This is a difficult time in American history. The American people have every right to demand to live in peace, enjoy the comforts of economic security, have access to decent health care, be able to send their children to quality schools and live with a measure of security. And yet, at a time when public values are subordinated to the rationality of profits, exchange values and unbridled self-interest, politics and the institutions and culture that support it become corrupt, devoid of agents and reduced to empty rituals largely orchestrated by those who control the wealth, income, media and commanding institutions of American society. As we have just witnessed in the debate on health care reform, the interests of the vast majority of American people for a public option and the extension of Medicare have been totally lost on a Congress that has been corrupted by power and its comfortable and shameful relations with those who control the military-industrial-academic complex. Public values, public spheres and the notion of the common good are viewed by politicians of both major parties as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or they are simply treated as a drain on the society, viewed as a sign of weakness, if not pathology. Ethical considerations and social responsibility are now devalued, if not disdained, in a society wedded to short term investments, easy profits and a mode of economics in which social costs are increasingly borne by the poor while financial and political benefits are reaped by the rich. Unchecked self-interest and ruthless, if not trivial, modes of competition now replaces politics or at least become the foundation for politics as complex issues are reduced to a friend/enemy, winner/loser dichotomies. The crass social Darwinism played out on reality television now finds its counterpart in the politics of both the Democratic and Republican Parties. For instance, the Republican Party’s only identifying ideology is that it is against anything that supports the common good and undercuts the profits of corporations and the rich. At the same time, Democrats have given up any vestige of a progressive politics and vision, aligning their ideals to conform to the interests of the lobbyists who now represent the not-so-invisible shadow government.
Instead of public spheres that promote dialogue, debate and arguments with supporting evidence, we have entertainment spheres that infantilize almost everything they touch while offering opinions that utterly disregard evidence, truth and civility. Politics has come under the sway of multiple forms of fundamentalism, becoming more militarized, privatized and divorced from any notion of the common good or public welfare. Violence saturates the culture, a brutalizing masculinity cancels out a respect for the disadvantaged other and a collective ignorance is fueled by the assumption that intelligence and thoughtfulness should be dismissed as a form of elitism. Populism, or at least the Sarah Palin version, has little resemblance to genuine resistance to the anti-democratic tendencies in American society and now plays out as a binge on illiteracy and stupidity. Screen culture in its many manifestations signals if not celebrates the collapse of politics and the coming apocalypse. Making the world a better place has given way to collective narratives about how to survive alone in a world, the destruction of which is just a matter of time. Death, fear and insecurity trump crucial questions about what it means to apprehend the conditions to live a good life in common with others. Not only is the issue of the good life and the conditions that make it possible often lost in the babble of the infotainment state, but the market values that produced the economic crisis have so devalued the concept and practice of democracy that Americans find it hard to even define its meaning outside of the sham of money-driven elections and the freedom to shop.
In the last decade, the representative functions of democracy have not only taken a steep dive in light of a political system, the policies of which are shaped by powerful corporations and the imperatives of the rich, but also made largely dysfunctional because of a sham electoral system intimately tied to wealth and power. The dominant media largely functions as a form of moral anesthesia and political firewall that both legitimates a ruthless and failed free-market system, while failing to make visible the workings of a casino capitalism that rejects as a weakness any measure of compassion, care, trust and vulnerability. As the values and interests of the market become a template for all of society, the only institutions, social relations, public spheres and modes of agency that matter are those that pay homage to the rule of mobile capital and the interests of financial titans. What the current financial crisis has revealed has less to do with the so called greed of Wall Street moguls than with the increasing fragility of a market-driven system that produces inequalities in every sphere of life, making its ode to democracy and the good life a pure sham. Moreover, the formative culture that legitimates market fundamentalism and market democracy does more than erase any vestige of self-regulation and public accountability; it also eliminates the language of self-reflection along with any form of productive discourse about the common good, public welfare and the conditions that make all life worth living. Market-driven culture rejects the assumption that freedom is a shared experience in which self-interest is subordinated to the affirmation of public values, the common good and the notion of social responsibility implied in recognizing and transforming the conditions that make the lives of others precarious. As Judith Butler masterfully puts it:
Precariousness implies living socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all. Reciprocally, it implies being impinged upon by the exposure and dependency of others, most of whom remain anonymous. These are not necessarily relations of love or even of care, but constitute obligations toward others, most of whom we cannot name and do not know, and who may or may not bear traits of familiarity to an established sense of who “we” are. In the interest of speaking in common parlance, we could say that “we” have such obligations to “others” and presume that we know who “we” are in such an instance. The social implication of this view, however, is precisely that the “we” does not, and cannot, recognize itself, that it is riven from the start, interrupted by alterity, as Levinas has said, and the obligations “we” have are precisely those that disrupt any established notion of the “we.”
We have lived through a decade in which the call for security has lost any semblance to truth and political necessity and has become the legitimating code for imposing on the American people an imperial presidency under George W. Bush and increasingly under Obama, undermined crucial civil liberties and expanded the violence and terrorism associated with a permanent war economy and culture. Democracy thrives on dissent, but dissent and critical citizenship cannot take place in a country marked by a widening gap between political democracy and socio-economic capacities. Inequality is not just a normal outgrowth of a market driven economy; it is fundamental to a political system that destroys democracy. A country that allows the power of multi-national corporations to be exempt from rule of democratic law has already lost the battle between balancing civil liberties and national security. Any call for further giving up civil liberties suggest a dangerous silence about the degree to which civil liberties are already at risk and how the current call for national safety might work to further a different type of terrorism, one not marked by bombs and explosions, but by state supported repression, the elimination of dissent, and the death of both the reality and promise of democracy.
At this time of national crisis, we need to recognize that the current economic recession cannot be understood apart from the crisis of democracy itself. It is all the more crucial, therefore, to recognize in a post Gilded Age moment that those public spaces that traditionally have offered forums for debating norms, critically engaging ideas, making private issues public and evaluating judgments are disappearing under the juggernaut of free-market values, corporate power and intense lobbying pressure on the part of the country’s most powerful financial institutions. Schools, universities, the media, and other aspects of the cultural education apparatus are being increasingly privatized or corporatized and removed from the discourse of the public good. Consequently, it becomes all the more crucial for educators, parents, social movements, and others to raise fundamental questions about what it means to revitalize a politics and ethics that takes seriously “such values as citizen participation, the public good, political obligation, social governance, and community.” The call for a revitalized politics grounded in an effective democracy substantively challenges the dystopian practices of the new culture of fear and neoliberalism – with their all-consuming emphasis on insecurity, market relations, commercialization, privatization and the creation of a worldwide economy of part-time workers – against their utopian promises. Such an intervention confronts Americans with the problem as well as challenge of developing those public spheres – such as the media, higher education, and other cultural institutions – that provide the conditions for creating citizens who are capable of exercising their freedoms, competent to question the basic assumptions that govern political life and skilled enough to participate in developing social movements that will enable them to shape the basic social, political and economic orders that govern their lives.
In spite of the fact that some notions of the public good have been recalled from exile in light of the economic recession and the election of Barack Obama, many young people and adults today still view the private as the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure or possibility. Market forces continue to focus on the related issues of consumption, excessive profits and fear. Reduced to the act of consuming, citizenship is “mostly about forgetting, not learning” in spite of the hyped-up and increasing appeal to bearing the burden collectively of hard times – a burden that always falls on the shoulders of working people, but not the banks or other commanding financial institutions. Moreover, as social visions of equity and justice cede to public memory, unfettered brutal self-interests combine with retrograde social polices to make security and safety a top domestic priority. One consequence is that all levels of government are being hollowed out, reducing their role to dismantling the gains of the welfare state as they increasingly construct policies that now criminalize social problems, sell off public goods to the highest corporate bidders and prioritize penal methods over social investments. Increasingly, notions of the public cease to resonate as a site of utopian possibility, as a fundamental space for how we reactivate our political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. The growing lack of justice in American society rises proportionately to the lack of political imagination and collective hope. We live at a time when the forces and advocates of a market-driven fundamentalism and militarism not only undermine all attempts to revive the culture of politics as an ethical response to the demise of democratic public life, but also aggressively wage a war against the very possibility of creating noncommodified public spheres and forums that provide the conditions for critical education, link learning to social change, political agency to the defense of public goods and intellectual courage to the refusal to surrender knowledge to the highest bidder. Understood as both a set of economic policies and an impoverished notion of citizenship, neoliberalism represents not just a series of market-driven programs, but also a coherent set of cultural, political and educational practices that mobilize communities around shared fears and collective insecurities.
Unlike some theorists who suggest that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement has either come to an end or is in a state of terminal arrest in light of the current calls for patriotic unity, I believe that the current, depressing state of politics points to the urgent challenge of reformulating the crisis of democracy as part of a fundamental crisis of vision, meaning, education and political agency. Politics devoid of a democratic vision degenerates into either cynicism or appropriates a view of power that appears to be equated only with domination. Lost from such accounts is the recognition that democracy has to be struggled over – even in the face of a most appalling crisis of political agency and threats to national security. There is also little attention paid to the fact that the struggle over politics and democracy is inextricably linked to creating public spheres where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only to actually perform as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. Central here is the assumption that politics is not simply about power, but also, as the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis pointed out, “has to do with political judgments and value choices,” indicating that questions of civic education – learning how to become a skilled citizen – are central to both the struggle over political agency and democracy itself. Finally, there is the widespread refusal among many Americans and educators to recognize that the issue of civic education – with its emphasis on critical thinking, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and knowledge, and using the resources of history to extend democratic rights and identities – is not only the foundation for expanding and enabling political agency, but that such education takes place across a wide variety of public spheres through the very force of culture itself.
Any progressive understanding of politics must challenge the assumptions that a transformative, democratically inspired notion of politics is in terminal arrest. While the conditions for such a politics may be under assault in what might be called a progressive administration, the basis for expanding and deepening democracy must be part of an ongoing struggle of engaged critique and civic courage. Critical knowledge grounded in pressing social problems offers individuals and groups an important resource for shaping the conditions that bear down on their lives, enabling them to resist those forces that want to narrow the meaning of political freedom and social citizenship. The production of such knowledge must be connected to the urgent call to revitalize the language of civic education and ethical imagination as part of a broader discourse of political agency and critical citizenship in a global world. Reclaiming the connection between the political and the ethical imagination as a pedagogical act may be one of the most crucial challenges facing the American public in the 21st century. If the institutions and conditions for a critical formative culture of questioning and civic engagement necessary for thinking beyond the narrow framing mechanisms of casino capitalism, militarism and religious fundamentalism do not come into play, it is conceivable that the current economic recession will be repeated within a few short years, and American society will slip into a form of authoritarianism that will give up even its most dubious claims on democracy. The current crisis has systemic and ideological origins, and both must be addressed through a new political language in which ethical imagination couples with a sense of educated hope and the need for collective agents willing to build alternative public spheres and viable critical social movements.
We currently live in a society in which the coupling of cynicism and multiple forms of illiteracy undermine the possibility of critical thought, agency and action. Public values or the public good when they are invoked are often couched in a nostalgic discourse about the New Deal or the Great Society. Rather than viewed as a legacy that needs to be reclaimed, reimagined and renewed, visions of the public good and the public values they embody are sequestered to the historical past, put on display like a museum piece that are worth viewing, but not an ideal worth struggling over. Without an urgent reconsideration of the crucial place of public values in the shaping of American society, the meaning and gains of the past that extend from the civil rights movement to the antiwar movements of the ’60s will be lost, offering neither models nor examples of struggles forged in the heat of reclaiming democratic values, relations and institutions.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich has argued recently that the most striking characteristic of the last decade is how much the American people have been conned, played for suckers with arguments about weapons of mass destruction, the genius of Karl Rove and the importance of corporations in shaping our lives, to name a few of the lies. Actually, as insightful as Rich is, he gets it backwards. His claim that the American public has been fed a massive diet of illusions enabling a big con overlooks the power these ideas or deliberately shaped cons have as part of an official and legitimating ideology. These ideas are not illusions; they are the symbolic extensions of real and systemic power relations, and the often commonsense views they promote are powerful modes of legitimation. The issue that needs to be addressed is not simply about recognizing illusions, but dismantling the socio-economic-educational forces that produce and circulate them as part of a larger framing of distinct and systemic power relations. If we are to reclaim any viable notion of the political along with the public values that give it meaning, we must address the primacy of pedagogy and critical inquiry as part of a broader attempt to revitalize the conditions for individual and social agency, while simultaneously addressing the most basic problems facing the prospects for social justice and global democracy. Public values matter, and they must become part of any ongoing attempt to give meaning to politics, the ethical imagination and the promise of an aspiring democracy.