Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?
Henry A. Giroux
Palgrave MacMillan, 2009
When, in a casual aside during a Macroeconomics lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 1976, Dr. Jamshed K. S. Ghandi mused about how and when children had gone from being “investment goods” to becoming “consumer goods,” I assumed that he was referring to the already-noticeable trend among middle class baby boomers like myself to prepare for the arrival of a new baby with the purchase of vast quantities of baby “materiel” in constant need of disposal, upgrade, restocking, making the child a locus of unremitting consumption. In his remarkable interview with Carl Stern in 1972, A.J Heschel had already used this anecdote to define “dehumanization”:
I know a father who was professionally busy when his wife gave birth to a baby. And the first chance he had to see the baby was when the mother and baby came home. So he finally arrived, went over to the crib. The baby was in the crib. And he looked startled, amazed. His friend asked him, “Why do you look so startled?” His answer: “I cannot understand; how can they make such a crib for only $29.50.”
So, an alarm had already been sounded by certain perceptive spirits about the increasingly problematic relationship between our society and its children before what Dr. Henry Giroux has called our “war on youth” began in earnest at the end of that decade, a war that has converted childhood into a struggle for survival itself, a war that feeds on and destroys not only the youth designated as “disposable,” but all youth with a thoroughgoing ruthlessness and cruelty that makes the fiery furnaces of the child-eating Canaanite god, Moloch, seem compassionate in comparison.
As Dr. Ghandi’s question suggests, and Henry Giroux concedes in “Youth in a Suspect Society,” society’s relationship to its youth has always been ambivalent and contained an element of instrumentalization, but Giroux maintains that the present all-out assault on youth is unprecedented and should be a subject not only for concern, but also for focused activism from all those for whom human dignity and democracy are transcendent values.
Youth are “suspect” because they begin unconditioned and wholly dependent in a society that requires conformity and subscribes to a Hobbesian version of independence. Youth are suspect because they resist “correction,” homogenization, containment, because they have the audacity to whine about their shrinking prospects. A society that turns its youth into “suspects” is “suspect”: it commodifies children and junks those who are inadequate consumers into its human waste disposal systems – among which are prisons, schools redesigned as containment sites and the military. Society is “suspect” because it subscribes to a Thatcherite view of itself, that is, that it does not exist – not, at least, in the sense of a community responsible for the well-being and security of all of its members. Security, that is, as it is generally understood by humans everywhere – life, liberty and access to the minimal resources required to pursue happiness – not the perverted concept of security that has prevailed in our national discourse since 9/11 of protection from “the other.”
Those familiar with Giroux’s work published on Truthout are familiar with his exceedingly precise and quite distinctive use of language. “Youth is a Suspect Society” develops “categories and vocabularies” for an understanding of the increasing dangers our world presents to youth, especially, but hardly exclusively, to children of color and of the poor. He provides a clear explanation of the history and application of post-modernist concepts such as “biopolitics” and “governmentality” and continues “critical pedagogy’s” extension of pedagogy to include all the means by which society educates its members in their roles and its own functions. However, the power of “Youth in a Suspect Society,” as in all Giroux’s work, is generated by the fierce prophetic consciousness that informs it, the combination of outrage and hope that propels this scholar into nonacademic spheres, to reveal to us that our house is burning down and to show us the way to salvage it. Like the ancient prophets, his immediate and specific concern is for those most powerless to defend themselves against the rapacity of the powerful – the widows and orphans of yore – but his theme is the rot that affects us all when we fail to attend to the suffering of some:
… When young people in the United States are increasingly subject to forces that commodify them, criminalize them and deem them unworthy of receiving a critical and laudable education, it bodes very ill for the nation as a whole 
Giroux analyzes what he calls “the biopolitics of neoliberalism and disposability, examining it not only as an economic system, but also as an educational, cultural and political discourse that has laid the groundwork for a set of practices and policies in which young people are increasingly defined through market-driven ideas, social relations and values that are predatory in nature and punishing in their consequences, leaving a generation of young people with damaged lives, impoverished spirits and bankrupted hopes.” In the introduction to “Youth in a Suspect Society,” Giroux makes the connections between the plight of youth left to the vicissitudes of “the market” and the peril to democracy, between the shrinkage of the public sphere and the danger to the very notion of citizenship:
At the current time, solutions involving social problems have become difficult to imagine, let alone address. For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure, possibility. Culture as an activity in which young people actually produce the conditions of their own agency through dialogue, community participation, public stories and political struggle is being eroded. In its place we are increasingly surrounded by a “climate of cultural and linguistic privatization” in which culture becomes something you consume, and the only kind of speech that is acceptable is that of the fast-paced shopper. In spite of neoconservative and neoliberal claims that economic growth will cure social ills, the language of the market has no way of dealing with poverty, social inequality, or civil rights issues. It has no respect for noncommodified values and no vocabulary for recognizing and addressing social justice, compassion, decency, ethics, or, for that matter, its own antidemocratic forms of power. It has no way of understanding that the revolutionary idea of democracy, as Bill Moyers points out, is not just about the freedom to shop, formal elections, or the two-party system, “but the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.” These are political and educational issues, not merely economic concerns.
In the first chapter, “Born to Consume: The Pedagogy of Commodification,” Giroux demonstrates how our society has abandoned not only the reality, but also the idea, of making the world a better place for our children, shows that we have, in certain fundamental ways, abandoned even “bringing up” our children, as we allow their immersion in a media bath that promotes an impoverished muscle-bound caricature of masculinity to young boys, sexualizes young girls and commodifies all children into consumers and/or fodder for the various industries of containment and disposal. Giroux fully communicates the subtlety and insidiousness of the ambient culture’s invasion and colonization of the most intimate personal spaces and relations, a phenomenon that transcends any class divisions. He pinpoints the means by which well-intended adults, including parents, are marginalized – even ridiculed – and thus rendered impotent, or at the very least severely handicapped, in any attempt to resist the dehumanization and commodification of our children. He documents, “the erosion of the childhood imagination, the slow death of the ability of young people to imagine a future outside the lure of commodities, and the wearing away of any viable notion of human solidarity, social responsibility, and critically engaged citizenship. As the public domain is transformed into the ruins of a ‘homogenizing corporate monoculture,’ debate, critical dialogue, dissent, judgment, and thoughtfulness, all of which are central to any substantive democracy, become suspicious …” He argues that our children and our collective future are being sold off. Following in the footsteps of Hannah Arendt, he shows how our totalizing society eventually consumes its own members.
In chapters two, “Locked Up: Education and the Youth Crime Complex,” and three, “Locked Out: Youth and Academic Unfreedom,” Giroux focuses on institutions originally conceived to nurture and educate young citizens – school and the university – and their transformation into industries of control, containment and homogenization. Chapter two also documents the astonishing development and extension of the prison industry in the US, its grab for an ever-younger population and the invasion and sinister infiltration of its personnel, methods and discourses into formerly nurturing spaces such as schools. He reveals the distortions and fabrications that underlie calls for “academic freedom” that are thinly disguised political intrusions into the classroom as well as attacks not only on academic freedom, but on education itself: “teaching is about activating and questioning all forms of knowledge, providing young people with the tools to critically engage what they know and recognize the limits of their own knowledge. It is also about learning to think from the place of the other …” This threat to education is equally a threat to democracy: “Democracy cannot work if citizens are not autonomous, self-judging, curious, reflective, and independent – qualities that are indispensable for students if they are going to make vital judgments and choices … that provides the very foundation for students to learn not merely how to be governed, but also how to be capable of governing.”
“In the Shadow of the Gilded Age” – the final chapter of “Youth in a Suspect Society” – sums up the case for resisting neoliberalism’s “concerted assault on the very existence of politics and democracy, and the educational conditions that make them possible.” Giroux passionately argues against allowing “the alleged ‘ invisible hand’ of a market fundamentalism to mediate the most important decisions about life and death”, while “for most people under the regime of neoliberalism, everyday life has taken an ominous turn and is largely organized around questions of who is to survive and who is going to die.” Those who die or are disposed of are labeled “losers”; society’s victims are held individually and personally responsible for society’s collective failure to create the conditions that would allow all its members to enjoy a dignified and meaningful life. In this chapter, Giroux reviews some of the bleaker philosophical territory documenting technologies of control and the reduction of human existence to “bare life,” while affirming the possibility of resistance, of bringing into the world Jacques Derrida’s “democracy to come,” “a democracy that must always be open to the possibility of being contested, of contesting itself, of criticizing and indefinitely improving itself.” For Giroux the prophet, better is to be desired far above more, and this growth – in knowledge, self-knowledge, agency, humanity, individual and collective responsibility and concern, in imagination and play – is what matters, is what should be the subject of our most urgent and focused concern. And youth, the locus of society’s cruelest victimization, must become the locus of our most concerted resistance.
Many of Henry Giroux’s arguments and concerns will be familiar to Truthout readers, as well as his discerning eye for the telling detail, the obscure news item that will concretely hammer home an abstract proposition and the wondrous catholicity of his sources: as he argues for the ubiquity of pedagogical influences, he demonstrates a personal omnivorousness and disposition to learn from all that surrounds us. In the stunning lessons he draws from all sources, he provides those consumed with an inchoate sense of a pervasive societal malaise with the theory, the vocabulary and the examples to reflect and act upon the structure of our society.
1. A clip from the interview is available on youtube. The full text of the interview is reprinted in “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Essays,” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1996. p. 411.
2. “Youth in a Suspect Society; Democracy or Disposability?” by Henry A. Giroux, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009. p.145.
3. OpCit. p. xiii.
4. OpCit. p. 21.
5. OpCit. p.62.
6. OpCit. p.128.
7. Op. Cit. p.136.
8. OpCit. p.179.
9. OpCit. p.157
11. Cited in OpCit. p.138, citing Schor, “Born to Buy,” p. 16,20.
Palgrave MacMillan provided a reviewer copy of “Youth in a Suspect Society.”