American society is morally bankrupt and politically broken, and its vision of the future appears utterly dystopian. As the United States descends into the dark abyss of an updated form of totalitarianism, the unimaginable has become imaginable in that it has become possible not only to foresee the death of the essential principles of constitutional democracy, but also the birth of what Hannah Arendt once called the horror of dark times. The politics of terror, a culture of fear, and the spectacle of violence dominate America’s cultural apparatuses and legitimate the ongoing militarization of public life and American society.
Unchecked corporate power and a massive commodification, infantilization, and depoliticization of the polity have become the totalitarian benchmarks defining American society. In part, this is due to the emergence of a brutal modern-day capitalism, or what some might call neoliberalism. This form of neoliberal capitalism is a particularly savage, cruel, and exploitative regime of oppression in which not only are the social contract, civil liberties and the commons under siege, but also the very notion of the political, if not the planet itself. The dystopian moment facing the United States, if not most of the globe, can be summed up in Fred Jameson’s contention “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” He goes on to say that “We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”1
One way of understanding Jameson’s comment is through the ideological and affective spaces in which the neoliberal subject is produced and market-driven ideologies are normalized. Capitalism has made a virtue out of self-interest and the pursuit of material wealth and in doing so has created a culture of shattered dreams and a landscape filled with “Broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured: all suggest a collective failure of will. These shortcomings are so endemic that we no longer know how to talk about what is wrong, much less set about repairing it.”[i]
Yet, there is a growing recognition that casino capitalism is driven by a kind of mad violence and form of self-sabotage and that if it does not come to an end what we will experience in all probability is the destruction of human life and the planet itself. Certainly, more recent scientific reports on the threat of ecological disaster from researchers at the University of Washington, NASA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforce this dystopian possibility.2 The undermining of public trust and public values has now given way to a market-driven discourse that produces a society that has lost any sense of democratic vision and social purpose and in doing so resorts to state terrorism, the criminalization of social problems, and culture of cruelty. Institutions that were once defined to protect and enhance human life now function largely to punish and maim.
As Michael Yates points out throughout this book, capitalism is devoid of any sense of social responsibility and is driven by an unchecked desire to accumulate capital at all costs. As power becomes global and politics remains local, ruling elites no longer make political concessions to workers or any other group that they either exploit or consider disposable.
Security and crisis have become the new passwords for imposing a culture of fear and for imposing what Giorgio Agamben has called a permanent state of exception and a technology of government repression.[ii] A constant appeal to a state of crisis becomes the new normal for arming the police, curtailing civil liberties, expanding the punishing state, criminalizing everyday behavior, and supressing dissent. Fear now drives the major narratives that define the United States and give rise to dominant forms of power free from any sense of moral and political conviction, if not accountability.
In the midst of this dystopian nightmare, there is the deepening abyss of inequality, one that not only separates the rich from the poor, but also increasingly relegates the middle and working classes to the ranks of the precariat. Concentrations of wealth and income generate power for the financial elite and unchecked misery for most people, a fear/insecurity industry, and a growing number of social pathologies.
Michael Yates in The Great Inequality provides a road map for both understanding the registers that produce inequality as well as the magnitude of the problems it poses across a range of commanding spheres extending from health care and the political realm to the environment and education. At the same time, he exposes the myths that buttress the ideology of inequality. These include an unchecked belief in boundless economic growth, the notion that inequality is chosen freely by individuals in the market place, and the assumption that consumption is the road to happiness. Unlike a range of recent books on inequality, Yates goes beyond exposing the mechanisms that drive inequality and the panoply of commanding institutions that support it. He also provides a number of strategies that challenge the deep concentrations of wealth and power while delivering a number of formative proposals that are crucial for nurturing a radical imagination and the social movements necessary to struggle for a society that no longer equates capitalism with democracy.
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