Youth in Revolt
Posted on Feb 2, 2013
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.
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. 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. 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. 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. The examples are endless, but one in particular stands out. In March 2012, Texas governor Rick Perry joined eight other states in passing legislation to ban funding for clinics, including Planned Parenthood facilities, affiliated with abortion services for women. 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.” 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. 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.’” 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.
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.” 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.”
Occupy movement protests and state-sponsored violence “have become a mirror”–and I would add a defining feature–“of the contemporary state.” 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.” 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.” 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.” 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. 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.
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