With all due respect to Charles Dickens, it appears to be the worst of times for public and higher education in America, if not democracy itself; public schools are increasingly viewed as a business and are prized above all for customer satisfaction and efficiency, while largely judged through the narrow lens of empirical accountability measures. When not functioning as an adjunct of corporate value or a potentially lucrative for-profit investment, public schools are reduced to containment centers, holding institutions designed to largely punish young people marginalized by race and class.
No longer merely tracked into low achieving classes, poor white, brown and black youth are now tracked out of school into what is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. Many schools have now become stress centers for the privileged and zones of abandonment for the poor. Public schoolteachers are now viewed as the new “welfare-queens,” while academics are defined less as critical intellectuals and engaged scholars than as a new class or professional entrepreneurs, or worse, simply as low-level technicians reduced to teaching students how to take tests and master work-related skills. At the same time, under strict policies imposed in a number of states by right-wing politicians wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of austerity, higher education at all levels is being radically defunded, while simultaneously being transformed into a credentializing factory restructured according to the values, social relations and governing practices of large corporations. In both public and higher education, ignorance is not merely fostered but embraced through course content, the value of which is almost exclusively defined through a debasing standard in which anything that can’t be quantified is defined as useless. Corporate pedagogy has no use for critical thinking, autonomous subjects, the stretching of the imagination or developing a sense of civic responsibility among students. Teachers who think and act reflectively, ask uncomfortable questions, challenge the scripts of official power and promote a search for the truth while encouraging pedagogy as the practice of freedom, are now viewed as suspect, if not un-American.
At the same time, amid all of the despair and foolishness on the part of right-wing politicians and conservative and corporate interests, it is not entirely clear that a spring of hope is beyond reach. In spite of the ferociousness of the right-wing assault on democratic institutions, values and relations of power, workers and young people are marching and demonstrating all over the globe against the dictates, values and policies of a market-driven economy that has corrupted politics, pushed democracy to its vanishing point and undermined public values. Unions, public schoolteachers, higher education and all of those public spheres necessary to keep civic values alive are being challenged in a way that both baffles and shocks anyone who believes in the ideals and promises of a substantive democracy. In the United States, union-busting politicians such as Govs. Scott Walker (Wisconsin) and Chris Christie (New Jersey) not only want to gut social services and sell them off to the highest bidder, they are also symptomatic of a political fringe movement that wants to destroy the critical culture, dedicated public servants and institutions that offer any sense of vitality, substance and hope to public and higher education in the United States.
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As the meaning of democracy is betrayed by its transformation into a market society, corporate power and money appear unchecked in their ability to privatize, deregulate and destroy all vestiges of public life. America’s military wars abroad are now matched by the war at home; that is, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have found their counterpart in the war against the poor, immigrants, young people, unions, public-sector workers, the welfare state and schoolteachers. The call for shared sacrifices on the part of conservatives and Tea Party extremists becomes code for destroying the social state, preserving and increasing the power of mega-rich corporations and securing the wealth of the top 1 percent of the population with massive tax breaks, while placing the burden of the current global economic meltdown on the shoulders of working people and the poor. Deficit reductions and austerity policies that allegedly address the global economic meltdown caused by the financial hawks running Wall Street now do the real work of stripping teachers of their collective bargaining rights, dismantling programs long associated with social services and relegating young people to mind-deadening schools and a debt-ridden future.
Deficit politics is really just another term for defunding the social state and dismantling social programs and protections while providing tax breaks for the rich. Rarely addressed are the costs of policies designed primarily to move massive amounts of wealth and income into the hands of corporations and the financial elite. How else to explain the attempt on the part of Michigan lawmakers to close a $1.4 billion deficit by enacting legislation “by cutting disability assistance, indigent burial expenses and requiring foster children to spend their $79 clothing allowance only at second-hand stores”?(1) The latter will save the state $200,000, a paltry sum compared to the $1.8 billion in business tax cuts that are driving the collapse in revenue and the Michigan deficit and debt crisis. As the economist James Crotty points out, within a neoliberal culture of cruelty and inequality, politics purposely generates deficits by cutting taxes on the rich and corporations in order to put pressure on politicians “to cut government expenditures, cut social spending, cut the social safety network, cut the things that people need in the country” – in other words, cut all forms of spending associated with the New Deal, the Great Society and other forms of legislation that enforce elements of the social contract.(2)
The real deficit plaguing American politics is ethical, not economic. When matters of equity are removed from the discourse surrounding the ballooning deficit, there is no way of recognizing how the deficit becomes code for pushing an authoritarian ideology that puts up all public goods for sale, dismantles any viable notion of the commons and places the future in the hands of the billionaires’ club. Deficit politics as it is being framed allows Republican Gov. Rick Snyder to unapologetically address the University of Michigan Class of 2011 on the virtue of leadership while, at the same time, pushing through legislation that would cut more than $200 million from the budget for higher education in order to pay for a $1.8 billion tax break for corporations. The lesson here is that leadership has nothing to do with improving the lives of young people and everything to do with feeding the coffers of the rich and powerful. In this scenario, leadership is equated with a flight from moral and social responsibility.
Despair, disposability and unnecessary human suffering now engulf large swaths of the American people, often pushing them into situations that are not merely tragic, but life threatening. A survival-of-the-fittest ethic has replaced any reasonable notion of solidarity, social responsibility and compassion for the other. This is currently evident in the new call to justify torture in light of the Obama administration’s success in killing Osama bin Laden, relegating without shame or any sense of morality the willingness on the part of politicians such as Republican Congressman Peter King, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and others to legitimate the United State as a torture state.
American politics has become a ruthless mode of war for right-wing politicians, pundits and their followers. The spectacle of violence and the culture of cruelty have moved from the margins to the center of political discourse and everyday life. Neither democratic visions nor human rights seem to matter any longer as right-wing Republicans have less interest in argument and persuasion than in bullying their alleged enemies with the use of heavy-handed legislation and, when necessary, dire threats, as when Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker threatened to mobilize the National Guard to prevent teachers’ unions from protesting their possible loss of bargaining rights and a host of anti-worker proposals.
With any viable leadership lacking at the national level, both young people and workers are watching the movements for democracy that are taking place all over the globe, but especially in the volatile Arab nations and in Western European countries such as France, England and Germany. Struggles abroad give Americans a glimpse of what happens when individual solutions to collective problems lose their legitimacy as a central tenet of neoliberal ideology. Massive demonstrations, pitched street battles, nonviolent gatherings, the impressive use of the new media as an alternative political and educational tool and an outburst of long-repressed anger eager for collective action are engulfing many countries across the globe.
In smaller numbers, such protests are also taking place in a number of cities around the United States. Many Americans, including young people, are once again invoking democracy, rejecting its association with the empty formality of voting and its disingenuous use to legitimate and justify political systems that produce massive wealth and income inequality. Democracy’s promises are laying bare the sordid realities that now speak in its name. Its energy is becoming infectious and one can only hope that those who believe that education is the foundation of critical agency, politics and democracy itself will be drawn to the task of fighting America’s move in the last 30 years to a politically and economically authoritarian system.
At issue here is the need for a new vocabulary, vision and politics that will unleash new democratic forces capable of imagining a life and society free of the dictates of endless military wars, boundless material waste, extreme inequality, disposable populations and unfounded human suffering. America has lost its claim on democracy and it is time to analyze the political, economic and cultural forces that have allowed this to happen. We do not need the old relations of power and mode of politics to change American society. Obama’s rhetoric of change has morphed into the discourse of accommodation and bad faith, while the discourse of the right moves closer to an unapologetic mode of authoritarianism that views democracy as a curse and corporate rule as a blessing.
If the legacy of democratic struggle means anything, it is time for the various disparate forces in the United States being crushed by casino capitalism and its cultural institutions and anti-public intellectuals and think tanks to be forcefully challenged. This means that unions, teachers, academics, young people, social workers, parents, and all those diverse groups fighting for democratic change will have to find ways to unite and recognize that what they have in common is the need for a united front to develop the educational and cultural institutions and social movement capable of thinking and acting outside of the established political parties and relations of power. No change will come unless education both within and outside of formal schooling is viewed as central to any viable notion of politics. If real reform is going to happen, it has to put in place a viable, critical, formative culture that supports notions of social citizenship, civic courage, public values, dissent, democratic modes of governing and a genuine belief in freedom, equality and justice. Ideas matter as do the human beings and institutions that make them count and that includes those intellectuals both in and out of schools who bear the responsibility of providing the conditions for Americans of all ages to embrace a vision of the good life as a just life, one that extends the values, practices and vision of democracy to everyone.
We need new public spheres to generate a formative culture of change and justice, and out of that culture we need new social and political movements capable of challenging the market-militaristic-driven politics of the traditional political parties. Democracy has been hijacked by corporate crooks, military thugs and a range of ideological fundamentalists. It is time to recognize that democracy is not merely under siege, but that there is little time left to take it back.
1. Abby Simet, “On Ass-Backward Priorities: The Recession is the Fault of Foster Children and their Hoity Toity Clothes,” Common Dreams.Org (April 29, 2011). Online here.
2. James Crotty, “High Deficits were the Objective of Right Economics,” The Real News (May 7, 2001). Online here.