George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society casts a dark shadow over the United States. As American society has moved from a welfare to a warfare state, the institutions that were once meant to further justice and limit human suffering and misfortune and protect the public from the excesses of the market have been either weakened or abolished. (1) With the withering, if not evisceration, of the social contract, the discourse of social responsibility has been removed from the principles of democratic reform. Disdained by right-wing extremists, democratic principles are withering under a social order marked by a growing lawlessness, a hardening of the culture and the emergence of an unprecedented survival-of-the fittest ethos. This is a mean-spirited ethos that rails against any notion of solidarity and compassion that embraces a respect for others. The consequences of this emerging form of domestic terrorism point to a distinctive mode of authoritarianism emerging in the United States in the 21st century. The crucial issue here is not to highlight simply the replication of anti-democratic ideologies, policies and practices from the past, but to raise serious questions about what this heralds for the future. (2)
After a decade and a half of war abroad, the war has come home, mobilized through a culture of fear, surveillance and violence. As David Packer has observed, violence has become inseparable from justice and lawlessness, and now defines the commanding political, military and economic institutions of the United States. (3) The very idea of violence has metamorphosed into a solution for addressing social problems. For instance, as everyday behavior is criminalized, school children are assaulted by the security personnel, Black youth are killed by the police for making eye contact, and under the pretext of a war on terror, the distinction between civilians and combatants is blurred. Public spheres once considered safe spaces have been transformed into war zones, turning poor urban schools into prisons, cities into training grounds for paramilitarized police forces, and airports into sites of intensive surveillance and security. Hannah Arendt’s notion that the protean origins of totalitarianism have survived “the passing of Hitler and Stalin” and are capable of crystallizing into new forms appears difficult to contest as the United States tips closer to a police state. John Whitehead captures this perfectly. He writes:
You might walk past a police officer outfitted in tactical gear, holding an assault rifle, or drive past a police cruiser scanning license plates. There might be a surveillance camera on the street corner tracking your movements. At the airport, you may be put through your paces by government agents who will want to either pat you down or run scans of your body. And each time you make a call or send a text message, your communications will most likely be logged and filed. When you return home, you might find that government agents have been questioning your neighbors about you, as part of a “census” questionnaire. After you retire to sleep, you might find yourself awakened by a SWAT team crashing through your door (you’ll later discover they were at the wrong address), and if you make the mistake of reaching for your eyeglasses, you might find yourself shot by a cop who felt threatened. (4)
You don’t have to be in jail to feel imprisoned.
The basic elements of this new neoliberal authoritarianism can also be seen in the ongoing and ruthless assault on the social state, unions, higher education, workers, students, poor minority youth and any vestige of the social contract. Free-market policies, values and practices with their emphasis on the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of social protections and the deregulation of economic activity now shape practically every commanding political and economic institution in both countries. Markets now use their economic and ideological resources to weaponize and militarize all aspects of everyday life. This militarized status quo is increasingly held in place by a culture of fear, a pedagogy of repression, a banal celebrity culture, game show aesthetics and a politics of precarity, control and mass surveillance. A world of shadows, secrecy, and lawlessness now characterizes a deep state that is ruthless in its pursuit of wealth and power and indifferent to its plundering of both humanity and the planet.
Terror is nearly all-encompassing and disguises itself in the normalization of greed, the exaltation of the spectacle of violence, and a corporate controlled consumer-soma machine that inoculates the public with an addiction to instant gratification. We don’t see the work camps or death camps that characterized the catastrophes of mid-century totalitarian regimes. But you don’t have to be in jail to feel imprisoned, especially when it is increasingly difficult to take to take control of one’s life and means in a meaningful way.
We live at a time when politics is nation-based and power is global. (5) Global markets now trump the national rendering of the political culture and make the institutions of modernity obsolete. The financial elite now float beyond national borders and no longer care about the welfare state, the common good, or for that matter any institution not subordinated to the dictates of finance capitalism. Hence, the ruling elites make no concessions in their pursuits of power and profits. The social contract of the past, especially in the United States, is now on life support as social provisions are cut, pensions are decimated and the certainty of a once secure job disappears. Many neoliberal societies are now governed by politicians and financial elites who no longer believe in social investments and are more than willing to condemn young people and others – often paralyzed by the precariousness and instability that haunts their lives and future – to a savage form of casino capitalism.
Deregulation, privatization, commodification and the unimpeded flow of capital now drive politics and concentrate power in the hands of the 1%. Class warfare has merged with neoconservative polices to engage in permanent warfare both abroad and at home. There are no safe spaces free from the rich hoarders of capital and the tentacles of the surveillance and punishing state. The basic imperatives of casino capitalism – extending from eliminating corporate taxes and shifting wealth from the public to the private sector to dismantling corporate regulations and insisting that markets should govern all of social life – have become the new common sense. Any viable notion of the social solidarity and shared democratic values are now viewed as a pathology, replaced by a survival of the fittest ethic, the celebration of self-interest and a notion of the good life entirely tied to a vapid consumerist ethic. (6)
With the return of the new Gilded Age, not only are democratic institutions, values and social protections at risk in many countries, but the civic, pedagogical and formative cultures that make them central to democratic life are in danger of disappearing altogether. Poverty, joblessness, low-wage work and the threat of state-sanctioned violence produce among many populations the ongoing fear of a life of perpetual misery and an ongoing struggle simply to survive. Insecurity, coupled with a climate of fear and surveillance, dampens dissent and promotes an ethical tranquilization fed daily by the mobilization of moral panics, whether they reference the violence of lone domestic terrorists, immigrants swarming across borders or gay people seeking marriage certificates.
Neoliberalism’s War Against Critical Thought
Underlying the rise of the authoritarian state and the forces that hide in the shadows is a politics indebted to promoting historical and social amnesia. The new authoritarianism is strongly indebted to what Orwell once called a “protective stupidity” that negates political life and divests language of its critical content. (7) Neoliberal authoritarianism has changed the language of politics and everyday life through a malicious public pedagogy that turns reason on its head and normalizes a culture of fear, war, surveillance and exploitation. That is, the heavy hand of Orwellian control is evident in those dominant cultural apparatuses that extend from schools to print, audio and screen cultures, which now serve as disimagination machines attacking any critical notion of politics that makes a claim to be educative in its attempts to enable the conditions for changing “the ways in which people might think critically.” (8)
Higher education represents one area where neoliberalism wages war on any field of study that might encourage students to think critically. One egregious example was on full display in North Carolina, where Republican Party members – who control the Board of Governors – decimated higher education in that state by voting to cut 46 degree programs. One member defended such cuts with the comment, “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.” (9) This is more than an example of crude economic instrumentalism, it is also a recipe for instituting an academic culture of thoughtlessness and a kind of stupidity receptive to what Hannah Arendt once called totalitarianism. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has worked hard to eliminate tenure at Wisconsin’s public universities as well as eviscerate any vestige of shared governance. (10) He also cut $200 million from the state higher education budget, which is not surprising given his hatred of public education.
Both of these examples point to a new breed of politician waging war on higher education, critical pedagogy, the public good and any viable notion of the social state. Like many of their politically extremist colleagues, they reflect a crudely harsh authoritarian era that exhibits zero tolerance for economic, social and racial justice, and “infinite tolerance for the crimes of bankers and government embezzlers which affect the lives of millions.” (11) Under such conditions, material violence is now matched by symbolic violence, as made evident by the proliferation of images, institutions and narratives that legitimize not only the manufactured ignorance of market-driven culture and its corollary worship of wealth, celebrity and a political and consumer culture that craves instant gratification, but also what might be called an expanding politics of disposability.
Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse of the welfare state, a pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth and a take-no-prisoners market-driven ideology, an increasing number of individuals and groups – especially young people, low-income groups and people of color – are being demonized, criminalized or simply abandoned, either by virtue of their inability to participate in rituals of consumption due to low-paying jobs, poor health or pressing family needs. What Joao Biehl has called “zones of social abandonment” now accelerate the disposability of the unwanted. (12) The injuries of class are now compounded by injuries directed at immigrants, gays, poor minorities, and women. Daily debasements create a perpetual climate of fear, insecurity and a range of illnesses extending from heart attacks, suicide and mental illness to imprisonment. For example, low-income youth and youth of color, especially, are often warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps, dispersed to dank and dangerous work places, incarcerated in prisons that privilege punishment over rehabilitation, or consigned to the increasing army of the permanently unemployed. Human misery and systemic violence are now built into the nervous system of the United States. No one is compelled to stare; there is no shock of recognition; no inclination to act against a perceived injustice. There is just the fog of resignation, complacency and normalcy waiting to be ruptured by the rage that comes with people being humiliated, exploited, assaulted, bound and gagged for too long.
Human misery and systemic violence are now built into the nervous system of the United States.
People who were once viewed as facing dire problems in need of state intervention and social protection are now seen as a problem threatening society. With successive waves of get-tough-on-crime policy, the war on poverty has become a war against the poor. Even 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. Yet criminalizing the homeless for crimes such as falling asleep in public “does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future.” (13) If mass incarceration is one index of an emerging punishing state, another register is when government budgets for prison construction eclipse funds for higher education.
Already disenfranchised by virtue of their age, young people are under assault in ways that are entirely new because they now face a world that is far more precarious than at any other time in recent history. Not only do many of them live in a space of social homelessness in which austerity and a politics of uncertainty lock them out of a secure future, they also find themselves inhabiting a society that seeks to silence them as it makes them invisible. Victims of a neoliberal regime that smashes their hopes and attempts to exclude them from the fruits of democracy, young people are now told not to expect too much. Written out of any claim to the economic and social resources of the larger society, they are increasingly told to accept the status of being “stateless, faceless, and functionless” nomads, a plight for which they alone have to accept responsibility. (14) Increasing numbers of youth suffer mental anguish and overt distress, including among the college-bound, the debt-ridden and unemployed whose numbers are growing exponentially. Many reports claim that “young Americans are suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and even suicide. For example, “One out of every five young people and one out of every four college students … suffers from some form of diagnosable mental illness.” (15)
The politics of disposability with its expanding machineries of civic and social death, terminal exclusion and zones of abandonment represent a dangerous historical moment, and must be addressed within the context of a market-driven society that is rewriting the meaning of common sense, agency, desire and politics itself. Post-2008 recession, the capitalist dream machine is back with huge profits for hedge fund managers, major players in the financial service industries and the denizens of the ultra-rich. In these new landscapes of wealth, exclusion and fraud, the commanding institutions of casino capitalism promote a winner-take-all ethos and aggressively undermine a more egalitarian distribution of wealth via corporate taxation. In addition, the financial elite defund crucial social services – such as the food stamp programs for poor children, attack labor unions, LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive rights – while waging a counterrevolution against the principles of social citizenship and democracy. In this instance, the war on the poor, women, Black youth, immigrants and labor is part of the war on democracy, and signifies a new thrust toward what might be called the authoritarian rule of corporate sovereignty and governance.
Sanctioned Lawlessness and Cruelty
Politics and power are now on the side of legally protected lawlessness, as is evident in the state’s endless violations of civil liberties, freedom of speech and many constitutional rights, mostly done in the name of national security. Lawlessness wraps itself in government dictates, as is evident in such policies as the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Commissions Act and a host of other legal illegalities. These would include the “right of the president to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists” (16); to use secret evidence to detain individuals indefinitely; to develop a massive surveillance apparatus to monitor every audio and electronic communication used by citizens who have not committed a crime; to employ state torture against those considered enemy combatants; and block the courts from prosecuting those officials who commit such heinous crimes. (17) In reading Orwell’s dystopia, what becomes clear is that his nightmarish future has become our present, and there is more under assault than simply the individual’s right to privacy.
George Orwell’s nightmarish future has become our present, and there is more under assault than simply the individual’s right to privacy.
Power in its most oppressive forms is deployed not only by various repressive government policies and intelligence agencies, but also through a predatory and market-driven culture that turns violence into entertainment, foreign aggression into video games and domestic violence into a goose-stepping celebration of masculinity and unbridled militarism. At the same, time the increasing circulation of public narratives and public displays of cruelty and moral indifference continue to maim and suffocate the exercise of reason and social responsibility. What we have been witnessing in the United States since the 1980s – and the Reagan-Thatcher disavowal of all things social – is a kind of hardening of the culture marked by an increasing indifference to matters of empathy and an erasure of ethical considerations.
Evidence of such cruelty is everywhere. We see it in the words of West Virginia Republican lawmaker Ray Canterbury who, without irony, added a requirement to a bill intended to end child hunger a provision in which school children would be forced to work in exchange for free school meals. As he put it, “I think it would be a good idea if perhaps we had the kids work for their lunches: trash to be taken out, hallways to be swept, lawns to be mowed, make them earn it.” (18) Newt Gingrich has made a similar argument; one that is even crueler, if that is possible. At a 2011 speech given at Harvard University, he argued that it was time to relax child labor laws, which he called “truly stupid.” (19) It gets worse. He linked this suggestion to the call for “getting rid of unionized janitors … and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the school, they’d begin the process of rising.” (20) This policy suggestion is more than “Dickensian”; it is draconian and suggests a deep disrespect for working people and a lack of knowledge regarding what school janitors actually do. Gingrich mimics a neoliberal ideology that separates economic actions from social costs. He seems to be clueless about whether nine- and thirteen-year-olds could perform work that is often back-breaking, brutalizing and sometimes dangerous, including tasks such as working with hazardous chemicals, fixing basic plumbing and cleaning floors and toilets. To impose this type of work on poor children who allegedly need it to teach them something about character borders on insanity. At the same time, Gingrich seems to clueless about keeping poor children in school and has no qualms about putting school janitors out of work as if they don’t need to make a living wage to pay hospital bills and “put food on the table for their own children.” (21)
Neoliberalism has produced a broad landscape of cruelty, precarity and disposability. We see and hear it in the words of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who stated without apology, “that he doesn’t believe the United States should have a Muslim president because Islam is inconsistent with the Constitution.” (22) There is also the now-notorious example of Donald Trump, who infamously stated that Mexican immigrants are largely “rapists” and “drug dealers.” The culture of cruelty and the hatred that promotes it appears to be completely divorced from any sense of reality, social responsibility or reason. For instance, Andy Kessler, a wealthy hedge fund operator, insisted that homeless shelters generate poverty because they bring people into a web of dependency. (23) As Eleanor Goldberg states, “So, according to Kessler, the reason why 1.6 million people in America don’t have a place to sleep at night is because spoiled teens determined to get into Brown (with their service-heavy resumes) are giving them enough food to eat to keep them from needing to get jobs.” (24)
There is more at stake here than the ignorant babble of insulated rich folks; there is also a type of behavior on display reminiscent of Christian Bale’s character Patrick Bateman – the wealthy investment banker in the film American Psycho. More recently, there was the egregious case of the insufferable Martin Shkreli, the 32-year-old chief executive of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who raised by 5,000 percent a drug used by patients affected with HIV and cancer. The price of a pill went from $13.50 to $750.00, imposing an enormous financial hardship on patients requiring the drug to fight potentially deadly infections. Shkreli, who has been quoted as saying he likes money more than people, responded initially to criticism of price gouging with a quote from an Eminem song. In a verse that now passes for public exchange, he tweeted: “And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me. So I point one back at em, but not the index or pinkie.”
Another instance of the culture of cruelty can be seen in the high-octane and unethical grammars of violence that now offer the only currency with any enduring value for mediating relationships, addressing problems and offering instant pleasure in the larger culture. This is evident in the transformation of local police forces into SWAT teams, schools modeled after prisons and in the ongoing criminalization of social behaviors, especially of poor youth of color. Brute force and savage killings replayed over and over in various media platforms now function as part of an autoimmune system that transforms the economy of genuine pleasure into a mode of sadism that saps democracy of any political substance and moral vitality, even as the body politic appears to weaken itself by cannibalizing its own young. Needless to say, extreme violence is more than a spectacle for upping the pleasure quotient of those disengaged from politics; it is also part of a punishing machine that spends more on putting poor minorities in jail than on educating them.
As US society become more militarized, “civil society organizes itself for the production of violence.” (25) As a result, the capillaries of militarization feed and mold social institutions extending across the body politics – from the schools to local police forces. In the United States, local police forces in particular, have been outfitted with full riot gear, submachine guns, armored vehicles and other lethal weapons imported from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforcing their mission to assume battle-ready behavior. Is it any wonder that violence – rather than painstaking neighborhood police work and community outreach and engagement – becomes the norm for dealing with many youth, especially at a time when more and more behaviors are being criminalized?
The police in too many cities have been transformed into soldiers, just as dialogue and community policing have been replaced by military-style practices that are way out of proportion to the crimes the police are trained to address. For instance, The Economist reported that,
SWAT teams were deployed about 3,000 times in 1980, but are now used around 50,000 times a year. Some cities use them for routine patrols in high-crime areas. Baltimore and Dallas have used them to break up poker games. (26)
Such egregious uses of police time as taxpayer dollars would appear unbelievable if they weren’t so savage.
In the advent of the recent display of police force in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, it is not surprising that the impact of the rapid militarization of local police on poor Black communities is nothing short of terrifying, and yet deeply symptomatic of the violence that takes place in authoritarian societies. For instance, Michelle Alexander exposes the racist nature of the punishing state by pointing out that, “There are more African American adults under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” (27) When young Black boys and girls see people in their neighborhood killed by the police for making eye contact, holding a toy gun, walking in a stairway or for selling cigarettes while “the financial elite go free for a bookmaking operation that almost brought the country to economic ruin,” not only do the police lose their legitimacy, so do established norms of lawfulness and modes of governance. (28)
In terms reminiscent of Orwell, morality loses its emancipatory possibilities and degenerates into a pathology in which individual misery is denounced as a moral failing. Under the neo-Darwinian ethos of survival of the fittest, the ultimate form of entertainment becomes the pain and humiliation of others, especially those considered disposable and powerless. They populate the stories we are now hearing from US politicians who disdain the poor and see poverty as a result of immorality. Jeb Bush echoes this argument in his claim that if he were elected president, he wouldn’t be giving Black people “free stuff, (29) drawing on racist stereotypes about Black Americans being lazy and “plagued by pathological dependence.” (30) These narratives can also be heard from conservative pundits such as New York Times columnist David Brooks, who insists that poverty is a matter of the poor lacking virtue, middle-class norms and decent moral codes. (31) For Brooks, the problems of the poor and disadvantaged can be solved “through moral education and self-reliance … high-quality relationships and strong familial ties.” (32)
In this discourse, soaring inequality in wealth and income, high levels of unemployment, stagnant economic growth and low wages for millions of working Americans are willfully glossed over and covered up. What Brooks, Bush and other conservatives consistently obfuscate is the racist nature of the drug war, police violence, the stranglehold of the criminal legal system on poor Black communities, the egregious effect of “racially skewed patterns of mass incarceration,” mass unemployment for underserved youth and poor quality education in low income neighborhoods. (33) Paul Krugman gets it right in rebutting the argument that all the poor need are the virtues of middle class morality and a good dose of resilience. (34) He counters: “The poor don’t need lectures on morality, they need more resources – which we can afford to provide – and better economic opportunities, which we can also afford to provide through everything from training and subsidies to higher minimum wages.” (35)
As the claims and promises of a neoliberal utopia have been transformed into an Orwellian nightmare, the United States continues to succumb to the pathology of financial speculation, political corruption, the redistribution of wealth upward into the hands of the 1%, the rise of the surveillance state and the use of the criminal legal system as a way of dealing with social problems. At the same time, Orwell’s sinister fantasy of an authoritarian future continues without enough massive opposition. Students, low-income whites and poor youth of color are exposed to a low-intensity war in which they are held hostage to a future of low expectations, police violence, an atomizing consumer culture, a growing anti-intellectualism and religious fundamentalism in society, corporate and government modes of surveillance and the burden of extreme debt. Higher education no longer models itself, however weakly, after a public good or as a protective space to think critically, question, engage in thoughtful dialogue and learn how to hold power accountable. It now functions as part of the “higher education to corporate pipeline.” (36)
No democracy can survive the kind of inequality in which “the 400 richest people … have as much wealth as 154 million Americans combined, that’s 50 percent of the entire country (while) the top economic 1 percent of the U.S. population now has a record 40 percent of all wealth and more wealth than 90 percent of the population combined.” (37) On a global scale, according to a study by anti-poverty charity Oxfam, the wealthiest 1% are expected to own more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth by 2016. (38) Within such iniquitous conditions of power, access and wealth, a society cannot foster a sense of organized responsibility fundamental to a democracy. Instead, it encourages a sense of organized irresponsibility – a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism and civic corruption at the heart of a debased politics.
The Role of Education
What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social has been individualized, emotional life collapses into the therapeutic and education is relegated to either a private affair or to a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation in which everything is reduced to a desired measureable outcome? How might education function to reclaim a notion of the democratic imagination and the importance of the social under a system that celebrates and normalizes the assumption that individuals are “greedy, self-interested animals (and that) we must reward greedy, self-interested behaviour to create a rational and efficient economic system?” (39) There is more at work here than a pedagogy of repression – there is an ideology that flirts dangerously with irrationality and removes itself from any vestige of solidarity, compassion and care for the other or the planet.
Feedback loops now replace politics, and the concept of “revolution” is defined through the culture of measurement and efficiency.
Feedback loops now replace politics, and the concept of “revolution” is defined through the culture of measurement and efficiency. (40) In a culture drowning in a new love affair with empiricism and data collecting, that which is not measurable – such as compassion, vision, the imagination, care for the other and a passion for justice – withers. In its place emerges what Goya called in one of his engravings “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monster.” Goya’s title is richly suggestive, particularly about the role of education and pedagogy in compelling students to be able to recognize, as my colleague David Clark points out, “that an inattentiveness to the never-ending task of critique breeds horrors: the failures of conscience, the wars against thought and the flirtations with irrationality that lie at the heart of the triumph of everyday aggression, the withering of political life and the withdrawal into private obsessions.” (41)
What is not so hidden about the tentacles of power that are clumsily tucked behind the vacuous claims to democratic governance manifest in the rise of a punishing state and a totalitarian paranoia in which everyone is considered a potential terrorist or criminal. How else to explain the increasing criminalization of social problems, ranging from homelessness and the failure of the poor to pay off court costs, to say nothing of arresting students for trivial infractions such as doodling on a desk or throwing peanuts at a bus, all of which can land the most vulnerable in jail. In fact, I have long argued that there is both a hard war and a soft war being waged against young people. The hard war is taking place in many schools, which now resemble prisons in light of their lockdown procedures, zero tolerance policies, metal detectors and the increasing presence of police in the schools. (42)
The soft war is the war of consumerism and finance. Partnered with a massive advertising machinery and variety of corporate institutions, the soft war targets all youth by treating them as yet another “market” to be commodified and exploited, while attempting to create a new generation of hyper-consumers. The soft war is waged by a commercial culture that commodifies every aspect of kids’ lives, while teaching them that their only responsibility to citizenship is to consume. A more subtle form of this type of repression burdens and normalizes them with a lifetime of debt and does everything possible to depoliticize them and remove them from being able to imagine a more just and different society. In the United States, the average student graduates with a loan debt of $27,000. Debt bondage is the ultimate disciplinary technique of casino capitalism to rob students of the time to think, dissuade them from entering public service and reinforce the debased assumption that they should simply be efficient cogs in a consumer economy.
The Promise of Radical Democracy
If neoliberal authoritarianism is to be challenged and overcome, it is crucial that intellectuals, unions, workers, young people and various social movements unite to reclaim democracy as a central element in fashioning a radical imagination. Such action necessitates interrogating and rupturing the material and symbolic forces that hide behind a counterfeit claim to participatory democracy. This requires rescuing the promises of a radical democracy that can provide a living wage, quality health care for all, public works and massive investments in education, child care, housing for the poor, along with a range of other crucial social provisions that can make a difference between living and dying for those who have been relegated to the ranks of the disposable.
The growing global threat of neoliberal authoritarianism signals both a crisis of politics and a crisis of beliefs, values and individual and social agency. One indication of such a crisis is the fact that the economic calamity of 2008 has not been matched by a shift in ideas about the nature of finance capital and its devastating effects on US society. Banks got bailed out, and those everyday Americans who lost their houses bore the brunt of the crisis. The masters of finance capital were not held accountable for their crimes, and many of them received huge bonuses paid for by US taxpayers. Matters of education must be at the heart of any viable notion of politics, meaning that education must be at the center of any attempt to change consciousness – not just the ways in which people think, but also how they act and construct relationships to others and the larger world. Americans seem to have forgotten that the fate of democracy is inextricably linked to the profound crisis of knowledge, critical thinking and agency. As education is removed from the demands of civic culture, it undermines the political, ethical and governing conditions for individuals and social groups to participate in politics. Under such circumstances, knowledge is commodified, contingent faculty replace full-time tenured faculty, governance is removed from faculty control, the culture of higher education is replaced by the culture of business and students are viewed as customers. Consequently, higher education no longer is viewed as a public good or a place where students can imagine themselves as thoughtful and socially responsible citizens, and furthers the destructions of the formative culture that makes a democratizing politics possible.
Politics is an imminently educative task, and it is only through such recognition that initial steps can be taken to challenge the powerful ideological and affective spaces through which market fundamentalism produces the desires, identities and values that bind people to its forms of predatory governance. The noxious politics of historical, social and political amnesia and the public pedagogy of the disimagination machine must be challenged and disassembled if there is any hope of creating meaningful alternatives to the dark times in which we live. Young people need to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, but in addition, they need to become cultural producers who can produce their own narratives about their relationship to the larger world, what it means to sustain public commitments, develop a sense of compassion for others, locally and globally.
Until politics can be made meaningful in order to be made critical and transformative, there will be no significant opposition to casino capitalism.
But the question remains regarding how a public largely indifferent to politics and often paralyzed by the need to survive, and caught in a crippling cynicism can be moved from “an induced state of stupidity” to a political formation willing to engage in various modes of resistance extending from “mass protests to prolonged civil disobedience.” (43) This terrifying intellectual and moral paralysis must be offset by the development of alternative public spheres in which educators, artists, workers, young people and others can change the terms of the debate in US culture and politics. Ideas matter, but they wither without institutional infrastructures in which they can be nourished, debated and acted upon. Any viable struggle against casino capitalism must focus on those forms of domination that pose a threat to public spheres, such as public and higher education and the new media, that are essential to developing the critical formative cultures, identities and desires that nourish modes of engaged thinking necessary for a the production of critically engaged citizens.
If such a politics is to make any difference, it must be worldly; that is, it must incorporate a critical disposition that both addresses social problems and tackles the conditions necessary for modes of democratic political exchange that enable new forms of agency, power, and collective struggle. Until politics can be made meaningful in order to be made critical and transformative, there will be no significant opposition to casino capitalism.
A Pedagogy of Educated Hope
I want to conclude by pointing to a few initiatives, though incomplete, that might mount a challenge to the current oppressive historical conjuncture in which many Americans now find themselves. (44) In doing so, I want to address what I have attempted to map as a crisis of memory, agency and education, and reclaim what I call a pedagogy of educated hope that is central to any viable notion of change that I am suggesting.
First, there is a need for what can be called a revival of the radical imagination and the defense of the public good, especially higher education, in order to reclaim its egalitarian and democratic impulses. This call would be part of a larger project “to reinvent democracy in the wake of the evidence that, at the national level, there is no democracy – if by ‘democracy’ we mean effective popular participation in the crucial decisions affecting the community.” (45) One step in this direction would be for young people, intellectuals, scholars and others to go on the offensive against a conservative led campaign “to end higher education’s democratizing influence on the nation” (46) Higher education should be harnessed neither to the demands of the warfare state nor the instrumental needs of corporations. Clearly, in any democratic society, education should be viewed as a right, not an entitlement. We need to produce a national conversation in which higher education can be defended as a public good.
Politically, this suggests defining higher education as a democratic public sphere, and rejecting the notion that the culture of education is synonymous with the culture of business. Pedagogically, this points to modes of teaching and learning capable of producing an informed public, enacting and sustaining a culture of questioning and enabling a critical formative culture that advances at least in the schools what Kristen Case calls “moments of classroom grace.” (47) Pedagogies of classroom grace should provide the conditions for students and others to reflect critically on commonsense understandings of the world, and begin to question, however troubling, their sense of agency, relationship to others and their relationships to the larger world. This can be linked to broader pedagogical imperatives that ask why we have wars, massive inequality, a surveillance state, the commodification of everything and the collapse of the public into the private. This is not merely a methodical consideration but also a moral and political practice because it presupposes the creation of critically engaged students who can imagine a future in which justice, equality, freedom, and democracy matter. In this instance, the classroom should be a space of grace – a place to think critically, ask troubling questions and take risks, even though that may mean transgressing established norms and bureaucratic procedures.
Second, young people and progressives need to develop a comprehensive educational program that would include a range of pedagogical initiatives from developing a national online news channel to creating alternative schools for young people in the manner of the diverse democratically inspired schools, such as Highlander under Miles Horton, the Workers College in New York, and a host of other alternative educational institutions. Such a pedagogical task would enable a sustained critique of the transformation of a market economy into a market society along with a clear analysis of the damage it has caused both at home and abroad. What is crucial to recognize here is that it is not enough to teach students to be able to interrogate critically screen culture and other forms of aural, video and visual forms of representations. They must also learn how to be cultural producers. This suggests developing alternative public spheres, such as online journals, television shows, newspapers, zines and any other platform in which alternative positions can be developed. In addition, such tasks can be done by mobilizing the technological resources and platforms they already have. It also means working with one foot in existing cultural apparatuses in order to promote alternative ideas and views that would challenge the affective and ideological spaces produced by the financial elite who control the commanding institutions of public pedagogy in North America. What is often lost by many educators and progressives is that popular culture is a powerful source of education for many young people, and yet it is rarely addressed as a serious source of knowledge. As Stanley Aronowitiz has observed, “theorists and researchers need to link their knowledge of popular culture, and culture in the anthropological sense – that is, everyday life, with the politics of education.” (48)
Third, academics, artists, community activists, young people and parents must engage in an ongoing struggle for the right of students to be given a formidable and critical education not dominated by corporate values, and for young people to have a say in the shaping of their education and what it means to expand and deepen the practice of freedom and democracy. Young people have been left out of the discourse of democracy. They are the new disposable people who lack jobs, a decent education, hope and any semblance of a future better than the one their parents inherited. Facing what Richard Sennett calls the “spectre of uselessness,” they are a reminder of how finance capital has abandoned any viable vision of the future, including one that would support future generations. This is a mode of politics and capital that eats its own children and throws their fate to the vagaries of the market. The ecology of finance capital only believes in short term investments because they provide quick returns. Under such circumstances, young people who need long-term investments are considered a liability. If any society is in part judged by how it views and treats its children, the United States by all accounts is truly failing in a colossal way. At the same time, if young people are to receive a critical and comprehensive education, academics must take on the role of public intellectuals, becoming capable of the critical appropriation of a variety of intellectual traditions and also able to relate their scholarship to wider social problems.
Fourth, casino capitalism is so widespread that progressives need to develop a comprehensive vision of politics that “does not rely on single issues.” (49) It is only through an understanding of the wider relations and connections of power that young people and others can overcome uninformed practice, isolated struggles and modes of singular politics that become insular and self-sabotaging. In short, moving beyond a single-issue orientation to politics means developing modes of analyses that connect the dots historically and relationally. It also means developing a more comprehensive vision of politics and change. The key here is the notion of translation; that is, the need to translate private troubles into broader public issues and understand how systemic modes of analyses can be helpful in connecting a range of issues so as to be able to build a united front in the call for a radical democracy.
This is a particularly important goal given that the fragmentation of the left has been partly responsible for its inability to develop a wide political and ideological umbrella to address a range of problems extending from extreme poverty, the assault on the environment, the emergence of the permanent warfare state, the roll back of voting rights and the assault on public servants, women’s rights and social provisions, and a range of other issues that erode the possibilities for a radical democracy. The dominating mechanisms of casino capitalism in both their symbolic and material registers reach deeply into every aspect of US society. Any successful movement for the defense of public goods and democracy itself will have to struggle against this new mode of authoritarianism, rather than isolating and attacking specific elements of its anti-democratic ethos.
One important development is that Black youth, among other concerned young Americans, are currently making real strides in moving beyond sporadic protests, short-lived demonstrations, and non-violent street actions in the hopes of building sustained political movements. Groups such as Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project, We Charge Genocide, Dream Defenders and others represent a new and growing political force that are not only connecting police violence to larger structures of militarism throughout society, they are also reclaiming public memory by articulating a direct link “between the establishment of professional police systems in the United States (and) the patrolling systems that maintained the business of human bondage in chattel slavery.” (50)
Fifth, another serious challenge facing advocates of a new truly democratic social order is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility or what I have called a discourse of educated hope. Critique is important and is crucial to break the hold of common-sense assumptions that legitimate a wide range of injustices. The language of critique is also crucial for making visible the workings of unequal power and the necessity of holding authority accountable. But critique is not enough and without a discourse of hope, it can lead to a paralyzing despair or, even worse, a crippling cynicism. Hope speaks to imagining a life beyond capitalism, and combines a realistic sense of limits with a lofty vision of demanding the impossible. As Ernst Bloch once insisted, reason, justice and change cannot blossom without hope, because educated hope taps into our deepest experiences and longing for a life of dignity with others, a life in which it becomes possible to imagine a future that does not mimic the present. I am not referring to a romanticized and empty notion of hope, but to a notion of informed hope that faces the concrete obstacles and realities of domination but continues the ongoing task of “holding the present open and thus unfinished.” (51)
The discourse of possibility not only looks for productive solutions. It also is crucial in defending those public spheres in which civic values, public scholarship and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity and civic courage. Democracy should encourage, even require, a way of thinking critically about education, one that connects equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. Casino capitalism is a toxin that has created a predatory class of unethical zombies who are producing dead zones of the imagination that even Orwell could not have envisioned, while waging a fierce fight against the possibilities of a democratic future. The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency and an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet. Educators, artists, youth, intellectuals and others must refuse to succumb to the authoritarian forces that are circling US society, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. History is open, and as James Baldwin once insisted, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
An earlier and shorter version of this piece appeared in Counterpunch.
1. This theme is taken up powerfully by a number of theorists. See C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York: Norton, 1974); Zygmunt Bauman, In Search of Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Henry A. Giroux, Public Spaces, Private Lives (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001).
2. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters, (New York: Integrated Publishing Solutions, 2006), p. 17
3. George Packer, “Dark Hours,” The New Yorker, (July 20, 2015). Online: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/dark-hours
4. John Whitehead, “Paranoia, Surveillance and Military Tactics: Have We Become Enemies of the Government?, The Rutherford Institute (February 17, 2014). Online: https://www.rutherford.org/publications_resources/john_whiteheads_commentary/paranoia_surveillance_and_military_tactics_have_we_become_enemies_of_t
5. Zygmunt Bauman and Carlo Bordoni, State of Crisis (London: Polity Press, 2014).
6. For an excellent analysis of contemporary forms of neoliberalism, Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011, pp. 705-728; see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).
7. Orville Schell, “Follies of Orthodoxy,” What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, (New York, NY: Perseus Books Group, 2007), xviii
8. Zoe Williams, “The Saturday Interview: Stuart Hall,” The Guardian (February 11, 2012). Online:http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2012/feb/11/saturday-interview-stuart-hall
9. Andy Thomason, “As Degrees Are Cut, Critics continue to Decry Dismantling of U. of North Carolina,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (May 27, 2015). Online: http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/as-degrees-are-cut-critics-continue-to-decry-dismantling-of-u-of-north-carolina/99587
10. Monica Davey and Tamar Lewinjune, “Unions Subdued, Scott Walker Turns to Tenure at Wisconsin Colleges,” New York Times (June 4, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/05/us/politics/unions-subdued-scott-walker-turns-to-tenure-at-wisconsin-colleges.html?_r=0
11. Alain Badiou, The Rebirth of History, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2012), pp. 18-19
12. Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Berkeley: University of California Press,2005).
13. Bill Boyarsky, “Go Directly to Jail: Punishing the Homeless for Being Homeless,” TruthDig, (September 10, 2015) Online at: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/go_directly_to_jail_punishing_the_homeless_for_beinghomeless_20150910
14. Zygmunt Bauman, Wasted Lives (London: Polity Press, 2004), p. 76-77.
15. Therese J. Borchard. “Statistics About College Depression,” World of Psychology (September 2, 2010). Online: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/09/02/statistics-about-college-depression/; Allison Vuchnich and Carmen Chai, “Young Minds: Stress, anxiety plaguing Canadian youth,” Global News (May 6, 2013). Online: http://globalnews.ca/news/530141/young-minds-stress-anxiety-plaguing-canadian-youth/
16. Jonathan Turley, “10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free,” The Washington Post, (January 13, 2012). Online: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-01-13/opinions/35440628_1_individual-rights-indefinite-detention-citizens
17. For a clear expose of the emerging surveillance state, see Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide (New York: Signal, 2014); Julia Angwin, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (New York: Times Books, 2014); Heidi Boghosian, Spying on Democracy: Government Surveillance, Corporate Power, and Public Resistance (City Lights Books, 2013).
18. Hannah Groch-Begley, “Fox Asks If Children Should Work For School Meals,” Media Matters, (April 25, 2013). http://mediamatters.org/mobile/blog/2013/04/25/fox-asks-if-children-should-work-for-school-mea/193768
19. Jordan Weissmann, “Newt Gingrich Thinks School Children Should Work as Janitors,” The Atlantic (November 21, 2011). Online: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/11/newt-gingrich-thinks-school-children-should-work-as-janitors/248837/
20. Cited in Maggie Haberman, “Newt: Fire the janitors, hire kids to clean schools,” Politico (January18, 2011). Online: http://www.politico.com/story/2011/11/newt-fire-the-janitors-hire-kids-to-clean-schools-068729#ixzz3o6Bz8bZU
21. Ibid., Jordan Weissmann, “Newt Gingrich Thinks School Children Should Work as Janitors.”
22. Aaron Blake, “Ben Carson says a Muslim shouldn’t be president. Many Americans agree.” The Washington Post (September 20, 2015). Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/09/20/ben-carson-says-a-muslim-shouldnt-be-president-many-americans-agree/
23. Eleanor Goldberg, “Andy Kessler, Former Hedge Fund Manager, Says Shelter Volunteers Cause Homelessness.” The Huffington Post (July 10, 2013). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/10/andy-kessler-homelessness_n_3568538.html
25. Catherine Lutz, “Making War at Home in the United States: Militarization and the Current Crisis,” American Anthropologist, (104:3, 2002), pp. (723)
26. Editorial, “Cops or Soldiers: America’s Police Have Become Militarized,” The Economist (May 22, 2014). Online: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21599349-americas-police-have-become-too-militarised-cops-or-soldiers
27. Michelle Alexander, “Michelle Alexander, The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare,” Tom Dispatch (March 25, 2012). Online: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175520/best_of_tomdispatch%3A_michelle_alexander,_the_age_of_obama_as_a_racial_nightmare/
28. Matt Taibbi, “The Police in America Are Becoming Illegitimate,” Rolling Stones, (December 5, 2015). Online at: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-police-in-america-are-becoming-illegitimate-20141205
29. Alice Ollstein, “Jeb Bush Says Unlike Others, He Won’t Give African Americans ‘Free Stuff’,” ThinkProgress (September 25, 2015). http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2015/09/25/3705520/jeb-bush-says-hell-win-the-african-american-vote-with-hope-not-free-stuff/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tptop3&utm_term=3&utm_content=5
30. Charles Blow, “Jeb Bush, ‘Free Stuff’ and Black Folks,” New York Times (September 28, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/28/opinion/charles-m-blow-jeb-bush-free-stuff-and-black-folks.html?_r=0
31. See, for instance, David Brooks, “The Nature of Poverty,” New York Times (May 1, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/01/opinion/david-brooks-the-nature-of-poverty.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0
32. Sean Illing, “Why David Brooks Shouldn’t Talk About Poor People,” Salon (May 1, 2015). Online: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/05/david_brooks_shouldn_t_talk_about_the_poor_the_new_york_times_columnist.single.html?print
33. Ibid., Charles Blow, Jeb Bush, ‘Free Stuff’ and Black Folks.”
34. For an excellent rebuttal of the politics of resilience, see Brad Evans and Julien Reid, Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously (London: Polity Press, 2014).
35. Paul Krugman, “Race, Class, and Neglect,” New York Times (May 4, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/04/opinion/paul-krugman-race-class-and-neglect.html?_r=0
36. I am borrowing this phrase from Varun Puri, an undergraduate student of mine who introduced it in one of his class papers.
37. David DeGraw, “Meet the Global Financial Elites Controlling $46 Trillion in Wealth,” Alternet (August 11, 2011). Online: http://www.alternet.org/story/151999/meet_the_global_financial_elites_controlling_$46_trillion_in_wealth
39. Robert Jensen, Arguing for Our Lives (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 3013), p. 95.
40. See, for instance, Evgeny Morozov, “The Rise of Data and the Death of Politics,” The Guardian (July 20, 2014). http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/20/rise-of-data-death-of-politics-evgeny-morozov-algorithmic-regulation
41. Personal correspondence with David Clark.
42. Chase Madar, “Everyone Is a Criminal: On the Over-Policing of America”, Huffington Post (December 13, 2013). Online: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chase-madar/over-policing-of-america_b_4412187.html
43. Ibid., Hedges, “The Last Gasp of American Democracy.”
44. Ibid., Stanley Aronowitz, “What Kind of Left Does America Need?,” Tikkun.
48. Stanley Aronowitz, Against Schooling (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008), p. 50.
49. Ibid. Case.
50. Kelly Hayes, ” To Baltimore With Love: Chicago’s Freedom Dreams,” Truthout (April 30, 2015). Online: https://truthout.org/opinion/item/30531-to-baltimore-with-love-chicago-s-freedom-dreams
51. Andrew Benjamin, Present Hope: Philosophy, Architecture, Judaism (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 10.