Neoliberalism Paved the Way for Book Banning to Take Hold in US Schools

The growing movement to ban books, install surveillance cameras in classrooms, and delimit the boundaries of acceptable language and ideas in schools across the United States aims to limit the intellectual autonomy of teachers, suppress critical thought and outlaw dissent, offering a glimpse of a future of fascist miseducation.

Many of the efforts to ban books in local school districts are either astroturfed — seemingly grassroots movements that are in fact funded by wealthy organizations — or knee-jerk reactions to the increasingly fascist politics of the far right, an authoritarian slide steered by the sensationalism and fearmongering of conservative media. Fascism, as political theorists have taught us, desperately needs a spectacle laden with emotional appeals, generating fear, distraction, paranoid conspiracy and xenophobic senses of encroaching threat.

Yet, at the same time, the fascist politics pursued through the current assault on education has no future, only nostalgia for uncomplicated pasts of unity and purity that never existed. Advocates of book banning and other repressive education legislation are acting out fantasies of control over those who are unable to reckon with the overlapping crises of the era, the prospect of progressive change, or even the notion of a future that is better than the present. Their politics are strictly reactionary, evincing a desire for the stability of inequality, hierarchy, and oppression as a world promised to them by centuries of theft and violence slips through their fingers.

However, to say that fascist miseducation has no future is not to claim it could not ultimately come to pass. The groundwork for fascist miseducation is being laid ideologically, and through what Yale Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley calls “fascism’s legal phase.” And though the foundations for meaningful, critical education have been weakened by decades of privatization, the inability to offer a positive vision of the future indicates a significant vulnerability at the heart of the far right’s fascist politics.

Among the immediate threats in the movement to ban books that foster critical thought concerning various histories of oppression, and progressive achievements concerning matters of class, race, gender and sexuality, is the repressive assault on the capacity of educators to function as intellectuals. Almost universal among historical analyses of fascist politics is the well-documented lesson that fascism first targets intellectuals and the left. There is no reason to discern the current movement to ban books and instill fear in teachers, already precarious in the wake of decades of neoliberal austerity and union-busting, as anything other than the leading edge of a growing fascist political movement. The aim of this movement is to neutralize education, and to purge schools of critical educators, who are among the few public workers whose job is to inspire curiosity, expose youth to the art of social criticism and cultivate a collective spirit of dissent in the face of injustice. Fascism has no need for intellectuals, only ideologues and enforcers.

For those who perceive the truth that critical thinking is intrinsic to freedom, the banning of books, lists of which grow by the day, along with the outlawing of specific words and ideas, and the repression of teachers’ autonomy, is obviously distressing, a dangerous turn not without its own long history in U.S. schools. These acts threaten an already threadbare social fabric, auguring a future of fascist miseducation, in which the act of teaching itself — but not ideological enforcement, the very fear projected by the right — becomes an increasingly dangerous endeavor.

The fascist arm of the right wing, which has in recent decades sought to abandon public education to austerity and privatization (though not without the compliance of many liberals), now returns with a vengeance, aiming to control schools through draconian legislation, neo-McCarthyist surveillance and authoritarian imposition of fear. In this grim portrait of the future of education, those left in positions of authority in schools will be lathered up for fascist collaboration, ready and willing to evade all intellectual or moral responsibility to become agents of miseducation.

The conditions are ripe for fascist miseducation in the U.S., where public educators have been slowly stripped of an intellectual role since the Reagan administration, deskilled and depoliticized by high-stakes testing, curricular standardization, corporate profiteering and the instrumentalization of teacher education programs, which increasingly avoid exposing aspiring educators to pedagogical approaches that foster inquiry, curiosity and empathy in students, favoring instead reductive approaches to socially decontextualized fads that do not question or challenge established systems of domination. Education, in this neoliberal formulation, constitutes a “dead zone of the imagination,” where the flourishing of ideas is a threat, not the aim.

The conservative movement to ban books has the potential to be effective because the neoliberal approach to educational reform has been so successful in reframing public education as a private good to be consumed, and subsequently transformed into “human capital,” which supposedly allows individuals to seek their own success in capitalism’s supposedly meritocratic but empirically unequal and alienating labor markets. Within the prevailing ideology of this reform movement, schooling must be reconstructed in the image of a marketplace, an atomized realm of consumer choice (for individuals and families but not for society as a collective body) that is evacuated of egalitarian political, social or cultural purpose.

Of course, the economization of schooling has historical roots that pre-date neoliberalism’s rise, but in the face of resurgent fascist politics, its neoliberal articulation has proven largely compatible with the advance of and entrenchment of white supremacy, ethnonationalism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. When parents view themselves strictly as proxy consumers of education for their children, and legislatures, the state and school administrators, in turn, tolerate such views, public education’s democratic potential is thwarted, falling to individualism that is designed to preclude the ability to comprehend the social, environmental and political forces that produce social conditions, an analytic ineptitude that paves the way for fascist politics to spread.

In opposition to conservative calls to depoliticize education, it is crucial to recognize that education is inherently political, a mode of cultural activity through which different visions of society and the future are imagined, explored, subjected to moral scrutiny and challenged. The perceived value of depoliticizing education, for most conservatives but for many liberals too, lies in the supposed necessity of its neutrality and the idealization of objective facts that are devoid of moral or political referents. Nevertheless, it is imperative to understand that reckoning with the assertion that education is fundamentally political does not threaten the objectivity or critical faculties of interpretation that should inhere within scientific and humanistic inquiry alike. Conversely, the denial of education’s political character neutralizes its ability to foster critical thought, or to generate new ideas, cultural and aesthetic forms, and visions of alternative futures.

It is only by recognizing education’s inherently political nature that societies can imbue it with democratic force and, in turn, cultivate the agency of populations to act transformatively. In the withering paradigm of fascist miseducation, history is eviscerated through the pernicious imposition of social amnesia, what public intellectual and McMaster University Professor Henry A. Giroux calls organized forgetting. This is a process by which the prospect of the future is foreclosed by destroying the capacity of reason and the suppression of knowledge concerning the origins of social problems that produce suffering. The society that fascist miseducation renders is snatched out of history, incarcerated in a prison house of tradition where hierarchy and authority prevail, and opposition to dominant ideas is met with violence. Cast in this light, fascism truly has no future.

It is indicative of the perverse psychology of fascist consciousness that its advocates rail against the supposed authoritarianism lurking behind the idea that freedom is an indelibly collective concept that must be held across difference rather than imposed via exclusion. Within the schema of fascist politics driving the book-banning efforts, it is not merely the abstract threat of ideas but the concrete threat of thinking itself — conceived as critical engagement with the ideas of others, especially those that challenge established forms of power, tradition, authority and hierarchy — that must be neutralized. The good society, in fascist consciousness, is one populated exclusively by a unified, undifferentiated people inoculated against critical thought, marching destructively backward toward a mythic past that never was. Within fascist politics there is only the prospect of achieving and maintaining stasis, foreclosing the prospect of the future.

While there is some hope to be found in the notion that fascist miseducation’s repressive tactics bear the seeds of its undoing, the immediate and long-term violence it portends must not be underestimated. Book banning, educational surveillance and the pursuit of historical erasure, are together the leading edge of a concerted push toward fascist miseducation, riding a wave of momentum that has gained speed over decades of the privatizing assault on public education.

Collective resistance to the rising tide of fascist miseducation must reckon with the insidious ideological support right-wing fascist politics have garnered from the economized language of neoliberalism. When conservatives declare “parental choice” regarding what their kids study in school, they lay unjust claim to the right to strip education of its role in social, cultural and democratic life. Choice, cast economically as the ability and decision to acquire not only commodities, but what were previously public services as well, parades as a quintessential marker of freedom, veiling the fact that consumer choice in the privatized realm of public goods and institutions becomes an elemental force in producing inequality and curtailing democracy.

In this neoliberal logic, when individuals make “educational choices,” such as refusing to allow their kids to be exposed to curricula that interrogate the sources of inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, or ecological crisis, their decisions are presumed to be beyond reproach because they are perceived (falsely) as democratic acts. Similarly, when a reactionary groundswell in any given municipality, school district or state issues calls to ban specific books, regardless of their relevance or humanistic value, the merging of neoliberal ideas with populist rationality accords dangerous legitimacy to what are, in fact, fascist acts of erasure. In the relative absence of faculties of interpretation or a shared language of critique, social and cultural analysis are left adrift. Here fascist politics can advance swiftly, but they are also able to plants seeds that may prove difficult to uproot once they begin to grow.

Fascism’s absence of a vision of the future offers a compelling reason to resist it immediately because any society without viable visions of the future is doomed. Key to resistance efforts is recognizing that education has a unique relationship to the future, the importance of which is augmented by the looming threats facing the left, marginalized groups and humanity itself as a planetary community. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt grasped this notion with the concept of natality, which she defined in The Human Condition as the “central category of political thought.” For Arendt, natality signals humanity’s inherent capacity to create novelty in the world through conscious action that could yield futures free of domination.

Education is fundamental to developing the potential that inheres within natality, but the fascist miseducation pursued currently by the far right aims instead to snuff out its relationship to natality, offering instead only dystopian repetition as we careen toward destruction and collapse.

Thus, the moment to resist fascism always precedes its emergence. As the radical historian Daniel Guérin explained long ago, the moment any society “allows the fascist wave to sweep over it, a long period of slavery and impotence begins — a long period during which socialist, even democratic, ideas are not merely erased from the base of public monuments and libraries, but, what is more serious, are rooted out of human brains.” This is no less true of fascism’s efforts to miseducate an entire generation in its quest to establish totalitarian rule, the potential fallout of which is difficult to calculate in both the short and long term.

The task ahead is surely one of radical opposition to the enforcement of fascist miseducation, but it must be also apprehended as a struggle to imagine and enact an alternative future. This task requires sustained, collective engagement with history, culture, politics and power. Against the dystopian cynicism behind the ardent pursuit of fascist miseducation, the left must maintain an unwavering commitment to fostering critical thought, further integrating that capacity into institutional and movement struggles, as well as modes of counter-education.

To borrow from German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s utopian classic The Principle of Hope, the creation of something new can “begin only when society and existence become radical, i.e., grasp their roots. But the root of history is the working, creating human being…. Once he has grasped himself and established what is his [sic], without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been.”

Protecting education’s role in fostering critical thinking and democratic capacities must be at the heart of efforts to counter the far right’s slide toward fascist politics and to articulate liberated visions of the future if we are to have any future at all.