As the United States has moved from a welfare to a warfare state, it has militarised every aspect of society. This article examines the diverse ways in which a war culture has seeped into almost every aspect of American society undermining both its democratic ideals and the institutions and formative culture that make democracy possible.
Michel Foucault once argued that “War is the motor behind institutions and order [and that] a battlefront runs through the whole of society, continuously and permanently, and it is this battlefront that puts us on one said or the other.” Foucault’s insight is particularly relevant today as American society is increasingly being organised for the production of violence. Moreover, this new fault line has given rise not only to the dark forces of authoritarianism evident in the political ascendancy and popularity of Donald Trump as the Republican Party presidential nominee, but also to a new and dangerous rupture between those who believe in democracy and those who do not. America is now at war with itself in the most literal sense given the savagery of a neoliberal political and economic system willing to destroy the planet, while relentlessly dismantling those institutions that make a democracy possible.
Not only are public spheres that serve the common good under siege, but American society is now conducting warfare against its own idealism, democratic institutions, the working and middle classes, minority youth, Muslims, immigrants, and all of those populations considered disposable.
As profit is transformed into the essence of democracy, the market governs not only the economy but all of social life, and the only relations that matter are commercial in nature. One consequence is that the discourse of compassion, justice, and trust gives way to an ethos that legitimates a sink or swim individualism, the celebration of self-interest, and a value system that disdains solidarity, empathy, and the public good. The war culture that saturates American society not only wages a relentless assault on the formative cultures and public spheres that make democracy possible, it also provides the breeding ground for a new mode of authoritarianism that threatens to engulf the whole of American society.
As Etienne Balibar argues, war has taken on an existential quality in that we are not simply at war, “we are in war”, inhabiting a war culture that touches every aspect of society.War is no longer simply an instrument to be used by political powers, but a form of rule, a general condition of the social order itself – a permanent social relation and coordinating principle that affects all aspects of society. The US has moved from a welfare state in the last forty years to a warfare state, and war has become the foundation for politics, wedded to a war on terror, the expansion of the punishing state, police violence, and a culture of fear that have become symptomatic of its most important regulative functions. Politics has become an extension of a comprehensive war machine and culture that aggressively assaults anything that does not comply with the current underlying economic, religious, educative, and political fundamentalisms.
As a comprehensive war machine, American society operates in the shadow of a police state that increasingly violates civil liberties while producing a military-industrial-surveillance complex that President Dwight Eisenhower could never have imagined. For instance, the largest part of the federal budget – 600 billion dollars – goes to the military. The US rings the earth with military bases, and the US military budget is larger than those of all other advanced industrial countries combined. And the latter figure doesn’t include the money spent on the National Surveillance State and intelligence agencies.
War culture is everywhere and is used in the assault on women, especially around reproductive rights most evident in the closing down by right wing state governments of abortion clinics and the states’ refusal to accept Medicaid payments.
There is also an ongoing war on youth, especially minority youth who are under siege in their schools, which are modelled increasingly after prisons and too often have more security forces and police in them than teachers. One consequence is that often trivial infractions by students such as violating a dress code or drawing a gun gets them arrested and put into the school to prison pipeline.
War is being waged against poor minorities of class and colour whose everyday behaviour is being criminalised as they are subject to debtor prisons and an expansion of the incarceration state, with the latter being one of the largest in the world imprisoning over 2.3 million adults, most of whom are poor African-Americans. At the same time, impoverished cities are turned into war zones. Weapons from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan are now given to police departments increasing the possibility of their use on poor minority communities whose neighbourhoods are converted into fields of combat. Moreover, the war culture now defines the police as soldiers who view the public as enemies and use force and violence in ways today that were unthinkable just a generation ago – every sphere of American life is now a police matter while the military and police together are lauded in the media as the highest expressions of national ideals.
In addition, a war culture arrogantly expresses its disdain for democracy by implementing laws that restrict voting rights, weaken the social contract, and undermine civic institutions, and exhibit contempt for the common good, public employees, unions, and public goods such as public and higher education. Moreover, the war on poverty has become a war on the poor waged by corporate policies that deprive the economically disadvantaged, especially children, of public provisions such as food stamps, health care and decent jobs.
Similarly, war is being waged against the middle and working classes as wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the upper 1 percent. A war against all but the elite may perhaps be discerned in the connections between a corrupt capitalism that bails out Wall Street bankers, moves jobs overseas, and forecloses on homes with shameless zeal. At the same time, a war culture legitimates the building of private prisons in order to yield high returns and expand such operations into a new market: caging immigrants. A war against the citizenry is also evident in the chronic insanity of enacting laws that allow people to carry concealed weapons on college campuses and enact stand your ground laws that suggest an individual shoot first and ask questions later.
The rising culture of violence, repression, and surveillance in the United States points to the dangerous transformation of American politics into a war machine reflected in many acts of domestic terrorism that plague society and extend from the lead poisoning of millions of children and the transformation of urban centres into war zones to the militarisation of public schools and the use of war as the central tool in our society to solve all social problems. Police power now runs through the heart of American society as the punishing state increasingly is relied upon to solve social problems.
Everyone is now treated as a criminal or a threat to the social order, all the while the violence of poverty, rising inequality, foreclosed homes, unemployment, and other injustices breed conditions in which guns become the staple of choice in mediating everyday life.
One sign of such violence is evident in the 500 children, adults, and innocent bystanders shot in Chicago in the first nine months of 2016 and the thousands of people shot and killed by guns.
Any attempt to resist the emergence of a war culture and militarised social order in the United States might begin by recognising that democracy withers when war, combat, and militarisation embody the country’s highest ideals, especially when reinforced by a neoliberal ethos that celebrates unchecked competition, a hyper-masculinity, and the notion that violence is the primary vehicle to address pressing social issues. What must also be addressed is how language operates in the service of violence within the current historical conjuncture. What’s interesting about the language and culture of war is that it produces, legitimates, and celebrates precisely those institutions, policies, and practices that the American public should be ashamed of including the national surveillance state, military industrial complex, the war on whistle blowers, the spectacle of violence, the massive reach and spread of inequality, and the endless wars abroad waged by the US.
Unsurprisingly, the celebration of war and the spectacle of violence that runs through the mainstream media mobilise desires, not only related to militarisation and social combat, but also to the creation of modes of agency, identity, and values that operate in the service of violence. Violence is now a staple of popular culture and has become one of the primary sources of pleasure in historical period dominated by visual culture, especially with regards to the production of violent video games, films, and even the daily mainstream news.
It has become cool to be cruel to people, acceptable to bully others, and to be embrace a hyper-masculinity that celebrates violence. The ultimate act of pleasure is now served up in cinematically produced acts of extreme violence, produced to both numb the conscience and up the pleasure quotient. It gets worse. As Hannah Arendt has observed, war culture is part of a species of thoughtlessness that legitimates desires, identities that makes people insensitive to the violence they see all around them. You can’t have a democracy that organises itself around war because war is the language of injustice, it’s the pedagogy of barbarism. It admits no compassion and revels in a culture of cruelty.
The rise of a war machine and armed culture in the United States cannot be simply attributed solely to the rise of right-wing populism and the control of the commanding institutions of society by the corporate elite. Progressives bear some responsibility because they have repeatedly ignored the power of the pedagogical function of mainstream cultural apparatuses and the centrality of education to the practice of politics. Consequently, many on the left have lost the ability to understand how domination and resistance work at the level of everyday life. The left has relied for too long on defining domination strictly in structural terms, especially with regard to economic structures. They assume that the only form of domination is economic. What they ignore is that the crisis of economics, history, politics, and agency has not been matched by the crisis of ideas. They have failed to understand and address how much work is required to change consciousness in the service of individual and collective struggles. Central to any notion of politics is identification. What has been forgotten or overlooked is that people mostly respond to a politics that speaks to their condition. What the left has neglected is how crucial matters of identification and judgment along with belief and persuasion are central to politics itself. The Left has underestimated the symbolic dimensions of struggle, if not the nurturing of the radical imagination, when it gives up the use of education as a central element of politics.
The Left and other progressives appear to have little interest in addressing education as central to how people think, see things, how they invest something of themselves, and recognise that the problems they face need a new language that speaks to the problems they face in everyday life. What is particularly crucial here is the need to develop a politics in which pedagogy becomes central to enabling people to understand and translate how everyday troubles connect to wider structures.
In short, I am arguing that it is crucial to educate people to recognise that American democracy is in crisis and that the forces that threaten it are powerful and must be made visible. In this case, this is especially regarding the merging of neoliberalism, institutionalised racism, militarisation, oligarchy, inequality, and the power of the financial elite.
The United States is no longer a democracy. The myth of democracy has to be dismantled, especially the notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous.
To understand that, we need to connect the dots and make diverse forms of domination visible – extending from the war on terror and the existence of massing inequalities in wealth and power to the rise of the mass incarceration state and the destruction of public and higher education. Moreover, focussing on isolated issues has become a liability and has served to fracture progressive forces who need to develop a comprehensive global social movement. Progressives have to make clear that decisions made by the state when controlled by the ultra-rich and big corporations do not serve the general interest.
As a matter of strategy, any viable notion of politics and collective struggle must connect the war on Black youth to the war on workers, the war on middle class, and expose the workings of a barbaric system that extorts money, uses prison as a default welfare measure, and militarises the police. We must learn how to translate individual problems into larger social issues, create a comprehensive politics, a third party with the aim not of reforming the system but restructure it. As Martin Luther King, recognised at the end of his life,the linkages between the war at home and the war abroad cannot be separated. Such linkages remain crucial to the democratic project.
At another level, the dark forces of authoritarianism cannot be addressed by simply focusing on the rise of a demagogue such as Trump, but how he and others are symptomatic of a much larger set of issues deeply embedded in the body politic. This means developing a broad and comprehensive view of politics that brings together the various anti-democratic economic, religious, political, social, and educational forces at work in producing the dark shadow of authoritarianism and the death of our democracy. Such a comprehensive politics demands not only a discourse of sustained critique, but also a type of resistance bound up with real possibilities of a politics aimed at reclaiming the ideals and promise of a real democracy.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books are Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge 2015), Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights, 2015) coauthored with Brad Evans, and America at War with Itself (City Lights 2017), His web site is