Oldspeak: “What is missing in the current debates dominating Washington politics is the recognition that the real issues at stake are neither the debt ceiling nor the state of the economy, however important, but a powerful and poisonous 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 occupies a critical juncture in its history, one in which the forces of extremism are not just on the rise but are in the midst of revolutionizing modes of governance, ideology and policy. The politics of disconnect 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 is much easier for the language of politics and community to be stolen and deployed like a weapon so as to empty words such as democracy, freedom, justice and the social state of any viable meaning. Arundhati Roy captures the anti-democratic nature of this process in the following insightful comment. She writes:
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 czars 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.
This undoing of democracy to which Roy refers, and the dystopian society that is being created in its place, can be grasped in the current subordination of public values to commercial values and the collapse of democracy into the logic and values of what might called a predatory casino capitalism where life is cheap and everything is for sale. More specifically, from the ailing rib of democracy there is emerging not simply just an aggressive political assault on democratic modes of governance, but 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;7 that is, Americans are now inundated with a pedagogy of cultural authoritarianism whose ideology, values, social practices and social formations cannot be questioned because they represent and legitimate the new neoliberal financial order. This is a mode of predatory casino capitalism that presents itself as a universal social formation without qualification, a social form that inhabits a circle of ideological and political certainty and cultural practice that equates being a citizen with being a consumer – in other words, predatory capitalism is transforming into a universal ethic that has exhausted all political differences, economic alternatives and counter readings of the world in the service of benefitting a financial and corporate elite and a savage form of economic Darwinism.” –Henry A. Giroux
In a corptalitarian, crypto-faccist state, dissent is criminalized and ridiculed. The rule of law becomes arbitrary, fluid. The range of acceptable opinion is seductively narrowed. Extremism, manufactured fear and consent increase significantly. The status quo systems and structures around which the society is organized are rarely questioned, if so only superficially and transiently. Language is militarized, tightly controlled, and comes to mean something other than it was originally intended as lies become truth. Ignorance is viewed as strength, desirable, adorable, comical, normal. Perpetual war is used to bring peace, surgically, cooly, remotely, covertly, via killer robots “special forces” and “signature strikes”. Freedom becomes slavery as the wonders of wireless technology heralded as the tools to enable free and ubiquitous communications and interactions are now used to surveil, track, record, restrict, atomize, disconnect, control, monetize and manipulate communications, interactions and behavior. Mindless and ever-increasing consumption becomes more important than critical thinking. Inequality increases, with the bottom 50% controlling 1% of wealth, while the to 10% control 75% of wealth. Whistleblowers, pot smokers, lawful protestors, journalists, academics, go to jail, while polluters, torturers, white collars thieves, economy collapsers, and war criminals walk free. It doesn’t have to be this way.
By Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:
The debate in both Washington and the mainstream media over austerity measures, the alleged fiscal cliff and the looming debt crisis not only function to render anti-democratic pressures invisible, but also produce what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “a politics of organized irresponsibility.”1 For Mills, authoritarian politics developed, in part, by making the operations of power invisible while weaving a network of lies and deceptions through what might be called a politics of disconnect. That is, a politics that focuses on isolated issues that serve to erase the broader relations and historical contexts that give them meaning. These isolated issues become flashpoints in a cultural and political discourse that hide not merely the operations of power, but also the resurgence of authoritarian ideologies, modes of governance, policies and social formations that put any viable notion of democracy at risk.2 Decontextualized ideas and issues, coupled with the overflow of information produced by the new electronic media, make it more difficult to create narratives that offer historical understanding, relational connections and developmental sequences. The fragmentation of ideas and the cascade of information reinforce new modes of depoliticization and authoritarianism. 3
At the same time, more important issues are buried in the fog of what might be called isolated and manufactured crises, that when given legitimacy, actually benefit the wealthy and hurt working- and middle-class individuals and families. Gerald 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.4
The fiscal cliff argument is manufactured both in that it is not a real crisis (except for its impact on poor and middle-class families), and it serves as a diversion from pressing issues ranging from mass unemployment and widespread poverty, to the housing crisis and the student debt bomb. Moreover, it undermines understanding how these various problems are interrelated ideologically and structurally as part of an assault by religious and market fundamentalists on all aspects of public life that address the common good.
The expanded reach of politics in this discourse of distraction shrinks, and in doing so separates private troubles from public considerations, while undermining any broader understanding of the confluence of socio-economic-cultural interests and interrelated issues and problems that characterize a particular age. 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 the spectacle 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 producing massive inequities in income and wealth along with the considerable suffering and hardships produced by such social disparities.
In this denuded notion of politics, the connection between facts and wider theoretical frameworks and the connection between politics and power disappear just as the relationship between private troubles and larger social realities are covered over. Under such circumstances, politics is cleansed of its extremist elements and informed modes of dissent are not only marginalized but also actively suppressed, as was obvious in the FBI surveillance of Occupy Wall Street protesters and the police’s ruthless suppression of student dissenters on campuses across the country.
Blind Publics in an Authoritarian Age
What is missing in the current debates dominating Washington politics is the recognition that the real issues at stake are neither the debt ceiling nor the state of the economy, however important, but a powerful and poisonous 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.5 The United States occupies a critical juncture in its history, one in which the forces of extremism are not just on the rise but are in the midst of revolutionizing modes of governance, ideology and policy. The politics of disconnect 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 is much easier for the language of politics and community to be stolen and deployed like a weapon so as to empty words such as democracy, freedom, justice and the social state of any viable meaning. Arundhati Roy captures the anti-democratic nature of this process in the following insightful comment. She writes:
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 czars 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. 6
This undoing of democracy to which Roy refers, and the dystopian society that is being created in its place, can be grasped in the current subordination of public values to commercial values and the collapse of democracy into the logic and values of what might called a predatory casino capitalism where life is cheap and everything is for sale. More specifically, from the ailing rib of democracy there is emerging not simply just an aggressive political assault on democratic modes of governance, but 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;7 that is, Americans are now inundated with a pedagogy of cultural authoritarianism whose ideology, values, social practices and social formations cannot be questioned because they represent and legitimate the new neoliberal financial order. This is a mode of predatory casino capitalism that presents itself as a universal social formation without qualification, a social form that inhabits a circle of ideological and political certainty and cultural practice that equates being a citizen with being a consumer – in other words, predatory capitalism is transforming into a universal ethic that has exhausted all political differences, economic alternatives and counter readings of the world in the service of benefitting a financial and corporate elite and a savage form of economic Darwinism.
We get hints of the current mechanisms of diversion and its hidden order of politics in Robert Reich’s claim that the debate over the fiscal cliff should not only be about the broader issue of inequality but also must ask and address crucial political questions regarding the increasing concentration of power and “entrenched wealth at the top, and less for the middle-class and the poor.” 8 We also see it in Frank Rich’s insistence that the endless debate conducted largely in the mainstream media about Washington being dysfunctional misses the point. Rich argues that beyond media’s silly argument that both parties are to blame for the current deadlock, lies a Republican Party strategy to make the Federal government look as dysfunctional as possible so as to convince the wider American public that the government should be dismantled and its services turned over to for-profit private interests. In fact, a number of recent critics now believe that the extremist nature of the current Republican Party represents one of the most difficult obstacles to any viable form of governance. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, two prominent conservative commentators, recently have argued that moderates not only have been pushed out of the Republican Party but they are for all intents and purposes “virtually extinct.” They go even further in stating that:
In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges. 9
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has gone further and has characterized the Republican Party and its “corporate-centric super-PACs as treasonous.” He states that Americans “are now in a free fall toward old-fashioned oligarchy; noxious, thieving and tyrannical” and that given the role of the most corporate-friendly Supreme Court since the Gilded Age with its passage of the Citizens United decision, “those who have the money now have the loudest voices in our democracy while poor Americans are mute.”10
More radical critics like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Sheldon Wolin, Stanley Aronowitz, Judith Butler, Robert Scheer, Jeffrey St. Clair, Matt Taibbi, Angela Davis and David Theo Goldberg, among others, have long recognized the transformation of the United States from a weak democracy to a spirited authoritarian state. All of these theorists have challenged the permanent war economy, the erosion of civil liberties, the power of the corporate state, the moral bankruptcy of the liberal intelligentsia, the corporate control of the media, the criminal wars of repression abroad, the rise of the torture state and the increasing militarization of everyday life.
However extremist the Republican Party has become with its ongoing war on women, immigrants, young people, the welfare state, voting rights and all manner of civil rights, this should not suggest that the Democratic Party occupies a valued liberal position. On the contrary, policy in the United States is now being shaped by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly more conservative in the last 30 years along with a Republican Party that now represents one of the most extremist political parties to ever seize power in Washington. And while the Republican Party has fallen into the hands of radical extremists, both parties “support shifting the costs of the crisis and the government bailouts of banks, large corporations and the stock market, onto the mass of the citizens.”11 Both parties support bailing out the rich and doing the bidding of corporate lobbyists. Moreover, both parties reject the idea of democracy as a collectively inhabited public space and ethos that unconditionally stands for individual, political and economic rights. President Obama and his Wall Street advisors may hold onto some weak notion of the social contract, but they are far from liberal when it comes to embracing the military physics of the corporate warfare state.
As Chris Hedges, Paul Street, Noam Chomsky and Salvatore Babones have repeatedly pointed out, calling the Republican Party extremists should not cloud the increasingly authoritarian positions now embraced by the Obama administration. For instance, President Obama has deported more immigrants than his predecessor George W. Bush; he has advocated for the privatization of public schools, pursued neoliberal modes of educational governance and slashed funds from a number of vital social service programs. He has put into place a health care program that eliminated the public option and joined forces with insurance companies and Big Pharma.
As is well known, the Obama administration also kept Guantanamo open, justified warrantless wiretapping, accelerated drone attacks that killed many innocent civilians, supports indefinite detention and sanctions a form of “extraordinary rendition,” in which potential terrorists are abducted and shipped off to foreign countries to be tortured.12 In fact, the realm of politics has moved so far to the right in the United States that modes of extremism that were once thought unthinkable have now become commonplace. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, the Patriot Act, state-sponsored torture, assassinations, kill lists and surveillance programs, once “widely lamented as a threat to core American liberties” have “become such a fixture in our political culture that we are trained to take them for granted, to view the warped as normal.”13 While both parties have given up the mantel of democratic politics, the Republican Party is more extreme in its range of targets and its savage attempts to destroy those modes of governance and public spheres that provide the conditions for robust and critical forms of civic life, education, agency and democracy.
Republican Party Extremisms and the Destruction of Democracy
The extremism of the current Republican Party has many political, ideological, economic and cultural registers, but one of its most dangerous and punitive is its attacks on the social state, the public good and the very notion of responsible government. If the Democratic Party has undermined vital civil liberties while promoting a warfare state, the Republican Party has created a new understanding of politics as the space in which corporations and finance capital provide the template for all aspects of governance and policy. Governance in this mode of politics is a mixture of corporate power and financial warfare, accompanied by rule through the apparatuses of punishment, including the courts, military and police. If the slavish obedience to the corporate and finance state is visible in the Republican Party’s call for deregulation, privatization, free trade and a no-tax policy for the wealthy and corporations, the rule of the punishing state becomes clear in the call for the criminalization of a range of social behaviors ranging from abortion and homelessness, to debt payments and student protests.
While the use of military force against workers and civil rights has a long history in the US, the rule of finance capital is both new and takes on a new urgency, given the threat it poses to a substantive democracy. Robert McChesney argues that the rule of capital has transformed the United States from a weak democracy to “Dollarocracy – the rule of money rather than the rule of people – a specifically US form of plutocracy [that] is now so dominant, so pervasive, that it is accepted as simply the landscape people inhabit.”14 Michael Hudson goes further in his analysis and characterizes one element of the new extremism as a form of financial warfare waged against not merely the social state but all those groups that historically have fought for expanding political, economic and personal rights. He writes:
Finance has moved to capture the economy at large, industry and mining, public infrastructure (via privatization) and now even the educational system. (At over $1 trillion, US student loan-debt came to exceed credit-card debt in 2012). The weapon in this financial warfare … is to load economies (governments, companies and families) with debt, siphon off their income as debt service and then foreclose when debtors lack the means to pay. Indebting government gives creditors a lever to pry away land, public infrastructure and other property in the public domain. Indebting companies enable[s] creditors to seize employee pension savings. And indebting labor means that it no longer is necessary to hire strikebreakers to attack union organizers and strikers…. In contrast to the promise of democratic reform nurturing a middle class a century ago, we are witnessing a regression to a world of special privilege in which one must inherit wealth in order to avoid debt and job dependency. 15
The second feature of the new extremism is the ongoing commercialization and destruction of democratic public spaces. The latter refers to the ongoing privatization, commercialization and attack on those democratic public spheres that provide the space for critical thinking, informed dialogue, thoughtfulness, the affirmation of non-commodified norms and the unconditional protection of social rights. Institutions of democratic culture such as schools, the art world, unions, the media, and other public spheres where public values and important social issues are both engaged and offer the conditions for producing informed citizens are now viewed with disdain because they embrace modes of critical reasoning and a collective ethos at odds with anti-democratic and market-driven values.
The Republican Party is not simply wedded to a vicious anti-intellectualism; it scorns the very notion of reason and embraces ignorance as the basis for community. This is evident not only in the rejection of science, evidence and reason as the foundation of an informed community, but also in the embrace of fundamentalist positions that pander to ignorance as a basis for shutting down dissent, mobilizing supporters and retooling American education as a business, a training site to initiate the young into a world where the corporate, financial and military elite decide their needs, desires and future.
The third feature of the new extremism focuses on the attack on the social contract and welfare state and the ideas and institutions that make them possible. The new extremists recognize that the space of citizenship is as important as the idea of citizenship and they want to make sure that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the American public to find and inhabit those public spaces where the discourse of the common good, public life and social justice can be taught and learned – spaces where a language for defending vital public spheres can be developed. The Republican Party discourse on deficits and austerity is in reality an attempt to dismantle the welfare state and the social supports it provides. For Republican Party extremists, budget deficits become the key weapon in forcing the government to reduce its spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social provisions at odds with market-driven values, deregulation and the logic of privatization.
One consequence of this attack on the welfare state and the social contract has been the emergence of a market fundamentalism that trivializes democratic values and public concerns. At the same time, this market fundamentalism enshrines a rabid individualism, legitimates an all-embracing quest for profits, and promotes a Social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. If the conservative revolution launched by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had as its goal the rolling back of social democratic rights, the counter-revolutionaries that now control the Republican Party go much further. That is, they are not interested in rolling back the benefits of the social state, they want to eliminate government-sponsored social provisions, trade union rights, and other social and economic rights. The enemy in this discourse is equality and substantive social rights.
In this form of free-market fundamentalism, the new authoritarianism posits the unregulated and unfettered market as an idol and fetish and promotes the rule of finance capital as part of a larger project leading to the rule of a callous corporate-dominated political economy. It also promotes an anti-public morality in which the only responsibility one has is to oneself, “with no responsibility for the interests or well-being of others.”16 How else to explain the refusal of both political parties to address myriad crises faced by young people as revealed in the following poverty-related statistics: Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are the new face of a national homeless population; more than a million public school students are homeless in the US; 57 percent of all children are in homes considered to be either low-income or impoverished, and that half of all American children will be on food stamps at least once before they turn 18 years old.17
At stake here is what John Clarke calls the subordination of the social and public values through a variety of policies that include: 18 “erasing the social” by withdrawing social protections for labor; “privatizing the social” by turning over publicly owned resources to profit-making interests; “subjugating the social” by subordinating social needs and policies to the imperatives of economic competitiveness and capital accumulation; domesticating the social by placing the burden for collective provision, security and care to the narrow realm of the family; narrowing the social by downsizing it into “meaner, degraded or recitalist forms.”19 Under this new market fundamentalism and political extremism, there is little interest in preventing inequality from running out of control – a savage ideology that feeds nicely into the notion that the social protections of the state have nothing to do with the common good or communal survival, but are largely a matter of charity.20 Central to the subordination of the social is the need to create new modes of agency and subjectivity in which “individuals think of themselves in economic terms – as entrepreneurial, calculating selves whose world is structured through contractual or quasi-contractual relationships.”21 This leads to the next element of the new extremism.
The fourth feature of the new extremism is its use of the media and other cultural apparatuses to promote a neoliberal form of public pedagogy and anti-politics engaged in the production of identities, desires and values that disparage any mode of sociality that embraces the common good, public values and shared responsibilities. The new extremism embraces a radical individualism that celebrates a consumer-oriented citizen “whose actions reflect mostly their material self-interests.”22 This is a form of anti-politics, an “authoritarian Utopia that is nothing less than ‘a program of methodical destruction of collectives,’ from trade unions and mill towns to families and small nations.”23 Under attack in this new form of authoritarianism are the social bonds and modes of communal cohesion that enable individuals, families and social movements to resist the ongoing transformation of citizens into customers, the criminalization of economic life, the corruption of politics and the massive increase in poverty, inequality, a culture of cruelty and the emergence of the punishing state.
The new extremism unleashes all the forces of brutal self-absorption that deepen and expand both the structure of cruelty and its ongoing privatization. Material self-interests have weakened any sense of collective purpose, just as America’s obsession with radical individualism and wealth and the growing existence of gross inequality have become symptomatic of our ethical and collective impoverishment.24 As Bauman points out, “the consuming life is [now] lived as a supreme expression of autonomy,” leaving no room for deploying activity in the service of “commitment, devotion, [and] responsibility.”25 Social life in this discourse has little to do with democracy and the formative culture needed to nourish it. As public values are disdained and the very notion of the public good and civic imagination disappear, people do more than surrender their citizenship, they also are rendered excess, disposable – waste products in a society wedded to throwing away not just consumer products, but increasingly human beings as well. What is new about the extremism that now rules American society is not simply the decline of public values but how they have become irrelevant to the existing contemporary neoliberal order, which weakens the foundation of social solidarity and creates identities, values and desires that turn the principles of democracy against themselves while undermining the very possibility of politics as a democratic project.
The Suffocation of Imagination, Agency and Hope
The war on the social contract, the welfare state, democratic politics, equality and the very idea of justice is an attack not simply on everything from Medicare to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act, it is an assault on “the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans share in a decent life.”26 It is also an aggressive strike against the formative cultures and modes of individual and collective agency that legitimate a connection between the democratic polis and the possibility of economic, social and political freedom. The new extremism and its authoritarian politics draw attention away from serious social problems and the actual structural and ideological conditions that reproduce them. Underlying the shadow of authoritarianism is a corrosive attempt to “create a loss of conviction, a loss of faith in the culture of open democracy, a sense of skepticism and withdrawal.”27 To the degree that the private sphere becomes the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure or possibility, citizenship becomes distorted, removed from issues of equity, social justice and civic responsibility. Tony Judt is right in arguing that we have entered a historical conjuncture in which politics is losing its shape, its power of attraction and its ability to confront the anti-democratic pressures at work in American society today.28
Opposing this contemporary, cruel form of authoritarianism demands a new language for embracing the social, for defining civic engagement, for rethinking the meaning of agency and politics and for talking about social responsibility. Rethinking the social means, in part, embracing the role of the state in providing regulations that limit the power of corporations and the financial service industries. It means reconfiguring the very nature of power in order to subordinate capitalism’s major structuring institutions to the rule of law, democratic values and the precepts of justice and equality. The state is not merely an instrument of governance, it is also a site where organized irresponsibility has to give way to organized responsibility, where ethics cannot be privatized and separated from economic considerations, where the rule of law cannot be used to produce legal illegalities and where politics becomes inseparable from the claims of justice, equality and freedom. This suggests the need for social movements to organize and fight for modes of sovereignty at all levels of government in which people, rather than money and corporations, shape the nature of politics, policies and cultural apparatuses that provide the public values that nourish critical modes of citizenship and democracy itself.
The Roles of Critical Education and Collective Struggle in Taking Back Democracy
At stake here is not merely a call for reform but a revolutionary ideal that enables people to hold power, participate in the process of governing and create genuine publics capable of translating private troubles and issues into public problems. This is a revolution that not only calls for structural change but for a transformation in the ways in which subjectivities are created, desires are produced and agency itself becomes crucial to any viable notion of freedom. There is a pedagogical element to a rethinking of the political that has often been ignored by progressives of various political persuasions and that is the necessity to make pedagogy itself central to the very meaning of politics. In this case, it is not enough to demand that people be provided with the right to participate in the experience of governing, but also educated in every aspect of what it means to live in a democracy. At the very least, this suggests an education that enables a working knowledge of citizen-based skills and the development of those capacities that encourage individuals to be self-reflective, develop a passion for public values and be willing to develop and defend those public spaces that lift ideas into the worldly space of the public realm.29
The philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis surely is right in insisting that we must take seriously the political task of creating those diverse public spheres which are capable of rendering all individuals fit to participate in the governing of society, willing to promote the common good and engage the social within a broader political and theoretical landscape, one not tied to the priority of economic interests and an endlessly commodifying market-driven social order. 30Politics demands an informed citizenry, which can only be produced collectively through the existence of public spheres that give meaning to their struggles and fight for justice, economic rights and human dignity. In that sense, any viable struggle against the new authoritarianism in the United States might start with Castoriadis’ insistence that any viable form of politics begins with creating formative cultures and public spheres in which critical education in the broadest sense becomes essential to the very meaning of justice, social responsibility, and democracy.
For Castoriadis, at the heart of such formative cultures are operative forms of public pedagogy that create citizens “who are critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question so that democracy” can be nourished and sustained.31 As a moral and political practice, pedagogy becomes productive of what knowledge, values, and identities are produced in a particular society. Similarly, it becomes a determining factor in creating a society willing to both question itself and struggle for those ideals that give meaning and substance to the promise of a substantive democracy.
Against the dystopian visions that drive the new extremism, there is a need for teachers, workers, artists, students, young people, academics and others to produce a language of critique, provocation and possibility. This is a discourse of civic engagement that embraces politics, in part, as a pedagogical practice organized around what I have in the past labeled as educated hope. Educated hope sharpens the “ethopolitical” instrument and “operates at the root of where the ethical imagination and the political mingle.”32 Educated hope signals the merging of civic education and democratic action as part of a broader attempt to enable young people and others to critically analyze and transform those values, ideologies and market-driven politics that produce a growing machinery and register of widespread inequality and social death. It suggests creating a new language and order of symbolic relations so as to understand the past as well as the dynamics of the present and the future.
Educators, progressives, and civic-minded citizens need a language that puts justice back into the regressive culture of cost-benefit analyses and rejects the civic vacuum created by the extremist apostles of casino capitalism. We also need a language that is vigilant about where democratic identities are not only produced but also where forms of social agency are denied. Those concerned about the fate of justice and democracy also need to reconfigure the political order in order to create relations of power that are capable of controlling the increasing separation of politics, which are nation-based and local, from the exercise of power, which is now global and unrestrained by the politics of the nation-state. Power is now global while politics is local. What this means is that globalization has cut economic and military power free from its traditional political shackles exercised by the nation state and allows it to roam unhindered throughout the globe. The traditional merging of power and politics has been broken and as Bauman points out, “We may say that power has ‘flown’ from the historically developed institutions that used to exercise democratic control over uses and abuses of power in the modern nation-states. Globalization in its current form means a progressive disempowerment of nation-states and (so far) the absence of any effective substitute.”33
Consequently, resistance to the new extremism in the United States must be addressed as part of a broader global struggle, built on strong political and civic commitments and forms of solidarity that are local and internationalist in nature. Beyond critique, any viable challenge must rethink what Jacques Derrida has called the concepts of “the possible and impossible.”34 Thinking beyond the given involves constructing new narratives regarding the stories we tell about ourselves, about the future and the promise of a democracy to come.
A language of critique and educated hope suggests a new and spirited struggle against a culture of civic illiteracy, one in which the commanding institutions of society are divorced from matters of ethics, social responsibility and social cost. The new extremism in American society, which attempts to make critical thinking irrelevant and render hope a paralyzing cynicism, must be challenged by a politics and pedagogy that have the capacity not only to “influence those in power” but also mobilize those who don’t have power.”35 This is a pedagogy that should “not only shift the way people think about the moment, but potentially energizes them to do something different.”36 A politics that merges critique and hope recognizes that while the idea of the good society may be weakened, it is far from an idea that can be relegated to the dustbin of history.
Yet, while the grip of an authoritarian political culture and the politics of distraction are getting stronger in American society, the current attack on democracy should be taken as a new historical opportunity to generate new collective struggles in the hopes of creating a future that refuses to be defined by the dystopian forces now shaping American society. In the aftermath of the massive suffering of produced by World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, Theodor W. Adorno in the shadow of an older form of authoritarianism refused to give up on hope as an essential condition of agency, politics and justice. He insists that: “Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility. Its insatiable aspect, its aversion to being quickly and easily satisfied, refuses the foolish wisdom of resignation…. Open thinking points beyond itself.”37 His words are both profound and instructive for the time in which we live because they point to the need to think beyond the given, to think beyond the distorted and market-based inverted hope now on offer from the advocates of casino capitalism.
Thinking beyond itself reinforces the notion that the job and political task of civic education is as the poet Robert Hass has written “to refresh the idea of justice which is going dead in us all the time.”38 Richard Swift builds on this notion adding that as long as there is suffering in the world, individuals and social movements need “to take responsibility for the direction of society.”39
The current talk about deficits, the debt ceiling and the cutting back of social provisions is not without value, but only if it is connected to broader anti-democratic practices and understood as posing a serious threat to a society dominated by religious and economic fundamentalists. The task now facing the American public in this moment of government deceit and civic abandonment is to think beyond the given, to recognize that we cannot act otherwise unless we can think otherwise. At stake here is the need to reconfigure the relationship between hope, community and democracy. If we are to overcome the debilitating pessimism of the current era, it is crucial to combine a reason and a sense of gritty realism with a notion of hope that taps into our deepest experiences, allowing us to take risks and think beyond the parameters of the given. Or as Alain Badiou states: “It is a matter of showing how the space of the possible is larger than the one assigned – that something else is possible, but not that everything is possible.”40 Imagining the unimaginable necessitates asking crucial questions regarding what types of knowledge, agents and moral order are necessary for a democracy to work. What will it take to connect the dots and broaden our horizon of understanding and politics in order to expand the ongoing and always unfinished business of justice, democratization, and freedom?
C. Wright Mills, “The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society” in C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills, (NY: New York, Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 18.
Ibid. C. Wright Mills, “The Powerless People: The Role of the Intellectual in Society.” p. 18. For some insightful analyses of the new authoritarianism, see Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, (Princeton University Press, 2008); Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (New York: Free Press, 2008)Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004).
For the most extensive and exhaustive history on the technology of torture, see Darius Rejali, Torture and Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). Some of the more instructive books on torture under the George W. Bush administration include: Mark Danner, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004); Jane Mayer, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals (New York: Doubleday, 2008); and Phillipe Sands, Torture Team (London: Penguin, 2009). On the torture of children, see Michael Haas, George W. Bush, War Criminal? The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009). See, for instance, Alex Kane, “5 Ways President Obama Has Doubled Down on Bush’s Most Tragic Mistakes,” AlterNet (January 8, 2103). Salvatore Babones, “There Is No American Left,” Truthout, (December 27, 2012). Online:
Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, (Princeton University Press, 2008); Andrew J. Bacevich, The New American Militarism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004).
Edward Said is particularly helpful on this issue. See, for instance, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage, 1996) and Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).