Youth Beyond the Politics of Hope

As the counterrevolution that has gripped the United States since the late 1980s appears to be somewhat modified in the emerging presidency of Barack Obama, the dark times that befell us under the second Bush administration have far from disappeared. The assault that the second Bush administration waged on practically every vestige of the public good – from the Constitution to the environment to public education – appears to have lessened its grip as the Obama regime inches towards its first year in power. Yet, the range, degree and severity of the problems the Obama team have inherited from the Bush administration seem almost too daunting to address successfully: a war raging in two countries, a legacy of torture and secret prisons, a dismantling of the regulatory apparatus, a poisonous inequality that allocates resources to the rich and misery to the poor, an imperial presidency that shredded the balance of power, a looming ecological apocalypse, a ruined reputation abroad and a financial crisis that is almost unprecedented in American history – policies and conditions that have brought great suffering to millions of Americans and many millions more throughout the world. But the crisis that is most often forgotten or repressed in the daily headlines of gloom is the war that is being waged at home, primarily against young people, who have historically been linked to the promise of a better life, one that they would both inherit and reproduce for future generations. In a radical free-market culture, when hope is precarious and bound to commodities and a corrupt financial system, young people are no longer at risk: They are the risk; young people are no longer troubled; they are trouble.

The conditions produced by the financial crisis have resulted in the foreclosure of not only millions of family homes, but also the future of young people, as the prospects of the unborn are mortgaged off in the interests of corporate power and profits. As wealth moved furiously upward into private hands for the last several decades(1), any talk about the future has less to do with young people than with short-term investments, quick turnovers in profits and the dismantling of the welfare state. Moreover, the destruction of the welfare state, or even better the social state, has gone hand in hand with the emergence of a prison-industrial complex and a new carceral state that regulates, controls, contains and punishes those who are not privileged by the benefits of class, color, immigration status and gender. How else to explain a national prison population that has grown from 200,000 in 1973 to slightly over 2.3 million in 2008? It gets worse. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that at the end of 2007 “over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole – 3.2 percent of all US adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults.”[2]

As policing, containment and imprisonment merge with a market-driven society that places both the reasons for and redress of misfortune entirely in the hands of isolated individuals, the circuitry of social control redefines the meaning of youth, subjecting particularly those marginalized by class and color to a number of indiscriminate, cruel and potentially illegal practices by the criminal justice system. In the age of instant credit and quick profits, human life is reduced to just another commodity to be bought and sold, and the logic of short-term investments undercuts long-term investments in public welfare, young people and a democratic future. Not surprisingly, youth as a symbol of long-term commitment are now viewed as a liability rather than an asset. Barack Obama’s repeatedly insisted both before and after his election that the United States must live up to its obligations to future generations. While Obama has only been in office a short time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how young people are benefiting from that promise. Obama’s economic policies are being shaped by people who caused the crisis, thus condemning children to massive levels of unemployment and a future without hope. His education policies are simply an extension of the discredited Bush approach to schooling and Arnie Duncan, the Secretary of Education, appears unusually illiterate when it comes to being able to pose a democratic vision for education, given his love of the market, testing and his dislike for any mode of knowledge and classroom pedagogy that cannot be measured. Moreover, American society is still in a state of permanent war and many young people, especially poor minorities will continue to die or be maimed in imperial struggles abroad. We are still the largest arms dealer in the world and we have a Republican Party whose only goal seems to be to block every policy Obama proposes regardless of whether it is good for the country as a whole. The winners in this logic are the militarists, the defense industries, the most powerful corporations, the ruling elite, the advocates of ideological rigidity and commanding financial institutions.

Under such conditions, there is a need to analyze the forces that ushered in such dark times and examines its most unlikely and often invisible victims – those young people who now symbolize trouble rather than promise and who experience daily the repercussions of adult neglect, if not scorn, especially those youth for whom race and class loom large in their lives. This is a generation of young people who have been betrayed by the irresponsibility of their elders and relegated to the margins of society, often in ways that suggest that they are an excess, redundant, a drain on the empire of consumption – a population who, in the age of rampant greed and rabid individualism, appears to be largely expendable and disposable. For many young people, these are dangerous times, and as I argue in “Youth in a Suspect Society,” there is a need to develop a new language for addressing both the suffering many young people experience, albeit to different degrees, and the promise that an aspiring democracy might offer them. We seem to live at a time when politics is divorced from a sense of outrage as well as a sense of hope. In the face of a culture awash in consumerism, spectacularized hyper-violence, trash television, racist talk radio and trivialized journalism, there seems to be little concern, if not understanding, of a number of forces – including an unfettered free-market ideology, a dehumanizing economic system, the rise of the racially skewed punishing state and the attack on public and higher education – that have come together to pose a threat to young people, which are so extreme they can be accurately described as a “war on youth.” Yet, in spite of such manufactured public indifference, it is imperative that educators, parents, and other concerned Americans do everything they can to make visible those forces responsible for the dire state of today’s youth. Clearly, such an intervention must be arise from the belief that individual and collective resistance is borne out of awareness, critical education, discerning judgment and an ethic of mutuality – all of which suggests a struggle that is as educational as it is political, with no line dividing one from the other. While there were good reasons to celebrate initially the Obama victory, what has become clear is that it never offered any guarantees that the political, economic and social conditions that have brought us to the brink of disaster would fundamentally change. Substantive and lasting change must come from below: from young people, students, workers, intellectuals, artists, academics, parents, workers, labor unions, social movements, and other individuals and groups willing not just to demonstrate for equality, freedom and social justice, but to organize in order to push hope over the tipping point, push politics in a new democratic and socially just direction and engage in a collective struggle that takes power away from political and corporate elites, returning it to the people who are the real source of any viable democracy.

I have tried to address these issues in “Youth in a Suspect Society,” which points to the changing conditions youth now face in the new millennium and the degree to which they have been put at risk by reactionary social policies, institutional mismanagement and shifting cultural attitudes. While youth have always represented an ambiguous category, they have within the last 30 years been under assault in ways that are entirely new, and they now face a world that is far more dangerous than at any other time in recent history. And these new conditions demand a new set of categories and vocabulary for understanding the changing problems youth face within the relentless expansion of a global market society, one that punishes all youth by treating them largely as commodities. But if the commodification of American society represents a soft war on youth, the hard war takes a different and more extreme form and subjects poor youth and youth of color to the harshest elements, values and dictates of a growing youth-crime complex, governing them through a logic of punishment, surveillance and control. In this instance, even as the corporate state is in turmoil, it is transformed into a punishing state, and certain segments of the youth population become the object of a new mode of governance based on the crudest forms of disciplinary control. For example, a recent study, “The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School,” published by Northeastern University, states that on any given day “1.4 percent of the nation’s 16-24 year-olds were institutionalized of whom nearly 93 percent were residing in correctional facilities (jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers).”[3] These figures become even more alarming when analyzed through the harsh realities of economic deprivation and racial disadvantage. Nearly one in every ten young male high school dropout was either in jail or juvenile detention. And for African-American youth, the figure jumps to one in four high school dropouts being incarcerated. There are over 6.2 million high school dropouts in the United States. And they lack both decent educational opportunities as well as adequate job training programs and the chance for decent employment. For instance, the jobless rate for young African-American males was a staggering 69 percent while for whites it was 54 percent. What becomes clear is that the high school dropout and unemployment rates are increasingly driving staggering incarceration rates for young people. As this recession unfolds, young people, especially poor minorities who fail to finish high school, bear the brunt of a system that leaves them uneducated and jobless, ultimately offering them one of the few bailouts available for populations largely considered disposable – either the juvenile detention center or prison. What does it say about a society that can put trillions of dollars into two useless wars, offer generous tax cuts for the rich, and bails out corrupt banks and insurance industries, but cannot provide a decent education and job training opportunities for its most disadvantaged youth?

Out of ethical necessity, any discourse about youth should raise serious questions about the social and political responsibility of educators in addressing the plight of young people today. What is the purpose of higher education and its faculties in light of the current assault on young people, especially since it is education that provides the intellectual foundation and values for young people to understand, interrogate and transform when necessary the world in which they live? Matters of popular consciousness, public sentiment and individual and social agency are far too important as part of a larger political and educational struggle not be taken seriously by academics who advocate the long and difficult project of democratic reform. Tragically, few intellectuals providing critical commentary on the current tragic conditions affecting youth offer any insights regarding how the educational force of the culture actually works pedagogically to reproduce dominant ideologies, values, identifications and consent. How exactly is it possible to imagine a more just, more equitable transformation in government and economics without a simultaneous transformation in culture, consciousness, social identities and values? Finally, it is impossible to understand the current crisis of youth and democracy without situating such a crisis in a larger theoretical and historical context. In addressing this challenge, it is important to provide a broader analysis of what can be called the politics of free market fundamentalism and disposability, examining it as an educational, cultural and political discourse that has gutted the notion of the social state and produced a set of policies that lay the groundwork for a politics of greed and disposability that has and continues to have dire consequences for society at large, and especially for young people. As home foreclosures reach into the millions, as millions of workers join the ranks of the unemployed, as the ranks of the homeless expand beyond the wildest predications, children bear the brunt of these problems. Both the category of the child as well as the hopeful future once symbolized by the figure of the child are disappearing from American life. Children now worry about how they can help their parents get a job, make a mortgage payment and simply afford to get food for a meal. We now live in a country in which the pervasive and all-embracing reach of a reactionary, racist and greed-driven politics has reached its endpoint and reveals its own arrogance and cruelty everyday in the suffering of those individuals, children and families shipwrecked by recklessness of a society that only believes in short-term investments and the smell of fast profits. In response to this type of barbaric behavior and systemic misuse of power the American public is further insulted by a culture of cruelty that is offered up by right-wing media pundits as a form of cheap theater. Fortunately, power is never completely on the side of domination; nor is it entirely in the hands of those who view youth as an excess to be contained or burden to be expelled. Power is also borne of a realistic sense of hope, one that situates new possibilities and dreams of the future within the realities of current structures of domination and oppression. Young people deserve more and it is up to those who are willing to assume a measure of civic courage and social responsibility to come together and say enough is enough. And then mobilize in order to force Obama to take seriously what it might mean to live up to the principles of both an aspiring democracy and, yes, the Noble Peace Prize.

NOTES:

[1] See, for example, “Dollars and Sense and United for a Fair Economy, The Wealth Inequality Reader,” second edition (Boston: Dollars and Sense, 2008).

[2] US Department of Justice, “Bureau of Justice Statistics,” accessed January 2008. Online: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pandp.htm.

[3] Andrew Sum, et. al, “The Consequences of Dropping Out of High School” (Boston: Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, October 2009). Online at: http://www.clms.neu.edu/publication/documents/The_Consequences_of_Dropping_Out_of_High_School.pdf