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Neoliberalism and the Politics of Higher Education: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux

Dr. Henry A. Giroux delivers a speech on "Youth and the Politics of Disposability in Dark Times." (Screengrab: McMaster Humanities)

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Henry Giroux “Youth and the Politics of Disposability in Dark Times”: Dr. Henry A. Giroux argues that with the rise of market fundamentalism and the ensuing economic and financial meltdown, youth are facing a crisis unlike that of any other generation. Young people, especially low income and poor minority youth, are no longer seen as a social investment but are increasingly interpreted as a social problem and burden.

Also see: Henry A. Giroux | The War Against Teachers as Public Intellectuals in Dark Times; From Penn State to JPMorgan Chase and Barclays: Destroying Higher Education, Savaging Children and Extinguishing Democracy; and Beyond the Swindle of the Corporate University: Higher Education in the Service of Democracy.

Chronis Polychroniou: How do you define neoliberalism?

Henry Giroux: Neoliberalism, or what can be called the latest stage of predatory capitalism, is part of a broader project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital. It is a political, economic and political project that constitutes an ideology, mode of governance, policy and form of public pedagogy.

As an ideology, it construes profit-making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and an irrational belief in the market to solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations.

As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life free of government regulations, driven by a survival of the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social costs.

As a policy and political project, neoliberalism is wedded to the privatization of public services, selling off of state functions, deregulation of finance and labor, elimination of the welfare state and unions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, and the marketization and commodification of society.

To read more work by Henry A Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, please click here.

As a form of public pedagogy and cultural politics, neoliberalism casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality. One consequence is that neoliberalism legitimates a culture of cruelty and harsh competitiveness and wages a war against public values and those public spheres that contest the rule and ideology of capital. It saps the democratic foundation of solidarity, degrades collaboration, and tears up all forms of social obligation.

This interview was previously published in the Greek newspaper, Eleftherotypia. (To translate to English, please hit the button on top of the page.)

Polychroniou: You claim neoliberalism is the most dangerous ideology of our times. In what ways?

Giroux: Neoliberalism creates a political landscape that destroys the social state, social protections, and democracy itself. As a theater of cruelty, it produces massive inequality in wealth and income, puts political power in the hands of ruling financial elites, destroys all vestiges of the social contract, and increasingly views those marginalized by race, class, disability and age as redundant and disposable. It facilitates the dismantling of democracy and the rise of the punishing state by criminalizing social problems and ruling through a crime-control complex. It also removes economics and markets from the discourse of social obligations and social costs.

The results are all around us, ranging from ecological devastation and widespread economic impoverishment to the increasing incarceration of large segments of the population marginalized by race and class. The language of possessive individualism now replaces the notion of the public good and all forms of solidarity not aligned with market values. Under neoliberalism the social is pathologized. As public considerations and issues collapse into the morally vacant pit of private visions and narrow self-interests, the bridges between private and public life are dismantled, making it almost impossible to determine how private troubles are connected to broader public issues. Long-term investments are now replaced by short-term profits while compassion and concern for others are viewed as a weakness.

Neoliberalism drains the pubic treasury while feeding the profits of the rich and the voracious military-industrial complex. In the end, it abolishes institutions meant to eliminate human suffering, protect the environment, ensure the right of unions, and provide social provisions. It has no vision of the good society or the public good and it has no mechanisms for addressing society’s major economic, political, and social problems.

Polychroniou: What is, for you, the role and the mission of the university?

Giroux: Higher education must be understood as a democratic public sphere – a space in which education enables students to develop a keen sense of prophetic justice, claim their moral and political agency, utilize critical analytical skills, and cultivate an ethical sensibility through which they learn to respect the rights of others. Higher education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead, but also to educate students to make authority and power politically and morally accountable while at the same time sustaining a democratic, formative public culture. Higher education may be one of the few public spheres left where knowledge, values and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope and a substantive democracy. Democracy places civic demands upon its citizens, and such demands point to the necessity of an education that is broad-based, critical, and supportive of meaningful civic values, participation in self-governance, and democratic leadership. Only through such a formative and critical educational culture can students learn how to become individual and social agents, rather than merely disengaged spectators, able both to think otherwise and to act upon civic commitments that demand a reordering of basic power arrangements fundamental to promoting the common good and producing a meaningful democracy.

Polychroniou: For years now, you have been saying that higher education is under attack by market fundamentalism – and you are, of course, absolutely right. Why are governments all over the world keen on turning public universities into training facilities for corporations?

Giroux: In the United States and in many other countries, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to low funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the lack of faculty self-governance, all of which not only contradicts the culture and democratic value of higher education but also makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university as a democratic public sphere. Decreased financial support for higher education stands in sharp contrast to increased support for tax benefits for the rich, big banks, military budgets, and mega corporations.

Rather than enlarge the moral imagination and critical capacities of students, too many universities are now wedded to producing would-be hedge fund managers, depoliticized students, and creating modes of education that promote a “technically trained docility.” Strapped for money and increasingly defined in the language of corporate culture, many universities are now driven principally by vocational, military and economic considerations while increasingly removing academic knowledge production from democratic values and projects. The ideal of the university as a place to think, to engage in thoughtful consideration, promote dialogue and learn how to hold power accountable is viewed as a threat to neoliberal modes of governance. At the same time, higher education is viewed by the apostles of market fundamentalism as a space for producing profits, educating a docile labor force, and a powerful institution for indoctrinating students into accepting the obedience demanded by the corporate order.

Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability (Paradigm Publishers, 2012); Education and the Crisis of Public Values (Peter Lang, 2011); Youth in a Suspect Society (Palgrave, 2009); Politics After Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (Paradigm, 2010); Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Paradigm, 2010); The Mouse that Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (co-authored with Grace Pollock, Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism (Peter Lang, 2011), and Henry Giroux on Critical Pedagogy (Continuum, 2011). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors and a founder of our Public Intellectual Project. His web site is

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