A group of right-wing extremists in the United States would have the American public believe it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of a market society. Comprising this group are the Republican Party extremists, religious fundamentalists such as Rick Santorum and a host of conservative anti-public foundations funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers(1), whose pernicious influence fosters the political and cultural conditions for creating vast inequalities and massive human hardships throughout the globe. Their various messages converge in support of neoliberal capitalism and a fortress mentality that increasingly drive the meaning of citizenship and social life. One consequence is that the principles of self-preservation and self-interest undermine, if not completely sabotage, political agency and democratic public life.
Neoliberalism or market fundamentalism as it is called in some quarters and its army of supporters cloak their interests in an appeal to “common sense,” while doing everything possible to deny climate change, massive inequalities, a political system hijacked by big money and corporations, the militarization of everyday life and the corruption of civic culture by a consumerist and celebrity-driven advertising machine. The financial elite, the 1 percent and the hedge fund sharks have become the highest-paid social magicians in America. They perform social magic by making the structures and power relations of racism, inequality, homelessness, poverty and environmental degradation disappear. And in doing so, they employ deception by seizing upon a stripped-down language of choice, freedom, enterprise and self-reliance – all of which works to personalize responsibility, collapse social problems into private troubles and reconfigure the claims for social and economic justice on the part of workers, poor minorities of color, women and young people as a species of individual complaint. But this deceptive strategy does more. It also substitutes shared responsibilities for a culture of diminishment, punishment and cruelty. The social is now a site of combat, infused with a live-for-oneself mentality and a space where a responsibility toward others is now gleefully replaced by an ardent, narrow and inflexible responsibility only for oneself.
When the effects of structural injustice become obscured by a discourse of individual failure, human misery and misfortune, they are no longer the objects of compassion, but of scorn and derision. In recent weeks, we have witnessed Rush Limbaugh call Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute”; US Marines captured on video urinating on the dead bodies of Afghanistan soldiers; and the public revelation by Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs trader, that the company was so obsessed with making money that it cheated and verbally insulted its own clients, often referring to them as “muppets.”(2) There is also the mass misogyny of right-wing extremists directed against women’s reproductive rights, which Maureen Dowd rightly calls an attempt by “Republican men to wrestle American women back into chastity belts.”(3) These are not unconnected blemishes on the body of neoliberal capitalism. They are symptomatic of an infected political and economic system that has lost touch with any vestige of decency, justice and ethics.
Overlaying the festering corruption is a discourse in which national destiny (coded in biblical scripture) becomes a political theology drawing attention away from the actual structural forces that decide who has access to health insurance, decent jobs, quality schooling and adequate health care. This disappearing act does more than whitewash history, obscure systemic inequalities of power and privatize public issues. It also creates social automatons, isolated individuals who live in gated communities along with their resident intellectuals who excite legions of consumer citizens to engage in a survival-of-the fittest ritual in order to climb heartlessly up the ladder of hyper-capitalism. The gated individual, scholar, artist, media pundit and celebrity – walled off from growing impoverished populations – are also cut loose from any ethical mooring or sense of social responsibility. Such a radical individualism and its shark-like values and practices have become the hallmark of American society. Unfortunately, hyper-capitalism does more than create a market-driven culture in which individuals demonstrate no responsibility for the other and are reduced to zombies worried about their personal safety, on the one hand, and their stock portfolios on the other. It also undermines public values, the centrality of the common good and any political arenas not yet sealed off from an awareness of our collective fate. As democracy succumbs to the instrumental politics of the market economy and the relentless hype of the commercially driven spectacle, it becomes more difficult to preserve those public spheres, dialogues and ideas through which private troubles and social issues can inform each other.
The gated intellectuals, pursuing their flight from social responsibility, become obsessed with the privatization of everything. And not content to remain supine intellectuals in the service of corporate hacks, they also willingly, if not joyfully, wage war against what is viewed as the ferocious advance of civil society, public values and the social. Gated intellectuals such as William Kristol, Thomas Friedman, George Will, Dinesh D’Souza, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Murray, David Brooks, and others voice their support for what might be called a gated or border pedagogy – one that establishes boundaries to protect the rich; isolates citizens from each other; excludes those populations considered disposable; and renders invisible young people, especially poor youth of color, along with others marginalized by class and race. Such intellectuals play no small role in legitimating what David Theo Goldberg has called a form of neoliberalism that promotes a “shift from the caretaker or pastoral state of welfare capitalism to the “traffic cop” or “minimal” state, ordering flows of capital, people, goods, public services and information.”(4)
The gated intellectual works hard to make thinking an act of stupidity, turn lies into truths, build a moat around oppositional ideas so they cannot be accessed and destroy those institutions and social protections that serve the common good. Gated intellectuals and the institutions that support them believe in societies that stop questioning themselves, engage in a history of forgetting and celebrate the progressive “decomposition and crumbling of social bonds and communal cohesion.”(5) Policed borders, surveillance, state secrecy, targeted assassinations, armed guards, and other forces provide the imprimatur of dominant power and containment, making sure that no one can trespass onto gated property, domains, sites, protected global resources and public spheres. On guard against any claim to the common good, the social contract, or social protections for the underprivileged, gated intellectuals spring to life in universities, news programs, print media, charitable foundations, churches, think tanks, and other cultural apparatuses, aggressively surveying the terrain to ensure that no one is able to do the crucial pedagogical work of democracy by offering resources and possibilities for resisting the dissolution of sociality, reciprocity and social citizenship itself.
The gated mentality of market fundamentalism has walled off, if not disappeared, those spaces where dialogue, critical reason and the values and practices of social responsibility can be engaged. The armies of anti-public intellectuals, who appear daily on television, radio talk shows, and other platforms, work hard to create a fortress of indifference and manufactured stupidity. Public life is reduced to a host of babbling politicians and pundits, ranging from Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum to Sean Hannity, all of whom should have their high school diplomas revoked. Much more than providing idiot spectacles and fodder for late-night comics, the assault waged by the warriors of rule enforcement and gated thought poses a dire threat to those vital public spheres that provide the minimal conditions for citizens who can think critically and act responsibly. This is especially true for public education, where the forces of privatization, philanthropy and commodification have all but gutted public schooling in America.(6) What has become clear is that the attack on public schools has nothing to do with their failings; it has to do with the fact that they are public. How else to explain the fact that a number of conservative politicians refer to them as “government schools”? I think it is fair to say that the massive assault taking place on public education in Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida, Maine and other Republican Party-led states will soon extend its poisonous attack and include higher education in its sights in ways that will make the current battle look like a walk in the park.
Higher education is worth mentioning because, for the gated intellectuals, it is one of the last strongholds of democratic action and reasoning and one of the most visible targets along with the welfare state. As is well known, higher education is increasingly being walled off from the discourse of public values and the ideals of a substantive democracy at a time when it is most imperative to defend the institution against an onslaught of forces that are as anti-intellectual as they are anti-democratic in nature. Universities are now facing a growing set of challenges that collectively pose a dire threat to the status of higher education as a sphere rooted in and fostering independent thought, critical agency and civic courage. These challenges, to name but a few, include budget cuts; the downsizing of faculty; the militarization of research; alienation from the broader public (which increasingly looks upon academe with suspicion, if not scorn); and the revising of the curriculum to fit market-driven goals. Many of the problems in higher education can be linked to the evisceration of funding, the intrusion of the national security state, the lack of faculty self-governance and a wider culture that appears increasingly to view education as a private right rather than a public good. All of these disturbing trends, left unchecked, are certain to make a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere.
The Occupy movement and other social movements are challenging many of these anti-democratic and anti-intellectual forces. Drawing connections between the ongoing assault on the public character and infrastructure of higher education and the broader attack on the welfare state, young people, artists, new media intellectuals, and others are reviving what critical intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt engaged as “the social question” – now with a growing sense of urgency in a society that appears to be losing a sense of itself in terms of crucial public values, the common good and economic justice. One of the most important challenges facing educators, the Occupy movement, young people, and others concerned by the fate of democracy is the challenge of providing the public spaces, critical discourses and counter-narratives necessary to reclaim higher education and other public spheres from the civic- and the capital-stripping policies of free-market fundamentalism, the authoritarian politicians who deride critical education and an army of anti-public intellectuals dedicated to attacking all things collective and sustaining. Public values have for decades been in tension with dominant economic and political forces, but the latter’s growing fervor for unbridled individualism, disdain for social cohesion and safety nets and contempt for the public good appear relentless against increasingly vulnerable communal bonds and weakened democratic resistance. The collateral damage has been widespread and includes a frontal assault on the rights of labor, social services and every conceivable level of critical education.
Instead of the gated intellectual, there is a dire need for public intellectuals in the academy, art world, business sphere, media, and other cultural apparatuses to move from negation to hope. That is, there is a need to develop what I call a project of democratization and borderless pedagogy that moves across different sites – from schools to the alternative media – as part of a broader attempt to construct a critical formative culture in the United States that enables Americans to reclaim their voices, speak out, exhibit moral outrage and create the social movements, tactics and public spheres that will reverse the growing tide of authoritarianism in the United States. Such intellectuals are essential to democracy, even as social well-being depends on a continuous effort to raise disquieting questions and challenges, use knowledge and analytical skills to address important social problems, alleviate human suffering where possible and redirect resources back to individuals and communities who cannot survive and flourish without them. Engaged public intellectuals are especially needed at a time when it is necessary to resist the hollowing out of social state, the rise of a governing-through-crime complex and the growing gap between the rich and poor that is pushing the United States back into the moral and political abyss of the Gilded Age, characterized by what David Harvey calls the “accumulation of capital through dispossession,” which he claims is “is about plundering, robbing other people of their rights” through the dizzying dream worlds of consumption, power, greed, deregulation and unfettered privatization that are central to a neoliberal project.(7)
One particular challenge now facing the Occupy movement and the growing public intellectuals that reject the zombie politics of casino capitalism is to provide a multitude of public and free access forums – such as Truthout, Truthdig, AlterNet, Counterpunch, Salon, and other alternative media spaces as well as free learning centers where knowledge is produced – in which critically engaged intellectuals are able not only to do the work of connecting knowledge, skills and techniques to broader public considerations and social problems, but also to make clear that education takes place in a variety of spheres that should be open to everyone. It is precisely through the broad mobilization of traditional and new educational sites that public intellectuals can do the work of resistance, engagement, policymaking and supporting a democratic politics. Such spheres should also enable young people to learn not just how to read the world critically, but to be able to produce cultural and social forms that enable shared practices and ideas rooted in a commitment to the common good. Such spheres provide a sense of solidarity, encourage intellectuals to take risks and model what it means to engage a larger public through work that provides both a language of critique and a discourse of educated hope, engagement and social transformation, while shaping ongoing public conversations about significant cultural and political concerns. To echo the great sociologist C. Wright Mills, there is a need for public intellectuals who refuse the role of “sociological bookkeeper,” preferring instead to be “mutinous and utopian” rather than “go the way of the literary faddist and the technician of cultural chic.” We can catch a glimpse of what such intellectuals do and why they matter in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Edward Said, Jacques Derrida, Noam Chomsky and, more recently, in a younger generation of intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein, Judith Butler, David Theo Goldberg and Susan Searls Giroux – all of whom have been crucial in helping a generation of young people find their way to a more humane future, one that demands a new politics, a new set of values and renewed sense of the fragile nature of democracy. In part, this means educating a new generation of intellectuals, who are willing to combine moral outrage with analytic skills and informed knowledge in order to hold power accountable and expand those public spheres where ideas, debate, critique and hope continue to matter.
Under the present circumstances, it is time to remind ourselves – in spite of idiotic anti-intellectual statements from Rick Santorum condemning higher education and critical thought itself – that critical ideas matter. Those public spheres in which critical thought is nurtured provide the minimal conditions for people to become worldly, take hold of important social issues and alleviate human suffering as the means of making the United States a more equitable and just society. Ideas are not empty gestures and they do more than express a free-floating idealism. Ideas provide a crucial foundation for assessing the limits and strengths of our sense of individual and collective agency and what it might mean to exercise civic courage in order not merely to live in the world, but to shape it in light of democratic ideals that would make it a better place for everyone. Critical ideas and the technologies, institutions and public spheres that enable them matter because they offer us the opportunity to think and act otherwise, challenge common sense, cross over into new lines of inquiry and take positions without standing still – in short, to become border crossers who refuse the silos that isolate the privileged within an edifice of protections built on greed, inequitable amounts of income and wealth and the one-sided power of the corporate state.
Gated intellectuals do not work with ideas, but sound bites. They don’t engage in debates; they simply spew off positions in which unsubstantiated opinion and sustained argument collapse into each other. Yet, instead of simply responding to the armies of gated intellectuals and the corporate money that funds them, it is time for the Occupy movement and other critically thinking individuals to join with the independent media and make pedagogy central to any viable notion of politics. It is time to initiate a cultural campaign in which reason can be reclaimed, truth defended and learning connected to social change. The current attack on public and higher education by the armies of gated intellectuals is symptomatic of the fear that right-wing reactionaries have of critical thought, quality education and the possibility of a generation emerging that can both think critically and act with political and ethical conviction. Let’s hope that as time unfolds and new spaces emerge, the Occupy movement and others engage in a form of borderless pedagogy in which they willingly and assertively join in the battle over ideas, reclaim the importance of critique, develop a discourse of hope and occupy many quarters and sites so as to drown out the corporate funded ignorance and political ideologies that strip history of its meaning, undermine intellectual engagement and engage in a never-ending pedagogy of deflection and disappearance. There has never been a more important time in American history to proclaim the importance of communal responsibility and civic agency and to shift from a democracy of consumers to a democracy of informed citizens. As Federico Mayor, the former director general of UNESCO rightly insisted, “You cannot expect anything from uneducated citizens except unstable democracy.”(8)
The United States has become Fortress America, and its gated banks, communities, hedge funds and financial institutions have become oppressive silos of the rich and privileged designed to keep out disadvantaged and vulnerable populations. At the same time, millions of gated communities have been created against the will of their inhabitants who have no passports to travel and are locked into abandoned neighborhoods, prisons, and other sites equivalent to human waste dumps. The walls of privilege need to be destroyed and the fortresses of containment eliminated, but this will not be done without the emergence of a new political discourse; a borderless pedagogy; and a host of public spheres and institutions that provide the formative culture, skills and capacities that enable young and old alike to counter the ignorance discharged like a poison from the mouths of those corporate interests and anti-public intellectuals who prop up the authority of Fortress America and hyper-capitalism. It is time for the Occupy movement to embrace their pedagogical role as a force for critical reason, social responsibility and civic education. This is not a call to deny politics as we know it, but to expand its reach. The Occupy movement protesters need to become border crossers, willing to embrace a language of critique and possibility that makes visible the urgency of talking about politics and agency not in the idiom set by gated communities and anti-public intellectuals, but through the discourse of civic courage and social responsibility. We need a new generation of border crossers and a new form of border crossing pedagogy to play a central role in keeping critical thought alive while challenging the further unraveling of human possibilities. Such a notion of democratic public life is engaged in both questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished. It provides the formative culture that enables young people to break the continuity of common sense; come to terms with their own power as critical agents; be critical of the authority that speaks to them; translate private considerations into public issues; and assume the responsibility of what it means not only to be governed, but learning how to govern.
If gated intellectuals defend the privileged, isolated, removed and individualized interests of those who decry the social and view communal responsibility as a pathology, then public intellectuals must ensure their work and actions embody a democratic ideal through reclaiming all those sites of possibility in which dialogue is guaranteed, power is democratized and public values trump sordid private interests. Democracy must be embraced not merely as a mode of governance, but more importantly, as Bill Moyers points out, as a means of dignifying people so they can become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.
1. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging a War against Obama,” The New Yorker (August 30, 2010). Online here.
7. Editors, “A Conversation with David Harvey,” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture 5:1 (2006). Online here.