Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism

I can understand pessimism, but I don’t believe in it. It’s not simply a matter of faith, but of historical evidence. Not overwhelming evidence, just enough to give hope, because for hope we don’t need certainty, only possibility.

Howard Zinn


In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers. As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, “The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.”[i] The relentless activity of thoughtlessness – worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism – undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden.

Civic engagement appears increasingly weakened, if not impotent, as a malignant form of casino capitalism exercises ruthless power over the commanding institutions of society and everyday existence, breathing new life into old clichés. Under casino capitalism, fantasy trumps logic, if not rationality. A sucker is still born every minute, and the house still wins. Looming dreams of riches and fame invariably descend into disappointment, defeat or addiction. Uncertainty and precariousness breed fear and insecurity instead of much-needed social reforms and a belief in a more just future. Austerity policies function as a form of trickle-down cruelty in which the poor are punished and the rich rewarded.[ii] Totalitarianism, once visible in its manifest evil, now hides in the shadow of a market logic that insists that each individual deserves his or her fate, regardless of the larger structural forces that shape it.

A savage market fundamentalism relentlessly denigrates public values, criminalizes social problems, and produces a manufactured fatalism and culture of fear while waging a fundamental assault upon the very conditions that make politics possible. Politics is now sapped of its democratic vitality just as traces of authoritarianism have seeped deeply into the economic and cultural structures of American life. As American society incorporates authoritarian elements of the past into its dominating ideology, modes of governance and policies, justice withers, and it becomes increasingly difficult for the American people to translate matters of civic literacy, social responsibility and the public good “back into the language of society.”[iii]

Americans are increasingly inspired to think uncritically, disregard critical historical narratives, and surrender to pedagogies of repression. Under the Bush-Obama administrations, American education has been cleansed of any effort to produce students who have the power to think critically and imaginatively and is now preoccupied with producing young people unaware and unwilling to fight for the right to decent employment, access to a good life, decent health care, social justice and a future that does not mimic a corrosive and morally bankrupt present. The organized culture of forgetting, with its immense disimagination machines, has ushered in a permanent revolution marked by a massive project of distributing wealth upward, the militarization of the entire social order and an ongoing depoliticization of agency and politics itself. We no longer live in a democracy, which, as Bill Moyers points out provides the formative culture and economic conditions that enable people “to fully claim their moral and political agency.”[iv] This disembodied form of politics is not merely about the erasure of the language of public interests, informed argument, critical thinking and the collapse of public values, but a full-fledged attack on the institutions of civic society, the social contract and democracy itself. Under such circumstances, the United States has succumbed to forms of symbolic and institutional violence that point to a deep-seated hatred of democracy.

Under such circumstances, common sense displaces critical thinking, individual and social agency are emptied of political substance, and a collectively engaged democratic politics appears irrelevant in the face of an unquestioned “moral” authority that parades as destiny.[v] The language of stupidity replaces reason as scientific evidence is disparaged or suppressed, thoughtful exchange gives way to emotional tirades, violence becomes the primary means for solving problems, and anger is substituted for informed arguments. Unsurprisingly, any viable sense of social responsibility disappears beyond the fortressed enclaves of ever-more-sequestered lives while various ideological fundamentalists assert their judgments of the world with a certainty that brands dissent, moral inquiry and critical questioning as excessive and threatening. Instead of affirming the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Audre Lord and other public intellectuals, Americans are inundated with the likes of Bill Gates, George Will, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin and other anti-public commentators and pundits. Intellectuals who have sacrificed their jobs, bodies and lives in order to alleviate the suffering of others have been replaced by the new “celebrity heroes” drawn from a corrupt corporate and political culture that lives off the suffering of others.

In the place of politically vibrant and intellectually energized public spheres, Americans suffer under the self-serving interests and demands, if not downright colonization, of immensely powerful corporations and the entertainment industry, which offer up the confessional spectacles of Dr. Phil, the televised shame culture of a host of TV programs, the increasing violence entrenched in celluloid Hollywood spectacles and the corporate values embedded in survival-of-the-fittest “reality” television shows. As society is increasingly organized around shared fears, escalating insecurities, manufactured uncertainties and an intensified post-9/11 politics of terror, the institutions of government appear to be immune to any checks on their power to render democratic politics both bankrupt and inoperable.

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

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

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

Growing inequality in wealth and income have destroyed any vestige of democracy in America.[xiv] Twenty individuals in the United States, including the infamous Koch brothers, have a total net worth of more than half a trillion dollars, about $26 billion each, while “4 out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.”[xv] More than 40 percent of recent college graduates are living with their parents while mega corporations and wealthy farmers get huge government subsidies. We blame the poor, homeless, unemployed and recent graduates suffocating under financial debt for their plight as if individual responsibility explains the ballooning gap in wealth, income and power and the growing state violence that supports it. Poor people end up in debtor jail for not paying parking tickets or their bills while the corrupt heads of banks, hedge funds and other financial services who engage in all manner of corruption and crime, swindling billions from the public coffers, are rarely prosecuted to the full extent of the law.[xvi]

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

 Authoritarianism has a long shadow and refuses simply to disappear into the pages of a fixed and often forgotten history. We are currently observing how its long and dynamic reach extends from the dictatorships of Latin America in the 1970s to the current historical moment in the United States. We witness its darkness in the market ideologies, modes of disappearance, state-sanctioned torture, kill lists, drone murders of innocent civilians, attacks on civil liberties, prosecutions of whistleblowers and the rise of a mass incarceration state that now connects us to the horrors that took place in the dictatorships in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. I was reminded of this recently when I received a passionate and insightful letter from Dr. Adriana Pesci, who offers this warning to Americans by drawing on the horrors of the killing machine that fueled the military dictatorship in Argentina. She writes:

I have also noticed the ongoing creation, by people such as you, of a new language designed to counteract the offensive of the neoliberal system. Latin America started going through this process some 15 years ago, and is still at it, at much human cost and after a horrendous history of repression and torture that dates from some 35 or 40 years back. The centurions of the system are very unimaginative and their responses are very predictable once you studied them for a while. This is how it was possible for many left leaning Latin Americans to know by early 2003, and before the debacle of Abu Graib was made public, that the American forces’ use of systematic torture in Iraq was sanctioned from the top down, and that there were no excesses or errors (“excess,””errors” were those same words used by the dictatorships throughout Latin America).

In the past few years, and because I follow the news regularly, I have noticed a slow but steady evolution of the United States towards what I can only call a variation on a theme. It reminds me of my past as a very young person in Argentina, the same methods, the same words, the same excuses. I wish I could warn those at risk. I wish to pass along what I know, because I have a sense of foreboding. I would like to believe that our experiences can be used by others to make their suffering less, and I would like to believe, that the language that was created to describe, denounce and punish what was done to us in the name of neoliberalism and development is the patrimony of humankind and it is there to be used to defend ourselves from the attacks of a dehumanizing system that would like to chew us, ground us to a pulp and spit us all.[xxi]

Historical consciousness matters because it illuminates, if not holds up to critical scrutiny, those forms of tyranny and modes of authoritarianism that now parade as common sense, popular wisdom or just plain certainty. In this case, the American public will not repeat history as farce (as Marx once suggested) but as a momentous act of systemic violence, suffering and domestic warfare. If the act of critical translation is crucial to a democratic politics, it faces a crisis of untold proportions in the United States. In part, this is because we are witnessing the deadening reduction of the citizen to a consumer of services and goods that empties politics of substance by stripping citizens of their political skills, offering up only individual solutions to social problems and dissolving all obligations and sense of responsibility for the other in an ethos of unchecked individualism and a narrowly privatized linguistic universe. The logic of the commodity penetrates all aspects of life while the most important questions driving society no longer seem concerned about matters of equity, social justice and the fate of the common good. The most important choice now facing most people is no longer about living a life with dignity and freedom but facing the grim choice between survival and dying.

As the government deregulates and outsources key aspects of governance, turning over the provisions of collective insurance, security and care to private institutions and market-based forces, it undermines the social contract, while “the present retreat of the state from the endorsement of social rights signals the falling apart of a community in its modern, ‘imagined’ yet institutionally safeguarded incarnation.”[xxii]Moreover, as social institutions give way to machines of all-embracing surveillance and containment, social provisions disappear, the exclusionary logic of ethnic, racial and religious divisions render more individuals and groups disposable, excluded from public life – languishing in prisons, dead-end jobs or the deepening pockets of poverty – and effectively prevented from engaging in politics in any meaningful capacity. The specters of human suffering, misfortune and misery caused by social problems are now replaced with the morally bankrupt neoliberal discourses of personal safety and individual responsibility. At the same time, those who are considered “problems,” excess or disposable disappear into prisons and the bowels of the correctional system. The larger implications that gesture toward a new authoritarianism are clear. Angela Davis captures this in her comment that “according to this logic the prison becomes a way of disappearing people in the false hope of disappearing the underlying social problems they represent.”[xxiii] The invisibility of power feeds ignorance, if not complicity itself. Under such circumstances, politics seems to take place elsewhere – in globalized regimes of power that are indifferent to traditional political geographies, such as the nation state, and hostile to any notion of collective responsibility to address human suffering and social problems.

We live at a time in which the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of ideas, education and agency. What must be remembered is that any viable politics or political culture can emerge only out of a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality, and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy.

Young people, artists, intellectuals, educators and workers in the United States and globally are increasingly addressing what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values and commitments, the erosion of its public spheres and the widely promoted modes of citizenship that have more to do with forgetting than with critical learning. Collectively, they provide varied suggestions for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. In opposition to the attacks on democratic institutions, values and modes of governance, activists all over the globe are offering an incisive language of analysis, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.

Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market values trump ethical considerations enabling the economically privileged and financial elite to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. Those without the luxury of such choices pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must

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