Remains of Obama "Hope" posters. Judith Butler warned soon after Obama’s victory, “Obama is, after all, hardly a leftist, regardless of the attributions of ‘socialism’ proffered by his conservative opponents. In what ways will his actions be constrained by party politics, economic interests, and state power; in what ways have they been compromised already?" (Photo: arcticpenguin)
Needless to say, many would disagree with Wolin’s view that the United States is in the grip of a new and dangerous authoritarianism that makes a mockery of the country’s moral claim to being a model of democracy at home and for the rest of the world. For instance, liberal critic Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, refers to America’s changing political landscape as a “shrinking democracy.” For Reich, democracy necessitates three things: “(1) Important decisions are made in the open. (2) The public and its representatives have an opportunity to debate them, so the decisions can be revised in light of what the public discovers and wants. And (3) those who make the big decisions are accountable to voters.” If we apply Reich’s notion of democracy, then it becomes evident that the use of the term democracy is neither theoretically apt nor politically feasible at the current historical moment as a description of the United States. All of the conditions he claims are crucial for a democracy are now undermined by financial and economic interests that control elections, buy off political representatives, and eliminate those public spheres where real dialogue and debate can take place. It is difficult to imagine that anyone looking at a society in which an ultra-rich financial elite and megacorporations have the power to control almost every aspect of politics—from who gets elected to how laws are enacted—could possibly mistake this social order and system of government for a democracy. A more appropriate understanding of democracy comes from Wolin in his claim that
democracy is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs. What is at stake in democratic politics is whether ordinary men and women can recognize that their concerns are best protected and cultivated under a regime whose actions are governed by principles of commonality, equality, and fairness, a regime in which taking part in politics becomes a way of staking out and sharing in a common life and its forms of self-fulfillment. Democracy is not about bowling together but about managing together those powers that immediately and significantly affect the lives and circumstances of others and one’s self. Exercising power can be humbling when the consequences are palpable rather than statistical—and rather different from wielding power at a distance, at, say, an “undisclosed bunker somewhere in northern Virginia.”
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Wolin ties democracy not merely to participation and accountability but to the importance of the formative culture necessary for critical citizens and the need for a redistribution of power and wealth, that is, a democracy in which power is exercised not just for the people by elites but by the people in their own collective interests. But more importantly, Wolin and others recognize that the rituals of voting and accountability have become empty in a country that has been reduced to a lock-down universe in which torture, abuse, and the suspension of civil liberties have become so normalized that more than half of all Americans now support the use of torture under some circumstances. Torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, murder, and disappeared “enemy combatants” are typical practices carried out in dictatorships, not in democracies, especially in a democracy that allegedly has a liberal president whose election campaign ran on the promise of change and hope. Maybe it’s time to use a different language to name and resist the registers of power and ideology that now dominate American society.
While precise accounts of the meaning of authoritarianism, especially fascism, abound, I have no desire, given its shifting nature, to impose a rigid or universal definition. What is to be noted is that many scholars, such as Kevin Passmore and Robert O. Paxton, agree that authoritarianism is a mass movement that emerges out of a failed democracy, and its ideology is extremely anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and anti-socialistic. As a social order, it is generally characterized by a system of terror directed against perceived enemies of the state; a monopolistic control of the mass media; an expanding prison system; a state monopoly of weapons; political rule by privileged groups and classes; control of the economy by a limited number of people; unbridled corporatism; “the appeal to emotion and myth rather than reason; the glorification of violence on behalf of a national cause; the mobilization and militarization of civil society; [and] an expansionist foreign policy intended to promote national greatness.” All of these tendencies were highly visible during the former Bush administration. 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 threat of authoritarianism had passed. And yet there are many troubling signs that in spite of the election of Obama, authoritarian policies not only continue to unfold unabated within his administration but continue outside of his power to control them. In this case, antidemocratic forces seem to align with many of the conditions that make up what Wolin calls the politics of inverted totalitarianism.
I think it is fair to say that authoritarianism can permeate the lived relations of a political culture and social order and can be seen in the ways in which such relations exacerbate the material conditions of inequality, undercut a sense of individual and social agency, hijack democratic values, and promote a deep sense of hopelessness, cynicism, and eventually unbridled anger. This deep sense of cynicism and despair on the part of the polity in the face of unaccountable corporate and political power lends credence to Hannah Arendt’s notion that at the heart of totalitarianism is the disappearance of the thinking, dialogue, and speaking citizens who make politics possible. Authoritarianism as both an ideology and a set of social practices emerges within the lives of those marked by such relations, as its proponents scorn the present while calling for a revolution that rescues a deeply anti-modernist past in order to revolutionize the future.
Determining for certain whether we are in the midst of a new authoritarianism under the leadership of Barack Obama is difficult, but one thing is clear: any new form of authoritarianism that emerges in the current time will be much more powerful and complex in its beliefs, mechanisms of power, and modes of control than the alleged idealism of one man or one administration. The popular belief, especially after McCain’s defeat, was that the country had made a break with its morally transgressive and reactionary past and that Obama signified not just hope but political redemption. Such views ignored both the systemic and powerfully organized financial and economic forces at work in American society while vastly overestimating the power of any one individual or isolated group to challenge and transform them. Even as the current economic meltdown revealed the destructive and distinctive class character of the financial crisis, the idea that the crisis was rooted in systemic causes that far exceeded a few bailouts was lost even on liberal economists such as Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs, and Joseph Stiglitz.
Within such economic analyses and narratives of political redemption, the primacy of hope and “critical exuberance” took precedence over the reality of established corporate power, ideological interests, and the influence of the military-industrial complex. As Judith Butler warned soon after Obama’s victory, “Obama is, after all, hardly a leftist, regardless of the attributions of ‘socialism’ proffered by his conservative opponents. In what ways will his actions be constrained by party politics, economic interests, and state power; in what ways have they been compromised already? If we seek through this presidency to overcome a sense of dissonance, then we will have jettisoned critical politics in favor of an exuberance whose phantasmatic dimensions will prove consequential.” In retrospect, Butler’s comments have proven prescient, and the hope that accompanied Obama’s election has now been tempered by not simply despair but in many quarters outright and legitimate anger.
If Bush’s presidency represented an exceptional anti-democratic moment, it would seem logical that the Obama administration would have examined, condemned, and dismantled policies and practices at odds with the ideals of an aspiring democracy. Unfortunately, such has not been the case under Obama, at least up to this point in his administration. Within the past few years, Obama has moved decidedly to the right, and in doing so has extended some of the worst elements of the counter-terrorism policies of the Bush administration. He has endorsed the use of military commissions, argued for the use of indefinite detention with no charges or legal recourse for Afghan prisoners, extended the USA Patriot Act, continued two wars while expanding the war in Afghanistan, and largely reproduced Bush’s market-driven approach to school reform. As Noam Chomsky points out, Obama has done nothing to alter the power and triumph of financial liberalization in the past thirty years. He bailed out banks and financial investment institutions at the expense of the 26.3 million Americans who are either unemployed or do not have full-time jobs along with the millions who have lost their homes. His chief economic and foreign policy advisors—Tim Geithner, Lawrence Summers, and Robert Gates—represent a continuation of a military and big business orientation that is central to the ideologies and power relations of a undemocratic and increasingly bankrupt economic and political system. While claiming to enact policies designed to reduce the federal deficit, Obama plans to cut many crucial domestic programs while increasing military spending, the intelligence budget, and foreign military aid. Obama has requested a defense budget for 2011 of $708 billion, in addition to calling for $33 billion to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This budget is almost as large as the rest of the entire world’s defense spending combined. Roger Hodge provides a useful summary of Obama’s failings, extending from the perversion of the rule of law to the authoritarian claim of “sovereign immunity.” He writes:
Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guanta?namo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, and wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass. As president, with few exceptions, Obama either has embraced the unconstitutional war powers claimed by his predecessor or has left the door open for their quiet adoption at some later date. Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has declared that the right to kidnap (known as “extraordinary rendition”) foreigners will continue, just as the Bush administration’s expansive doctrine of state secrets continues to be used in court against those wrongfully detained and tortured by our security forces and allies. Obama has adopted military commissions, once an unpardonable offense against our best traditions, to prosecute terrorism cases in which legitimate convictions cannot be obtained....The principle of habeas corpus, sacred to candidate Obama as “the essence of who we are,” no longer seems so essential, and reports continue to surface of secret prisons hidden from due process and the Red Cross. Waterboarding has been banned, but other “soft” forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation and force-feeding, continue—as do the practices, which once seemed so terribly important to opponents of the Bush regime, of presidential signing statements and warrantless surveillance. In at least one respect, the Obama Justice Department has produced an innovation: a claim of “sovereign immunity” in response to a lawsuit seeking damages for illegal spying. Not even the minions of George W. Bush, with their fanciful notions of the unitary executive, made use of this constitutionally suspect doctrine, derived from the ancient common-law assumption that “the King can do no wrong,” to defend their clear violations of the federal surveillance statute.
Moreover, by giving corporations and unions unlimited freedom to contribute to elections, the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission provided a final step in placing the control of politics more firmly in the hands of big money and large corporations. In this ruling, democracy—like everything else in American culture—was treated as a commodity and offered up to the highest bidder. As a result, whatever government regulations are imposed on big business and the financial sectors will be largely ineffective and will do little to disrupt casino capitalism’s freedom from political, economic, and ethical constraints. Chris Hedges is right in insisting that the Supreme Court’s decision “carried out a coup d’e?tat in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost. The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and the triumph of corporate power....The corporate state is firmly cemented in place.”
In light of his conservative, if not authoritarian, policies, Obama’s once inspiring call for hope has been reduced to what appears to be simply an empty performance, one that “favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time.” What once appeared as inspired rhetoric has largely been reduced to fodder for late-night television comics, while for a growing army of angry voters it has become nothing more than a cheap marketing campaign and disingenuous diversion in support of moneyed interests and power. Obama’s rhetoric of hope is largely contradicted by policies that continue to reproduce a world of egotistic self-referentiality, an insensitivity to human suffering, massive investments in military power, and an embrace of those market-driven values that produce enormous inequalities in wealth, income, and security. There is more at stake here than a politics of misrepresentation and bad faith. There is an invisible register of politics that goes far beyond the contradiction between Obama’s discourse and his right-wing policies. What we must take seriously in Obama’s policies is the absence of anything that might suggest a fundamental power shift away from casino capitalism to policies that would develop the conditions “that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs.” In Obama’s world, cutthroat competition is still the name of the game, and individual choice is still simply about a hunt for bargains. Lost here is any notion of political and social responsibility for the welfare, autonomy, and dignity of all human beings but especially those who are marginalized because they lack food, shelter, jobs, and other crucial basic needs. But then again, this is not Obama’s world; it is a political order and mode of economic sovereignty that has been in the making for quite some time and now shapes practically every aspect of culture, politics, and civic life. In doing so it has largely destroyed any vestige of real democracy in the United States.
I am not suggesting that in light of Obama’s continuation of some of the deeply structured authoritarian tendencies in American society that people should turn away from the language of hope, but I am saying that they should avoid a notion of hope that is as empty as it is disingenuous. What is needed is a language of critique and hope that mutually inform each other, and engagement in a discourse of hope that is concretely rooted in real struggles and capable of inspiring a new political language and collective vision among a highly conservative and fractured polity. Maybe it is time to shift the critique of Obama away from an exclusive focus on the policies and practices of his administration and develop a new language, one with a longer historical purview and deeper understanding of the ominous forces that now threaten any credible notion of the United States as an aspiring democracy. As Stuart Hall insists, we “need to change the scale of magnification” in order to make visible the anti-democratic relations often buried beneath the hidden order of politics that have taken hold in the United States in the last few decades. It may be time to shift the discourse away from focusing on either Obama’s failures or urging progressives and others to develop “the organizational power to make muscular demands” on the Obama administration. Maybe the time has come to focus on the ongoing repressive and systemic conditions, institutions, ideologies, and values that have been developing in American society for the last thirty years, forces that are giving rise to a unique form of American authoritarianism. I agree with Sheldon Wolin that the “fixation upon” Obama now “obscures the problems” we are facing. Maybe it is time to imagine what democracy would look like outside of what we have come to call capitalism, not simply neoliberalism at its most extreme manifestation. Maybe it is time to fight for the formative culture and modes of thought and agency that are the very foundations of democracy. And maybe it is time to mobilize a militant, far-reaching social movement to challenge the false claims that equate democracy and capitalism.
If it is true that a new form of authoritarianism is developing in the United States, undercutting any vestige of a democratic society, then it is equally true that there is nothing inevitable about this growing threat. The long and tightening grip of authoritarianism in American political culture can be resisted and transformed. This dystopic future will not happen if intellectuals, workers, young people, diverse social movements unite to create the public spaces and unsettling formative educational cultures necessary for reimagining the meaning of radical democracy. In part, this is a pedagogical project, one that recognizes consciousness, agency, and education as central to any viable notion of politics. It is also a project designed to address, critique, and make visible the commonsense ideologies that enable neoliberal capitalism and other elements of an emergent authoritarianism to function alongside a kind of moral coma and political amnesia at the level of everyday life. But such a project will not take place if the American public cannot recognize how the mechanisms of authoritarianism have had an impact on their lives, restructured negatively the notion of freedom, and corrupted power by placing it largely in the hands of ruling elites, corporations, and different segments of the military and national security state. Such a project must work to develop vigorous social spheres and communities that promote a culture of deliberation, public debate, and critical exchange across a wide variety of cultural and institutional sites in an effort to generate democratic movements for social change. Central to such a project is the attempt to foster a new radical imagination as part of a wider political project to create the conditions for a broad-based social movement that can move beyond the legacy of a fractured left/progressive culture and politics in order to address the totality of the society’s problems. This suggests finding a common ground in which challenging diverse forms of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion can become part of a broader challenge to create a radical democracy. We need to develop an educated and informed public—one that embraces a culture of questioning and puts into question society’s commanding institutions. Such a citizenry is crucial to the development of a critical formative culture organized around a project of autonomy and mode of politics in which, as Cornelius Castoriadis insists, broader concerns with power and justice are connected to the need “to create citizens who are critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes society’s movement...that is to say, a new type of regime in the full sense of the term.” We live in a time that demands a discourse of both critique and possibility, one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and viable social movements, democracy will slip out of our reach and we will arrive at a new stage of history marked by the birth of an authoritarianism that not only disdains all vestiges of democracy but is more than willing to relegate it to a distant memory.
This book was published just as the Obama administration finished its second year in office. Initially, hopes were high among large segments of the American public.
The long dark years of war, repression, secrecy, and corruption were rejected by popular vote, and a brighter day seemed on the horizon, or so it seemed. Obama spoke a political language that embodied hope, and his earnest embrace of the American dream appeared to represent the possibility of a more just future. Under Bush, the United States had come as close to authoritarianism as was possible without giving up all vestiges of democratic aspirations. The Bush/Cheney regime was the apotheosis of a new kind of politics in American life, one in which the arrogance of power and wealth transformed a limited social state into a mode of sovereignty that not only worked in the interests of rich and powerful corporations but also increasingly viewed more and more individuals and groups as disposable and expendable. As politics came to occupy the center of life itself, the welfare state was transformed into a corporate and punishing state. Problems were no longer viewed as in need of social and political remedies. Instead, they were criminalized, reduced to matters of law and order—when law and order weren’t suspended altogether. The defense of the common good, public values, and social protections moved from the center of political culture to the margins—reduced to an inconvenience, if not a threat to those who occupied the privileged precincts of power. In the midst of a militarized culture of fear, insecurity, and market-driven values, economics drove politics to its death-dealing limit, as crucial considerations of justice, ethics, and compassion were largely expunged from our political vocabulary, except as objects of disdain or a weak-kneed liberal nostalgic yearning. It seemed as if the living dead now ruled every commanding aspect of the culture, extending from the media to popular expression itself.
Tragically, little has changed since Barack Obama took office. The politics of corruption, death, and despair appear to define the Obama administration as much as they did the relentless eight years of the Bush regime. This book is an attempt to develop a new form of political critique forged out of what may seem an extreme metaphor, the zombie or hyper-dead. Yet the metaphor is particularly apt for drawing attention to the ways in which political culture and power in American society now work in the interests of bare survival, if not disposability, for the vast majority of people—a kind of war machine and biopolitics committed to the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which large segments of the population live under a state of siege, reduced to a form of social death. The zombie metaphor does more than suggest the symbolic face of power, it points dramatically to a kind of “mad agency that is power in a new form, death-in-life” agency without conscience and bereft of social democratic imagination or hope. This is what Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics in which “death is the mediator of the present—the only form of agency left.” What is new about this type of politics is that it is not hidden, lurking in the shadows but appears daily and unremarkably in memos, reports, and policies justifying illegal legalities such as the use of state
secrets, indefinite detention without charge, the massive incarceration of people of color, hidden prisons, a world of night raids, the bailout of corrupt corporations that led to the direct destitution of millions, and the full-fledged attack on a weakened oppositional culture of thoughtfulness and critique, itself all but left for dead. The figure of the zombie utilizes the iconography of the living dead to signal a society that appears to have stopped questioning itself, that revels in its collusion with human suffering, and is awash in a culture of unbridled materialism and narcissism. Though not of his making, this is now Obama’s challenge; and yet the politics of death and suffering continue unabated both in the United States and in America’s imperial adventures abroad.
This book is an attempt to understand critically both the political and pedagogical conditions that have produced this culture of sadism and death, attempting to mark and chart its visible registers, including the emergence of right-wing teaching machines, a growing politics of disposability, the emergence of a culture of cruelty, the ongoing war being waged on young people, and especially on youth of color. The book begins and ends with an analysis of authoritarianism and the ways it reworks itself, mutates, and attacks parasitically the desiccated shell of democracy, sucking out its life-blood. The focus on authoritarianism serves as both a warning as well as a call to critical engagement in the interest of hope—not as a political rhetoric emptied of context and commitment but one that seeks to resuscitate a democratic imaginary and energized social movements that is the one antidote to the zombification of politics.
In the first section of the book, elements of the new authoritarianism are analyzed as a death-dealing politics that works its way through a culture of deceit, fear, humiliation, torture, and market-driven desire for their ever more “extreme” expressions. Next it focuses on challenging the rise of a politics of illiteracy and the ongoing destruction of democratic public spheres, stressing how the values of casino capitalism are mobilized through the emergence of market-driven commercial spheres and public institutions such as schools. The third section of the book focuses on the figure of youth as a register of the crisis of public values, signaling the impending crisis of a democratic future. The merging of zombie politics and the increasing scale of suffering and hardship that young people have to endure in the United States points to the serious political and ethical consequences of a society mobilized and controlled by casino capitalism—a capitalism that in its arrogance and greed takes the side of death and destruction rather than siding with democracy and public life. The figure of the zombie signifies not just a crisis of consciousness but a new type of political power and “mad agency,” visible in the rituals of economic Darwinism that rule not just reality TV but everyday life. But such a politics is far from undefeatable, and surely it is not without the continued presence and possibility of individual and collective resistance. My hope is that this book will break through a diseased common sense that often masks zombie politicians, anti-public intellectuals, politics, institutions, and social relations and bring into focus the need for a new language, pedagogy, and politics in which the living dead will be moved decisively to the margins rather than occupying the very center of politics and everyday life.
Part II NOTES
39. Robert Reich, “Our Incredible Shrinking Democracy,” AlterNet (February 2, 2010).
42. Heather Maher,“Majority of Americans Think Torture ‘Sometimes’ Justified,” Common Dreams (December 4, 2009).
45. Judith Butler, “Uncritical Exuberance?” IndyBay.org (November 5, 2008).
46. For an excellent analysis of the current status of the Patriot Act, see William Fisher, “Patriot Act—Eight Years Later,” Truthout (February 3, 2010).
47. Glenn Greenwald has taken up many of these issues in a critical and thoughtful fashion. See his blog at Salon.
48. Noam Chomsky,“Anti-Democratic Nature of US Capitalism Is Being Exposed,”The Irish Times (October 10, 2008).
50. Chris Hedges, “Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction,” TruthDig (January 24, 2010).
51. Naomi Klein,“How Corporate Branding Has Taken over America,”The Guardian/UK (January 16, 2010).
This article may not be republished or reproduced without specific permission from Peter Lang Publishers.