Criminalizing Dissent and Punishing Occupy Protesters: Introduction to Henry Giroux’s "Youth in Revolt"

Criminalizing Dissent and Punishing Occupy Protesters: Introduction to Henry Giroux’s "Youth in Revolt"

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Military-style command and control systems are now be­ing established to support "zero tolerance" policing and urban surveillance practices designed to exclude failed consumers or undesirable persons from the new enclaves of urban consumption and leisure.

—Stephen Graham 

Youth in Revolt.(Image: Paradigm Publishers)Young people are demonstrating all over the world against a variety of issues ranging from economic injustice and massive inequality to drastic cuts in education and public services.1 In the fall of 2011, on the tenth anniversary of September 11, as the United States revisited the tragic loss and celebrated the courage displayed on that torturous day, another kind of commemoration took place. The Occupy movement shone out like flame in the darkness—a beacon of the irrepressible spirit of democracy and a humane desire for justice. Unfortunately, the peacefully organized protests across America have often been met with derogatory commentaries in the mainstream media and, increasingly, state-sanctioned violence. The war against society has become a war against youthful protesters and in­creasingly bears a striking resemblance to the violence waged against Occupy movement protesters and the violence associ­ated with the contemporary war zone.2 Missing from both the dominant media and state and national politics is an attempt to critically engage the issues the protesters are raising, not to mention any attempt to dialogue with them over their strate­gies, tactics, and political concerns. That many young people have become "a new class of stateless individuals ... cast into a threatening and faceless mass whose identities collapse into the language of debt, survival, and disposability" appears to have escaped the attention of the mainstream media.3 Matters of justice, human dignity, and social responsibility have given way to a double gesture that seeks to undercut democratic public spheres through the criminalization of dissent while also resorting to crude and violent forms of punishment as the only mediating tools to use with young people who are at­tempting to open a new conversation about politics, inequality, and social justice.

 

In the United States, the state monopoly on the use of violence has intensified since the 1980s and in the process has been di­rected disproportionately against young people, poor minorities, immigrants, women, and the elderly. Guided by the notion that unregulated, market-driven values and relations should shape every domain of human life, a business model of governance has eviscerated any viable notion of social responsibility and conscience, thereby furthering the dismissal of social problems and expanding cutbacks in basic social services.4 The examples are endless, but one in particular stands out. In March 2012, Texas governor Rick Perry7 joined eight other states in passing legislation to ban funding for clinics, including Planned Parent­hood facilities, affiliated with abortion services for women.5 As a result, the federal government has stopped funding the Texas Women's Health Program. Unfortunately, this attempt by Perry to punish all women because of his antiabortion stance means that more than 130,000 women in Texas will not have access to vital services ranging from mammograms to health care for their children. There is more at work here than a resurgent war on women and their children or "an insane bout of mass misogyny."8 There is also a deep-seated religious and political authoritarianism that has become one of the fundamental pil­lars of what I call a neoliberal culture of cruelty. As the welfare state is hollowed out. a culture of compassion is replaced by a culture of violence, cruelty, waste, and disposability.7 Banks, hedge funds, and finance capital as the contemporary registers of class power have a new visibility, and their spokespersons are unabashedly blunt in supporting a corporate culture in which "ruthlessness is prized and money is the ultimate measure."8 Collective insurance policies and social protections have given way to the forces of economic deregulation, the transformation of the welfare state into punitive workfare programs, the privatiza­tion of public goods, and an appeal to individual culpability as a substitute for civic responsibility. At the same time, violence—or what Anne-Marie Cusac calls "American punishment"—travels from our prisons and schools to various aspects of our daily lives, "becoming omnipresent ... [from] the shows we watch on television, [to] the way many of us treat children [to] some influential religious practices."9

 

David Harvey has argued that neoliberalism is "a political proj­ect to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites" through the implementation of "an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade."10 Neoliberalism is also a pedagogical project designed to create particular subjects, desires, and values defined largely by market considerations. National destiny becomes linked to a market-driven logic in which freedom is stripped down to freedom from government regulation, freedom to consume, and freedom to say anything one wants, regardless of how racist or toxic the consequences might be. This neoliberal notion of freedom is abstracted from any sense of civic responsibility or social cost. In fact, "neoliberalism is grounded in the idea of the 'free, possessive individual,'" with the state cast "as tyrannical and oppressive."11 The welfare state, in particular, becomes the archenemy of freedom. As Stuart Hall points out, according to apostles of free-market fundamentalism, 'The state must never govern society, dictate to free individuals how to dispose of their private property, regulate a free-market economy or interfere with the God-given right to make profits and amass personal wealth."12

 

Paradoxically, neoliberalism severely proscribes any vestige of social and civic agency through the figure of the isolated automaton for whom choice is reduced to the practice of end­less shopping, fleeing from any sense of civic obligation, and safeguarding a radically individualized existence. Neoliberal governance translates into a state that attempts to substitute individual security for social welfare but in doing so offers only the protection of gated communities for the privileged and incarceration for those considered flawed consumers or threats to the mythic ideal of a white Christian nation. Neoliberalism refuses to recognize how private troubles are connected to broader systemic issues, legitimating instead an ode to self-reliance in which the experience of personal misfortune becomes merely the just desserts delivered by the righteous hand of the free market—not a pernicious outcome of the social order being hijacked by an antisocial ruling elite and forced to serve a narrow set of interests. Critical thought and human agency are rendered impotent as neoliberal rationality "substitutes emotional and personal vocabularies for political ones in formulating solutions to political problems."13 Within such a depoliticized discourse, youths are told that there is no dream of the collective, no viable social bonds, only the ac­tions of autonomous individuals who must rely on their own resources and who bear sole responsibility for the effects of larger systemic political and economic problems.

 

Under the regime of neoliberalism, no claims are recognized that call for compassion, justice, and social responsibility. No claims are recognized that demand youths have a future better than the present, and no claims are recognized in which young people assert the need to narrate themselves as part of a broader struggle for global justice and radical democracy. Parading as a species of democracy, neoliberal economics and ideology cancel out democracy "as the incommensurable sharing of existence that makes the political possible."14 Symptoms of ethical, politi­cal, and economic impoverishment are all around us. And, as if that were not enough, at the current moment in history we are witnessing the merging of violence and governance along with a systemic disinvestment in and breakdown of institutions and public spheres that have provided the minimal conditions for democracy and the principles of communal responsibil­ity. Young people are particularly vulnerable. As Jean-Marie Durand points out, "Youth is no longer considered the world's future, but as a threat to its present. [For] youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one."13

 To read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

As young people make diverse claims on the promise of a radical democracy in the streets, on campuses, and at other occupied sites, articulating what a fair and just world might be, they are treated as criminal populations—rogue groups incapable of toeing the line, "prone to irrational, intemperate and unpredictable" behavior.16 Moreover, they are increasingly subjected to orchestrated modes of control and containment, if not police violence. Such youths are now viewed as the enemy by the political and corporate establishment because they make visible the repressed images of the common good and the impor­tance of democratic public spheres, public services, the social state, and a society shaped by democratic values rather than market values. Youthful protesters and others are reclaiming the repressed memories of the Good Society and a social state that once, as Zygmunt Bauman has pointed out, "endorsed collective insurance against individual misfortune and its consequences."17 Bauman explains that such a state "lifts members of society to the status of citizens—that is, makes them stake-holders in addition to being stock-holders, beneficiaries but also actors responsible for the benefits' creation and availability, individuals with acute interest in the common good understood as the shared institutions that can be trusted to assure solidity and reliability of the state-issued 'collective insurance policy.'"18 In an attempt to excavate the repressed memories of the welfare state, David Theo Goldberg spells out in detail the specific mechanisms and policies it produced in the name of the general welfare between the 1930s and 1970s in the United States. He writes,

 

From the 1930s through the 1970s, the liberal democratic state had offered a more or less robust set of institutional appara­tuses concerned in principle at least to advance the welfare of its citizens. This was the period of advancing social security, welfare safety nets, various forms of national health system, the expansion of and investment in public education, including higher education, in some states to the exclusion of private and religiously sponsored educational institutions. It saw the emer­gence of state bureaucracies as major employers especially in later years of historically excluded groups. And all this, in turn, offered optimism among a growing proportion of the populace for access to middle-class amenities, including those previously racially excluded within the state and new immigrants from the global south.19

 

Young people today are protesting against a strengthening global capitalist project that erases the benefits of the welfare state and the possibility of a radical notion of democracy. They are protesting against a neoliberal project of accumulation, dispossession, deregulation, privatization, and commodification that leaves them out of any viable notion of the future. They are rejecting and resisting a form of casino capitalism that has ushered in a permanent revolution marked by a massive project of depoliticization, on the one hand, and an aggressive, if not savage, practice of distributing upward wealth, income, and op­portunity for the 1 percent on the other. Under neoliberalism, every moment, space, practice, and social relation offers the possibility of financial investment, or what Ernst Bloch once called the "swindle of fulfillment."20 Goods, services, and targeted human beings are ingested into its waste machine and dismissed and disposed of as excess. Flawed consumers are now assigned the status of damaged and defective human beings. Resistance to such oppressive policies and practices does not come easily, and many young people are paying a price for such resistance. According to OccupyArrests.com, "there have been at least 6705 arrests in over 112 different cities as of March 6, 2012."21

 

Occupy movement protests and state-sponsored violence "have become a mirror"—and I would add a defining feature—"of the contemporary state."22 Abandoned by the existing political system, young people in Oakland, California, New York City, and numerous other cities have placed their bodies on the line, protesting peacefully while trying to produce a new language, politics, and "community that manifests the values of equality and mutual respect that they see missing in a world that is structured by neoliberal principles."23 Well aware that the spaces, sites, and spheres for the representation of their voices, desires, and concerns have collapsed, they have occupied a number of spaces ranging from public parks to college campuses in an effort to create a public forum where they can narrate themselves and their visions of the future while representing the misfortunes, suffering, and hopes of the unemployed, poor, incarcerated, and marginalized. This movement is not simply about reclaiming space but also about producing new ideas, generating a new conversation, and introducing a new political language.

 

Rejecting the notion that democracy and markets are the same, young people are calling for the termination of corporate control over the commanding institutions of politics, culture, and economics, an end to the suppression of dissent, and a shutting down of the permanent warfare state. Richard Lichtman is right to insist that the Occupy movement should be praised for its embrace of communal democracy as well as an emerging set of shared concerns, principles, and values articulated "by a demand for equality, or, at the very least, for a significant lessening of the horrid extent of inequality; for a working democracy; for the elimination of the moneyed foun­dation of politics; for the abolition of political domination by a dehumanized plutocracy; for the replacement of ubiquitous commodification by the reciprocal recognition of humanity in the actions of its agents."24 As Arundhati Roy points out, what connects the protests in the United States to resistance move­ments all over the globe is that young people "know that their being excluded from the obscene amassing of wealth of U.S. corporations is part of the same system of the exclusion and war that is being waged by these corporations in places like India, Africa, and the Middle East."25 Of course, Lichtman, Roy, and others believe that this is just the beginning of a movement and that much needs to be done, as Staughton Lynd argues, to build new strategies, a vast network of new institutions and public spheres, a community of trust, and political organiza­tion that invites poor people into its ranks.26 Stanley Aronowitz goes further and insists that the Occupy movement needs to bring together the fight for economic equality and security with the task of reshaping American institutions along genuinely democratic lines.27

 

All of these issues are important, but what must be addressed in the most immediate sense is the danger the emerging police state in the United States poses not just to the young protesters occupying a number of American cities but to democracy itself. This threat is particularly evident in the results of a merging of neoliberal modes of discipline and education with a warlike mentality in which it becomes nearly impossible to reclaim the language of obligation, compassion, community, social re­sponsibility, and civic engagement. And unless the actions of young protesters, however diverse they may be, are understood alongside a robust notion of the social, civic courage, com­munal bonds, and the imperatives of a vital democracy, it will be difficult for the American public to challenge state violence and the framing of protest, dissent, and civic engagement as un-American or, worse, as a species of criminal behavior.

 

Although considerable coverage has been given in the pro­gressive media to the violence being waged against the Occupy protesters, these analyses rarely go far enough. I want to build on these critiques by arguing that it is important to situate the growing police violence within a broader set of categories that both enables a critical understanding of the underlying social, economic, and political forces at work in such assaults and al­lows us to reflect critically on the distinctiveness of the current historical period in which they are taking place. For example, it is difficult to address such state-sponsored violence against young people and the Occupy movement without analyzing the devolution of the social state and the corresponding rise of the warfare and punishing state.'2b The notion of historical conjunc­ture is important here because it both provides an opening into the diverse forces shaping a particular moment and allows for a productive balance of theory and strategy to inform future interventions. That is. it helps us to address theoretically how youth protests are largely related to and might resist a histori­cally specific neoliberal project that promotes vast inequalities in income and wealth, creates the student-loan debt bomb, eliminates much-needed social programs, privileges profits and commodities over people, and eviscerates the social wage.

Within the United States, the often violent response to non­violent forms of youth protest must also be analyzed within the framework of a mammoth military-industrial state and its commitment to war and the militarization of the entire society. The merging of the military-industrial complex and unchecked finance capital points to the need for strategies that address what is specific about the current warfare state and the neo­liberal project that legitimates it. That is, what are the diverse practices, interests, modes of power, social relations, public pedagogies, and economic configurations that shape the poli­tics of the punishing state? Focusing on the specifics of the current historical conjuncture is invaluable politically in that such an approach makes visible the ideologies, policies, and modes of governance produced by the neoliberal warfare state. When neoliberal mechanisms of power and ideology are made visible, it becomes easier for the American public to challenge the common assumptions that legitimate these apparatuses of power. This type of interrogative strategy also reclaims the necessity of critical thought, civic engagement, and democratic politics by invoking the pedagogical imperative that humans not only make history but can alter its course and future direction.

For many young people today, human agency is denned as a mode of self-reflection and critical social engagement rather than a surrender to a paralyzing and unchallengeable fate. Likewise, democratic expression has become fundamental to their existence. Many young people are embracing democracy not merely as a mode of governance, but more importantly, as Bill Moyers points out, as a means of dignifying people "so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency."29 Human agency has become a vital force to struggle over as part of an ongoing project in which the future remains an open horizon that cannot be dismissed through appeals to the end of history or end of ideology.30 But to understand how politics refuses any guarantees and resistance becomes possible, we must first understand the present. Following Stuart Hall. I want to argue that the current historical moment, or what he calls the "long march of the Neoliberal Revolution,"31 has to be understood not only through the emergent power of finance capital and its institutions but also in terms of the growing forms of authoritarian violence that it deploys and reinforces. I want to address these antidemocratic pressures and their relationship to the rising protests of young people in the United States and abroad through the lens of two interrelated crises: the crisis of governing through violence and the crisis of what Alex Honneth has called "a failed sociality"32—which currently conjoin as a driving force to dismantle any viable notion of public pedagogy and civic education. If we are not to fall prey to a third crisis—"the crisis of negation"33—then it is imperative that we recognize the hope symbolized and embodied by young people across America and their attempt to remake society in order to ensure a better, more democratic future for us all.

The Crisis of Governing through Violence

 

The United States is addicted to violence, and this dependency is fueled increasingly by its willingness to wage war at home and abroad.34 As Andrew Bacevich rightly argues, "war has be­come a normal condition [matched by] Washington's seemingly irrevocable abandonment of any semblance of self-restraint regarding the use of violence as an instrument of statecraft."35 But war in this instance is not merely the outgrowth of policies designed 'to protect the security- and well-being of the United States. It is also, as C. Wright Mills pointed out. part of a "mili­tary metaphysics"36—a complex of forces that includes corpora­tions, defense industries, politicians, financial institutions, and universities. The culture of war provides jobs, profits, political payoffs, research funds, and forms of political and economic power that reach into every aspect of society. War is also one of the nation's most honored virtues. Its militaristic values now bear down on almost every aspect of American life.37 Similarly, as the governing-through-violence complex becomes normalized in the broader society, it continually works in a variety of ways to erode any distinction between war and peace.

 

Increasingly stoked by a moral arnd political hysteria, war­like values produce and endorse shared fears and organized violence as the primary registers of social relations. The con­ceptual merging of war and violence is evident in the ways in which the language of militarization is now used by politicians to address a range of policies as if they are operating on a battlefield or in a war zone. War becomes the adjective of choice as policymakers talk about waging war on drugs, poverty, and the underclass. There is more at work here than the prevalence of armed knowledge and a militarized discourse; there is also the emergence of a militarized society in which "the range of acceptable opinion inevitably shrinks."38 And this choice of vocabulary and slow narrowing of democratic vision further enable the use of violence as an instrument of domestic policy.

 

How else to explain that the United States has become the punishing state par excellence, as indicated by the hideous fact that while it contains "5 percent of the Earth's population, it is home to nearly a quarter of its prisoners"?39 Senator Lindsay Graham made this very clear in his rhetorical justification of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act by stating "that under this Act the U.S. homeland is considered a 'battlefield.'"40 The ominous implications behind this statement, especially for Oc­cupy movement protesters, became obvious in light of the fact that the act gives the US government the right to detain "U.S. citizens indefinitely without charge or trial if deemed necessary by the president.... Detentions can follow mere membership, past or present, in 'suspect organizations.'"41

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