Henry Giroux tells Paul Jay that fear is an organizing principle of U.S. society
The Real News Network August 17, 2016
Also published on Truthdig under the title “How Do Today’s Struggles for Justice Differ From Those of the 1930s?”
Henry Giroux, Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University and author. His latest book, ‘Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle’. He also has a forthcoming book titled, ‘America At War With Itself’.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
In the 1930s capitalism faced a very deep crisis, and the strategy for dealing with it was more or less one of two ways: either fascism, or the kind of social democracy of the New Deal, compromise with the domestic working class. The United States chose, on the whole, the new deal. Roosevelt, to a large extent, excluding Britain, which came very close to choosing fascism, didn’t. But certainly Europe did choose fascism. But many economists think not that far from another bout of quite deep crises. ’07-’08 was, many people say, a tip of the iceberg. And I think many people are getting ready for the next round that might be far more deep and more profound.
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You have the rise of a kind of neofascism in the United States that we once saw in many places in the world in the 1930s, and see again now in Europe in various forms. But on the other side, Hillary Clinton ain’t no Roosevelt. She’s not a proponent of the New Deal. The closest one could get to that was Bernie Sanders, and that clearly was crushed, that campaign, by the people that control the machinery of the Democratic Party. So what does that mean for people of the United States, and the choices they will make, and what might face them in the coming days?
Joining me to have another round of chat about these types of issues is Henry Giroux. He’s a professor for scholarship in the public interest at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He’s author of his–he’s the author of a recent book, Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle. Thanks for joining us, Henry.
HENRY GIROUX: Nice to be here, Paul. Thanks for inviting me.
JAY: So what do you make of that? The–what won out in the 1930s, certainly a strategy, you know, many people have said, to save capitalism. But as a strategy to save capitalism, you can either have kind of compromises of the New Deal, or you can have the hammer of a kind of new authoritarianism, totalitarianism. Where are we at in that process? And why aren’t we seeing a stronger kind of New Deal as an alternative?
GIROUX: I think we’re in a very distinctively different historical moment. I mean, I think that you had two things that were operating in the 1930s that seem to be, in many ways, to have been weakened or disappeared. And of course the beginning of the 21st century, I mean, you have–at one level you had massive social movements. I mean, you had workers’ movements. You had left organizations, the Communist Party, that were mobilizing in profoundly powerful ways to basically address the great injustices of capitalism.
And FDR was enormously influenced by this, and afraid. I mean, his intervention was to save capitalism. It wasn’t to basically appease the workers. And I think that today you don’t have those movements. I mean, those movements, at least to the degree that we had them in the, in the 1930s and ’40s, whether we’re talking about [inaud.], we’re talking about the Communist Party, the Socialist worker’s movement, those movements basically have been underlined. We have other movements, but they’re not as powerful as the movements that we had then.
Secondly, I think the very idea of the social contract is in disarray. I mean, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, the Black Lives Movement, it’s very difficult to, in a sense, especially since the 1980s, to talk about what the social contract is and what it means, and what it means to celebrate public goods, what it means to make, create social investments. Because the ideology of neoliberalism, with its privatization, its deregulation, its emphasis on consumption, its elimination of basically apparatuses that can provide alternative points of view, has been so powerful and so normalized. Certainly I think the state is more than willing to not only attempt to change the consciousness of people, but to employ violence in ways that make people quite fearful.
And finally, I think you have a period of [inaud.] and uncertainty unlike anything we have seen before, because it now has expanded to a whole range of populations, from working-class people to the [underclass], to poor blacks and minorities, to basically the middle class. I mean, I think people now live in an age in which the only thing–they don’t think about getting ahead. They think about surviving. And I think those four factors are pretty important in sort of distinguishing what’s happening today from what happened in the 1930s.
JAY: Right. Maybe I’d add a few things to that. In the 1930s there was the vision of what people thought was a socialist alternative, the Soviet Union. You know, whether that was or wasn’t, it turned out not to be. Certainly workers had a vision to fight for at that time. And it was a great threat to the whole global capitalist system. Not just ideologically. Even the Soviet Union was not within the sphere of global economics. It was a massive market outside of the capitalist economy.
The other thing is the rise of globalization has so weakened the hand of the American working class and working the unions, that workers from all over the world could be played off against each other. Although interesting enough, in sort of an objective way, the slogan “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains,” from Marx, the truth is for a lot of the American working class for a long time, they actually had a lot more to lose than chains. They had colleges and cars and guaranteed college educations for the upper stratum of the American workers. Auto workers, people working in transport and such. With the rise of globalization and the shift in the balance of power between capital and labor, this upper stratum of American workers got attacked, to the point now where auto workers are starting at $14 an hour. Not even what people are claiming should be a minimum wage, of $15. So that upper stratum, to a large extent, has lost a lot of its privilege and power, especially political power, not just bargaining power.
And then I guess I’d add to that, even though the financial sector was very strong in the late 1920s, nothing compared to what it’s become now. The financialization of the economy, and how much of that political power is in the hands of a finance sector which is almost utterly parasitical, invests far more money in [inaud.]. Yeah, go ahead.
GIROUX: I agree with all of that. The rise of globalization, the rise of finance capital, the elimination of the manufacturing base, the decimation of the working class, particularly in terms of those who had some comforts that approximated what the middle class had.
But I think the other side of this is that you really have, in this balance between the social state and the punishing state, remember, the social state has been decimated. And the question becomes, how is finance capital, how does the 1 percent now resort to governing? And they govern basically through a form of lawlessness and what I call the punishing state, in which we’ve had a punishment creep, and now it moves from the prison to almost every institution in society, from airports to schools to social services. I mean, the degree to which fear now becomes an organizing principle of society is enormous compared to what it was like in the past.
JAY: Yeah, and I think the great threat to this, and the soft underbelly of this, is in fact people who are already established experiencing a fairly overt police state. And that’s poor and working black people in many American cities. And there the answer clearly coming from neofascist–and in practice it’s coming from neoliberals as well, or the Democratic Party leadership, as well, is it’s going to be the hammer, and it’s not going to be the social safety net.
Here’s a quote, a little clip from Sheriff David Clarke, who spoke the first night of the Republican convention, which is a pretty overt expression. Of course, they get a black cop to say these things. I think it would be hard for anyone to take from a white cop, but here’s Sheriff Clarke from Milwaukee County at the convention.
DAVID CLARKE: What we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore and Baton Rouge was a collapse of the social order. So many of the actions of the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transcends peaceful protest, and violates the code of conduct we rely on. I call it anarchy.
JAY: And of course, this threat of anarchy is what we’ve heard as the threat that fascists have referred to for more than 100 years. But this kind of threat, this hard use of the state, when Trump calls himself, I’m going to be the law and order president, he’s appealing to people that want, want the use of this hammer.
GIROUX: Yeah. I mean, this–I think this is really crucial, because it–and it’s a wonderful clip to use, because I think it speaks to a level of oppression that’s almost unimaginable in a democracy. You know, when you begin to suggest that dissent, opposition, resistance, the only way to deal with it is not to listen to it and to engage in dialog with it, but basically to label it as anarchy and to repress it with the most violent, in the most violent means possible. I mean, that’s essentially an element of neofascism. That’s not about democracy.
And I also think that one of the things we often fail to realize is that that kind of violence is now legitimated in multiple public spheres. And not only that, we no longer have the public spheres available to be able to contest that violence. We don’t see it in the mainstream media, we no longer see it in the schools. I mean, this endless criminalization, militarization, of every form of behavior, I mean, strikes me as one of the most dangerous and one of the most ever-growing threats to the United States, of which that speech exemplifies perfectly, and which Trump exemplifies with the endless call for law and order.
I mean, think about [Arpaio]. I mean, who is the guy in Arizona, the sheriff, you know, who has been doing this stuff for a long time. This is really the discourse of objectification and demonization. This is a discourse that trades in fear, and ultimately its endpoint is the prison, and massive expressions of repression.
JAY: The other side of the situation–and Sheriff Clarke mentions Baltimore, the breakdown of social order, and so on. The other side of this is you cannot elect a Republican in Baltimore to be dogcatcher. This is a city that will not support this kind of overt racist and fascist politics at all. And as much as the state uses the hammer against poor and dispossessed people in Baltimore, the Democratic Party machine is vulnerable here. You know, this is a 65 percent black city. And when this city really wakes up at a more conscious, political level, and I think it’s inevitable that it will, you could see quite a transformation in a place like this. And cities like Baltimore could actually become the sort of cracks in the armor of this state.
GIROUX: I think that what people have failed to talk about is white supremacy. I mean, we’re not talking about simply racism, we’re taking about white supremacy. I mean, think of Flint. I mean, think of the lead poisoning of thousands of poor and black children across the United States. Think of the question of mass incarceration. Think of the coding that the Republican Party has used for years, whether they’re talking about Obama or blacks or Willie Horton.
I mean, all of this in Trump now has become so overt that it’s difficult when we talk about repression not to talk about white supremacy, not to talk about its legacy, from slavery to lynching to mass incarceration, and what it has developed into. I mean, it’s developed into, basically, a [race war]. When we talk about total war, and we talk about war zones, and we talk about the breakdown of the cities, when you exclude questions of race from that discourse, something disappears that’s really central to the forms of repression that we’re talking about.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, that certainly is the overriding ideological justification for the existence of such chronic poverty in a place like Baltimore. The official poverty rate here is about 24 percent, and in reality it’s more like 35 percent.
GIROUX: I mean, I think the other side of this–and you’re one of the people who talk about this brilliantly–is that, you know, we’re not just talking about the oppression of economic structures, right? I mean, we’re talking about race. It’s ideology, it’s a mode of policy. It’s a practice. And it intertwines with class in a very specific way to create something very distinctive that we see now being legitimated in the United States by fascists who absolutely are unapologetic about what they’re saying.
JAY: Now, the other side of this is the role of the Democratic Party. We’ve had a black president for the last eight years who’s spent most of the time running away from that fact. And Hillary Clinton has claimed, and some of her supporters have said, she’ll actually be able to do more for urban black communities because she doesn’t have to deal with the baggage of being accused of, because Obama’s black he can’t do more for poor blacks than poor whites. Do you think there’s anything to that?
GIROUX: Look, you know and I know she comes out of a legacy with her husband in which the Democratic Party did more, it seems to me, to subjugate blacks to the dynamics of oppression, poverty. The mass incarceration state.
And the real question is, until she faces that legacy and admits that what her husband did was absolutely in the interest of a white supremacist nation, to put it bluntly, I just don’t trust her. I mean, even the notion that, you know, Clinton was the black president strikes me as the greatest irony of all times. And you know, and her sort of very cautious kind of uncomfortable, clumsy interaction with the black lives movement, who are very smart in recognizing that historical memory matters, that those legacies live on when you don’t identify them, when you’re not willing to be in dialog with them, when you’re not willing to be self-reflective about the very part that you played as part of that apparatus of power. And I don’t see that in her discourse, do you?
JAY: No. The only thing I think might play a role with her, and this goes back to sort of the classic concept of imperialism, that the United States elites, the more conscious elites–and I think there’s a division in the elites, as there is in the working class. There’s sections of the working class that are class-conscious and sections that are not very. And I think I get the same thing in the elites, the capitalist elites, that some of them are more class-conscious than others. And what I mean by that is they do see systemic risk as a problem. Like a person like Soros, who has no problem benefiting from all kinds of speculative activity, that’s not particularly good for the economic system. Yet he understands if that goes too far there won’t be much of an economic system left to take your, your bets with.
So he’s for more regulation and mitigating the extent of the speculation, where other people like John Paulson could care less, and don’t want any regulation. And some of the hedge fund guys, they just want a complete free-for-all. And I think that division’s been in the capitalist class for the longest time. There’s a big fight within the capitalist class about whether to have child labor or not. You know, people that had mines, many of them wanted child labor. We’re talking about into the mid-1800s or so. And others saw that you’re actually wiping out the future working class. You won’t have workers to work for you if you wipe out whole sections of young workers before they can reproduce.
GIROUX: I think that your argument is right on. I mean, unless you recognize the contradictions within various strata, you fall prey to a really kind of false homogenization that does not do justice to the way in which those contradictions can be both understood and is sometimes actually used to the benefit of people who need them.
But I think the other side of this is that while the contradictions matter, one of the things that you cannot lose sight of is that even with a guy like Soros the thing that he doesn’t question, which does unify that class, is that they don’t want to get rid of the capitalist system, they don’t see an alternative. And I think that’s where we can both seize upon the contradictions and push them to limits that these people would not consider, while at the same time in some way you’re taking advantage of what these people are saying within a discourse that has some legitimacy.
JAY: Yeah. I mean, what I was going to add to that was that, you know, for the American elites to maintain social order there’s two approaches. One is the hammer, and the second is somewhat of a social safety net. I mean, there are food stamps. There is a, while welfare was gutted by Clinton, there’s still something of it left. There are some social services left. And one could imagine that when–I wouldn’t say if–when the economic crisis deepens the American elites will throw some more crumbs to try to maintain social order, meaning that section led by the Democratic Party.
GIROUX: I think you left one out that is absolutely as central as the other two, and that is, look, in neoliberalism the ruling elite understand something. What they understand is that matters of desire, subjectivities, identities matter. And they take the cultural apparatuses that they control enormously, enormously, in an enormously important way. They have think tanks, they have research institutes, they’ve invaded universities, they’ve monopolized the cultural apparatuses.
So neoliberal ideology is enormously powerful. And they haven’t given up on it, they use it. And I think they’ve normalized that ideology, the notion that, for instance, that economics should govern all of social life, to such a degree that it becomes increasingly difficult to challenge it. And I think in light of the other two registers that you mention, there’s also that moment. I mean, to what degree do we begin to take education seriously about the production of a subject in which questions of individual and social agency are linked to democratic possibilities?
And so for me, there are three registers there that we need to address.
JAY: Yeah, I agree with that. I just, I would also just go back to the earlier point. I think the weak link in all of this is the African-American population and cities with big black populations. Because they’re already living under kind of a police state, and you know–.
GIROUX: But at the same time, you see in those studies, you see the emergence of various movements among black youth that are really challenging the ideology of neoliberalism since the 1980s.
JAY: And that’s, that’s my point. That, that could really, has already and could in a much more profound way, ignite a real opposition in the country.
GIROUX: I mean, think about the sheriff that we, the clip you played from. He very specifically mentions the black lives movement. National television, a major convention, and he associates it with anarchy. That to me is a victory for the black lives movement, while also a window into their refusal to actually deal with the questions that they’re raising. Because any dominant ideology operates off the assumption that what it has to say is unaccountable and unquestionable.
JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Henry.
GIROUX: Okay, thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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