A protest encampment near the heart of the United States' financial capital in New York City started out with a few dozen students and unemployed university graduates.
Within weeks it inspired thousands of New Yorkers to join, and spawned scores of similar protests around the country.
Al Jazeera spoke with Henry Giroux about how young people have been culturally alienated by the political and economic systems of the country widely regarded as the example of democracy, and why the “Occupy” movement needs to stay focused on youth. [Full discosure: Henry Girioux is a member of Truthout's board of directors.]
Giroux is the author of, among others, Youth in a suspect society: Democracy or disposability and Politics after hope: Obama and the crisis of youth, race, and democracy, and is a professor at McMaster University.
Al Jazeera English: I want to get into the nitty-gritty of your analysis of the anger that we're seeing in the growing 'Occupy' protest movement, but first, could you describe your first or gut reaction to the protests?
Henry Giroux: This was, for me, very exciting, because while it doesn't guarantee anything, it certainly marks a beginning that upsets, and, in many ways, challenged a liberal-conservative position that young people in the United States are utterly depoliticised, self absorbed and incapable of engaging in collective politics.
It's interesting to see young people all over the world reacting both to the cruel austerity measures being imposed on the basis of neoliberal economics in France and in Western Europe and in Greece, and also of course the emerging young people fighting authoritarian regimes in the Middle East; and to see that being emulated in the United States to the same degree, given the horrible conditions of young people here, I thought, well, finally the Arab Spring and the European revolts are catching on – the contradictions are becoming so great that at last young people are finding, particularly through the use of new social networks and use of the new media, a way to bypass a dominant press that seems to exhibit nothing but scorn for them.
They [the mainstream media] certainly see them as disposable populations; young people are often defined in the United States as lazy, utterly self absorbed – it goes on and on.
AJE: There have been quite a few critiques of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that it is involving many young people, but that most of them are from European backgrounds – white people – and there is not so much of a representation of young people of colour who could arguably be bearing a much harsher brunt of the US financial crisis.
HG: Alliances take time. The movement barely started two weeks ago. I think this is a classic kind of dismissal – if it's a leftist movement and it doesn't embody every possible angle to make it look as if it's overwhelming in a totalising social movement – then we dismiss it.
I think that many kids who are poor, many kids who are basically seen as ultimately disposable – kids marginalised by race and class – are trying to figure out where their place is in this movement. These kids are generally voiceless, and because they're voiceless, they're powerless. I think that many young people and many organisations are now, particularly as this protest movement is emerging in other cities, sort of waiting back and seeing where the connections are that they can plug into, and how they can mobilise and become part of this movement.
These kids are the most isolated kids. These kids have a lot more obstacles to overcome. There are lots of issues here, but at the same time, I think that the notion of youth as a signifying practice has a pull and has a kind of cache, a cultural capital, a current political currency, that is more than capable of bringing these kids in.
There's something that brings these kids together that is in some way is more powerful even than the class and racial divides that separate them, that is, you have a whole generation that now is being pushed into the waste barrel of history. That's pretty powerful.
I also think that in many ways what these white middle class kids are doing is that they're using a media that a lot of working class kids have access to, so for me the question is open. I'm more than willing to wait and to see the degree to which this becomes more integrated around questions of class and race, particularly as the labour unions get more involved.
AJE: You've mentioned young people a few times, and among a range of the protest participants, young people and university graduates who can't find jobs are especially represented. Why do you think that is?
HG: Traditionally what you have in Western countries is the notion that the future matters and that the premise of democracy, if it's to be taken seriously, has to focus on youth, which become the ultimate symbol of the future.
As the social state disintigrates, what we see here is the rise of a punishing state in which the behaviour of young people is increasingly criminalised. We're filling up jails, we're filling up detention centres, we're filling up prisons with young people. They go right from schools to the jails, and I think that college graduates are realising that, while they may have separated themselves from, basically, kids who are marginalised by class and race, all of a sudden they are feeling the same kind of pressures, and while they may not be going to jail, they are actually being set up for a future in which there is no hope for them. The gap between the rich and the poor is so wide, is so overwhelming, that all the myths that depoliticised them in the past have now come home to roost. They're naked. They're visible. The ultimate toll of class warfare in the United States is not just a matter of what it does to working class people – when you look at what it does to young people, it just cuts off the future. There's no concern with long term investments.
They also recognise that, unlike any generation in the past in the United States, there's a war being waged against young people like we've never seen before – particularly young people who are marginalised by class and race. But there's also something else that I think needs to be said.
The fact of the matter is that the left does not talk about youth. It's ironic that the group that is the most powerless, that is the least represented, is all of a sudden seen as disposable or not worth talking about; and I think young people are fed up with it. There are different elements of young people of course, but I think for the most part what we're seeing now is both a working class and middle class group of young people who are saying: “That's it. We've reached a vanishing point. There's no hope for us under the way in which our society is now being defined by financial and corporate interests. We are the waste of capitalist society.”
It's pretty clear that they have to do it themselves. There isn't an adult generation out there, left, right or liberal, waiting to offer a remedy or make visible what they're experiencing.
AJE: Police have used batons and pepper spray against some protesters in New York, and have arrested more than 800 of them. In your latest article, you describe non-physical government repression in the US – especially within the education system. Can you describe that, in the context of why people are angry enough to camp out for weeks on end in protest?
HG: The theoretical framework for that is that one of the things you have to realise is that democracy doesn't work without the formative culture that makes possible the skills, the knowledge, the ideas, the modes of dialogue, the modes of exchange, that can actually provide the foundation for people to be critical and engaged social and individual agents. If you don't have that formative culture, democracy becomes empty. What you end up with is actually a culture that is so wedded, in this particular case, to a neoliberal logic, that people can only see themselves as individuals, they can only see themselves as competitive, they hate the social state, they have no understanding of solidarity; and what I have been arguing for at least 35 years is that you have to take seriously that education is a fundamental part of politics, and that we're not just talking about schools. We're talking about, as C Wright Mills said, an entire cultural apparatus that now has an enormously educational function. All you have to do is look at Fox News in the US, or look at the right wing takeover of talk radio, which is overwhelming.
The fact is that these media don't entertain, they produce subjectivities, they produce identities, they produce desires, they create framing mechanisms for how people understand politics and their relationship to immigrants and to each other and to a larger global audience. It seems to me that until this question of pedagogy – of the articulation of knowledge through experience and how people relate to the world – until education is seen as a fundamental dimension of politics, we're in real trouble, because if you don't do that you can't understand social media as a profoundly important political educational tool. If you don't do that, you can't understand how people come to internalise understandings of themselves that are at odds with their own possibilities for freedom.
That's why I believe the dominant media finds this movement so threatening. They're hysterical. What it suggests is not that young people are simply protesting. It suggests that they're not buying the crap that comes out of the dominant media, they're challenging it, and secondly, they're setting up their own circuits of knowledge and education. That's frightening to think that young people can actually create a culture in which questions of dialogue, dissent, critical engagement, global responsibility, can come into play – that truly frightens, in my estimation, financial and dominant elites.
AJE: As much as one may argue that the US' idea of democracy is waning or has waned, clearly the US has many more freedoms than many other countries. Do people in the US really have that much to complain about?
HG: I think these protests are making clear that democracy tends to become meaningless if it doesn't also have social and economic freedoms. What I mean by that is that while we certainly have the right to vote and the notion of freedom of expression is operative in the United States, it becomes dysfunctional when people don't have the personal freedoms that would make it possible – when they're poor, when they're homeless, when they don't have health care, when they're living in tent cities, etc.
I think that we have to appreciate those political and individual freedoms, but at the same time we have to recognise that democracy becomes meaningless unless you have economic and social rights – unless you have a social fabric that enables those freedoms to actually become operative. I think this is the lesson that we need to learn.
Rather than being dazzled or romanticising those political and individual freedoms, I think we have to ask ourselves what's going on here that doesn't disqualify those freedoms and rights, but extends them to make the promise of democracy seem workable; and that's a real important lesson to learn.
AJE: Any advice for the protesters?
HG: I think that this movement not only needs to be persistent and to keep going and to spread, it needs to find allies and it needs to narrow its focus in ways that would suggest that there is one or two major kinds of concerns that could take up all these other issues. This is a fight for radical democracy. That's what this is a fight for. Accompanying that are all kinds of issues that would include fighting against economic, political and social injustices. But if they did what these kids did in the Middle East – if they made this question of democracy primary; if they highlighted the difference between the reality and the promise – they could both narrow the focus and to entertain a wide variety of differences. That's where they've got to go.