Reprinted from www.truth-out.org with author permission
George Orwell's nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. As American society has moved from a welfare to a warfare state, the institutions that were once meant to further justice and limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished. (1) With the withering, if not evisceration, of the social contract, the discourse of social responsibility has been removed from the principles of democratic reform. Disdained by right-wing extremists, democratic principles are withering under a social order marked by a growing lawlessness, a hardening of the culture and the emergence of an unprecedented survival-of-the fittest ethos. This is a mean-spirited ethos that rails against any notion of solidarity and compassion that embraces a respect for others. The consequences of this emerging form of domestic terrorism point to a distinctive mode of authoritarianism emerging in the United States in the 21st century. The crucial issue here is not to highlight simply the replication of anti-democratic ideologies, policies and practices from the past, but to raise serious questions about what this heralds for the future. (2)
After a decade and a half of war abroad, the war has come home, mobilized through a culture of fear, surveillance and violence. As David Packer has observed, violence has become inseparable from justice and lawlessness, and now defines the commanding political, military and economic institutions of the United States. (3) The very idea of violence has metamorphosed into a solution for addressing social problems. For instance, as everyday behavior is criminalized, school children are assaulted by the security personnel, Black youth are killed by the police for making eye contact, and under the pretext of a war on terror, the distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred. Public spheres once considered safe spaces have been transformed into war zones, turning poor urban schools into prisons, cities into training grounds for paramilitarized police forces, and airports into sites of intensive surveillance and security. Hannah Arendt's notion that the protean origins of totalitarianism have survived "the passing of Hitler and Stalin" and are capable of crystallizing into new forms appears difficult to contest as the United States tips closer to a police state. John Whitehead captures this perfectly. He writes:
You might walk past a police officer outfitted in tactical gear, holding an assault rifle, or drive past a police cruiser scanning license plates. There might be a surveillance camera on the street corner tracking your movements. At the airport, you may be put through your paces by government agents who will want to either pat you down or run scans of your body. And each time you make a call or send a text message, your communications will most likely be logged and filed. When you return home, you might find that government agents have been questioning your neighbors about you, as part of a "census" questionnaire. After you retire to sleep, you might find yourself awakened by a SWAT team crashing through your door (you'll later discover they were at the wrong address), and if you make the mistake of reaching for your eyeglasses, you might find yourself shot by a cop who felt threatened. (4)
The basic elements of this new neoliberal authoritarianism can also be seen in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, unions, higher education, workers, students, poor minority youth and any vestige of the social contract. Free-market policies, values and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in both countries. Markets now use their economic and ideological resources to weaponize and militarize all aspects of everyday life. This militarized status quo is increasingly held in place by a culture of fear, a pedagogy of repression, a banal celebrity culture, game show aesthetics and a politics of precarity, control and mass surveillance. A world of shadows, secrecy, and lawlessness now characterizes a deep state that is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power and indifferent to its plundering of both humanity and the planet.
Terror is nearly all-encompassing and disguises itself in the normalization of greed, the exaltation of the spectacle of violence, and a corporate controlled consumer-soma machine that inoculates the public with an addiction to instant gratification. We don't see the work camps or death camps that characterized the catastrophes of mid-century totalitarian regimes. But you don't have to be in jail to feel imprisoned, especially when it is increasingly difficult to take to take control of one's life and means in a meaningful way.
We live at a time when politics is nation-based and power is global. (5) Global markets now trump the national rendering of the political culture and institutions of modernity obsolete. The financial elite now float beyond national borders and no longer care about the welfare state, the common good, or for that matter any institution not subordinated to the dictates of finance capitalism. Hence, the ruling elites make no concessions in their pursuits of power and profits. The social contract of the past, especially in the United States, is now on life support as social provisions are cut, pensions are decimated and the certainty of a once secure job disappears. Many neoliberal societies are now governed by politicians and financial elites who no longer believe in social investments and are more than willing to condemn young people and others - often paralyzed by the precariousness and instability that haunts their lives and future - to a savage form of casino capitalism.
Deregulation, privatization, commodification and the unimpeded flow of capital now drive politics and concentrate power in the hands of the 1%. Class warfare has merged with neoconservative polices to engage in permanent warfare both abroad and at home. There are no safe spaces free from the rich hoarders of capital and the tentacles of the surveillance and punishing state. The basic imperatives of casino capitalism - extending from eliminating corporate taxes and shifting wealth from the public to the private sector to dismantling corporate regulations and insisting that markets should govern all of social life - have become the new common sense. Any viable notion of the social solidarity and shared democratic values are now viewed as a pathology, replaced by a survival of the fittest ethic, the celebration of self-interest and a notion of the good life entirely tied to a vapid consumerist ethic. (6)
With the return of the new Gilded Age, not only are democratic institutions, values and social protections at risk in many countries, but the civic, pedagogical and formative cultures that make them central to democratic life are in danger of disappearing altogether. Poverty, joblessness, low-wage work and the threat of state-sanctioned violence produce among many populations the ongoing fear of a life of perpetual misery and an ongoing struggle simply to survive. Insecurity, coupled with a climate of fear and surveillance, dampens dissent and promotes an ethical tranquilization fed daily by the mobilization of moral panics, whether they reference the violence of lone domestic terrorists, immigrants swarming across borders or gay people seeking marriage certificates.
Neoliberalism's War Against Critical Thought
Underlying the rise of the authoritarian state and the forces that hide in the shadows is a politics indebted to promoting historical and social amnesia. The new authoritarianism is strongly indebted to what Orwell once called a "protective stupidity" that negates political life and divests language of its critical content. (7) Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a malicious public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war, surveillance and exploitation. That is, the heavy hand of Orwellian control is evident in those dominant cultural apparatuses that extend from schools to print, audio and screen cultures, which now serve as disimagination machines attacking any critical notion of politics that makes a claim to be educative in its attempts to enable the conditions for changing "the ways in which people might think critically." (8)
Higher education represents one area where neoliberalism wages war on any field of study that might encourage students to think critically. One egregious example was on full display in North Carolina, where Republican Party members - who control the Board of Governors - decimated higher education in that state by voting to cut 46 degree programs. One member defended such cuts with the comment, "We're capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand." (9) This is more than an example of crude economic instrumentalism, it is also a recipe for instituting an academic culture of thoughtlessness and a kind of stupidity receptive to what Hannah Arendt once called totalitarianism. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has worked hard to eliminate tenure at Wisconsin's public universities as well as eviscerate any vestige of shared governance. (10) He also cut $200 million from the state higher education budget, which is not surprising given his hatred of public education.
Both of these examples point to a new breed of politician waging war on higher education, critical pedagogy, the public good and any viable notion of the social state. Like many of their politically extremist colleagues, they reflect a crudely harsh authoritarian era that exhibits zero tolerance for economic, social and racial justice, and "infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions." (11) Under such conditions, material violence is now matched by symbolic violence, as made evident by the proliferation of images, institutions and narratives that legitimize not only the manufactured ignorance of market-driven culture and its corollary worship of wealth, celebrity and a political and consumer culture that craves instant gratification, but also what might be called an expanding politics of disposability.
Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse of the welfare state, a pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth and a take-no-prisoners market-driven ideology, an increasing number of individuals and groups - especially young people, low-income groups and people of color - are being demonized, criminalized or simply abandoned, either by virtue of their inability to participate in rituals of consumption due to low-paying jobs, poor health or pressing family needs. What Joao Biehl has called "zones of social abandonment" now accelerate the disposability of the unwanted. (12) The injuries of class are now compounded by injuries directed at immigrants, gays, poor minorities, and women. Daily debasements create a perpetual climate of fear, insecurity and a range of illnesses extending from heart attacks, suicide and mental illness to imprisonment. For example, low-income youth and youth of color, especially, are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous work places, incarcerated in prisons that privilege punishment over rehabilitation, or consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Human misery and systemic violence are now built into the nervous system of the United States. No one is compelled to stare; there is no shock of recognition; no inclination to act against a perceived injustice. There is just the fog of resignation, complacency and normalcy waiting to be ruptured by the rage that comes with people being humiliated, exploited, assaulted, bound and gagged for too long.