At the core of all authoritarian regimes is a politics of disappearance: a practice of elimination that targets the oppositional press, revolutionary ideas, perceived enemies, migrants, people of color, women and trans people, troubling knowledge and historical memories that threaten the existing racist capitalist order.
In the contemporary U.S., this authoritarian politics of disappearance manifests in new ways every week. In March 2023 alone, examples of this include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s efforts to remove discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation from all grades in Florida’s public school system. The American Library Association released a report indicating a sharp upsurge in the far right’s attempts to ban books and place restrictions on public libraries. The report stated that “2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, a 38% increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted for censorship in 2021,” adding, “of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.”
Librarians are increasingly the subject of online harassment, fear for their jobs, and “feel scared.” Across the country, Republican politicians are removing protections provided by child labor laws in a move likely to “put kids in dangerous situations.” Moreover, LGBTQ children and their caregivers are under attack, and spaces where they can exist without fear are disappearing as a result of the ongoing repressive assaults and gender-erasing policies produced by the GOP. Truthout’s Zane McNeill points out that trans activists are doing everything they can to prevent themselves from being erased.
These assaults from the right echo elements of an authoritarian past reminiscent of the McCarthy period in the U.S., the cultural genocidal practices in Nazi Germany, and a torture saturated Chile under the rule of Augusto Pinochet, in which a politics of disappearance led to the expulsion of thousands of students and professors who were punished not only for holding oppositional political views, but also for being considered dangerous, disposable and outside the parameters of contained citizenship.
The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat provides an insightful commentary and warning on how right-wing authoritarian actions against education in the past created a template for a politics of disappearance aimed at faculty, staff and students who are deemed political enemies. She is worth quoting at length:
Strongmen disappear people, and they also disappear areas of knowledge that encourage critical thinking or that conflict with their ideologies and social engineering goals. In Hitler’s Germany, art criticism was forbidden. In Pinochet’s Chile, philosophy and sociology departments closed down with the goal of forcing ‘a profound change in the mentality of the country,’ as one official put it, that placed higher education in the crosshairs of the government. … Authoritarians thus depend in part on turning campuses into sites of mistrust and fear. … As authoritarianism takes hold in a society, what happens on campus — from the recruitment of informers to the expulsion of dissidents — often reflects, or even anticipates, broader transformations.
As violence and hatred become ever more entrenched organizing principles of U.S. society, a political culture of “hyper-punitiveness” and brutality has spread. This is a culture in which disappearance and erasure produce a culture soaked in blood — reflected in endless images of dead bodies, shattered families and human suffering. In an era of what Axel Honneth calls “failed sociality,” symptoms of ethical, political and economic impoverishment are all around us. Punishment rather than governance has become the dominant feature of politics, and with it, the collapse of ethical consciousness. The scale of militarism in the United States is evident in the growth of the carceral state, the rise of armed paramilitary militias, the disappearance of programs that provide for people’s welfare, the increasing level of gun violence, the increase in school shootings, and the move from a war on poverty to a war on the poor and youth of color. A culture of creeping punishment now extends from the prison-industrial complex, criminal legal system and public schools to state-sponsored attacks on trans youth, reproductive rights and democracy itself. The U.S. mirrors a society that is lost in a spectacle of nihilism, consumerism, fear, hatred, manufactured ignorance and organized irresponsibility.
Historically, the politics of disappearance has a long reach. Moreover, in the existing moment, its boundaries of repression have expanded under a brutal neoliberal capitalism that has morphed into an unapologetic mode of white supremacy and fascist politics. In an age of organized forgetting, the politics of disappearance has been removed from history. When events signaling danger do appear, they are normalized as part of the spectacle, and too often examined in fragments within an image-based culture. After the initial shock of their appearance in the 24/7 news cycle, they are soon forgotten. We are currently inundated by images of violence, but they are too often isolated from each other and disconnected from the past — just as the past is disconnected from the present.
Dirty War and the Politics of Disappearance as a Tool of Repression
History is filled with incidences of disappearance that make memory a potent vehicle of political reckoning and moral witnessing. The deeply historical character of terror and state violence is clear in the genocidal policy directed at Native Americans, the massive crimes of slavery and Jim Crow, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the cultural genocide directed at Indigenous children in residential schools, and the killing of millions by the Nazis. State violence from 1974-1986 was also part of a sordid history in Argentina, Chile, and other Latin American countries. This was a period in which Operation Condor, supported by the U.S., was responsible for organizing right-wing death squads and military security forces for the purpose of hunting down political dissidents as well as anyone considered a Marxist or socialist.
As Erin Blakemore points out, referring specifically to Argentina, this was a period of state-sponsored torture, human rights abuses, forced disappearances, and terrorism. During this time, the military junta waged what was later labeled as the “Dirty War.” (See Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina by Paul Lewis.) This was an era in which the state turned against its citizens, “whisking away political dissidents and people it suspected of being aligned with leftist, socialist or social justice causes and incarcerating, torturing and murdering them.” Fought on a number of fronts, the “Dirty War” resulted in over 30,000 people “disappearing” as the “country’s military dictatorship turned against its own people.”
Argentina was not alone in exercising a politics of disappearance. Brazil also engaged in forced disappearances, as did Chile. One of the more notorious cases took place in Chile after Pinochet’s coup in 1973. With the backing of the CIA, Chile also relied on enforced disappearance as a ruthless political tool and further inaugurated a terrifying means of repression that spread to many other Latin American countries. Under Pinochet, thousands of dissidents were killed, tortured and eliminated.
With the emergence of white supremacists in control of the Republican Party, the House of Representatives and a number of state governments, state violence is increasingly legitimated as a tool of repression and vehicle for seizing political power. While incidents of overt violence by right-wing extremists against perceived enemies, such as school teachers, librarians and election officials who oppose the fascist politics of the current GOP are well established, white supremacist politicians have not fully embraced historical tools of institutional repression, such as gulags, mass deportations or executions in order to consolidate their power. Instead, they have resorted to an updated ideological and pedagogical version of the “Dirty War,” in which a government wages a struggle against its own citizens within the framework of an updated fascist politics. This “Dirty War” is not conducted exclusively through the naked forces of repression, but by engaging in a politics of disappearance and silencing that erases history, bans books, destroys vital civic institutions such as public and higher education, and wages a massive attack on critical education and thinking. This is a politics that aims at producing a crisis of social responsibility, the erasure of moral witnessing and a crisis of political agency.
The War on Memory and Machineries of Disappearance
This is a war on memory and historical consciousness. The legitimation of state violence in all of its registers is now connected to the destruction of historical memory, the covering up of dark truths and the residues of collective resistance. This ongoing management of terror directed at the American public is now organized through a systemic attack on civic culture, critical education and historical consciousness. At work here are forms of domination that employ repressive pedagogical models, rely on cultural apparatuses and avenues of power such as Fox News that engage in full-time propaganda, and systemically construct policies that reduce educational institutions to indoctrination factories engaged in what right-wing extremists euphemistically label as “patriotic education.”
The frontiers of the political and moral imagination, memory and knowledge itself are under siege by a right-wing politics of enforced disappearances whose aim is the manufacturing of historical amnesia and a politics of disconnection. Historical consciousness has fallen prey to disappearance machines that produce and legitimate a culture of absences, displacement, the whitewashing of memory, and white supremacist notions of agency, inclusion and identity. For regimes of terror, the politics of disappearance and the attack on historical memory include pedagogical and political tools as strategies that feed illusions and impose on the public a psychic numbing, a diminished capacity and sensitivity to human suffering and apathy to ethical consciousness.
The fascist disappearance of bodies in a systemic and lethal manner has a long history and its connection to current practices of disappearance are crucial to understand. What is unique and important to question about the current politics of disappearance is that it is a strategy that has connections to historical contexts that reveal how current tools of disappearance used by the GOP are connected to older totalitarian regimes. What is distinct about the politics of disappearance at work currently in the U.S. is that it takes place under the cover of state legislative policies that erase the histories of marginalized groups and other displaced populations. Such laws constitute a form of erasure that hides its repressive fascist politics in the opaque recesses of legal illegalities. James Ron gets it right in stating that, “Repressive states cloak their activities in a mantel of pseudolegality that channels their techniques of repression into ways that appear, at least to the outside observer, to follow legitimate patterns of violence.” The disappearance of bodies in the advent of the repressive policies of past totalitarian societies have since been criminalized, but in the current historical moment, the ongoing attack and disappearance of ideas, books, critical education, reason and the institutions that support them have yet to be acknowledged as criminal activities in the service of a fascist politics.
GOP Cultural Wars and the New McCarthyism
Evidence of the current politics of disappearance is on full display in the ultra-right-wing educational policies promoted by Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and a number of other GOP politicians. Education has long been the subject of attack by right-wing Republicans. One reason is that public schools and higher education have a history of defining themselves (however inadequate) as democratic institutions that serve the public good. They have been in the crosshairs of the GOP since 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education ruling officially mandated racial integration while condemning racist segregation in public schools as illegal.
As Adam Tooze points out, right-wing culture wars intensified with the “domestic struggles over civil rights, the women’s and gay liberation struggles and in the worldwide protest movement against America’s brutal war in Vietnam.” In addition, the rebellions on university campuses in the ‘60s calling for the democratization of higher education and more access for marginalized students further frightened and angered right-wing Republicans and their followers. With the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, the war on public and higher education was accelerated not because public schools and higher education were failing, but because they were public. This attack on schools as a public good corelated strongly with the right-wing attack on any idea or institution that supported the common good and its notions of equity, social justice and social responsibility.
With the takeover of the GOP in the 1990s by Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, the battle lines hardened — the cultural and political conditions that made possible the move from Reagan’s conservativism to Trump’s fascist and white supremacist politics were now weaponized and secured. Increasingly, the common good was viewed by the GOP as the enemy of free choice, privatization and unchecked individualism. According to the GOP, education should not be defined as a right but as a privilege whose rewards should benefit young people educated in private schools in the dictates of “patriotic education.”
It gets worse. As Thom Hartmann has noted, the current attack on public schools has escalated to calls to end them altogether. He writes:
America’s right-wing billionaires and their racist Republican politician toadies are dedicated to ending public schools and replacing them with non-union, private, for-profit education that best serves well-off children while ghettoizing poor children. The idea of America as a true “land of opportunity” is anathema to their ideal of a nation of “classes and orders” where every person knows their place and morbidly rich white men are in charge of everything.
The current politics of disappearance relating to educational practices and policies goes much further than calling for the privatization of public education through voucher systems and attempts to defund public and higher education. What is being put in place today is an attempt to smear certain books, ideas, histories, and critical thought itself by connecting the latter to socialist ideas and social relations. In the first instance, attempts to control the curriculum and classroom teaching are initiated by labeling certain content as “subversive anti-American leftist indoctrination.” This is evident in many of the speeches of former President Trump. In a video he made as part of his 2024 presidential run, he stated that, if re-elected, he will fire “radical zealots and Marxists” who have allegedly “infiltrated” the Department of Education. He also made clear that he would get rid of “pink-haired communists teaching our kids,” abolish tenure for teachers, and create a certification program for teachers who “embrace patriotic values.” For Trump and his followers, public and higher education are portrayed as laboratories of left-wing ideologies whose ultimate purpose is “to destroy family, community, and national unity.” All of these policies represent the return of what Ellen Schrecker has called “the new McCarthyism,” which uses the smear of communism to attack critical education, teacher autonomy and “real-world issues of race, gender, and social inequality.” She writes:
The current [McCarthyite] campaign to limit what can be taught in high school and college classrooms is clearly designed to divert angry voters from the deeper structural problems that cloud their own personal futures. Yet it is also a new chapter in the decades-long campaign to roll back the changes that have brought the real world into those classrooms. In one state after another, reactionary and opportunistic politicians are joining that broader campaign to overturn the 1960s’ democratization of American life. By attacking the CRT bogeyman and demonizing contemporary academic culture and the critical perspectives that it can produce, the current limitations on what can be taught endanger teachers at every level, while the know-nothingism these measures encourage endangers us all.
The right’s attack on universities as citadels of leftist ideology dates further back than the purge of academics by the rabid anti-communists under Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Authoritarian governments in the 1930s performed a similar task in order to control universities. Ruth Ben-Ghiat makes this point clearly. She writes:
From the fascist years in Europe … right-wing leaders have accused universities of being incubators of left-wing ideologies and sought to mold them in the image of their own propaganda, policy, and policing aims. … Given the virulence the Nazis showed in silencing their critics in and out of the academy after Hitler took power in 1933, it is remarkable that this talking-point has retained traction for the right. It has done so thanks, largely, to the military juntas of the cold war era, which gave new life to fascism’s battles against the left.
To Fight Fascism, We Must Resist the Politics of Disappearance
A politics of disappearance is a thread that connects the plethora of fascist assaults on public and higher education in the U.S. This is a politics that erases history, memory, critical ideas, dissent and racial justice. Its tools are fear, manufactured ignorance, engineered panics, and a paranoid racist politics draped in the language of white nationalism and bigotry. Its goal is racial cleansing, a white nationalist notion of citizenship, and the undermining of the public and civic imagination. Its endpoint is a rebranded fascism. The fight against fascism must recognize that history is power, and that when it is weaponized for political purposes, as is currently being done by the GOP, memory, historical consciousness and critical thought become one of the first causalities of authoritarianism. Memory as mis-education traps history in the present and eradicates claims on the past as a site of injustice. Equally important is the recognition that the politics of disappearance takes historical memory as its first target in order to produce a form of moral dysfunction and a crisis of thinking, civic literacy and political consciousness. Censoring history as part of the politics of disappearance undermines the necessity of critical interpretation, erases the contemplative nature of inquiry, and limits the possibilities of disrupting conventional and hegemonic notions of historical understanding and learned helplessness. In doing so, right-wing GOP legislators enact laws that refuse to offer classroom pedagogical practices that both place people of color self-consciously in their histories and provide the conditions for empowering forms of individual and collective political agency.
Under such circumstances, reviving the political and moral imagination is more crucial than ever in order to resist the assassins of memory and social justice who have turned critical education and thinking into a crime. This suggests a mass movement in defense of education as a public good and the right of educators to teach as a practice of freedom in order to make education a formidable site of literacy, liberation, and individual and collective empowerment. The right-wing fear of cultural memory, history and racial struggles is part of a longstanding practice informed by a modern fear of living with difference, embracing the common good, and expanding the capacities for critical and political agency. Rewriting the past in line with the imperatives of economic, racial and social justice is a fundamental political and pedagogical task because it both shapes social memory and makes new demands on how to fight against a fascist politics that defines itself by reducing history and its absence to a fundamental form of mystification and depoliticization. Overcoming the divorce between historical memory and political agency is the first and crucial step to learning how to remember differently — and deeply — so as to act differently, urgently and collectively in the face of the looming fascist threat.
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