The debate in both Washington and the mainstream media over austerity measures, the alleged fiscal cliff and the looming debt crisis not only function to render anti-democratic pressures invisible, but also produce what the late sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “a politics of organized irresponsibility.” For Mills, authoritarian politics developed, in part, by making the operations of power invisible while weaving a network of lies and deceptions through what might be called a politics of disconnect. That is, a politics that focuses on isolated issues that serve to erase the broader relations and historical contexts that give them meaning. These isolated issues become flashpoints in a cultural and political discourse that hide not merely the operations of power, but also the resurgence of authoritarian ideologies, modes of governance, policies and social formations that put any viable notion of democracy at risk. Decontextualized ideas and issues, coupled with the overflow of information produced by the new electronic media, make it more difficult to create narratives that offer historical understanding, relational connections and developmental sequences. The fragmentation of ideas and the cascade of information reinforce new modes of depoliticization and authoritarianism.
At the same time, more important issues are buried in the fog of what might be called isolated and manufactured crises, that when given legitimacy, actually benefit the wealthy and hurt working- and middle-class individuals and families. Gerald Epstein rightly argues that the debate about the fiscal cliff is
a debacle on the part of the Obama administration and for progressives and for workers and for families. It’s a real disaster…. We shouldn’t be having to sit here talking about this; we should be talking about what are going to do about the employment cliff or the climate change cliff. But instead we’re talking about this fiscal cliff, which is a manufactured crisis.
The fiscal cliff argument is manufactured both in that it is not a real crisis (except for its impact on poor and middle-class families), and it serves as a diversion from pressing issues ranging from mass unemployment and widespread poverty, to the housing crisis and the student debt bomb. Moreover, it undermines understanding how these various problems are interrelated ideologically and structurally as part of an assault by religious and market fundamentalists on all aspects of public life that address the common good.
The expanded reach of politics in this discourse of distraction shrinks, and in doing so separates private troubles from public considerations, while undermining any broader understanding of the confluence of socio-economic-cultural interests and interrelated issues and problems that characterize a particular age. For instance, the debate on gun control says little about the deep-rooted culture of symbolic and structural violence that nourishes America’s infatuation with guns and its attraction to the spectacle of violence. Similarly, the mainstream debate over taxing the rich refuses to address this issue through a broader analysis of a society that is structurally wedded to producing massive inequities in income and wealth along with the considerable suffering and hardships produced by such social disparities.
In this denuded notion of politics, the connection between facts and wider theoretical frameworks and the connection between politics and power disappear just as the relationship between private troubles and larger social realities are covered over. Under such circumstances, politics is cleansed of its extremist elements and informed modes of dissent are not only marginalized but also actively suppressed, as was obvious in the FBI surveillance of Occupy Wall Street protesters and the police’s ruthless suppression of student dissenters on campuses across the country.
Blind Publics in an Authoritarian Age
What is missing in the current debates dominating Washington politics is the recognition that the real issues at stake are neither the debt ceiling nor the state of the economy, however important, but a powerful and poisonous form of authoritarianism that poses a threat to the very idea of democracy and the institutions, public values, formative cultures and public spheres that nourish it. The United States occupies a critical juncture in its history, one in which the forces of extremism are not just on the rise but are in the midst of revolutionizing modes of governance, ideology and policy. The politics of disconnect is just one of a series of strategies designed to conceal this deeper order of authoritarian politics. In a society that revels in bouts of historical and social amnesia, it is much easier for the language of politics and community to be stolen and deployed like a weapon so as to empty words such as democracy, freedom, justice and the social state of any viable meaning. Arundhati Roy captures the anti-democratic nature of this process in the following insightful comment. She writes:
This theft of language, this technique of usurping words and deploying them like weapons, of using them to mask intent and to mean exactly the opposite of what they have traditionally meant, has been one of the most brilliant strategic victories of the czars of the new dispensation. It has allowed them to marginalize their detractors, deprive them of a language to voice their critique and dismiss them as being “anti-progress,” “anti-development,” “anti-reform,” and of course “anti-national” – negativists of the worst sort. To reclaim these stolen words requires explanations that are too tedious for a world with a short attention span, and too expensive in an era when Free Speech has become unaffordable for the poor. This language heist may prove to be the keystone of our undoing.
This undoing of democracy to which Roy refers, and the dystopian society that is being created in its place, can be grasped in the current subordination of public values to commercial values and the collapse of democracy into the logic and values of what might called a predatory casino capitalism where life is cheap and everything is for sale. More specifically, from the ailing rib of democracy there is emerging not simply just an aggressive political assault on democratic modes of governance, but a form of linguistic and cultural authoritarianism that no longer needs to legitimate itself in an idea because it secures its foundational beliefs in a claim to normalcy;7 that is, Americans are now inundated with a pedagogy of cultural authoritarianism whose ideology, values, social practices and social formations cannot be questioned because they represent and legitimate the new neoliberal financial order. This is a mode of predatory casino capitalism that presents itself as a universal social formation without qualification, a social form that inhabits a circle of ideological and political certainty and cultural practice that equates being a citizen with being a consumer – in other words, predatory capitalism is transforming into a universal ethic that has exhausted all political differences, economic alternatives and counter readings of the world in the service of benefitting a financial and corporate elite and a savage form of economic Darwinism.
We get hints of the current mechanisms of diversion and its hidden order of politics in Robert Reich’s claim that the debate over the fiscal cliff should not only be about the broader issue of inequality but also must ask and address crucial political questions regarding the increasing concentration of power and “entrenched wealth at the top, and less for the middle-class and the poor.” We also see it in Frank Rich’s insistence that the endless debate conducted largely in the mainstream media about Washington being dysfunctional misses the point. Rich argues that beyond media’s silly argument that both parties are to blame for the current deadlock, lies a Republican Party strategy to make the Federal government look as dysfunctional as possible so as to convince the wider American public that the government should be dismantled and its services turned over to for-profit private interests. In fact, a number of recent critics now believe that the extremist nature of the current Republican Party represents one of the most difficult obstacles to any viable form of governance. Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, two prominent conservative commentators, recently have argued that moderates not only have been pushed out of the Republican Party but they are for all intents and purposes “virtually extinct.” They go even further in stating that:
In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has gone further and has characterized the Republican Party and its “corporate-centric super-PACs as treasonous.” He states that Americans “are now in a free fall toward old-fashioned oligarchy; noxious, thieving and tyrannical” and that given the role of the most corporate-friendly Supreme Court since the Gilded Age with its passage of the Citizens United decision, “those who have the money now have the loudest voices in our democracy while poor Americans are mute.”
More radical critics like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, Sheldon Wolin, Stanley Aronowitz, Judith Butler, Robert Scheer, Jeffrey St. Clair, Matt Taibbi, Angela Davis and David Theo Goldberg, among others, have long recognized the transformation of the United States from a weak democracy to a spirited authoritarian state. All of these theorists have challenged the permanent war economy, the erosion of civil liberties, the power of the corporate state, the moral bankruptcy of the liberal intelligentsia, the corporate control of the media, the criminal wars of repression abroad, the rise of the torture state and the increasing militarization of everyday life.
However extremist the Republican Party has become with its ongoing war on women, immigrants, young people, the welfare state, voting rights and all manner of civil rights, this should not suggest that the Democratic Party occupies a valued liberal position. On the contrary, policy in the United States is now being shaped by a Democratic Party that has become increasingly more conservative in the last 30 years along with a Republican Party that now represents one of the most extremist political parties to ever seize power in Washington. And while the Republican Party has fallen into the hands of radical extremists, both parties “support shifting the costs of the crisis and the government bailouts of banks, large corporations and the stock market, onto the mass of the citizens.” Both parties support bailing out the rich and doing the bidding of corporate lobbyists. Moreover, both parties reject the idea of democracy as a collectively inhabited public space and ethos that unconditionally stands for individual, political and economic rights. President Obama and his Wall Street advisors may hold onto some weak notion of the social contract, but they are far from liberal when it comes to embracing the military physics of the corporate warfare state.
As Chris Hedges, Paul Street, Noam Chomsky and Salvatore Babones have repeatedly pointed out, calling the Republican Party extremists should not cloud the increasingly authoritarian positions now embraced by the Obama administration. For instance, President Obama has deported more immigrants than his predecessor George W. Bush; he has advocated for the privatization of public schools, pursued neoliberal modes of educational governance and slashed funds from a number of vital social service programs. He has put into place a health care program that eliminated the public option and joined forces with insurance companies and Big Pharma.
As is well known, the Obama administration also kept Guantanamo open, justified warrantless wiretapping, accelerated drone attacks that killed many innocent civilians, supports indefinite detention and sanctions a form of “extraordinary rendition,” in which potential terrorists are abducted and shipped off to foreign countries to be tortured. In fact, the realm of politics has moved so far to the right in the United States that modes of extremism that were once thought unthinkable have now become commonplace. As Glenn Greenwald has argued, the Patriot Act, state-sponsored torture, assassinations, kill lists and surveillance programs, once “widely lamented as a threat to core American liberties” have “become such a fixture in our political culture that we are trained to take them for granted, to view thewarped as normal.”13 While both parties have given up the mantel of democratic politics, the Republican Party is more extreme in its range of targets and its savage attempts to destroy those modes of governance and public spheres that provide the conditions for robust and critical forms of civic life, education, agency and democracy.