Reality now resembles a dystopian world that could only be imagined as a harrowing work of fiction or biting political commentary. The works of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and Sinclair Lewis now appear as an understatement in a world marked by horrifying political horizons a world in which authoritarian and medical pandemics merge. In this age of uncertainty, time and space have collapsed into a void of relentless apprehension and the possibility of an authoritarian abyss. The terrors of everyday life point to a world that has descended into darkness.
The COVID-19 crisis has amplified a surrealist hallucination that floods our screens and media with images of fear, trepidation, and dread. We can no longer shake hands, embrace our friends, use public transportation, sit inside a restaurant, go to a movie theater or walk down the street without experiencing real anxiety and stress. Doorknobs, packages, counters, the breath we exhale and anything else that offers the virus a resting place is comparable to a ticking bomb ready to explode resulting in massive suffering and untold deaths. Amid this collective terror, the architecture of fascist politics has resurfaced with a vengeance in the form of a waking nightmare with a cast of horrors. Surveillance technologies proliferate, armed militia defend groups refusing to wear protective masks, conspiracy theories originate or are legitimated by President Trump, right-wing federal judges are confirmed by a right-wing Senate at breakneck speed in order to destroy civil liberties. Republican politicians and reactionary media pundits use vitriolic language against almost anyone who criticizes Trump's destructive and death-dealing policies, including Democratic governors and liberal and progressive members of the press and media.
The current coronavirus pandemic is more than a medical crisis; it is also a political and ideological crisis. It is a crisis deeply rooted in years of neglect by neoliberal governments that denied the importance of public health and the public good while defunding institutions that made them possible. At the same time, this crisis cannot be separated from the crisis of massive inequalities in wealth, income and power that grew relentlessly since the 1970s. Nor can it be separated from a crisis of democratic values, critical education and civic literacy. With respect to the latter, the COVID-19 pandemic is deeply interconnected with the politicization of the social order through the destructive assaults waged by neoliberal capital on the welfare state and the ecosystem.
The pandemic has revealed the ugly and cruel face of neoliberalism, which has waged war on the social contract, public sphere and the welfare state since the 1970s. Neoliberalism is a worldview that takes as its central organizing idea that the market should govern not only the economy but all aspects of society. This is a worldview that vilifies the public sphere, rejects the social contract and public values; at the same time, it promotes untrammeled self-interest and privatization as central governing principles. In this logic, "individual interests are the only reality that matters and those interests are purely monetary."
Neoliberalism views government as the enemy of the market, limits society to the realm of the family and individuals, embraces a fixed hedonism and challenges the very idea of the common good. In addition, neoliberalism cannot be disconnected from the spectacle of fear-mongering, ultra-nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and bigotry that has dominated the national zeitgeist as a means of promoting shared anxieties rather than shared responsibilities. Neoliberal capitalism has created, through its destruction of the economy, environment, education and public health, a petri dish for the virus to wreak havoc and wide-scale destruction.
What is clear is that the COVID-19 plague must also be understood as part of a comprehensive political and educational narrative in which neoliberalism plays a central role. In this case, we cannot separate the struggle for public health from the struggles for emancipation, social equality, economic justice and democracy itself. The horror of the pandemic often blinds us to the fact that a range of anti-democratic economic and political forces have been grinding away at the social order for the last 40 years. As engaged citizens, it is crucial to examine the anti-democratic and iniquitous political, economic and social forces that have intensified the pandemic while failing to contain it.
This is especially true at a time when a growing number of authoritarian regimes around the globe replace thoughtful dialogue and critical engagement with the suppression of dissent and a culture of forgetting. This does not only include the usual suspects such as Turkey and Hungary, but also allegedly democratic countries such as England, where government officials recently "ordered schools " not to use resources from organizations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism." This state act of censorship should remind us that fascism begins with language, the suppression of critical ideas, the undermining of institutions that support them, and finally with the elimination of groups considered undesirable and disposable.
How do we situate our analysis of white supremacy, nativism and the suppression of dissent as part of a broader discourse and mode of analysis that interrogates the promises, ideals and claims of a substantive democracy? What role does the legacy and continued force of systemic racism play in the virus disproportionately infecting and killing poor people of color? How do we fight against iniquitous relations of power and wealth that empty power of its emancipatory possibilities, and as Hannah Arendt has argued, "makes most people superfluous as human beings"? How might we understand how a society driven by the accumulation of capital at any costs, with its appropriation of market-based values and regressive notions of freedom and agency, uses language to infiltrate daily life? These are not merely economic and political issues but also educational considerations.
Oppressive forms of education have now become central elements of a society threatened by a number of pandemics that threaten human life and the planet itself. The propaganda machines of the right-wing media echo the Trump regime's support for conspiracy theories, lies about testing and fake cures for the virus, all the while engaging in a politics of evasion that covers up both Trump's incompetence and the machineries of violence, greed, and terminal exclusion at the core of a society that believes the market is the template for governing not just the economy but all aspects of society. One consequence is that truth, evidence and science fall prey to the language of mystification, which legitimates a tsunami of ignorance and the further collapse of morality and civic courage.
What the COVID-19 pandemic reveals in shocking images of long food lines, the stacking of dead bodies and the state-sanctioned language of social Darwinism and racial cleansing is that a war culture has become an extension of politics and functions as a form of repressive education in which critical thought is derailed, dissent suppressed, surveillance normalized, racism intensified, and ignorance elevated to a virtue. This pandemic has made clear the false and dangerous market-driven ideological notion that all problems are a matter of individual responsibility and that the state is simply the tool of the ruling financial elite.
Neoliberal ideology now works in tandem with corporate media conglomerates to produce identities defined narrowly by market values, while normalizing a notion of individual responsibility that convinces people that whatever problems they face, they have no one to blame but themselves. Right-wing media platforms such as Breitbart News, the Sinclair Broadcast Group and the Rush Limbaugh podcast reproduce endlessly the falsehoods, misrepresentations and lies that sustain the conditions that disproportionately produce chronic illness among poor people of color and contribute to the acceleration rise of infections and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is a strain of pernicious neoliberal common sense and public pedagogy that celebrates unchecked self-interest, disdains civic freedoms, scorns scientific evidence and turns away from the reality of a society with deep-seated institutional rot and the continuous unraveling of social connections and the social contract. Americans do not simply inhabit a deeply divided country, which has become the phrase of the day among the liberal media, but a war culture.
Everyday life has taken on the character of a war zone. The walls and cement barriers now surrounding Trump's White House signify a mode of governance wedded to both a warlike mentality and an expansive culture of cruelty and ruthlessness, most clearly visible in the police violence waged against poor people of color. The latter is a murderous violence enabled and encouraged by the white supremacist ideology at the center of the Trump administration. State violence hides behind the power of a badge as the police terrorize the spaces in which Black people drive, conduct their everyday lives, walk the streets and sleep.
What are the ideologies, institutions and spectrum of injustice in America that allow the police to kill, with impunity, Breonna Taylor while she slept in her own home? What allows a police officer to believe without a modicum of self-reflection that he could brutally kill George Floyd by pinning him to the ground and kneeling on his neck until he showed no signs of life? What order of injustice allows the police to shoot, on different occasions, Philando Castile and Jacob Blake while their children were in the back seat of their car? What is the connective tissue between the brazen forms of police brutality at work in American society, the violence Trump calls for and enables among his right-wing extremist followers, and the organizing principles of violence at work in Trump's policies?
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