Slouching Towards Bethlehem

The New Gilded Age and Neoliberalism’s Theater of Cruelty

One of the distinctive features of the modern American right has been nostalgia for the late 19th century, with its minimal taxation, absence of regulation and reliance on faith-based charity rather than government social programs. Conservatives from Milton Friedman to Grover Norquist have portrayed the Gilded Age as a golden age, dismissing talk of the era’s injustice and cruelty as a left-wing myth. Well, in at least one respect, everything old is new again. Income inequality — which began rising at the same time that modern conservatism began gaining political power — is now fully back to Gilded Age levels.

— Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman, “Gilded Once More”, The New York Times, May 27, 2007.

What is often ignored by many theorists who analyze the rise of neoliberalism in the United States is that it is not only a system of economic power relations, but also a political project of governing and persuasion intent on producing new forms of subjectivity and particular modes of conduct.Thomas Lemke, “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Rethinking Marxism, Volume 14, Number 3, (Fall 2002), pp. 49-64. In addressing the absence of what can be termed the cultural politics and public pedagogy of neoliberalism, I want to begin with a theoretical insight provided by the British media theorist, Nick Couldry, who insists that “every system of cruelty requires its own theatre,” one that draws upon the rituals of everyday life in order to legitimate its norms, values, institutions, and social practices.Nick Couldry, “Realty TV, or the Secret Theatre of Neoliberalism,” The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies (forthcoming), p. 1. Neoliberalism represents one such a system of cruelty, one that is reproduced daily through a regime of commonsense and a narrow notion of political rationality that “reaches from the soul of the citizen-subject to educational policy to practices of empire.”Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 40.

What is new about neoliberalism in a post-9/11 world is that it has become normalized, serving as a powerful pedagogical force that shapes our lives, memories, and daily experiences, while attempting to erase everything critical and emancipatory about history, justice, solidarity, freedom, and the meaning of democracy.

Wedded to the belief that the market should be the organizing principle for all political, social, and economic decisions, neoliberalism wages an incessant attack on democracy, public institutions, public goods, and non-commodified values. Under neoliberalism everything either is for sale or is plundered for profit. Public lands are looted by logging companies and corporate ranchers; politicians willingly hand the public’s airwaves over to broadcasters and large corporate interests without a dime going into the public trust; corporations drive the nation’s energy policies, and the war industries give war profiteering a new meaning as the government hands out contracts without any competitive bidding; the largesse of government is then rewarded when the latter is bilked for millions by the same companies; the environment is polluted and despoiled in the name of profit-making just as the government passes legislation to make it easier for corporations to do so; public services are gutted in order to lower the taxes of major corporations; schools increasingly resemble malls or jails and teachers, forced to raise revenue for classroom materials, increasingly function as circus barkers hawking everything from hamburgers to pizza parties — that is, when they are not reduced to prepping students to get higher test scores. The neoliberal economy with its relentless pursuit of market values now extends to the entirety of human relations. As markets are touted as the driving force of everyday life, big government is disparaged as either incompetent or a threat to individual freedom, suggesting that power should reside in markets and corporations rather than in governments and citizens. Citizenship has increasingly become a function of market values and politics has been restructured as “corporations have been increasingly freed from social control through deregulation, privatization, and other neoliberal measures.”William K. Tabb, “Race to the Bottom?” in Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, eds. Implicating Empire: Globalization & Resistance in the 21 Century World Order (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 153.

Fortunately, the corporate capitalist fairytale of neoliberalism has been challenged all over the globe by students, labor organizers, intellectuals, community activists, and a host of individuals and groups unwilling to allow democracy to be bought and sold by a combination of multinational corporations, corporate swindlers, international political institutions, and those government politicians who willingly align themselves with corporate interests and profits. From Seattle to Davos, people engaged in popular resistance are collectively taking up the challenge of neoliberalism and reviving both the meaning of resistance and the places where it comes about. Political culture is now global and resistance is amorphous, connecting students with workers, school teachers with parents, and intellectuals with artists. Groups protesting the attack on farmers in India whose land is being destroyed by the government in order to build dams now find themselves in alliance with young people resisting sweatshop labor in New York City. Environmental activists are joining up with key sections of organized labor as well as with groups protesting Third World debt. The collapse of the neoliberal showcase, Argentina, along with numerous corporate bankruptcies and scandals starting with Enron, reveals the cracks in neoliberal hegemony and domination. In Latin America, a new wave of resistance to negative globalization and neoliberal structural adjustment policies has emerged among countries such as Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Venezuela.Richard L. Harris, “Popular Resistance to Globalization and Neoliberalism in Latin America,” Journal of Developing Societies 19:2-3 (2003), pp. 365-426.

In addition, the multiple forms of resistance against neoliberal capitalism are not limited by an identity politics focused on particularized rights and interests. On the contrary, a politics of identity politics has been expanded to address a broader crisis of political culture and democracy that connects the militarization and corporatization of public life with the collapse of the welfare state and the attack on civil liberties. Central to these new movements is the notion that neoliberalism has to be understood within a larger crisis of vision, meaning, education, and political agency. Democracy in this view is not limited to the struggle over economic resources and power; indeed, it also includes the creation of public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need to perform as autonomous political agents. I want to expand the reaches of this debate by arguing that any form of resistance against neoliberalism must address the discourses of political agency, civic education, and cultural politics as part of a broader struggle over the relationship between democratization (the ongoing struggle for a substantive and inclusive democracy) and the global public sphere.


We live at a time when the conflation of private interests, empire building, and evangelical fundamentalism puts into question the very nature, if not existence, of the democratic process. Under the reign of neoliberalism, capital and wealth have been largely distributed upward while civic virtue has been undermined by a slavish celebration of the free market as the model for organizing all facets of everyday life. Political culture has been increasingly emptied of democratic values as collective life is organized around the modalities of privatization, risks, deregulation, and commercialization. When the alleged champions of neoliberalism invoke politics, they substitute “ideological certainty for reasonable doubt” and deplete “the national reserves of political intelligence” just as they endorse “the illusion that the future can be bought instead of earned.”Lewis Lapham, “Buffalo Dances,” Harper’s Magazine, May, 2004, pp. 9, 11. Under attack is the social contract in which people were bound together, not as individuals expressing themselves only through the market place but as citizens who had obligations to one another. What neoliberalism undermines is a social contract bound to enlarging the public good, protecting the public values , and expanding social provisions — such as access to adequate health care, housing, employment, public transportation, and education — that put into place a limited though important safety net and a set of conditions upon which democracy could be experienced and critical citizenship engaged. It has been replaced with a notion of national security based on fear, surveillance, and control rather than with a culture of shared responsibility. Self-reflection and collective empowerment are now reduced to self-promotion, and self-interest, and legitimated by a new and ruthless social Darwinism played out nightly on network television as a metaphor for the “naturalness” of downsizing, the celebration of hyper-masculinity, and the promotion of an unchecked notion of self-interest and individualism over even the most limited notions of solidarity and collective struggle. Neoliberalism with its celebration of markets, finance, and investors “requires a new belief in the future . . . the time of investment is now. The future must be lived in the present.”Randy Martin, “War, by all Means,” Social Text 25:2 (Summer 2007), p. 17.

Under neoliberal domestic restructuring and the foreign policy initiatives of the Washington Consensus, motivated by an evangelical belief in free-market democracy at home and free trade abroad, the United States in the last thirty years has witnessed the increasing obliteration of those discourses, social forms, public institutions, and non-commercial values that are central to the language of the common good, public commitment, and democratically charged politics. Civic engagement now appears impotent as corporations privatize public space and disconnect power from issues of equity, social justice, and civic responsibility. Proceeding outside of democratic accountability, neoliberalism has allowed a handful of private interests to control as much of social life as possible in order to maximize their personal profit.

Abroad, neoliberal global policies have been used to pursue rapacious free trade agreements and expand Western financial and commercial interests through the heavy-handed policies of the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund in order to manage and transfer resources and wealth from the poor and less developed nations to the richest and most powerful nation states and to the wealthy, corporate defenders of capitalism.For an excellent analysis of the profound impact the world bank has on global politics and culture, see Bret Benjamin, Invested Interest: Capital, Culture, and the World Bank (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Third world and semi-peripheral states of Latin America, Africa, and Asia have become client states of the wealthy nations led by the United States. Loans made to the client states by banks and other financial institutions have produced severe dislocations and consequences for “social welfare programs such as health care, education, and laws establishing labor standards.”Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, “The Debate About Globalization: An Introduction,” in Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, eds. Implicating Empire: Globalization & Resistance in the 21 Century World Order (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 3. For example, the restrictions that the IMF and World Bank impose on countries as a condition for granting loans not only impose capitalist values, they also undermine the very possibility of an inclusive and substantive democracy. The results have been disastrous and can be seen both in the economic collapse of countries such as Nigeria and in the fact that “one third of the world’s labor force–more than a billion people–are unemployed or underemployed.”Stanley Aronowitz, How Class Works (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 30. Tracking twenty-six countries that received loans from the World Bank and the IMF, The Multinational Monitor spelled out the conditions that accompanied such loans:

[C]ivil service downsizing; [p]rivatization of government-owned enterprises, with layoffs required in advance of privatization and frequently following privatization; [p]romotion of labor flexibility — regulatory changes to remove restrictions on the ability of government and private employers to fire or lay off workers; [m]andated wage reductions, minimum wage reductions or containment, and spreading the wage gap between government employees and managers; and [p]ension reforms, including privatization, that cut social security benefits for workers.The Multinational Monitor, September 2001, pp. 7-8. See also, David Moberg, “Plunder and Profit,” In These Times, March 29, 2004, pp. 20-21.

At home, corporations increasingly not only design the economic sphere but also shape legislation and policy affecting all levels of government, and with limited opposition. As corporate power lays siege to the political process, the benefits flow to the rich and the powerful. Included in such benefits are reform policies that shift the burden of taxes from the rich to the middle class, the working poor, and state governments as can be seen in the shift from taxes on wealth (capital gains, dividends, and estate taxes) to a tax on work, principally in the form of a regressive payroll tax. During the 2002-2004 fiscal period, tax cuts delivered $197.3 billion in tax breaks to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (i.e., households making more than $337,000 a year) while state governments increased taxes to fill a $200 billion budget deficit.Sean Gonsalves, “How to Skin a Rabbit,” The Cape Cod Times, April 20, 2004. Equally alarming, a recent congressional study revealed that 63 percent of all corporations in 2000 paid no taxes while “[s]ix in ten corporations reported no tax liability for the five years from 1996 through 2000, even though corporate profits were growing at record-breaking levels during that period.”Cheryl Woodard, “Who Really Pays Taxes in America: Taxes and Politics in 2004,” April 15, 2004. While the rich get huge tax cuts, the Pentagon is spending about “$6 billion a month on the war in Iraq or about $2 million a day.”Martin Wolk, “Cost of Iraq Could Surpass $1 Trillion,” MSNBC, March 17, 2006. Moreover, as part of an ongoing effort to destroy public entitlements, the Bush administration has reduced government-provided services, income, and health care; in addition, it has implemented cuts in Medicare and veterans benefits as well as trimmed back or eliminated funds for programs for children and for public housing. Neoliberal global policies also further the broader cultural project of privatizing social services through appeals to “personal responsibility as the proper functions of the state are narrowed, tax and wage costs in the economy are cut, and more social costs are absorbed by civil society and the family.”Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003, p. 16. The hard currency of human suffering permeates the social order as health care costs rise, one out of five children remain beneath the poverty line, and 47 million Americans bear the burden of lacking health insurance. In 2007, President Bush vetoed legislation that would have provided an additional and much needed $35 billion to the highly successful and popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-chip). Bush’s justification ranged from silly–as when he claimed the whole issue was a media myth — to the more transparent and ideologically driven argument that the program would expand “socialized-type medicine,” interfere with private insurance, and cost too much.

Actually, the costs for the bill would have come from levying a 61-cents-a-pack increase in the federal excise tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products, providing a further disincentive for smokers.Paul Krugman, “Children Versus Insures,” New York Times, April 6, 2007, p. A21. Moreover, the program run by insurers, doctors, and nurses who deliver the services. This bill would have provided health insurance for 3.8 million children from low-income families who are currently uninsured. Besides a veto, the Bush administration offers no alternative program to address the plight of the nine million children uninsured and the millions underinsured. What becomes clear in this egregious act of presidential incompetence and moral indifference is that Bush the unflappable neoliberal warrior was willing to sacrifice the health of millions of poor children as part of his relentless attempts to destroy all vestiges of the welfare state and promote his pro-corporate, market-based fundamentalism.For some informative commentaries on the S-chip program and Bush’s veto, see Amy Goodman, “Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman Calls on Congress & Bush Administration to Help the Country’s Nine Million Children Without Health Insurance,” Democracy Now, July 24, 2007; Editorial, “Misleading Spin on Children’s Health,” New York Times, October 5, 2007, p. A26; Paul Krugman, “Conservatives Are Such Jokers,” New York Times, October 5, 2007, p. A27. Draining the public treasury of funds and disparaging the social state does more than result in failed governance, it also puts people’s lives at risk, as was obvious in the government’s recent failure to provide decent care at Walter Reed Hospital for wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time that it starves public programs and services, neoliberalism becomes complicitous with the transformation of the democratic state into a national security state that repeatedly uses its military and political power to develop a daunting police state and military-prison-education-industrial complex to punish workers, stifle dissent, and undermine the political power of labor unions and progressive social movements.

With its debased belief that profit-making is the essence of democracy, and its definition of citizenship as an energized plunge into consumerism, neoliberalism loosens or eliminates government regulation of market forces, celebrates a ruthless competitive individualism, and places the commanding political, cultural, and economic institutions of society in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the privileged, and unrepentant religious bigots.

Within the discourse of neoliberalism, democracy becomes synonymous with free markets while issues of equality, social justice, and freedom are stripped of any substantive meaning and used to disparage those who suffer systemic deprivation and chronic punishment. Individual misfortune, like democracy itself, is now viewed either as an excess or as being in need of radical containment. The media, largely consolidated through corporate power, routinely provide a platform for high profile right-wing pundits and politicians to remind us of how degenerate the poor have become reinforcing the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature.

Conservative columnist Ann Coulter captures the latter sentiment with a cruel vengeance with her comment that “[i]nstead of poor people with hope and possibility, we now have a permanent underclass of aspiring criminals knifing one another between having illegitimate children and collecting welfare checks.”Cited in Kellie Bean, “Coulter’s Right-Wing Drag,” The Free Press, October 29, 2003. Radio talk show host Michael Savage also exemplifies the unabashed racism and fanaticism that emerge under a neoliberal regime in which ethics and justice appear beside the point. Buttressed by a right wing media culture in which 91 percent of political talk radio is conservativeReport by the Center for American Progress and Free Press, The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio (Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress and Free Press, 2007)., Savage routinely refers to non-white countries as “turd world nations,” homosexuality as a “perversion” and young children who are victims of gunfire as “ghetto slime.”Editorial, “Savage Anti-Semitism: Radio Hosts Targets Jewish Foes with Ethnic Derision,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (July/August 2003).

As Fredric Jameson argues in The Seeds of Time, it has now become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), xii. The breathless rhetoric of the global victory of free-market rationality spewed forth by the mass media, right-wing intellectuals, and governments alike, has found its material expression in both in an all-out attack on democratic values and in the growth of a range of social problems, including virulent and persistent poverty, joblessness, inadequate health care, racial apartheid in the inner cities, and the increasing inequalities between the rich and the poor. Such issues appear to have been either removed from the inventory of public discourse and social policy or factored into talk-show spectacles in which the public becomes merely a staging area for venting private interests and emotions.

Within the discourse of neoliberalism that has taken hold of the public imagination, it becomes increasingly more difficult to talk about what is fundamental to civic life, critical citizenship, and a substantive democracy. In its dubious appeals to universal laws, neutrality, and selective scientific research, neoliberalism “eliminates the very possibility of critical thinking, without which democratic debate becomes impossible.”Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London: Verso, 2003), pp. 65-66. Hence, neoliberal policies that promote the cutthroat downsizing of the workforce, bleeding of social services, reduction of state governments to police precincts, the ongoing liquidation of job security, the increasing elimination of a decent social wage, the creation of a society of low-skilled workers, and the emergence of a culture of permanent insecurity and fear hide behind appeals to common sense and alleged immutable laws of nature.

When and where such nakedly ideological appeals strain both reason and imagination, religious faith is invoked to silence dissension. Society is now defended not as a space to nurture the most fundamental values and relations necessary to a democracy but rather as an ideological and political sphere “where religious fundamentalism comes together with market fundamentalism to form the ideology of American supremacy.”George Soros, The Bubble of American Supremacy (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), p. 10. Similarly, American imperial ambitions have been legitimated by public relations intellectuals as part of the responsibilities of empire building, now celebrated as a civilizing process for the rest of the globe. A culture of force buttressed by notions of “full spectrum dominance” and a permanent war on terror are not seen to function “in the service of spreading liberty and democracy.”Christopher Newfield, “The Culture of Force,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, 105:1 (2006), p. 244. Neo-conservatives join hands with neoliberals and religious fundamentalists in broadcasting to the rest of the globe an American triumphalism in which the United States is arrogantly defined as “[t]he greatest of all great powers in world history.”Here I am quoting David Frum and Richard Pearle cited in Lewis H. Lapham, “Dar al-Harb,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2004, p. 8. This fascistically inspired triumphalism can be found in a number of recent books churned out to gratify the demands of a much celebrated jingoism. See Joseph Farah, Taking America Back (New York: WND Books, 2003); Michelle Malkin, Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores (New York: Regnery Publishing, 2002); William J. Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (New York: Regnery, 2003). Money, profits, and fear have become powerful ideological elements in arguing for opening up new markets and closing down the possibility of dissent at home. In such a scenario, a new kind of coercive state emerges as “authorized power is [sanctioned as the only type of] credible . . . [and] state appeals to fear [become] the only effective basis for obedience.”Michael Foessel, “Legitimations of the State: The Weakening of Authority and the Restoration of power,” Constellations, 63:3 (2006), pp. 313-314. This becomes clear not only in the passage of repressive laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act of 2006, but also in the work of prominent neoconservatives such as David Frum and Richard Pearle who without any irony intended insist that “[a] free society is not an un-policed society. A free society is self-policed society.”Cited in Lewis H. Lapham, “Dar al-Harb,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2004, p. 8. The full exposition of this position can be found in David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror (New York: Random House, 2004). In what could only be defined as an Adam Smith joins George Orwell in a religious cult in California scenario, markets have become sacrosanct temples to be protected while citizens-turned-Army-of-God are urged to spy on one other and dissent is increasingly criminalized.For a rather vivid example of how dissent is criminalized, see the March 5, 2004 NOW with Bill Moyers transcript of “Going Undercover/Criminalizing Dissent.” The program documents how undercover agents from all levels of government are infiltrating and documenting peaceful protests in America. At the same time, democratic politics is increasingly derailed by the intersection of a free-market fundamentalism and an escalating militarism.Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006); Andrew Bacevich, The New American Militarism: How Americans are Seduced by War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). The consequences can be seen in the commercialization of vibrant public spheres and the attack on civil liberties; it is also evident in the growing militarization at home and abroad organized around the perpetuation of an obsessive culture of fear and the unbridled economic claims of empire, most obvious in the occupation of Iraq. The demise of democracy is further revealed in the policy of anti-terrorism practiced by the Bush administration that mimics the very terrorism it wishes to eliminate. Hypocrisy reaches a new level of obscenity as President Bush declares the United States does not torture and then proceeds to veto a bill making torture illegal. Not only does this policy of all-embracing anti-terrorism exhaust itself in a discourse of moral absolutes, militarism, revenge, and public acts of denunciation, it also strips community of democratic values by configuring politics in religious terms and defining every citizen and inhabitant of the United States as a potential terrorist. Politics becomes empty as citizens are reduced to obedient recipients of power, content to follow orders, while shaming those who make power accountable. Under the dictates of a pseudo-patriotism, dissent is stifled in the face of a growing racism that condemns Arabs and people of color as less than civilized. The ongoing refusal of the American government to address with any degree of self-criticism or humanity the torture and violation of human rights exercised by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq offers a case in point.For the latest revelation about the refusal of the Bush administration to take responsibility for the abuse and torture produced at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. prisons, see Seymour M. Hersh, “The General’s Report,” The New Yorker, June 25, 2007, pp. 58-69. See also, Tara McKelvey, Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007). In light of the revelation of the most grotesque brutality, racism, and inhumanity exhibited by American soldiers against Arab prisoners captured on camera and video, powerful right-wing politicians and pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and Cal Thomas initially defended such actions as a way for young men to either “blow some steam off,” engage in a form of harmless frat hazing, or give Muslim prisoners what they deserve. It gets worse. Commentators such as Newt Gingrich and Republican Senator James Inhofe went so far as to suggest that calling attention to such crimes not only undermined troop morale in Iraq but was also unpatriotic. That argument seems to have some credibility in the highest reaches of government since as of 2007 no high ranking official has been legally charged with a crime. Defending torture and gross sexual humiliations by U.S. troops in Saddam’s old jails is not merely insensitive political posturing, it is, more tellingly, indicative of how far the leadership of this country has strayed from any semblance of democracy. As a New York Times editorial pointed out in October 2007, the Bush administration turned the United States into a “nation that tortures human beings and then concocts legal sophistries to confuse the world and avoid accountability before American voters.” The editorial goes on to state that, “President Bush and his aides have not only condoned torture and abuse at secret prisons….[whose techniques were] modeled on the dungeons of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union . . . but they have conducted a systematic campaign to mislead Congress, the American people and the world about those policies.”Editorial, “On Torture and American Values,” New York Times, October 7, 2007, wk p. 13.

Political culture, if not the nature of politics itself, has undergone revolutionary changes in the last two decades, reaching its most debased expression under the administration of the imperial presidency of President George W. Bush. Within this political culture not only is democracy subordinated to the rule of a market, but corporate decisions are also freed from territorial constraints and the demands of public obligations, just as economics is disconnected from its social consequences. Power itself is now free from territorial constraints and politics largely nation-based. Zygmunt Bauman captures what is new about the relationship among power, politics, and the shredding of social obligations in his comment that:

[T]he mobility acquired by ‘people who invest’–those with capital, with money which the investment requires–means the new, indeed unprecedented . . . disconnection of power from obligations: duties towards employees, but also towards the younger and weaker, towards yet unborn generations and towards the self-reproduction of the living conditions of all; in short, the freedom from the duty to contribute to daily life and the perpetuation of the community. . . . Shedding the responsibility for the consequences is the most coveted and cherished gain which the new mobility brings to free-floating, locally unbound capital.Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), pp. 9-10.

As corporate power increasingly frees itself from any political limitations, it uses its power through the educational force of the dominant culture to put into place an utterly privatized notion of agency in which it becomes difficult for young people and adults to imagine democracy as a public good, let alone the transformative power of collective action. Democratic politics has become ineffective, if not banal, as civic language is increasingly impoverished and genuine spaces for democratic learning, debate, and dialogue such as schools, newspapers, popular culture, television networks, and other public spheres are either underfunded, eliminated, privatized, or subjected to corporate ownership. Under the politics and culture of neoliberalism, despite its tensions and contradictions, society is increasingly mobilized for the production of violence against the poor, immigrants, dissenters, and others marginalized because of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, and color. At the center of neoliberalism is a new form of politics in the United States, one in which radical exclusion is the order of the day, a politics in which the primary questions are no longer about equality, justice, or freedom, but instead concern the survival of the slickest in a culture marked by fear, surveillance, and economic deprivation. As Susan George insists, the question that now seems to define neoliberal “democracy” is “Who has a right to live or does not?”Susan George, Ibid., “A Short History of Neo-Liberalism: Twenty Years of Elite Economics and Emerging Opportunities for Structural Change.”

It is important to stress that neoliberalism is more than a neutral economic discourse and logic that can be measured with the precision of a mathematical formula or defended through an appeal to the rules of a presumptively unassailable science that conveniently leaves its own history behind. On the contrary, rather than a paragon of economic rationality that offers the best “route to optimum efficiency, rapid economic growth and innovation, and rising prosperity for all who are willing to work hard and take advantage of available opportunities,”David Kotz, “Neoliberalism and the U.S. Economic Expansion of the ‘90s,” Monthly Review, April 2003, p. 16. it is an ideology that subordinates the art of democratic politics to the rapacious laws of a market economy, a calculating cost-benefit analysis that expands its reach to include all aspects of social life within the dictates and values of society.On neoliberalism as a form of governmentality or politics of conduct, see Michael Foucault, Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College De France 1975-1976 (New York: Picador, 2003). More importantly, neoliberalism is a historical and socially constructed ideology that needs to be made visible, critically engaged, and shaken from the stranglehold of power it currently exercises over most of the commanding institutions of national and global life.David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). As an economic theory, cultural politics, and public pedagogy, neoliberalism constructs a notion of commonsense in which it becomes difficult for many people either to imagine a notion of individual and social agency necessary for reclaiming a substantive democracy or to theorize the economic, cultural, and political conditions necessary for a viable global public sphere in which public institutions, spaces, and goods become valued as part of a larger democratic struggle for a sustainable future and the downward distribution of wealth, resources, and power.

As a public pedagogy and political ideology, the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Milton FriedmanSee for instance, Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994, 50th edition); Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom: Fortieth Anniversary Issue (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).is far more ruthless than the classic liberal economic theory developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.See, David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Neoliberalism has become the present conservative revolution because it harkens back to a period in American history–the Gilded Age — that supported the sovereignty of the market over the sovereignty of the democratic state and the common good.For a comprehensive and critical analysis of The New Gilded Age, see Michael Mchugh, The Second Gilded Age: The Great Reaction in the United States, 1973-2001 (Boulder: University Press of America, 2006). Reproducing the future in the image of the distant past, it represents a struggle designed to roll back, if not dismantle, all of the policies put into place more than seventy years ago by the New Deal to curb corporate power and give substance to the liberal meaning of the social contract. The late Pierre Bourdieu captures what is new about neoliberalism when he said that neoliberalism is:

A new kind of conservative revolution [which] appeals to progress, reason and science (economics in this case) to justify the restoration and so tries to write off progressive thought and action as archaic. It sets up as the norm of all practices, and therefore as ideal rules, the real regularities of the economic world abandoned to its own logic, the so-called laws of the market. It reifies and glorifies the reign of what are called the financial markets, in other words the return to a kind of radical capitalism, with no other law than that of maximum profit, an unfettered capitalism without any disguise, but rationalized, pushed to the limit of its economic efficacy by the introduction of modern forms of domination, such as ‘business administration’, and techniques of manipulation, such as market research and advertising.Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance (New York: Free Press, 1989), p. 35.

Neoliberalism has indeed become a broad-based political and cultural movement designed to obliterate public concerns and liquidate the welfare state, and make politics everywhere an exclusively market driven project.Colin Leys, Market Driven Politics (London: Verso, 2001), p. 2 But neoliberalism does more than make the market “the informing principle of politics”Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003), p. 34. while allocating wealth and resources to those who are most privileged by virtue of their class, race, and power; its political culture and pedagogical practices also put into play a social universe and cultural landscape that supports a particularly barbaric notion of authoritarianism, set in motion under the combined power of a religious and market fundamentalism and anti-terrorism laws that suspend civil liberties, incarcerate disposable populations, and provide the security forces necessary for capital to destroy those spaces where democracy can be nourished. All the while the landscape and soundscape become increasingly militarized through a mass mediated spectacle of violence whose underlying purpose is to construct the public as soldiers in the ‘war on terrorism’ while redefining democracy as a mix of war and American idealism. As a cultural politics and form of economic domination, neoliberalism tells a very limited story, one that is antithetical to nurturing democratic identities, values, public spheres, and institutions while lacking any ethical language for recognizing politics outside of the realm of the market, controlling market excesses, or for challenging the underlying tenets of a growing authoritarianism bolstered by the pretense of religious piety.

Neoliberalism does not merely produce militarized public spheres, economic inequality, iniquitous power relations, and a corrupt political system, it also promotes rigid exclusions from national citizenship and civic participation. As Lisa Duggan points out, “Neoliberalism cannot be abstracted from race and gender relations, or other cultural aspects of the body politic. Its legitimating discourse, social relations, and ideology are saturated with race, with gender, with sex, with religion, with ethnicity, and nationality.”Lisa Duggan, Ibid., p. xvi. Neoliberalism comfortably aligns itself with various strands of neoconservative and religious fundamentalisms waging imperial wars abroad as well as at home against those groups and movements that threaten its authoritarian misreading of the meaning of freedom, security, and productiveness.

One controversial example of how big corporations, particularly media conglomerates, use their power to simultaneously support neoliberal values, reactionary policies, and the politicians who produce them took place in 2004 when the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a Maryland-based media company whose holdings comprise sixty-two television stations, including several ABC affiliates refused to air on its stations a special edition of Nightline with Ted Koppel. Sinclair was disturbed because Koppel had announced that he was going to read the names and show photographs of the faces of the then 721 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. Sinclair’s refusal to air Nightline on its ABC stations was based on the argument that Koppel was making a political statement that allegedly undermined the war effort by drawing attention to its most troubling consequences. And its rationale for this act of censorship was partly based on the argument that Nightline could have read the names of the thousands of citizens killed in terrorists attacks during and the events of September 11, 2001. The problem with this accusation, as a statement from ABC made clear shortly after the charge, is that the network did broadcast a list of the 9/11 victims, one year after the gruesome event. What Sinclair did not mention was that it has been a generous contributor to the Republican Party and that it has lobbied successfully for policies that have allowed it to own even more stations. Sinclair shares the perspective of many of its corporate allies on the Right who believe that the costs of the war should be hushed up, in favor of news that portrays the Bush administration in a favorable light. After all, censoring the news is a small price to pay for the corporate windfalls that reward such acts. Free market fundamentalism makes it easier for corporate power and political favoritism to mutually inform each other, reinforcing the ideological and political conditions for the perpetuation of a system of profits, money, market values, and power that, as Bill Moyers has pointed out, allows big corporations and big government to scratch each others’ back, while canceling out the principles of justice and human dignity that inform a real democracy.Bill Moyers, “The Media, Politics, and Censorship,” Common Dreams News Center, May 10, 2004. See also Eric alterman, “Is Koppel a Commie,” The Nation, May 24, 2004, p. 10.

Neoliberalism has to be understood and challenged as both an economic theory and a powerful public pedagogy and cultural politics. That is, it has to be named and critically understood before it can be critiqued. The commonsense assumptions that legitimate neoliberalism’s alleged historical inevitability have to be held up to the light so as to reveal the social damage they cause at all levels of human existence. Hence, it is crucial not only attempt to identify and critically engage many of the most salient and powerful ideologies that inform and frame neoliberalism but also argue for making cultural politics and the notion of public pedagogy central to the struggle against neoliberalism, particularly since education and culture now play such a prominent political and economic role in both securing consent and producing capital. In fact, my position is similar to Susan Buck-Morss’ argument that “[t]he recognition of cultural domination as just as important as, and perhaps even as the condition of possibility of, political and economic domination is a true ‘advance’ in our thinking.”Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London: Verso, 2003), p. 103. Of course, this position is not meant to disavow economic and institutional struggles but rather to supplement them with a cultural politics that connects symbolic power and its pedagogical practices with material relations of power. In addition, it is crucial to analyze how neoliberal policies work at the level of everyday life through the language of privatization and the lived cultural forms of class, race, gender, youth, and ethnicity. Finally, such a struggle would have to employ both a language of critique and possibility, engagement and hope as part of a broader project of viewing democracy as a site of intense struggle over matters of representation, participation, and shared power.

Central to such a political struggle is the belief, as Alain Touraine argues, that neoliberal globalization has not “dissolved our capacity for political action.”Alain Touraine, Beyond Neoliberalism (London; Polity press, 2001), p. 2. Such action depends on the ability of various groups–the peace movement, the anti-corporate globalization movement, the human rights movement, the environmental justice movement — within and across national boundaries to form alliances in which matters of global justice, community, and solidarity provide a common symbolic space and multiple public spheres where norms are created, debated, and engaged as part of an attempt to develop a new political language, culture, and set of relations. Such efforts must be understood as part of a broader attempt not only to resist domination, but also to defend all those social advances that strengthen democratic public spheres and services, demand new rights and modes of power sharing, and strive for social justice adequate to creating forms of collective struggle that can imagine and sustain democracy on a global level. The anti-corporate globalization struggle’s slogan “Another World is Possible!” demands, as Alex Callinicos insightfully points out, a different kind of social logic, one that requires a powerful sense of unity and solidarity.

Another world — that is, a world based on different social logic, run according to different priorities from those that prevail today. It is easy enough to specify what the desiderata of such an alternative social logic would be–social justice, economic efficiency, environmental sustainability, and democracy — but much harder to spell out how a reproducible social system embodying these requirements could be built. And then there is the question of how to achieve it. Both these questions — What is the alternative to capitalism? What strategy can get us there? — can be answered in different ways. One thing the anti-capitalist movement is going to have to learn is how to argue through the differences that exist and will probably develop around such issues without undermining the very powerful sense of unity that has been one of the movement’s most attractive qualities.Alex Callinicos, “The Anti-Capitalist Movement After Genoa and New York,”in Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, eds. Implicating Empire: Globalization & Resistance in the 21 Century World Order (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 147.

Callinicos’ insight suggests that any viable struggle against neoliberal capitalism will have to rethink “the entire project of politics within the changed conditions of a global public sphere, and to do this democratically, as people who speak different political languages, but whose goals are nonetheless the same: global peace, economic justice, legal equality, democratic participation, individual freedom, mutual respect.”Susan Buck-Morss, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left (London: Verso, 2003), pp. 4-5. Indeed, one of the most central tasks facing intellectuals, activists, educators, and others who believe in an inclusive and substantive democracy is the utilization of theory to rethink the language and possibilities of politics as a way to imagine a future outside of the powerful grip of neoliberalism and the impending authoritarianism that tells a different story about the future, one that invents the past in the image of the crude exercise of power and the unleashing of unimaginable human suffering. Critical reflection and social action in this discourse must acknowledge how the category of the global public sphere extends the space of politics beyond the boundaries of local resistance. Global problems need global institutions, global modes of dissent, global intellectual work, and global social movements.

We have entered a period in which the war against democracy, dissent, social justice, freedom, and equality offers no apologies because it is too arrogant and ruthless to imagine any resistance. But the collective need and potential struggle for justice should never be underestimated even in the darkest of times. To confront the biopolitics of capital and disposability, we need to create the conditions for multiple collective and global struggles that refuse to use politics as an act of war and markets as the measure of democracy. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglas bravely argued that freedom is an empty abstraction if people fail to act, and “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I realize this sounds a bit utopian, but we have few choices if we are going to fight for a future that enables teachers, parents, students, and others who deserve a future that does a great deal more than endlessly repeat the present. I think it is all the more crucial to take seriously the challenge of Jacque Derrida’s provocation that “We must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only I did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything.”Jacques Derrida, “No One is Innocent: A Discussion with Jacques About Philosophy in the Face of Terror,” The Information Technology, War and Peace Project, p. 2. We may live in dark times as Hannah Arendt reminds us, but history is open and the space of the possible is larger than the one on display.

Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His latest book is Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed (2008), from which this essay is excerpted. His most recent books include: Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism (2006), Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (2006), and The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex (2007). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Henry, or visit Henry's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. Armchair Revolutionary said on March 11th, 2008 at 9:52am #

    The Matrix still has you, Dr. Giroux.

    The ideology of the common good and democratic centralism is part of the same system of control as neoliberalism. One is used when there is little enough dissent that the elite can suppress the rest through force; the other is used to manufacture consent at times when it is sufficiently obvious that capitalism does not serve the average person’s interests. The New Deal was the second-best thing that ever happened to America’s oligarchs. The best was the creation of its corresponding mythology, a Golden Age that greatly enriched the ruling class, but which would-be leftists will actually leap to defend.

  2. Max Shields said on March 11th, 2008 at 1:50pm #

    While I agree with your general thesis, I think there are more layers to our world than the predominate theme that pulls and tugs aka neoliberalism.

    I also think that the changes needed must be deep and structural. The uneconomic growth in play and unleashed unto the world as a model to exploit the earth will require major fundamental changes that will either happen naturally (and dramatically), or through an undercurrent transformative movement. I suspect the movement will only gain traction when we are on the precipice. Do we know where that is or when? I think we should assume it is immediately before us. Natural (including human) systems change through bifrucation which is a complete shift away from current course. In order for bifrucation to correct our course we must begin sooner rather than latter to lay the ground work for the alternative path.

    Example: Cuba met head on with the collapse of the Soviet Union by fundamentally altering their farming from monoculture/mechanized/industrial model to highly diverse, small horticultural farming. The latter was possible because there were agricultural activists in the universitites who had been demanding these changes years before. When the time was right, their ideas were embraced – but it was as Cuba reached a cul de sac of major proportions. The rest is history.

    As far as American imperialism: At bottom, and at the national level of politics, the game is all about neoliberalism of one form or another. And the voters have yet to figure out that the differences between these candidates is minimal and mostly regarding outward appearence: after all what is the real difference between Clinton’s Bosnia/Somolia/Iraq policies in terms of human suffering and those of George W. Bushes? And there is no reason to think that this election will bring about real change regarding the most critical aspect of American Empirism.

    Mr. Giroux, I think your argued – the premise is certainly one which is met with general progressive agreement – could use a little more causality in its presentation and a little less enumeration. And we could, all use a lot more, So what do we do about this? discussion.


  3. HR said on March 11th, 2008 at 1:56pm #

    Defending the further taxation of working-class and low-income smokers to pay for health care as a further disincentive for smokers is such typical thinking for today’s “liberal”. It’s as nonsensical as the argument, made by the rich and far too often championed by the “left”, that a regressive sales tax is the most fair tax because it taxes equally, when, in fact, the less one makes, the more one pays as a proportion of income under such a scheme.

    I also disagree with the author’s apparent agreement that the current cabal of, “… insurers, doctors, and nurses …” is an acceptable way of providing health care, which, I guess, also means the author blesses for-profit hospitals. Also, I don’t see much happening here in the U.S. with respect to popular movements in opposition to anything these days. Seattle was a few years back. USans seem to be responding by chewing their cud and buying antidepressants, and penis enlargement pills, for the most part. Other than that, the article is a fairly good summation of the obvious, if a bit long-winded.

  4. Max Shields said on March 11th, 2008 at 3:44pm #

    HR, I agree that taxes are dangerous. The only tax I know that can unleash the appropriate outcomes is a rent on our common wealth – Land, airwaves, fossil, copper; naturally shared and non-elastic ecological elements made “valuable” through human society’s needs/demands/wants.

    Sales and income are poor and damaging to all but the wealthy- the former hits lower income and not the wealthy, and for different reasons the same is true of income. Both allow the common wealth to go exploited to the nth degree.

    Neoliberalism is a particularly deep problem because it is cloaked in the tradition of “white man’s burden”, and “humanitarian interventionism”, and “helping the poor countries develop. This makes neoliberalism much more incidious than neoconservativism which is blatant aggression awash with hegemony and imperialism ala conquering the weak to assure USA predominance.

  5. Dissident Voice : Henry Giroux: Urgently Necessary and Necessarily Urgent said on April 8th, 2008 at 5:07am #

    […] Read an excerpted essay from Against the Terror of […]