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Has America Become an Authoritarian State?

On the destruction of our democracy.

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The fourth feature of the new extremism is its use of the media and other cultural apparatuses to promote a neoliberal form of public pedagogy and anti-politics engaged in the production of identities, desires and values that disparage any mode of sociality that embraces the common good, public values and shared responsibilities. The new extremism embraces a radical individualism that celebrates a consumer-oriented citizen "whose actions reflect mostly their material self-interests." This is a form of anti-politics, an "authoritarian Utopia that is nothing less than 'a program of methodical destruction of collectives,' from trade unions and mill towns to families and small nations." Under attack in this new form of authoritarianism are the social bonds and modes of communal cohesion that enable individuals, families and social movements to resist the ongoing transformation of citizens into customers, the criminalization of economic life, the corruption of politics and the massive increase in poverty, inequality, a culture of cruelty and the emergence of the punishing state.

The new extremism unleashes all the forces of brutal self-absorption that deepen and expand both the structure of cruelty and its ongoing privatization. Material self-interests have weakened any sense of collective purpose, just as America's obsession with radical individualism and wealth and the growing existence of gross inequality have become symptomatic of our ethical and collective impoverishment.  As Bauman points out, "the consuming life is [now] lived as a supreme expression of autonomy," leaving no room for deploying activity in the service of "commitment, devotion, [and] responsibility." Social life in this discourse has little to do with democracy and the formative culture needed to nourish it. As public values are disdained and the very notion of the public good and civic imagination disappear, people do more than surrender their citizenship, they also are rendered excess, disposable - waste products in a society wedded to throwing away not just consumer products, but increasingly human beings as well. What is new about the extremism that now rules American society is not simply the decline of public values but how they have become irrelevant to the existing contemporary neoliberal order, which weakens the foundation of social solidarity and creates identities, values and desires that turn the principles of democracy against themselves while undermining the very possibility of politics as a democratic project.

The Suffocation of Imagination, Agency and Hope

The war on the social contract, the welfare state, democratic politics, equality and the very idea of justice is an attack not simply on everything from Medicare to Social Security to the Equal Pay Act, it is an assault on "the basic architecture of our collective responsibility to ensure that Americans  share in a decent life." It is also an aggressive strike against the formative cultures and modes of individual and collective agency that legitimate a connection between the democratic polis and the possibility of economic, social and political freedom. The new extremism and its authoritarian politics draw attention away from serious social problems and the actual structural and ideological conditions that reproduce them. Underlying the shadow of authoritarianism is a corrosive attempt to "create a loss of conviction, a loss of faith in the culture of open democracy, a sense of  skepticism and withdrawal." To the degree that the private sphere becomes the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure or possibility, citizenship becomes distorted, removed from issues of equity, social justice and civic responsibility. Tony Judt is right in arguing that we have entered a historical conjuncture in which politics is losing its shape, its power of attraction and its ability to confront the anti-democratic pressures at work in American society today.

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