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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 9/5/18

Neoliberal Fascism and the Twilight of the Social

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Donald Trump's increasingly dangerous, incendiary attacks on the media, his willingness to separate children from their parents at the southern border, his efforts to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens and deport US citizens on the groundless claim that they have fraudulent birth certificates, and his relentless attempts to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others to obstruct the rule of law all amount to a lawless grab for power that is pushing the US further into the abyss of fascism.

The terrors of 20th century fascism have risen once again in the United States but less as a warning about repeating past mistakes than as a measure of the degree to which the lessons of history become irrelevant. Politics now moves between what philosopher Susan Sontag once labeled as "unremitting banality and inconceivable terror." The "unremitting banality" is evident in Trump's daily barrage of reckless tweets in which language becomes a weapon to vilify, humiliate and demonize government officials, journalists and critical media outlets. An evil banality is also present in his branding of undocumented immigrants as "murderers and thieves," "rapists" and criminals who want to "infest our country."

There is more at work here than the use of coarse language or an unprecedented display of incivility by a sitting president; there is also a flirtation with violence, the rhetoric of white supremacy, and the language of expulsion and elimination. Trump's embrace of unthinkable terror takes on an even more onerous tone as the language of dehumanization and cruelty materializes into policies that work to expel people from any sense of community, if not humanity itself.

Such policies are evident in Trump's systemic "zero tolerance" policy, now rescinded, that forcibly separated migrant children from their parents and incarcerated them in prison-like cages where many of them were physically and sexually abused. These attacks have not been limited to children. Aida Chavez reports in The Intercept that both physical and sexual assaults on immigrants in detention centers have become commonplace and are documented in a number of reliable sources. For instance, The Intercept has obtained public records that reveal that more than 1,000 complaints have been made about sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities. The systemic nature and scope of violence and sexual abuse also extends to the reign of terror inflicted on immigrants at the hands of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents. The Office of the Inspector General has received over 33,000 horrifying complaints by immigrants made against ICE, revealing the underpinnings and wanton lawlessness of a fascist police state. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has called ICE a "deportation force" and along with a number of prominent politicians, such as New York Governor Bill de Blasio, has argued that it should be abolished. Cynthia Nixon, the progressive actor who has entered the gubernatorial race in New York, has called ICE "a terrorist organization" and has insisted on its abolition.

Trump's penchant for cruelty is also on full display in his removal of temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti as well as his rescinding of protections "for 800,000 young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers." It gets worse: the Trump administration has advocated depriving undocumented immigrants with due process and threatened to deport them immediately when they cross the border "without a trial or an appearance before a judge."

The degree and transparency of Trump's racism are even more well-defined in his plan to punish legal immigrants for accepting public benefits to which they are entitled, such as food stamps and public housing. Moreover, his rule would authorize federal officials to revoke legal resident status from immigrants who accept such assistance. The guiding force behind this anti-immigrant movement in the Trump administration is hard-liner and white supremacist sympathizer, Stephen Miller, who takes delight in proposing legislation that makes "it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens or get green cards if they have ever used a range of popular public welfare programs, including Obamacare."

Legislation that denies immigrants citizenship because they receive public assistance reveals a level of state violence, if not a form of domestic terrorism, that increasingly characterizes the onslaught of Trump's policies. More recently, he has suggested the death penalty for drug dealers, a plan that takes its cues from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war, which has resulted in deaths of over 20,000 alleged drug users and dealers since 2016, many of whom live in poor communities.

Meanwhile, as part of his broader attack on human life and the conditions that make it possible, Trump has rolled back many of the Obama-era polices designed to curb climate change; he has reversed environmental protections, such as the banning of pesticides in wildlife refuges, and he has dismantled federal rules regulating American coal plants, which are "designed to curtail coal emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to climate change."

In a case that highlights Trump's war on youth and his ongoing attempts to destroy the social bonds that sustain a democracy, the United States government attempted to scrap a research-based United Nations-World Health Organization resolution that encouraged breast-feeding. Supporting the interests of infant formula manufacturers, American officials first sought to use language that would water down the resolution. When that failed, they threatened smaller countries such as Ecuador that supported it. Patti Rundall, a policy director supporting the resolution, observed that the actions by the Trump administration were "tantamount to blackmail." Rundall's criticism becomes even more alarming given a 2016 study in The Lancet that documented how "universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk."

Slow Violence, Fast Violence

Trump's discourse and policies represent a profound attack on the collective values crucial to a democracy and present a constant assault not just on economic and political institutions but also on the formative culture, public foundations and educational apparatuses necessary to nurture critically active and engaged citizens. Trump's assault on social obligations, social responsibility, and the social fabric is a fundamental element of his espousal of neoliberal fascism. This new political arrangement operates in its most lethal form as a form of "slow violence," which in Princeton University scholar Rob Nixon's terms is a "a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all."

"Slow violence" destroys the formative cultures that make human suffering visible, covers over authoritarian impulses behind the calls for national greatness, and exposes the danger of surrendering freedom for security. At the core of this violence, which has intensified under neoliberal fascism, is an attack on those social forces that defend the welfare state and engage in an ongoing struggle to make concrete the possibilities of democratic socialism. Under neoliberal fascism, chauvinism and militarism work hand in hand with a hardening of the culture, the unleashing of the forces of brutal self-interest, and a growing illiteracy that undermines both public values and a collective struggle against what sociologist C. Wright Mills once called "a politics of organized irresponsibility." "Slow violence" is difficult to gauge because it is often concealed beneath policies that promote what can be called fast violence.

Fast violence comes with an immediate body blow, exhibits the spectacularized drama of Trump's imperious and insulting tweets, and produces high-profile assaults on democratic institutions, such as the courts, media and rule of law. Such violence embraces the theatrical, feeds off the spectacle and aims at high shock value. One recent example of the fast violence of cultural politics was the almost unthinkable announcement by the Trump administration that Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, was planning -- at a time when underprivileged schools lack the most basic resources and support services -- to use federal funds, designed to benefit programs aimed at underserved students, to train and arm teachers, in spite of an established federal policy that prohibits using such funds to arm educators. Of course, this hidden agenda legitimated in this proposed policy is that schools attended largely by poor students are sites defined in the image of war, should be modeled after prisons, and necessitate being governed through zero-tolerance policies that often feed the school-to-prison pipeline. The endpoint of such policies moves between pushing poor Black and Brown youth into the criminal justice system and either abolishing these public institutions or turning them into cash cows by privatizing them. The larger goal is to destroy education as a democratic public sphere whose mission is to create an educated citizenry necessary for the workings of a vibrant democracy. The state-sponsored violence at work here imperils the rule of law and works to unravel the alleged democratic institutions, such as the courts and media that some believe provide an impregnable firewall against Trump's authoritarianism. Taken together "slow" and fast violence under the Trump regime share a cultural politics that erodes memory, substitutes emotion for reason, embraces anti-intellectualism, increases the harshness of rugged individualism and thrives in the glow of what economist Paul Krugman terms a "white nationalism run wild."

State violence has become the organizing principle shaping all aspects of American society. At the heart of such violence is a full-fledged attack on notions of the social and public space that makes critical thought, dialogue, and the individual and collective pursuit of the common good possible. Under such circumstances, pressing social problems are removed from the inventory of public concerns and ethical considerations. The end point is the replacement of the welfare state and social investments with the punishing state and what Jonathan Simon has called "governing through crime." This is all too evident in the Trump administration's mode of governance founded on a harsh, racially charged regime of law and order that is as repressive as it is corrupt. Locked into an "abyss of failed sociality," the American public finds it increasingly difficult to challenge the assumption that markets and the rule of the strong man are all that is needed to solve all individual and social problems. When public values are invoked, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, they appear less for their recognizability and relevance for the present than a symbol for what has been irrevocably lost.

Public values and the public good have been reduced to nostalgic reminders of another era -- associated, for example, with the New Deal or the Great Society -- in which the social contract was seen as crucial to meeting the needs of postwar Americans and fundamental to a substantive democratic order. Rather than viewed as a legacy that needs to be reclaimed, reimagined and renewed, visions of the public good are consigned to the distant past, a passing curiosity like a museum piece perhaps worth viewing, but not worth struggling to revive as either an ideal or a reality. What is "new" about the long decline of public values in US society is not that they are again under attack but that they have become weakened to the point of no longer provoking a massive oppositional social movement in the face of more daring and destructive attacks by the Trump administration. When such values are attacked, the targets are groups who for decades have been largely immune to such attacks because they embody the most cherished ideals associated with democratic public service -- immigrants, public school teachers, public servants, poor youth of color and labor unions. This suggests that the precondition for any viable sense of individual and collective resistance must reclaim the social as part of a democratic imaginary that makes education and learning not only central to social change, but also to the struggle to democratize the very character of American politics, institutional power and public discourse.

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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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