Democracy has always been fragile in the United States, but at the present moment, it has moved from being imperfect to collapsing under the rubric of a failed state. The threat of authoritarianism is no longer on the horizon. It has arrived, forecasting a bleak future haunted by the poisonous ghosts of a poisonous past.
The Republican Party no longer hides its racism and boldly engages in widespread voter suppression. As of February 27, 253 restrictive voting bills in 43 states have been either introduced or pre-filed, mostly by Republicans.
As Robin D.G. Kelley has brilliantly argued, Republicans have made clear that they endorse the white supremacist notion that “the United States [should] be a straight, white nation reminiscent of the mythic ‘old days’ when armed white men ruled, owned their castle, boasted of unvanquished military power, and everyone else knew their place.” It is crucial to mention that these bills are also aimed at preventing youth from voting as well. Republicans have also argued openly that voter suppression policies are meant to enable permanent minority rule for them, the end point of which is a form of authoritarianism.
This contemporary appropriation of the tools of a fascist politics is exacerbated by the undermining of a public vocabulary and modes of civic literacy capable of critically addressing the profound structural changes produced by neoliberalism’s practice of deregulation, privatization, devaluation of the welfare state, and deterioration of public goods such as the educational system, the health care system and the welfare state. Neoliberalism in this instance reveals its fascist values given the violent nexus between the carceral state and what has been called racial capitalism with its long history of “colonial dispossession and racial slavery.”
The threat of violence once associated with fringe extremist groups has found a home in a Republican Party that now endorses the political, ideological and social conditions that have given rise to a number of violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. Racialized violence now runs through American society like an overcharged electric current.
Fascist politics has emerged out of a form of neoliberal capitalism that does more than engage in privatization, deregulation and commodification in the interests of financial markets. It also shapes the identities, values and subjectivity of individuals
Three Fundamentalisms Undergird Neoliberal Fascism
A crucial challenge for progressives is to counter the underlying conditions that cause the collective consciousness to incorporate elements of fascist politics. This would mean interrogating the ensemble of institutions, meanings, ideologies and pedagogical practices that create formative cultures that promote a mix of intersecting fundamentalisms. Such a task is crucial for rethinking and reclaiming definitions of power, education and politics that are central to the creation of a “new sensibility” capable of embracing a public imagination synonymous with the imperatives of democratic socialism.
Three intersecting formative cultures or fundamentalisms have strongly shaped the emergence of a new political formation that I call neoliberal fascism. These three fundamentalist formative cultures both normalize the unthinkable and create the conditions for morally compromised lives willing to become complicit with the ugliness of cultural formations steeped in an authoritarian politics of disposability and a racialized form of neoliberal capitalism.
The first of these formative cultures is a free-market fundamentalism that functions educationally to rewrite politics and define the obligations of citizenship through the ethos of consumerism, commercializes all social relations, defunds public goods such as schools, and separates economic activity from social costs. Moreover, free-market fundamentalists wage a full-fledged attack on the social contract and the welfare state, and in doing so, limit the scope of agency for millions to what can be called the politics of survival. Under such circumstances, people spend their daily lives fighting for the bare necessities of life.
One consequence is a mode of agency in which time is a liability rather than an enabling force for developing one’s capacity to be a critically engaged and informed citizen. All personal, political and social relations are now defined in market terms, rendering matters of meaningful agency, identity and dignity subject to the market’s totalizing rule. As Naomi Klein points out, human dignity expressed as the right to “basic security in your job … some certainty that you will be taken care of in old age [and not] be bankrupted by illness, and that your kids will have access to the tools they need to excel” have been dismissed by many conservative politicians and pundits as privileged policies for “welfare queens” and freeloaders rather than as human rights. Of course, the real issue here is the political and ethical aversion on the part of neoliberals, centrists and conservatives to redistribute wealth and restructure power in order to address real problems caused by inequality.
As Wendy Brown has noted: “casting markets and market conduct as appropriate for all human and organization — neoliberal reason has a specific antipathy to politics, and even to democratic power sharing (apart from voting). It treats politics and democracy as at best ruining markets and at worst leading toward tyrannical social justice programs and totalitarianism.” In a society marked by staggering inequalities, people cannot define their lives outside of the market’s limited boundaries. Undermining all notions of the social, neoliberalism has become the enemy of democracy and social justice and must be resisted at all costs.
White Evangelical-Led Religious Fundamentalism
The second cultural formation that functions as a toxic pedagogical force in American culture is a brand of religious fundamentalism that “has turbocharged the support among Trump loyalists, many of whom describe themselves as participants in a kind of holy war.” Largely made up of white evangelical Christians and other Christians, this form of religious fundamentalism has become a solid mainstay of the Republican Party as it has moved into an ideological position that is aligned with extremist anti-democratic authoritarian policies, values and practices. Not only does it collapse the line between religion and the state, but it also advocates a theocratic model of politics that Chris Hedges has labeled as an American form of fascism. The most extreme elements of the white-evangelical movement embrace a militaristic ideology that is central to radical extremists’ groups such as the “boogaloo” boys who view themselves as participants in a holy war. Former Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy at the Department of Homeland Security Elizabeth Neumann argues that Christian nationalism has become pervasive among white evangelicals. She states that increasingly, large segments of this group view “America as God’s chosen nation [and] believe the United States has a covenant with God, and that if it is broken, the nation risks literal destruction — analogous to the siege of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible. In the eyes of these believers, that covenant is threatened by cultural changes like taking prayer out of public schools and legalizing abortion and gay marriage.”
This extremist religious movement functions as an educational and political force that legitimizes the worst forms of bigotry, wages war on reproductive rights and same-sex marriages, pushes creationism in the schools, is anti-science, and perpetuates a rigid moralism and messianic view of the world that promotes a disdain for critical thinking and progressive forms of education. At the same time, it has played a crucial role in supporting Trump’s toxic policies that include putting immigrant children in sordid detention centers, imposing a reign of terror on people of color, bungling the COVID-19 response, and supporting the intersection of anti-intellectualism, antisemitism and systemic racism. This is a conservative movement that lives in circles of certainty, and adherents believe that they are fighting a war between the forces of evil and good. This is more than a perilous binary; it is also a prescription for a lethal form of ignorance that supports both a form of Christian nationalism and a white nationalism aligned with the toxic notion of “blood and soil.” Hedges makes a compelling case in labeling white Christian leaders as fascist by pointing to their call to make “America a Christian state,” the cult of personality that they support, their authoritarian denial of equal rights to non-Christians and their belief in “cleansing power of apocalyptic violence.”
The Fundamentalism of Manufactured Ignorance
The third cultural formation is a form of manufactured ignorance and militarized illiteracy that works through numerous registers to empty language of meaning and eliminate the standards for distinguishing right from wrong, historical memory from historical amnesia, and social responsibility for ethical and political irresponsibility.
As Karen J. Greenberg makes clear, the suppression of history, memory and language opens the doorway to fascism and “a state of unparalleled heartlessness and greed.” It also erases those echoes of the past that should shed light on and sound the alarm bells when select groups are dehumanized and treated as unknowable and undesirable. Under the Trump regime, a culture of lying normalized a world where truth was not only undermined but lost its legitimacy. In the age in which the truth is relegated to fake news, argue Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, “everything that matters is denied and everything that embodies evil is reinvented.” This was a form of illiteracy sanctioned at the highest levels of the former Trump administration and is the outgrowth of a society inundated with a militarized culture of commands, ignorance, consumerism and immediacy.
Post-truth is a conceptual signifier that operates in the service of violence against the ethical imagination and the standards at work in producing civic literacy and the institutions that support it. Increasingly, meaning has been emptied out of its critical and moral referents and subjected to the dual vocabulary of the market and war. This is a language that reduces people to commodities and feeds a society of the spectacle through a language that trades in violence, a friend/enemy distinction, and rewrites history in the discourse of the powerful; that is, a discourse of white supremacy.
The signposts for a cultural formation of ignorance are evident in the long-standing attack on public schooling, teachers and unions, with “education” being reduced to the market imperatives of neoliberal capital. Defunded and turned into testing centers and efficiency mills, public schooling as a democratic public sphere has been privatized, degraded and broken, furthering a culture of ignorance and illiteracy. Market values instrumentalize education and find critical thinking dangerous. In a culture dominated by corporations and the profit motive, political passions and moral convictions have become a liability. Moreover, the United States is now hostage to a culture of immediacy driven by social media. Knowledge now begins with tweets, Facebook postings and endless streams of selfies on Instagram. Many Americans no longer read, choosing instead to scan selected bits of information, disconnected from broader narratives.
Under the rule of corporate controlled power, the apparatuses of social media often strip knowledge of any substantive context and accelerate time at a pace that prevents both contemplation and experience from crystalizing into a politics of thoughtfulness and responsibility. Ideas, values, and ideologies that offer a sense of critical agency and civic and social imagination have no room in a society in which reason, truth, science and informed judgments are viewed with contempt. Destabilized perceptions and normalized fictions have now become the dominant currency of politics.
As the capacity for political speech withers, there is a breakdown of shared values and the widening abyss of malignant normality, moral depravity and civic illiteracy. Under the reign of market values, ignorance thrives in a society in which all matters of responsibility are individualized. Under neoliberal capitalism, human connections give way to an ethos of individualism that views all problems as personal failings. This constitutes a war on the ethical imagination as individuals increasingly under the onslaught of neoliberal capitalism become prisoners of their own experiences.
To Resist Neoliberal Fascism, We Must Make Education Central to Politics
As C. Wright Mills has made clear, under such circumstances, it is difficult for individuals to translate private into public issues and see themselves as part of a larger collective capable of mutual support. The erosion of public discourse and the onslaught of a culture of manufactured ignorance have allowed the U.S.’s Nazi problem to emerge with renewed vigor, and one lesson to be learned from the current assault on democracy regards the question of what role education should play in a democracy. As Wendy Brown observes, democracy cannot exist without an educated citizenry. It “may not demand universal political participation, but it cannot survive the people’s wholesale ignorance of the forces shaping their lives and limning their future.”
Max Horkheimer was right in 1939 when he suggested that it was impossible to talk about fascism without talking about capitalism, especially as it works relentlessly “to transform democratic citizens into totalitarian subjects” through what he and Theodor Adorno called the culture industry. Moreover, the educational force of neoliberal culture now prepares its willing subjects from the inside, molding their desires, anxieties and identities through psychological domination. The misery created by neoliberal capitalism bears down not only on the body, but colonizes the mind through the force of a formative educational apparatus that emerges out of the crisis of democratic institutions, civic values and political culture.
Education has always been the substance of politics, but it is rarely understood as a site of struggle over agency, identities, values and the future itself. Unlike schooling, education permeates a range of corporate-controlled apparatuses that extend from the digital airways to print culture. What is different about education today is not only the variety of sites in which it takes place, but also the degree to which it has become an element of organized irresponsibility, modeled on a flight from critical thinking, self-reflection and meaningful forms of solidarity.
Education now functions as part of the neoliberal machinery of depoliticization that represents an attack on the power of the civic imagination, political will and a substantive democracy. It is also functioning as a politics that undermines any understanding of education as a public good and pedagogy as an empowering practice that gets people to think critically about their own sense of agency in relation to knowledge and their ability to engage in critical and collective struggle.
Under Trumpism, education has become an animating principle of violence, revenge, resentment and victimhood as a privileged form of identity. Political illiteracy has moved from the margins to the center of power and is now a crucial project that the Republican Party wants to impose on the wider public. As the philosopher Peter Uwe Hohendahl has noted, the real danger of authoritarianism today “lay in the traces of the fascist mentality within the democratic political system.”
We must therefore raise questions about not only what individuals learn in a given society but what they have to unlearn, and what institutions provide the conditions to do so. Against such a pedagogy of closure, there is the need for a critical pedagogical practice that values a culture of questioning, views critical agency as a condition of public life, and rejects voyeurism in favor of the search for justice within a democratic, global public sphere.
Such a pedagogy must reject the dystopian, anti-intellectual and racist vision at work under Trumpism and its underlying racist currents, its thrill for authoritarian violence, and its grotesque contempt for democracy. In doing so, there is the need for educators and other cultural workers to provide a language of both criticism and hope as a condition for rethinking the possibilities of the future and the promise of global democracy itself. At the same time, it must struggle against the concentration of power in the hands of the few who now use the instruments that use cultural politics as an oppressive ideological and pedagogical tool.
This is a crucial pedagogical challenge in order for individuals to become critical and autonomous citizens capable of interrogating the lies and falsehoods spread by politicians, pundits, anti-public intellectuals and social media while being able to imagine a future different from the present. The will to refuse the seductions of false prophets, neo-fascists mentalities and the lure of demagogues preaching the swindle of fulfillment cannot be separated from learning how to be self-reflective, self-determining and self-autonomous.
The overarching crisis facing the United States is a crisis of the public and civic imagination, and this is a crisis that at its core is educational. Such a crisis suggests closing the gap between educational/cultural institutions and the public by creating the ideas, narratives and pedagogical relations necessary for connecting the shaping of individual and collective consciousness to the conditions necessary for individuals to say no, understand the causes of systemic violence and free themselves from the social relations put in place by neoliberal capitalism.
If the civic fabric and the democratic political culture that sustains democracy are to survive, education, once again, must be linked to matters of social justice, equity, human rights, history and the public good. Education in this sense frees itself from the technocratic obsessions with a deadening instrumental rationality, a regressive emphasis on standardization, training for the workplace and the memorizing of facts.
On the contrary, to make the political more pedagogical, education must affirm in its vision and practices the interdependence of humanity and embrace hope against indifference. In this sense, education is not just a struggle over knowledge, but also a struggle about how education is related to the power of self-definition and the acquisition of individual and social forms of agency. More specifically, education is a moral and political practice, not merely an instrumentalized practice for the production of pre-specified skills.
Matters of education are crucial to developing a democratic socialist vision that examines not only how neoliberal capitalism robs us of any viable sense of agency, but also what it means to think critically, exercise civic courage and define our lives outside of the pernicious parameters imposed by the veneration of greed, profits, competition and capitalist exchange values. Education is a place where individuals imagine themselves as critical and politically engaged agents.
James Baldwin was right in stating at the end of his essay “Stranger in the Village” that, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
At the heart of Baldwin’s message is that the state of a country’s morality and politics can be judged by the degree to which education becomes a central force in producing a political culture and public imagination that expands the notion of freedom, social justice and economic equality as part of the long march towards a democratic socialist future. At a time when the fascist ghosts of the past have once again emerged and the monsters are no longer lurking in the shadows, we must reclaim the public imagination and develop the mass educational and political movements that make such a future possible. The forces of resistance and radical collective movements are once again on the march, and it is crucial to remember that education opens up the space of translation, breaks open the boundaries of common sense, and provides the bridging work between the self and others, the public and the private.
Against the dictatorship of ignorance and the destruction of the public imagination is the need for a politics of education that interrogates the claims of democracy, fights the failures of conscience, prevents justice from going dead in ourselves, and imagines the unimaginable.
Any struggle against the dictatorship of ignorance will not only have to take matters of education seriously in the effort to address the current crisis of consciousness, it will also have to bring diverse movements together in order to build a common agenda under the rubric of creating critically engaged populace willing to fight for a democratic socialist society. We owe such a challenge to ourselves, to new and younger generations, and a future global socialist democracy waiting to be born.
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