What are the limitations and possibilities for reclaiming democracy as a radical idea amid the ruins of neoliberalism? This is the fundamental question posed by Henry Giroux’s important new book “Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability,” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm).
The financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath have shattered what little sense of legitimacy may have remained for the neoliberal project – the idea that societies founded on the principles of unrestrained capitalism and human greed would lead to a flatter and more prosperous world. The signs of human degradation are now impossible to ignore: spiraling levels of social inequality and insecurity; mass foreclosures; evaporating wages and savings; levels of unemployment, homelessness and poverty not seen since the Great Depression; and an explosion of personal bankruptcy and debt. Conversely, over the last two years, a series of popular uprisings have erupted across the planet. From Cairo to London, Athens to New York, Santiago to Montreal, a generation of young people, many of them unemployed and debt burdened, have begun to realize that their future is being systematically dismantled. What is at stake in these disparate movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street is a struggle over the very meaning and possibility of democracy as we drift further into the 21st century.
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Giroux has long been one of the most articulate and impassioned voices in cultural criticism. In “Twilight of the Social,” he turns his sights on the historical crisis of neoliberalism, its human casualties and how current global political movements might point toward a renewal of democratic life in the United States and beyond. “Twilight of the Social” unfolds over an introduction and five chapters that each read like short thematic essays. These include meditations on public education, new media and social networking, historical memory and the centrality of informed dissent within public culture. While Giroux’s perspective throughout the text is global in scope, his analysis is focused particularly on the erosion of social democracy in the United States. This is signaled by a number of concerns that animate the book, including what Giroux refers to as “a crisis in public values,” “the erosion of the social state,” the emergence of “a culture of cruelty and disposability” and the establishment of “a right-wing movement” in the United States that “embraces illiteracy and disdains logic, evidence and facts.”(i)
Giroux observes that since the 1980s, much of the hard-won progress made over the course of the 20th century has been rolled back in the United States. Under the aegis of neoliberal market discipline and neoconservative moral discipline, virtually all spheres related to the public have been made to serve corporate economic imperatives or have simply been eliminated altogether. These include the privatization and defunding of public education, health and human services, labor law and environmental protection and the mechanisms of financial regulation (such as abolishing the Glass-Steagall Act). As the legacy of the New Deal and the US labor, civil rights and feminist movements fade from collective memory, this retrenchment of the social has made the US the most inequitable and dysfunctional of advanced industrialized nations. Giroux locates this sense of dysfunction and decline squarely in a loss of public values and ethics. Not only has US society lost its sense of the public, Giroux argues, but public values and formative democratic cultures have become “irrelevant to the existing contemporary neoliberal order, which saps the foundation of social solidarity, weakens the bonds of social obligation and insists on the ability of markets to solve all social and individual problems.”(ii)
One of the most important insights in the book is that the current global crisis and crisis of US society cannot be reduced to the failures of financial regulation and/or the excessive greed and algorithmic abstractions spawned by financialized casino capitalism. In other words, the crisis before us runs far deeper than political economy. It is firmly embedded in that web of human relations we refer to as culture. This concern with culture has been a central theme throughout Giroux’s work. For Giroux, culture is much more than simply an aggregation of social relations – language, images, sounds, ideas and affective sensibilities. Culture is rather an educational force profoundly implicated in shaping the way we understand, relate and live together in the world. With the rise of a celebrity-obsessed, market-driven consumer society and three decades of right-wing attacks on the public sector, US culture has become increasingly fragmented and individualized – a site where seemingly all aspects of contemporary life from policy, citizenship, art, sex, friendship to ethical judgments are relegated to a permanent spectacle of commodification. This loss of non-commercial formative cultures and sense of mutuality has meant that individuals have little recourse to translate private problems into social concerns. The historian and political theorist Tony Judt observes that the result is an “eviscerated society” where “the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum, with nothing except authority and obedience binding the citizen to the state.”(iii)
While Giroux offers a powerful indictment of neoliberal capitalism and culture, “Twilight of the Social” is not simply a book about loss and the fading of social democratic commitments. It is rather centrally concerned with possibilities for the reinvigoration of reciprocity and possibility within democratic life. It would, therefore, be a mistake and a misreading to view Giroux’s intervention as a nostalgic call for a return to some mythical postwar liberal consensus that was always in reality riven by systemic contradictions, conflicts and inequalities. With this being said, Giroux recognizes that for democracy to have any meaning and efficacy we must advocate and struggle for those reforms and policies necessary to relieve immediate forms of human suffering and halt the continued degradation of public life. This might include fighting for universal public education and health care, robust human services and public infrastructure, the dismantling of the prison and military-industrial complexes and re-regulating an out-of-control culture of greed and corruption on Wall Street. However, Giroux views such efforts as only part of a far deeper struggle over creating the social conditions necessary to reclaim a vision of democracy that does not simply stall out in moral indignation, liberal reformism and the ritual of electoral politics – a ritual that has become increasingly emptied of meaning by the influence of corporate power, particularly within the brave new world of super PACs and Citizens United.
Giroux states that “radical democracy embraces the assumption that political and individual rights are drastically limited without both economic rights and the formative cultures that make informed critical citizens possible.”(iv) Drawing on the perspectives of C. Wright Mills, Sheldon Wolin and Cornelius Castoriadis, “Twilight of the Social” argues for a form of political imagination that not only recognizes the historical contradictions and forces in which we live, but can begin to draw communities and social networks together in service of creating a shared future worthy of our highest aspirations and ideals. Such commitments are based on an open comportment to a future in which the principles of nonviolence, reciprocity, justice, compassion and ecological sustainability might begin to form the basis for emergent global democratic publics. This points toward what Giroux describes as “the need to create new public spaces and the vocabulary for a politics in which a plurality of public spheres can promote, express and create the shared values necessary to a thriving democracy.”(v)
The literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams once noted that history is always a kinetic interplay between residual and emergent social formations.(vi) Now and again in the course of human events, systems enter into crisis. In these moments, established orthodoxies and ways of living are challenged and new ones inevitably emerge. “Twilight of the Social” doesn’t offer any easy answers. However, it does serve as an indispensable text for understanding the contemporary crisis and its discontents. Moreover, it offers fresh language and essential insights for imagining emergent democratic futures after neoliberalism.