Henry A. Giroux -
Since 9/11, the war on terror and the campaign for homeland security have increasingly mimicked the tactics of the enemies they sought to crush. Violence and punishment as both a media spectacle and a bone-crushing reality have become prominent and influential forces shaping U.S. society. As the boundaries between “the realms of war and civil life have collapsed,” social relations and the public services needed to make them viable have been increasingly privatized and militarized.1 The logic of profitability works its magic in channeling the public funding of warfare and organized violence into universities, market-based service providers, Hollywood cinema, cable television, and deregulated contractors. The metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of U.S. society.
As the preferred “instrument of statecraft,” war and its intensifying production of violence crosses borders, time, space, and places.2 The result is that the United States “has become a ‘culture of war’…engulfed in fear and violence [and trapped by a military metaphysics in which] homeland security matters far more than social security.”3 Seemingly without any measure of self-restraint, state-sponsored violence now flows and regroups effortlessly, contaminating both foreign and domestic policies. The criticism of the military-industrial complex, along with its lobbyists and merchants of death, that was raised by President Eisenhower seems to have been relegated to the trash can of history. Instead of being disparaged as a death machine engaged in the organized production of violence, the military-industrial complex is defended as a valuable jobs program and a measure of national pride and provides a powerful fulcrum for the permanent warfare state.
It gets worse. One consequence of the permanent warfare state is evident in the recent public revelations concerning war crimes committed by U.S. government forces. These include the indiscriminate killings of Afghan civilians by U.S. drone aircraft; the barbaric murder of Afghan children and peasant farmers by U.S. infantrymen infamously labeled as “the Kill Team”;4 disclosures concerning four U.S. marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters; and the uncovering of photographs showing “more than a dozen soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team, along with some Afghan security forces, posing with the severed hands and legs of Taliban attackers in Zabul Province in 2010.”5 And, shocking even for those acquainted with standard military combat, there is the case of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who “walked off a small combat outpost in Kandahar province and slaughtered 17 villagers, most of them women and children, and later walked back to his base and turned himself in.”6 Mind-numbing violence, war crimes, and indiscriminate military attacks on civilians on the part of the U.S. government are far from new and date back to infamous acts such as the air attacks on civilians in Dresden along with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War.7
Military spokespersons are typically quick to remind the U.S. public that such practices are part of the price one pays for combat and are endemic to war itself. State violence wages its ghastly influence through a concept of permanent war, targeted assassinations, an assault on civil liberties, and the use of drone technologies that justifies the killing of innocent civilians as collateral damage. Collateral damage has also come home with a vengeance as soldiers returning from combat are killing themselves at record rates and committing mayhem—particularly sexual violence and spousal and child abuse.8 After more than a decade at war, soldiers in the U.S. military are also returning home and joining the police, thus contributing to the blurring of the line between the military and law enforcement.
The history of atrocities committed by the United States in the name of war need not be repeated here, but some of these incidents have doubled in on themselves and fueled public outrage against the violence of war.9 One of the most famous events was the My Lai massacre, which played a crucial role in mobilizing protests against the Vietnam War.10 Even dubious appeals to national defense and honor can provide no excuse for mass killings of civilians, rapes, and other acts of destruction that completely lack any justifiable military objective. Not only does the alleged normative violence of war disguise the moral cowardice of the warmongers, it also demonizes the enemy and dehumanizes soldiers. It is this brutalizing psychology of desensitization, emotional hardness, and the freezing of moral responsibility that is particularly crucial to understand, because it grows out of a formative culture in which war, violence, and the dehumanization of others becomes routine, commonplace, and removed from any sense of ethical accountability.
It is necessary to recognize that acts of extreme violence and cruelty do not represent merely an odd or marginal and private retreat into barbarism. On the contrary, warlike values and the social mindset they legitimate have become the primary currency of a market-driven culture that takes as its model a Darwinian shark tank in which only the strongest survive. In a neoliberal order in which vengeance and revenge seem to be the most cherished values in a “social order organized around the brute necessity of survival,” violence becomes both a legitimate mediating force and one of the few remaining sources of pleasure.11 At work in the new hyper-social Darwinism is a view of the Other as the enemy, an all-too-quick willingness in the name of war to embrace the dehumanization of the Other, and an all-too-easy acceptance of violence, however extreme, as routine and normalized. As many theorists have observed, the production of extreme violence in its various incarnations is now a source of profit for Hollywood moguls, mainstream news, popular culture, the corporate-controlled entertainment industry, and a major market for the defense industries.12
This pedagogy of brutalizing hardness and dehumanization is also produced and circulated in schools, boot camps, prisons, and a host of other sites that now trade in violence and punishment for commercial purposes, or for the purpose of containing populations that are viewed as synonymous with public disorder. The mall, juvenile detention facilities, many public housing projects, privately owned apartment buildings, and gated communities all embody a model of a dysfunctional sociality and have come to resemble proto-military spaces in which the culture of violence and punishment becomes the primary order of politics, fodder for entertainment, and an organizing principle for society. All of these spaces and institutions, from malls to housing projects to schools, are beginning to resemble war zones that impose needless frameworks of punishment. This is evident not only in New York City’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy, but also in shopping malls that now impose weekend teen curfews, hire more security guards, employ high-tech surveillance tools, and closely police the behavior of young people. Similarly, housing projects have become militarized security zones meting out harsh punishments for drug offenders and serve as battlegrounds for the police and young people.
Even public-school reform is now justified in the dehumanizing language of national security, which increasingly legitimates the transformation of schools into adjuncts of the surveillance and police state.13 The privatization and militarization of schools mutually inform each other as students are increasingly subjected to disciplinary apparatuses that limit their capacity for critical thinking while molding them into consumers, testing them into submission, stripping them of any sense of social responsibility, and convincing large numbers of poor minority students that they are better off under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system instead of being treated as valued members of the public schools. Schools are increasingly absorbing the culture of prisons and are aggressively being transformed into an extension of the criminal justice system.
Many public schools are being militarized to resemble prisons instead of being safe places that would enable students to learn how to be critical and engaged citizens. Rather than being treated with dignity and respect, students are increasingly treated as if they were criminals, given that they are repeatedly “photographed, fingerprinted, scanned, x-rayed, sniffed and snooped on.”14 The space of the school resembles a high-security prison with its metal detectors at the school entrances, drug-sniffing dogs in school corridors, and surveillance cameras in the hallways and classrooms. Student behaviors that were once considered child play are now elevated to the status of a crime. Young people who violate dress codes, engage in food fights, hug each other, doodle, and shoot spit wads are no longer reprimanded by the classroom teacher or principal; instead their behavior is criminalized. Consequently, the police are called in to remove them from the classroom, handcuff them, and put them in the back of a police car to be carted off to a police station where they languish in a holding cell. There is a kind of doubling that takes place here between the culture of punishment, on the one hand, and the feeding of profits for the security-surveillance industries, on the other.
What has emerged in the United States is a civil and political order structured around the problem of violent crime. This governing-through-crime model produces a highly authoritarian and mechanistic approach to addressing social problems that often focuses on low-income and poor minorities, promotes highly repressive policies, and places undue emphasis on personal security rather than considering the larger complex of social and structural forces that fuels violence in the first place. Far from promoting democratic values, a respect for others, and social responsibility, a governing-through-crime approach criminalizes a wide range of behaviors and in doing so often functions largely to humiliate, punish, and demonize. The abuse and damage that is being imposed on young people as a result of the ongoing militarization and criminalization of public schools defy the imagination. And the trivial nature of the behaviors that produce such egregious practices is hard to believe. A few examples will suffice:
In November 2011, a 14-year-old student in Brevard County, Florida, was suspended for hugging a female friend, an act which even the principal acknowledged as innocent. A 9-year-old in Charlotte, North Carolina, was suspended for sexual harassment after a substitute teacher overheard the child tell another student that the teacher was “cute.” A 6-year-old in Georgia was arrested, handcuffed and suspended for the remainder of the school year after throwing a temper tantrum in class. A 6-year-old boy in San Francisco was accused of sexual assault following a game of tag on the playground. A 6-year-old in Indiana was arrested, handcuffed and charged with battery after kicking a school principal. Twelve-year-old Alexa Gonzalez was arrested and handcuffed for doodling on a desk. Another student was expelled for speaking on a cell phone with his mother, to whom he hadn’t spoken in a month because she was in Iraq on a military deployment. Four high school students in Detroit were arrested and handcuffed for participating in a food fight and charged with a misdemeanor with the potential for a 90-day jail sentence and a $500 fine. A high school student in Indiana was expelled after sending a profanity-laced tweet through his Twitter account after school hours. The school had been conducting their own surveillance by tracking the tweeting habits of all students. These are not isolated incidents. In 2010, some 300,000 Texas schoolchildren received misdemeanor tickets from police officials. One 12-year-old Texas girl had the police called on her after she sprayed perfume on herself during class.15
Public spaces that should promote dialogue, thoughtfulness, and critical exchange are ruled by fear and become the ideological corollary of a state that aligns its priorities to war and munitions sales while declaring a state of emergency (under the aegis of a permanent war) as a major reference for shaping domestic policy. In addition, the media and other cultural apparatuses now produce, circulate, and validate forms of symbolic and real violence that dissolve the democratic bonds of social reciprocity. This dystopian use of violence as entertainment and spectacle is reinforced through the media’s incessant appeal to the market-driven egocentric interests of the autonomous individual, a fear of the Other, and a stripped-down version of security that narrowly focuses on personal safety rather than collective security nets and social welfare. One consequence is that those who are viewed as disposable and reduced to zones of abandonment are forced “to address the reality of extreme violence…in the very heart of their everyday life.”16 Violence in everyday life is matched by a surge of violence in popular culture. Violence now runs through media and popular culture like an electric current. As the New York Times reported recently, “The top-rated show on cable TV is rife with shootings, stabbings, machete attacks and more shootings. The top drama at the box office fills theaters with the noise of automatic weapons fire. The top-selling video game in the country gives players the choice to kill or merely wound their quarry.”17
Under such a warlike regime of privatization, militarism, and punishing violence, it is not surprising that the Hollywood film The Hunger Games has become a mega-box-office hit. The film and its success are symptomatic of a society in which violence has become the new lingua franca. It portrays a society in which the privileged classes alleviate their boredom through satiating their lust for violent entertainment, and in this case a brutalizing violence waged against children. Although a generous reading might portray the film as a critique of class-based consumption and violence, given its portrayal of a dystopian future society so willing to sacrifice its children, in the end the film should more accurately be read as depicting the terminal point of what I have called elsewhere the “suicidal society” (a suicide pact literally ends the narrative).18
Given Hollywood’s rush for ratings, the film gratuitously feeds enthralled audiences with voyeuristic images of children being killed for sport. In a very disturbing opening scene, the audience observes children killing one another within a visual framing that is as gratuitous as it is alarming. That such a film can be made for the purpose of attaining high ratings and big profits, while becoming overwhelmingly popular among young people and adults alike, says something profoundly disturbing about the cultural force of violence and the moral emptiness at work in U.S. society. This is not the type of violence that is instructive about how damaging the spectacle of violence can be. On the contrary, such representations of violence are largely gratuitous, and they create the conditions for a disturbing voyeurism while both mitigating the effects of violence and normalizing it. Of course, the meaning and relevance of The Hunger Games rest not simply with its production of violent imagery against children, but with the ways these images and the historical and contemporary meanings they carry are aligned and realigned with broader discourses, values, and social relations. Within this network of alignments, risk and danger combine with myth and fantasy to stoke the seductions of sadomasochistic violence, echoing the fundamental values of the fascist state in which aesthetics dissolves into pathology and a carnival of cruelty. How else to explain the emergence of superhero films that increasingly contain deep authoritarian strains, films that appear to have a deep hold on their dutifully submissive audiences. The film critic A. O. Scott has argued that films such as Spider-Man, Dark Knight, and The Avengers are marked by a “hectic emptiness,” “bloated cynicism,” and “function primarily as dutiful corporate citizens…serving private interests.”19 But most important, they reinforce the increasingly popular notion that “the price of entertainment is obedience.”20 There is more at work here than what Scott calls “imaginative decadence.”21 There is also the seductive lure and appeal of the authoritarian personality, which runs deep in U.S. culture and finds its emergence in the longing for hyper-masculine superheroes who merge vigilante justice with anti-democratic values.22 Equally disturbing is the alignment of such films with a corporate-controlled cultural apparatus that legitimates and celebrates a passive embrace of authoritarian values, power, and mythic authoritarian figures.
Within the contemporary neoliberal theater of cruelty, war has expanded its poisonous reach and moves effortlessly within and across U.S. national boundaries. As Chris Hedges has pointed out brilliantly and passionately, war “allows us to make sense of mayhem and death” as something not to be condemned, but to be celebrated as a matter of national honor, virtue, and heroism.23 One particularly egregious example of this took place in the summer of 2012 when NBC decided to air Stars Earn Stripes, a reality TV show in which celebrities are matched with U.S. military personnel, including former Green Berets and Navy Seals, in carrying out simulated military training, “including helicopter drops in water and long-range weapons fire, all under the direction of retired General Wesley Clark.”24 The various contestants compete against each other to win prizes that are given to various armed forces, charities, and some veterans groups. NBC celebrates the show as a “fast-paced competition” and defends it as a “glorification of service” rather than a “glorification of war.”25 War in this rendering becomes a form of sport, amusement, and entertainment. The violence of war and the human suffering and death it produces is both sanitized and trivialized in this show. Amy Fairweather, a member of the veterans’ organization Swords to Ploughshares, rightly criticized the program: “The show ‘trivialized’ war, whose real consequences were ‘not that you were knocked out of the competition next week, the consequences are you don’t get to go on with your life.’”26 Nine Nobel Prize winners, including Desmond Tutu, echoed this view in a letter to NBC. They wrote:
It is our belief that this program pays homage to no one anywhere and continues and expands on an inglorious tradition of glorifying war and armed violence…. Real war is down-in-the-dirt deadly. People—military and civilians—die in ways that are anything but entertaining. Communities and societies are ripped apart in armed conflict and the aftermath can be as deadly as the war itself as simmering animosities are unleashed in horrific spirals of violence. War, whether relatively short-lived or going on for decades as in too many parts of the world, leaves deep scars that can take generations to overcome—if ever. Trying to somehow sanitize war by likening it to an athletic competition further calls into question the morality and ethics of linking the military anywhere with the entertainment industry in barely veiled efforts to make war and its multitudinous costs more palatable to the public.27
Celebrating war, spectacularized violence, and hyper-masculinity reveals more than an ethical descent into barbarism. It also makes visible a market-driven social and economic order that is driven by a financial elite who subordinate all ethical, political, and material considerations to the altar of profit-making and capital accumulation.28 War takes as its aim the killing of others and legitimates violence through a morally bankrupt mindset in which just and unjust notions of violence collapse into each other, increasingly in the name of profit and the glorification of celebrity culture. Consequently, it has become increasingly difficult to determine justifiable violence and humanitarian intervention from unjustifiable violence involving torture, massacres, and atrocities, which now operate in the liminal space and moral vacuum of legal illegalities. Even when such acts are recognized as war crimes, they are often dismissed as simply an inevitable consequence of war itself. This view was recently echoed by Leon Panetta, who, responding to the killing of civilians by U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, observed: “War is hell. These kinds of events and incidents are going to take place, they’ve taken place in any war, they’re terrible events, and this is not the first of those events, and probably will not be the last.”29 He then made clear the central contradiction that haunts the use of machineries of war by stating: “But we cannot allow these events to undermine our strategy.”30 Panetta’s qualification is a testament to barbarism because it means being committed to a war machine that trades in indiscriminate violence, death, and torture while ignoring the pull of conscience or ethical considerations. Hedges is right when he argues that defending such violence in the name of war is a rationale for “usually nothing more than gross human cruelty, brutality and stupidity.”31
War and the organized production of violence have also become forms of governance, increasingly visible in the ongoing militarization of police departments throughout the United States. According to the Homeland Security Research Corporation, “The homeland security market for state and local agencies is projected to reach $19.2 billion by 2014, up from $15.8 billion in fiscal 2009.”32 The structure of violence is also evident in the rise of the punishing and surveillance state,33 with its legions of electronic spies and ballooning prison population—now more than 2.3 million. Evidence of state-sponsored warring violence can also be found in the domestic war against “terrorists” (code for young protesters), which provides new opportunities for major defense contractors and corporations to become “more a part of our domestic lives.”34 Young people, particularly poor minorities of color, have already become the targets of what David Theo Goldberg calls “extraordinary power in the name of securitization… [They are viewed as] unruly populations…[who] are to be subjected to necropolitical discipline through the threat of imprisonment or death, physical or social.”35 The rhetoric of war is now used by politicians not only to appeal to a solitary warrior mentality in which responsibility is individualized, but also to attack women’s reproductive rights, limit the voting rights of minorities, and justify the most ruthless cutting of social protections and benefits for public servants and the poor, unemployed, and sick. There is also the day-to-day effects of a hyped-up and militarized police force that in light of the subordination of individual rights to matters of individual security rarely questions the limits of their own authority. One example of the emerging police state can be found in roadside police stops in which any regard for privacy, individual rights, and human dignity appears to have been abandoned. John W. Whitehead, the director of the Rutherford Institute, provides one disturbing but not untypical example of the police state in action. He writes:
Consider, for example, what happened to 38-year-old Angel Dobbs and her 24-year-old niece, Ashley, who were pulled over by a Texas state trooper on July 13, 2012, allegedly for flicking cigarette butts out of the car window. First, the trooper berated the women for littering on the highway. Then, insisting that he smelled marijuana, he proceeded to interrogate them and search the car. Despite the fact that both women denied smoking or possessing any marijuana, the police officer then called in a female trooper, who carried out a roadside cavity search, sticking her fingers into the older woman’s anus and vagina, then performing the same procedure on the younger woman, wearing the same pair of gloves. No marijuana was found. [And in a hard to believe second example,] Leila Tarantino was allegedly subjected to two roadside strip searches in plain view of passing traffic during a routine traffic stop, while her two children—ages 1 and 4—waited inside her car. During the second strip search, presumably in an effort to ferret out drugs, a female officer “forcibly removed” a tampon from Tarantino’s body. No contraband or anything illegal was found.36
The politics and pedagogy of death begins in the celebration of war and ends in the unleashing of violence on all those considered disposable on the domestic front. A survival-of-the-fittest ethic and the utter annihilation of the Other have now become normalized, saturating everything from state policy to institutional practices to the mainstream media. How else to explain the growing taste for violence in, for example, the world of professional sports, extending from professional hockey to extreme martial arts events? The debased nature of violence and punishment seeping into the U.S. cultural landscape becomes clear in the recent revelation that the New Orleans Saints professional football team was “running a ‘bounty program’ which rewarded players for inflicting injuries on opposing players.”37 In what amounts to a regime of terror pandering to the thrill of the crowd and a take-no-prisoners approach to winning, a coach offered players a cash bonus for “laying hits that resulted in other athletes being carted off the field or landing on the injured player list.”38
The bodies of those considered competitors, let alone enemies, are now targeted as the war-as-politics paradigm turns the United States into a warfare state. And even as violence flows out beyond the boundaries of state-sponsored militarism and the containment of the sporting arena, citizens are increasingly enlisted to maximize their own participation and pleasure in violent acts as part of their everyday existence—even when fellow citizens become the casualties. Maximizing the pleasure of violence with its echo of fascist ideology far exceeds the boundaries of state-sponsored militarism and violence. Violence can no longer be defined as an exclusively state function, since the market in its various economic and cultural manifestations now enacts its own violence on numerous populations no longer considered of value. Perhaps nothing signals the growing market-based savagery of the contemporary moment more than the privatized and corporate-fueled gun culture of the United States.
Gun culture now rules U.S. values and has a powerful influence in shaping domestic policies. The National Rifle Association is the emerging symbol of what the United States has come to represent, perfectly captured in T-shirts worn by its followers that brazenly display the messages “I hate welfare” and the biblical-sounding message “If any would not work neither should he eat.”39 The celebration of guns and violence merges in this case with a culture of cruelty, hatred, and exclusion. The National Rifle Association begins to resemble a regime of terror as politics and violence become an inseparable part of its message and the most important mediating force in shaping its identity. The relationship Americans have to guns may be complicated, but the social costs are less nuanced and certainly more deadly. In a country with “90 guns for every 100 people,” it comes as no surprise, as Gary Younge points out, that “more than 85 people a day are killed with guns and more than twice that number are injured with them.”40 The merchants of death trade in a formative and material culture of violence that causes massive suffering and despair while detaching themselves from any sense of moral responsibility. Social costs are rarely considered, in spite of the endless trail of murders committed by the use of such weapons and largely inflicted on poor minorities and young people.
With respect to young people, “Each year, more than 20,000 children and youth under age 20 are killed or injured by firearms in the United States. The lethality of guns, as well as their easy accessibility to young people, are key reasons why firearms are the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 19. Only motor vehicle accidents claim more young lives.”41 Violence has become not only more deadly but flexible, seeping into a range of institutions, cannibalizing democratic values, and merging crime and terror. As Jean and John Comaroff point out, under such circumstances a social order emerges that “appears ever more impossible to apprehend, violence appears ever more endemic, excessive, and transgressive, and police come, in the public imagination, to embody a nervous state under pressure.”42 The lethality of gun culture and the spectacle of violence are reinforced in U.S. life as public disorder becomes both a performance and an obsession. The obsession with violence is clearly reflected in advertising and other everyday venues—advertising can even “transform nightmare into desire….[Yet] violence is never just a matter of the circulation of images. Its exercise, legitimate or otherwise, tends to have decidedly tangible objectives. And effects.”43
An undeniable effect of the warmongering state is the drain on public coffers. The United States has the largest military budget in the world and “in 2010–2011 accounted for 40% of national [federal government] spending.”44 The Eisenhower Study Group at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies estimates that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the U.S. taxpayers between $3.7 and $4.4 trillion. What is more, funding such wars comes with an incalculable price in human lives and suffering. For example, the Eisenhower Study Group estimated that in these two wars there have been over 224,475 lives lost, 363,383 people wounded, and 7 million refugees and internally displaced people.45 But war has another purpose, especially for neoconservatives who want to destroy the social state. By siphoning funds and public support away from much needed social programs, war, to use David Rothkopf’s phrase, “diminishes government so that it becomes too small to succeed.”46
The warfare state hastens the dismantling of the social state and its limited safety net, creating the conditions for the ultra-rich, mega-corporations, and finance capital to appropriate massive amounts of wealth, income, and power. This has resulted between 2010 and 2012 in the largest-ever increase in inequality of income and wealth in the United States.47 One acute register of the growing inequality in wealth and income is provided by Michael D. Yates:
In the United States in 2007, it is estimated that the five best-paid hedge-fund managers “earned” more than all of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 corporations combined. The income of just the top three hedge-fund managers (James Simon, John Paulson, and George Soros) taken together was $9 billion dollars in 2007…. Pittsburgh hedge-fund manager David Tepper made four billion dollars…. If we were to suppose that Mr. Tepper worked 2,000 hours in 2009 (fifty weeks at forty hours per week), he took in $2,000,000 per hour and $30,000 a minute…. Others are not so fortunate. In 2010, more than 7 million people had incomes less than 50 percent of the official poverty level of income, an amount equal to $11,245, which in hourly terms (2,000 hours of work per year) is $5.62. At this rate, it would take someone nearly three years to earn what Tepper got each minute. About one-quarter of all jobs in the United States pay an hourly wage rate that would not support a family of four at the official poverty level of income.48
Structural inequalities do more than distribute wealth and power upward to the privileged few and impose massive hardships on the poorest members of society. They also generate forms of collective violence accentuated by high levels of uncertainty and anxiety, all of which, as Michelle Brown points out, “makes recourse to punishment and exclusion highly seductive possibilities.”49 The merging of the punishing and financial state is partly legitimated through the normalization of risk, insecurity, and fear in which individuals not only have no way of knowing their fate, but also have to bear the consequences of being left adrift by neoliberal capitalism.
Increasingly, institutions such as schools, prisons, detention centers, and our major economic institutions are being organized for the production of violence. Rather than promote democratic values and a respect for others or embrace civic values, they often function largely to humiliate, punish, and demonize any vestige of social responsibility. Our political system is now run by a financial oligarchy that is comparable to what Alain Badiou calls a “regime of gangsters.”50 And as he rightly argues, the message we get from the apostles of casino capitalism carries with it another form of social violence:
Privatize everything. Abolish help for the weak, the solitary, the sick and the unemployed. Abolish all aid for everyone except the banks. Don’t look after the poor; let the elderly die. Reduce the wages of the poor, but reduce the taxes on the rich. Make everyone work until they are ninety. Only teach mathematics to traders, reading to big property-owners and history to on-duty ideologues. And the execution of these commands will in fact ruin the lives of millions of people.51
It is precisely this culture of cruelty that has spread throughout the United States that makes the larger public not merely susceptible to violence but induces it to luxuriate in its alleged pleasures. In U.S. society, the seductive power of the spectacle of violence is fed through a framework of fear, blame, and humiliation that circulates widely in popular culture. The consequence is a culture marked by increasing levels of inequality, suffering, and disposability. There is not only a “surplus of rage,” but also a collapse of civility in which untold forms of violence, humiliation, and degradation proliferate. Hyper-masculinity and the spectacle of a militarized culture now dominate U.S. society—one in which civility collapses into rudeness, shouting, and unchecked anger. What is unique at this historical conjuncture in the United States is that such public expression of hatred, violence, and rage “no longer requires concealment but is comfortable in its forthrightness.”52 How else to explain the support by the majority of Americans for state-sanctioned torture, the public indifference to the mass incarceration of poor people of color, the silence on the part of many Americans in the face of the increasing use of police and state-sanctioned violence against peaceful Occupy Wall Street protesters, or the public silence in the face of police violence in public schools against children, even those in elementary schools? As war becomes the organizing principle of society, the ensuing effects of an intensifying culture of violence on a democratic civic culture are often deadly and invite anti-democratic tendencies that pave the way for authoritarianism.
In addition, as the state is hijacked by the financial-military-industrial complex, the “most crucial decisions regarding national policy are not made by representatives, but by the financial and military elites.”53 Such massive inequality and the suffering and political corruption it produces point to the need for critical analysis in which the separation of power and politics can be understood. This means developing terms that clarify how power becomes global even as politics continues to function largely at the national level, with the effect of reducing the state primarily to custodial, policing, and punishing functions—at least for those populations considered disposable.
The state exercises its slavish role in the form of lowering taxes for the rich, deregulating corporations, funding wars for the benefit of the defense industries, and devising other welfare services for the ultra-rich. There is no escaping the global politics of finance capital and the global network of violence it has produced. Resistance must be mobilized globally and politics restored to a level where it can make a difference in fulfilling the promises of a global democracy. But such a challenge can only take place if the political is made more pedagogical and matters of education take center stage in the struggle for desires, subjectivities, and social relations that refuse the normalizing of violence as a source of gratification, entertainment, identity, and honor.
War in its expanded incarnation works in tandem with a state organized around the production of widespread violence. Such a state is necessarily divorced from public values and the formative cultures that make a democracy possible. The result is a weakened civic culture that allows violence and punishment to circulate as part of a culture of commodification, entertainment, distraction, and exclusion. In opposing the emergence of the United States as both a warfare and a punishing state, I am not appealing to a form of left moralism meant simply to mobilize outrage and condemnation. These are not unimportant registers, but they do not constitute an adequate form of resistance.
What is needed are modes of analysis that do the hard work of uncovering the effects of the merging of institutions of capital, wealth, and power, and how this merger has extended the reach of a military-industrial-carceral and academic complex, especially since the 1980s. This complex of ideological and institutional elements designed for the production of violence must be addressed by making visible its vast national and global interests and militarized networks, as indicated by the fact that the United States has over 1,000 military bases abroad.54 Equally important is the need to highlight how this military-industrial-carceral and academic complex uses punishment as a structuring force to shape national policy and everyday life.
Challenging the warfare state also has an important educational component. C. Wright Mills was right in arguing that it is impossible to separate the violence of an authoritarian social order from the cultural apparatuses that nourish it. As Mills put it, the major cultural apparatuses not only “guide experience, they also expropriate the very chance to have an experience rightly called ‘our own.’”55 This narrowing of experience shorn of public values locks people into private interests and the hyper-individualized orbits in which they live. Experience itself is now privatized, instrumentalized, commodified, and increasingly militarized. Social responsibility gives way to organized infantilization and a flight from responsibility.
Crucial here is the need to develop new cultural and political vocabularies that can foster an engaged mode of citizenship capable of naming the corporate and academic interests that support the warfare state and its apparatuses of violence, while simultaneously mobilizing social movements to challenge and dismantle its vast networks of power. One central pedagogical and political task in dismantling the warfare state is, therefore, the challenge of creating the cultural conditions and public spheres that would enable the U.S. public to move from being spectators of war and everyday violence to being informed and engaged citizens.
Unfortunately, major cultural apparatuses like public and higher education, which have been historically responsible for educating the public, are becoming little more than market-driven and militarized knowledge factories. In this particularly insidious role, educational institutions deprive students of the capacities that would enable them not only to assume public responsibilities, but also to actively participate in the process of governing. Without the public spheres for creating a formative culture equipped to challenge the educational, military, market, and religious fundamentalisms that dominate U.S. society, it will be virtually impossible to resist the normalization of war as a matter of domestic and foreign policy.
Any viable notion of resistance to the current authoritarian order must also address the issue of what it means pedagogically to imagine a more democratically oriented notion of knowledge, subjectivity, and agency and what it might mean to bring such notions into the public sphere. This is more than what Bernard Harcourt calls “a new grammar of political disobedience.”56 It is a reconfiguring of the nature and substance of the political so that matters of pedagogy become central to the very definition of what constitutes the political and the practices that make it meaningful. Critical understanding motivates transformative action, and the affective investments it demands can only be brought about by breaking into the hardwired forms of common sense that give war and state-supported violence their legitimacy. War does not have to be a permanent social relation, nor the primary organizing principle of everyday life, society, and foreign policy.
The war of all-against-all and the social Darwinian imperative to respond positively only to one’s own self-interest represent the death of politics, civic responsibility, and ethics, and set the stage for a dysfunctional democracy, if not an emergent authoritarianism. The existing neoliberal social order produces individuals who have no commitment, except to profit, disdain social responsibility, and loosen all ties to any viable notion of the public good. This regime of punishment and privatization is organized around the structuring forces of violence and militarization, which produce a surplus of fear, insecurity, and a weakened culture of civic engagement—one in which there is little room for reasoned debate, critical dialogue, and informed intellectual exchange. Patricia Clough and Craig Willse are right in arguing that we live in a society “in which the production and circulation of death functions as political and economic recovery.”57
The United States understood as a warfare state prompts a new urgency for a collective politics and a social movement capable of negating the current regimes of political and economic power, while imagining a different and more democratic social order. Until the ideological and structural foundations of violence that are pushing U.S. society over the abyss are addressed, the current warfare state will be transformed into a full-blown authoritarian state that will shut down any vestige of democratic values, social relations, and public spheres. At the very least, the U.S. public owes it to its children and future generations, if not the future of democracy itself, to make visible and dismantle this machinery of violence while also reclaiming the spirit of a future that works for life rather than death—the future of the current authoritarianism, however dressed up they appear in the spectacles of consumerism and celebrity culture. It is time for educators, unions, young people, liberals, religious organizations, and other groups to connect the dots, educate themselves, and develop powerful social movements that can restructure the fundamental values and social relations of democracy while establishing the institutions and formative cultures that make it possible. Stanley Aronowitz is right in arguing that:
the system survives on the eclipse of the radical imagination, the absence of a viable political opposition with roots in the general population, and the conformity of its intellectuals who, to a large extent, are subjugated by their secure berths in the academy [and though] we can take some solace in 2011, the year of the protester…it would be premature to predict that decades of retreat, defeat and silence can be reversed overnight without a commitment to what may be termed “a long march” through the institutions, the workplaces and the streets of the capitalist metropoles.58
The current protests among young people, workers, the unemployed, students, and others are making clear that this is not—indeed, cannot be—only a short-term project for reform, but must constitute a political and social movement of sustained growth, accompanied by the reclaiming of public spaces, the progressive use of digital technologies, the development of democratic public spheres, new modes of education, and the safeguarding of places where democratic expression, new identities, and collective hope can be nurtured and mobilized. Without broad political and social movements standing behind and uniting the call on the part of young people for democratic transformations, any attempt at radical change will more than likely be cosmetic.
Any viable challenge to the new authoritarianism and its theater of cruelty and violence must include developing a variety of cultural discourses and sites where new modes of agency can be imagined and enacted, particularly as they work to reconfigure a new collective subject, modes of sociality, and “alternative conceptualizations of the self and its relationship to others.”59 Clearly, if the United States is to make a claim to democracy, it must develop a politics that views violence as a moral monstrosity and war as virulent pathology. How such a claim to politics unfolds remains to be seen. In the meantime, resistance proceeds, especially among the young people who now carry the banner of struggle against an encroaching authoritarianism that is working hard to snuff out all vestiges of democratic life.
Henry A. Giroux is a social critic and educator, and the author of many books. He currently holds the Global Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Ontario. This article is adapted from America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth, forthcoming, Monthly Review Press.