i want to know how this came to be and why it has come to be something seen as permant and stable and desirable. people, a phone company should not be “providing” all your communications services. isn’t anyone thinking, aside from being incredibly monopolistic to “bundle” phone, internet, TV, and god knows what other form of talking box-content, this makes it incredibly easy for the government to solicit data on anyone they want? if one must use the big providers, for the sake of sense, split it up–otherwise, you can’t complain about the cost of things under capitalism.
October 27, 2006
October 15, 2006
The success of It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis as satire rests on the pillars by which any satire succeeds: firstly, that the events that are sketched through hyperbole have already happened in a more mild form and are thus identifiable even as the reader enjoys the novelty of the expression; and secondly, it is continually fresh as a satire because history keeps repeating itself. If there were real societal progress, if history stopped repeating itself, satire as an art form would be obsolete. I see parody or other forms of political humor as more timely (and thus more quickly dated) takeoffs of topical idiosyncrasies, whereas I envision satire as a more mature and robust genre often employing the creation of a sarcastic universe with its own symbolism—I see many satires as having varying degrees of dystopic elements. Parody differs from satire for me in that satire is more encompassing, more expansive. Satire also often offers a more vital dialogue/ intertextuality with the reality it is exploring, offering a greater depth of critique (and hence being more “literary”) than sheer parody. Parody almost always takes on a humorous aspect, whereas satire, in its range, can be quite dark and brutally scathing. It is free to incorporate (often coded) insults, scorn, and ridicule in addition to mockery.
It is significant, then, that Lewis tries to work within satire but also make his work larger than satire by introducing certain discomforts in his criticism of the Windrip administration and the America in which it is situated. In doing so, It Can’t Happen Here becomes larger than the sum of its parts as satirical novel, historical novel, treatise, and plot-driven novel about a certain cast of characters (i.e., the struggle of how Doremus Jessup reconciles personal freedom and literariness with an awareness of a need for social responsibility). The title of the book becomes the central phrase and paradox of each of the characters, until it becomes part of the inner monologue haunting the psyche of Doremus, Mary, Emma, Sissy, Buck, Karl Pascal, Shad, Windrip, Sarason and all of America (with “America” as a dysfunctional character by itself, demanding its five thousand to the point of neurosis) alike. Each character must investigate their own agency not only in the narrative realm or the world of interpersonal relations, but in the macrocosm of their political selves, learn how they are—or are not—their politics. Tension comes from the exploration of the discrepancies that may exist from the essential Self (not all of which is presented for all the characters) and the Political Self. Thus, Shad can get lonely. Sissy can be manipulative but also fearful. Doremus can be brave in doses but mostly wanting to be idealistic, so idealistic is he that he refuses to admit at times that his idealism could cause difficulties in establishing and following a socially conscious direction, so idealistic that he denies his need for action, can talk himself out of significance privately while defending his role as publisher publicly.
Each character has moments of dissonance between their selves that heightens their drama, that makes them more than caricatures or obvious stock figures playing oft-tread satirical notes (though Lewis also falls into the trap he aims to avoid, often using rough strokes as shorthand for character development—this is because his first priority remains hitting on all the plot points which he considers necessary to his satire). Emma is a classic doormat wife, and her paralysis at Doremus’ arrest is predictable as it typifies her character as given, but she is also given a moment of dissonance where they are on their way to Canada, having car problems, and, alone in the car, asks if she can help. This moment revealing her inner dissonance brings her chosen state of pathetic inertia into relief. Emma embodies the Easily Pleased American in all its minimal-energy complacency—she goes along to Canada and doesn’t criticize her husband’s beliefs and activities to be agreeable—, but she also has the Easily Pleased American’s flip side—again, Lewis resists easy generalizations, for that would be falling into the same heuristics of fascist politics—she has a desire to be Good, to be Helpful and Chipper, Keep a Stiff Upper Lip (and for no other sake than we Should, for crying causes wrinkles and life is a Theatre for which we should look good and ready to play our parts). While those desires are bad in that they come from a certain “unthinkingness” or thoughtlessness, a certain approach to life that advocates taking the easy way out and being patient, taking what is given you and being passive instead of having the creativity to imagine what could happen by being proactive, who are we, Lewis hints, to really criticize Emma? Couldn’t that desire to Be Good actually be harnessed to really Do Good, after all? While certainly not heroic or commendable, she’s not killing anyone or infringing on anyone’s rights. She is, foreshadowing the new paradigm of American political-consumer life, already doing the Supreme Good of Minding Her Own Business, which is seen to be enough even if she doesn’t choose to be more socially active. Is she damnable? If she is worth our condemnation, how do we condemn her and is there any hope in channeling her dissonance? Or is she like the general public of actual or aspiring Easily Pleased Americans, who Lewis seems to imply will go along with fascism if they are told enough times that it is a medicine that they need? Is Emma’s—and the American public’s—complacency dangerous, a permissive audience for the political theatre of fascism? Or do the dangerous roots of fascism lie elsewhere, perhaps in the political and economic systems themselves? Lewis seems to not determine any way of thinking for us, so we can believe there is an interaction of all these factors—ineffective government, corrupt economics, and apathetic public—synergistically combining to go beyond dysfunction into fascism.
Emma plays such a peripheral role in the book precisely because she is Every American—and, under a fascist government, Every American is told what they want, with their personal realities and freedoms being peripheral, easily manufactured and manipulated by the State. Under fascism, the idea of “the public,” or of “public opinion,” if allowed to exist at all, exists as an afterthought. Emma embodies some problems of democracy, the social contract, and the limits of freedom: while Emma’s/ the public’s inaction may be harming as many people as the MM’s, it is, in a pure-theoretical sense, her prerogative to exercise such inaction. She seems to be guided by a path-of-least-resistance/ live-and-let-live/ your-freedom-is-only-limited, your-swinging-arm-is-only-a-problem, -when-it-hits-my-nose- philosophy. Emma’s sphere is the home, which serves fascist interests; Lorinda Pike’s sphere is outside of the home and traditional gender roles, and in so doing, she becomes a revolutionary, or at least an Accessory to the Cause and thus dangerous. We are told in spots that Emma doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of Doremus’ work—or maybe she doesn’t want to –but we do not condemn her yet on that point alone; to draw attention to her every inaction would defeat her peripheral portrayal. Lewis gets critical of Emma only through Sissy’s thoughts of her (also hitting some interesting mother-daughter relationship issues and intergenerational conflict issues), when Sissy/ Lewis hates how Emma and Philip (who admits he takes after his Mater—334) wish she were more “domestic,” more traditionally oriented as the Corpos want (and adhering to the strict gender roles of fascism), and she thinks Philip (and, by extension, Emma) is “so damned kind to everybody!”—that is, so thoroughly repressive of their own thoughts that they don’t even know what they are thinking (335). It is not surprising that Emma goes to live with the “normal,” “sane,” “socialized,” conforming Philip—and so she is written out of the book, with a whimper.
Given the ease with which parody and satire can become so absolute, so one-sided, it is remarkable how even-handed Lewis tries to make his narrative. By incorporating certain ambiguities about the nature of his satire, Lewis goes beyond traditional satire here, thereby elevating the importance of his subject and the essential questions surrounding it. Lewis may have a satire here, but he hates determinism and uses Doremus as a vehicle to constant remind us how wrong it would be to make easy conclusions—in that way he is critiquing satire itself. To prevent his dramatis personae from becoming solely illustrations of certain elements of satire, thereby being deprived of being complex human beings and decision makers, they will, unlike most people in real life, seek out information and try to make sense of the world they are in. Even Shad can sense when he is getting a raw deal; Emma takes her due through her silence; all the characters have motivations we are allowed to glimpse, and in their dramatic dissonance, become richer than traditional satire would allow—that is one of the virtues of using the novel as a vehicle to exercise satire. If the characters were exclusively roughly drawn, the novel would fall into becoming the kind of political theatre it seems to be so vehemently against and it would become a period piece rather than carrying over its main concerns to today.
It is hard to affect change when the status quo is so profitable. It is hard to avoid going to extremes. Lewis seems to reject a Marxist view of history, espoused by Karl Pascal. Yet even Doremus acknowledges Karl’s potential to be persuasive even in his most bitter hours. Karl’s most brilliant speech reminds us that it can happen here—or anywhere, so long as capitalism remains:
[The Corpos mostly have] been misled by their leaders’ mouthing about Freedom, Order, Security, Discipline, Strength! All those swell words that even before Windrip came in the speculators started using to protect their profits! …I tell you, an honest man gets sick when he hears the word ‘Liberty’ today, after what the Republicans did to it! …they thought, the saps, when he [Windrip] said Security he meant Security! They’ll learn! (357)
Karl’s speech states the shocking truth that most people will sacrifice their “freedom” for the promise of economic stability, i.e., they will submit to any of the Fifteen Points, even the ones authorizing complete tyranny, so long as they are thrown a bone. Perhaps where Doremus gets irritated with Karl is that Doremus wavers on whether people actually will “learn” anything, unsure about pacifism and violence, whether control of resources or a free market is best for ensuring prosperity.
It should be noted that Doremus’/ Lewis’ critique about Communism/Socialism is not in terms of its economic feasibility, but in its implementation and social consciousness and consequences on individuals—or, as Doremus puts it, their “self-righteousness” (357). These systems are to be feared not simply or not only for any deficiencies in themselves, but when they become blind to their public and begin serving only an elite minority, or when they become so zealously in love with themselves that they fall into a mindless stagnation—or, as Doremus ponders, “Let ’em worship their sacred fonts—it was as good a game as any for the mentally retarded” (358). Doremus has to admit that though he reviles Karl’s emerging fanaticism, exacerbated by their imprisonment, he had a glimmer of hope in what he was saying about Communism: “That Karl Pascal should be turning into a zealot, like most of his chiefs in the Communist party, was grievous to Doremus because he had once simple-heartedly hoped that in the mass strength of Communism there might be an escape from cynical dictatorship” (358-9).
In contrast, even while praising personal freedom (and even at times half-questioning the effects of liberalism on cultural taste), various characters throughout the novel usually criticize the free-market capitalism that was responsible for bringing on the Depression and the mass discontent believed to provide the fertile ground for the flourishing of fascism. No reader should hold the illusion that because Socialism is insulted here that capitalism is the working alternative—Lewis makes that very clear. If he had merely intended to dismiss or berate Socialism, he would not have, to borrow from Father Prang, given it so much “air time.” In this way, Lewis foresaw the Cold War—an era of history in which the idea of Socialism had to be given its chance and reckoned with once and for all—where, if Russia and American superpowers could not see eye-to-eye, one would “have” to dominate (358). (And he may have seen the sad era afterward of hypercapitalism and increased strife being imposed as a world model.) Doremus wants us to understand the problematics in dividing the world into two systems and saying that one of those two must “win,” or have privilege over the other:
As a newspaper man, Doremus remembered that the only reporters who misrepresented and concealed facts more unscrupulously than the Capitalists were the Communists.
He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism, but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty. For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor. To their purpose they could quote not only Scripture but Jefferson (358).
The book makes it clear that to conflate Communism and Fascism, to use them interchangeably, would be very wrong, would be uneducated, would be simply following the blind propaganda of the capitalists in power. Abused, both capitalism and Communism can lead to fascism, though, of course, we are biased to believe—in our America and the America of the novel—that only Communism brings on fascism (Doremus resists any “brand of tyranny” that should eventually try to overtake the lone Liberal—359). The conclusion we must extrapolate is that, while not fully endorsing any socio-economic system, the novel seems to be saying that Socialism has its merits—and would be more viable if it could greater incorporate and ensure the protection of certain customary personal liberties. Above all, we must think critically and not be swayed by political theatre. We can’t take any action until we stop saying to ourselves that “it can’t happen here.” Lewis is against any system—including Democracy—that cannot adapt. Rigidity underlies the many manifestations the stripping of freedom takes in fascism (increasing militarism, undercutting free speech, strict gender roles, etc). Whether due to profit or politics, our current capitalist-democracy can be just as rigid, have just as much inertia, can be just as sterile and inhuman and uncaring in the service of the status quo, as fascism: “…[T]he men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and silencing them forever” (359). That’s why it can happen here.
One would imagine Doremus would have great sympathy with the scene in Jean Luc-Godard’s Tout Va B!en in the supermarket/ big box retailer where—oddly enough, as this would never happen in our country—there was a man from the French Communist Party selling some books about his party. Some students come over, take a copy of his book, pick out a sentence and ask the man to explain it. The man, caught off guard, doesn’t know how to react or what to say and asks the young man to come to his office. One of the young women tells him that they will not stand for his not explaining his politics and selling it “like vegetables.” Doremus too would resist such a commodification of beliefs. The market roars on in its monotony, its taking in of people and cash and pushing out of products.
Or so it would seem. A spree of stealing erupts.
Is anarchy possible or workable or is it another caricature, another product, in the world of political theatre?
October 14, 2006
Even the most reckless youngsters went less and less to public entertainments, because no one not ostentatiously in uniform cared to be noticed, these days. It was impossible to sit in a public place without wondering which spies were watching you. So all the world stayed home—and jumped anxiously at every passing footstep, every telephone ring, every tap of an ivy sprig on the window. –It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 287
…the space of citizenship is as important as the idea of citizenship.
–Jo Ellen Green Kaiser, “A Politics of Time and Space,” cited in Giroux, 28.
Location, location, location.
New York real-estate adage
Henry Giroux, in his book, Proto-Fascism in America, makes a understated but important argument about how the eradication of public space in the United Sates is caused by and reinforces the neoliberal politico-economic agenda, and how, indeed, the diminished supply and role of public space should be seen for what it is, as one proto-fascist element among others. It is a subtle argument because power has a geographic dimension, but we have been conditioned to not see it, whereas the importance of the media and the way it is controlled is universally understood as influential. Giroux emphasizes that public space is where “norm-establishing communication takes place,” that is, where the conversations about the norms of a democracy and obligations of a society occur (28). The decline of public space is one part of the commodification of everyday life and the decline of a governmental model that provides social services and maintains in trust communal resources on behalf of a common interest. In turn, the commodification and free-market liberalization of every aspect of existence requires militarization of every part of existence in order to maintain that hierarchical control of the people. By reducing the sites for resistance, speculation, and reflection on government, by limiting the locations for dialogue, our democracy is severely limited. Gaining entry or access to the very basic conversations in democracy is not only rendered difficult by political and economic measures put into place by the dominant classes, but also by literal geographies and mechanisms of space. Space is now considered another amenity that can be controlled by those in power. It is not an overt segregation, but a coded way of debilitating those without privilege in our society.
Taking Giroux’s argument further, I will argue that space has become a political instrument in contemporary America and that it is wielded to play out certain convenient inequities and reinstitute a caste system. I posit that certain acts—like prohibiting the homeless from public space, like limiting the amount of public space built, like increasing the surveillance of ordinary people using public space and placing police in public space—act to determine who participates in a democracy, thus rendering space another tool of the elite.
Playgrounds, benches on streets, ground-level plazas, wide sidewalks and public restrooms are important because these are amenities that allow people to be part of the public sphere without feeling constant pressure to support the private sphere. It is shocking that people do not believe that there should be public amenities—Starbucks is now considered to be a public space, much to the benefit of Starbucks. It is seen as innocuous and natural that the only open seating in our concrete canyons of cities are sited in front of corporate towers—with the public blissfully ignorant of the lavish tax breaks and zoning variances doled out to companies for giving a few hundred square feet of “public” space. By forcing people who cannot or will not participate in such a culture to consume—who cannot afford forced consumption to justify their presence in a space—the dominant market-driven mindset is essentially dictating who has a right to be seen in public. People thus have a right to be in public only when they are consumers—the conversion of citizen with certain inalienable political rights to consumer-citizen with certain rights that must be purchased is complete. In Giroux’s words, “The important notion that space can be used to cultivate citizenship is now transformed by a new “common sense” that links it almost entirely to the production of consumers. The inevitable correlate to this logic is that providing space for democracy to grow is no longer a priority” (28). There are very few places where “issues of importance to a political community are discussed and debated, and where information is presented that is essential to citizen participation in community life” (67). McDonald’s has no reason to host community board meetings.
People who might make this dominant mindset uncomfortable by reminding the middle and upper classes of their poverty, color, disability, or other difference are not seen as deserving of a community of people and resources to help empower them and improve their quality of life and true self-sufficiency—they are demonized and told in a neoliberal consciousness to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Not only is the idea of pulling up the economic pyramid essential in that phrase—never mind the fact that a hierarchical system is inherently designed to keep certain people down—but the idea of pulling themselves up is even more powerful: this is a process that’s isolated, not public; you have to do it yourself—the burden, ahem, responsibility, for your economic welfare as an individual is entirely on you. The neoliberal environment is far too occupied with assisting its other favorite individuals, i.e., corporate persons, whose responsibility to the community is not as clearly defined or held to scrutiny. Those persons, the corporate persons, are able to participate in what is left of our democracy. By “privatizing” this kind of social change, by changing the stage of where social change happens—from the schools and public space to individual homes, private schools, etc—we will have “the death of politics as we know it…[stripping] the social of its democratic values” (71). “Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” is the mantra of Social Darwinism, and that mindset has won over completely in the way we think of society and the role of government—there is no need to provide for the people who are not the “fittest,” or, as Giroux puts it, the “slickest.” They do not exist, do not deserve to exist. As Giroux puts it, they are “disposable,” suited—doomed—for the army, prisons, hospitals, debt-slavery or wage-servitude. When they are excluded from public space, they are not social actors, but rather playing into a pedagogy that lets them be seen as victims of themselves instead of as people marginalized in a socio-economic system that would find their silence convenient (72). It would not be an enormous stretch of the imagination to conceive of Social Darwinism as a new incarnation of a caste system. (Pierre Bourdieu associates the decline of collective institutions and the public sphere with the rise of Social Darwinism and the “struggle of all against all and cynicism as the norm of all action and behavior” ). If space is “crucial to any critical understanding of how power circulates, how disciplinary practices are constructed, and how social control is organized,” as well as potentially fostering radical/ transformative politics (28), the increasing privatization of public space serves to create a caste that uses that space to its advantage and an under-caste that is unaware of the relationship between space, money, and power. Our public space has been transformed, or is in the process of transforming, to reinforce the myth of Social Darwinism. We do not need to establish a social safety net for the “nonsurvivors,” because we do not see them. They are a dying species; they are going extinct; their needs are not part of the social dialogue. Giroux makes clear the relationship between a decline in public space and a decline in democratic participation, and the effects such a drop in civic life would have in allowing proto-fascist elements to take hold:
Without public space, it becomes more difficult for individuals to imagine themselves as political agents or to understand the necessity for developing a discourse capable of defending civic institutions. Public space confirms the idea of individuals and groups having a public voice, thus drawing a distinction between civic liberty and market liberty. (28)
I would carry that argument further and assert that increased rigidity of societal roles caused by the privatization of public space implements a self-perpetuating caste system on the people, fractioning the public until their views of what a democracy is or can be have been supplanted by neoliberalist conceptions of society, specifically the dismantling of communal services and the necessity of a hypercapitalist economy defended by a constant security industry as the natural, normative state of things. Instead of all citizens having the same basic assured rights, we will have a stratified society—with those strata held in place by force—of people who can consume and go along with hypercapitalism, and people who cannot. Voting is now seen as something that is done with dollars, and those without access to those dollars have no voice. If a key component of freedom lies in our ability to control our self-determination, imposed limits on where we are spatially and where we must “fit” in society will make that self-determination a façade, a function only of consumption—and then our freedoms will be completely eradicated.
With the eradication of the public as a whole whose opinions are considered important and a force to be acknowledged, with the decline of public life, there is no democracy. There can be no public life without a healthy, vital public—non-commercialized—space. Why should it matter if such space is commercial? Aside from determining who can participate in such a space, as in the argument outlined above, the commercialization of space has another effect on its participants—further teaching those who believe they can participate in such a public space that the Social Darwinist, neoliberal world view is right—that commercialization is the natural order of things, that the state is only essentially an economic container rather than the protector of political rights and freedoms, that “capitalism may not be perfect but it is the best system we have.” By that point, people are so indoctrinated that it is difficult to change them. People are almost completely ignorant on the role, purpose, and functions of government because of the total immersion of corporations in their lives—they are setting the stage for the dismantling of government altogether, because they believe that private enterprise can execute the functions of government better. There is no counter-education to demonstrate that corporate personhood does not actually benefit people. When they believe the razing of public space is not dangerous to democracy, when they have become complacent to the idea that everything should be purchasable, they lose the sense of “political possibilities” for “collective struggle” (68). “Corporate philanthropy” is an oxymoron. There is no understanding that private business has no obligations to the public and very few to its shareholders. The only obligations a corporation has is to increase profits for itself and to more or less distribute any dividends to investors after it pays itself. The government is the only institution in our country that has an obligation to serve the people. When the power of the government is adulterated or jeopardized by the influence of corporations and their politics, when the public space is commercialized in the same fashion, then any checks upon the mechanisms of capitalism continue to deteriorate. Giroux recapitulates that without public space, “corporate power often goes unchecked and politics becomes dull, cynical, and oppressive” (67).
Increasingly, any form of being out of your home that does not involve shopping or consuming in some fashion is seen as a threat, a crime. To be homeless in today’s America is to be particularly devastating. To set up a Hoovertown today would make all involved terrorists; it would be an act that would have to be cut off at the pass by brute force, because it might be seen as inciting riots and—heaven forbid—inquiry about our economic-political system. It would be perceived as a destabilizing gesture requiring the use of force (and not requiring the acknowledgement of rights) because it would defy notions of being “put in one’s place” (see 27). In addition to suffering from the lack of connections, skills, and physical, emotional, economic and/or chemical dependency challenges that caused the homelessness in the first place, the homeless literally have no place to go at all ever, aside from simply not having a place to go at night. Services for the homeless are imperiled like never before, as though telling them not to exist will make it so. Giroux notes that “as public space is increasingly commodified and the state becomes more closely aligned with capital, politics is defined largely by its policing functions, rather than as an agency for peace and social reform” (69). One manifestation of this is the increase in “anti-begging and anti-loitering ordinances that fine or punish homeless people for sitting or lying down too long in public places” (70). The homeless are supposed to feel ashamed and invisible, supposed to forget that they are human beings with rights, and, above all, forget to remind us with their presence that it is mere accident of fate and circumstances that we are not where they are, that their situation could happen to any of us. With increasingly feudal economic policies encouraging debt and prohibiting saving, creating inflation and stagnating incomes, many people who conceive of themselves as living a middle-class existence actually live paycheck-to-paycheck, hand-to-mouth, one missed months’ rent or one medical crisis away from homelessness—in the self-described most prosperous nation in the world. The assumption coinciding with the lack of public space is that there should be no public economic safety net, that people must “provide for themselves,” even, again, if illness or lack of education prevents them from doing so. The myth is that jobs are plentiful and that every employed person has access to the American Dream of a certain amount of material comfort. Therefore, exposing the middle class to people who threaten that myth—who may have jobs but still be homeless, a growing group of homeless people, along with homeless women, homeless children, and homeless families—is more dangerous than the underlying reality that causes that disparity. The current paradox in many states concerning receiving social benefits illustrates that having a job in no way assures security. To receive the “benefit” of health insurance, should you be unfortunate enough to have a “pre-existing condition,” chronic illness, or be born differently than the “mainstream,” you must earn an income so below the Federal Poverty Line as to be homeless. Yet without a job or address, one cannot qualify for benefits. This system encourages people choosing between food, rent, and medicine/healthcare, unable to have all three. The Federal Poverty Line is in itself a farce, as in major cities with high rents, many lower-middle class families struggling to keep a roof over their head make just enough to pay their rent but not enough to purchase their own health coverage on the free market. Thus, our lack of a social safety net, of socially assured benefits like nationalized health insurance, is one of the major factors prohibiting true class mobility in this country. If the free market is such an effective economic system, one has to wonder, why is it that it cannot deliver affordable health coverage to all, whereas Canada and other nations with socialized medicine spend less on the dollar administering benefits than private insurers here? Homeless people could never be included in the statistics/ propaganda of the government and business, trumpeting Prosperity and Progress—prosperity and progress for the people who already have it, who obviously need to accumulate more. Were the homeless to be counted—that is, to participate in democracy—we would find a less rosy social and economic picture across the country. Hence the importance of volunteer-run homeless census efforts in major cities such as New York, piecemeal as these initiatives are.
The elimination of public space has been an initiative in place by economic conservatives long before neoliberalism came into power—neoliberalism is simply an acceleration of capitalism to its most devastating conclusions. Giroux is correct when he states that neoliberalism “is not simply an economic policy designed to cut government spending, pursue free-trade policies, and free market forces from government regulations; it is also a political philosophy and ideology that affects every dimension of social life” (70). So not funding public space or not preventing homelessness or assisting the homeless are not simply matters of “not finding the money.” These are political and philosophical choices the dominant parties in society would rather not indulge. There is no economic decision in our society that does not have political effects, yet neoliberals and others in the power elite choose to separate the two in order to obfuscate their social motives.
When the public is no longer in the public space putting pressure on our elected officials, when the public is no longer monitoring the actions of the government, the government can become—as it is now—dangerously secretive and its powers can become increasingly invasive. The government is now the least transparent it has ever been, which has everything to do with the eradication of public space. When the public is no longer in the forefront, projecting its opinions and needs, there is no need for the government to hold a public response, so goes the neoliberal logic. Giroux paraphrases A. Roy: “…American society has entered a historic period when dominant economic and state power has removed itself from the dynamics of political constraint and public accountability. The overall result is that the space of freedom is undermined, constituting a step toward fascism” (18). Following from decreased transparency, the dominant strata of society can become increasingly authoritarian. Giroux quotes Zygmunt Bauman, who discusses how a weakening of public space works to centralize power:
Hence a territory stripped of public space provides little chance for norms being debated, for values to be confronted, to clash and be negotiated. The verdicts of right and wrong, beauty and ugliness, proper and improper, useful and useless may only descend from on high…the verdicts are unquestionable since no questions may be meaningfully addressed to the judges…no room is left for the ‘local opinion leaders’; no room is left for the ‘local opinion as such. (29)
A commercialized, non-public space of discourse (such as it is) creates a concentration of power wherein the holders of space are the same parties who are exercising the economic influence behind neoliberal policies—further, where there is such a monopolization of might, there is no motivation to implement or enforce checks on that absolute power. Through space as well as economics and politics, the power elite is insulating itself from criticism (see 27).
If the privatization of public space seems comparatively to be one of the lesser things in the development of fascism we should be concerned about, then such a mindset reveals how acculturated we have already become to proto-fascist elements all around us. For the privatization of public space is not only an unfortunate taking of freedom in itself, but an act that is instrumental to the re-possession by the economic elite of other freedoms, which may be noticed only after they are gone. Giroux cites Bertram Gross’ Friendly Fascism, stating how authoritarianism would take on a new look if implemented today. Because “…fascism is an eternal danger and has the ability to become relevant under new conditions taking on familiar forms of thought that resonate with nativist traditions, experiences, and political relations,” in any political system that allows economic forces to reign unregulated and that allows economic power to determine political power, we must be on constant guard for any acts that might be wielded recklessly to promote fascism (24). We no longer have the luxury of hindsight.
If we are public figures, we are seen as being dangerous and threatening. So there are ever complex mechanisms, consumption-lures, and info-tainments that keep us pacified in our boxes, our homes and offices, rather than run the risk of going outside and participating in the world, seeing its problems, and wanting to make a difference. We are being taught that what is public is dangerous, that we are the most secure only in our own homes, that crime is rampant even in the most “prosperous” nation in its most wealthy time in its history. We are not told to question what kind of “wealth” it is we have if it is indeed so destabilizing socially. If we are as a nation a picture of financial and social health, I for one, would hate to see a state of disease.
A new cult of domesticity is taking hold, along with the rigid gender/ social roles accompanying it. As consumer-citizens find their votes and voices to be increasingly drowned out by corporate powers, they are following the advertising-propaganda narrative of recent years to become ever more absorbed with building, renovating, furnishing, and accessorizing their Platonic caves, an industry flourishing like never before. There has got to be some kind of correlation between the widespread apathy on the part of the public concerning nationwide policy issues and worldwide peace issues and the rise of the home as an enculturating-isolating-complacency-manufacturing site in recent memory. Public life is becoming a myth whose experience is reserved for the wealthy and powerful. In Giroux’s words: “…democracy is imperiled as the emerging security state offers the American people the false choice between being safe or free” (13). The militarization of everyday life inherent to fascism will eventually spread to every space, including the home, but it will establish a sick precedent in taking hold of public space and handing it over to corporate interests. There is little awareness that freedom, unlike “security,” cannot be packaged, bought, and sold. The American people have bought the line of logic that they must fortify and guard all their wealth, that wealth is something that must be guarded—but there is no acknowledgement of how wealth could be shared equitably in order to make such a hypervigilant security industry unnecessary. Security is something seen as deliverable only on the individual, private sphere, rather than something that could be communally available through just economic policies. Schools and prisons are interchangeable, becoming increasingly privatized and/or shaped by private ideals of administration, and are spaces used to implement and maintain caste structures:
Schools increasingly function as zoning mechanisms to separate students marginalized by class and color; and, as such, these institutions now are modeled after prisons. This follows the argument of David Garland, who points out, ‘Large-scale incarceration functions as a mode of economic and social placement, a zoning mechanism that segregates those populations rejected by the depleted institutions of family, work, and welfare and places them behind the scenes of social life (53, emphasis added).
Again, Giroux’s choice to use spatial vocabulary to describe how militarization is being played out is far from coincidental. Control of the media creates prisons of the mind, jails of thought; and belonging to the wrong class will confine your experience of the world and curtail your participating in society. The space for dissent does not exist, and where that space does not exist, it cannot occur (see 58).
Lewis was right—”so all the world stayed home”—but even that was not a guarantee that our phones would not be tapped and electronic correspondence sifted through to alert authorities in case we were plotting some kind of shakeup to the system from home. In addition to the decline of public space domestically, there are also increasing restrictions being placed on international travel and mobility, all in the name of “security.” Mobility and travel are seen as threatening, not as the rights that they are—but it makes sense in a fascist society to undermine them, as they have used economics to undercut the possibility of social mobility (or rising above one’s caste) at home. So staying at home signals an endorsement of public apathy of opinion, allowing authoritarianism to take hold, and it also implies a wholesale belief in the “culture of fear” (29) so necessary for fascism. Staying at home and not insisting on the sanctity of public space as a right in itself and as an instrument of democracy promotes the “consent or complicity with the national security state” the neoliberalist, proto-fascist agenda depends upon (30). When every space is privatized, then it will be easy to perpetuate notions of security and the existence of ever-present enemies to “a way of life” that neoliberals are trying to protect for themselves (packaged as “our way of life,” of course, depending on who is included in that strata). Every space will be conquered and colonized—including and especially media space—to manipulate every aspect of our lives. It is a sad signal of our times that people would rather stay home and guard their possessions than reclaim the public sphere and, in so doing, protect their freedom. Their worlds have literally been made small (limited zones, limited vocabulary, limited ideas, the “simulacra of communication” ), and education has been so thoroughly dismantled that it will be the foremost challenge for progressivism to expand people’s worlds and reinstitute true democracy again.
October 12, 2006
The imitation picks you up like a habit
Writing in the glow of the TV static
Taking out the trash to the man
Give the people something they’d understand
A stickman flashing a fine-lined smile
Junk bond trader trying to sell a sucker a style
Rich man in a poor man’s clothes
The permanent installment of the daily dose
And you tell off when you tell it like it is
Your world’s no wider than your hatred of his.
Checking into a small reality
Boring as a drug you take too regularly
The athlete’s laugh, the broken crutch
The first true love that folded at the slightest touch
Brought down like an old hotel
People digging through the rubble for things they can resell.
Elliott Smith, “Junk Bond Trader”
Militarization is essential to fascism. There are no two ways about it. Fascism is an extreme state, and, as such, extreme measures are necessary to protect it. Militarization functions to induce fear and helplessness in the populace (Wolin describes the usefulness of apathy to fascism) and is structured to consolidate power further, thereby maintaining helplessness, censorship, abuse of civil liberties, strict gender roles, and other features of fascism in a perverse feedback/ reinforcement loop. Giroux cuts to the core of fascism, its nuts and bolts, by bringing to the forefront the fact that the US is more militarized, more obsessed with using the accoutrements of weaponry, warfare, and actual or implied violence to maintain control of its hegemony/resources “than at any other time in its history” (1). The truly shocking (or not shocking, depending on how cynical we are) thing is that such a sentence could have been written about virtually any American moment, past, present, and future. Each observer in their own era can continue to go on to see such tactics as “dramatic” or “radical” shifts away from democratic, domestic-agenda government, but we need to see such maneuvers (as, for example, destabilizing social programs and being an international aggressor) as part and parcel of fascism, pieces of a system of domination over the masses and/or the “powerless.” Until we come to an understanding of that, we run the real risk of accepting—and thus becoming accessory to—the growing militarization and regimentation of everyday life, becoming more than exploited wage slaves, but becoming violated means-to-ends, dehumanized, dispensable, forgettable, slaves, shells of ourselves.
The economic scenarios described by Grioux on pgs. 8-9 (taxing the poor, corporate welfare, slashing social programs, etc.) are particularly bad now, but they are par for the course in a hypercapitalist country as ours. Slashing public moneys for welfare initiatives and infrastructure to hand over to an already obese military machine has occurred cyclically in our nation’s legacy. Indeed, if not for citizen participation, we must never forget that corporate capitalism would go unchecked by that agent of the people, the government, and that we would still be eating tainted food (well, even more so than tainted spinach and lettuce, which shows in its own way that we’re at the end of our empire), driving cars without seat belts, working twelve hours a day with no overtime, sending our children to sweatshops, and so on. We do not appreciate that every one of these symptoms are decisions of policy and that they are building into the widespread establishment of privatization. Bankruptcy has gotten more difficult, not for businesses, but for average people scraping by, and I don’t doubt debtors prisons will become fashionable again as our life choices will not be controlled by us but by the profit motives of unchecked corporations. Like any poor country, our poor are disempowered and invisible, our so-called Democracy grinding along without them. We no longer view governance as that which has the power to limit corporate capitalism—or if we do, we are unthinkingly conceived of as dreaded Communists. We confuse politics (and its brand of theatre) for governance. We want to believe that capitalism will be a social system as well as an economic system, that it will solve social ills as well as economic ones, when, in actuality, it not only fails at both, but promotes economic (and, consequently, social) strife. We want to have our cake and eat it too, to be able to believe without guilt that people earning minimum wage and without health insurance will still be able to work their way to our arrogantly middle-class standard of “self-sufficiency.” We will start wars over that belief that “self sufficiency” for all is possible under capitalism, even when capitalism is the very thing undercutting that “self sufficiency.”
I will argue that our values about what constitutes “prosperity” need to change swiftly and completely if we are not to kill eachother (and our planet) with capital. Our Federal government in recent administrations (labelled both Democratic and Republican) has been able to get away with “spending as much on war as it is on education, public health, housing, employment, pensions, food aid and welfare put together” (1) because of the underlying power-serving perception—starting with WWII, I suppose—that war really is like a glorious tonic to bring a nation out of Depressions both psychic and economic. So when it is considered acceptable to use warfare has changed from not only protecting human rights to defending our economic interests, which, of course, could never be “defended” by, say, diplomacy. Our economic system, that benevolent capitalism that really is so good at ensuring The Best Standard of Living In the World, is apparently so fragile that it is without question, it is a given, that it can only remain intact through violent oppression and force, not through its own treasured Free Market mechanisms.
If that magic silver bullet of war should take out hordes of innocents (the ones killed and the 99% of us who are not cruel profiteering heirs), well, that’s the price of warfare-commerce, which have become one and the same (with each fought in the name of each other and each using interchangeable guerrilla vocabularies). Collateral damage, collateral for a loan for the future return on investment. Casualties—deaths removed fro agency, accountability, or responsibility, happening as a matter of course and told in the divorcing passive voice. Written off and refunded as an expense of doing business (cracking open those eggs to make an omelet). The public has been misled into not insisting on alternate forms of prosperity. As Al Gore suggests in his film An Inconvenient Truth (in what’s got to be my favorite scene), somehow the public believes deeply that wealth and sustainability are mutually exclusive—never mind the fact that without environmental (and, I’d add, economic and social) sustainability, there will be no wealth to be had. (I’m referring to the scene where Gore discusses a meeting of executives talking about the costs of implementing Sustainability—as though it were still optional instead of necessary—who make, in talking to each other, a graphic of a balance scale with a yummy pile of gold on one side and, you know, The Entire Planet Earth on the other, and how Gore quite wryly breaks down this fallacy, that Sustainability is zero-sum and unrealistic as a goal to have.) The public is uneducated and ignorant of alternate forms of prosperity aside from imperialist hierarchical capitalism. Thus the public so far cannot change the fascist course monopolizing prosperity and defending its own interests. Discourse on the subject of assuring prosperity is dead, and of assuring that prosperity as a communal thing has long been past rigor mortis. It is a term that is not analyzed or questioned. It is taken for granted that one must work within the capitalist system and then, maybe, eventually, if you work hard enough for about all of your life, and if you have had certain advantages of circumstance or connection (i.e., right parents, right gender, right schools, right skin color, right chipper attitude), you will be rewarded with a 24 karat gold-plated elitist garland.
So war is the current conduit through which our economy operates—blood for oil, as is commonly summarized. The public is not creating the pressure to dismantle the military and develop alternate and just forms of prosperity. Giroux notes that the culture of glorified aggression becoming normal in everyday life and growing is because domestic and foreign policy has “privileged security over freedom, the rule of the market over social needs, and militarization over human rights and social justice” (6). The term “privilege” is key to our understanding how this direction can take such powerful hold in a so-called Democracy, and so we must unpack how certain ideas become “privileged.” The public thinks somehow, with great cognitive dissonance, that, as according to the laissez-faire mindset, that there can be prosperity without the (re)distribution of wealth, that there can be true prosperity with oppressive socioeconomic disparities. Giroux notes that since 9/11 “the military has assumed a privileged place in American society” and, indeed, those of us who are observers of fascist tendencies would agree that is not a promising omen. But the military, or militarized elements of daily life, have had privilege accorded to it over and over in American history, usually during times of economic instability or insecurity, again, due to this pervasive conception that the military will lift us (as a nation, of course) out of fiscal volatility more rapidly than, say, rationally thought out legislation and policy (which are not nearly so glamourous and cinematic). Rallying our homeland around a common, clear-and-present danger is a narrative that has an intuitive and understandable drama to it. Hashing out funding appropriations correlated to inflation for 80/20s resisting phaseout is not narrative, not Madison Square Garden political theatre. We have already learned that people want to be secure, are frighteningly willing to sacrifice their political rights and civil liberties for even the most basic of economic assurances. Knowing this, political and business/corporate interests in power have ingrained into the public consciousness that the narrative—the only narrative—that’s going to best provide that promised “prosperity” is the military-industrial one. There are only so many letters that will fit on a banner headline, and besides, no Neil Simon of our generation is joining the Army and sentimentalizing on it. There can be no illusion of heroism in the military anymore. It must be disseminated to potential recruits that any enemy they will be fighting will be one that we have provoked through our guns and butter. And maybe if they know that it will be a war that will never end, a war to defend a putrid economic system, maybe then they will not join the military—that would be our hope. Rebels who try to make new national narratives—narratives generating from a need for truth and openness, for awareness and just action—risk their careers and their lives against a heavily armed propaganda machine, a disinformation age fusing the “best and brightest” not only from Madison Avenue but the Pentagon. So now artists, intellectuals, and, yes, Virginia, (yes, Washington), even lowly English majors can add “martyrdom” to “drinking coffee” on their job descriptions, and maybe work in a University giving out more rifles than Teaching Assistantships. I know I’ll sleep better at night for that.
It’s my belief that once we recognize that our time is not unique in its atrocious exploitation of everyone but the most powerful, then we can really get angry, and that such anger can be used to really do something. If we think that our time is unique, we’ll miss the forest for the trees in whatever we do, treat the symptom but not the disease, and other metaphors for addressing the superficial rather than the deep; we’ll also fall into the comfort that somehow it will pass, or get better in the future, or correct itself—perhaps by taking more of its own poison-medicine, capitalism. We must realize that what is happening in our day is not special but part of the abusive pattern of capitalism before we can ever begin to dismantle that system. Fascism can be characterized across countries and post-Industrial Revolution periods for this very reason. It does not matter if we make t-shirts lambasting W. or Windrip, Franco or Hitler or Mussolini. They may not be the same, but they should be similar enough to scare us into wanting to reclaim our democracy, and if we are not scared into motivation, we need to examine how we are living our lives and what we want our planet to think of our generation after we have passed. Religion is no longer the opiate of the masses—that honored place goes now to capitalism, which has spread its suppression of thought more effectively than any faith ever could. It is significant that Giroux puts “unbridled self-interest” (and we can assume he means economic as well as ideological self interest) with “unquestioned obedience, fear, [and] cynicism” as one of the things that permits authoritarianism to take hold and endure (14).
Giroux notes that Bush capitalizes on military culture by (despite having never served) donning the uniform, speaking to veterans (while cutting their meager benefits), and so on. What needs to be more fully explicated is the fact that he is relying on his status as “Commander in Chief” to push public perception to legitimize his political decisions (and those decisions are, unfortunately, distinctly his, because there has been no noticeable and effective public challenge to those choices). We have governance by photo-opportunity. I have long thought that the combination of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces with the figure of the President of the United States, i.e., the Chief Executive, to be a dangerous anachronism. The supreme most military leader should not be the same person as the person who is signing the federal laws determining social rights and economic policy, period. Since the advent of the instantaneous telephone call, there is no need for those two grave responsibilities to be bound in one individual, without a check on the power of either. There is no war that we should be deciding to enter into in a matter of split-seconds. War is too serious of a pursuit to be decided by the figure who can veto the decisions of the Legislative and Judicial branches, or stuff those institutions with his cronies. The British are not coming—no one is; they really could not care less about our crumbling infrastructure, ugly architecture, freeways, sprawl, and strip malls. (How else except through propaganda would we believe that overseas members of our own human species would want to attack us instead of working to build up their own nations, if only for the fact that we had imposed economic burdens unbearably tipping the cards into our hand?)
How else on this green earth could 75% of people polled believe the military will “do the right thing” “most of the time” (2)? Because they’ve been sold that the military is guarding “prosperity,” that those serving in the military and those running and manipulating the military, are just like us, just wanting to make things a little better. The military has made and given out video games showing what one could do as a pilot, etc., and people think that joining the military is just a more real version of that game, or going to camp, or shopping at the army-navy surplus store. You know, that folk sensibility, that parallel narrative. If the military is just like us, how could they do wrong? If we like capitalism, if capitalism benefits us and maybe not some others, how could it be wrong? People think, especially if they come from dysfunctional families or bad economic circumstances, that the Service will give them a honest role in society and provide not only economic stability, but order—and this desire for order is natural and akin to the way civilians will relinquish rights for plenty; it is a bias we all have because most of us have grown accustomed to three squares daily, thanks very much. They don’t realize that the military’s version of order is insanity, that it achieves whatever it thinks it is achieving through a legalized, contractually bound, hierarchical absolutism; that it squeezes the life force and individuality and creativity out of you, that it is devoid of intelligence and is designed to strip away your intelligence. Aside from blatant economic motivations, it is this idea, this narrative, of “order” or “discipline” and “making good” that drives why people are still joining the military. For people with broken families, which would happen to describe a vast majority of poor people (who are faced with the choice of sublimating that pain into workaholicism and attempts to enter the middle class and deny their past, or continued poverty/dysfunction/ substance abuse), the military becomes their family (Vonnegut touches on the need for surrogate families in one of his books, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, I believe). E pluribus unum.
Giroux quotes Gareth Evans as saying that the “War on Terror” has only promoted “more war and more terror” (7). Can any thinking person (while they still exist, that is) actually be surprised at such an outcome? Does this come as a revelation to anyone, and, if so, how much corporate media have they been consuming? How long can we delude ourselves as a society that incessant war, as depicted by many dystopic novelists and thinkers who have observed history and the psyche, from Lewis to Orwell, would result in a good outcome, that global stability could come from designating an ever-growing list of “enemies”? After Bush’s really depressing re-election in 2004, he was arrogant enough to proclaim that he had “political capital” and that he was going to “spend it.” Did we not see the significance of that statement? He’s rendered Democracy obsolete and thinks that Capitalism is a form of governance he can cash out, going on shopping sprees with our lives. He truly believes that he can do anything as long as he can present the façade that he can “afford it”—i.e., he’s not paying for the Iraq war, for demolishing the government, for domestic decay—his successor will. Is no one terrified at this? (Terror is the word to be using.) If we should be somewhat fortunate enough to have a Democratic successor, that is, a Democratic successor in a Democratic climate, a Democratic successor who is not Democratic in name only—which are assumptions enough, they will have so many debts to pay that any job they do in 2008, as well meaning against the status quo as they could possibly be, will be a botched resuscitation. They will be perceived as “ineffective” and the Right wing cabal will attempt an “I told you so” name-calling bid for power, dismantling any policies that might check capitalism, reduce militarization, etc.
Giroux notes in a sentence that seems obvious but which is nonetheless describing a situation that must be addressed, that “Dissent does not come easy in a country where people can be detained, tried without representation, and held indefinitely in a jail under a legal policy of enforced secrecy” (14). Fascism is a mass movement in that it eclipses all, it is a movement of absolute militarization and mobilization of monopolized resources for authoritarian ends. Our dissent must come on a mass scale as well—a mass scale of people getting involved and changing how they live and think and a mass change in politics and governance and economics in this country. Giroux may be faulted for—and we may be accused of—”preaching to the choir,” but if we are, that’s at least marginally better than being silent, if only for the sake of history, which will damn our silence.