryan’s story is about the poison of neoliberalism and its ongoing attempt to abolish those very institutions meant to eradicate human suffering, protect the environment, provide social provisions, and protect the public good. This is a story that legitimates authoritarianism with a soft-edge, one that eliminates democracy through a thousand cuts, while creating a pathological disdain for community, public values, public life and democracy itself.
At the heart of this account is an ideology, a mode of governance, and a set of policies that embrace a pathological individualism, a distorted notion of freedom, and a willingness both to employ state violence to suppress dissent and to abandon those suffering from a collection of social problems ranging from dire poverty and joblessness to homelessness. In the end, this is a story about disposability and how it has become a central feature of American politics. Rather than work for a better life, most Americans now work to simply survive in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which a growing number of groups are considered disposable and a drain on the body politic, economy, and sensibilities of the rich and powerful. What is new about the politics of disposability is not that public values and certain groups are now rendered as excess or redundant, but the ways in which such anti-democratic practices have become normalized in the existing contemporary neoliberal order. A politics of inequality and ruthless power disparities is now matched by a culture of cruelty soaked in blood, humiliation and misery. Private injuries are not only separated from public considerations in Ryan’s story, they have become the object of scorn just as all noncommercial public spheres are viewed with contempt, a perfect supplement to a chilling indifference to the plight of those disadvantaged because of their class, health, race, age and disability. There is a particularly savage violence that fuels Ryan’s account and that violence has made America unrecognizable as a democracy.
Clearly, we need not only to be able to recognize the untruth of Ryan’s narrative and the historical, political, economic and cultural conditions that produce it, we also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be. This demands a break from established political parties, the creation of alternative public spheres in which to produce democratic narratives and visions, and a notion of politics that is educative, one that takes seriously how people interpret and mediate the world, how they see themselves in relation to others, and what it might mean to imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise. Why are millions not protesting in the streets over these barbaric policies that deprive them of life, liberty, justice, equality and dignity? What are the pedagogical technologies and practices at work that create the conditions for people to act against their own sense of dignity, agency and collective possibilities? Progressives and others need to make education central to any viable sense of politics so as to make matters of remembrance and consciousness a central element of what it means to be a critical and engaged citizen.
There is also a need for a social movement that can shift stories as a form of public memory, stories that have the potential to move people to invest in their own sense of individual and collective agency, stories that make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative. If democracy is to once again inspire a populist politics, it is crucial to develop a social movement in which the stories told are never completed, always open to self and social reflection, and capable of pushing ever further the boundaries of our collective imagination and struggles against injustice wherever they might be. Only then will the stories that now cripple our imaginations, politics, and democracy be challenged and hopefully overcome.
 Editorial, “The Worst of the Ryan Budgets,” The New York Times (March 12, 2013), p. A24.
 The Daily Take, The Thom Hartmann Program, “Conservatives: The New Taliban,” Truthout (March 13, 2013).