“Too many people today accept the notion that their fate is solely a matter of individual responsibility, irrespective of wider structural forces,” writes cultural critic and theorist Henry A. Giroux, in his new book, America at War with Itself. “This much promoted ideology, favored by the rich, suggests that human relations boil down to competition and combat. People today are expected to inhabit a set of economic relations in which the only obligation is to fight for one’s own self-interest.” This troubling trend is not only profoundly anti-democratic, but also works to eliminate structural, systemic and social concerns from public discourse, creating what Giroux has described as “organized powerlessness.”
In the following interview, Giroux — a professor for scholarship in the public interest at McMaster University and a member of Truthout’s board — explains the background to the war metaphor and deconstructs its everyday use in the US. Finally, he evokes a politics of possibility which begins by making visible the linkages among a vast array of issues that undermine democracy.
Leslie Thatcher: Henry, could you give a brief list of the many ways America is at war with itself and the most recent battles or campaigns of that war?
Henry Giroux: FDR once said, “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” This is happening in the United States in the most literal sense, given that our political and economic system are wedded to a market-driven system willing to destroy the planet, while relentlessly undermining those institutions that make a democracy possible. What this suggests and the book takes up in multiple ways is that the United States is at war with its own idealism, democratic institutions, the working and middle classes, minority youth, Muslims, immigrants and all of those populations considered disposable.
War has taken on an existential quality in that we are not simply at war; rather, as Étienne Balibar insists, “we are in war,” inhabiting a war culture that touches every aspect of society. War is no longer an instrument to be used by political powers, but a form of rule, a general condition of the social order itself — a permanent social relation and organizing principle that affects all aspects of the social order. In fact, the US has moved from a welfare state in the last forty years to a warfare state, and war has now become the foundation for politics, wedded to a misguided war on terror, the militarization of everyday life, and a culture of fear, which have become its most important regulative functions. Politics has become a comprehensive war machine that aggressively assaults anything that does not comply with its underlying economic, religious, educative and political fundamentalisms.
As a comprehensive war machine, the United States operates in the service of a police state, violates civil liberties and has given rise to a military-industrial-surveillance complex that President Eisenhower could never have imagined. For instance, the largest part of the federal budget — 600 billion dollars — goes to the military. The US rings the earth with military bases, and the US military budget is larger than those of all other advanced industrial countries combined. And that doesn’t count the money spent on the National Surveillance State and intelligence agencies.
War culture is everywhere and is used in the assault against women, especially around reproductive rights, with the closing down of abortion clinics and the working of various right-wing controlled states that have refused to buy into Medicaid.
There is also an ongoing war on youth, especially minority youth, who are under siege in their schools, which are modeled increasingly after prisons and too often have more security forces and police in them than teachers. One consequence is that often trivial infractions by students, such as violating a dress code, get them arrested and put into the school-to-prison pipeline. Too many youths today live in the shadow of fear, violence, poisoned water, poverty and racism.
War is being waged against minorities whose everyday behavior is being criminalized as they are subject to debtor prisons and an expansion of the incarceration state. At the same time, impoverished cities are turned into war zones. Weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are now given to police departments, increasing the possibility of their use on poor minority communities. The police are now defined as soldiers who view the public as enemies and use force and violence in ways today that were unthinkable just a generation ago. Every sphere of American life has been reduced to a police matter, while the military and police together are lauded in the media as the highest expressions of the nation’s ideals.
In addition, war culture arrogantly expresses its disdain for democracy by implementing laws to restrict voting rights, abolishing the social contract, undermining civic institutions, and exhibiting contempt for the common good, public employees, unions and public goods, such as schools. The war on poverty has become a war on the poor waged by policies that deprive the poor of public provisions, such as food stamps, quality health care and decent jobs.
War is also being waged against the middle and working classes as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the upper 1 percent. A war against all but the elite may perhaps be discerned in the connections between a corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers and an economy that moves jobs overseas and forecloses on homes with zeal. War culture legitimates the building of private prisons in order to yield high returns and expand operations into a new market: caging immigrants.
A war against the citizenry is also evident in the enacting of laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses and morally corrupt stand-your-ground laws that suggest individuals shoot first and ask questions later.
The rising culture of violence, repression and surveillance in the United States points to the dangerous transformation of American politics into a war machine, one that is reflected in many acts of domestic terrorism that plague society, and extend from the lead poisoning of millions of children and the transformation of urban centers into war zones to the militarization of public schools and the use of violence as the central tool in our society to solve all social problems.
This state of war at home and abroad needs to be understood as part of a more comprehensive politics of oppression and authoritarianism. For instance, there is a need to connect the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as “terrorist organizations,” the demonization of Mexican immigrants, Muslims and protesters in the media and the crackdown on dissent throughout society as part of a broader politics of totalitarianism.
“War” suggests that the country’s highest ideals are wedded to combat, militarization, the production of state violence, unchecked competition, a hyper form of masculinity and the notion that violence is the primary organizing principle of society.
What’s interesting about the war metaphor is that it produces a language that celebrates what the US should be ashamed of, including the national surveillance state, the military-industrial complex, the war on whistleblowers, the never-ending spectacle of violence in popular culture and endless wars abroad. The vocabulary of war has become normalized and mobilizes certain desires, not only related to violence and social combat, but also in the creation of agents who act in the service of violence. Violence is not only normalized as the ultimate measure for solving problems, but also as a form of pleasure, especially with regard to the production of violent video games, films and even the saturation of violence in daily mainstream news. Violence saturates American life, as it has become cool to be cruel to people, to bully people and to be indifferent to the suffering of others. The ultimate act of pleasure is now served up in cinematically produced acts of extreme violence, produced both to numb the conscience and to up the pleasure quotient.
This retreat into barbarism is amplified by the neoliberal value of celebrating self-interest over attention to the needs of others. It gets worse. As Hannah Arendt once observed, war culture is part of a species of thoughtlessness that legitimates certain desires, values and identities that make people insensitive to the violence they see around them in everyday life. One can’t have a democracy that organizes itself around war because war is the language of injustice — it admits no compassion and revels in a culture of cruelty.
This is the language of instrumental rationality gone berserk, one that strips communication of those issues, values and questions that cannot be resolved empirically. This national obsession with data is symbolic of the retreat from social and moral responsibility. A one-dimensional use of data erases the questions that matter the most: What gives life meaning? What is justice? What constitutes happiness? These things are all immeasurable by a retreat into the discourse of quantification. This type of positivism encourages a form of thoughtlessness, undermines critical agency, makes people more susceptible to violence and emotion rather than reason. Reducing everything to quantitative data creates a form of civic illiteracy, undercuts the ethical imagination, kills empathy and mutilates politics.
The obsession with data becomes a convenient tool for abdicating that which cannot be measured, thus removing from the public sphere those issues that raise serious questions that demand debate, informed judgment and thoughtfulness while taking seriously matters of historical consciousness, memory and context. Empiricism has always been comfortable with authoritarian societies, and has worked to reduce civic courage and agency to an instrumental logic that depoliticizes people by removing matters of social and political responsibility from ethical and political considerations.
America’s obsession with metrics and quantitative data is a symptom of its pedagogy of oppression. Numerical values now drive teaching, reduce culture in the broadest sense to the culture of business and teach children that schools exist largely to produce conformity and kill the imagination. Leon Wieseltier is right in arguing that the unchecked celebration of metrics erases the distinction “between knowledge and information” and substitutes quantification for wisdom.
This is not to say that all data is worthless or that data gathering is entirely on the side of repression. However, the dominant celebration of data, metrics and quantification flattens the human experience, outsources judgement and distorts the complexity of the real world. The idolatry of the metric paradigm is politically and ethically enervating and cripples the human spirit.
In ignoring the power of the pedagogical function of mainstream cultural apparatuses, many on the left have lost their ability to understand how domination and resistance work at the level of everyday life. The left has relied for too long on defining domination in strictly structural terms, especially with regard to economic structures. Many people on the left assume that the only form of domination is economic. What they ignore is that the crises of economics, history, politics and agency have not been matched by a crisis of ideas. They don’t understand how much work is required to change consciousness or how central the issue of identification is to any viable notion of politics. People only respond to a politics that speaks to their condition. What the left has neglected is how matters of identification and the centrality of judgment, belief and persuasion are crucial to politics itself. The left underestimates the dimensions of struggle when it gives up on education as central to the very meaning of politics.
The left appears to have little interest in addressing education as central to how people think and see things. Education can enable people to recognize that the problems they face in everyday life need a new language that speaks to those problems. What is particularly crucial here is the need to develop a politics in which pedagogy becomes central to enabling people to understand and translate how everyday troubles connect to wider structures.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
Certainly, it is crucial to educate people to recognize that American democracy is in crisis and that the forces that threaten it are powerful and must be made visible. In this case, we are talking about the merging of neoliberalism, institutionalized racism, militarization, racism, poverty, inequities in wealth and power and other issues that undermine democracy.
We no longer live in a democracy. The myth of democracy has to be dismantled. To understand that, we need to connect the dots and make often isolated forms of domination visible — extending from the war on terror and the existence of massive inequalities in wealth and power to the rise of the mass incarceration state and the destruction of public and higher education. We have to make clear that decisions made by the state and corporations are not in the general interest. We must connect the war on Black youth to the war on workers and the war on the middle class, while exposing the workings of a system that extorts money, uses prison as a default welfare program and militarizes the police as a force for repression and domestic terrorism. We must learn how to translate individual problems into larger social issues, create a comprehensive politics and a third party with the aim not of reforming the system, but restructuring it. As Martin Luther King recognized at end of his life, the war at home and the war abroad cannot be separated. Such linkages remain crucial to the democratic project.
At another level, the book tries to illustrate how the forces of authoritarianism cannot be addressed by simply focusing on the rise of a demagogue such as Trump. It reveals how Trump and others are symptomatic of a much larger set of issues deeply embedded in the body politic. This means developing a wide-ranging and interconnected view of politics that brings together the various anti-democratic economic, religious, political, social and educational forces at work in producing the dark shadow of authoritarianism and the death of our democracy. Such a comprehensive politics demands not only a discourse of sustained critique, but also a type of resistance bound up with real possibilities of a politics aimed at reclaiming the ideals and promise of a real democracy.