"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Social State’

Trickle-Down Cruelty And The Politics Of Austerity

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm

In Philadelphia, budget cuts have led to fire departments closing on a daily rotating basis, delaying response time. (Photo: Sam Blackman)

Oldspeak:”Austerity porn functions within the current political climate to promote deficits in order to return the United States to the Gilded Age policies of the 1920s. What should be clear is that the politics of austerity is not about rethinking priorities to benefit the public good. Instead, it has become part of a discourse of shame, one that has little to do with using indignation to imagine a better world. On the contrary, shame is now used to wage a war on the poor rather than poverty, on young people rather than those economic and political forces that undermine their future and on those considered other rather than on the underlying structures and ideologies of various forms of state and individual racism.” Henry A. Giroux The fear-mongering being propagated 24-7 on your corporate news networks is designed to prepare the population for the in progress implementation of shock doctrine based “Austeriy Measures” and “Structural Adjustment Policies” which facilitate privatization of all things public to the great benefit of the Financial-Industrial Complex, and a complete full functioning corptalitarian state. For their invaluable help in selling the U.S. out from under its people, the corptalitarian elites, ensure continued control by spending untold millions  for their minions in politricks with (thanks to Citizens United vs. F.E.C.) reelection campaigns and other rarely disclosed perks and advantages.


By Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

There is a certain irony in the fact that the party of debt has now become a flock of austerity hawks. This is the same Republican Party that gave us two wars, an increase in military spending and whopping loss of tax revenues due to tax breaks for mega-rich corporations and the wealthy Americans. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman raises the question of what happened to the federal government budget surplus of 2000 and insists that the answer is, “three main things. First, there were the Bush tax cuts, which added roughly $2 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. Second, there were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which added an additional $1.1 trillion or so. And third was the Great Recession, which led both to a collapse in revenue and to a sharp rise in spending on unemployment insurance and other safety-net programs.”(1) All told, President George W. Bush added $4 trillion to the national debt – and there was no debate about raising the debt ceiling at that time, which was raised seven times.(2) What is often missed in these discussions is that deficits have always been the objectives of hard right-wing Republicans and some equally conservative democrats who see them as an excuse for cutting social benefits and generating massive amounts of inequality that benefit the rich.(3) Michael Tomasky further legitimizes this claim with the charge that “the Republican Party cares nothing about the public debt. In fact, it wants more … It is the party of debt. It is the party of deficits. It is the party of recession. It is the party of unemployment. It is the party of inequality. And it is the party of middle-class stagnation and slippage…. They scream about crisis because what they desire is to use the crisis as an excuse to do things to this country that the hard right has wanted to do for 30 years.”(4) What Tomasky leaves out is that the current crop of right-wing Republicans controlling the shots in Washington and various states appear to revel in “a deep urge to inflict pain.”(5) How else to explain that during recent debt negotiations between leaders of both parties, the Republican leadership walked out as soon as the Democrats suggested the need to talk about not only cutting programs that benefit the poor, but also limiting tax breaks for corporate jets, hedge-fund managers, the obscenely wealthy and corporations.

According to the children of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, “free-market economics,” individual interests and needs trumped social needs; brilliant individuals were more qualified to run government and largely blossomed within institutions committed to making money; freedom was largely defined as freedom from regulation; and any government that passed policies to provide social protections, regulate corporations, or lessen inequality were either grossly authoritarian or unwise. In this scenario, especially under the administration of Ronald Reagan, government was declared the enemy and the market was turned into a form of casino capitalism as a series of policies were inaugurated in which there was a sustained assault on the working and middle classes through “the busting of unions, the export of millions of decent-paying jobs and the transfer of enormous wealth to the already rich. The tax rates for the wealthiest were slashed about in half. Greed was incentivized.”(6) Accordingly, the ideologues of casino capitalism believed that as the rich and corporations paid less taxes and inequality was left unchecked, society as a whole would benefit, wealth would trickle down. Of course, what has actually happened in the last decade with the unchecked, Wild West, Bush-type casino capitalism is that wages for workers have stagnated; the top 1 percent of the population has gotten fabulously wealthy; health care has deteriorated for the vast majority of the population; schools have been turned into test centers; the nation’s infrastructure has been allowed to rot; and, more recently, millions of people have lost their jobs, homes, and hope. Moreover, two-thirds of US corporations paid no taxes. For example, Bank of America has not paid any taxes for the last two years.(7) At the same time, increases in inequality in the United States dwarf the rest of the world, while increases in executive pay undercuts any claim we might have on democracy.

The working and middle classes have been condemned to a new form of neoliberal tyranny “in which there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets.”(8) The global recession has intensified the war on the American public, as professionals and politicians who make up a global business class now displace democracy with the call for austerity and, in doing so, produce a hidden order of politics in which the “demand for the people’s austerity hides processes of the uneven distribution of risk and vulnerability.”(9) Under the guise of austerity, politically motivated attacks are now being waged on young people, low-skilled workers, the poor, African-Americans and the elderly. On the other hand, austerity measures against the rich are almost nonexistent. Richard D. Wolff provides the details in looking at what he calls “some alternative ‘reasonable’ kinds of austerity.” He writes:

Serious efforts to collect income taxes from US-based multinational corporations, especially those who use internal pricing mechanisms to escape US taxation, would generate vast new federal revenues. The same applies to wealthy individuals. The US has no federal property tax on holdings of stocks, bonds and cash accounts (states and localities levy no such property taxes either). If the federal government levied a 1 per cent tax on assets between $100,000 to 499,000 and 1.5 per cent on assets above $500,000, that would raise much new federal revenue (everyone’s first $100,000 could be exempted just as the existing US income tax exempts the first few thousands of dollars of individual incomes). Exiting the Iraq and Afghanistan disasters would do likewise. Ending tax exemptions for super-rich private educational institutions (Harvard, Yale, etc.) and for religious institutions (church-goers would then need to pay the costs of their churches) would be among the many other such alternative “reasonable” austerity measures. Comparable alternatives apply – and are being struggled over – in other countries.(10)

One side effect of this blatant, if not corrupt mode of austerity is what I call the politics of trickle-down cruelty. This is evident in policies in which austerity-based cuts are used to reward corporations and billionaires with tax breaks, while simultaneously exploiting the budget crisis in order to eliminate protections provided by the welfare state. The resulting reductions in state spending have drastically cut many basic social services so as to endanger the lives of many young people and others at the margins of society structured in massive financial inequality. For example, in Philadelphia “fire departments have been closed on a daily rotating basis” delaying response time. One unfortunate and possibly preventable consequence occurred “when two children were pulled from a burning row home too little too late…. Mike Kane of the Philadelphia Firefighters Union Local 22 said there was no way to tell whether the children would have lived had the fire station been open, but if not for the brownouts, ‘maybe them kids would have had a shot.'”(11) In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that effectively denied health care to over 47,000 low-income children.(12) More recently, a 59-year-old man in Gastonia, North Carolina, robbed a bank for $1 so he could get health care in America. He handed the teller a note asking for only a dollar and medical attention. He sat in a chair in the bank waiting for the police to arrive. As he pointed out to the press, he had lost his job of 17 years as a Coca Cola deliveryman and ended up taking a part-time position in a convenience store. But the work was backbreaking, compounded by the fact that he had arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome and a painful lump on his chest. With no health insurance, he decided that his best option was to rob a bank and get health care in prison.(13) We also hear about the return of debtors’ prisons, which were abolished in the US in the 19th century. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that “people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts” and that in some cases “people stay in jail until they raise minimum payment. In January [2010] a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man to ‘indefinite incarceration’ until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt.”(14) Joy Uhlmeyer, a 57-year-old patient care advocate spent 16 hours in jail because she missed a court hearing over a credit card debt.(15) Surely, it is hard to miss the irony of putting someone in jail for not paying a small debt while, as Matt Taibbi has pointed out, law enforcement under the Obama regime has not convicted a “single executive who ran the companies that cooked up and cashed in on the phony financial boom – and industry wide scam that involved the mass sale of mismarked, fraudulent mortgage-backed securities – has ever been convicted.”(16) These financial crooks hid billions from investors and ripped off the American people so as to cause untold suffering and hardship. And, yet, law enforcement does not consider them liable for the crimes they committed, and the Obama administration rewards them with a weak regulatory laws and an open season on obscene bonuses. Such stories serve as flashpoints about a society. And as Zygmunt Bauman points out, even though they may tell us little about deeper causal connections, they “prod the imagination. And sound an alert. They appeal to the conscience as well as to survival instincts…. [They also show] that the ideal that one can ‘do it alone’ is a fatal mistake which defies the purpose of self-concern and self-care.”(17)

All of these examples point to the collateral damage invoked by a casino capitalism that now takes austerity as its clarion call to gut social protections and weaken the rights of labor and unions. Moreover, austerity in this instance is designed to reward the fabulously wealthy while imposing in some cases poverty, suffering and severe hardship on those marginalized by race, disability and class. For many people, these examples I have noted above suggest that the writing is on the wall regarding their future and the message is dark indeed. Complaints by right-wing politicians and conservative pundits about the growing federal deficit and their call for a harsh politics of austerity are both hypocritical and disingenuous. Hypocritical, given their support for massive tax breaks for the rich, and disingenuous, given their blatantly transparent goal of implementing a market-based agenda that imposes the burden of decreased government services and benefits on the backs of the poor, young people, the unemployed, the working class and middle-class individuals and families. As Wolff’s quote suggested above, in this transparent scenario, austerity measures apply to the poor, but not to the rich, who continue to thrive under polices that produce government bailouts, support deficit-producing wars, tax breaks for the wealthy and deregulation policies that benefit powerful corporations. The conservative and right-wing politicians and policy wonks calling for shared sacrifices made in the name of balancing budgets have no interest in promoting justice, equality and the public good. Their policies maximize self-interest, support a culture of organized irresponsibility, and expand the pathologies of inequality, military spending and poverty. Austerity porn functions within the current political climate to promote deficits in order to return the United States to the Gilded Age policies of the 1920s.(18)

This conservative assault is not just about the enactment of reactionary government policies, it is also about the proliferation of a culture of cruelty whose collateral damage is harsh and brutalizing, especially for young people, the unemployed, the elderly, the poor, and a number of other individuals and groups now bearing the burden of worst economic recession since the 1920s. Cruelty in this instance is not meant to simply reference the character flaws of the rich or to appeal to a form of left moralism, but to register the effects especially since the 1970s of how the institutions of capital, wealth and power merge not only to generate vast modes of inequality, but also to inflict immense amounts of pain and suffering upon the lives of the poor, working people, the middle class, the elderly, immigrants and young people.(19) What should be clear is that the politics of austerity is not about rethinking priorities to benefit the public good. Instead, it has become part of a discourse of shame, one that has little to do with using indignation to imagine a better world. On the contrary, shame is now used to wage a war on the poor rather than poverty, on young people rather than those economic and political forces that undermine their future and on those considered other rather than on the underlying structures and ideologies of various forms of state and individual racism.

As the welfare state is dismantled, it is being replaced by the harsh realities of the punishing state, as social problems are increasingly criminalized and social protections are either eliminated or fatally weakened. The harsh values of this new social order can be seen in the increasing incarceration of young people, the modeling of public schools after prisons, harsh anti-immigration laws and state policies that bail out investment bankers but leave the middle and working classes in a state of poverty, despair and insecurity. For poor youth of color and adults, the prison-industrial complex is particularly lethal. Michelle Alexander has pointed out that there are more African-American men under the control of the criminal justice system than were enslaved in 1850 and that, because of the war on drugs, four out of five black youth in some communities can expect to be either in prison or “caught up in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives.”(20) In states such as Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, new immigration laws “make it impossible for people without papers to live without fear. They give new powers to local police untrained in immigration law. They force businesses to purge work forces and schools to check students’ immigration status. And they greatly increase the danger of unreasonable searches, false arrests, racial profiling, and other abuses, not just against immigrants, but anyone who may look like some officer’s idea of an illegal immigrant…. The laws also make it illegal to give a ride to the undocumented, so a son could land in jail for driving his mother to the supermarket, or a church volunteer for ferrying families to a soup kitchen.”(21) The Obama administration fares no better on punishing immigrants. In fact, its stance on immigration suggests something about its own misplaced priorities in that it refuses to prosecute Wall Street crooks and CIA thugs who tortured men, women and children in Iraq. And, yet, “it has used its criminal justice system and law enforcement apparatus to deport 393,000 people, at a cost of $5 billion.”(22) White-collar crooks produce global financial havoc because of their crooked deals and go scot-free while illegal immigrants looking for work that most Americans will not perform are put in jail.

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The trickle-down cruelty of the anti-tax, anti-public and anti-government extremists is on full display in Minnesota where Republicans have refused Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for a tax on “the 7,700 Minnesotans who make more than $1 million a year” in order to raise revenue to address the state’s budget deficit. Rather than tax the rich, Republican legislators have called for slashing “billions from … education, health care and safety programs” and, in order to get their way, have literally shut down state government.(23) The result is that 22,000 workers have been laid off, child care subsidies have dried up and essential services for the poor have been suspended, all so taxes on the rich will not be raised. The mean-spirited Gov. of New Jersey, Chris Christie, has followed the same playbook and has used his veto to eliminate $1.3 billion in spending, most of it for schools, Medicaid and aid to cities. But he also cut much smaller items favored by Democrats, like programs to help abused children and provide legal aid to the poor.

The culture of cruelty, illegal legalities and political illiteracy can also be seen in the practice of socialism for the rich. This is a practice in which government supports for the poor, unemployed, sick and elderly are derided because they either contribute to an increase in the growing deficit or they undermine the market-driven notion of individual responsibility. And yet, the same critics defend without irony government support for the ultra-wealthy, the bankers, the permanent war economy, or any number of subsidies for corporations as essential to the life of the nation, which is simply an argument that benefits the rich and powerful and legitimizes the deregulated Wild West of casino capitalism. As public services are eliminated, health insurance cut for over a million kids and teachers and public workers are laid off, corporate profits have soared and Wall Street executives are having a bonus year. The average worker in the United States made $39,000 in 2010 and got a 0.5 percent pay increase, which amounted to $40,100. According to The New York Times, “the median pay for top executives at 200 big companies last year was $10.8 million. That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009.”(24)

The moral obscenity that characterizes such salaries becomes clear at a time when 14 million people are looking for work, millions are losing their homes and thousands of families are trying to survive on food stamps. How can any society that calls itself democratic and egalitarian justify salaries that are so grotesquely high that it is difficult to imagine how such wealth can be spent? For example, how can anyone justify paying CEOs such as Philippe P. Dauman, the head of Viacom, $85 million in 2010? Or for that matter, the $32.9 million paid to Michael White of DirecTV?(25) The hidden order of politics and culture of cruelty comes into play when it is revealed that Mark G. Parker, the CEO of Nike, got $13.1 million in 2010 and cut 1,750 jobs, while Peter L. Lynch, the CEO of Winn-Dixie, got $5.3 million and cut 2000 jobs. One of the worst offenders is Michael Duke, the CEO of Wal-Mart, who got $18.7 million in pay in 2010 while eliminating 13,000 jobs.(26) Even more alarming is that some of these bonuses paid to risk-taking bankers were paid for, in part, with taxpayer’s money. For example, Benjamin M. Friedman writing in The New York Review of Books claims that this is precisely what happened in the case of the bonuses paid to Citigroup’s executives. He writes:

Despite the destruction of so much of the stockholders’ value and notwithstanding the enormous taxpayer assistance, Citi’s management announced in the spring of 2009 that it was paying out $5.3 billion on bonuses for 2008, including payments of more than $5 million apiece to forty-four employees of the bank. Because of the $45 billion investment of AARP and TIP money, by 2009 the US government was Citigroups’s largest shareowner. Hence the issue these lavish bonuses raised was not merely a private firm’s right to set its employees’ compensation. What Citi’s management was giving away was, in significant part, the taxpayers’ money. Yet the Obama administration voiced no objection, at least not publicly.(27)

What is daunting about all of these figures beyond being partly subsidized by taxpayer money and the human costs in hardship and suffering is that executive pay raises not only deepen inequality in the United States, lay off workers in order to deepen the pockets of rich CEOs, but they also concentrate enormous amounts of political, economic and social power in the hands of a few individuals and corporations. In the end, such practices contribute to massive amounts of suffering on the part of millions of Americans; they corrupt politics and they undermine the promise of a viable democracy. Frank Rich expands this critique in arguing, “As good times roar back for corporate America, it’s bad enough that CEOs are collectively sitting on some $1.9 trillion? America’s total expenditure on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars over a decade has been $1.3 trillion. But what’s most galling is how many of these executives are sore winners, crying all the way to palm each while raking in record profits and paying some of the lowest tax rates over the past 50 years.”(28)

Of course, this form of economic Darwinism is not enforced simply through the use of a government in the hands of right-wing corporate extremists, a conservative Supreme Court or reliance upon the police and other repressive apparatuses; it is also endlessly reproduced through the cultural apparatuses of the new and old media, public and higher education, as well as through the thousands of messages and narratives we are exposed to daily in multiple commercial spheres. In this discourse, the economic order is either sanctioned by God or exists simply as an extension of nature. In other words, the tyranny and suffering that is produced through the neoliberal theater of cruelty is coded as unquestionable, as unmovable as an urban skyscraper. Long-term investments are now replaced by short-term gains and profits, while at the same time, compassion is viewed as a weakness and democratic public values are scorned because they subordinate market considerations to the common good. Morality in this instance becomes painless, stripped of any obligations to the other. As the language of privatization, deregulation and commodification replaces the discourse of the public good, all things public, including public schools, libraries and public services, are viewed either as a drain on the market or as a pathology. In addition, inequality in wealth and income expands, spreading like a toxin through everyday life, poisoning democracy and relegating more and more individuals to a growing army of disposable human waste.(29)
But there is more at stake than an increase in the hard currency of human suffering and the theater of trickle-down cruelty; there are also disturbing signs that US society is moving toward an authoritarian state largely controlled by corporations and a grotesquely irresponsible financial elite.(30) A market-driven society is not synonymous with democracy and the privileges of the rich and the corporate elite do more to crush democracy than uplift society as a whole. Any society that allows the market to constitute the axis and framing mechanisms for all social interactions has not just lost its sense of morality and responsibility; it is given up its claim on any vestige of a democratic future. Market fundamentalism along with its structure of extreme inequality and machinery of cruelty has proven to be a death sentence on democracy. The time has come to not only demystify the authoritarianism inherent in casino capitalism and the political and institutions that mimic its policies, practices and values, but to rethink not only what a real democracy might look like, but also what it will take to actually organize to make it happen.


1. Paul Krugman, “The Unwisdom of Elites,” The New York Times, (May 8, 2011) p. A23, online here.

2. Paul Krugman, “To the Limit,” The New York Times (June 30, 2011), online here.

3. James Crotty, “High Deficits were the Objective of Right Economics,” The Real News, (May 10, 2011), online here.

4. Michael Tomasky, “Why The GOP Loves the Debt,” The Daily Beast (July 1, 2011), online here.

5. Paul Krugman, “The Urge to Purge,” New York Times (June 27, 2011), onlinehere.

6. Robert Parry, “If Ayn Rand and the Free Market fetishists were Right, We’d be Living in the Golden Age – Does This Look Like the Golden Age to You?” Alternet (June 28, 2011), online here.

7. Allison Kilkenny, “2/3 of US Corporations Pay Zero Federal Taxes,” AlterNet (March 27, 2011), online here.

8. Lawrence Grossberg, “Caught in the Crossfire: Kids, Politics and America’s Future” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005), 264.

9. Gesa Helms, Marina Vishmidt and Lauren Berlant, “Affect and the Politics of Austerity: An Interview Exchange with Lauren Berlant,” Variant 39/40, Winter 2010, online here.

10. Richard D. Wolff, “Austerity: Why and for Whom?” In These Times, (July 15, 2010), online here.

11. Rania Khalek, “Death by Budget Cut: Why Conservatives and Some Dems Have Blood on Their Hands,” AlterNet (June 13, 2011), online here.

12. Ibid.

13. Diane Turbyfill, “Bank Robber Planned Crime and Punishment,” Gaston Gazette (June 16, 2011).

14. Chris Serres and Glenn Howatt, “In Jail for Being in Debt,” StarTribune.com (June 9, 2010), online here.

15. Ibid.

16. Matt Taibbi, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?” Rolling Stone (February 16, 2011). Online here.

17. Zygmunt Bauman, “Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities in a Global Age” (Cambridge, Polity Press, 20110), p. 39.

18. James Crotty, “High Deficits were the Objective of Right Economics,” The Real News, (May 10, 2011), online here.

19. This issue is taken up in great detail in Zygmunt Bauman, “Collateral Damage: Social Inequalities n a Global Age” (London: Polity Press, 2011).

20. Cited in Dick Price, “More Black Men Now in Prison System Then Were Enslaved,” LA Progressive, (March 31, 2011), online here. See also Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (New York: New Press, 2010).

21. Editorial, “It Gets Even Worse,” The New York Times (July 3, 2011), p. A16.

22. Matt Taibbi, “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail?” Rolling Stone (February 16, 2011), online here.

23. Editorial, “Antitax Extremism in Minnesota,” The New York Times (July 6, 2011), p. A18.

24. Pradnya Joshi, “We knew They Got Raises. But This?” The New York Times (July 2, 2011), p. BU1

25. Ibid.

26. Josh Harkinson, “10 CEOs Who Got Rich by Squeezing Workers,” MotherJones (May 12, 2011), online here.

27. Benjamin M. Friedman, “Cassandra Among the Banksters,” The New York Review of Books (June 23, 201), online here.

28. Frank Rich, “Obama’s Original Sin,” New York (July 3, 2011), online here.

29. On the pernicious effects of inequality in US society, see Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land” (New York: Penguin Press, 2010). Also see, Göran Therborn, “The Killing Fields of Inequality,” Open Democracy, April 6, 2009, online here.

30. There are too many books on this issue to cite. Some of the more notable are Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); Chris Hedges, “Death of the Liberal Class” (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2010); and Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner-Take-All Politics” (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010).



Paving The Road To A Hungrier, Unhealthier, And Less-Educated Nation

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2011 at 11:35 am

Oldspeak:” More Change I Can’t Believe In. ‘Austerity Meaures’ ” have come home too roost. The same harsh and counter-productive cuts to education, social programs, public sector institutions/services/workers/jobs, we’ve seen undertaken in foreign countries via “Structural Adjustment Programs” implemented by U.S. backed “lending institutions” like the IMF, The World Bank, and USAID, that usually hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, are being proposed by politricians right here in the U.S. of A. When President Obama starts proposing cuts to community organizing in poor neighborhoods, it tells you all you need to know. The rich matter most, the poor and everyone in between matter least. Witness the sad fact that income inequality in America is at Great Depression Era levels. The number children living in poverty is at an all time high. if it’s true that “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” , America’s greatness doesn’t amount to very much atal. Meanwhile, the financial-military-industrial complex is doing just GRAND!

By Deborah Weinstein @ Other Words:

The number of poor children had already grown by 2.1 million in 2009 over pre-recession levels, with continuing high joblessness among parents raising concerns that poverty will continue to worsen for some time. Since kids who spend more than half their childhood in poverty earn on average 39 percent less than median income as adults, we can expect lasting costs that will hurt the nation’s future economic growth.

And yet, a majority of House lawmakers want to narrow the deficit by making things worse for today’s kids.

If House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal takes effect, or the even more extreme House Republican Study Committee’s budget plan prevails, the nation’s economic future will inevitably get bleaker. Those proposals would reduce the food assistance, medical care, and education available to poor children. When children don’t get adequate nutrition, research shows that they are more likely to suffer illnesses and hospitalizations. Poor health can trigger developmental problems that take a toll on school performance.

The House passed Ryan’s proposal in April along party lines. Not one Democrat supported it and all but four Republicans voted in favor of it. In the Senate, five Republicans joined every member of the chamber’s Democratic majority in rejecting it.

The House budget, best known for Ryan’s proposal to radically change and mostly privatize Medicare, would also reduce spending on food stamps by 20 percent over the next decade. If such a deep cut were implemented through caseload reductions, it would mean 8 million fewer people receiving food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. If instead the cuts took effect by reducing the amount of assistance each family receives, a family of four would lose $147 a month.

Since about half of food stamp recipients are children, such cuts would hurt the chances that those kids will graduate from high school or college, increasing the likelihood of lifelong poverty. The Republican Study Committee’s cuts are far deeper. They would cut food stamps in half over 10 years.

These proposals would have similarly harsh impacts on medical care. The House budget cuts, if implemented solely by reducing eligibility, would deny Medicaid to nearly half the people who rely on it now, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. More likely, there would be some combination of denying people altogether and reducing the care or increasing the costs for those who remain eligible. Either way, the impact would be severe. Again, the Republican Study Committee proposal would inflict even deeper cuts. That proposal calls for halving Medicaid spending by 2021.

How would these plans handle education spending? They’d cut it. We know that the House budget would cut education by nearly one-fifth next year and by a quarter by the end of the decade, with 1.7 million fewer low-income college students qualifying for Pell Grant scholarships. U.S. military spending, which nearly totals the combined military expenditures of every other nation on earth, wouldn’t be cut at all. The Republican Study Committee doesn’t spell out most of its education cuts, but it would cut all appropriations except for military spending by about 70 percent by 2021. Education funding would be slashed from preschool through college.

The GOP deficit reduction plans rely solely on massive domestic spending cuts that would heap more trouble on the recession generation’s already grim prospects. That’s counterproductive. Slower economic growth will cut tax revenue and make it harder to nix the government’s persistent budget deficit problem. Balanced-budget amendments and other proposals to place drastic limits on total federal spending would result in cuts at least as deep as the Ryan and Republican Study Committee budget plans.

There’s a better way. We can take a more responsible and effective approach that would gradually narrow the deficit and spare the programs that low-income Americans rely on through a combination of fair revenue increases and spending cuts that don’t exempt the military. Otherwise, we’ll wind up denying opportunities for a middle-class life to millions of our children.

Deborah Weinstein is the executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of national organizations working together to promote public policies that address the needs of low-income and other vulnerable populations. www.chn.org

Why The United States Is Destroying Its Education System

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Oldspeak: ” Imagine, going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job…The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.” –Unnamed New York City School Teacher

By Chris Hedges @ Truthdig:

A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers–those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential–and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts–those who march to the beat of their own drum–are weeded out.

“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”

Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work–and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system–whose primary concern is certainly not with education–are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.

“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”

“I cannot say for certain–not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing–but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.

“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class–an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”

“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors–poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition–are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals–themselves.

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.

Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love–love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you–but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside–including religious laws–are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur–the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

© 2011 Truthdig All rights reserved.

In The Twilight Of The Social State: Rethinking Walter Benjamin’s Angel Of History

In Uncategorized on January 17, 2011 at 10:20 am

Oldspeak: “By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.”-Tony Judt

From Henry A Giroux @ Truthout:

Responding in 1940 to the unfolding catastrophes perpetrated by the rise of fascism in Germany, Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish philosopher and literary critic, wrote his now famous “Thesis on the Philosophy of History.” In the ninth thesis, Benjamin comments on Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus.” He writes:

“Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.(2)

The meaning and significance of Benjamin’s angel of history has been the subject of varied interpretations by philosophers, literary critics, and others.(3)Yet, it still offers us a powerful lesson about a set of historical conditions marked by a “catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”(4) In this instance, catastrophe both undermined any hope of democracy in Europe and gave rise to the dark forces of a brutal authoritarianism and the industrialization of death. In the midst of such a crisis, Benjamin’s angel is frozen in time, paralyzed by a storm called “progress” that pulls him into the future without being able to “awaken the dead” or mend the catastrophe at his feet.

For Benjamin, the storm of progress was a mode of modernity gone askew and a deceit that made a claim on happiness rather than the horrors of destruction, constituting a set of conditions that unleashed a barrage of unimaginable carnage and suffering in the 1930s and 1940s. The utopian belief in technologically assisted social improvement had given way to a dystopian project of mad violence that would inevitably produce the context for Benjamin to take his own life in 1940. According to Benjamin, the horrors of the past made it difficult to believe in progress as a claim on and history as a narrative of the advancement of human civilization. In fact, as Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, the overdetermined force of history was not just at stake in Benjamin’s narrative, but also the notion that “we are pulled forward by future happiness – [when] in fact, [as Benjamin noted], we are pushed from behind by the horror of destruction we keep perpetrating on the way.”(5) Within this narrative, Benjamin’s angel of history would be at home today And, yet, even in the darkest times, there were people brave enough to struggle for a more progressive understanding of history and a more promising democratic future, waging that the catastrophes of the past and the false claims of a history propelled by predetermined laws and order building imperatives could be prevented through a kind of memory work and politics in which such atrocities were acknowledged and condemned as part of a larger project of freedom, collective struggle and social justice.

Also Listen: Radio Interview With Henry A. Giroux

Like the angel of history in Benjamin’s rendering of Klee’s painting, the American public is surrounded by another catastrophe of history visibly invisible in the horrible suffering produced by two unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the current economic recession exacerbating already high levels of poverty, homelessness and joblessness now spreading like a poisonous blight across the American landscape. But unlike the forces constricting Benjamin’s angel, the storm that pins the wings of the current diminutive angel of history is more intense, more paralyzing in its hyper-materialistic visions and more privatizing in its definition of agency. The historical forces producing this storm and its accompanying catastrophes are incorrigibly blind to the emergence of a “pulverized, atomized society spattered with the debris of broken inter-human bonds and their eminently frail and breakable substitutes.”(6)This is best exemplified in the now infamous and cruel tenets of a harsh neoliberalism stated without apology by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s in their mutual insistence that “government is the problem not the solution” and “there is no such thing as society.”

Social progress has ceded the historical stage to individual actions, values, tastes and personal success, just as any notion of the common and public good that once defined the meaning of progress is rendered as pathological, the vestige of a kind of socialist nightmare that squelches any possibility of individual freedom and responsibility. If progress even in its mythic register was once associated, however flawed, with lifting the populace from the bondage of necessity, suffering and exploitation, today it has been stripped of any residual commitment to the collective good and functions largely as a kind of nostalgic relic of a historical period in American history in which a concept of the social state “was not always a term of opprobrium” or a metaphor for state terrorism.(7) The language of progress, however false, has been replaced by the discourse and politics of austerity – which is neoliberal code for making the working and middle classes bear the burden of a financial crisis caused by hedge fund operators, banking and investment houses and the mega-rich.(8)

The catastrophe that marks the current historical moment no longer wraps itself in the mantle of progress. On the contrary, the storm brewing in the United States and other parts of the globe represent a kind of anti-progress, a refusal to think about, invest in or address the shared responsibilities that come with some vision of the future and “the good society.” Composing meaningful visions of the good society that benefit citizens in general, rather than a select few, are now viewed as “a waste of time, since they are irrelevant to individual happiness and a successful life.”(9) Bounded by the narrow, private worlds that make up their everyday lives, the American public has surrendered to the atomizing consequences of a market-driven morality and society and has replaced the call for communal responsibility with the call to further one’s own interests at all costs. The social and its most significant embodiment – the welfare state – is now viewed as an albatross around the neck of neoliberal notions of accumulation (as opposed to “progress”). Society has become hyper-individualized, trapped by the lure of material success and stripped of any obligation to the other. Bauman argues that in such a society:

[I]ndividual men and women are now expected, pushed and pulled to seek and find individual solutions to socially created problems and implement those solutions individually using individual skills and resources. This ideology proclaims the futility (indeed, counter productivity) of solidarity: of joining forces and subordinating individual actions to a “common cause.” It derides the principle of communal responsibility for the well-being of its members, decrying it as a recipe for a debilitating “nanny state” and warning against care for the other leading to an abhorrent and detestable “dependency.”(10)

Our contemporary angel of history has been transformed into a “swarm of angels of biographies – a crowd of loners,”(11) whose wings are stuck in a storm propelled by the hatred of democracy and a contempt for any claim on the future in which the state functions to offer even a modicum of social protection. And while Benjamin’s angel of history rightfully disputes the false claims of an order-building progress, he has been replaced by a multitude of privatizing corporate beholden angles, who cede any notion of society and collective vision – reduced to wingless messengers trapped in their own biographies and individual experiences, cut off from any viable notion of society and its fundamental social solidarities. At the same time, the storm that pins the wings of the contemporary angels of history is fueled by an intense disdain for the social state, which Bauman describes in the following manner:

A state is “social” when it promotes the principle of communally endorsed, collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences. It is primarily that principle – declared, set in operation and trusted to be in working order – that recast the otherwise abstract idea of “society” into the experience of felt and lived community through replacing the “order of egoism” (to deploy John Dunn’s terms), bound to generate an atmosphere of mutual mistrust and suspicion, with the “order of equality,” inspiring confidence and solidarity. It is the same principle which lifts members of society to the status of citizens, that is, makes them stakeholders in addition to being stockholders: beneficiaries, but also actors – the wardens as much as the wards of the “social benefits” system, individuals with an acute interest in the common good understood as a network of shared institutions that can be trusted and realistically expected, to guarantee the solidity and reliability of the state-issued “collective insurance policy.”(12)

We no longer live in an age in which history’s “winged messengers” bear witness to the suffering endured by millions and the conditions that allow such suffering to continue. Thinking about past and future has collapsed into a presentism in which the delete button, the utter normalization of a punishing inequality and the atomizing pleasures of instant gratification come together to erase both any notion of historical consciousness and any vestige of social and moral responsibility owed as much to future generations as to the dead. The “winged messengers” have been replaced by a less hallowed breed of anti-public intellectuals, academics, journalists and artists who now cater to the demands of the market and further their careers by becoming cheerleaders for neoliberal capitalism. The legacy now left by too many intellectuals has more to do with establishing a corporate-friendly brand name than fighting economic and social injustices, translating private into public issues, or creating genuine public spheres that promote critical thought and collective action. Whatever “winged messengers” do exist are either banished to the margins of the institutions that house them or excluded by the dominant media that have now become a mouthpiece for corporate culture and the new global rich.

As history is erased and economics becomes the driving force for all aspects of political, cultural and social life, those institutional and political forces that hold the reins of power now become the purveyors of social death, comfortably ensconced in a political imaginary that wreaks human misery on the planet as the rich and powerful reap huge financial gains for themselves. The principal players of casino capitalism live in the highly circumscribed time of short-term investments and financial gains and are more than willing to close their eyes to the carnage and suffering all around them, while they are sucked into the black hole of the future. As the social state is eviscerated by an all-embracing market fundamentalism, society increasingly becomes a machine for destroying the power of civic culture and civic life, proliferating the ideologies and technologies of what is increasingly and unequivocally becoming a punishing state. And, paraphrasing, Achille Mbembe, politics becomes a form of social death in which “the future is collapsed into the present.”(13)

Though helpless to control what he saw, Benjamin’s angel of history recognized that the past, present and future were inextricably linked in a constellation of ideas, events, social practices and relations of power that mutually inform each other. History offered no guarantees, and while it could often paralyze and punish, the potentially revolutionary ideal that gave it mythic status was organized around an understanding of social improvement that was partly connected to the unfinished business of human possibility and betterment. Of course, Benjamin rejected such a view. His angel of history is caught up in a storm that paralyzed human agency while putting the myth of the inevitability of progress to rest. But storms pass, and hope as a condition for conceptualizing a future of sustainable progress can offer space and time for reflection, for developing modes of individual critique and collective agency capable of addressing and dismantling those sites of agony and wretchedness made visible in the afterglow of historical consciousness. The problems confronting Americans today are very different from what Benjamin faced in the years before his suicide in 1940, but they share with the past a dangerous and threatening element of authoritarianism evident in the force and power of their ability to eliminate from public discussion what Judt has called the social question and what I have referred to as the punishing state.(14)

In an age when personal and political rights are undermined by the lack of economic rights, the utter reliance upon a stripped-down notion of individual freedom and choice coupled with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility turns people away from those larger forces that nonetheless determine (but not over determine) their varied daily experiences. Moreover, the ongoing privatization, commodification, militarization and deregulation that now shape American society produce a range of crises and problems that extend far beyond the reach of the isolated and atomized individual. Within this dystopian neoliberal economic order, “the language of rights has changed: citizens have become ‘customers’; passengers and hospital patients have become ‘clients’; poverty has become criminalized and ‘extreme poverty’ has become a ‘pathological condition’ rather than a reflection of structural injustice – a ‘pathological dysfunction’ of those who are poor, rather than the structural dysfunction of an economic system that generates and reproduces inequality.”(15) How else to explain increasing numbers of people being thrown in jail because they have failed to pay their debts or young people being booked and jailed because they violated a trivial rule such as breaking a school dress code.(16) But there is more at work here than a society without social protections, there is also a cruel and deadly ideology of privatization and punishment in which the importance of the social responsibility, public goods and public values is completely erased from a language derived from ideas based in marketing, commodification and brand loyalty.

As the United States moves, in Bauman’s terms, from a society of producers to a society of consumers, the state increasingly becomes an “executor of market sovereignty” and is further transformed as the much needed protections of the social state are replaced by its policing functions.(17) If Benjamin’s angel of history were to serve, once again, as an insightful witness to the multiple catastrophes facing the United States today, it would be stuck in an equally dangerous storm being produced by casino capitalism. But rather than looking down on such catastrophes, the angel would be blindfolded and its arms would be handcuffed behind its back while its wings remained paralyzed. Caught in the winds of a society in which the global corporation abandoned all to the Darwinian shark tank, the angel of history cannot bear witness to this new culture of cruelty – so ubiquitous is it that one fails to notice – nor can it alert us to the new threats facing democracy itself. On the contrary, it now symbolizes how society functions to make all elements for bearing witness and hope, however problematic, fodder for the age of excess and the new politics of disposability. This is a kind of politics in which the only value that matters is the bottom line, and the most revered political practice is what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” – the ruthless appropriation of the few resources that allow the downtrodden to survive in order to augment capitalist class power.(18) The angel of history has been transformed into a symbol of death, a symbol that could only emerge from a society that no longer has any ethical consciousness and incessantly expands its politics of disposability to those elements of the population who are now regarded as failed consumers, workers and critics.

The survival-of-the-fittest ethic and its mantra of doing just about anything to increase profits now reach into every aspect of society and are widely dispersed as a form of public pedagogy in the dominant and new media. Disposability and social death replace civic life with a culture of greed and cruel spectacles, which have become a register of how difficult it is for American society to make any claims on the ideal or even promise of a democracy to come. As the realm of democratic politics shrinks and is turned over to market forces, social bonds crumble and any representation of communal cohesion is treated with disdain. Under the reign of casino capitalism, freedom is stripped of its social responsibilities and moral considerations are banished from politics. As the realm of the social disappears, public values and any consideration of the common good are erased from politics, while the social state and responsible modes of governing are replaced by a punishing state. Evidence of such a transformation is evident as social problems are increasingly criminalized; a war is waged on the poor rather than on poverty; debtor prisons reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ novels emerge to torment impoverished Americans ;(19) social welfare agencies are increasingly modeled after prisons; young people are more than ever being warehoused in schools that inflict dead time upon their minds and bodies; unprecedented mass racialized incarceration continues unabated; and the punishment apparatus increasingly inserts itself into every sphere of American society while derailing the project of democracy in multiple ways.(20) The rise of the punishing state merges the former functions of the welfare state with crime control, incarcerates over 2.3 million people considered disposable factions of the working class and underprivileged and legitimates punishment and crime control as a mode of governance and cultural practice.(21)

As shared responsibilities give way to individual fears, human suffering and hardship disappear behind the disparaging discourse of individual responsibility in which the poor, unemployed, homeless and hungry bear the ultimate blame for their own misfortune. The neoliberal appeal to self-responsibility and the politics of shame now function as a kind of parlor magic in making disappear any trace of the larger social and systemic forces wreaking havoc on American society. In this discourse of privatization, there are no public or systemic problems, only individual troubles with no trace or connection to larger social forces. Market infatuation with profits and self-interest not only erodes public values and the moral dimensions of the larger social order, but also creates the conditions for a state whose governance is now outsourced to corporate interests. And as the corporate state replaces the democratic state, however minimal its current form, there is nothing to bind ordinary citizens to the notion of democratic governance and a social state. Instead, the state becomes an object of both disdain and fear.

Rage, vengeance, fear, insecurity and state violence increasingly give rise to a culture of cruelty, producing an ugly moral crisis that extends far beyond the walls of the prison, courts and criminal justice system. Within the larger apparatuses of cultural representation, we increasingly are confronted by images, discourses and signs that reveal punishment and cruelty as practices moving through the American landscape and serve as both commentary and entertainment, normalizing the domestic terrorism, massive human suffering and moral irresponsibility that have come to define American society. This should not be surprising in a society in which politics are entirely driven by a Darwinian corporate ideology and a militaristic mind set that atomize the individual, celebrate the survival of the fittest and legitimate “privatization, gross inequalities and an obsession with wealth,” regardless of the collective moral depravity and individual and social impoverishment produced by such inequities.(22)

The collapse of the social state with its state protections, public values and democratic governance can be seen in how the Bush and Obama administrations embraced the logic of the market, and farmed out government responsibilities to private contractors, who undercut the power of the welfare state while waging a war on human dignity, moral compassion, social responsibility and life itself. Everything is up for sale under this form of economic Darwinism, including prisons, schools, military forces and the temporary faculty hired to fill the ranks of a depleted academy. Evidence of such a Darwinian ideology and militaristic mind set is visible in the attack on working people and labor unions, the waging of two unnecessary wars and the destruction of the nation’s safety net; it is also well-illustrated in images so cruel and inhuman that they serve as flashpoints signaling not only a rupture from the ideals of democracy, but also an embrace of anti-democratic tendencies that testify to an emerging authoritarianism in the United States.

One such frightening image appeared recently in the national media when, in rural Tennessee, firefighters “looked on as a house burned because the family who lived in it had not paid the $75 annual fire-protection fee. Their home was destroyed – along with three puppies that were inside.”(23) The owner of the home, Gene Cranick, claimed that he had simply forgot to pay the $75 dollar annual fee for fire protection, and when the firefighting team finally arrived – because it threatened the surrounding homes of people who had paid the fee – he offered to pay the subscription fee. The firemen not only refused to take the fee, but they stood by and joked as the family pleaded for their help and the home burned to the ground.(24) Such acts of cruelty are not limited to a specific moronic group of alleged public servants. This horrendous act of moral negligence was also echoed among many conservative commentators. For example, one of the most prominent conservative television and radio hosts, Glenn Beck, defended the cruel actions of the firefighters claiming it was necessary to prevent people from “‘sponging off’ their neighbors…. while Beck defended the firefighters, an on-air sidekick made fun of Mr. Cranick for trying to get the fire put out – and mocked his southern accent.”(25) Such events seem unimaginable in a country that defines itself as democratic society and pridefully presents to the world its legacy of “shared purpose and common institutions.”(26) Even after the gross display of government irresponsibility surrounding the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and its needless death and destruction – all of which might have served as a wake-up call – the flight from social responsibility and the demands of the ethical imagination continues. This is amply evident in the ongoing refusal on the part of the American public to remember the consequences of turning state power over to corporations and privatized interests. It just may be that the cult of privatization and the worship of corporate power have not only eviscerated public services, but also engulfed a large number of Americans in a kind of moral coma, allowing them and “state-run agencies [to abandon] the care and responsibility of individuals.”(27)

A similar example of the neoliberal culture of cruelty was on full display when the conservative Gov. of Arizona, Jan Brewer, cut funding for certain organ transplants from the state’s Medicaid program. Many patients who had been on a donor list for more than a year were notified by the state that they were no longer on the list and that the only way they could get a life-saving transplant would be to pay for it themselves. Transplants that had been authorized for nearly 100 people were revoked as a cost-cutting measure. As Marc Lacey pointed out in The New York Times, “Many doctors say the decision amounts to a death sentence for some low-income patients, who have little chance of survival without transplants and lack the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to pay for them.”(28) Most of the people on the list are too poor to pay for the procedure and, as such, are now victims of a law that truly made them disposable by imposing a death sentence on them. What is especially disturbing about this case is that the cuts were justified on the grounds that patients who receive certain transplants do not live very long, and yet the statistics used to justify the state legislators’ decision were based on incomplete data.(29) Neoliberalism’s disdain for social protections and its embrace of a politics of disposability become even more obvious when it was reported that “the same state whose representatives filed a lawsuit challenging [Obama’s] new health care law because it requires people to purchase health insurance … decided to cut the health insurance of heart transplant patients.”(30) Advocates of neoliberal austerity measures, given their hatred of Obama’s health plan, were more than willing to mandate a life sentence to the ailing poor rather than give them an option to get health insurance that might have saved their lives. It gets worse. Governor Brewer claimed the state will save $4.5 million by enacting the law, while the same legislature that enacted Brewer’s death law “decided to spend $1.2 million to ‘build bridges for endangered squirrels over a mountain road so they don’t become roadkill.'”(31) As one commentator put it, “Yes, they are willing to spend more than a million dollars to save five squirrels a year, but not to give someone a new heart. Now that’s a heartless death panel.”(32) The promise of a collective identity and common purpose is upended in these examples and far too many others to record here. Undoubtedly, these examples raise the question of what kind of society we have become. The question left unasked by the proponents of a ruthless neoliberal agenda, but demanding an answer from the rest of us, is what kind of future we want our children to inherit.

At a frightening speed, Americans are abandoning public values, public goods and a sense of common purpose that are integral to the social state and were expressed historically in its noble struggle for human rights, social services and public provisions during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. We seem to have given up on social policies that lend protections and exhibit compassion to those crippled by the misfortune of bad health, poverty and the lack of the most basic necessities for survival. It seems unimaginable in the current cutthroat climate to remember or once again hear President Roosevelt’s call for all Americans to support an economic Bill of Rights in his fourth State of the Union address:

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of station, race, or creed.(33) [Emphasis added.]

Benjamin’s angel of history has now been blinded and can no longer see the destruction beneath its feet or the storm clouds paralyzing its wings. It is now stuck in a storm without a past and lacking any consideration of the future. Concern with the social good has been replaced by an obsessive investment with self-interest; combative relations have replaced any shared sense of purpose; and a desire to prevent injustice has been superseded by a desire for instant fame and the sordid glamor of celebrity culture. The new age of precariousness has been downsized in importance as the new Gilded Age and those it privileges take center stage. The task of continually creating a democracy has been replaced by the struggle to continually create new markets that offer the promise of nearly unimaginable financial gain. As Bauman points out, morality has become painless, “stripped of obligations and executive sanctions, ‘adapted to the Ego-priority.'”(34) Under such circumstances, democratic politics, if not politics itself, is held hostage to the rapacious greed of the ultra-rich and mega corporations as inequality in wealth and income spread through the country like a raging wildfire.

As we move into the second Gilded Age with its reproduction of massive inequalities and a life of privilege for the few, we are confronted with a level of suffering that is unprecedented. While the following statistics cannot portray the level of existential pain caused by the inequalities that produce so much unnecessary suffering, they do provide snapshots of those structural forces and institutions that increasingly make life difficult for millions of Americans under a ruthless form of economic Darwinism. Such statistics also bring home the importance of going beyond just criticizing in the abstract the values and rationality that drive neoliberal market fundamentalism. As Slavoj Zizek has rightly pointed out, when it comes to the neoliberal-driven crisis, the social and economic problem that must be addressed forcefully is the growing gap and antagonism between the included and the excluded.(35) And this gap must not only be made visible, but it must be confronted with pedagogical care around the question of whether democracy is still an appropriate name for the United States’ political system given the gulf, if not chasm, between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged.(36)

One measure of how the economic elite is destroying America and waging a war on the poor, working class and middle class can be seen in the fact that, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. Over 44 million people or one in seven Americans live below the poverty line.(37) In recent years, the steepest rise in poverty has taken place among children, with some experts predicting that six million kids will be living in poverty in next decade.(38) In addition, over 50 million people cannot eat without food stamps, and a stunning 50 percent of US children will use food stamps to eat at some point in their childhood. Regarding health insurance, a staggering 50 million have none, a figure that becomes even more disturbing when a runaway unemployment rate of 20 percent is factored into the equation. If we count all the “uncounted workers – ‘involuntary part-time’ and ‘discouraged workers’ – the unemployment rate rises from 9.7 percent to over 20 percent.”(39) On top of this, we have three million people who are homeless, while over five million have lost their homes; by 2014, it has been predicted that this last figure will rise to 13 million. The standard of living for the average American plummeted during the economic crisis – “the median American household net worth was $102,500 in 2007 and went down to $65,400 in 2009.”(40) Meanwhile, against such staggering poverty, loss, human despair and massive inequality in wealth and income, the top 1 percent of the population has massively increased its wealth and power. For instance, Matt Tiabbi claims that the top 1 percent has seen its share of the nation’s overall wealth jump from 34.6 percent before the crisis in 2007 to over 37.1 percent in 2009. The top corporate executives collect a salary that gives them $500 for every $1 earned by the average worker. The wages of the 75 wealthiest Americans “increased from $91.2 million in 2008 to an astonishing $518.8 million in 2009. That’s nearly $10 million in weekly pay!”(41) As Robert Reich points out, “The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us.”(42) In addition, the top 1 percent owns 70 percent of all financial assets, an all-time record. In light of these trends, it is hardly surprising to read that “the 400 richest families have a combined wealth of $1.57 trillion more than the combined wealth of 50% of U.S. population”(43) and that “the top 1% took in 23.5% of nation’s pretax income in 2007 – up from less than 9 percent in 1976.”(44) In spite of the fact that every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar,(45) Wall Street handed out $150 billion to its executives.(46) As David McGraw points out, “100% of these bonuses are a direct result of our tax dollars, so if we used this money to create jobs, instead of giving them to a handful of top executives, we could have paid an annual salary of $30,000 to 5 million people.”(47) And as the “‘bonus culture’ of greed, ambition and excess”(48) continues, middle- and working-class families are ending up in food pantries, homeless shelters or worse. Yet, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, claims that the “bonus culture” produced by the current crop of financial zombies is “doing God’s work.”(49) Without any irony intended, Blankfein publicly asserts this arrogant comment knowing full well that, under the grip of the recession caused by those “doing God’s work,” teachers are experiencing massive layoffs; public servants are taking salary and benefit cuts; schools are hemorrhaging under a lack of resources; and the war in Afghanistan endlessly siphons off financial resources needed by the federal and state governments to address the nation’s housing, employment and economic crises.

Under the reign of the punishing state, those experiencing poverty are seen as the problem and become an easy target for mobilizing middle-class fears about not just the poor, the disabled, immigrants and others who may depend on social services, but also the social services themselves and the policies that make them possible. Even as inequality deepens and the ultra-rich wreak havoc on the globe, the dominant media focus on so-called welfare cheaters, while right-wing politicians go out of their way to associate poverty and dependency with a culture of crime and immorality. The social state is portrayed as a “nanny” and those who partake of its services represented as childish, lazy and lacking any sense of individual responsibility. One example of this discourse can be found in a statement by former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who compared people with pre-existing health conditions to burned out houses. In this instance, Huckabee was criticizing Obama’s health care plan, which requires insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions.(50) We also see the attack on the poor and welfare policies being magnified as part of the right-wing call for austerity. Punitive sanctions against the poor combine with a kind of class and racial cleansing as right-wing politicians block legislation for schools to provide free meals to thousands of hungry children, eliminate public transportation systems, lay off thousands of civil servants, cancel school programs that benefit the poor and ask parents to pay for school supplies.(51) The politics of austerity is not about rethinking priorities to benefit the public good. Instead, it has become part of a discourse of shame, one that has little to do with using indignation to imagine a better world. On the contrary, shame is now used to wage a war on the poor rather than poverty, on young people rather than those economic and political forces that undermine their future and on those considered other rather than on the underlying structures and ideologies of various forms of state and individual racism.

We need to return to Benjamin’s angel of history in order to reimagine what it means to reconstruct a social state that invests in people rather than in the rich, mega corporations, the prison-industrial complex and a permanent war economy. We need to imagine how the state can be refigured along with the very nature of politics and economics in order to eliminate structural inequality, racism and militarism. Once again, Americans must recognize that something is “profoundly wrong with the way we live today”(52) and that the obsession with wealth, war and violence is at odds with those democratic ideals often invoked in the name of freedom, justice and equality.

Just as we need a new language for talking about public values, shared responsibilities and the common good, we also need a language for connecting the war at home with the war abroad. War is rarely about real defense or national honor, as the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. Not only are these two wars draining the public treasury, they are also partly responsible for budget cuts at home that aim at balancing federal and state budgets on the backs of the poor, minority youth, working people and the elderly. Robust war spending is matched by the massive cutting of school budgets at home. The United States spends $1.1 million per year to put a single soldier in Afghanistan, but refuses to bail out public schools, rescue universities that are suffering massive budget cuts or reinvest in its crumbling national infrastructure. We offer paltry aid to support public libraries or to assist students who now absorb massive debts to finance their education, while potentially spending over $1.8 trillion to cover the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other operations associated with the war on terror.(53) Instead of using these funds for crucial domestic programs that could develop jobs, public works programs, health initiatives, housing and education, the punishing state with its permanent war machine spreads death and destruction through the organization and production of violence. The punishing state not only locks up more people than any other country in the world, but also, as Tom Englehardt states, “puts more money into the funding of war, our armed forces and the weaponry of war than the next 25 countries combined. We garrison the planet in a way no empire or nation in history has ever done.”(54) With such a war mentality, economy and values ruling the United States, we see daily the destruction of human lives and the exacerbation of massive inequalities that now permeate every aspect of American life. War has become a poison that legitimates the corporate state, on the one hand and works in tandem with the punishing state on the other. At the same time, it feeds an inequality that rots American society from within as it turns over matters of democratic governance and rule to corporate swindlers, military leaders and right-wing ideologues. Judt gets it right when he argues:

Inequality, then, is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe…. Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within. The impact of material differences takes a while to show up: but in due course competition for status and goods increases; people feel a growing sense of superiority (or inferiority) based on their possessions; prejudice towards those on the lower ranks of the social ladder hardens; crime spikes and the pathologies of social disadvantage become ever more marked. The legacy of unregulated wealth creation is bitter indeed.(55)

If we are to imagine another type of society than the one we have, we will have to once again put the social question on the political agenda in order to understand how “the pathologies of inequality and poverty – crime, alcoholism, violence and mental illness – have all multiplied commensurately,”(56) and how we might take up the challenge of addressing the symptoms of social dysfunction through a concerted effort to embrace communal freedom, social investments, social rights, civic duties and a vocabulary for translating private troubles into public issues. The return of the social question necessitates invoking a public language and a new set of questions regarding “What should be done to alleviate the suffering and injustices to which the urban working masses [are] now exposed and how [is] the ruling elite of the day to be brought to see the need for change?”(57) The social question also demands that we make visible what C. Wright Mills calls the forces of “organized irresponsibility [that] prevail everywhere,”(58) which functions to dissolve crucial social solidarities, undermine compassion, disparage mutual responsibility and disband the bonds of social obligation itself.(59) But if we are to put the social question back on the agenda, we will first have to acknowledge, like Benjamin’s angel of history, the “catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”(60) That catastrophe lies in a brutal and ruthless form of economic Darwinism that shreds the social fabric of the state, eviscerates the importance of the social question and creates the conditions for a society resembling Thomas Hobbes’ war of all against all, a survival-of-the-fittest social order in which the flight from freedom and responsibility becomes the default mechanism for upholding a machinery of exploitation, cruelty, inequality and militarism.

Not only has the American public lost its ability, perhaps even its will, to talk about public values such as sharing, caring and preserving, but it can no longer distinguish between a market-driven society and a democratic society. As Sheldon Wolin has insisted, the supportive culture for a viable democracy – “a complex of beliefs, values and practices that nurture equality, cooperation and freedom”(61) – is incompatible with the market-driven values of neoliberalism and their emphasis on a crude consumerism, over-the-top materialism, brutal competition, a culture of lying, a possessive individualistic ethic and an aggressive battle to privatize, deregulate and commodify everything.

The promise of democracy and economic justice and social rights necessitates a new language of public purpose, rationality and formative culture embedded in democratic public values, collective struggles and a social movement willing to fight for a new kind of politics, democracy and future. We don’t need privatized utopias, but models of a democratic society and social state in which public values and democratic interests are expressed in a range of economic, political and cultural institutions. We need a new army of critical and passionate winged messengers alert to the need for progressive social solidarities, social agency, collective action and a refusal to stare hopelessly at the rotting corpses, gated communities and the walking dead that turn the promise of democracy into an advertisement for global destruction.

I would like to thank Zygmunt Bauman, Grace Pollock and Susan Giroux for their thoughtful comments on this article. Of course, I am ultimately responsible for the narrative that unfolds.