Teachers Are Rising Up to Resist Neoliberal Attacks on Education

Hannah Arendt once argued that, “Thinking itself is dangerous to all creeds, convictions, and opinions.” In the current political climate, the institutions that nurture critical thinking are similarly seen as dangerous and threatening to our increasingly authoritarian social order. These institutions include public and higher education along with almost any form of progressive media.

As a result, purveyors of neoliberal ideology and policy have been working relentlessly to undermine public education in order to define it in strictly economic terms. Taking an instrumentalist approach obsessed with measurement and quantification, they have aggressively attempted to turn education into a business, faculty into devalued clerks and students into consumers.

Fortunately, teachers and students are refusing to participate in the destruction of US education. The historic strike initiated on January 14 by 33,000 teachers in Los Angeles — the nation’s second-largest school district — is the latest evidence of a nationwide trend in which public school teachers and students have increasingly gone on strike and engaged in walkouts.

A Wave of Resistance Against Neoliberal Approaches to Education

This wave of resistance has emerged to counter the neoliberal market-driven approach to education, which historically has cut across mainstream party lines. Market-driven reforms have been supported since the Reagan administration by every president and by every established political faction since the 1970s.

Refusing to promote the relationship between education and democracy, critical thinking and active citizenship, and rejecting the connection between education and social and political change, the advocates of neoliberalism have weakened the power of teachers, attacked teachers unions, reduced teaching to training, and implemented a full-fledged attack on the imagination through methods such as teaching for the test and cutting back on funding for the most basic necessities of schooling. Public schools have been transformed into charter schools or sites that aid in the criminalization of poor Black and Brown students. Neoliberal leaders have, moreover, sought to strip schools of their anti-authoritarian and egalitarian potential to teach students to live as critical and informed citizens in a democracy.

The striking teachers in LA are not just fighting for smaller classes, more funding, regulation of charter schools and higher salaries. They’re also fighting for more services, less testing, full-time nurses in every school (80 percent of the LA schools do not have nurses), social workers, and more counselors, librarians and psychologists.

Teachers and students in LA are strongly rejecting the crude neoliberal assertion that education is strictly about the pursuit of the practical, or that it should be valued as the ultimate economic investment. They are also challenging how political power is concentrated at the top of school systems and fighting how formal education is overly influenced by billionaires such as Eli Broad and Reed Hastings who “spent an unprecedented 9.7 million in the spring of 2017 to ensure the election of a pro-privatization majority [to] the [Los Angeles] school board.”

This strike also echoes the fight educators are waging against big corporations and right-wing legislators who aggressively work to defund public education. In doing so, they are rejecting market and business values as the defining principles of education in favor of the broader considerations that focus on civic literacy, public values and critical thinking. They are also rejecting forms of pedagogical terrorism that aim to remove students from addressing important social problems, if not from politics itself.

What has become clear to educators across the country is that neoliberalism has not only achieved dominance over the economy, it has also become a fundamental organizing principle for shaping all aspects of education. At the public school level, it trains students in workplace discipline, lowers expectations and kills the imagination; at the level of higher education, it replaces nourishing students’ critical capacities with training them for careers while limiting their willingness to believe in something larger than themselves. Again at the level of higher education, meagerly compensated adjuncts replace tenured faculty, services are outsourced, the salaries of administrators have soared and students are viewed as customers.

The struggle against neoliberalism has to begin with a struggle for education as a democratic public good and the recognition that education is a moral and political practice that constitutes a struggle over knowledge, identities, agency and a particular notion of the future. If teachers do not have control over the conditions of their labor, and if students lack the ability to address how knowledge is related to power, morality, social responsibility and justice, they will have neither the power nor the language necessary to engage in collective forms of struggle against society’s efforts to write them out of the script of democracy. They will have no language to recognize the rise of authoritarianism in the governing institutions of society and in their own values.

If conservatives see pedagogy as the transmission of lifeless skills, striking teachers view pedagogy as the grounds by which students learn how knowledge is related to power and matters of self-definition and the basis for intervening in the world. Public school teachers and faculty in higher education are refusing to be complicit with educational institutions that insist on the importance of training and mind-numbing forms of teaching in a time of widespread violence. This is a crucial point — one that teachers across the country are beginning to understand and act upon. Not only do these teachers see education as deeply political, they also see it as a form of organized resistance.

Democracy’s gravediggers were long at work before the appearance of Donald Trump. Forces such as Republican Party extremists, right-wing billionaires, the financial elite, conservative media, nativists, white supremacists and right-wing evangelicals have done everything they can to consolidate control of the commanding institutions of US life in order to undermine the rule of law and separate issues of freedom and political power from the democratic traditions of equality and rule by the public. Neither Trump’s rise nor the emergence of right-wing populism happened in a vacuum. Trump built on a longstanding neoliberal project buttressed by an anti-democratic formative culture in which educational institutions have been used to shape market-based identities, modes of agency and collective subjects bound together by the notion that there is no alternative to an unfair and pernicious capitalist social order.

In response to this argument, the late radical blogger Mark Fisher coined the term “capitalist realism.” As he explains in his book on that topic, the term describes “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” For Fisher, capitalist realism functioned less as a crude form of quasi-propaganda than as a pedagogical, social and cultural machine that produces “a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

Hidden behind an unquestioned anonymity, neoliberalism appears less as an ideology than as a market-based rationality that by default rightly rejects any inquiry into its goal of governing all of social life. Neoliberalism’s unforgiving logic of globalization attempts to make its own power invisible while making people prisoners of its privatizing, commodifying, mutilating ode to self-interest and hyper-individualism.

The Normalization of Neoliberal Ideology

As neoliberal ideology, values, and social relations become normalized, they become more successful and difficult to name, understand and challenge. For instance, even as more and more people revolt in the current historical moment against this dystopian project, neoliberal ideology and elements of a fascist politics merge to contain, distract and misdirect the anger that has materialized out of grievances against the government, privileged elites and the massive hardships caused by neoliberal capitalism. In this instance, capitalist realism has asserted itself, especially among Trump’s followers, in a mix of ignorant faith and sheer exhaustion that has led to a need for simplistic solutions and a strongman who promises to “solve” the problems that haunt the current period.

For instance, Trump fuels a racist, anti-democratic, authoritarian populism in his call for building a wall on the southern border. He does so by stoking fear. For the last two years, he has equated the culture of immigrants with the culture of crime, argued that undocumented workers present the main threat of terrorism in the United States, and stated that they constitute a humanitarian crisis. What he refuses to acknowledge is that, rather than being a threat, many immigrants at the southern border are trying to seek asylum. At the same time, without any sense of irony, Trump claimed in his televised address from the Oval Office, that his proposed wall is some sort of humanitarian priority. As John Cassidy in The New Yorker points out, Trump tried to frame the wall as “a solution to a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, rather than what it is and has been all along: the holy grail of a nativist political movement that he has nurtured and cultivated ever since he came down the escalator in Trump Tower.”

Trump has used, both in his campaign and presidency, the language of pollution to describe undocumented Brown people as “thugs,” “rapists” and “murderers.” Human suffering is not something he intends to end; it is something he produces en masse on a number of fronts, both domestic and foreign. Neoliberalism thrives on the power to distract. The mainstream press supports this strategy of distraction by focusing on Trump’s shifting claims about whether the wall will be made of concrete or steel. What is missing from these arguments, as Sam Fulwood from ThinkProgress points out, is that “The wall is symbolic. It exists solely for the purpose of allowing the president to continually promulgate a steady stream of racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant fear mongering.”

Trump’s own racism is not only evident in his demonizing of people of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups, it is also obvious in his silence regarding racist statements made by Rep. Steve King in a New York Times interview in which King said, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, has referred to King “basically [as] an open white nationalist at this point.”

While some Republicans Party members have roundly condemned King for his remarks, they have failed to apply the same criticism to either Trump or their own policies, which extend from voter suppression to their support for heinous and morally repulsive border policies. Tellingly, when Trump was asked about King’s racist remarks on the South Lawn of the White House, he replied, “I don’t — I haven’t been following it. I really haven’t been following it,” even though the story has dominated the news.

All the while, Trump has continued to make racist comments of his own about undocumented workers. For instance, as CNN writer Maegan Vazquez observes, in the midst of the King affair, “Trump quoted a blatantly white nationalist column written by Pat Buchanan, the former communications director for President Ronald Reagan. Buchanan wrote: ‘The more multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, multilingual America becomes — the less it looks like Ronald Reagan’s America — the more dependably Democratic it will become. The Democratic Party is hostile to white men, because the smaller the share of the US population that white men become, the sooner that Democrats inherit the national estate.’”

This is neoliberal fascism embracing the discourse of a white supremacy and ultra-nationalism, while sometimes hiding behind a language of humanitarianism and human rights. The willingness of a large segment of the US public to succumb to Trump’s embrace of what Wendy Brown calls “fomented nationalism, racism, xenophobia and desire for authoritarian rule” has its roots in a neoliberal culture of social disintegration. In this context, neoliberal reason hides the effects of its racist and toxic economic, social and political arrangements within a form of capitalist realism that undermines any hope for reclaiming a democratic project defined through the empowering logics of freedom, equality and self-rule.

What Fisher wisely understood was that any resistance to neoliberal capitalism will have to engage education in order to challenge neoliberal common sense and the pedagogical apparatuses that produce it. Borrowing from the work of Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, C. Wright Mills and others, Fisher addresses this issue by expanding the meaning of education far beyond the notion of established schooling, and pointed to popular culture, the arts, science, film, journalism, social media and other sites of cultural production as the lens through which to both imagine an alternative to global capitalism and to mobilize individual and collective forms of resistance to it. In this instance, culture, if not the very notion of populism, becomes a site of struggle rather than a terrain grounded exclusively in the grip of domination.

In the current situation, as Chantal Mouffe observes, it is crucial to discard the notion that populism is simply another form of demagogy. On the contrary, she writes, “It is a way of doing politics which can take various forms, depending on the periods and the places. It emerges when one aims at building a new subject of collective action — the people — capable of reconfiguring a social order lived as unfair,” and in need of a defense of freedom, social justice and equality.

What does it mean to challenge the pedagogical assumptions that inform neoliberalism? Where will such struggles take place? What form will the language of criticism and hope look like if it is to address the everyday lives of people caught in the grip of neoliberal common sense?

Neoliberalism has created a crisis of agency, representation and resistance, and all of these elements must be addressed in terms of how they both function in a neoliberal order to undermine democracy and what it would mean to develop a language and mode of analysis capable of rethinking these issues as part of a comprehensive understanding of politics and collective struggles.

We must also ask how right-wing and demagogue politicians were able to colonize populist aspirations to regain some control over the political process and why the left failed. Shaming those who follow Trump is a failing political strategy. An effective political strategy must involve reclaiming the promise of a radical democracy. In the process, we must expose how the ideal of radical democracy is consistently undermined and attacked in a neoliberal order in which everything is privatized, commodified, deregulated and organized as part of the culture of commercialism subject to the dictates of finance capital.

Such a challenge would demand developing modes of education and critical analyses that examine how the ruling elite uses its power to exploit, exclude, dehumanize and undermine any viable mode of critical agency. It would call into question the methods through which the state, corporations and the financial elite use power to remove from peoples’ lives essential services such as health care, public transportation, free quality education, housing, a social wage, a healthy environment and other services that enable people to expand their capacities as critically engaged, joyful agents.

This raises further questions about how neoliberalism — disguised as the “liberal order” — became an incubator for the rise of Trump and a contemporary version of fascist politics. There is more at work here than the failure of liberalism to address the soaring issue of inequality in wealth and power. The writer Pankaj Mishra considers this issue in his critique of the established liberal order. He writes:

The obvious answer is that [the] much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.

Following up on Mishra’s comments, it is crucial to rethink how capitalist institutions limit human agency, along with most people’s capacity to be critical and imagine the unimaginable as part of the collective struggle for a democratic future. This would suggest challenging neoliberal regimes of discipline, control and conformity with a pedagogical discourse in which it becomes clear that personal and political rights have to be matched by social and economic rights for any democracy to work. We need to tie the struggle for economic and social justice to new configurations of power and to new ways of understanding that are capable of recognizing and utilizing power in order to create a democratic socialist society.

Any viable notion of politics has to consider working through a variety of cultural apparatuses to activate a public imagination willing to fight for institutions and public goods capable of revitalizing social bonds, social responsibility and the capacity for experiences that go beyond the narrow notions of individualism and self-interest celebrated in the neoliberal worldview. It is both a political and pedagogical issue to imagine a future in which human needs take precedent over market considerations, while making clear how capitalism, with its concentration of wealth and power in few hands, produces modes of inequality and human misery. The agents and modes of resistance necessary for defeating capitalism and constructing a democratic socialist order will not emerge without the production of a formative culture that provides the knowledge, ideas, values and social relations central to creating engaged citizens.

Sites of such struggle include public and higher education, the arts, social services, social media, religious institutions, and other domains of cultural production capable of utilizing the work of public intellectuals. At stake here is the challenge for cultural workers to own up to the complexity of the problems capitalism produces, to write and speak to people in a narrative that they can understand and identify with, and to address what it means to make knowledge, images and ideas critical and emancipatory.

Creating a Pedagogy of “Profane Illumination”

At stake here also is another pedagogical challenge rooted in the necessity to turn common sense into what Walter Benjamin once called “profane illumination,” a process by which the dominant common-sense assumptions of a capitalist hegemony are subject to the process of denaturalization, critical analysis and the shock of new forms of recognition. This is a practice of making the familiar unfamiliar by treating it as a source of astonishment.

Such a project is imperative if the pedagogical task of raising consciousness is to be successful in challenging neoliberalism’s most powerful weapon — its claim that its worldview is self-evident and that any analysis of it is irrelevant. This is particularly important under a regime of neoliberalism in which the public collapses into the private, and personal experiences are removed from wider social forces “thereby turning social uncertainty into a personal failure that is divorced from any collective cause or remedy,” in the words of Nicholas Gane and Les Back.

In addition to employing Benjamin’s notion of “profane illumination,” a radical cultural politics must insist that rational thinking is not enough. The left and other progressives also need a new way of thinking about the misery and suffering faced by many people. Such thinking must be sensitive to rejecting any hint of moral righteousness and the colonizing stance of preaching the gospel to vulnerable populations. Dispossessed populations must not be denied the tools and spaces to narrate their own stories. We need an array of tools and platforms to consider and unmask how dominant power works and impacts on peoples’ lives. At the same time, these tools must do justice to the everyday experiences, events, emotions, modes of identification, and investments that people inhabit and experience in their daily lives.

Radical pedagogical practice should take its cue from C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination, in which he called for intellectuals and cultural workers to write, talk and act in ways that make connections between private troubles and public issues, systemic structures and the production of particular modes of agency. This suggests a pedagogical exercise in the service of joint recovery and dialogue, and entering into a politics, language and way of thinking that fully engages concrete everyday events — what Tracy K. Smith has described as “vulnerabilities … and actual ordeals life doles out to real people in fragile bodies.”

Central to challenging the objectifying language of pollution and disposability is the need to develop an alternative way of speaking, knowing and thinking, one in which, as Smith puts it, “language becomes a felt thing, a terrain to be crossed … a shifting and malleable possibility” capable of addressing a diverse audience. This is very different from the turgid prose and disembodied language used by many academics, a language that is reductively abstract and functions as what Rob Nixon describes in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor as “dead-on-delivery-prose,” incapable of speaking to people who would be central to developing a left populism.

The latter discourse functions largely as a form of verbal camouflage, creating barriers between universities and their public mission. This type of jargon often prevents academics from becoming border crossers, moving outside of their disciplines, and reaching across diverse forms of media in order to engage in the high-stakes pedagogical terrain of persuasion and belief in order to change the ways in which people see things. Arcane prose and reductive notions of professionalism also work to separate hard-thinking and rigorous scholarship from being relevant to addressing pressing social problems and a wider array of publics.

Dylan Moore is right in reminding us that “the first casualties of totalitarianism are the minds that would oppose it,” which suggests all the more importantly the need for academics, writers, journalists, artists and others to connect their work to the public and to expose the workings of lies, power, and the reifying politics of disposability and pollution. Making language accessible and rigorous in order to address concrete social problems for a wider audience is crucial if cultural workers in diverse sites are to address the crisis of representation and agency that is at the heart of neoliberal authoritarianism.

To raise public consciousness, the symbolic weapons of persuasion, passion and beliefs must be integrated into a politics of recognition and identification in which people can be moved to not only think critically, but to be passionate and energized about their ability to change the world in which they find themselves. The left needs a political language infused with a deeply moral commitment to democracy, equality and justice, especially at a time when violence, corruption and lawlessness have become normalized, opening the door for the emergence of a fascist politics in the US.

The issue of how ordinary Americans can be motivated to be self-reflective and moved by democratic values while embracing relationships marked by shared responsibilities begins with a language in which people can be moved emotionally to analyze their problems and their relationship to broader social forces. One task of such a language is to awaken people’s capacity to align themselves with collective identities steeped in communal bonds, develop a compassion for others and identify with the public good. Such a language has to replace state-sanctioned fear with a radical notion of what Ronald Aronson describes in his book, We: Reviving Social Hope, as “social hope” — a hope that moves people not only to imagine a different future but to individually and collective act on it.

The current crisis of agency, representation, values and language demands a discursive shift that can both call into question and defeat the formative culture and ideological scaffolding through which a savage neoliberal capitalism reproduces itself. Culture has become a war zone, which under Trump has been aggressively militarized and commercialized. As civic culture collapses, the crisis of democracy in the United States is growing, power becomes more concentrated in the hands of ruling elites and casino capitalism is put on steroids.

Trump has put the government in a shutdown, and mainstream media outlets are focused on discussions of Trump’s wall, political infighting among Republicans and the takeover of the House of Representatives by the Democrats. Meanwhile nothing is being said about economic inequality, a government run by the ultra-rich, unrestrained corporate power and a military budget that is as outsized as it is unethical.

The ongoing assault on the body politic by extensive privatization, deregulation and economic growth disguised as progress as it destroys the planet is proceeding at breakneck speed. It does so just as historical memory has been undermined and the social fabric has been put at risk in the face of racism, white nationalism, repression and censorship. The space between crisis and catastrophe is closing and has terrifying implications for the future.

Since the 1980s, and particularly under Trump’s reign, a new political formation has come into fruition which echoes the horrors of a fascist past and is fueled by the toxic rhetoric of disposability and pollution. The mechanisms of power and ideology through which this emerging fascist politics asserts itself must be first challenged with a language that connects capitalism and human exploitation, exclusion and the destruction of the planet. Crucial to the task of pressing the claim for economic and social justice is the need to make clear that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous. We need to reverse the neoliberal claim that politics and democracy are the enemies of freedom. Moreover, any notion of resistance must rethink the process of democratization as a matter of fundamental systemic change that embraces a radical restructuring of society.

The deep-seated problems of capitalism are too severe, bottomless and profoundly destructive to be simply amended. Only a strong anti-capitalist mass movement can challenge them. As Fisher pointed out in his book, Capitalist Realism, Americans are in “a landscape … littered with ideological rubble,” and in response, we must offer an effective rival to capitalism rather than a reaction to it. Under the rule of neoliberalism, ideological repression works by stealth through forms of manufactured illiteracy produced by right-wing echo chambers and other cultural apparatuses that work aggressively to depoliticize people and make them complicit in their own oppression. The endpoint is the withering of civic attachments, the decline of public life and the evisceration of any notion of shared citizenship, all of which emboldens a fascist politics. Defenders of a radical democracy need to argue with great energy and passion that “freedom” under capitalism has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with entrapping millions in a web of reductive and punishing ideological and institutional constraints.

For a start, neoliberal ideology, public pedagogy and its assault on democratic institutions can be further challenged, in part, by combining Benjamin’s task of “profane illumination” and analytic rigor with what A.K. Thompson calls “premonitions,” which speak to the need to place isolated events within broader sets of connections that allow us to think in terms of a comprehensive politics and notion of totality. Thompson is worth repeating on this issue. He writes:

Premonitions are similar to illuminations and reflections in that, as forms of extrapolative reasoning, they reveal how a thing or event can be made to alert us to the broader social process from which it derives. The major difference is that, whereas Benjamin’s concepts placed emphasis on the resolution of accumulated tensions, “premonitions” direct our attention toward the future that will obtain should present dynamics be left undisturbed.

If the left and other progressives are to build on the failures of neoliberalism and create a new coalition of political agents, we need a new language, political story and understanding of politics in which a new socialist democratic order can be both imagined and struggled over. This means getting beyond the reductive notion that capitalism can only be understood as an economic system.

The economic crisis produced under neoliberalism has been matched by a crisis of ideas. This suggests that at the heart of neoliberal capitalism and its fascist politics is a crisis of representation, agency and memory. In part, this crisis was captured by the phrase attributed to both Fredrick Jameson or Slavoj Žižek that, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” This dystopian assessment challenges us to redefine and rethink the politics that produced it. Doing so would require not only interrogating the current crisis of neoliberal fascism, but also thinking about the promise of a radical democracy.

At the heart of any viable theory of resistance is the need to develop a language of critique that makes visible neoliberalism’s largely unchallenged narrative about how social life should be governed by market relations. We need a language that exposes neoliberalism’s celebration of a disembodied individualism, its elevation of the ethos of competition to a national ideal, and also its war against the welfare state, the environment and social bonds. This anti-democratic narrative cannot be simply written out of our political struggles. We need to create new stories that become integral to how we imagine our society, enabling us to open up, rather than close down, the future.

The famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood the need for stories that went beyond reform, stories that inspired people to think and act outside of the old politics of the time. His words are as relevant today as they were when he first wrote them down. They speak to a generation of youth, teachers, educators and progressives who refuse to dream the future within the stifling confines of the present. Douglass wrote:

It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Gramsci remarked in his Prison Notebooks that, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” What is clear is that the morbid symptoms have arrived, but at the same time as they produce despair, they also present new challenges and the opportunity for revitalized struggles. The stories a society tells about itself are a measure of how it values democracy and its future. The time has come for stories that merge public memory, everyday experience, public connections, and the space where the horizon of possibility connects with unexpected vantage points and broad-based social movements. We have no time to waste.