the holistic radical

October 14, 2006

Space and Caste in Neoliberal America

Filed under: Uncategorized — sesame seed @ 11:42 pm

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” [69]). 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” [34]), 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.

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