Sunday, January 9, 2011

Violence in Arizona, and the Backdrop of Social and Economic Violence in American Culture: From What Roots Does Violence Spring?

In every era the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.  The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist.  Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins and this enemy has not ceased to be victorious (Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt [NY: Shocken, 1969], p. 255).

It is easy to look at the tragic events that occurred in Arizona yesterday and to talk about the increasing normalization of violence in American political (and cultural, and media) discourse.  It's easy to decry the easily discerned trend to make violence ever more thinkable--the random violence that appears to be the act of madmen, but which is ultimately a tool of repression used by those who own the vast majority of the resources of the nation, against those who increasingly lack the necessities of life.

It's easy, I say, to talk about how we Americans need to view what happened in Arizona yesterday as a crossroads moment in our culture, and to eschew yesterday's violence and identify the various cues in our political and media-cultural discourse that made that violence thinkable.  But, as I think about yesterday's events and feel the tug of that too-facile analysis of our problems, I cannot help thinking of a powerful essay I read several days ago, which Elaine McCoy brought to my attention.

This is Henry A. Giroux's "In the Twilight of the Social State: Rethinking Walter Benjamin's Angel of History."  Giroux's essay is at the Truthout website.  Giroux frames the essay by remembering Walter Benjamin's reflections on Paul Klee's "Angelus Novus" painting.  Benjamin notes that the angel of history is transfixed, caught between the tragic wreckage of history itself, with its chain of meaningless violence that piles body upon body, and the storm blowing from Paradise which appears to promise to break the chain of violence by introducing progressive change into the tragic cycle of history . . . 

But which enacts only more meaningless violence in the name of progress itself, pinning the wings of the angel transfixed between the carnage of the past and the promise of future redemption that continues to turn into the nightmare of history in new historical forms.

Giroux uses Benjamin's analysis of Klee's painting in Benjamin's "Thesis on the Philosophy of History" to frame his own discussion of the neoliberal culture of cruelty that we have introduced in the name of progress in this twilight stage of the social state.  In Giroux's view, we have entered on a phase of world history in which those who have ownership--in which the tiny minority of those who own the vast majority of the world's goods--are deliberately intent to dismantle the various social networks of state support for the have-nots of the world.  

We have entered into a phase of history in which the tiny majority of those who own the large bulk of the world's resources are intent on dismantling the idea and promise of democracy itself.  In its place, the intent of the owners of the material wealth of the world is to substitute a culture of consumer-driven radical individualism in which none of us owes any obligation to anyone else, in which one either sinks or swims, and in which the many who will sink because they have no option except to drown, in the absence of life preservers, will be blamed for their own demise.

We have entered an anti-democratic phase of world history in which the economic and political violence of the very rich against the majority of other citizens of the planet--first, the poor, and now increasingly the middle classes--is rapidly being enshrined in a culture of radical atomistic individualism driven by market considerations, in which the market itself is god, and in which the power of the state to mitigate the cruelty is under radical attack by the owning elite that controls the world's wealth.  And there appears to be little that ordinary citizens can do to counteract these trends, which are ineluctable--or which appear ineluctable--given the sheer power of those who own the goods of the world.  And given the planned, deliberate impotence of the social democracies of the developed parts of the world, in face of that power.

And because I think that Giroux is, in general, absolutely correct in this analysis, I wonder what any of us can do, realistically, to curb the kind of violence we saw on display in Arizona yesterday.  I wonder what any of us can do to stop a violence that is now being institutionalized in our culture, precisely as economic and political violence enacted by the extremely rich and powerful against all the rest of us. 

As Giroux notes, part of the problem of the situation in which we find ourselves now in the twilight of the social state is that economic and social suffering are becoming so massive, we are now inured to the suffering.  We imagine that we can do little to stop the suffering, because it is all around us.  In the United States, indicators of poverty have now risen to levels unimaginable even half a century ago, when, prior to Reagan's introduction of the resolute attack of the rich on our social safety networks, the war on poverty made significant inroads on endemic poverty in the U.S. by creating state-sponsored social safety nets for those caught in cyclical poverty.  Massive numbers of Americans today are out of work, with no hope at all of finding meaningful, humane jobs in the near future.

The ruthless practices now employed by many of our workplaces to remove these workers from their jobs, to make them redundant, no longer shock many of us, because they have become commonplace--acceptable, since they are everywhere and being practiced by everyone.  In the face of such massive social displacement of our family members, friends, neighbors--of our middle-class family members, friends, and neighbors, who have worked hard and played by the rules--it is easier simply to shrug our shoulders and be grateful that we are not among the ranks of the unemployed or uninsured.  And to assume that our family members, friends, and neighbors are sinking while we are swimming (but barely so) because they have somehow failed to play the game right, even though to all appearances, they have been model citizens and workers.

Social and economic violence has been normalized in our society to such an extent that it is very difficult any longer to craft meaningful narratives about what this suffering all around us means, why it is in our midst, and what we can do about it.  And as we try to cling to our own individual life rafts and keep swimming, it does little good for any of us to look to most of the communities of faith around us for assistance, for encouragement or protection as we battle to stay alive, since those faith communities have long since succumbed to the dominant philosophy of the obscenely rich that has created the very wreckage amidst which we are now desperately struggling to stay afloat.  Powerful groups within  many of our faith communities--notably, the pastoral leaders of many of our faith communities, including the Catholic bishops of the U.S.--are now willing tools in the hands of the very rich as they dismantle the social state and attack democracy itself.

And it does little good for us to look to the academy, which once spawned significant critiques of the status quo in our culture, or the media, which once acted as a watchdog to alert us to those who were threatening the democratic enterprise on which we counted as a unifying, protective screen against whose backdrop we pursued our family and individual economic lives: as with communities of faith, academics and journalists have long since become willing servants of the very rich, as the rich dismantle the project of democracy with its social networks of protection for the weak and vulnerable.

And so Giroux notes:

We no longer live in an age in which history's "winged messengers" bear witness to the suffering endured by millions and the conditions that allow such suffering to continue. Thinking about past and future has collapsed into a presentism in which the delete button, the utter normalization of a punishing inequality and the atomizing pleasures of instant gratification come together to erase both any notion of historical consciousness and any vestige of social and moral responsibility owed as much to future generations as to the dead. The "winged messengers" have been replaced by a less hallowed breed of anti-public intellectuals, academics, journalists and artists who now cater to the demands of the market and further their careers by becoming cheerleaders for neoliberal capitalism. The legacy now left by too many intellectuals has more to do with establishing a corporate-friendly brand name than fighting economic and social injustices, translating private into public issues, or creating genuine public spheres that promote critical thought and collective action. Whatever "winged messengers" do exist are either banished to the margins of the institutions that house them or excluded by the dominant media that have now become a mouthpiece for corporate culture and the new global rich.

And if we think that the current U.S. president is aware of the challenges now facing us and intent on doing something to address those challenges and to assure greater protection of the weak and vulnerable against the ruthless god of the market and the neoliberal culture of cruelty we're crafting as we dismantle the social state, we perhaps need to think again, Giroux proposes:

The collapse of the social state with its state protections, public values and democratic governance can be seen in how the Bush and Obama administrations embraced the logic of the market, and farmed out government responsibilities to private contractors, who undercut the power of the welfare state while waging a war on human dignity, moral compassion, social responsibility and life itself. Everything is up for sale under this form of economic Darwinism, including prisons, schools, military forces and the temporary faculty hired to fill the ranks of a depleted academy. Evidence of such a Darwinian ideology and militaristic mind set is visible in the attack on working people and labor unions, the waging of two unnecessary wars and the destruction of the nation's safety net; it is also well-illustrated in images so cruel and inhuman that they serve as flashpoints signaling not only a rupture from the ideals of democracy, but also an embrace of anti-democratic tendencies that testify to an emerging authoritarianism in the United States.

And because I think that Henry Giroux is absolutely correct in the preceding analysis, I ask myself, as I listen to the ritual condemnations of the violence that now runs everywhere in our political, cultural, and media life, following yesterday's events: will any of this ritual condemnation really do any good at all?  When the violence continues apace, and is woven right into the fabric of our economic and social existence?

And when no one seems to care tremendously about the violence all around us, because it has become "normal"?  And because the system of individualistic justifications for this violence--those who are drowning deserve their fate, because they are not trying hard enough--has become so entrenched in our culture that few of us think any more that our own existences are bound up with the existences of everyone else, and, in particular, with the lives of those most vulnerable?

To root out the endemic violence in our culture, something far more powerful than ritual condemnations following yet another eruption of overt political violence is necessary.  And for what is necessary, I am not sure we have the will.  I am not sure, in particular, that our elected officials, who have more power than anyone else to make substantive changes that might root out the conditions from which violence springs in our society, have any strong will to address the problem.

Since they are, to a great extent, now servants of the god of the market and enablers of the neoliberal culture of cruelty that is responsible for the mind-numbing violence we see all around us as the social state declines and as the promise of democracy (and of the future itself) is dismantled brick by brick by the owners of the world, at this point in our history.

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