Shredding the Social Contract:

War, fear, and a virulent contempt for social needs have now become the dominant motifs shaping the domestic and foreign policies of the United States. This is evident in the militarization of public life that is emerging under the combined power and influence of neoliberal zealots, religious fanatics, and far right-wing conservatives who currently control the Bush administration. It is seen also in the destruction of a liberal democratic political order and a growing culture of surveillance, inequality, and cynicism. We are living in dangerous times in which a new type of post-democratic society is emerging, one that builds on ancient historical tendencies but is unlike anything we have seen in the past – a society in which concentrated economic and political power reinforce each other through a media consolidated in the hands of a few multinational corporations. This is a society increasingly marked by a poverty of critical public discourse, making it more difficult for the American people to appropriate a critical language outside of the market that would allow them to link private problems to public concerns and issues. This social order seems dangerously incapable of questioning itself, even as it wages a merciless, top-down war against the poor, youth, women, people of color, and the elderly.


As the United States government is restructured as a result of successive historical waves of well-funded and highly organized right-wing attacks, it has dramatically shifted its allegiance away from providing for people’s welfare, protecting the environment, and expanding the realm of public good. The great historical social contract that lies at the heart of a substantive democracy is being nullified. That contract provides for social provisions against life’s hazards, ensures a decent education, health care, food, and housing for all, especially those who are marginalized by virtue of sickness, age, race, gender, class, and youth.


As the social contract is shredded by Bush s army of neoliberal evangelicals, neoconservative hard liners, and religious fundamentalists, government relies more heavily on its policing and military functions, giving free reign to the principle of security at the expense of public service and endorsing property rights over human rights. A spreading culture of fear in an age of automated surveillance and repressive legislation is creating a security state that gives people the false choice between being safe or free.


This has become so commonplace that a recent story about surveillance cameras being placed in classrooms barely raised any protest in the media. Under the all-embracing threat of domestic terror, constitutional freedoms and civil liberties are compromised beyond recognition. The FBI is given the power to seize the records of library users and bookstore customers. The CIA and Pentagon are allowed to engage in domestic intelligence work. The Patriot Act allows people to be detained indefinitely in secret without access to either lawyers or family. Even children are being held without legal representation as enemy combatants in possibly inhumane conditions at the military s infamous Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. One wonders how the Bush administration reconciles its construction of a U.S. Gulag for children with its fervent support of “family values” and the ideology of “compassionate conservativism.” Under such circumstances, as Arundhati Roy argues, the fundamental governing principles of democracy are not just being subverted but deliberately sabotaged. This kind of democracy is the problem, not the solution.


It is not true that the American public sector lacks the resources and wherewithal to carry out key objectives. The American state remains powerful and well-funded when it comes to serving the needs of wealth, racial disparity, corporate globalization, and empire. It is inadequate and cash-poor only when it comes to addressing the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. Under the pressure of a relentless campaign of top-down class, racial and ideological warfare, the public sector is being further stripped only of its positive social and democratic functions, increasingly reduced to its policing and repressive functions, which are expanding in ways that are more than merely coincidental to the collapse of social supports and programs. This long-term radical agenda of the American right, falsely labeled “conservative,” has been advanced for decades with no small measure of success under both Republican and Democratic administrations (most dramatically under Reagan) but it has been richly enabled by the terrible jetliner attacks of September 2001. To use the terminology of the late and great French intellectual Pierre Bordieu, the left (social, egalitarian, peaceful, and democratic) hand of the state is wilting but the right (repressive, militaristic, authoritarian and regressive) hand is growing stronger by the day. This is a pre-existing trend furthered by 9/11 or, more accurately, by the success of the right and its well-heeled sponsors in seizing upon the fear 9/11 engendered in the manipulative hands of dominant elites, who clearly and immediately understood the jetliner attacks to be an historic opportunity to advance their regressive and authoritarian agenda.


The shadow of a brute authoritarianism becomes increasingly more ominous as society is organized relentlessly around a culture of fear, cynicism, and unbridled self interest – a society in which the government promotes legislation urging neighbors to spy on each other and the President of the United States endorses a notion of patriotism based on moral absolutes and an alleged divine mandate to govern. We are told by President Bush, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney and others that patriotism is now legitimated through the physics of unaccountable power and unquestioned authority, defined crudely in the dictum, “either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Such absolutes have little respect for difference, dissent, or democracy itself. Politics on these terms is no longer about popular governance but is rather about aristocratic governance through fear and brute force. The related vicious contempt of this government towards the non-affluent can be seen in the decision by Bush and the Republicans in Congress to eliminate from the recent tax bill the $400 child credit for families with incomes between $10,000 and $26,000. The money saved by this cut will be used to pay for the regressive and unproductive cut on dividend taxes. As a result, as Bill Moyers observes, eleven million children are punished for being poor, even as the rich are rewarded for being rich.


Against this regressive and authoritarian onslaught, progressives need to see the current dominant language of war as an attack on democracy both at home and abroad. And to understand how the social contract is being shredded, it is instructive to examine how that language perverts domestic discourse. As used by the leading architects of American policy and opinion, the concept of war has been at once expanded and inverted. It no longer simply refers to a war waged against a sovereign foreign state, nor is it merely a moral referent for engaging in acts of national self defense. “Wars” are now waged against crime, drugs, terrorism, and a host of alleged public disorders. At the same time, the concept of war has been largely removed from any concept of social justice, of the sort that shaped past wars on poverty, industrial tyranny, and the like. The war on poverty is now a war against the poor, the war on drugs is now a war waged largely against youth of color, and the war against terrorism is now largely a war against immigrants, domestic freedoms, and dissent itself. In the Bush, Perle, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft view of terrorism, war is individualized as every citizen becomes a potential terrorist who has to prove that he or she is not a menace to society. Under the rubric of the new permanent war against the never-ending specter of terrorist apocalypse, which feeds off government-induced media panics, war provides the moral imperative to collapse the boundaries between innocent and guilty, between suspect and non-suspect, between peaceful political dissent and pathological, extremist alienation. War provides the primary rhetorical tool for articulating a notion of the social as a community organized around shared fears rather than shared responsibilities and civic courage. War is even transformed into a slick Hollywood spectacle designed to glamorize a notion of hyper-masculinity fashioned in the “conservative” oil fields of Texas. War fills public space with celebrations of ritualized militaristic posturing touting the virtues of joining an “Army of One” (the Leo Burnett’s agency’s campaign to recruit working-class and minority youth into the military) or indulging in commodified patriotism by purchasing an ecocidal new Hummer. Within the rich authoritarian confluence of politics, propaganda, and advertising, public space is militarized and everyday life becomes an advertisement for a hyper-aggressive image of masculinity. The alienating power of commodity fetishism is merged with the repressive militarism of the neo-imperial garrison state as major fashion designers dress their sleek young models in rugged commando gear and combat fatigues. Sony takes opportunistic aim at the youth market by patenting the Strangelovian term “Shock and Awe” – made famous by the US “Defense” Department to describe the initial Hiroshima-inspired bombing strategy to be used against Baghdad – for a computer game.


War as spectacle combines with the culture of fear to divert public attention away from real domestic crises like poverty, to define patriotism as consensus, and to further the growth of a police state. The latter takes on chilling overtones with the passage of the neo-McCarthyite Patriot Act, currently being sold in a multi-city advertising campaign as a tool of divine Providence by our crypto-fascist Attorney General John Aschroft. It is evident also in the elimination of laws that traditionally separated the military from domestic law enforcement.


The political implications of the at once expanded and inverted use of war as a metaphor can be seen in the war against big government, which is really a war against the welfare state and the social contract. This is a war against the basic civilized notion that everyone deserves access to decent education, health care, employment and other public services. The basic world view driving this war at home is summarized quite well in a recent comment by Debbie Riddle, a Texas Republican state representative, who can’t shake the lingering specter of the war against Communism more than a decade after the end of the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Where,” asks Riddle, “did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education? Free medical care? Free whatever? It comes from Moscow. From Russia. It comes from the pit of hell.” Also relevant is the recent remark of Grover Norquist a leading right-wing political strategist in Washington D.C. “My goal,” says Norquist, “is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”


Of course, Norquist and his ilk target some parts of government for downsizing a little more energetically than others. They are most concerned to dismantle the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority of the American populace. The parts that provide “free” service and welfare to the privileged and opulent minority and dole out punishment to the poor are reserved from that great domestic war tool, the budgetary axe.


The in-power right’s notion of a noble public work is to build yet another prison – there are plenty of these in America, the world’s leading incarceration state, legacy of a two-decade domestic drug war- to attack and occupy a harmless but oil-rich nation halfway across the world, to build another expensive, military base in yet another distant corner of the planet. Its core mission is to concentrate wealth and power yet further upward, not to alleviate poverty and related forms of misery among the broad populace. It is waging a war against the fundamental principles of democracy, one that raises important questions about whether American society is on the road to a new form of authoritarianism in which the only contract that matters is between the state and corporate power.






Henry A. Giroux is the Waterbury Chair Professor of Education and Culture Studies atPenn State University. His latest book is The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear (New York, NY: Palgrave, 2003). Paul Street is Research Director and Vice President for Research and Planning at the Chicago Urban League. His book Empire Abroad, Inequality at Home: Essays on America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm Publishers) will appear next year.

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