Living in the Nightwatchman State: A Riposte to Despair

Peter McLaren
Peter McLaren

The Angel of History has lost her wings.  She now drives a hearse and uses it to transport to Heaven’s rubbish heap all of history’s disasters piled upon disasters—what we call progress. Hell has been unleashed upon the world; we do not need to fear it as a possible consequence of an afterlife. It’s already here.  The quagmire of impotence and despondency in which we as humans now excruciatingly anguish dilutes the very essence of our humanity.

Today, the nightwatchman state has a goal of identifying those citizens who oppose its regressive socioeconomic policies, who oppose the destruction of the commons and domestic social aid programs, who oppose designating dissident citizens as security threats. Citizens of the nightwatchman state are not permitted to articulate their interests within a counter-public sphere, that is, they are not allowed to act outside the scope of the dominant state apparatuses and military industrial power complex—which is why the US has always supported fascist regimes over those that advocate a politics of liberation and social and economic justice.  Here the garments of US democracy are stained by the poisoned ink of hypocrisy.

The world is awash in a galloping neoliberalism, bankers mounted on levathians of speculation and cronyism wave their cowboy hats at their mega-corporatist and politician friends.  The latter seek to ‘harmonize’ dissent by targeting and labeling dissenters as extremists and terrorists and there is no more effective way to muzzle dissent than to criminalize it.  We’ve been hoodwinked into believing it is preferable to live a lie than expose it.  We’ve found it safer to live as objects rather than subjects.  We can be free as long as our ideas coincide with those of the state and it’s millionaire masters of war.  Some critics tell us that liberal capitalist regimes such as the United States cannot become truly fascist. I disagree.  Economics is now the dominant science of human behavior helping to move us to merge together governments and corporations.  We are arriving at the twilight of democracy, the end of freedom’s long and slippery road.

Here in the US, we have the greatest amount of consumer debt in the world, the highest rate of both child and adult poverty, skyrocketing unemployment, more people in prison than anywhere in the world in proportion to our population and we have all but sacrificed our civic sovereignty.  The CEO of our Wal-Mart stores makes $11,000 an hour. Our infrastructure is crumbling and we continue to fight undeclared wars. We are about to reign down savagery on Syria and the media is busy beating the war drums to bring the people on board. Wages for workers in the United States are at their lowest level since the 1930s. Even so, massive cuts are being implemented at every level of government, justified by the claim that “there is no money” for health care, education or other basic social needs. The federal government has begun the implementation of $1.2 trillion in “sequester” budget cuts that will not be reversed. The wealth of the ruling class at this crisis-rideen historical juncture is almost entirely divorced from productive activity in the real economy through a process of financialization, in which the productive forces of the economy are steadily undermined.

Every Tuesday President Obama goes over the kill shots in his drone warfare program and gives his approval. Decades ago, it was impossible to think that the remote control airplane you played with in the empty lot next to Astroland Park on Coney Island would one day become transformed into a device designed to assassinate foreign nationals (or even U.S. citizens), regardless of any innocent victims that happened to be in the vicinity.  Or as you rode a bubble car in the Mercury Capsule Skyride across the park to the boardwalk, did you ever think that one day you could purchase as a birthday gift for your twelve year-old, anything like a 4 Channel Predator Style Reaper UAV Drone RC Plane Kit for 139.98? Or the (considerably cheaper) armed RQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)?  Both ‘toys’ have been reviewed with biting sarcasm on the internet by critics of the Obama administration’s targeted killing program. I include but one of my favorite examples:

«The coolest detail about this toy are the small body fragments you can litter around your target area following a drone missile strike on a wedding party. THEN (this is where the real fun begins) you circle back in an hour and fire MORE missiles at the people rescuing survivors and mourning the dead! Sure if another country did such a thing we’d decry it as heinous terrorism, but when good Ol’ Uncle Sam’s finger is on the joystick, you can bet that we call what we hit our target, no matter what.»

And if your child isn’t too keen on drones, or on joining the military as a future goal, you can purchase him or her a video game, like Manhunt, that attempts to bring out and nurture your child’s “homicidal tendencies”. Or the game Resident Evil where you are able to gouge, saw, and hack into oblivion victims (mostly black) who have turned into zombies.  Nowadays, especially after the Columbine and Newton school massacres, it is frighteningly possible to imagine a child plaintively asking his father: ‘What happens daddy if we are not at war with anybody when I turn eighteen?  How will I get to kill all those evil people like the ones uncle Greg or uncle Bobby got to kill in Iraq and Afghanistan?»  Well, I am sure the US will provide enough wars in the foreseeable decades so that its citizens are not deprived of such formative experiences as young adults.

I recently returned from Instituto Mc Laren de Pedagogia Critica, in Ensenada, Mexico, for la culminación de un proyecto que empezó con un sueño: Contribuir a la formación de docentes para una educación de calidad humana y social. One of the doctoral candidates at the institute—whose name is Israel– had completed a video with his elementary students in Mexicali and he showed it in a class I was teaching. The video was about corridos alterados de narco or narco corridos.   In the video, Israel asked his students why they enjoyed the music so much and their answers caused me to become chillingly distraught. I paraphrase them as follows–«we love the violence and the torture. Maybe we will be able to torture and kill people when we grow up.»  These are not exact translations but they give you an idea of the responses.  Fortunately, Israel and other teachers are on a mission to create pedagogical approaches that can help make  young people think more critically about their engagement with narco corridos and to address this issue with teachers in the schools. The sentiments from the elementary school children in Mexicali, of course, are echoed by youth the world over.  The US arms industry makes a profit from the narco wars, as it does from wars around the globe.  And the National Rifle Association in the US is shameless in its support for gun culture.  Whether it’s drugs, arms, or the culture of violence that permeates the US, all of it is part of a profit-making industry and all connected to the scourge of capital, that knows no national borders.  All of it feeds into the logic of fascism, whether of the type spawned by Pinchocet’s feared Carabineros, or the secret ‘renditions’ of suspected terrorists carried out by US Special Forces who have the legal authority to spirit anyone away to some military base abroad to be tortured.

People have different ways of coping with their despair and their rage in a world gone mad—madly fascist to be more accurate. For some it might lead to joining the team. There are many Inspector Javerts out there only too willing to bring to justice the army of Jean Valjeans created by finance capitalism’s holy war on equality and justice.  This might involve reactionary activities such as joining  BlueServo to help Texas border patrol agents apprehend ‘illegals’ trying to enter the United States. In fact, if you are so inclined, you can help the Texas Border Patrol from anywhere in the world. You can become a virtual deputy.  Some may be disappointed that you can’t shoot anyone, but at least you can become an virtual enforcer of the law. According to it’s advertisement,  BlueServoSM deploys the Virtual Community Watch.  This is described as

an innovative real-time surveillance program designed to empower the public to proactively participate in fighting border crime. The BlueServoSM Virtual Community WatchSM is a network of cameras and sensors along the Texas-Mexico border that feeds live streaming video to Users will log in to the BlueServoSM website and directly monitor suspicious criminal activity along the border via this virtual fenceSM.

Volunteers can sit at their computers from cities and towns all around the world at watch surveillance cameras set up across the Texas-Mexico border and thrill to their new role as “Virtual Texas Deputies.” When movement is detected on one of these cameras, they send in their report; when enough reports coincide, border patrol agents rush to the location to make arrests.  According to one report, Rob Abernethy, a 42-year-old factory worker from Lincolnton, North Carolina, watches BlueServo cameras for an average of half an hour every day because «he feels like he’s part of an altruistic group of volunteers” and says that it is  “no different than watching ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ reruns … It’s just something to do,» Abernethy said in the interview (Constantini, 2013).  So instead of watching television reruns on your couch, you can become a virtual law enforcement official and help Homeland Security do its job. I wonder how many more volunteer surveillance programs the public will be invited to join as capitalism restructures itself in ever more predatory ways, and the government needs to formulate more fascist approaches to keeping its unemployed and dissident citizens under control.  If you decide not to side with the government, then you have put yourself at increasing risk.

We’ve read about the top secret US National Security Agency documents that have revealed a comprehensive US-based surveillance system with direct access to Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants. Data harvested by the NSA’s Prism system has likely  been fed into the Five Eyes intelligence alliance whose members also include the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  It’s part of a program that was spawned after the 2008 economic crash, when security agencies have been directed to collect sensitive information on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. In fact, it’s an official part of  US strategic defense planning.  There is great fear in government circles about  “civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis – or all three” (Ahmed, 2013). Recent unilateral changes to US military laws have “formally granted the Pentagon extraordinary powers to intervene in a domestic ‘emergency’ or ‘civil disturbance’” (Ahmed, 2013). The  Department of Defense’s (DoD) Army Modernisatin Strategy is concerned about a new «era of persistent conflict» due to competition for «depleting natural resources and overseas markets» fuelling «future resource wars over water, food and energy.» The report predicted that in such cases there would be a resurgence of «… anti-government and radical ideologies that potentially threaten government stability» (Ahmed, 2013). A 20,000 strong troop force has been developed that is ready to respond to «domestic catastrophes» and civil unrest (Ahmed, 2013).

Ahmed reports that “in 2010, the Pentagon ran war games to explore the implications of ‘large scale economic breakdown’ in the US impacting on food supplies and other essential services, as well as how to maintain ‘domestic order amid civil unrest.’” Ahmed further notes that it is “not surprising that the increasing privatization of intelligence has coincided with the proliferation of domestic surveillance operations against political activists, particularly those linked to environmental and social justice protest groups”.  His final words should sound a warning to all potential enemies of the state—those that care about social justice and are trying to find ways to actively contribute to building a more just and equitable world.

The Pentagon knows that environmental, economic and other crises could provoke widespread public anger toward government and corporations in coming years. The revelations on the NSA’s global surveillance programmes are just the latest indication that as business as usual creates instability at home and abroad, and as disillusionment with the status quo escalates, Western publics are being increasingly viewed as potential enemies that must be policed by the state. (Ahmed, 2013)

Beware fellow citizens if you engage in active critiques of the global economy and foreign and domestic government policies. For those who are unwilling or unable to create communities engaged in efforts to fight social and economic injustice, and decide to keep your anger and rage inside, you can look forward perhaps to developing a wide array of colorful and interesting symptoms of mental illness and being consigned to a life of isolation and despair. Bruce E. Levine (2013) laments the following:

[T]here is a fundamental bias in mental health professionals for interpreting inattention and noncompliance as a mental disorder. Those with extended schooling have lived for many years in a world where all pay attention to much that is unstimulating. In this world, one routinely complies with the demands of authorities. Thus for many M.D.s and Ph.D.s, people who rebel against this attentional and behavioral compliance appear to be from another world—a diagnosable one. The reality is that with enough helplessness, hopelessness, passivity, boredom, fear, isolation, and dehumanization, we rebel and refuse to comply. Some of us rebel by becoming inattentive. Others become aggressive. In large numbers we eat, drink and gamble too much. Still others become addicted to drugs, illicit and prescription. Millions work slavishly at dissatisfying jobs, become depressed and passive aggressive, while no small number of us can’t cut it and become homeless and appear crazy. Feeling misunderstood and uncared about, millions of us ultimately rebel against societal demands, however, given our wherewithal, our rebellions are often passive and disorganized, and routinely futile and self-destructive. When we have hope, energy and friends, we can choose to rebel against societal oppression with, for example, a wildcat strike or a back-to-the-land commune. But when we lack hope, energy and friends, we routinely rebel without consciousness of rebellion and in a manner in which we today commonly call mental illness.

We all could use a little help from our friends, as the song goes.  But in this daily grind of being ‘alone together’ the kind of social networks we need to foment political struggle are often not within our grasp.  This is perhaps more true of the academy than anywhere else.

Class politics began to disappear during the ‘cultural turn’ associated with postmodernism and poststructuralism and approaches known as deconstruction, schizo-analysis, reparative reading, and cultural logic which take the position that textuality precedes agency (there is nothing outside of the text).   Here language is understood as an anti-ontology in which difference is defined as a present absence (the ‘truth’ of textuality) and is deployed as a means of legitimating dominant social relations of production by situating ideas as arbitrary, as unrelated to each other—in short, as autonomous. Following this approach to textualizing experience, meanings are always a form of excess, something that cannot be represented, singularities.  And as Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, Teresa Ebert and others have argued, the “collective” is reduced to a simulacra of language. History is even reduced to a series of discontinuities which, of course, is a way of concealing and erasing the continuity of predatory capitalism. Contingency becomes the social logic of truth  I am sure Marx would see these ‘postmodern’ theoretical approaches as abstractions of the social relations of production. They are really critiques of fixed meaning, not of the social relations of production, which they displace in their preoccupation with the new technology of signs.  This is a way of erasing the social relations of production through the idea of immaterial labor in which subjects are no longer the static and somber figures of industrial production but rather plastic and malleable workers who occupy not production lines but are constituted as self-referential desiring machines insinuated into relays of signs that have no beginning and no end—only trajectories that are self-determining.  Capitalism is supposedly no longer the brutal assembly line but is now virtual.  Here, knowledge or the machine becomes the motor force of human history.  Yet, as Zavarzadeh points out,  the machine deploys already extracted surplus labor to further exploit the living labor of the workers.

The purpose of the linguistic turn in the academy is to deconstruct binaries as the products of difference, thereby illuminating a new economy of power in which the word is as material as the world. Rather than two opposites formed by historical struggles over the appropriation of social surplus labor—i.e., the oppressor and the oppressed—differences between classes are rewritten as difference within classes, thereby normalizing the binary of social oppositions locked in structured hierarchies of power and privilege.  This has the effect of sanitizing poverty and serving the interests of the transnational capitalist class.  The linguistic turn advances interpretation over explanation.  For instance, it is asserted within the linguistic turn, that the rich and the poor share the same structures of difference.  But lacking in this view is a causal or rational explanation of why the rich are rich (because the poor are poor); what is concealed here is how capital and labor are internally related. To make matters worse, here the poor are reconfigured as rich in terms of their possession of anti-power or power of the negative, as possessing affective labor, such as joy, or spiritual superiority over the rich, that extends beyond the material. In this way the new cultural turn spiritualizes away the politico-social relations of production and finance capitalism remains unchallenged.

Each morning I reluctantly abandon my lingering dreamscape, drag myself from the covers of my bed, and unravel myself in new ways. But no matter how hard I propel myself forward in the flickering light of each new dawn, I cannot disengage myself from the past, a past that when unspooled reveals corpse after corpse spiraling into infinity,  bodies hacked into oblivion by the forces of progress.  We are the children of the future born upon a stage where madmen in the wings pen their plays of savagery and destruction.  We enter the human drama as stage hands, building the furniture for our own subjugation.  We must engage in mutiny against the playwrights and put our own pens to the page. That is easier said than accomplished.   The sirens of melancholia seem more seductive now than ever before as their sweet melodies draw me closer towards the orbit of dissolution and despair into which I increasingly long to escape.  Yet this unyielding grief has spawned a disenchantment that on occasion makes accessible cracks in the bitterness of everyday life where the sap of possibility may be drawn.


Ahmed, Nafeez. (2013).  Pentagon Bracing for Public Dissent Over Climate and Engery Shocks.  The Guardian.  June.  As retrieved from:

Constantini, Christiana (2013). New Technologies Help Border Patrol and Border Crossers, Respectively.  Huffington Post.  As retrieved from:

Ebert, T. (2009). The task of cultural critique. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ebert, T., & Zavarzadeh, M. (2008). Class in culture. Boulder and London: Paradigm Press.

Levine, Bruce E. (2013). Living in America Will Drive You Insane—Literally.  Salon, July 31.  As retrieved from:



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Doctor en Educación por la Universidad de Toronto, Canadá.

Docente Distinguido de Estudios Críticos, Universidad Chapman, Estados Unidos.

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