How a society treats its children is a powerful moral and political index of its commitment to the institutions, values and principles that inform the promises of a real democracy. When measured against such criteria, it is clear that the United States has not only failed, but it is on life support. According to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation, for the first time in history, half of US public school children live in poverty, and the United States has the fourth highest child poverty rate among developed countries. Moreover, 1.3 million homeless children are enrolled in US schools, and the United States incarcerates young people at a rate and in numbers that are shameful. (1) As Jana Kasperkevic points out:
Those numbers are representative of the growing problem of child poverty in the US. Overall, one in five US children lives in poverty. It has only recently been dropping, with 14.7 million US children living in poverty in 2013, down from 16.1 million in 2012. In 2012, out of 35 economically developed countries, only Romania had a higher child poverty rate than the US. (2)
With the social contract all but dead, children no longer count for much in a society that makes virtues out of self-interest and greed, and measures success almost entirely in terms of the accumulation of capital. Under the regime of a ruthless neoliberalism, children and their working-class families have become the new casualties of a system that brazenly disdains the rule of law, compassion and a concern for others. Systemic inequality has become one of the weapons now used not only against working families and the middle class, but also in the war on youth.
When it comes to educational policy, the logic of privatization and capital accumulation is the real force at work in destroying public schools, and it’s done ironically under the name of reform.
Paul Buchheit, in his piece “The Reality Tale of Two Education Systems,” maps out how systemic inequality needlessly ruins the lives of millions of young people in the public school system. (3) He makes clear that public schools succeed when there are fewer children who suffer from the debilitating effects of poverty. He points to the success of schools that are adequately funded, the importance of adequate support for early childhood education and programs such as Head Start, all of which have been defunded by the new extremists and will be further defunded as long as the apostles of free-market fundamentalism are in power. Impoverished schools are now matched by educational polices and classroom practices, such as teaching for the test, that impose on students an authoritarian regimen of repressive discipline and conformity. A pedagogy of repression that attacks unions, discredits teachers and punishes children has become the new norm in the United States, and it is backed by members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. When it comes to educational policy, the logic of privatization and capital accumulation is the real force at work in destroying public schools, and it’s done ironically under the name of reform.
For instance, Ken Saltman, Diane Ravitch, Jonathan Kozol and many others have written eloquently about how both the Bush and Obama administrations have turned schools into testing and sorting factories that have little to do with learning and a great deal to do with enforcing a pedagogy of repression among students, on the one hand, and redefining schools as lucrative markets for profits, on the other. Children and the public spheres they inhabit, along with the federal programs that provide them with crucial social provisions, have become targets in the war against democracy and the public institutions that support it. Educational reform is now an extension and manifestation of a new and intensive assault being waged by the financial elite and billionaires in order to decimate all elements of the public good in order to generate new financial investments and huge profits for private investors.
One disturbing example of the sordid, ideological logic informing the crushing educational and economic policies promoted by the ethically bankrupt leaders of the US House and Senate, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), was stated clearly when they claimed in a CBS News interview with Scott Pelley on January 22, 2015, that they were against funding President Obama’s free community college program because it would increase the deficit. The appeal to austerity as a rationale to punish children, eviscerate the social state and redistribute wealth upward to rich elites has become an oft-repeated defense that serves to legitimate economic injustice and the transformation of “a world in which political economy has become a criminal economy.” (4) It gets worse.
Austerity, as Guy Standing observes, also constitutes a form of “social cleansing” and “social zoning” in its passing of measures such as the closing of public libraries and schools, shutting down of affordable housing, defunding of public transportation, elimination of arts programs and elimination of sports programs for working-class kids. (5) One example of how austerity works to punish children is obvious in the recent call by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas to make up for his crippling massive tax cuts by “cutting classroom funding for Kansas schools by $127 million and push[ing] pension fund payments off into the future.” (6) Rather than acknowledge that his massive tax cuts are crippling his state’s finances, he implements brutal policies that further undermine the public school system, punishing students and teachers alike. What such policies make clear is that the neoliberal support for austerity policies barely conceals a ruthless logic and a hidden structure of oppressive politics that is at the heart of the new authoritarianism.
The new extremists at various levels of political power – local, state and federal – have no trouble expanding and using the power of government to benefit the powerful and financially privileged.
Some liberals such as Paul Krugman argue that the current batch of right-wingers and Republican extremists are indifferent to reason, facts and evidence, and should rightly be viewed as reactionaries “threatened by any expansion of government.” (7) This is only partly true. First, the new extremists at various levels of political power – local, state and federal – have no trouble expanding and using the power of government to benefit the powerful and financially privileged. Second, they are not simply dumb or morally vacant, though many of them appear rather thoughtless. Instead, they are pawns of corporate power and have sold themselves out to the highest bidders. Their power is dependent on doing the bidding of the billionaires such as the Koch brothers, oil companies, banks, corporations and other financial behemoths. They are not stupid; they are corrupt and this suggests less a lack of intelligence than the workings of a systemic form of predatory capitalism, which fosters iniquitous class-based relations of power that do great harm to both the US public and democracy itself. The new extremists that now control the US government are the new warriors of authoritarianism, proudly implementing the ideologies, values and policies of a failed state now in the hands of the financial ruling classes.
Painful truths about political corruption, economic injustices and the rise of the corporate state, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the shocking state of children in the United States are buried in the appeal to enforce savage austerity measures. Hence, it is not surprising that there is no mention among Boehner, Mitchell and their cronies about how economics and militarism now drive politics. Boehner and Mitchell are silent about how the new extremists created the deficit through tax breaks for corporations, deregulation, letting lobbyists write banking bills, the cost of two wasteful wars, pouring money into building more prisons than schools, and maintaining a nuclear arsenal and wasteful military-industrial complex at a huge cost to the American people, especially low-income youth and poor children of color. But myth making or outright lying about the politics of neoliberalism is not confined to right-wing Republicans. President Obama’s self-serving claims about the economic recovery repeatedly overlook the fact that the only people who have benefited from the recovery are the Wall Street banks, the too-big-to-fail financial and corporate institutions, and the other 1% of the reigning plutocracy. As Rob Urie points out in CounterPunch, “Today, with over half of public school children now living in poverty, forty-seven million people receiving food assistance and millions of adults either unemployed or underemployed, the term ‘recovery’ is conspicuously unrelated to economic well-being.” Even worse, the alleged all-encompassing notion of economic recovery suggests that those Americans who have been left out of this recovery are victims of a personal failure rather than a social failure, and represent as a whole, as Urie argues, “failed ‘economies of the self.'” Moreover, such policies and practices do more than blame and impose a precarious and harsh existence on young people, poor people of color, working-class people and others; they also pose a direct threat to the planet itself.
The assault on public education and low-income and poor youth of color is but one measure of the growing threat of authoritarianism in US society. Needless to say, there is more to the violence of the authoritarian state driven by financial capital than its ongoing attempts to destroy the lives and future of the majority of young people. While it is largely recognized that the United States is wedded to mass incarceration and destroying its public schools and other elements of the public good, what is often ignored is the degree to which it has become a class and racially based punishing state. Under the existing regime of market fundamentalism there has been a weakening of social values and a hardening of the culture that makes it easier to live in a world in which demonization replaces compassion, a self-righteous coldness eviscerates the radical imagination and the bonds of trust are replaced by bonds of fear.
Racism has become not simply more visible, but more violent and repulsive in its attempts to kill young black men, turn back voting rights laws and empower the police to become an occupying army in many cities.
Under such circumstances, racism has become not simply more visible, but more violent and repulsive in its attempts to kill young black men, turn back voting rights laws and empower the police to become an occupying army in many cities, willful of the fact that they can act with impunity. Militaristic violence is the new face of racism, the specter that haunts poor youth of color who are considered disposable in a society in which the flight from responsibility on the part of the financial elite is only matched by the rate in which their wealth increases yearly. As the bonds of sociality and social obligations dissolve, every human relation is measured against the yardstick of profit. Retribution and punishment now replace any vestige of restorative justice just as low-income and poor, urban youth of color are offered jail rather than a quality education and decent jobs. There is no discourse of empathy, morality and justice under the regime of neoliberal authoritarianism. Consequently, older discourses that provided a vision have not only been rendered useless, but as Hannah Arendt once argued, the very nature of the political in the modern period has been dethroned. (8)
The machinery of governance and the commanding institutions of the United States are now controlled by corporate political zombies who savor and reproduce death-dealing institutions that extend from paramilitarized local police forces to schools modeled after prisons. These are the new extremists who claim they hate big government but love big corporations, who deride the poor and slash health provisions but claim they are the new face of compassionate politics, and who turn corruption into a virtue, and honesty into a political liability. These are the extremists who support state torture, glorify militarism and are responsible for the death of millions. In a different historical period, they would have fit in well with the likes of Chile’s Pinochet, apartheid South Africa, the military dictatorships in Greece and other ruthless authoritarian regimes. These people are truly the walking dead who inhabit what can only be called a world in which ethical and social responsibility has been replaced by a moral coma, a culture of fear and a politics of misery that produces a regime of violence, huge inequities in wealth and power, and a disdain for helping others, including young people. What is new about the emerging authoritarianism is that it takes ideology seriously and is marked by both a rampant and depoliticizing culture of consumerism and celebrity culture, and the rise of an expansive punishing and surveillance state. As the language of the market replaces social categories, it hides power relations while isolating people in orbits of privatization. And it is this increasing culture of atomization, privatization and reification that further erases the connected forms of social justice needed to produce a new sense of politics and collective struggle.
The consolidation of class power by the financial elite has passed into a new historical moment in US history. What most of the American public are experiencing in this new interregnum, especially those regarded as disposable, is a level of oppression, violence, poverty and loss of social provisions that seems unparalleled, especially given the grip that big money has on all the commanding institutions of American life. To claim that the United States has become an oligarchy, as a recent Princeton University study has done, is more of a subterfuge than an insight. Oligarchy sounds tame next to a savage form of free-market capitalism that operates in a field of lawlessness, extreme violence and wild justice in which a failed sociality reigns and social death and individual misery are the norm. Anything that impedes market relations is suspect and deserving of state violence. The current regime of neoliberalism acts with impunity given its ruthlessness, its moral blindness and its willingness to destroy the planet to preserve its hoarding of power and wealth. Unbridled power is indifferent to the problems of long-term unemployment, homelessness and increasing levels of poverty, and the desperate state of American youth. Moreover, the increasing manifestations of state violence mark a radical shift away from even the slightest vestige of democracy to the more prevalent use of state terrorism. The recent killings of young black people speak less to the violence of militarized local police forces then it does to the violence of a racist authoritarian state.
The war on terror has been morphed into a form of domestic terrorism aimed not only at whistleblowers, but all of those populations, from poor people of color to immigrants, who are now considered disposable.
The ongoing appeal to fear, insecurity and uncertainty by the financial elite and its corporate controlled cultural apparatuses defines the contemporary cultural zeitgeist, and its offshoot is a rise in violence and the increasing use of punitive practices in a growing number of public spheres. The war on terror has been morphed into a form of domestic terrorism aimed not only at whistleblowers, but all of those populations, from poor people of color to immigrants, who are now considered disposable. The violence of the financial state now renders entire populations disposable, that is, subject to what Richard Sennett terms the “specter of uselessness that denies gainful employment and self-respect.” Sennett calls this a “new wrinkle in neoliberal capitalism.” It is also a new form of terrorism. (9)
Domestic terrorism, disposability and the criminalization of the behavior of the 99% has become the default position for all social problems. The extremists in power refuse to address social problems, regardless of how serious they are. Instead, the behaviors exhibited by people victimized and injured by such problems are criminalized. People who can’t pay minor traffic fines or small debts are now put in jail; poor people of color who violate a dress code in public schools are arrested and put in police cars; the homeless are punished for sleeping in parks, and so it goes. Everyone outside of the corporate, financial and political elite is a potential enemy in the United States, and this includes not only those who are considered excess, but also those who question authority and refuse to bend to the will of the financial and politically corrupt ruling powers.
Even as more and more individuals are subject to punitive forms of punishment, financial terrorism and the suffocating tentacles of the market and surveillance state, they are led to believe that all problems come from within, and are simply a matter of character. All problems are now reduced to a matter of lifestyle and the demand that the impoverished and marginalized get up and make something of themselves. If one face of the new authoritarianism is the militarization of all aspects of society, the other side is the self-help, rabidly individualized and privatized culture that extends from Oprah Winfrey to the various screen cultures of the mainstream media. As Mark Fisher has noted, under neoliberalism’s “’empire of the self’ everyone is trapped in their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations and unable to escape the tortured conditions of solipsism.” (10) One distinct feature of the new authoritarianism is that it reproduces its own power and control over the US public not only through the imposition of harsh economic policies and the use of state repression, but also through powerful forms of affective management most prevalent in the wider culture.
The ideological and affective spaces produced under the new authoritarianism do not simply produce powerful myths or function as an ideological drug that legitimates the elimination of broader structural, economic and political forces; it is primarily a powerful educative force that works extremely well in depoliticizing large numbers of the US public. In part, it is central to a consumer culture marked by an endlessly repeating call to celebrate selfishness, waste and privatization. This is more than an addiction; it is a cultural and educative toxin peddled endlessly by celebrity culture, the advertising industry, mainstream media and the anti-public intellectuals who trade on other peoples’ misery. Consumerism is the new religion in the United States and it promotes a swindle of fulfilment through its glitzy offering of the promise of a graveyard of rapidly disposable goods as the measure of the good life. Markets now define not only how people live but who they are. The prison house of consumption mostly succeeds at the expense of any viable notion of critical citizenship, social responsibility, and the skills and resources necessary to be an engaged individual and social agent. Of course, this is a perfect supplement to state terrorism because it replaces a therapeutic language for a political vocabulary giving rise to forms of historical and political amnesia that border on a new form of collective insanity, given the support the new extremists appear to have among the US public as they march forward with their death-dealing policies.
Politics matters when it changes the way people think, but it must do more.
While it is clear that US society is in a free fall decline as all vestiges of social and economic equality disappear, public provisions evaporate and the machinery of politics is controlled by the financial elite, what is not so clear is why these economic and political crises are rarely matched by a crisis of ideas, calls for new modes of subjectivity, a new understanding of power, and the necessity for creating new modes of resistance and a revival of a militant politics capable of fighting for a radical democracy. The interplay between the creation of authoritarian values, desires and the production of new modes of identity must be understood within the new networks that combine culture, power and what might be called neoliberal forms of public pedagogy. At stake here is the need to make the educative nature of politics central to any form of resistance that acknowledges the need to create a critical formative culture in which individuals can reimagine what a radical democracy might look like and how it might be achieved. Politics matters when it changes the way people think, but it must do more. It must not only inform, but also energize people to take collective action within deeply committed bonds of solidarity. The crisis of democracy and the slide into authoritarianism points not only to an economic crisis but also a crisis of agency, subjectivity and desire. The left needs to find ways to make education central to politics in order to take seriously any attempt to develop new historical agents and modes of collective resistance.
Democracy is dead in the United States. A new society is being constructed that no longer believes in political concessions, given its addiction to greed, power and its savage willingness to use state violence to manage its problems. The strong winds of authoritarianism are wreaking havoc all over the United States and with the new extremists now in power it is only a matter of time before “dark times” descend upon the country. And when it does, lawlessness not compassion, violence not thoughtfulness, corruption not justice will redefine US history in ways that are similar to how the reactionary revolutions of the 1930s defined that horrendous, genocidal and militarized period in history.
Let’s hope that a thousand movements of resistance will flower and join together in getting rid of this neoliberal poison and modern-day prison. Jacques Derrida once referred to hope as “an unrelenting fidelity – an entrusted trace, a renewed promise and an endless responsibility before ‘the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead.'” (11) It is precisely at the intersection of justice, responsibility and the civic imagination that hope inspires and energizes, serving not only as a repository of memory and moral witnessing, but as a recognition of the forces that oppress, and a realistic assessment of what it means to overcome them. In dark times, hope speaks to the need to extend the horizons of justice by both struggling against the obscene stupidity and reckless use of power that informs neoliberal capitalism, and making education central to imagining a democratic future that is worth fighting for.
1. Andre Damon, “More than Half of US Public School Students Living in Poverty,” Global Research (January 19, 2015). Online: https://www.globalresearch.ca/more-than-half-of-us-public-school-students-living-in-poverty/5425563
2. Jana Kasperkevic, “More than half of US public school students live in poverty, report finds,” The Guardian (January 17, 2015). Online: https://www.theguardian.com/money/us-money-blog/2015/jan/17/public-school-students-poverty-report
3. Paul Buchheit, “The Reality Tale of Two Education Systems,” AlterNet (January 11, 2015). Online: https://www.alternet.org/education/reality-tale-two-education-systems-one-poor-and-one-rest
4. Cited in William Robinson, “In the Wake of Ayotzinapa, Adonde va Mexico?” Truthout (December 8, 2014). Online; https://truthout.org/opinion/item/27862-in-the-wake-of-ayotzinapa-adonde-va-mexico
5. Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, (London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011), p. 179.
6. Allan Pyke, “To Make Up For His Massive Tax Cuts, Kansas Governor Proposes Cutting Schools,” Think Progress (January 22, 2015). Online: https://thinkprogress.org/economy/2015/01/22/3614508/kansas-short-term-thinking-budget/
7. Paul Krugman, “Hating Good Government,” The New York Times (January 18, 2015). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/opinion/paul-krugman-hating-good-government.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-top-span-region®ion=c-column-top-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-top-span-region&_r=0
8. See: Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2013), pp. 33-34.
9. See Richard Sennett’s lecture on Disposable Life in the Histories of Violence Project. Online: https://historiesofviolence.com/specialseries/disposable-life/
10. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (London: Zero Books, 2009), p.74.
11. Jacques Derrida interview with Jean Birnbaum, Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, (New Jersey: Melville House Publishing, 2007), pp. 12-13.