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Disposability in the Age of Disasters: From Dreamers and Puerto Rico to Violence in Las Vegas

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Under the reign of Donald Trump, politics has become an extension of war and death; has become a permanent attribute of everyday life. Witness the US's plunge into a dystopian world that bears the menacing markings of what presents itself as an endless series of isolated catastrophes. All of these are inevitably treated as unrelated incidents; victims subject to the toxic blows of fate.

Mass misery and mass violence that result from the refusal of a government to address such pervasive and permanent crises are now reinforced by the popular neoliberal assumption that people are completely on their own, solely responsible for the ill fortune they experience. This ideological assumption is reinforced by undermining any critical attention to the conditions produced by stepped-up systemic state violence, or the harsh consequences of a capricious and cruel head of state.

"Progress" and dystopia have become synonymous, just as state-endorsed social provisions and government responsibility are exiled by the neoliberal authorization of freedom as the unbridled promotion of self-interest: a narrow celebration of limitless "choice," and an emphasis on individual responsibility that ignores broader systemic structures and socially produced problems. Existential security no longer rests on collective foundations, but on privatized solutions and facile appeals to moral character.

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Under Trump, a politics of disposability has merged with an ascendant authoritarianism in the United States in which the government's response to such disparate issues as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) crisis, the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and the mass shooting in Las Vegas are met uniformly with state-sanctioned and state-promoted violence.

In an age when market values render democratic values moot, a war culture drives disposability politics. Indeed, the politics of disposability has a long legacy in the United States, and extends from the genocide of Native Americans and slavery, to the increasing criminalization of everyday behaviors and the creation of a mass incarceration state.

In the 1970s, the politics of disposability, guided by the growing financialization of a neoliberal economy, manifested itself primarily in the form of legislation that undermined the welfare state, social provisions and public goods, while expanding the carceral state. This was part of the soft war waged against democracy -- mostly hidden and wrapped in the discourse of austerity, "law and order" and market-based freedoms.

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At the beginning of the 21st century, we have seen the emergence of a new kind of politics of death, the effects of which extend from the racist response to Hurricane Katrina to the lead poisoning of thousands of children in Flint, Michigan, and dozens of other cities. This is a politics in which entire populations are considered disposable, an unnecessary burden on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves. This is a politics that now merges with aggressive and violent efforts to silence dissent, analysis and the very conditions of critical thought. People who are Black, Brown, poor, disabled or otherwise marginalized are now excluded from the rights and guarantees accorded to fully fledged citizens of the republic, removed from the syntax of suffering, and left to fend for themselves in the face of natural or human-made disasters. And their efforts to mobilize have been met with murderous police crackdowns and deportations.

With the election of Trump, the politics of disposability and the war against democracy have taken on a much harder and crueler edge, with the president urging the police to "take the gloves off" and the attorney general calling for a regressive "law and order" campaign steeped in racism.

Under 21st century neoliberal capitalism, and especially under the Trump regime, there has been an acceleration of the mechanisms by which vulnerable populations are rendered unknowable, undesirable, unthinkable, considered an excess cost and stripped of their humanity. Relegated to zones of social abandonment and political exclusion, targeted populations become incomprehensible, civil rights disappear, hardship and suffering are normalized, and human lives are targeted and negated by diverse machineries of violence as dangerous, pathological and redundant.

For those populations rendered disposable, ethical questions go unasked as the mechanisms of dispossession, forced homelessness and forms of social death feed corrupt political systems and forms of corporate power removed from any sense of civic and social responsibility. In many ways, the Trump administration is the new face of a politics of disposability that thrives on the energies of the vulnerable and powerless. Under such conditions, power is defined by the degree to which it is abstracted from any sense of responsibility or critical analysis.

This type of disposability is especially visible under Trump, not only because of his discourse of humiliation, bigotry and objectification, but also in his policies, which are blatantly designed to punish those populations who are the most vulnerable. These include the victims in Puerto Rico of Hurricane Maria, immigrant children no longer protected by DACA, and a push to expand the armed forces and the para-militarization of local police forces throughout the country as part of a race-based "law and order" policy.

Trump is the endpoint of a new dystopian model of disposability, and has become a window on the growing embrace of violence and white supremacy at the highest levels of power, as both a practice and ideological legitimation for increasing a culture of fear. Fear, in this context, is framed mostly within a discourse of threats to personal safety, serving to increase the criminalization of a wide range of everyday behaviors while buttressing the current administration's racist call for "law and order." This culture of fear threatens to make more and more individuals and groups inconsequential and expendable.

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Under such circumstances, the US's dystopian impulses not only produce harsh and dire political changes, but also a failure to address a continuous series of economic, ecological and social crises. At the same time, the machinery of disposability and death rolls on, conferring upon entire populations the status of the living dead. The death-dealing logic of disposability has been updated and now parades in the name of freedom, choice, efficiency, security, progress and, ironically, democracy. Disposability has become so normalized that it is difficult to recognize it as a distinctive if not overriding organizing principle of the new American authoritarianism.

While the politics of disposability has a long legacy in the United States, Trump has given it a new and powerful impetus. This era differs from the recent past both in terms of its unapologetic embrace of the ideology of white supremacy and its willingness to expand state-sanctioned violence and death as part of a wider project of the US's descent into authoritarianism.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)
 

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