The following is an excerpt from chapter two, “The New Authoritarianism,” in The Violence of Organized Forgetting.
“A society consisting of the sum of its vanity and greed is not a society at all but a state of war.” – Lewis Lapham
Ongoing debates in Washington and the mainstream media over austerity measures, the realities of a fiscal cliff, and the ever deepening national debt have produced what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “a politics of organized irresponsibility” – not least of all by obscuring the authoritarian pressures that are intensifying efforts to subvert American democracy. For Mills, authoritarian politics developed by making the operations of power invisible, while weaving a network of lies and deceptions in which isolated issues became disconnected from the broader relations and historical contexts that gave them meaning. Today these isolated issues have become flashpoints in a cultural and political discourse that conceals not merely the operations of power but also the resurgence of authoritarian ideologies, modes of social control, policies, and social formations that put any viable notion of democracy at risk. Decontextualized ideas and issues coupled with an overflow of information produced by new electronic media make it more difficult to create coherent narratives that offer historical understanding, relational connections, and developmental sequences. The fragmentation of ideas and corresponding cascade of information reinforce new modes of depoliticization and authoritarianism.
At the same time, important issues are buried in the fog of what Gerald Epstein has appropriately called manufactured crises. These crises are designed to stir popular sentiment but actually legitimize policies that benefit the wealthy and hurt working- and middle-class communities. For example, Epstein rightly argues that the debate about the fiscal cliff is a debacle on the part of the Obama administration and for progressives and for workers and for families. It’s a real disaster . . . we shouldn’t be having to sit here talking about this; we should be talking about what are going to do about the employment cliff or the climate change cliff. But instead we’re talking about this fiscal cliff, which is a manufactured crisis.
The fiscal cliff argument – rather than the so-called fiscal cliff itself – is possibly a real crisis in that it serves to divert attention away from pressing issues ranging from chronic mass unemployment and widespread impoverishment to unprosecuted crimes of economic mass destruction and the relationship between corporate predation and the housing crisis and the student debt bomb. And while neglecting the economic impacts on impoverished and middle-class families, this politics of distraction works assiduously to undermine any collective understanding of how economic, cultural, and social problems are interrelated ideologically and structurally as part of an assault by market fundamentalists on all aspects of public life that address and advance the common good.
In such a discourse of disconnection, the expanded reach of politics becomes fragmented. Private troubles are separated from public considerations, thereby narrowing our capacity to perceive the confluence of socio-economic-cultural interests and the prevailing issues of our particular political moment. For instance, the debate on gun control says little about the deep-rooted culture of symbolic and structural violence that nourishes America’s infatuation with guns and its attraction to spectacles of violence. Similarly, the mainstream debate over taxing the rich refuses to address this issue through a broader analysis of a society that is structurally wedded to perpetrating massive inequities in wealth, health, nutrition, education, and mobility along with the considerable suffering and hardships entailed by such social disparities.
In this denuded version of politics, the relationships between personal troubles and larger social realities are covered over. Very little foundation remains on which we can build connections between facts and wider theoretical frameworks in order to strengthen the public’s awareness of power and its operations. Under such circumstances, politics is stripped of its democratic elements. Informed modes of dissent are not only marginalized but also actively suppressed, as became obvious in 2011 with the federal surveillance of the Occupy movement and the police’s ruthless suppression of student dissenters on campuses across the country.
What is missing in the recurring debates that dominate Washington politics is the recognition that the real issue at stake is neither the debt ceiling nor the state of the economy, but a powerful form of authoritarianism that poses a threat to the very idea of democracy and the institutions, public values, formative cultures, and public spheres that nourish it. The United States nears a critical juncture in its history, one in which the rising forces of market extremism – left unchecked – will recalibrate modes of governance, ideology, and policy to provide fantastic wealth and legal immunity to an untouchable elite. The politics of disconnection is just one of a series of strategies designed to conceal this deeper order of authoritarian politics. In a society that revels in bouts of historical and social amnesia, it has become much easier for the language of politics and community to be appropriated and distorted so as to deplete words such as “democracy,” “freedom,” “justice,” and the “social state” of any viable meaning. Arundhati Roy captures the antidemocratic nature of this process in the following insightful comment:
This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the tsars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being “anti-progress,” “anti-development,” “anti-reform,” and of course “anti-national”- negativists of the worst sort. To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.
From the ailing rib of democracy there is emerging not only an aggressive political assault on democratic modes of governance, but also a form of linguistic and cultural authoritarianism that no longer needs to legitimate itself in an idea because it secures its foundational beliefs in a claim to normalcy. The undoing of democracy to which Roy refers – and the dystopian society that is emerging in its place – can be observed in the current subordination of public values to commercial imperatives and an increasingly militarized carceral state. That is, Americans are now openly monitored and evaluated by an authoritarian system whose ideology, hierarchies, practices, and social formations cannot be questioned or challenged without triggering the full deterrent power of the surveillance state – the enforcement arm of the neoliberal financial order. This is a mode of predatory capitalism that presents itself as a universal social formation without qualification, a social form encircled by ideological and political certainty, and a cultural practice that replaces open civic powers with a closed set of consumer choices. As a result, corporate predation is emerging as a normalized form of low-intensity ambient violence that is conscripting all political differences, viable alternatives, and counter-readings of the world into the service of a financial elite and a savage form of Social Darwinism.
Full footnotes to the above excerpt can be found in The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine.
Copyright of Henry A. Giroux (2014). Cannot be reproduced without permission of the publisher, City Lights Books.