"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Q: Who gets shut out in the shutdown? A: All of us.

At this point, it seems almost too quaint to refer to the situation in Washington D.C. as “the government shutdown.” While this certainly retains much truth to it – after all the government has been shut down and it was the government which did the shutting down – it still fails to capture what seems to be emerging as the underlying truth of the events that have been unfolding in the US since the start of October. Regardless of whether or not the US winds up defaulting on its debt, and regardless of whether or not this will all be over by this point next week, what has been on display is not so much a shut down (and certainly not a “slim down” as some term it), but rather a “shutout.”

Those familiar with the terminology of sports may think that a “shutout” refers to a sports competition in which the losing side fails to score at all, and from this may take the above comment as a suggestion that one of the two sides in this political boxing match will emerge having failed to score a single point. Yet in this match it is not that one of the US political parties will emerge having failed to achieve anything, it is that the notion of the winning team and losing team is not really an opposition between two political parties. Instead the government shutdown has been a boxing match in which the Republicans and Democrats spar inside the ring, whilst an increasingly worried public shouts from the arena (or shouts at the television while watching at home); however, the game has been fixed and whichever side scores the knock out blow the real loser – the real group that has failed to score at all – will be the audience. The citizens of the US (and the world in the case of a default) are the ones being shut out, and thus the losers in this shutout.

Though the polling numbers may make it seem as if the public has turned angrily against the government members that have charged into the shutdown it remains essential to remember that in many respects the shutdown is a victory for the strange creature some still call “democracy” in the US. After all, in the US today “democracy” is such that after an election in which a President is re-elected, the President’s party keeps the Senate, and in which the President’s party wins the popular vote in the House – a minority of the most ideological voices in the House can still effectively scuttle the government.

This is not an undermining of the US government; this is the US government.

All of the acrimonious mechanisms that have gotten the country to this point and which now make default less of an “if” than a “when” are the result of the rules and policies that define how the government works. Do not blame the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, for not brining a “clean” continuing resolution (a farcical phrasing as the “clean CR” locks in the trashy sequester levels), for he is not an exceptional human – all of the actions he has taken are based on the power’s of the Speaker’s office. It’s not Boehner who refuses to bring the bill up for a vote, it’s the Speaker of the House; Boehner is just wearing that costume for a while and getting to enjoy the power of the gavel. A given politician may be more venal or moral than another, but ultimately all of them are still throwing choreographed punches within the government’s ring whilst the referee allows most anything, and the only thing that can be heard from the crowd is an angry roar. Yet, amidst this sorry situation – with darker times likely ahead – there is still much resistance to making too dark an assessment; it is as Theodor Adorno recognized (in Minima Moralia):

“The constantly reinforced insistence that everybody should admit that everything will turn out well, places those who do not under suspicion of being defeatists and deserters.” (Adorno, 122)

Here it is important to recognize that “those who do not” are not the ones looking forward to default, not the ones seeing religious apocalyptic imagery in the headlines, and not those who see in the collapse of the systems of governance a joyful opening for “liberty,” “freedom,” or other words that sound good when evoked but which are of lower value today than their Scrabble scores. One need not have any particular affection for what passes as “democracy” in the US to recognize that the shutdown (and impending default) may be paving the way for much darker times ahead. To hope that there will be a better land reached at the end of the journey is to fail to honestly assess how harrowing the journey shall be. Even in its increasingly hobbled form the US government is not about to up and disappear (and bear in mind the repressive apparatus has not been furloughed), and collapsing democracies have historically provided fertile soil for the growth of xenophobic and authoritarian movements.

Doom saying wins few friends (“suspicion of being defeatists and deserters”), and apocalyptic romanticism is an untrustworthy ethical position from which to gaze upon the world, yet the reality of the shutdown (to say nothing of the wretched summer of 2013) should provide people with nothing in the way of comfort. Consider the causes of the government shutdown – largely opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a fairly weak tea form of health care reform that was so ultra-leftist (haha) that it was based largely off of a Republican plan – and then ponder what the odds are that the US government will be able to act on an issue that genuinely threatens the US (and the world) like climate change. As the predominantly wealthy figures in the marble halls of the capitol quibble, they fight over dividing up the spoils, whilst the citizens – the losers in all of this – remain shut out but bribed with a mountain of consumer electronics and titillating entertainment. Writing, many decades ago, Herbert Marcuse (in One Dimensional Man) warned against such negative trends in the political universe:

“A universe of discourse in which the categories of freedom have become interchangeable and even identical with their opposites is not only practicing Orwellian or Aesopian language but is repulsing and forgetting the historical reality—the horror of fascism; the idea of socialism; the preconditions of democracy; the content of freedom…if the foundations of democracy are harmoniously abrogated in democracy, then the old historical concepts are invalidated by up-to-date operational redefinitions. The redefinitions are falsifications which, imposed by the powers that be and the powers of fact, serve to transform falsehood into truth.” (Marcuse, 101)

Those lines, regarding the crumbling of democratic structures are brought into sharper relief when twinned with a further comment from Adorno:

“The disaster does not take the form of a radical elimination of what existed previously; rather the things that history has condemned are dragged along dead, neutralized and impotent as ignominious ballast.” (Adorno, 144)

The will of the citizenry, the power of people to play a role in governing their lives, these things have been shut down, these things have been closed out by the current political state of affairs. If elections are still looked upon with some measure of bemused respect and polls of “public opinion” still make some politicians anxious, it is simply part of the show – US democracy needs not the “radical elimination” of openly rendering impotent the citizenry but the public are simply “dragged along dead, neutralized and impotent.” Much of the commentary regarding the shutdown may focus upon the next election and what the implications may be – but so long as there is another election that does not also significantly alter what has come to pass for “democracy” it will ultimately result in mainly cosmetic changes. After all, if a person votes for a “D” or an “R” they are still voting for the government, so of course the government will win. Yet despair should not be treated as an option – beaten down cousin to apocalyptic romanticism that it is – and dwelling in the dismal past provides little productive, in truth (Adorno again):

“No other hope is left to the past than that, exposed defenselessly to disaster, it shall emerge from it as something different. But he who dies in despair has lived his whole life in vain.” (Adorno, 177)

In truth the government has overplayed its position at the moment, the staged aspect of one of the punches has been visible due to the wonky choreography, and for a moment it can be seen that the whole game is rigged. And that it is rigged against the audience, many of whom do not fully even realize that they have been relegated to the role of an audience. The audience, the citizenry, grows restless, grows anxious, but as long as it remains transfixed upon the phony fight the more likely it is that they will once again settle comfortably into their seats. We need to ignore the announcers describing the blow by blow with barely contained glee, rather the voices willing to admit that everything might not turn out well need to be acknowledged, regardless of the lack of comfort they may bring. The main voice that needs to be listened to, of course, is that within ourselves that knows that something has gone dreadfully wrong. As Lewis Mumford wrote (In the Name of Sanity {italics in original}):

“The corrupt purposes that we passively participate in, the immoral acts we have accepted in the name of expediency or practicality or even of financial economy, the irrational compulsions that we have bowed to with the respect we owe only to reason—all these things are not fixed and fated. We need not submit to these dehumanized processes and these life negating mechanics. To be human is to understand, to evaluate, to choose, to accept responsibility…We have made ourselves into the creatures we have so deplorably become. Let us look at the new image in the national mirror and be properly horrified and frightened by it. Is this America?” (Mumford, 162)

But lest you become paralyzed with horror remember:

“We have still another choice open: the choice of renewing our integrity, our sanity, our humanity.” (Mumford, 163)

It’s not an easy choice to make, many will not choose to make it, but we must recognize that the choice is before us.

Though it may not be for much longer.

Related Content

Politicians are Not Dadaists…they just act like they are…

To live justly in unjust times

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

The Panoptic Con

The Triumph of Technique

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Routledge Classics, 2002.

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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