The Violence of Neoliberalism and the State of the American Left

Hrvoje Šimičević: You recently co-wrote with Brad Evans a book called “Disposable Futures”. What are the current foundations for disposable futures?

HG: The violence of global neoliberalism increasingly treats those elements of the population that do not buy into the values of casino capitalism or for whom they cannot extract wealth as excess, unworthy of being dignified as either citizens or for that matter human beings. As power becomes global concentrated in the hands of the financial elite, politics remains in the hands of nation states, which appear powerless in the face of the power of a global elite that now dictate politics as in Greece. Traditional politics is now held hostage to a financial elite that move in across an uncontrolled global space and no longer offer political concessions to the working class, the welfare state, or any notion of the common good. Democracy is the enemy of neoliberalism. Moreover, the removal of power from traditional politics has produced massive inequality, suffering, hardships, and ushered in an age of precarity in which more and more groups whether they be youth, immigrants, the poor, or workers living off their pensions are considered disposable. Young people are now burdened by crippling debt, the poor are going to prison for now paying fines for trivial legal infractions, debtor prisons are on the rise, and most people are now viewed as commodities to be exploited for profit. As one study has recently argued, the war on poverty has become a war on the poor as schools for the poor are modeled after prisons, the homeless are treated as criminals, and the victims of a range of social problems are now treated as criminals. Profit making has become the essence of democracy and the financial elite in many countries believe that the market should serve as a model for structuring all social relations. Identities are now produced to mimic the desire to shop, consume, retreat into narrow orbits of self-interest, and accept the notion that war is the metaphor to embrace in a culture wedded to the social Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest.

How would you describe current state of American society, based on Donald Trump’s enormous popularity?  

HG. America is a society that has been transformed from one that defined itself, however problematic, through the ideals of a democracy to a social order that is now run by a financial elite. Not only is it no longer a democracy, it has become both an oligarchy and an authoritarian state awash in the celebration of materialism, celebrity culture, civic illiteracy, the rise of a punishing state, and the endless spectacle of and immersion in violence. Economics now drives politics and the crisis of economics has not been matched by the crisis of ideas. Instead, it has promoted a crisis of judgment, thought, and politics. At one level, Trump signifies the dark currents of anti-intellectualism, militarism, racism, casino capitalism, and cult of violence that now shape everyday life in America. He also represents the morally debased figure of crude campiness, emblematic of the fact that for many Americans the only way in which they can feel anything that resembles pleasure or emotion for that matter is to bask in the light of never ending shocks, the spectacle of violence, and a world in which cruelty is viewed as a sport and mode of entertainment. Donald Trump is the new face of fascism given his racism, appeal to fear, celebration of wealth as the only criterion for leadership, and his flagrant exhibition appeal to a crude notion of theatricality. He embodies what Hannah Arendt once called thoughtlessness—a term she understood as the foundation of totalitarianism.  

Is there a true democracy in USA? American politicians often say that it is still the best democracy in human history. 

HG: American politicians in both parties are delusional and embrace a notion of American exceptionalism that has no bearing on reality. We hear over and over again about what a wonderful democracy America is while at the same time we are killing innocent people through drone strikes, waging war illegally in other countries such as Iraq, allowing 400 rich families to control half of America’s wealth, engaging in massive forms of incarceration of black and brown people, and so it goes. To buy into this logic is truly a kind of madness that reflects a historical, political, racial, and ethical form of amnesia. 

What about liberals like Hillary Clinton? Chris Hedges wrote a book about the death of the liberal class. What is your take on this?

HG. Liberals will do anything to preserve capitalism and the rule of the market. Rather than address deep seated social, political, and economic problems, they have become complicit in further right-wing agendas ranging from the cutting of valuable social services and bailing out big banks to demolishing the welfare state and expanding the punishing state and the militarization of American society. They are the moderate hand of the financial elite, and are completely controlled by big money. The offer the pretense of a two party system but in reality both parties are under the control of the financial elite. They have become more extreme politically since the 1980s in their efforts to please big business and to offer concessions to the hard right extremists in the Republican Party. Liberals are more afraid of the left than they are conservatives and that is one reason they have relentlessly supported and number of conservative policies such as their support for America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their silence over the surveillance state and drone warfare, with its indiscriminate killing of civilians. Liberals support a democratic party that is the hands of the financial elite and as such they have lost any sense of moral and political responsibility. They are cogs that simply try to project moderation in the midst of a galloping authoritarianism and offer no vision worth accepting. They have become transparent ideologically and politically, especially to young people and are now seen as part of the problem not the solution.

Obama is, in your words, “one of the most discredited presidents in the history of USA”. Why?

HG. With the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there was a widespread feeling among large sections of the American public and its intellectuals that the moment and threat of authoritarianism had passed.  Obama came to office embracing a number of democratic ideals. Not only has he defaulted on those ideals, but he has intensified many of the worse features of the Bush-Cheney years, which were a tipping point for America’s plunge into authoritarianism. He expanded a neoliberal educational policy of high stakes testing and the promotion of charter schools. He imprisoned and deported more Mexican immigrants than any other president. While he has suspended some of the illegalities promoted by the Bush Administration such as CIA black sites and specific torture techniques such as waterboarding, he has gone beyond Bush’s assault on civil liberties through the use of targeted assassinations, the enlargement of drone warfare, and the expansion of the surveillance state. He also renewed the Patriot Act, waged a war on whistle blowers, attempted to prosecute journalists, refused to prosecute government officials who engaged in state torture, and expanded the Military Commissions Act, increased the use of secret courts, and bailed out the big bankers after 2007 while cutting back on social provisions for the vulnerable. The contrast between Obama’s early idealistic rhetoric and his right wing policies will mark him in the future as not merely disingenuous but as a crucial force in the development of an authoritarian society.

You also said that public sphere and any notion of public good are under attack.  What about pedagogical and intellectual aspect, especially regarding war on youth? 

HG. What I have argued is that the tyranny of neoliberalism is not just about the ruthlessness of its financial institutions and economic structures, it is also about their willingness to both destroy any public institution such as schools where a critical formative culture can be developed and also create their own educational apparatuses where they can produce identities, subjects, social relations, and agents that mimic the values of the market place. They wage a war against language turning terms such as freedom, individualism, and happiness into registers for rejecting the welfare state, legitimating the most ruthless forms of self-interest, and claiming that both citizenship and happiness are largely about making money, buying and selling, and relishing in the ongoing practice of consumerism. One trade off here is a war being waged against youth, especially poor minorities of class and color. On one level, all youth are carpet-bombed by a culture that wants to turn them into both consumers and commodities. Rather than being viewed as a social investment, they are now viewed as a drain on the economy and are subjected to austerity measures that deprive them of crucial social services, meaningful jobs, and the possibility of a future better than the one their parents had.  This generation is one in which hope has been replaced by precarity, one in which young people have been written out of the discourse of democracy. At another level, there is a hard war waged against such youth whose behaviors are being criminalized, burdened by financial debt, and increasingly subject to police violence. This is far more serious and for many young people can turn deadly as we have seen in the United States with the ongoing shooting and killing of unarmed black men, women, and sometimes children.

In one of your recent interviews, you argued that the USA is in the midst of a counter-revolution, one that cannot be understood simply by pointing to police brutality. Can you explain this and is there a possibilities for changing the nature of how the elites and citizens of USA understand politics?

HG: I have argued that police brutality is symptomatic of a larger degree of lawlessness and violence that is deeply embedded in casino capitalism or neoliberalism. I think the elites are very clear about politics being shaped in their interests. They rail against inequality, uphold an authoritarian state, shift money and power from public assets to private interests, and they control all of the commanding political, economic, and cultural institutions of society. They hate democracy and love and support a fascistic system in which wealth, power, and income are largely in their hands.

What is the state of American left? Is the left silent on racism, class warfare, foreign militarization or mass surveillance?

HG. The left is not silent on any of these issues, especially regarding racism. There is a burgeoning movement among black youth that is linking racism not only to police violence but also to poverty, economic violence, and the need for deep political and economic structural changes. One example is in the Black Lives Matter movement.  The biggest problem with the American left is that it is fragmented and has not been able to come together to form a comprehensive political movement. Its disunity is both its weakness and its failure politically. Hopefully, this will change in the future as neoliberal power becomes more ruthless in its production of misery and repression.

What are your thoughts on Bernie Sanders and his candidacy within Democratic Party? Few months ago Ralph Nader said: “He makes Clinton a better phony candidate. She is going to have to agree with him on a number of things. She is going to have to be more anti-Wall Street to fend him off and neutralize him. We know it is bullshit. She will betray us once she becomes president. He is making her more likely to win. And by April he is done. Then he fades away.”

HG. The response to Bernie Sanders from the right is to dismiss him as a socialist, a term that stands in for everything conservatives don’t like, such as economic justice, but refuse to talk about. Various elements on the left dismiss him because of his support for Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the war on terror, the military budget, and his failure to reach out to racial and ethnic minorities. What I think is notable about Sanders is that he is highlighting the lack of democracy in the United States and talking about issues that are crucial to address. These range from breaking up the banks, a single-payer health care system, the regulation of drug prices, a tax on corporate trading, stronger labor unions, elimination of corporate tax havens, an investment in crumbling infrastructures, new economic models for producing jobs, the raising of the minimum wage, and the expanding of social Security Medicare, Medicaid and nutrition programs. These are all worthwhile goals. On another level, Sanders offers a platform grounded in reason, justice, and logic. He offsets the Donald Trump campaign which is grounded in spectacle, crass populism, appeals to hate, racism, and mobilizes moral panics. Sanders proves at one level that there is still room in the American public to challenge the fascist mobilization of desire, emotion and nonreason. My critique of Sanders following that of Chris Hedges, Jeffrey St. Clair, Stanley Aronowitz and others is that the problem is that Sanders is pushing for radical reforms within the Democratic Party, which is completely in the hands of the corporate elite. This is a party that is not only reproduces a morally and politically bankrupt system, but embraces almost all of what can be called the pathologies of neoliberalism. Sanders is useful only in that he provides a case study on why his platform, which is progressive, should be in the hands of an independent political party and not the corporatized Democratic Party. Also, there is those reactionary elements in Sanders’s politics that must be addressed and include his support of the war machine industries,  his support for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, his silence on Israel, and his refusal to argue for a an independent political formation outside of the democratic party.  Remember the Democratic party is the party of war and surveillance, a party that shreds civil liberties, prosecutes whistle blowers, and uses the police to quell student demonstrations, strikes, and collective dissent that spills into the streets. Sanders is a decent man operating in a dead end political machine and in that sense his failure should serve as an insight into the limits of the kind of politics he is endorsing.

Most of mainstream intellectuals and other individuals from academia are obviously co-modified within neoliberal agenda. How are radical intellectuals treated in USA?

HG: There are a few qualifications that must be made to answer this question. First, the conditions in which radical intellectuals can develop have largely disappeared. Higher education has destroyed the autonomy of faculty in that 70 percent of all faculty are now considered casual labor with no tenure and little power. Second, the mainstream media in the United States almost completely ignores the views of radical intellectuals making it very difficult for their views to be heard. Thirdly, many intellectuals from Norman Finkelstein to Steven Salaita have been denied tenure because of their political views. All of these measures have had a chilling effect on intellectuals, especially many in the academy who simply hide in academic disciplines and publish work that is either abstract or safe, or they simply conform to the neoliberal modes of governance and pedagogy that is now shaping higher education. There are others, though in a minority, such as Cornel West, Stanley Aronowitz, Gayatri Spivak, and Carol Becker who function as public intellectuals along with an increasing number of journalists such as Chris Hedges and Norman Solomon.  Also, black youth are taking up the mantle of resistance by becoming public intellectuals, especially those in the Black Lives Movement so there is some hope.

Do you think that protest movements like Black Lives Matter pose threat to this system and should that movements be focused on class warfare and capitalism? What are their perspectives?

HG. I think any movement that poses the possibility of a mass movement is a threat to this system. While their focus is on police brutality and racism, they are one of the few movements that is also focusing on class warfare and capitalism. They are not calling for reforms but for changing a system in which racism and predatory capitalism cannot be separated from each other. Time will tell if this movement expands and offers a critique of capitalism that prioritizes both the overcoming of racism and the abolition of capitalism itself.

Hrvoje Šimičević is a freelance journalist from Croatia.

(A Croatian version of this interview was published on weekly newspaper Novosti.)

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018), On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury), and Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2021). His website is www.