‘Racist brutality in the United States is abetted and legitimated through a discourse of demonization, stereotypes, and objectification’
In this comprehensive account of social issues rooted in the neoliberal reign of terror, Henry Giroux provides a crucial critique of free-market fundamentalism in 2016.
Henry A. Giroux, America’s Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press 2016), 288pp.
As well as explaining in detail some of the biggest issues faced by society today, Giroux very eloquently connects the dots between them and highlights their roots within the neoliberal project. Giroux discusses torture, militarisation, surveillance, racism, education and austerity among other things and draws the links to the military-industrial-academic complex. In this review, I will go through some of Giroux’s arguments and his suggestions for working-class resistance against them.
‘With the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Report on Torture in December 2014, it became clear that the United States, in the aftermath of the loathsome terrorist attack of 9/11, has entered into a barbarous stage in its history, one in which acts of violence and moral depravity were not only embraced but celebrated’ (p.47).
Giroux argues that the US has a long history of using torture both at home and abroad, as well as abetting other countries in using torture. He quotes Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in saying that of ‘35 countries using torture on an administrative basis in the late 1970s, 26 were clients of the United States’ (p.48). From aiding right-wing Latin American dictatorships in carrying out acts of indiscriminate violence in their countries, to the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam which killed over 21,000 Vietnamese people using acts of gross barbarism such as throwing people out of planes and calling them ‘flying lessons’, state-sanctioned torture is ‘as American as apple pie’ (p.48).
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On the home front, Giroux gives the example of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program that was carried out between the 1950s to the 1970s and legally sanctioned the assassinations of those considered ‘domestic and foreign enemies’ (p.48). Aimed at hindering the activities of communist and black-nationalist organisations, the Black Panther Party were the targets of 233 COINTELPRO actions since 1969 including setting up the conditions for the Chicago Police’s execution style assassinations of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Post 9/11, this obsession with torture as a response to a national paranoia about security has intensified and been central to an increasingly militarised culture. President Bush and Vice President Cheney constructed a comprehensive apparatus of violence that included CIA black sites such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay prison and rendition. They entirely bypassed international law and the protection of habeas corpus in creating an institutionalised process of secretly abducting and holding people both from the US and abroad without evidence or trial, transferring them to third countries and using methods that violate even the most conservative interpretation of the UN Convention Against Torture to which the US is a signatory.
Much of this extensive program was entirely secret – even after the publishing of the Report on Terror the full extent of the program is not known – but there was a concerted effort nonetheless to justify the areas that had become public knowledge. Cheney went on record to say that waterboarding and related tactics did not constitute torture, that “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective,” and following the release of the Report, that “I think we were perfectly justified in doing it and I’d do it again in a minute” (p.51).
The Torture Memos of 2002 and 2005 highlighted that the highest levels of the administration and an entire network of politicians, lawyers and intelligence officers were complicit in the moral depravity of a system engineered to maximise human suffering using tactics such as sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in small boxes and with insects, sexual assault, waterboarding, hanging a naked prisoner upside down with shackles, enforced starvation and other even more brutal methods.
The justification of torture has created an appetite for violence – a desensitisation to the destruction of human life – that permeates society and is ‘embedded in the American social and political psyche’ (p.59). Polls show that 58% of the American public believe that ‘torture under certain circumstances can be justified’ and 59% believe that the CIA’s methods ‘produced crucial information that helped prevent future attacks’ (p.46).
Giroux points out that as ‘an economic policy that views ethics as a liability, disdains public good and enshrines self-interest as the highest of virtues’, neoliberalism is at the heart of breeding an environment where state sanctioned methods of torture and lawlessness both at home and abroad are rampant (p.59).
‘Racist brutality in the United States is abetted and legitimated through a discourse of demonization, stereotypes, and objectification’ (p.125).
The marriage of a culture of war and market fundamentalism creates several issues that are pertinent to addressing the state of racism in the US: unregulated gun culture, racist mass incarceration, the rise of the surveillance state, homicidal police violence and increasing impoverishment of black communities.
Police brutality is a form of state terrorism and has reached epidemic levels whereby aggression has become an organising principle of police strategy. This has been fuelled by a top-down agenda of militarisation of police forces. Giroux explains that since the early 1990s, under what was known as the 1033 program, the Department of Defense has provided over ‘$4.3 billion in free military supplies to local police’ (p.129).
This cultivation of violence and militarism has intensified since the start of the War on Terror after 9/11. Giroux explains that the horrific instances of fatal police violence carried out with impunity, such as the killings of Aiyana Jones (a seven-year-old black girl in her own home) or Tamir Rice (a twelve-year-old black boy with a toy gun) or hundreds of others, can only exist in a society where police violence has become normalised.
Giroux notes the irony that as neoliberal policies strip away the resources of public services, state institutions adopt criminal behaviour themselves in order to function. Ferguson, for example, where Mike Brown – an unarmed eighteen-year-old black man – was shot and killed, has been described as effectively occupied territory. In a ‘deadly brew’ of rampant police violence and predatory finance practices, such as exorbitant fines for minor and traffic offences, a 95% white police force supported itself by criminalising poverty and preying on a 70% black population (p.134).
The police and established structures of governance therefore lose their legitimacy in a context where a financial elite responsible for causing a global economic crash is allowed to go free with impunity, while black and brown youth are cast aside as an ‘excess population’. They are given citations, brutalised, incarcerated and too often killed for the pettiest of crimes such as jaywalking or selling loose cigarettes like Eric Garner.
‘Under the reign of neoliberalism, with few exceptions, higher education appears to be increasingly decoupling itself from its historical legacy as a crucial public sphere, responsible for both educating students for the workplace and providing them with modes of critical discourse, interpretation, judgement, imagination, and experiences that deepen and expand democracy’ (p.154).
In a new McCarthyism of the post 9/11 era, institutes of higher education have been targeted by the right and overtaken by a military-industrial-academic complex that conjoins military interests and market values, changing education and critical thought into ‘corporate mentality’ training.
Although higher education has always had its limitations, it has now become an institution concerned to depoliticise the younger generation, essentially becoming nothing more than a job preparation service; exemplified by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal which changed the purpose of universities from ‘the search for truth’ to ‘meet the state’s workforce needs’ (p.158). University campuses played a significant role in dissent against the Vietnam War and have since been seen as a threat to market forces and the pro-war agenda.
The clampdown on the functionality of higher education comes in a multi-faceted approach of massive spending cuts to universities, ferocious attacks on dissenting academics and a broad strategy of transforming the material taught. Giroux describes this system of ‘pre-specified subject matter and stripped-down skills that can be assessed through standardised testing’ as a ‘pedagogy of repression’ and quotes Hannah Arendt in calling it a totalitarian education that aims not to ‘instil convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any’ (pp.178, 186).
As well as lecturers and academics employed under increasingly precarious terms to ensure minimal dissent, the Kafkaesque public-education system has become an arm of the state apparatus that marginalises communities on racial and class lines. The growing burdens of student debt, the suspect status of the student body and selection committees made of mainly upper-class, middle-aged white men have worked to exclude youth from poorer and ethnic-minority backgrounds from accessing education.
‘The passion for public values has given way to the ruthless quest for profits and the elevation of self-interest over the common good. Of course, the larger goal is to maintain the ongoing consolidation of class power in the hands of the 1 percent’ (p.101).
Austerity, according to Giroux, represents a rise in authoritarian capitalism which attacks people on class lines and weakens the social contract between the public and their government. Austerity measures have served to widen inequality and institutionally cause suffering and indignity. Young people seem to be the demographic most affected by slash-and-burn policies that leave them unemployed or underemployed and under a growing burden of debt.
The level of suffering caused by austerity is notable in statistics showing the huge increases in suicide rates as a result of economic difficulties by 2010 in countries hit hardest by spending cuts such as Greece (over 24%), Italy (52%) and Ireland (16%). In Greece, unemployment hovers at 27% – close to 50% youth unemployment, child poverty is at 40% and almost 50% of pensions received by pensioners are below the poverty line. Giroux references Thomas Piketty in saying that austerity measures in Greece have caused a colossal humanitarian crisis and goes on to say that the troika (IMF, EU and ECB) ‘unleashes a form of financial terrorism’ (pp.99, 102).
As well as the consolidation of wealth and power and the disregard for the misery it causes, Giroux argues that the austerity regime also individualises social issues and ‘go(es) hand-in hand with ideologies, policies and practices that depoliticize large portions of the population’ (p.102). The cruelty of these policies directly impacts upon people’s wellbeing, imposes constraints on their choices, inhibits their freedom and undermines faith in democracy and politics.
The emphasis of ‘a world of competitive hyperactive individualism’ that is a result of these policies makes prominent ‘economic Darwinism’, atomises powerlessness and leaves people alienated and prone to extremist politics (pp.103-4). Like the attacks on critical thought in education and the propagation of selfie culture, the de-politicisation of the masses serves the interests of the financial elite in hindering grassroots organising against a rotten system.
The fight back
‘Now is the time for working-class people to join with others to rethink the meaning of the political, to create new political formations, to rethink the possibilities of democracy without capitalism, and to organize for both short-term gains and long-term fundamental changes. It is time to flip the script’ (p.248).
On multiple occasions in the book, Giroux praises the Black Lives Matter movement and speaks of the movement as a vanguard of resistance against the US establishment today. However, he also talks about the Occupy movement and the mistakes made in failing to harness the energy it gathered into long-term organisation.
Giroux argues that ‘neoliberal capitalism is parasitic and sociopathic’ and can only be countered by the formation and strengthening of social movements with the ‘spirit of collective resistance and the promise of radical democracy’ (pp.106-7). It is clear that the only feasible strategy to overcome the neoliberal reign of terror is a comprehensive movement built from a broad coalition of struggles that organises against all aspects of the system of repression.