Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism

Published on truthout, by Henry A Giroux, Dec 2, 2013.

In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. 

Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers. As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, “The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.”[i] The relentless activity of thoughtlessness – worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism – undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden … //

… The language of the market now offers the primary index of what possibilities the future may hold, while jingoistic nationalism and racism register its apocalyptic underbelly. As a market economy becomes synonymous with a market society, democracy becomes both the repressed scandal of neoliberalism and its ultimate fear.[vi] In such a society, cynicism replaces hope, public life collapses into the ever-encroaching domain of the private while social ills and human suffering become more difficult to identify, understand, and engage critically. Zygmunt Bauman points out that “the exit from politics and withdrawal behind the fortified walls of the private” means not only that society has stopped questioning itself but also that those discourses, social relations and public spaces in which people can speak, exercise, and develop the capacities and skills necessary for critically encountering the world atrophy and disappear.[vii] The result is that “in our contemporary world, post 9/11, crisis and exception [have] become routine, and war, deprivation, and [the machineries of death] intensify despite ever denser networks of humanitarian aid and ever more rights legislation.”[viii]

In addition, the depoliticization of politics and the increasing transformation of the social state into the punishing state have rendered possible the emergence of a new mode of authoritarianism in which the fusion of power and violence increasingly permeates all aspects of government and everyday life.[ix] This mad violence creates an intensifying cycle rendering citizens’ political activism dangerous, if not criminal. On the domestic and foreign fronts, violence is the most prominent feature of dominant ideology, policies and governance. Soldiers are idealized, violence becomes an omniscient form of entertainment pumped endlessly into the culture, wars become the primary organizing principle for shaping relations abroad, and a corrosive and deeply rooted pathology becomes not the mark of a few individuals but of a society that, as Erich Fromm once pointed out, becomes entirely insane.[x] Hannah Arendt’s “dark times” have arrived as the concentrated power of the corporate, financial, political, economic and cultural elite have created a society that has become a breeding ground for psychic disturbances and a pathology that has become normalized. Greed, inequality and oppressive power relations have generated the death of the collective democratic imagination.

Howard Zinn wrote in the early 1970s that the “world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are out of jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country … in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth.”[xi]  Zinn’s words are more prescient today than when he wrote them more than 40 years ago. As American society becomes more militarized, civil liberties are under siege at all levels of government. Bush and Obama have participated in illegal legalities instituting state torture and targeted assassinations, among other violations. At the local level, police all over the country are expanding their powers going so far as to subject people to invasive body searches, even when they had been stopped for only minor traffic violations. One man in New Mexico was stopped for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. On the baseless claim of harboring drugs, he was taken to a hospital and underwent, without consent, eight anal cavity searches, including a colonoscopy.[xii] No drugs were found. When the police believe they have the right to issue warrants that allow doctors to perform enemas and colonoscopies without consent and anyone can be seized for such barbarous practices, domestic terrorism takes on a new and perilous meaning.

Similarly, young people are being arrested in record numbers in schools that have become holding centers for low-income and minority youths.[xiii]

Growing inequality in wealth and income have destroyed any vestige of democracy in America.[xiv] Twenty individuals in the United States, including the infamous Koch brothers, have a total net worth of more than half a trillion dollars, about $26 billion each, while “4 out of 5 U.S.

adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[xv] More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are living with their parents while mega corporations and wealthy farmers get huge government subsidies. We blame the poor, homeless, unemployed and recent graduates suffocating under financial debt for their plight as if individual responsibility explains the ballooning gap in wealth, income and power and the growing state violence that supports it. Poor people end up in debtor jail for not paying parking tickets or their bills while the corrupt heads of banks, hedge funds and other financial services who engage in all manner of corruption and crime, swindling billions from the public coffers, are rarely prosecuted to the full extent of the law.[xvi].

The new global market tyranny has no language for promoting the social good, public well-being and social responsibility over the omniscient demands of self-interest, crippling the radical imagination with its relentless demands for instant pleasure, a compulsive pursuit of materialism and a Hobbesian belief in war-of-all-against all ethic. Increasingly, the social and cultural landscapes of America resemble the merging of malls and prisons. American life suffers from the toxin of socially adrift possessive, individualism and a debilitating notion of freedom and privatization. Both of which feed into the rise of the surveillance and punishing state with its paranoiac visions of absolute control of the commanding heights of power and its utter fear of those considered disposable, excess and capable of questioning authority … //

… For the last 33 years Americans have been told that the only thing they have in common are the very values, practices and relations that separate them and make it difficult for people to comprehend what a real democracy might look like. Unchecked individualism, privatization, gated communities, commodification, unbridled worship of the profit motive, deregulation, policies that benefit the rich and powerful, and a survival of the fittest ethic have become gospel in a society marked by massive inequalities in wealth, income and power. Shared obligations and claims have been relegated to the private realm, handed over to for-profit-delivery services agencies or charities. Access to quality health care, wages, jobs, education and basic services are now a function of privilege and wealth. Democracy has been subverted by a ruthless, updated form of class warfare in which the social contract has been destroyed and wealth and force have triumphed over justice and compassion. Americans are in the midst of a democratic deficit and a surplus of authoritarian and anti-democratic practices. This is not to suggest that democracy is dead in the United States as much as to indicate the need for its ideals to be reclaimed and struggled over by opening up a new conversation about politics, justice, long-term organization strategies and the meaning of democracy in the age of casino capitalism.

Increasingly, there are many active movements for resistance emerging in the United States. These include groups protesting environmental destruction, the squashing of worker rights, the lowering of wages, the war on youth, voter suppression efforts, the attack on women’s reproductive rights, the ongoing production of toxic trade agreements, the reach of the mass incarceration state, the ruthless accumulation of wealth by the upper 1 percent, the Walmartization of America, and the economic terrorism wielded by major corporations to scare workers into giving up pensions, accept poverty-level wages and abandon workers’ rights. These movements are important because they have started a new conversation about the emptying-out of democracy, the suffering caused by massive inequality in wealth and income, and the rise of the punishing state. But they will fail unless they convert their singular interests into a shared set of collective goals, a shared project for reclaiming the ideology, space and policies that govern a democracy. This is not a call to give up single-issue struggles but to expand their efforts at resistance and change by finding a common ground among these diverse efforts around which they can build a national and international movement for taking back public goods, the commons and democracy itself.

Reform is necessary but not enough. Democracy is not in crisis; it is moribund, its ideals reduced to either Disney-inspired nostalgia or misappropriated to legitimate its opposite. The United States now lives under the weight of a mode of authoritarianism that needs to be resisted and dismantled. This means moving beyond the call for piecemeal reform.

One starting point might be to invent a new language and understanding of politics so as to address the root of the problem Americans face.
Rethinking the discourse of politics provides the groundwork for waging struggles to bring under democratic control those economic, political, social and cultural modes of power and politics that have defaulted on democracy and subjected the vast majority of Americans to an unimaginable amount of misery, hardship and suffering. Paraphrasing James Baldwin, the United States in its current form needs to be robbed of its tyrannical power and transformed. The fulfilment of that prophecy comes with a price – humiliation, jail, loss of employment – but the alternative is worse and points to a growing national security, corporate and surveillance state and species of authoritarianism that encourage a range of anti-democratic practices -  profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; the pursuit of ethno-racial purity; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of civil liberties; the practice of torture; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, responsible dissent, and public dialogue.

What the American public needs to address is that the United States is no longer on the brink of authoritarianism – rather, it has moved; it is at the stage where every effort is made on the side of corporate, political imagination and financial elites to make sure that the current reign of tyranny is neither challenged nor held accountable. Being indignant is not enough. The time has come to define the possible in an entirely new way.

At the very least, this suggests building new social movements, organizations and strategies rooted in the power of the radical imagination, one that is capable of generating new terrains of struggle, practices of freedom and forms of educated hope that make possible what Jacques Derrida once called “the promise of a democracy to come.”[xxxiii]
(full long, long text and notes).

(Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books include:  On Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011), Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm 2012), Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty (Routledge 2012), Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future (Paradigm 2013), and The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), America’s Disimagination Machine (City Lights) and Higher Education After Neoliberalism (Haymarket) will be published in 2014). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His website).


Henry Giroux (born September 18, 1943) on en.wikipedia … is an American scholar and cultural critic. One of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States, he is best known for his pioneering work in public pedagogy, cultural studies, youth studies, higher education, media studies, and critical theory. In 2002 Routledge named Giroux as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period.[1]
A high-school social studies teacher in Barrington, Rhode Island for six years,[2] Giroux has held positions at Boston University, Miami University, and Penn State University. In 2005, Giroux began serving as the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario[3][dead link][4] He has published more than 50 books and more than 300 academic articles, and is published widely throughout education and cultural studies literature[5] …;

Everyday Low Wages at Walmart: Brought to You by Government Policy, on truthout, by Dean Baker, Dec 2, 2013;

The Saboteurs, on truthout, by Chris Hedges, Dec 2, 2013;

The Banksters Are Now Setting Up the Crash of 2016, on truthout, by The Daily Take, the Thom Hartmann Program on Op-Ed, Dec 2, 2013.

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