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Has America Become an Authoritarian State?

On the destruction of our democracy.

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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:

 
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