The ‘suicidal state’ and the war on youth

by Henry A. Giroux

In spite of being discredited by the economic recession of 2008, market fundamentalism has once again assumed primacy as a dominant force for producing unprecedented inequalities in wealth and income, runaway environmental devastation, egregious amounts of human suffering and what Alex Honneth has called an “abyss of failed sociality.”(1) The Gilded Age is back with big profits for the ultra-rich and large financial institutions and increasing impoverishment and misery for the middle and working class. Political illiteracy and religious fundamentalism have cornered the market on populist rage providing support for a country in which, as Robert Reich points out, “the very richest people get all the economic gains [and] routinely bribe politicians” to cut their taxes and establish policies that eliminate public goods such as schools, social protections, health care and important infrastructures.(2)

It gets worse. Everywhere we look, the power of the rich and powerful operates to create a “suicidal state”(3) in which regulations meant to restrict their corrupting power are shredded; shamelessly and without apology, they use their unchecked power to lay off millions of workers while simultaneously cutting the benefits and rights of those on the job in order to dramatically increase corporate profits. As social protections are dismantled, public servants denigrated and public goods such as schools, bridges, health care services and public transportation deteriorate, the current neoliberal social order embraces the ruthless and punishing values of economic Darwinism and a survival-of-the-fittest ethic. In doing so, the major political parties now reward as its chief beneficiaries the mega banks, ultralarge financial industries, the defense establishment and big business.

Reinvigorated by the passing of tax cuts for the super-rich, the right-wing dominated House of Representatives along with a number of right-wing state governorships have launched an ongoing war on women’s rights, the welfare state, workers, students, and anyone who has the temerity to speak out against such attacks. The corporate-controlled media, especially Fox News and Clear Channel Communications, emulate the former Soviet Union’s version of Pravda, its once laughable propaganda rag. At the same time, the liberal media is as spineless as it is complicit with existing relations of power – more willing to compromise with right-wing ideology than exercising civic courage in searching for the truth and exposing the lies of normalizing power.

Hiding behind the mantle of balance and objectivism, the liberal media is incapable of a discriminating judgment and moral position and, increasingly, resembles a game show nervously repeating bad jokes, promoting sensationalist stories, emulating celebrity culture and garnering elevated ratings in order to lure in big money from advertisers.

Neoliberalism is once again imposing its values, social relations and forms of social death upon all aspects of civic life.(4) One consequence is that the United States has come to resemble a “suicidal state,” where governments work to destroy their own defenses against anti-democratic forces;(5) or as Jacques Derrida has put it, such states offer no immunity against authoritarianism and in fact emulate “that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion ‘itself’ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity … What is put at risk by this terrifying autoimmunity logic,” he grimly stated, “is nothing less than the existence of the world….”(6) Susan Searls Giroux follows up this logic with a series of important questions. She writes:

Since then, I’ve wondered about the troubling figure of societal suicide. How is it possible that a free and democratic society, precisely in the act of securing itself, or claiming to secure itself, could quicken its own demise? Where does the suicidal urge come from – is it a function of a deep, abiding illness in the collective psyche or a fleeting impulse linked to traumatic loss, or some imagined heroism? Is this really the future we face and, if so, how do we determine our degree of risk? Do we invoke the same assessment scale used for individual suicides? Gender, for example, is a factor; males are at greater risk, but how does one determine the gender of a society – by its masculinist inclination? Evidence of depression is another sign. Does one look to dips in the stock market or consumer confidence indices? Sales of anti-depressant medications? How about recent suicide attempts? Derrida describes the Cold War as a “first moment,” a “first autoimmunity.” Recent significant trauma or loss? Without question. Capacity for rational thinking lost? So it would seem. Little or no social support? Would loss of global support work here? Going down such a list, the signs don’t look promising.[7]

For over thirty years, the North American public has been reared on a neoliberal dystopian vision that legitimates itself through the largely unchallenged claim that there are no alternatives to a market-driven society, that economic growth should not be constrained by considerations of social costs or moral responsibility, that war is a permanent condition of society and that democracy and capitalism are virtually synonymous.

At the heart of this market-driven regime is materialist and instrumental rationality that sells off public goods and services to the highest bidders in the private sector, while simultaneously dismantling those public spheres, social protections and institutions serving the larger society. As economic power succeeds in detaching itself from government regulations, social costs and ethical considerations, a new global financial class reasserts the prerogatives of capital and systemically destroys those public spheres – including public and higher education – that traditionally advocated for social equality and an educated citizenry as the fundamental conditions for a viable democracy.

At the same time, the bloated financial class and their lobbyists do their magic by buying off politicians who are all too willing to squander the public coffers on wars abroad, while attempting to establish across the globe what can be called death zones inhabited by drones, high-tech weaponry and increasingly private armies.(8) Andrew Bacivich captures the expanding parameters of this militarized death march in the following commentary. He writes:

Pentagon outlays running at something like $700 billion annually, the United States spends as much or more money on its military than the entire rest of the world combined. The United States currently has approximately 300,000 troops stationed abroad, again more than the rest of the world combined (a total that does not even include another 90,000 sailors and marines who are at sea); as of 2008, according to the Department of Defense, these troops occupied or used some 761 “sites” in 39 foreign countries, although this tally neglected to include many dozens of U.S. bases in Iraq or Afghanistan; no other country comes even remotely close to replicating this “empire of bases” – or to matching the access that the Pentagon has negotiated to airfields and seaports around the world.[9]

Empire now provides the salutes, spectacles and high drama to overlook the predatory violence that shapes domestic politics. Unfortunately, despite our knowledge of the corrupt profiteering practices that instigated a global financial meltdown, free-market fundamentalism appears to be losing neither its claim to legitimacy nor its claims on democracy. On the contrary, in this new era in which we live, consumerism and profit-making are defined as the essence of democracy, while freedom has been reconceived as the unrestricted ability of markets to govern economic relations free from government regulation or moral considerations.

As the principle of economic deregulation gradually merges with a notion of unregulated self-interest, one consequence is that people eager to protect what they believe is their freedom are all too willing to relinquish their power, civil rights and social protections to unaccountable and unchecked forms of authoritarian corporate and state control. Of course, since September 2011, the paralyzing fog of depoliticization has been ruptured by the Occupy movement, the roar of angry workers and of young people who refuse to cede their future to the new oligarchs, bankers, the Koch brothers, hedge fund managers, Christian extremists and the corporate-controlled liberal and conservative media apparatuses.(10)

As a result of the triumph of corporate power over democratic values – made visible recently in the Citizens United Supreme Court case that eliminated all controls on corporate spending on political campaigns – the authority of the state does more than defend the market and powerful financial interests, it also is expanding its disciplinary control over the rest of society. There is more at work here than, as David Harvey points out, a political project designed “to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites”(11); there is also a reconfiguration of the state into what might be called a merging of the warfare and punishing state, or what I am calling, borrowing a Virilio term, “a suicidal state.”(12)

Lending muscle to corporate initiatives, the “suicidal state” becomes largely responsible for managing and expanding mechanisms of control, containment and punishment over a vast number of public institutions. As a weakened social contract comes under sustained attack, the model of the prison, along with its accelerating mechanisms and practices of punishment, emerges as a core institution and mode of governance under the suicidal state – a hyper mode of punishment creep now seeps into a variety of institutions.(13)

Agencies and public services that once offered relief and hope to the disadvantaged are now being replaced with a police presence along with other elements of the criminal justice system.(14) The brutal face of the emerging police state is also evident in the attack on young black people, youthful protesters and “stop and frisk” policies initiated in major urban cities which contain large black, brown and immigrant populations. In Bloomberg’s New York City, a “Clean Halls” program allows the police to conduct repressive search policies in private apartment buildings, stopping people in hallways and demanding an ID, and in too many cases harassing and arresting people needlessly. The extent of the brazenly illegal legalities have prompted Matt Taibbi, writing in Rolling Stone, to state that he has just discovered that the punishing state is as much as a threat to democracy than the threat of white-collar corruption. He writes:

Stories like this ‘Clean Halls’ program are beginning to make me see that journalists like myself have undersold the white-collar corruption story in recent years by ignoring its flip side. We have two definitely connected phenomena, often treated as separate and unconnected: a growing lawlessness in the financial sector and an expanding, repressive, increasingly lunatic police apparatus trained at the poor and especially the non-white poor.[15]

Democracy is on life support and the list of casualties in the war to empty it of any substance is long. We are witnessing the ongoing privatization of public schools, health care, prisons, transportation, the military, public air waves, public lands, and other crucial elements of the commons along with the undermining of our most basic civil liberties. Privatization in this case not only turns public goods over to the savage interests of the corporate elite, but puts such goods in the hands of market-based fundamentalists who can exercise control over the production of identities, values, modes of agency and dissent.

Home schooling, vouchers, charter schools and the rhetoric of school choice all serve as code for privatizing public goods, spheres and non-commodified institutions. Similarly, the bridges between public and private life are being dismantled, while the market – with its disregard for the complex web of systemic forces that bear down on people’s lives, not to mention its disregard for human life itself – becomes the template for structuring all social relations.

Already disenfranchised by virtue of their age, young people are under assault today in ways that are entirely new because they now face a world that is far more dangerous than at any other time in recent history. Not only do they live in a space of social homelessness in which precarity and uncertainty lock them out of a secure future, they also find themselves living in a society that seeks to silence them as it makes them invisible. Victims of a war against economic justice, equality and democratic values, young people are now told not to expect too much, to accept the status of “stateless, faceless and functionless”(16) nomads, a plight for which they alone have to accept responsibility. At best, they are told to assume sole responsibility for their fate. At worse, they are viewed as unproductive, excess and utterly expendable. But the discourse of redundancy has a darker side, one that reveals not just a society that is no longer willing to invest in poor minority and white youth, but also a social order that views many young people as a prime target of its governing through youth crime complex.

Today’s young people inhabit an age of unprecedented symbolic, material and institutional violence – an age of grotesque irresponsibility, unrestrained greed and unchecked individualism. Youth now constitute a present absence in any talk about democracy. Their absence or disappearance is symptomatic of a society that has turned against itself, punishes its children and does so at the risk of killing the entire body politic. The “suicidal state” produces an autoimmune crisis in which a society attacks the very elements of a society that allow it to reproduce itself, while at the same time killing off of any sense of history, memory and ethical responsibility.

Under such circumstances, all bets are off regarding the future of democracy. Besides a growing inability to translate private matters into public concerns, what is also being lost in the current historical conjuncture is the very idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change and developing modes of civic courage infused by the principles of social justice. Under the regime of a ruthless economic Darwinism which emphasizes a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, concepts and practices of community and solidarity have been replaced by a world of cutthroat politics, financial greed, media spectacles and a rabid consumerism. We are witnessing the triumph of individual rights over social rights, nowhere more exemplified than in the gated communities, gated intellectuals and gated values that have become symptomatic of a society that has lost all claims to democracy.

The threat to democracy is now overridden by the fear of youth as the other, viewed largely as a threat to authority. The eminent sociologist Zygmunt Bauman is right in claiming, “Visions have nowadays fallen into disrepute and we tend to be proud of what we should be ashamed of.”(17) Politics has become an extension of war, just as state sponsored violence increasingly finds legitimation in popular culture and a broader culture of cruelty that promotes an expanding landscape of fear and undermines any sense of shared responsibility toward others.

As is evident in the recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, poor minority youth are not just excluded from “the American dream,” but have become utterly redundant and disposable, waste products of a society that no longer considers them of any value. Such youth, already facing forms of racial and class-based exclusion, now experience a kind of social death as they are pushed out of schools, denied job-training opportunities, subjected to rigorous modes of surveillance and criminal sanctions and viewed less as chronically disadvantaged than as flawed consumers and civic felons. Some such as Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd experience something more ominous – death by homicide.

No longer tracked into either high- or low-achievement classes, many of these youth are now pushed right out of school into the juvenile criminal justice system.(18) Under such circumstances, matters of survival and disposability become central to how we think about and imagine not just politics, but the everyday existence of poor white, immigrant and minority youth. Too many young people are not completing high school, but are, instead, bearing the brunt of a system that leaves them uneducated and jobless and, ultimately, offers them one of the few options available for people who no longer have available roles to play as producers or consumers – either poverty or prison. When the material foundations of agency and security disappear, hope becomes hopeless and young people are reduced to the status of waste products to be tossed out or hidden away in the global human waste industry.

Not only have social safety nets and protections unraveled in the last thirty years, but the suffering and hardships many children face have been greatly amplified by both the economic crisis and the austerity policies that are being currently implemented, with little justification in the current historical moment. Young people now find themselves in a world in which sociality has been reduced to an economic battle ground over materialistic needs waged by an army of nomadic, fiercely competitive individuals, just as more and more people find their behavior pathologized, criminalized and subject to state violence.(19) Youth now inhabit a social order in which bonds of trust have been replaced by bonds of fear. As Zygmunt Bauman puts it, “Trust is replaced by universal suspicion. All bonds are assumed to be untrustworthy, unreliable, trap-and-ambush-like – until proven otherwise.”(20)

All forms of social solidarity are now abandoned to a free-market fundamentalism logic that has individualized responsibility and reduced civic values to the obligations of consumer-driven self-interest advanced against all other larger social considerations and social costs. How else to explain the fate of generations of young people, especially poor white, brown and black youth, who find themselves in a country which is the world’s leader in incarceration, one in which such youth are considered the nexus of crime.

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that puts children in supermax prisons, tries them as adults, incarcerates them for exceptionally long periods of time, defines them as super predators, pepper sprays them for engaging in peaceful protests and in an echo of the discourse of the war on terror describes them as “teenage time bombs.”(21) Young people have become the enemy of choice, elevated to the status as an all-pervasive threat to dominant authority. Instead of nurturing such children, we now taser them, sequester them to dangerous prisons and demonize them in order to divert our attention from real social problems, while at the same time engaging a public purification through the ritual of imposing harsh disciplinary practices on them.

Current statistics paint a bleak picture for young people in the United States: 1.5 million are unemployed, which marks a 17-year high; 12.5 million are without food; and in what amounts to a national disgrace, one out of every five American children lives in poverty. Nearly half of all US children and 90 percent of black youngsters will be on food stamps at some point during childhood.(22) Increasingly, kids are forced to inhabit a rough world where childhood is nonexistent, crushed under the heavy material and existential burdens they are forced to bear.

The deteriorating state of youth may be the most serious challenge facing educators, social workers, youth workers, and others in the 21st century. It is a struggle that demands a new understanding of politics, one that demands that we think beyond the given, imagine the unimaginable and combine the lofty ideals of democracy with a willingness to fight for its realization. But this is not a fight that can be won through individual struggles or fragmented political movements. It demands new modes of solidarity, new political organizations and a powerful social movement capable of uniting diverse political interests and groups. It is a struggle that is as educational as it is political. It is also a struggle that is as necessary as it is urgent. It is also a struggle that cannot be ignored.

One way of addressing our collapsing intellectual and moral visions regarding young people is to imagine those policies, values, opportunities and social relations that invoke adult responsibility and reinforce the ethical imperative to provide young people, especially those marginalized by race and class, with the economic, social and educational conditions that make life livable and the future sustainable. Clearly such a vision, one that moves beyond what Alain Badiou has called the “crisis of negation,”(23) which is a crisis of imagination, historical possibility and an aversion to new ideas, can be found in the global protests of the Occupy movement in North America and other youth resistance movements around the globe. What is evident in this worldwide movement of youth protests is a bold attempt to imagine the possibility of another world, a refusal of the current moment of historical one dimensionality, a refusal to settle for reforms that are purely incremental.

The “suicidal state” devalues any viable notion of rationality, ethics and democracy and has given rise to a suicidal society marked by a culture of cruelty in which the ultimate form of entertainment has become the pain and suffering of others, especially those considered throwaways, other, or without consumer privileges and rights. High-octane moral panics, a flight from civic responsibility, extreme callousness and the reproduction of human suffering have become the by-products of a market-driven society marked by an autoimmunity disease that destroys its own protections against a creeping authoritarianism.

My emphasis here is on how the “suicidal state” is organized around the primacy of sadistic impulses and how widespread violence and modes of hyper-punishment now function as part of an anti-immune system that turns the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that creates the foundation for sapping democracy of any political substance and moral vitality. The prevalence of institutionalized injustice, illegal legalities and expanding violence in American society suggest the need for a new conversation and politics that address what a just and fair world looks like. We see the beginning of such a conversation among the protesters who inhabit the Occupy movement. This is a conversation infused by the need for a new political language that needs to be formulated with great care and self-reflection by intellectuals, artists, workers, unions, parents, educators, young people, and others whose individual protections and social rights are in grave danger from the threat of a creeping fundamentalism that spreads its poison everywhere in the body politic.

The rise of the “suicidal state” and its apparatuses of violence have crept into all aspects of social life, making clear that too many young people and others marginalized by class, race and ethnicity have been abandoned by American society’s claim to democracy, especially in light of the rising forces of militarism, neoliberalism, religious fundamentalism and state terrorism. America has become a “suicidal state,” prompting a new urgency for a collective politics and social movements capable of both negating the established order and imagining a new one. In this discourse, critique merges with a sense of realistic hope and individual struggles merge into larger social movements. Until we address what Stanley Aronowitz has brilliantly analyzed as our “Winter of Discontent,” the “suicidal state” will continue to engage in autoimmune practices that attack the very values, institutions, social relations and hopes that keep the ideal of democracy alive.(24)

At the very least, the American public owes it to its children and future generations to begin to dismantle this machinery of death and reclaim the spirit of a future that works for life rather than the death worlds of the current authoritarianism, dressed up with a soft edge of the spectacle of consumerism and celebrity culture. It is time for the 99 percent to connect the dots, educate themselves and develop social movements that can not only rewrite the language of democracy, but put into place the institutions and formative cultures that make it possible. There is no room for failure here because failure would cast us back into the clutches of an authoritarianism – that while different from previous historical periods – shares nonetheless the imperative to proliferate violent social formations and a death-dealing blow to democracy.


1. Alex Honneth, “Pathologies of Reason” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 188.

2. Robert Reich, “The Fable of the Century,” Robert Reich’s Blog (April 6, 2012). Online here.

3. Paul Virilio, “The Suicidal State,” in J. DerDerian, ed. “The Virilio Reader” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 29-45.

4. Some useful sources on neoliberalism include: Lisa Duggan, “The Twilight of Equality” (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003); David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Wendy Brown, Edgework: “Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alfredo Saad-Filho and Deborah Johnston, eds. “Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader” (London: Pluto Press, 2005); Neil Smith, “The Endgame of Globalization” (New York: Routledge, 2005); Aihwa Ong, “Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Randy Martin, “An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007); Naomi Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” (New York: Knopf, 2007); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); David Harvey, “The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) and Gerard Dumenil and Dominique Levy, “The Crisis of Neoliberalism” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

5. Paul Virilio, “The Suicidal State,” in J. DerDerian, ed. “The Virilio Reader” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

6. Giovanna Borradori, ed, “Autoimmunity: real and symbolic suicides – a dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” “Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida” (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 2004), p. 94.

7. Susan Searls Giroux, “Generation Kill: Nietzschean Meditations on the University, Youth, War and Guns,” in “Academic Freedom in the Post-9/11 Era,” Eds. Edward J. Carvalho and David B. Downing. (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp. 130-131.

8. Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, “The Best Congress The Banks’ Money Can Buy,” Comon Dreams (April 6, 2012). Online here.

9. Andrew J. Bacevich, “Washington Rules: America’s Path To Permanent War,” (New York, N.Y.: Metropolitan Books, Henry Hold and Company, 2010), p. 25.

10. For an insightful list of some of these anti-democratic forces, see Les Leopold, “Ten Ways Our Democracy is Crumbling Around Us,” AlterNet (April 5, 2012). Online here.

11. David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 19.

12. Ibid., Paul Virilio, “The Suicidal State.”

13. Anne-Marie Cusac, “Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America,” (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

14. There are a number of important books that address this issue, see most recently Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” (New York: The New Press, 2010).

15. Matt Taibbi, “Bloomberg’s New York: Cops in Your Hallways,” Rolling Stone (April 5, 2012). Online here.

16. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (London: Polity Press, 2004), p. 76-77.

17. Zygmunt Bauman, “Introduction and in Search of Public Space,” In Search of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 8.

18. See, for example, Annette Fuentes, “Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse” (New York: Verso, 2011). Also see, Henry A. Giroux, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2010).

19. On the rise of the punishing state, see Loci Wacquant, “Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

20. Zygmunt Bauman, “Wasted Lives” (New York: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 92-93.

21. Anne-Marie Cusac, “Cruel and Unusual: The Culture of Punishment in America”, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 175.

22. Lindsey Tanner, “Half of US Kids Will Get Food Stamps, Study Says,” Chicago Tribune (November 2, 2009), Online here.

23. John Van Houdt, “The Crisis of Negation: An Interview with Alain Badiou,” Continent, 1.4 (2011). Online here.

24. Stanley Aronowitz, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” Situations, IV, no.2, (Spring 2012). Pp. 37-76.

[Thank you Henry as always for your support]

This article first appeared in

The writer holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, On Critical Pedagogy and Twilight of the Social. His website is at