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The Politics of Cruelty

America’s Descent Into Madness

by HENRY GIROUX

America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

— John le Carré

America is descending into madness. The stories it now tells are filled with cruelty, deceit, lies, and legitimate all manner of corruption and mayhem.  The mainstream media spins stories that are largely racist, violent, and irresponsible —stories that celebrate power and demonize victims, all the while camouflaging its pedagogical influence under the cheap veneer of entertainment. Unethical grammars of violence now offer the only currency with any enduring value for mediating relationships, addressing problems, and offering instant pleasure. A predatory culture celebrates a narcissistic hyper-individualism that radiates a near sociopathic lack of interest in or compassion and responsibility for others. Anti-public intellectuals dominate the screen and aural cultures urging us to shop more, indulge more, and make a virtue out of the pursuit of personal gain, all the while promoting a depoliticizing culture of consumerism. Undermining life-affirming social solidarities and any viable notion of the public good, right-wing politicians trade in forms of idiocy and superstition that mesmerize the illiterate and render the thoughtful cynical and disengaged.   Military forces armed with the latest weapons from Afghanistan play out their hyper-militarized fantasies on the home front by forming robo SWAT teams who willfully beat youthful protesters and raid neighborhood poker games.  Congressional lobbyists for the big corporations and defense contractors create conditions in which war zones abroad can be recreated at home in order to provide endless consumer products, such as high tech weapons and surveillance tools for gated communities and for prisons alike.

The issue of who gets to define the future, own the nation’s wealth, shape the reach of state resources, control of the global flows of goods and humans, and invest in institutions that educate an engaged and socially responsible citizens has become largely invisible.  And yet these are precisely these issues that offer up new categories for defining how matters of representations, education, economic justice, and politics are to be defined and fought over. The stories told by corporate liars and crooks do serious harm to the body politic, and the damage they cause together with the idiocy they reinforce are becoming more apparent as America descends into authoritarianism, accompanied by the pervasive fear and paranoia that sustains it.

The American public needs more than a show of outrage or endless demonstrations. It needs to develop a formative culture for producing a language of critique, possibility, and broad-based political change. Such a project is indispensable for developing an organized politics that speaks to a future that can provide sustainable jobs, decent health care, quality education, and communities of solidarity and support for young people. At stake here is a politics and vision that informs ongoing educational and political struggles to awaken the inhabitants of neoliberal societies to their current reality and what it means to be educated not only to think outside of a savage market-driven commonsense but also to struggle for those values, hopes, modes of solidarity, power relations, and institutions that infuse democracy with a spirit of egalitarianism and economic and social justice. For this reason, any collective struggle that matters has to embrace education as the center of politics and the source of an embryonic vision of the good life outside of the imperatives of predatory capitalism. As I have argued elsewhere, too many progressives are stuck in the apocalyptic discourse of foreclosure and disaster and need to develop what Stuart Hall calls a “sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.” This is a difficult task, but what we are seeing in cities that stretch from Chicago to Athens, and other dead zones of capitalism throughout the world is the beginning of a long struggle for the institutions, values, and infrastructures that make critical education and community the core of a robust, radical democracy.  This is a challenge for young people and all those invested in the promise of a democracy that extends not only the meaning of politics, but also a commitment to economic justice and democratic social change.

The stories we tell about ourselves as Americans no longer speak to the ideals of justice, equality, liberty, and democracy. There are no towering figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. whose stories interweave moral outrage with courage and vision and inspired us to imagine a society that was never just enough.  Stories that once inflamed our imagination now degrade it, overwhelming a populace with nonstop advertisements that reduce our sense of agency to the imperatives of shopping. But these are not the only narratives that diminish our capacity to imagine a better world. We are also inundated with stories of americas-ed-deficit-300x449cruelty and fear that undermine communal bonds and tarnish any viable visions of the future. Different stories, ones that provided a sense of history, social responsibility, and respect for the public good, were once circulated by our parents, churches, synagogues, schools, and community leaders. Today, the stories that define who we are as individuals and as a nation are told by right-wing and liberal media that broadcast the conquests of celebrities, billionaires, and ethically frozen politicians who preach the mutually related virtues of the free market and a permanent war economy.

These neoliberal stories are all the more powerful because they seem to undermine the public’s desire for rigorous accountability, critical interrogation, and openness as they generate employment and revenue  for by right-wing think tanks and policy makers who rush to fill the content needs of corporate media and educational institutions. Concealing the conditions of their own making, these stories enshrine both greed and indifference encouraging massive disparities in wealth and income. In addition, they also sanctify the workings of the market, forging a new f political theology that inscribes a sense of our collective destiny to be governed ultimately and exclusively by market forces. Such ideas surely signal a tribute to Ayn Rand’s dystopian society, if not also a rebirth of Margaret Thatcher’s nonfiction version that preached the neoliberal gospel of wealth:  there is nothing beyond individual gain and the values of the corporate order.

The stories that dominate the American landscape embody what stands for commonsense among market and religious fundamentalists in both mainstream political parties:  shock-and-awe austerity measures; tax cuts that serve the rich and powerful and destroy government programs that help the poor, elderly, and sick; attacks on women’s reproductive rights; attempts to suppress voter ID laws and rig electoral college votes;  full-fledged assaults on the environment; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of public education, if not critical thought itself;  an ongoing attack on unions, on social provisions, and on the expansion of Medicaid and meaningful health care reform. These stories are endless, repeated by the neoliberal and neoconservative walking dead who roam the planet sucking the blood and life out of everyone they touch—from the millions killed in foreign wars to the millions incarcerated in our nation’s prisons.

All of these stories embody what Ernst Bloch has called “the swindle of fulfillment.” That is, instead of fostering a democracy rooted in the public interest, they encourage a political and economic system controlled by the rich, but carefully packaged in consumerist and militarist fantasy. Instead of promoting a society that embraces a robust and inclusive social contract, they legitimate a social order that shreds social protections, privileges the wealthy and powerful and inflicts a maddening and devastating set of injuries upon workers, women, poor minorities, immigrants, and low- and middle-class young people.  Instead of striving for economic and political stability, they inflict on Americans marginalized by class and race uncertainty and precarity, a world turned upside-down in which ignorance becomes a virtue and power and wealth are utilized for ruthlessness and privilege rather than a resource for the public good.

Every once in a while we catch a brutal glimpse of what America has become in the narratives spun by politicians whose arrogance and quests for authority exceed their interest to conceal the narrow-mindedness, power-hungry blunders, cruelty, and hardship embedded in the policies they advocate.  The echoes of a culture of cruelty can be heard in politicians such as Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who believes that even assistance to those unemployed, homeless, and working poor suffering the most in his home state should be cut in the name of austerity measures.  We hear it in the words of Mike Reynolds, another politician from Oklahoma who insists that government has no responsibility to provide students with access to a college education through a state program “that provides post-secondary education scholarship to qualified low-income students.” We find evidence of a culture of cruelty in numerous policies that make clear that those who occupy the bottom rungs of American society—whether low-income families, poor minorities of color and class, or young, unemployed, and failed consumers—are considered disposable, utterly excluded in terms of ethical considerations and the grammar of human suffering.

In the name of austerity, budget cuts are enacted that fall primarily on those individuals and groups who are already disenfranchised, and will thus seriously worsen the lives of those people now suffering the most.  For instance, Texas has enacted legislation that refuses to expand its Medicaid program, which provides healthcare for low-income people.  As a result, healthcare coverage will be denied to over 1.5 million low-income residents as a result of Governor Perry’s refusal to be part of the Obama administration’s Medicaid expansion. This is not merely partisan politics; it is an expression of a new form of cruelty and barbarism now aimed at those considered disposable in a neo-Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest society.  Not surprisingly, the right-wing appeal to job-killing and provision-slashing austerity now functions as an updated form of medieval torture, gutting myriad of programs that add up to massive human suffering for the many and benefits for only a predatory class of neo-feudal bankers, hedge fund managers, and financiers that feed off the lives of the disadvantaged.

The general response from progressives and liberals does not take seriously the ways in which the extreme right-wing articulates its increasingly pervasive and destructive view of American society. For instance, the views of new extremists in Congress are often treated, especially by liberals, as a cruel hoax that is out of touch with reality or a foolhardy attempt to roll back the Obama agenda. On the left, such views are often criticized as a domestic version of the tactics employed by the Taliban—keeping people stupid, oppressing women, living in a circle of certainty, and turning all channels of education into a mass propaganda machine of fundamentalist Americanism. All of these positions touch on elements of a deeply authoritarian agenda. But such commentaries do not go far enough. Tea Party politics is about more than bad policy, policies that favor the rich over the poor, or for that matter about modes of governance and ideology that represent a blend of civic and moral turpitude. The hidden order of neoliberal politics in this instance represents the poison of neoliberalism and its ongoing attempt to destroy those very institutions whose purpose is to enrich public memory, prevent needless human suffering, protect the environment, distribute social provisions, and safeguard the public good. Within this rationality, markets are not merely freed from progressive government regulation, they are removed from any considerations of social costs. And where government regulation does exits, it functions primarily to bail out the rich and shore up collapsing financial institutions and for what Noam Chomsky has termed America’s only political party, “the business party.”  The stories that attempt to cover over America’s embrace of historical and social amnesia at the same time justify authoritarianism with a soft-edge and weakens democracy through a thousand cuts to the body politic.  How else to explain the Obama administration’s willingness to assassinate American citizens allegedly allied with terrorists, secretly monitor the email messages and text messages of its citizens, use the NDAA to arrest and detain indefinitely American citizens without charge or trial, subject alleged spies to an unjust military tribunal system, use drones as part of a global assassination campaign to arbitrarily kill innocent people, and then dismiss such acts as collateral damage. As Jonathan Turley points out, “An authoritarian nation is defined not just by the use of authoritarian powers, but by the ability to use them. If a president can take away your freedom or your life on his own authority, all rights become little more than a discretionary grant subject to executive will.”

At the heart of neoliberal narratives are ideologies, modes of governance, and policies that embrace a pathological individualism, a distorted notion of freedom, and a willingness both to employ state violence to suppress dissent and abandon those suffering from a collection of social problems ranging from dire poverty and joblessness to homelessness. In the end, these are stories about disposability in which growing numbers of groups are considered dispensable and a drain on the body politic, the economy, and the sensibilities of the rich and powerful. Rather than work for a more dignified life, most Americans now work simply to survive in a survival-of-the-fittest society in which getting ahead and accumulating capital, especially for the ruling elite, is the only game in town. In the past, public values have been challenged and certain groups have been targeted as superfluous or redundant. But what is new about the politics of disposability that has become a central feature of contemporary American politics is the way in which such anti-democratic practices have become normalized in the existing neoliberal order. A politics of inequality and ruthless power disparities is now matched by a culture of cruelty soaked in blood, humiliation, and misery. Private injuries not only are separated from public considerations such narratives, but narratives of poverty and exclusion have become objects of scorn. Similarly, all noncommercial public spheres where such stories might get heard are viewed with contempt, a perfect supplement to the chilling indifference to the plight of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

Any viable struggle against the authoritarian forces that dominate the United States must make visible the indignity and injustice of these narratives and the historical, political, economic, and cultural conditions that produce them.  This suggests a critical analysis of how various educational forces in American society are distracting and miseducating the public. Dominant political and cultural responses to current events—such as the ongoing economic crisis, income inequality, health care reform, Hurricane Sandy, the war on terror, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the  crisis of public schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, and other cities—represent flashpoints that reveal a growing disregard for people’s democratic rights, public accountability, and civic values. As politics is disconnected from its ethical and material moorings, it becomes easier to punish and imprison young people than to educate them. From the inflated rhetoric of the political right to market-driven media peddling spectacles of violence, the influence of these criminogenc and death-saturated forces in everyday life is undermining our collective security by justifying cutbacks to social supports and restricting opportunities for democratic resistance. Saturating mainstream discourses with anti-public narratives, the neoliberal machinery of social death effectively weakens public supports and prevents the emergence of much-needed new ways of thinking and speaking about politics in the twenty-first century. But even more than neutralizing collective opposition to the growing control and wealth of predatory financial elites—which now wield power across all spheres of U.S. society—responses to social issues are increasingly dominated by a malignant characterization of marginalized groups as disposable populations. All the while zones of abandonment accelerate the technologies and mechanisms of disposability. One consequence is the spread of a culture of cruelty in which human suffering is not only tolerated, but viewed as part of the natural order of things.

Before this dangerously authoritarian mindset has a chance to take hold of our collective imagination and animate our social institutions, it is crucial that all Americans think critically and ethically about the coercive forces shaping U.S. culture—and focus our energy on what can be done to change them. It will not be enough only to expose the falseness of the stories we are told. We also need to create alternative narratives about what the promise of democracy might be for our children and ourselves. This demands a break from established political parties, the creation of alternative public spheres in which to produce democratic narratives and visions, and a notion of politics that is educative, one that takes seriously how people interpret and mediate the world, how they see themselves in relation to others, and what it might mean to imagine otherwise in order to act otherwise.  Why are millions not protesting in the streets over these barbaric policies that deprive them of life, liberty, justice, equality, and dignity? What are the pedagogical technologies and practices at work that create the conditions for people to act against their own sense of dignity, agency, and collective possibilities?  Progressives and others need to make education central to any viable sense of politics so as to make matters of remembrance and consciousness central elements of what it means to be critical and engaged citizens.

There is also a need for social movements that invoke stories as a form of public memory, stories that have the potential to move people to invest in their own sense of individual and collective agency, stories that make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative. If democracy is to once again inspire a populist politics, it is crucial to develop a number of social movements in which the stories told are never completed, but are always open to self- and social reflection, capable of pushing ever further the boundaries of our collective imagination and struggles against injustice wherever they might be.  Only then will the stories that now cripple our imaginations, politics, and democracy be challenged and hopefully overcome.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department and  a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent book is  The Educational Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), His web site is www.henryagiroux.com