As the recent health care debate has made clear, the decades-long conservative campaign against the alleged abuses of “big government” is far from over. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan insisted that government was the problem not the solution, he unleashed what was to become a neoliberal juggernaut against both the welfare state and the concept of the public good. Reagan’s conservative ideological stance revealed a smoldering market-driven disdain for any form of governance that assumed a measure of responsibility for the education, health and general welfare of the country’s citizens. He also helped launch a new political era in which consumerism and profit making were defined as the essence of democracy, and freedom was redefined as the unrestricted ability of markets to govern economic relations free of government regulation. Even worse, the obligations of citizenship, if not agency itself, were reduced to the never-ending need to consume goods, buy into market-driven services and fashion public needs according to the protocols of celebrity culture.
For over 30 years, the 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 and that democracy and capitalism were virtually synonymous. At the heart of this market rationality is an egocentric philosophy and culture of cruelty that sold off public goods and services to the highest bidders in the corporate and private sectors, while simultaneously dismantling those public spheres, social protections and institutions serving the public good. As economic power freed itself from traditional government regulations, a new global financial class reasserted the prerogatives of capital and systemically destroyed those public spheres advocating social equality and an educated citizenry as a condition for a viable democracy. At the same time, economic deregulation merged powerfully with the ideology of individual responsibility, effectively evading any notion of corporate responsibility, while effectively undercutting any sense of corporate accountability to a broader public.
As a result of the triumph of corporate sovereignty over democratic values, the supervisory authority of the state was reconfigured into a disciplinary device largely responsible for managing and expanding the mechanisms of control, containment and punishment over a vast number of American institutions. As the social contract came under sustained attack, the bridges between public and private life were dismantled and the market became a template for structuring all social relations. With the devaluing of public goods, public values and public institutions, the model of the prison emerged as a core institution and mode of governance under the neoliberal state. Democracy suffered a major hit. The list of casualties is long and includes the ongoing privatization of public schools, health care, prisons, transportation, wars, the public air waves, public lands, and other crucial elements of the commons along with the undermining of some of our most basic civil liberties. At the same time, those institutions that once offered relief and hope to people were now replaced by the police, courts and the prison, all of which had a disproportionate effect on poor and minority youth.
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The legacy of casino capitalism with its reckless gambling and corruption has contributed to the loss of trillions of dollars from the public coffers, while simultaneously undermining the most basic democratic values. Making a mockery of an aspiring American democracy, the economic neo-Darwinism of the last 30 years has given free reign to a society that “celebrates fraud, theft and violence.” The holy trinity of deregulation, privatization and commodification has produced vast inequities in wealth, income and power, exemplified by the fact that “at the start of the recession the collective wealth of the richest 1 percent of Americans was greater than that of the bottom 90 percent combined.” But the regime of free-market fundamentalism has not only produced “the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928,” it has also caused enormous hardship and suffering among those populations now considered redundant and increasingly disposable.
Undeniably, the social and economic collapse we are now experiencing was preceded by a moral and political collapse, largely caused by a political class and a formative culture deeply insensitive to its social and ethical responsibilities. The renowned historian Tony Judt has insisted that since the 1980s, we have inhabited what he calls “an age of pygmies,” a time largely “consumed by locusts” and characterized by an “uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth…. and an obsession with “the pursuit of material wealth [while] indifferent to so much else.”
The dreamscape of neoliberalism has ushered in a long period of social and economic revenge against those populations marginalized by race and class. The new government of insecurity has reshaped welfare through punitive policies that criminalized poverty, pushed people into workfare programs so as to force them into menial labor and where that failed made incarceration the primary tool of making such populations disappear. As Loic Wacquant has argued, “Poverty has not receded but the social visibility and civic standing of the trouble making poor have been reduced.” Moreover, we have witnessed in the last few decades the rise of a punishing state that “offers relief not to the poor but from the poor, by forcibly ‘disappearing’ the most disruptive of them, from the shrinking welfare rolls on the one hand and into the swelling dungeons of the carceral castle on the other.”
Populations that were once viewed as facing dire problems in need of state interventions and social protections are now seen as a problem threatening society. This becomes clear when the war on poverty is transformed into a war against the poor; when young people, to paraphrase W. E. B. Du Bois, become problem people rather than people who face problems; when the plight of the homeless is defined less as a political and economic issue in need of social reform than as a matter of law and order; or when the state budgets for prison construction eclipse budgets for higher education. The reach of the punishing state is especially evident in the ways in which many public schools now use punishment as the main tool for control. In the devalued landscape of public schooling, what becomes clear is that punishing young people seems to be far more important than educating them. Similarly, as advocates of market rationality raise an entire generation on the alleged virtues of “unrestricted individual responsibility,” the disdain toward the common good finds its counterpart in increasing acts of “collective and political irresponsibility.”
What might it mean to oppose the institutions, reverse the values and challenge the power relations that created this theater of civic morbidity and culture of cruelty? Dare one not take account of the profound emotional appeal, let alone ideological hold, of neoliberalism on the American public? The success of a market ideology that has produced shocking levels of inequality, poverty and human suffering buttressed by a market morality that has spawned rapacious greed and corruption should raise fundamental questions. How did market rule prove capable of enlisting in such a compelling way the consent of the vast majority of Americans, who cast themselves, no less, in the role of the “moral majority”? This means the questions we need to be asking ourselves must extend beyond how we proceed with competent and effective economic reform. Just as neoliberal logic extends well beyond the economic realm, we must also consider at a deeper level how we dismantle the culture of permanent war and fear, how we learn to think beyond the narrow dictates of instrumental rationalities, how we decriminalize certain identities, how we depathologize the concept of dependency and recognize it as our common fate, how we foster a culture of questioning and shared responsibilities and how we reclaim the public good – how we reconstitute, in short, a viable, sustainable and aspiring democratic society. What are the implications of theorizing education, pedagogy and the practice of learning as essential to social change and where might such interventions take place? In the current historical moment, young people are increasingly defined through a youth control complex that is predatory in nature and punishing in its consequences, leaving a generation of young people with damaged lives impoverished spirits, and bankrupted hopes. One such place to begin, especially for educators, is with the current state of young people in the United States.
While youth have always represented an ambiguous category, 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. As Jean-Marie Durand pointed out, as war and the criminalization of social problems become a mode of governance, “Youth is no longer considered the world’s future, but as a threat to its present. [For] youth, there is no longer any political discourse except for a disciplinary one.” This intensifying assault on young people can be more fully grasped through the related concepts of “soft war” and “hard war.”
The soft war analyses the changing conditions of youth within the relentless expansion of a global market society that punishes all youth by treating them largely as markets and commodities. This low intensity war is waged through the educational force of a culture that not only commercializes every aspect of kids’ lives, but also uses the Internet, cell phones and various social networks along with the new media technologies to address young people as markets and consumers in ways that are more direct and expansive. The reach of the new screen and electronic culture on young people is disturbing. For instance, a recent study by the Kaiser Family foundation found that young people ages 8 to 18 are spending more than seven and a half hours a day with smart phones, computers, television, and other electronic devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago.” When you add the additional time youth spend texting, talking on their cell phones, “watching TV while updating Facebook – the number rises to 11 hours of total media content each day.” There is more at stake here than what some call a new form of attention deficit disorder, one in which youth avoid the time necessary for thoughtful analysis and engaged modes of reading, there is also the issue of how this media is being used to create a new generation of consuming subjects. Corporations have hit gold with the new media and can inundate young people directly with their market-driven values, desires and identities, all of which are removed from the mediation and watchful eyes of parents and other adults.
The hard war is more serious and dangerous for young people and refers to the harshest elements, values and dictates of a growing youth-crime complex that increasingly governs poor minority youth through a logic of punishment, surveillance and control. For example, the imprint of the youth-crime complex is evident in the increasingly popular practice of organizing schools through disciplinary practices that subject them to constant surveillance through high-tech security technologies while imposing upon them harsh and often thoughtless zero-tolerance policies that closely resemble the culture of prisons. In this instance, even as the corporate state is in financial turmoil, it is transformed into a punishing state and certain segments of the youth population become the object of a new mode of governance based on the crudest forms of disciplinary control. Poor minority youth have not just been 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 subjected to a form of racial dumping now experience a kind of social death as they are pushed out of schools, denied job training opportunities, subject to rigorous modes of surveillance and criminal sanctions and viewed less as disadvantaged than as flawed consumers and civic felons. 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 and minority youth.
As the social safety net and protections unraveled in the last 30 years, the culture and administrative apparatus of the prison, operating within the narrow registers of punishment and crime management, has become a core institution of American society. In part, this is evident in the fact that over seven million people are now under the jurisdiction of some element of the criminal justice system. Within this regime of harsh disciplinary control, there is no political or moral vocabulary for either recognizing the systemic economic, social and educational problems that young people face or for addressing what it means for American society to invest seriously in the future of young people, especially poor minority and white youth. Instead of being viewed as impoverished, minority youth are seen as lazy and shiftless; instead of being understood in terms of how badly they are served by failing schools, many poor minority youth are labeled as uneducable and pushed out of schools, or even worse. Against the idealistic rhetoric of a nation that claims it venerates young people lies the reality of a society that increasingly views youth through the optic of law and order and is all too willing to treat them as criminals, and, when necessary, make them “disappear” into the farthest reaches of the carceral state.
What are we to make of a society that allows the police to come into a school and arrest, handcuff and haul off a 12-year-old student for doodling on her desk? Even worse, where is the public outrage over a school system that allows a five-year-old kindergarten pupil to be handcuffed and sent to a hospital psychiatric ward for being unruly in a classroom? What does it mean when a society looks the other way when 25 Chicago middle-schoolers ranging in age from 11 to 15 are arrested for a food fight, held for “11 hours at the police station, charged with misdemeanor reckless conduct and later suspended from school for two days? Or when an 11-year-old autistic and cognitively impaired child is repeatedly abused in school by both teachers and security guards? Where is the public outrage when the mainstream media reports that two officers when called to a day care center in central Indiana to handle an unruly 10-year old tasered the child and slapped him in the mouth. This follows another widely reported incident in which a police officer in Arkansas used a stun gun to control and allegedly out-of-control 10-year old girl. One public response came from Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International Inc., who insisted that a “Stun gun can be safely used on children.” Sadly, this is a small sampling of the ways in which children are being punished instead of educated in American schools. All of these examples point to how little regard our society has for young people and the growing number of institutions willing to employ a crime-and-punishment mentality that constitutes not only a crisis of politics, but the emergence of new politics of educating and “governing through crime.”
The abuse of children in and out of schools has become endemic to American society and the culture of cruelty that produces it is increasingly being mimicked by the children who are subject to it daily. Violence, harsh modes of competition, a crippling emphasis on toughness coupled with stripped down forms of pedagogy that confuse training with educating, leave young people unprepared to resist imitating the worst dimensions of the selfish and narcissistic values and behaviors that dominate a consumer, celebrity infatuated society. This moral and political tragedy is made obvious by the many “get tough” policies that have rendered young people as criminals, while depriving them of basic conditions necessary to improve the quality of their lives and future. At the same time, the influence of such policies on the behavior of young people can be seen in the increase in bullying and violence that young people increasingly inflict on each other. As Christopher Robbins has written in his eloquent book, “Expelling Hope,” punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth, not only to the larger social order, but also to each other. Subject to a coming-of-age crisis marked by an ever expanding police order with its paranoid machinery of security, containment and criminalization, many young people are removed from modes of education that should provide them with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to think critically about education, justice and democracy.
At this moment in history, it is more necessary than ever to register youth as a central theoretical, moral and political concern. Doing so reminds adults of their ethical and political responsibility to future generations and will further legitimize what it means to invest in youth as a symbol for nurturing civic imagination and collective resistance in response to the suffering of others. Youth provide a powerful referent for a critical discussion about the long-term consequences of neoliberal policies, while also gesturing toward the need for putting into place those economic, political and cultural institutions that make a democratic future possible.
One way of addressing our collapsing intellectual and moral visions regarding young people is to imagine those policies, values, opportunities and social relations that both 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, the issue at stake here is not a one-off bailout or temporary fix, but real structural reforms. At the very least, this suggests fighting for a child welfare system that would reduce “family poverty by increasing the minimum wage,” and mobilizing for legislation that would institute “a guaranteed income, provide high-quality subsidized child care, preschool education and paid parental leaves for all families.” Young people need a federally funded jobs creation program and wage subsidy that would provide year-round employment for out-of-school youth, and summer jobs that target in-school, low-income youth. Public and higher education, increasingly shaped by corporate and instrumental values must be reclaimed as democratic public spheres committed to teaching young people how to govern rather than merely be governed.
Incarceration should be the last resort, not the first strategy, for dealing with our children. Any viable notion of educational reform must include equitable funding schemes for schools, reinforced by the recognition that the problems facing public schools cannot be solved with corporate solutions or with law enforcement strategies. We need to get the police out of public schools, greatly reduce spending for prisons and military expenditures and hire more teachers, support staff and community people in order to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.
In order to make life livable for young people and others, basic supports must be put in place, such as a system of national health insurance that covers everybody along with provisions for affordable housing. At the very least, we need to lower the age of eligibility for Medicare to 55 in order to keep poor families from going bankrupt. And, of course, none of this will take place unless the institutions, social relations and values that legitimize and reproduce current levels of inequality, power and human suffering are dismantled. The widening gap between the rich and the poor has to be addressed if young people are to have a viable future. And that requires pervasive structural reforms that constitute a real shift in both power and politics away from a market-driven system that views too many children as disposable. We need to reimagine what liberty, equality and freedom might mean as truly democratic values and practices.
As public life is commercialized, commodified and policed, the pathology of individual entitlement and narcissism erodes those public spaces in which the conditions for conscience, decency, self-respect and dignity take root. We need to liberate the discourse and spaces of freedom from the plague of consumer narcissism and casino capitalism and struggle to build those public spaces where democratic ideals, visions and social relations can be nurtured and developed as part of a genuinely meaningful education and politics. The time has come to take seriously the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas, who bravely argued that freedom is an empty abstraction if people fail to act, insisting, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men [and women] who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”
The crisis of youth is symptomatic of the crisis of democracy and, as such, it hails us as much for the threat that it poses as for the challenges and possibilities it invokes. The deteriorating state of American youth, especially poor white and minority youth, may be the most serious challenge the United States will face in the 21st century. It is a struggle that demands a new understanding of politics, one that is infused not only with the language of critique, but also the discourse of possibility. It is a struggle 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 we can win through individual struggles or isolated political movements; it demands new modes of solidarity, new political organizations and a powerful, expansive 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.
. Chris Hedges, “The False Idol of Unfettered Capitalism,” Truthdig (March 16, 2009).
 Peter Dreier, “Bush’s Class Warfare,” The Huffington Post (December 21, 2007). Online: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-dreier/bushs-class-warfare_b_77910.html. As David R. Francis pointed out, “the richest of the rich, the top 1/1,000th, enjoyed a 497 percent gain in wage and salary income between 1972 and 2001. Those at the 99th percentile, who made an average $1.7 million per year in 2001, enjoyed a mere 181 percent gain.” See Francis, “What A New ‘Gilded Age’ May Bring,” The Christian Science Monitor (March 6, 2006). Online: https://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0306/p16s01-coop.html
. Jean-Marie Durand, “For Youth: A Disciplinary Discourse Only,” Truthout, (November 15, 2009) Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher. Online at: https://truthout.org/articles/for-youth-a-disciplinary-discourse-only/
. Frederick. Douglass, “The Significance of Emancipation in the West Indies.” Speech, Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857, collected in pamphlet by author, in “The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews.” Volume 3: 1855-63. Edited by John W. Blassingame. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985). p. 204.