In America, sadism towards the most vulnerable and disenfranchised has become normative. From reality and talk shows, to corporate news broadcasts, to political speeches, the message could not be more clear. If you are poor, a person of color, a woman, elderly, non-Christian, an immigrant, a refugee from one of America’s imperialistic wars, a prisoner, a user of illegal drugs, a veteran with PTSD, homeless, disabled or gender or heterosexually non-conforming, you and you alone are responsible for the misery you must endure. The established institutions of society, and by definition the powerful, are let off the hook; and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is used as a battering ram to pulverize those viewed as weak or defective. The hyper-masculine mantra of “personal responsibility” has permeated virtually every medium and institution, from education to public policy to religion to healthcare and employment.
This can be attributed to the neoliberal economic policies celebrated by Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, and ensconced into the American economic landscape by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in the latter part of the 20th century. Wikipedia defines neoliberalism as “privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy,” but it can more accurately be defined as the last and most savage form of feudalistic capitalism. These policies have metastasized into a monster of authoritarian class rule in the first part of this century, with the natural environment and the poor suffering in its wake. The misanthropic rambling of Ayn Rand, the patron saint of neoliberal capitalism, is the liturgy of the current economic order, and of all domestic and foreign policies that emanate from Washington and Wall Street.
Access to healthcare, or the lack of it, is perhaps the most emblematic of this culture of cruelty. When ordinary Americans become gravely ill or injured the punishment is severe. Health is commensurate with wealth in the empire, and access to treatment, or even prevention, comes at a price too steep for most to bear. Millions of American families go bankrupt, or lose their homes, or jobs each year simply due to one, serious accident or health crisis. Many elderly are forced to make impossible choices between food and medicine thanks to the gutting of Medicare.
The Affordable Care Act was offered to the American public as a solution to this utterly inhuman system, but it is clear that the primary objective of its policies was to pad the pockets of the insurance industry and Big Pharma. It placates an intolerable situation by separating Americans into categories of the deserving and the undeserving. Its stopgap measures merely infuriate mean spirited, affluent conservatives who blither on about socialism, even though it bares no resemblance to this ideology in the least. And it soothes the consciences of the liberal class, who have little taste for a revolution that would upend their comfortable lives.
A similar scenario plays out when it comes to education. Public schools continue to be under constant fire from the warriors of privatization. Higher education has become all but impossible for the vast swath of young people caught in neighborhoods that have been segregated from the larger society, and sacrificed on the alter of neoliberal capitalism. Exorbitant cost and life crushing debt create an insurmountable barrier, and for-profit colleges and universities offer little in the way of actual career advancement. Young people who are caught up in this machine are encouraged to become mere cogs without agency or thought; or to disappear from society’s collective gaze completely.
Many are churned up in the private prison system, which has seen record profits in recent years. A free source of labor is provided thanks to the venomous anti-immigrant fervor and the racist “War on Drugs.” With few, if any, options open to some, military service becomes the only economically viable option. In a cruel feat of irony, they are forced to defend the very same economic interests of America’s predatory capitalist oligarchy that keep them disenfranchised and indebted. Of course, the empire has other ways of describing this.
The use of euphemisms by the political power class evince the disconnect they have with ordinary Americans. In the crumbling days of the American empire these euphemisms are becoming increasingly preposterous, but the inability of the plutocracy to recognize their absurdity is even more awe inspiring. They employ them whenever the malignancy of their behavior becomes too difficult to completely obscure, even from a sycophantic press. In their parlance, unregulated development becomes “sustainable growth,” the gutting of the social safety net and the criminalization of poverty becomes “austerity,” torture becomes “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the cancerous growth of the police/prison/surveillance state becomes “national security considerations.”
Within their ranks, humor is defined by cruelty and humiliation. It allows for Presidents to joke openly about drone bombing or to fill well heeled banquet halls with raucous laughter over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, that enabled the plunder and occupation of an entire nation. A presidential ‘Kill List’ that targets individuals for assassination, or the lies told that cost hundreds of thousands of civilians their lives, and displaced millions more, become punchlines that bring the house down among their peers. This language informs and guides corporate media and entertainment, and it has become infused into government policies and the collective, popular culture. It has created an echo chamber where the current system, no matter how much misery it produces or how fetid and suppurative it has become, can continue with very little, if any, resistance.
The plutocratic elite have constructed an elaborate system of protections for their wealth and power, and on its current trajectory the burgeoning police/prison/surveillance state today is primed to become the gulag state tomorrow. Stoking the flames of racial animus and fear of the other are the tools that they employ to buy them more time. This is unfortunately successful in certain groups where reactionary prejudice and paranoid suspicion of any kind of social contract is foundational to their existence. But violence is the only currency that the power class will use when the condescending placation of the unending injustices they mete out begin to ring hollow with the broader public.
In truth, the powerful are frightened. They sit atop trillions of dollars of monetary wealth, yet deep down many of them must know that this is meaningless on a planet with dwindling resources such as clean water and viable top soil, and in a climate that grows angrier by the day. No gated community can shield them from the calamity of systemic collapse, but unending wealth accumulation at the expense of billions of people, countless species, and the ecosystems we all rely upon is the only paradigm they understand.
Because of their rapacious greed, all life on earth is now imperiled. Climate change is morphing into climate chaos. Nuclear war continues to menace. And the miasma of industrial civilization is now beginning to engulf even the most pristine of earth’s last sanctuaries. Forged in the tar-drenched quicksand of fossil fuels, the pillars of industrial society are beginning to sway and buckle. Russia, China and the West continue to flirt with war over the last remaining drops of oil. In a melting Arctic ocean they only see self-interest and opportunity,
The church of neoliberalism cannot learn any other hymn except “grow the economy,” and it sees no difference between east or west. Of course, the consequences of this cupidity and avarice are becoming more apparent with each passing day. Record after record continues to be broken each month as the temperature rises and weather patterns begin to shift dramatically. The methane time bomb in Siberia may be closer than ever to exploding; and species extinction is accelerating, with our own on the list. All things considered, it has become undeniably apparent that the current economic system of industrial civilization, which is based on limitless consumption with finite resources, is a death sentence for all life on the planet, including Homo sapiens.
The human community, along with countless other species we share this planet with, has been and continues to be assaulted by the dictates of neoliberal capitalism which defines the world, and all of its inhabitants, as mere commodities. It has been demeaned by being labelled consumers, rather than citizens; and the world in which we live has been bar-coded for convenient exploitation and plunder. Yet still it persists. Disenfranchised neighborhoods continue to band together to fight police brutality and racism. Indigenous peoples continue to block the Keystone Pipeline. Social movements that defend the earth or the most vulnerable among us may be co-opted or obscured, but their moral imperatives continue to ring true, and the people continue to rally in the face of state violence and repression.
The rejection of the current paradigm of alienation and objectification is essential to reclaiming our collective identity and agency. And although defiance to its cruelty, rejection of its dehumanization, and the embrace of solidarity, will not spare us from all that is ahead, the alternative would be the acceptance of tyranny, and far more perilous to comprehend.
Kenn Orphan 2015