Henry Giroux re-evaluates the works of Orwell and Huxley compares them to the new American Authoritarianism and proposes actions to reverse it.
Both authors provide insight into the merging of the totalitarian elements that constitute a new and more hybridized form of authoritarian control, appearing less as fiction than a threatening indication of the unfolding 21st century. Consumer fantasies and authoritarian control, “Big Brother” intelligence agencies and the voracious seductions of privatized pleasures, along with the rise of the punishing state – which criminalizes an increasing number of behaviors and invests in institutions that incarcerate and are organized principally for the production of violence – and the collapse of democratic public spheres into narrow, market-driven orbits of privatization – these now constitute the new order of authoritarianism.
This is the Big Brother that pushes youthful protests out of the public spaces they attempt to occupy. This is the hypernationalistic Big Brother clinging to notions of racial purity and American exceptionalism as a driving force in creating a country that has come to resemble an open-air prison for the dispossessed. This is the Big Brother whose split personality portends the dark authoritarian universe of the 1% with their control over the economy and use of paramilitarized police forces, on the one hand, and, on the other, their retreat into gated communities manned by SWAT-like security forces.
Fear and isolation constitute an updated version of Big Brother. Fear is managed and is buttressed by normalizing the neoliberal claim that it be accepted as a general condition of society, dealt with exclusively as an individual consideration, disassociated from the politics and moral panics endemic to an authoritarian society, and be used to mobilize the individual’s fear of the other. In the surveillance state, fear is misplaced from the political sphere and emergence of an authoritarian government to the personal concern with the fear of surviving, not getting ahead, unemployment and the danger posed by the growing legions of the interminable others. As the older order dies, a new one struggles to be born, one that often produces a liminal space that gives rise to monsters, all too willing to kidnap, torture and spy on law-abiding citizens while violating civil liberties. As Antonio Gramsci once suggested, such an interregnum offers no political guarantees, but it does provide or at least gestures toward reimagining “what is to be done,” how it might be done and who is going to do it.
In spite of his vivid imagination, “Orwell never could have imagined that the National Security Agency (NSA) would amass metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day. Orwell could not have foreseen that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use.” …
… Orwell’s dark image is the stuff of government oppression whereas Huxley’s is the stuff of distractions, diversions and the transformation of privacy into a cheap and sensational performance for public display. …
… Corporations use new technologies to track spending habits and collect data points from social media so as to provide us with consumer goods that match our desires, employ face recognition technologies to alert store salespeople to our credit ratings, and so it goes. …
… the most dangerous repercussions of a near total loss of privacy involve more than the unwarranted collecting of information by the government: We must also be attentive to the ways in which being spied on has become not only normalized, but even enticing, as corporations up the pleasure quotient for consumers who use new digital technologies and social networks – not least of all by and for simulating experiences of community.
… Just as we can envision Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopian fables morphing over time from “realistic novels” into a “real life documentary,” and now into a form of “reality TV,” privacy and freedom have been radically altered in an age of permanent, nonstop global exchange and circulation. That is, in the current moment, the right to privacy and freedom has been usurped by the seductions of a narcissistic culture and casino capitalism’s unending desire to turn every relationship into an act of commerce and to make all aspects of daily life subject to market forces under watchful eyes of both government and corporate regimes of surveillance.
… Each day, new evidence surfaces pointing to the emergence of a police state that has produced ever more sophisticated methods for surveillance in order to enforce a mass suppression of the most essential tools for democratic dissent: “the press, political activists, civil rights advocates and conscientious insiders who blow the whistle on corporate malfeasance and government abuse.” …
… It is worth repeating that Orwell’s vision of surveillance and the totalitarian state look mild next to the emergence of a corporate-state surveillance system that wants to tap into every conceivable mode of communication, collect endless amounts of metadata to be stored in vast intelligence storage sites around the country and potentially use that data to repress any vestige of dissent.
… Aided by a public pedagogy, produced and circulated through a machinery of consumption and public relations tactics, a growing regime of repression works through the homogenizing forces of the market to support the widespread embrace of an authoritarian culture and police state.
Relentlessly entertained by spectacles, people become not only numb to violence and cruelty but begin to identify with an authoritarian worldview. As David Graeber suggests, the police “become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture … watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view.” …
… Violence has become the organizing force of a society driven by a noxious notion of privatization in which it becomes difficult for ideas to be lifted into the public realm. Under such circumstances, politics is eviscerated because it now supports a market-driven view of society that has turned its back on the idea that social values, public trust and communal relations are fundamental to a democratic society. This violence against the bonds of sociality undermines and dissolves the nature of social obligations as freedom becomes an exercise in self-development rather than social responsibility. …
By integrating insights drawn from both Huxley and Orwell, it becomes necessary for any viable critical analysis to take a long view, contextualizing the contemporary moment as a new historical conjuncture in which political rule has been replaced by corporate sovereignty, consumerism becomes the only obligation of citizenship, and the only value that matters is exchange value. Precarity has replaced social protections provided by the state, just as the state cares more about building prisons and infantilizing the US public than it does about providing all of its citizens with quality educational institutions and health care. The United States is not just dancing into oblivion as Huxley suggested; it is also being pushed into the dark recesses of an authoritarian state.
The co-existent lack of interest in the loss of privacy, citizenship redefined as obedient shopping, individual greed and responsibility suppressing social responsibility and caring for others, the indifference to violence against the 99% in the context of a “war on …” mentality, and the lack of citizens participation in the political process, expose the growing authoritarian state in America.
The situation is dire when people no longer seem interested in contesting such power. It is precisely the poisonous spread of a broad culture of political indifference that puts at risk the fundamental principles of justice and freedom, which lie at the heart of a robust democracy. The democratic imagination has been transformed into a data machine that marshals its inhabitants into the neoliberal dream world of babbling consumers and armies of exploitative labor whose ultimate goal is to accumulate capital and initiate individuals into the brave new surveillance-punishing state that merges Orwell’s Big Brother with Huxley’s mind-altering soma.
Giroux suggests five actions to ignite a new resistance to put a stop to America’s growing hybridized, authoritarian, dystopia:
First, there is a need for what can be called a revival of the radical imagination. This call would be part of a larger project “to reinvent democracy in the wake of the evidence that, at the national level, there is no democracy – if by ‘democracy’ we mean effective popular participation in the crucial decisions affecting the community.” Democracy entails a challenge to the power of those individuals, financial elites, ruling groups and large-scale enterprises that have hijacked democracy. At the very least, this means refusing to accept minimalist notions of democracy in which elections become the measure of democratic participation. Far more crucial is the struggle for the development of public spaces and spheres that produce a formative culture in which the US public can imagine forms of democratic self-management of what can be called “key economic, political, and social institutions.”
Second, young people and progressives need to create the institutions and public spaces in which education becomes central as a counternarrative that serves to both reveal, interrogate and overcome the common sense assumptions that provide the ideological and affective webs that tie many people to forms of oppression.
Rejecting [Massive] Criminalization [through wars on drugs, poor, women, minorities, and youth.]
… individualization of the social is one of the most powerful ideological weapons used by the current authoritarian regime and must be challenged.
Under the star of Orwell, morality loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which misery is denounced as a moral failing. Under the neo-Darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest, the ultimate form of entertainment becomes the pain and humiliation of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless, who are no longer an object of compassion, but of ridicule and amusement. This becomes clear in the endless stories we are now hearing from US politicians disdaining the poor as moochers who don’t need welfare but stronger morals.
Lastly, any attempt to make clear the massive misery, exploitation, corruption and suffering produced under casino capitalism must develop both a language of critique and possibility. It is not enough to simply register what is wrong with US society; it is also crucial to do so in a way that enables people to recognize themselves in such discourses in a way that both inspires them to be more critical and energizes them to do something about it.
Orwell and Huxley saw America “devolving into pathological states in which politics was recognized in the interest of death over life and justice” but over the last 4 decades America has devolved into a despotic authoritarian state that neither “Orwell nor Huxley could have imagined.” Reversing this violent, corporate lead, course will take many “spirited forms of collective resistance willing to reclaim the reigns of political emancipation.”
For Huxley, there was hope in a pessimism that had exhausted itself; for Orwell, optimism had to be tempered by a sense of educated hope. Only time will tell us whether either Orwell or Huxley was right. But one thing is certain: History is open and the space of the possible is always larger than the one currently on display.