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The Specter of Authoritarianism and the Future of the Left

An Interview with Henry Giroux on Democracy in Crisis

by C.J. POLYCHRONIOU

1. It is widely believed that the advanced liberal societies are suffering a crisis of democracy, a view you share wholeheartedly, although the empirical research, with its positivists bias, tends to be more cautious. In what ways is there less democracy today in places like the United States than there was, say, 20 or 30 years ago?

What we have seen in the United States and a number of other countries since the 1970s is the emergence of a savage form of free market fundamentalism, often called neoliberalism, in which there is not only a deep distrust of public values, public goods and public institutions but the embrace of a market ideology that accelerates the power of the financial elite and big business while gutting those formative cultures and institutions necessary for a democracy to survive. The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional.  More specifically, Americans now live in what the new Pope has condemned as the “tyranny of unfettered capitalism,” where the corporate, financial, and ruling elites shape politics, assault unions, mobilize great extremes of wealth and power, and enforce a brutalizing regime of neoliberalism. This is a period that lacks any sense of social and economic justice, a historical moment in which the existing norms, values, and for that matter language itself legitimate the production of zones of social and civil death, death spheres—driven by a mad violence rooted in a dystopian theater of cruelty.  Some have argued that Americans have entered a new Gilded Age or an oligarchy, but in reality it is more brutal than these terms suggest. This new period of political, social, and economic savagery is more reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt called “dark times,” a historical conjuncture rooted in the reworked attributes of a life-sapping totalitarianism, posing shamelessly as an updated version of democracy. The new authoritarianism  reinforces what conservative politicians, hedge fund managers and pundits refuse to admit, which is that in the United States the social contract and social wage are under sustained assault by right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals from both political parties.  Moreover, those public spheres and institutions that support social provisions, the public good and keep public values alive are under sustained attack. Such attacks have not only produced a range of policies that have expanded the misery, suffering, and hardships of millions of people, but have also put into place a growing culture of cruelty in which those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low skill jobs, homelessness, and other social problems are the object of both humiliation and scorn.

Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war-a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants, and others now considered disposable. Liberty and freedom are now reduced to fodder for inane commercials or empty slogans used to equate capitalism with democracy. At the same time, the very idea of freedom, equality, and civil rights are under sustained condemnation just as racism is spreading throughout the culture like wildfire, especially with regards to police harassment of young black and brown youth. A persistent racism can also be seen in the spiraling attacks on voting rights laws, the mass incarceration of African-American males, and the overt racism that has become prominent among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party types, much of which is aimed at President Obama and poor minorities. At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under assault and there is an ongoing attack on immigrants.

It gets worse. Education at all levels is being defunded and defined as a site of training rather than as a site of critical thought, dialogue, and critical learning. Public education is under siege by the forces of privatization and advocates of charter schools, rendering public education a dead zone bereft of curiosity, imagination, and critical pedagogy. Critical thought and learning have been replaced by mind numbing testing agendas just as teachers have been reduced to clerks of the empire. At the same time, higher education is under massive attack by the apostles of corporatization just an entire generation has been plunged into life-draining debt that stifles the imagination and reduces young people to a culture of precarity and an endless struggle for survival. In addition, democracy has withered under the emergence of a national security and permanent warfare state. This is evident not only in endless wars abroad but also in the passing of a series of laws such as the PATRIOT ACT, the Military Commission Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and many others laws that shred due process and give the executive branch the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or a trial, authorize a presidential kill list, and conduct warrantless wiretaps. Of course, both Bush and Obama claimed the right to kill any citizens considered to be a terrorist or who have come to the aid of terrorism. Targeted assassinations are now carried out by drones that are more and more killing innocent children, adults, and bystanders. Similarly, the war on terror migrates touching everything in its path and is no longer limited to matters of foreign policy. Domestic terrorism has opened new war zones, operating off the assumption that all Americans are potential terrorists.

Another index of America’s slide into barbarism and authoritarianism is on display with the rise of the racial punishing state with its school-to prison pipeline, the criminalization of a range of social problems, the rise of a massive incarceration system, the increasing militarization of local police forces, and the growing use of ongoing state violence against youthful dissenters and ordinary citizens. The prison has now become the model for a type of punishment creep that has impacted upon public schools where young children are arrested for violating something as trivial as a dress code. It is also evident in the management of a number of social services where poor people are put under constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions. It is also on full display in the militarization of everyday life with its endless celebration of the military, police, and religious institutions, all of which are held in high esteem by the American public, in spite of their undeniably authoritarian nature.

In addition, as Edward Snowden has made clear, the US is now a national security-surveillance state illegally gathering massive amounts of information from diverse sources on citizens who are not guilty of any crimes. There is also the shameful exercise under Bush and to a lesser degree under Obama of state sanctioned torture coupled with a refusal on the part of the government to prosecute those CIA agents and others who willfully engaged in systemic abuses that constitute war crimes. What this list amounts to is the undeniable fact that in the last forty years, the US has launched an attack not only on the practice of justice and democracy itself, but on the very idea of justice and democracy.

Nowhere is the more obvious than in the realm of politics. Money now drives politics in the United States and a number of other countries. Congress and both major political parties have sold themselves to corporate power and have become utterly corrupt. Campaigns are largely financed by the financial elite such as the right wing Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, major defense corporations such as Lockheed Martin, and major financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs. As a recent Princeton University report pointed out, policy in Washington, DC has nothing to do with the wishes of the people but is almost completely determined by the wealthy, big corporations, and financial elite, made even easier thanks to Citizens United and a number of other laws enacted by a conservative Supreme Court majority.  Hence, it should come as no surprise that Princeton University researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page came to the conclusion that that the United States is basically an oligarchy where power is wielded by a small number of elites.

2. In other words, you do not think we have an existential crisis of democracy, the result of an economic crisis, with unforeseen and unintended consequences, but an actual corrosion of democracy, with calculated effects? Is this correct?

I think we have both. Not only has democracy been undermined and transformed into a form of authoritarianism unique to the twenty-first century, but there is also an existential crisis that is evident in the despair, depoliticization, and crisis of subjectivity that has overtaken much of the population, particularly since 9/11 and the economic crisis of 2007. The economic crisis is not matched by a crisis of ideas and many people have surrendered to a neoliberal ideology that limits their sense of agency by defining them primarily as consumers, subjects them to a pervasive culture of fear, blames them for problems that are not of their doing, and leads them to believe that violence is the only mediating force available to them, just the pleasure quotient is colonized and leads people to assume that the Henry Girouxspectacle of violence is the only way in which they can feel any type of emotion and pleasure. How else to interpret polls that show that a majority of Americans support the death penalty, government surveillance, drone warfare, the prison-industrial complex, and zero tolerance policies that punish children. Trust, honor, intimacy, compassion, and caring for others are now viewed as liabilities, just as self-interest has become more important than the general interest and common good. Selfishness, self-interest, and an unchecked celebration of individualism have become, as Joseph E. Stiglitz has argued, “the ultimate form of selflessness.”  What we are witnessing is an extensial crisis rooted in the destruction of meaningful solidarities,  supportive collective provisions, and the eradication of all public spheres that open up spaces for critical and compassionate public connections.  One consequence of neoliberalism is that it makes a virtue of producing a collective existential crisis, a crisis of agency and subjectivity, one that saps democracy of its vitality.  There is nothing about this crisis that suggests it is unrelated to the internal working of casino capitalism. The economic crisis intensified its worse dimensions, but the source of the crisis lies in the roots of neoliberalism, particularly since its inception since the 1970s when social democracy proved unable to curb the crisis of capitalism and economics became the driving force of politics.

3. In your writings, you refer frequently to the specter of authoritarianism. Are you envisioning western liberal democracies turning to authoritarian-style capitalism as in China, Russia, Singapore, and Malaysia, to “friendly fascism,” or to oligarchic democracy?

Each country will develop its own form of authoritarianism rooted in the historical, pedagogical, and cultural traditions best suited for it to reproduce itself.  In the US, there will be an increase in military style repression to deal with the inevitable economic, ecological, political crisis that will intensify under the new authoritarianism. In this instance, the appeal will largely be to security, reinforced by a culture of fear and an intensified appeal to nationalism. At the same time, this “hard war” against the American people will be supplemented by a “soft war” produced with the aid of the new electronic technologies of surveillance and control, but there will also be a full-fledged effort through the use of the pedagogical practices of various cultural apparatuses, extending from the schools and older forms of media, on the one hand to the new media and digital modes of communication, on the other, to produce elements of the authoritarian personality while crushing as much as possible any form of collective dissent and struggle. State sovereignty has been replaced by corporate sovereignty and this constitutes what might be called a new form of totalitarianism that as Michael Halberstam once stated “haunts the modern ideal of political emancipation.” In addition, as Chris Hedges has argued “There is no national institution left that can accurately be described as democratic. What is unique about this form of authoritarianism is that it is driven by a criminal class of powerful financial and political elites who refuse to make political concessions. The new elites have no allegiances to nation states and don’t care about the damage they do to workers, the environment, or the rest of humanity. They are unhinged sociopaths, far removed from what the Occupy Movement called the 99 percent. They are the new gated class who float above national boundaries, laws, and forms of regulation. They are a global elite whose task is to transform all nation states into servile instruments willing to enrich the wealth and power of this monstrous global elite. The new authoritarianism is not just tantamount to a crisis of democracy it is also about the limits now being placed on the very meaning of politics and the erasure of those institutions capable of producing critical, engaged, and socially responsible agents.

4. The role of neoliberalism in reducing democracy and destroying public values is an undeniable fact as the economics of neoliberal capitalism seek to establish the supremacy of corporate and market values over all political and social values. Many of your books represent a systematic attack on the neoliberal project. Do you treat neoliberalism as policy paradigm congruent with a certain stage in the evolution of capitalism or as a particular philosophy of capitalism?

Neoliberalism is both an updated and more ruthless stage in predatory capitalism and its search for the consolidations of class power globally, buttressed by the free market fundamentalism made famous by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, without any regard for the social contract. As Robert McChesney has argued, it is classical liberalism with the gloves off or shall we say liberalism without the guilt–a more predatory form of market fundamentalism that is as ruthless as it is orthodox in its disregard for democracy. The old liberalism believed in social provisions and partly pressed the claims for social and economic justice. Political and economic concessions were necessary under the old liberalism in order to preserve class power and control.  That paradigm disappeared under the force of global neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism considers the discourse of equality, justice, and democracy quaint, if not dangerous and must be either trivialized, turned into its Orwellian opposite, or eviscerated from public life. It certainly represents more than an intensification of classical liberalism and in that sense it represents a confluence, a historical conjuncture in which the most ruthless elements of capitalism have come together to create something new and more predatory amplified by the financialization of capital and the development of a mode of corporate sovereignty that takes no prisoners.

5. Some years ago, in an attempt to analyze the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, you invented the term “the politics of disposability.” Do you consider “disposability” to be a systemic element of global neoliberal capitalism?

Neoliberalism’s war against the social state has produced new forms of collateral damage. As security nets are destroyed and social bonds are undermined, casino capitalism relies on a version of Social Darwinism to both punish its citizens and legitimate its politics of exclusion and violence. It also works had to  convince people that the new normal is a constant state of fear, insecurity, and precarity. By individualizing the social, all social problems and their effects are coded as individual character flaws, a lack of individual responsibility, and often a form of pathology. Life is now a war zone and as such the number of people considered disposable has grown exponentially and this includes low income whites, poor minorities, immigrants, the unemployed, the homeless, and a range of people who are viewed as a liability to capital and its endless predatory quest for power and profits.  Under the regime of neoliberalism, Americans now live in a society where ever-expanding segments of the population are subject to being spied on, considered potential terrorists, and subject to a mode of state and corporate lawlessness in which the arrogance of power knows no limits.

As American society becomes increasingly militarized and political concessions become relics of a long abandoned welfare state, hollowed out to serve the interests of global markets, the collective sense of ethical imagination and social responsibility towards those who are vulnerable or in need of care is viewed as a weakness or a pathology. What has emerged under the regime of neoliberalism is a notion of disposability in which entire populations are now considered excess, relegated to zones of abandonment, surveillance, and incarceration. The death-haunted politics of disposability is a systemic element of neoliberal capitalism actively engaged in forms of asset stripping as is evident in the wave of austerity policies at work in North America and Europe. The politics of disposability is also one of neoliberalism’s most powerful organizing principles rendering millions who are suffering under its market-driven policies and practices as excess, rendered redundant according to the laws of a market that wages violence against the 99 percent for the benefit of the new financial elite. Disposable populations are now consigned to precincts of terminal exclusion, inhabiting a space of social and civil death. These are students, unemployed youth, and members of the working poor as well as the middle class who have no resources, jobs, or hope. They are the voiceless and powerless who represent the ghostly presence of the moral vacuity and criminogenic nature of neoliberalism. They are also its greatest fear and potential threat. What is particularly distinctive about this neoliberal historical conjuncture is the way in which young people, particularly low-income and poor minority youth, are increasingly denied any place in an already weakened social contract and the degree to which they are no longer seen as central to how the many neoliberal societies define their future.

6. Adjusting themselves to the neoliberal reality, universities worldwide are turning increasingly toward corporate management models and marketization. What impact are these shift likely to have on the traditional role of the university as a public sphere?

The increasing corporatization of higher education poses a dire threat to its role as a democratic public sphere and a vital site where students can learn to address important social issues, be self-reflective, and learn the knowledge, values, and ideas central to deepening and expanding the capacities the need to be engaged and critical agents. Under neoliberalism, higher education is dangerous because it has the potential to educate young people to think critically and learn how to hold power accountable.  Unfortunately, with the rise of the corporate university which now defines all aspects of governing, curriculum, financial matters, and a host of other academic policies, education is now largely about training, creating an elite class of managers, and eviscerating those forms of knowledge that conjure up what might be considered dangerous forms of moral witnessing and collective political action.  Any discipline, academic subject, idea, or pedagogical practice of any worth is that does not serve the instrumental needs of capital is rendered unworthy or useless, suggesting that the only knowledge of any value is one that is blessed by commercial interests and the dictates of commerce.  At the same time, the only pedagogical practice of any is measured by the degree to which is can be viewed as a commercial transaction. The corporate university is the ultimate expression of a disimagination machine, which employs a top-down authoritarian style of power, mimics a business culture, infantilizes students by treating them as consumers, and depoliticizes faculty by removing them from all forms of governance. As William Boardman argues, the destruction of higher education “by the forces of commerce and authoritarian politics is a sad illustration of how the democratic ethos (educate everyone to their capacity, for free) has given way to exploitation (turning students into a profit center that has the serendipitous benefit of feeding inequality).”

Particularly disturbing here is the corporate university’s attempt to wage a war on higher education by reducing the overwhelming number of faculty to part-time help with no power, benefits, or security. Many part-time and non-tenured faculty in the United States qualify for food stamps and are living slightly above the poverty level. The slow death of the university as a center of critique, a fundamental source of civic education, and a crucial public good make available the fundamental framework for the emergence of a formative culture that produces and legitimates an authoritarian society. The corporatization of higher education constitutes a serious strike against democracy and gives rise to the kind of thoughtlessness that Hanna Arendt believed was at the core of totalitarianism. A glimpse of such thoughtlessness was on display recently at Rutgers University. How else to explain the fact that a Rutgers University recently offered an honorary degree to  Condoleezza Rice, while offering to pay her $35,000 to give a  commencement speech. There is no honor in giving such a prestigious degree to a war criminal.  But, then again, higher education is now firmly entrenched in what President Eisenhower once called the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. The culture of business has become the most valued cultural capital in the university, hardening and soiling everything it touches.

7. What role does popular culture play in contemporary democratic life?

Popular culture is largely colonized by corporations and is increasingly used to reproduce a culture of consumerism, stupidity, and illiteracy. Mainstream popular culture is a distraction and disimagination machine in which mass emotions are channeled towards an attraction for spectacles while suffocating all vestiges of the imagination, promoting the idea that any act of critical thinking is an act of stupidity, and offering up the illusion of agency through gimmicks like voting on American Idol.  What is crucial to remember about popular culture is that it is not simply about entertainment, it also functions to produce particular desires, subjectivities, and identities. It has become one of the most important and powerful sites of education or what I have called an oppressive form of public pedagogy.  Film, television, talk radio, video games, newspapers, social networks, and online media do not merely entertain us, they are also teaching machines that offer interpretations of the world and largely function to produce a public with limited political horizons.  They both titillate and create a mass sensibility that is conducive to maintaining a certain level of consent while legitimating the dominant values, ideologies, power relations, and policies that maintain regimes of neoliberalism. There are a number of registers through which popular culture produces a subject willing to become complicit with their own oppression. Celebrity culture collapses the public into the private and reinforces a certain level of stupidity. It infantilizes as it seduces and promotes a kind of civic death.  Surveillance culture undermines notions of privacy and is largely interested into locking people into strangulating orbits of privatization and atomization. A militarized popular culture offers up the spectacle of violence and a hyper-masculine image of agency as both a site of entertainment and as a mediating force through which to solve all problems. Violence now becomes the most important element of power and mediating force in shaping social relationships. Market culture functions largely to turn people into consumers, suggesting that the only obligation of citizenship is to shop. This is largely a way to depoliticize the population and distract them from recognizing their capacities as critically engaged agents and to empty out any notion of politics that would demand thoughtfulness, social responsibility, and the demands of civic courage.

As the late  Stuart Hall argued, there is also a subversive side to popular culture both as a site of resistance and also as a sphere in which education becomes central to politics.  This was particularly clear when he argued that the left “has no sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things.” He was pointing in part to failure of the left to take seriously the political unconscious and the need to use alternative media, theater, on-line journals and news outlets. At the same time, there is enormous pedagogical value in bringing attention in the rare oppositional representations offered within the dominant media. In this instance, popular culture can be a powerful resource to map and critically engage the everyday, mobilize alternative narratives to capitalism, activate those needs vital to producing more critical and compassionate modes of subjectivity. Film, television, news programs, social media, and other instruments of culture can be used to make education central to a politics that is emancipatory and utterly committed to developing a democratic formative culture. At stake here is the need for progressives to not only understand popular culture and its cultural apparatuses as modes of dominant ideology but to also take popular culture seriously as a tool to revive the radical imagination and to make education central to politics so as to change the way people think, desire, and dream. Stanley Aronowitz is right in arguing that “education would be one of the crucial tasks of a radical political formation” and would need to launch a comprehensive educational program extending from the creation of online journals and magazines to the development of alternative schools.

8. While we speak of a crisis in democracy, some writers speak of a crisis in neoliberalism, probably influenced by the recent global crisis in neoliberal capitalism.  Do you believe that neoliberalism is in a crisis?

I think it is more appropriate to argue that neoliberalism creates and thrives on crises. Crises provide the opening for radical neoliberal reforms, for suspending all government regulations, and for building support for extreme policies that under normal conditions would not be allowed to be put in place. One only has to think about Hurricane Katrina and how the Bush administration used to destroy the public school system and replace it with charter schools. Or how 9/11 offered up an opportunity for going to war with Iraq while drastically curtailing civil liberties that benefitted the rich and powerful defense corporations.

9. The “retreat of the intellectuals is not a recent phenomenon, yet it has become quite pervasive, partly due to the collapse of socialism and partly due to the marketization of contemporary society as well as the neoliberal restructuring of the university.  In your view, how critical is the “retreat of the intellectuals” to the struggle for radical social change?

The seriousness of the retreat of intellectuals from addressing important social issues, aiding social movements, and using their knowledge to create a critical formative culture cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, the flight of the intellectuals from the struggle against neoliberalism and other forms of domination is now matched by the rise of anti-public intellectuals who have sold themselves to corporate power. More specifically, neoliberalism has created not only a vast apparatus of pedagogical relations that privileges deregulation, privatization, commodification, and the militarization of everyday life, but also an legion of anti-public intellectuals who function largely in the interest of the financial elite. Rather than show what is wrong with democracy, they do everything they can to destroy it. These intellectuals are bought and sold by the financial elite and are nothing more than ideological puppets using their skills to destroy the social contract, critical thought, and all those social institutions capable of constructing non-commodified values and democratic public spheres. They view both informed critique and collective dissent as dangerous.  As such, they are the enemies of democracy and are crucial in creating subjectivities and values that buy into the notion that capital rather than people are the subject of history and that consuming is the only obligation of citizenship.  Their goal is to normalize the ideologies, modes of governance, and policies that reproduce massive inequities and suffering for the many and exorbitant and dangerous privileges for the corporate and financial elite.  They are the apostles of an unmitigated apology for thoughtlessness and assume that any act of critical thinking is tantamount to a form of  stupidity.  Moreover, such intellectuals are symptomic of the fact that neoliberalism represents a new historical conjuncture in which cultural institutions and political power has taken on a whole new life in shaping politics. What this implies is that the left in its various registers has to create its own public intellectuals in higher education, the alternative media, and all of those spaces where meaning circulates.  Intellectuals have a responsibility to connect their work to important social issues, work with popular movements, and engage in the shaping of policies that benefit all people and not simply a few. At the heart of this suggestion is the need to recognize that ideas matter in the battle against authoritarianism and that pedagogy must be central to any viable notion of politics and collective struggle. Public intellectuals have an obligation to work for global peace, individual freedom, care of others, economic justice, and democratic participation, especially at a time of legitimized violence and tyranny. I completely agree with the late Pierre Bourdieu when he insisted that there is enormous political importance “to defend the possibility and necessity of the intellectual, who is firstly critical of the existing state of affairs. There is no genuine democracy without genuine opposing critical power.”  The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition.  Put simply, academics have a duty to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, and making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view.

10. One final question. Are you optimistic about the future of the Left and of progressive politics in general?

It is impossible to be on the left and at the same time surrender to the normalization of a dystopian vision. One has to be optimistic, but also realistic. This means that there is no room for a kind of romanticized utopianism. Instead, one has to be motivated by a faith in the willingness of young people to fight principally for a future in which dignity, equality, and justice matter and at the same time recognize the forces that are preventing such a struggle. More specifically, hope has to be fed by the need for thoughtful collective action.  Power is never completely on the side of domination and resistance is not a luxury but a necessity. The left in its various registers has to engage the issue of economic inequality, overcome its fragmentation, develop an international social formation for radical democracy and the defense of the public good, undertake ways to finance itself, take seriously the educative nature of politics and the need to change the way people think, and develop a comprehensive notion of politics and a vision to match. History is open, though the gates are closing fast. The issue for me personally is not whether I am pessimistic, but how am I going to use whatever intellectual resources I have to make it harder from getting worse while struggling for a society in which the promise of democracy appears on the horizon of possibility.

C. J. Polychroniou writes for Eleftherotypia.

A version of this interview will appear in Eleftherotypia in Greece.