Manufactured ignorance now thrives in a world of interlacing disasters. This age of consuming catastrophes is part and parcel of an age of survival-of-the fittest economics fueled by the rise of right-wing authoritarianism and political extremists. The rule of markets and its legitimating notion of economic Darwinism represents a return to the massive inequalities and culture of cruelty that marked the Gilded Age. This was an era when entrepreneurial pieties were used to legitimize unfettered markets and the concentration of power in the hands of a financial elite. In its updated versions, the new Gilded Age of neoliberal capitalism continues with a vengeance to reward the ultra-rich and powerful while beating workers, immigrants, and poor Black and Brown people into the ground.
In a time of pandemics and economic and political plagues, there has been an acceleration of fear, dread and anxiety adding to the surge of right-wing extremism and the return of an updated fascist politics. The current era is all the crueler since, in a time of staggering inequality, those populations, viewed as "the living dead" and increasingly stripped of their civil rights, are struggling less for the promise of social mobility and a better life than for mere survival. The script of neoliberalism is now written in the language of gangster capitalism. The language of democracy, then as today, is reduced to commercial values, competing consumers, deregulations, the privatization of everything, the relentless pursuit of profits, unchecked self-interest, a pandemic of lying, narrow notions of individual responsibility and the endless quest for profits. The rule of markets and the lawlessness of financial power now replace any viable notion of government responsibility. Under the new Gilded Age, the appeal to democracy functions once again as a cover, if not ruthless fiction, to promote thievery and political opportunism, offering an easy alibi for the crimes of capitalism. The brutalities of fascism have returned and the shadow of death seems to be everywhere.
Up until the election of Ronald Reagan, democracy was tolerated as an ideal, however falsely enacted. But after the social rebellions of the 1960s, the tone of toleration changed to distrust. This was clear when the influential political scientist Samuel Huntington observed in his notorious Crisis of Democracy that democracy had desirable limits that must be put into place. This distrust of democracy was articulated further in the 1975 Trilateral Commission report, which stated that the problems that the United States faced in the 1960s and '70s were, in part, the result of "an excess of democracy."
Times have changed. Capitalism has degenerated into a full-stage criminal enterprise and democracy is no longer distrusted; on the contrary, it is disdained, feared and subject to the scorn of crooks parading as politicians. Instead of having too much democracy, the current historical moment is being framed by the call to eliminate it altogether. Under the growing influence of right-wing extremists such as the current Republican Party in the United States, the ideological winds of the moment call for replacing the ideal and promise of democracy with the dictates of authoritarian nationalism, white supremacy and a politics of exclusion -- all of which echo a dangerous past in its promotion of an updated version of fascism.
The rising tide of fascist politics has been matched by new anti-democratic practices and modes of oppression and expression. Democratic struggles and uprisings are now more image-based given the increased role of the media in normalizing extremist ideologies and promoting modes of identity and agency that resonate with fascist ideas and values. For instance, from his prime-time perch as a television host on Fox News, Tucker Carlson has become the most influential propagandist and most visible voice for white grievance ideology and replacement theory. He has also risen to the top of the mainstream media ecosystem with his politics of white nationalism, his relentless blasting of liberals and leftists, and his support for Donald Trump's unfounded claim that the election was "rigged" and stolen.
Moreover, Carlson is also one of the most powerful anti-immigration voices in the nation. He refers to immigration as a form of liberal atonement and has stated that, "We have a moral obligation to admit the world's poor, they tell us, even if it makes our own country poorer and dirtier and more divided." As Michael Kranish points out, quoting conservative Christopher Rufo, "Tucker Carlson Tonight" is the highest-rated show in cable news, and to a large extent, Tucker frames the narrative for conservative politics. Tucker doesn't react to the news; he creates the news."
Tucker Carlson and Fox News are symptomatic of the powerful role that social media and an image-based culture now play in shaping politics, particularly far right politics. It is part of a new politics of disinformation spurred on by corporate-funded disimagination machines and cultural apparatuses that trade in lies, ignorance and resistance to the truth. Manufactured ignorance is the new face of submission and the ongoing flight from political and social responsibility.
Misinformation has become a new form of necropolitics, spreading fear, lies, anxiety and scapegoating most obvious in the spiraling deaths brought on in part by the bungling Trump leadership in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social media has turned poisonous and dangerous in tracking our needs, interests, desires and politics while spreading false information that aligns individual and collective consciousness with the forces of an upgraded authoritarianism. For instance, right-wing social media endlessly stokes vaccine resistance among a wide array of conservatives, religious fundamentalists and rural Americans, indifferent to the tragic amount of suffering and deaths such messages both legitimate and produce. Manufactured ignorance merges with a hideous batch of bigoted and hateful emotions that surge through millions of Americans like an electric current. As David Frum argues, "Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty." Politics is no longer simply a struggle over economic institutions and power relations; it is also a struggle over consciousness, ideas, identity and agency.
The current historical era has witnessed an accelerating merger of culture, power and social media, which has contributed to the development of new social formations that produce tsunamis of misleading information, amounting to what the World Health Organization has labeled "infodemics." In this instance, the media ecospheres and disimagination machines have created among large segments of the public a flight from critical thought and social responsibility. This is further accentuated by what Zygmunt Bauman has called "ethical tranquilization" a type of appalling silence and refusal to speak up in the face of injustice.
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