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Henry A. Giroux | Marching in Chicago: Resisting Rahm Emanuel’s Neoliberal Savagery

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to close 54 public schools is one more example of a neoliberal system at work.

Protesters march in the Loop March 27, 2013 during a rally to protest the proposed closing of 54 Chicago public schools. (Photo: WBEZ/Robin Amer)

Across the globe, predatory capitalism spreads its gospel of power, greed, commodification, gentrification and inequality. Through the combined forces of a market driven ideology, policy and mode of governance, the apostles of free-market capitalism are doing their best to dismantle historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, define the accumulation of capital as the only obligation of democracy, increase the role of corporate money in politics, wage an assault on unions, expand the military-security state, increase inequalities in wealth and income, foster the erosion of civil liberties and undercut public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.1. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish – from public schools to health-care centers – there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values and the common good. One does not have to look too far to see what happens in America’s neoliberal educational culture to see how ruthlessly the inequality of wealth, income and power bears down on those young people and brave teachers who are struggling every day to save the schools, unions and modes of pedagogy that offer hope at a time when schools have become just another commodity, students are reduced to clients or disposable populations, and teachers and their unions are demonized.

Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other scholars at Truthout’s Public Intellectual Project.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s current attempt to close down 54 public schools largely inhabited by poor minorities is one more example of a savage, racist neoliberal system at work that uses the politics of austerity and consolidation to further disenfranchise the unskilled young of the inner city. The hidden curriculum in this instance is not so invisible. Closing schools will result in massive layoffs, weakening the teachers unions. It will free up land that can be gentrified to attract middle-class voters, and it will once again prove that poor minority students, regardless of the hardships, if not danger, they will face as a result of such closings, are viewed as disposable – human waste to be relegated to the zones of terminal exclusion. Not only are many teachers and parents concerned about displacing thousands of students to schools that do not offer any hope of educational improvement, but they are also concerned about the safety of the displaced children, many of whom “will have to walk through violent neighborhoods and go to school with other students who are considered enemies.” 2. This is not simply misguided policy, it is a racist script that makes clear that poor black youth are disposable and that their safety is irrelevant. How else to explain the mayor’s plan to produce a Safe Passage Plan in which firefighters would be asked to patrol the new routes, even though they have made it clear that they are not trained for this type of special duty. That many of these children are poor black children trapped in under-resourced schools appears irrelevant to a mayor who takes his lead from politicians such as Barack Obama and Arnie Duncan, two educators who have simply reproduced the Bush educational reform playbook, i.e., more testing, demonize teachers, weaken unions, advocate for choice and charter schools, and turn public schools over to corporate hedge-fund managers and billionaires such as Bill Gates. Emanuel’s passionate zeal to downsize schools in impoverished black neighborhoods is matched only by his misdirected enthusiasm to lay out $195 million “on a basketball arena for DePaul University, a private Chicago university.” 3.

Emanuel’s policies are symptomatic of a much larger war against teachers, public goods and the social contract. We increasingly live in societies based on the vocabulary of “choice” and a denial of reality – a denial of massive inequality, social disparities, the irresponsible concentration of power in relatively few hands and a growing machinery of social death and culture of cruelty. 4. As power becomes global and is removed from local and nation-based politics, more and more individuals and groups are being defined by a free-floating class of ultra-rich and corporate power brokers as disposable, redundant, and irrelevant. Consequently, there are a growing number of people, especially young people, who increasingly inhabit zones of hardship, suffering and terminal exclusion. Power has lost its moorings in democratic institutions and removes itself from any sense of social, civic and political responsibilities. Mayor Emanuel, along with his neoliberal political allies, occupies the dead zone of capitalism – a zone marked by a ruthless indifference to the suffering of others and self-righteous coldness that makes human beings superfluous and unwanted. At the same time, this zone of capital accumulation and dispossession destroys those public spheres and collective structures such as public and higher education that are capable of resisting the logic of the pure market and the anti-democratic pressures it imposes on American society. Peter Brogan sums it up well in his analysis of the forces behind the current attacks on teachers and public education. He writes that the neoliberal agenda behind such attacks has:

been outlined in numerous planning documents from different city administrations, some of which have been drafted by the Commercial Club and have at the center an urban development strategy based on revitalizing the downtown core and prioritizing the financial, real estate and tourist sectors of the economy while at the same time demolishing public housing and schools in order to gentrify historically African American and Latino working class neighborhoods. These transformations are deeply related to the larger structural crisis of capitalism. The background to this is the crisis of profitability that comes to a head in the early 1970s, and the ushering in a period of capitalist regulation known as neoliberalism, marked by savage attacks on unions, workers and working class living standards. Reconstructing the built environment of the city has been absolutely central to all of these changes. This is one attempt to deal with the structural crisis of capitalism at this critical juncture. And destroying unions, and teachers’ unions in particular, have been key to that attempt. 5.

This is all the more reason for educators and others to address important social issues and to defend public education as democratic public sphere. And it is all the more reason to defend the Chicago Public Teachers Union in its struggle with Emanuel because this battle is not a local issue. On the contrary, it is a national issue that will set the stage for the future of American public education, which is on its deathbed. The struggle in Chicago must be understood as part of a larger set of market-driven policies in which everything is privatized, transformed into “spectacular spaces of consumption,” and subject to the vicissitudes of the military-security state. 6. One consequence is the emergence of what the late Tony Judt called an “eviscerated society” – “one that is stripped of the thick mesh of mutual obligations and social responsibilities to be found in” any viable democracy. 7. This grim reality represents a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will, and open democracy. 8. It is also part of a politics that strips the social of any democratic ideals. It is also the politics that drives Emanuel’s policies in Chicago around education and a host of other issues.

In Emanuel’s ideological script, the common good is viewed as either a source of profits or pathology. The market is the only template that matters in shaping all aspects of society, and freedom is reduced to the freedom to shop, indulge one’s self-interests and willingly support a society in which market values trump democratic values. According to Emanuel and his ilk, the arch enemies of freedom are the welfare state, unions and public service workers such a public school teachers. And as was evident in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities, just as war becomes the all-embracing organizing principle for developing a market-driven society and economy. 9.

Emanuel supports a notion of educational reform in which pedagogy is often treated simply as a set of strategies and skills to use in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, pedagogy becomes synonymous with teaching as a technique or the practice of a craft-like skill. Even worse, pedagogy becomes a sterile method for developing skills aimed at raising test scores. The Chicago public school teachers must reject this definition of teaching and educational reform, along with its endless slavish imitations, even when they are claimed as part of an “educational reform” project. In opposition to the instrumental reduction of pedagogy to a method – which has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship – progressive educators need to argue for modes of critical pedagogy that illuminate the relationships among knowledge, authority and power. 10. For instance, any viable reform movement must raise questions regarding who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge. Is the production of knowledge and curricula in the hands of teachers, textbook companies, corporate interests, or other forces?

Central to any viable notion that what makes a pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that pedagogy is always a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledges and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations. Of crucial importance is the question of authority and how it is legitimated, used and exercised. When teachers are stripped of authority, pedagogy becomes lifeless, methodical and militarized, reduced to low-level skills and modes of standardization that debase creativity and cripple the imaginative capacities of both teachers and students. Part of what the Chicago teachers are doing in their protests against the school closings is drawing attention to the ways in which authority, knowledge, power, desire and experience are produced under specific basic conditions of learning, and in doing so, they are shedding light on educational reform movements in which teaching is stripped of its sense of accountability to parents, place, and the complex dynamic of history and communities. Under such circumstances, the Chicago teachers are refusing educational policies in which matters of authority and pedagogy are removed from matters of values, norms and power.

Emanuel’s neoliberal educational philosophy has no understanding of what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings because it is incapable of raising questions.

Nor does it acknowledge that pedagogy is simultaneously about the knowledge and practices teachers and students might engage in together, along with the values, social relations and visions such practices legitimate. What scares Emanuel and other neoliberal reformers is that pedagogy is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations because it offers particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment.

At the heart of the Chicago demonstrations against Emanuel’s polices are a series of broader questions that situate the right-wing reform movement in a broader set of market-driven politics. For instance, what kind of society allows economic injustice and massive inequality to run wild in a society allowing drastic cuts in education and public services? Why are more police being put in schools just as more prisons are being built in the United States? What does it mean when students face not just tuition hikes but a lifetime of financial debt while governments in Canada, Chile and the United States spend trillions on weapons of death and needless wars? What kind of education does it take, both in and out of schools, to recognize the emergence of various economic, political, cultural and social forces that point to the dissolution of democracy and the possible emergence of a new kind of authoritarian state?

In an age of irresponsible privatization, unchecked individualism, celebrity culture, unfettered consumerism and a massive flight from moral responsibility, it has become more and more difficult to acknowledge that educators and other cultural workers have an enormous responsibility in opposing the current threat to the planet and everyday life by bringing democratic political culture back to life. Lacking a self-consciously democratic political focus or project, teachers are often reduced either to the role of a technician or functionary engaged in formalistic rituals, unconcerned with the disturbing and urgent problems that confront the larger society or the consequences of one’s pedagogical practices and research undertakings. In opposition to this model, with its claims to, and conceit of, political neutrality, it is crucial that teachers in Chicago and cities across the United States combine the mutually interdependent roles of critical educator and active citizen. This requires finding ways to connect the practice of classroom teaching with the operations of power in the larger society and to provide the conditions for students to view themselves as critical agents capable of making those who exercise authority and power answerable for their actions. The role of a critical education is not to train students solely for jobs, but also to educate them to question critically the institutions, policies and values that shape their lives, relationships to others, and myriad connections to the larger world. Equally important is the task of teacher unions all over America to forge alliances with a range of social movements so that the struggle for education is connected to the struggle for social provisions, a new understanding of politics, and the development of mass movements that can shut down the savagery of a neoliberal public pedagogy and economic machine that is the enemy of any viable notion of democracy.

Education is never innocent, and if it is to be understood and problematized as a form of academic labor, educators must resist all calls to depoliticize pedagogy through appeals to either scientific objectivity or ideological dogmatism. Educational dogmatism now takes the form of blatant attacks on unions, the dissolution of public schools largely inhabited by poor minority students, the imposition of disciplinary apparatuses that criminalize the behavior of low-income and poor students of color, and the development of curricula that deadens the mind and soul through a narrow pedagogy of test-taking. What is happening in Chicago and other cities in the United States is the production of pedagogy of repression. This suggests the need for educators to rethink the purpose and meaning of education, the crucial importance of pedagogy in a democracy, and the collective struggles that will have to be waged against neoliberal racism and its attempts to dismantle the power of teachers to gain control over the conditions of their labor.

Education must be reclaimed as central to any viable notion of citizenship, civic responsibility and democracy itself. What Rahm Emmanuel and his ilk fear is the potential of public education to enable students to think critically, hold power accountable and imagine education as a form of educated hope. Education and pedagogy cannot be reduced to the dictates of an audit culture with its rendering of critical thought nil and void just as it elevates a mindless pedagogy of test-taking as the ultimate pedagogical practice and the final arbiter over what constitutes quality teaching, learning and what it means to be educated. What is lost in this pedagogical practice, is a pedagogy that provides the conditions for students to come to grips with their own power, master the best histories and legacies of education available, learn to think critically and be willing to hold authority accountable – and most importantly, the dangerous notion that changing attitudes is not enough and that students should also be pressed to exercise a fearsome form of social responsibility as engaged citizens willing to struggle for social, economic and political justice. This is the last approach to education that the current mayor of Chicago wants to see materialize in the cities’ public schools.

What Chicago public schools teachers are fighting for in their three days of demonstrations is the right to define teaching as a performative practice that is not only about teaching young people to be literate and knowledgeable but also to embrace the mutually informing modalities of power and knowledge so as to engage education as an act of intervention in the world, one that moves beyond simple matters of critique and understanding. At the essence of the brave struggles waged by the Chicago public school teachers is the recognition that any viable approach to pedagogy must acknowledge the crucial nature of the labor conditions necessary for teacher autonomy, cooperation, decent working conditions, safety of the children, and the relations of power necessary to give teachers and students the capacity to restage power in productive ways – ways that point to self-development, self-determination and social agency.

What these three days of demonstrations must address is that without power over the conditions of their labor, teachers become pawns in a neoliberal politics in which they are deskilled, reduced to security guards, and work under conditions that transform education into a form of training. High-stakes testing and its corresponding tactic of promoting cheating among administrators, putting into play the most degrading forms of competition, and its killing of the civic imagination is both a debased form of instrumental rationality and a reification of method – put another way, a kind of methodological madness. What needs to be addressed is that pedagogy is more than a method or its antithesis, a free-wheeling conversation between students and teachers. On the contrary, it is precisely by recognizing that teaching is always directive – that is, an act of intervention inextricably mediated through particular forms of authority that teachers can offer students – for whatever use they wish to make of them – a variety of analytic tools, diverse historical traditions and a wide range of knowledge. At issue here is a pedagogical practice that must provide the conditions for students to learn and narrate themselves and for teachers to be learners attentive to the histories, knowledge and experiences that students bring to the classroom and any other sphere of learning. In this instance, pedagogy should enable students to learn how to govern rather than be governed.

The war being waged against Chicago Public schools, teachers and students is the product of a corporate ideology and pedagogy that numbs the mind and the soul, emphasizing repressive modes of learning that promote winning at all costs, learning how not to question authority, and disdaining the hard work of learning how to be thoughtful, critical, and attentive to the power relations that shape everyday life and the larger world. As learning is privatized, depoliticized, and reduced to teaching students how to be good consumers, any viable notions of the social, public values, citizenship and democracy wither and die.

What role might public school teachers take in light of poisonous assaults waged on public schools by the forces of neoliberalism? In the most immediate sense, they can raise their collective voices against the influence of corporations that are flooding societies with a culture of war, consumerism, commercialism and privatization. They can show how this culture of commodified cruelty and violence is only one part of a broader and all-embracing militarized culture of war, the arms industry, and a Darwinian survival-of the-fittest ethic that increasingly disconnects schools from public values, the common good and democracy itself. They can bring all of their intellectual and collective resources together to critique and dismantle the imposition of high-stakes testing and other commercially driven modes of accountability on schools. They can mobilize young people and others to defend education as a public good by advocating for policies that invest in schools rather than in the military-industrial complex and its massive and expensive weapons of death, for instance, the US government’s investment in procuring a number of F35 jets that cost $137 million each. They can educate young people and a larger public to fight against putting police in schools, modeling schools after prisons, and implementing zero tolerance policies that largely punish poor minority children.

Instead of investing in schools, children, health care, jobs for young people, and much needed infrastructures, neoliberal societies celebrate militarism, hyper-masculinity, extreme competition, and a survival of the fittest ethic while exhibiting disdain for any form of shared bonds, dependency and compassion for others. Advocates of neoliberalism have eliminated social provisions, destroyed pension plans, eliminated health-care benefits, allowed inequality to run wild, and have done so in order to safeguard and expand the assets of the rich and powerful. As social bonds and the institutions that support them disappear from such societies, so do the formative cultures that make civic education, critical literacy, and cultures of questioning possible. Too many school systems operate within disciplinary apparatuses that turn public education into either an extension of the prison-industrial complex or the culture of the mall. When not being arrested for trivial rule violations, students are subjected to walls, buses, and bathrooms that become giant advertisements for consumer products, many of which are detrimental to the health of students, contributing to the obesity crisis in America. Increasingly, even curricula are organized to reflect the sound of the cash register, hawking products for students to buy and promoting the interests of corporations that celebrate fossil fuels as an energy source, sugar-filled drinks, and a Disney-like view of the world. And of course, this commodification of public education is migrating to higher education with the speed of light. University student centers are being modeled after department stores, complete with an endless array of vendors trying to sell credit cards to a generation already swimming in debt. University faculty members are valued more for their ability to secure grants than for their scholarship.

What is encouraging about the growing opposition of the Chicago teachers to the poisonous policies, pedagogies, and shameless racism of Mayor Rahm Emanuel is their willingness, under the inspiring educational leadership of Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, to develop a discourse of both critique and possibility. This has meant developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect reading the word with reading the world and doing so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people as critical agents and engaged citizens. In taking up this project, Lewis and others have struggled to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to become critical and engaged citizens who have the knowledge and courage to struggle in order to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. Hope in this instance is educational, removed from the fantasy of idealism, unaware of the constraints facing the dream of a democratic society. Educated hope is not a call to overlook the difficult conditions that shape both schools and the larger social order. On the contrary, it is the precondition for providing those languages, values, relations of power and collective struggles that point the way to a more democratic and just world.

Educated hope provides the basis for dignifying the labor of teachers; it offers up critical knowledge linked to democratic social change; it affirms shared responsibilities; and it encourages teachers and students to recognize justice, equality and social responsibility as fundamental dimensions of learning. Such hope offers the possibility of thinking beyond the given. As difficult as this task may seem to educators, if not to a larger public, it is a struggle worth waging.

It is important to note that democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as public and higher education 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 be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. 11. The right-wing governors, corporate-affiliated politicians, and the shameless hedge-fund managers and billionaires are waging a war in order to colonize public education and destroy the dignity of teachers, students and critical learning. The Chicago teachers refuse to believe that the antidemocratic market-driven forces attacking American public schools are irreversible, part of a new common sense that is beyond critical inquiry and dissent. The three days of demonstrations hold a wider meaning for all Americans. Not only do they demonstrate that the future is still open, but that the time has come through a show of collective struggle and moral and political outrage that public education is crucial to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, a renewed sense of social agency and an impassioned, collective political will. Public school teachers are one of the few remaining forces left in the land of corrupt bankers, hedge-fund managers and right-wing politicians who can imagine the promise of democracy and are willing to fight for it. The struggle being waged by the Chicago Public School teachers is part and parcel of a battle for the essence of education, if not democracy itself.


See, for example, David Harvey, The New Imperialism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Wendy Brown, Edgework (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008); Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2010).


Valerie Strauss, “Three Days of Marches in chicago to Protest School Closings,” The Washington Post (May 17, 2013).


Travis Waldron, “Why Is Chicago Devoting $125 Million To Build A Basketball Arena For A Private University?,” ThinkProgress (May 15, 2013).


See, for instance, on the rise of the racist punishing state, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010); on the severe costs of massive inequality, Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012); on the turning of public schools into prisons, see Annette Fuentes, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse (New York: Verso, 2011).


Peter Brogan, “What’s Behind the Attack on Teachers and Public Education?” Solidarity (September 14, 2012).


Quoted in Michael L. Silk and David L. Andrews. “(Re)Presenting Baltimore: Place, Policy, Politics, and Cultural Pedagogy.” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 33 (2011), p. 436.


Terry Eagleton, “Reappraisals: What is the worth of social democracy?” Harper’s Magazine, (October 2010), p. 78.


Alex Honneth, Pathologies of Reason (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), p. 188.


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 Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism; Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism.


For examples of this tradition, see Maria Nikolakaki, ed. Critical Pedagogy in the Dark Ages: Challenges and Possibilities, (New York: Peter Lang, 2012); Henry A. Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy (New York: Continuum, 2011).


See, Henry A. Giroux, The Education Deficit and the War on Youth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

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