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On Reinventing the Meaning of Politics and What Needs to Be Done

A global war to resurrect a sense of

To read Truthout’s articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

On Monday, August 19, 2013 McMaster University Professor Henry Giroux spoke at the Third Ontario Common Front General Assembly. The following are excerpts from his keynote address:

Intolerance of Democratic Protest

Henry A. Giroux: We live in an era in which there is near-zero tolerance for democratic protest and infinite tolerance for bankers and government embezzlers which effect the lives of millions.

On Student Debt and Generational Warfare

HG: I can’t think of a better way to defuse the possibility among young people of the radical imagination than to place them into so much debt that for the next 20 years all they can basically think about is paying that debt back.

On the Suicidal State

HG: The power of the megacorporations and financial elite suggests, aggressively promote, failed modes of government and what I want to call a suicidal state. The violence of unnecessary hardship and suffering produced by neoliberal ideology and values are not restricted to the economic realm alone.

Manufactured ignorance is the new reining mode spurred on by a market-driven system that celebrates a passion for consumer goods over a passion for community belonging, the well-being of others and the principles of a democratic society. Ignorance is no longer a liability in neoliberal societies propagating a capitalist imaginary that thrives on the interrelated register of consumption, privatization and depoliticization.

Meanwhile, political illiteracy and religious fundamentalism channel populace waves and racism providing support for an escalating crisis that Axel Honneth has termed the failed sociality characteristic of neoliberal states. Imagine the Rick Santorums of the world standing up in front of public audiences and saying, “The one thing we don’t want in the Republican Party,” or we can say in Harper’s party, “are intellectuals.” Of course they don’t. They don’t want anybody who would possibly make power accountable. Of course they don’t. They don’t want anybody who believes that learning should be linked to social change. Of course they don’t because they believe and understand that people who ask questions are dangerous. Everybody in this room – completely dangerous.

On the Punishing State

HG: It seems to be that one consequence of this collapse of the public into the private it is not only the undoing of the social bond but also the endless reproduction of the narrow register of individual responsibility as a substitute for any analysis of wider social problems, making it easier to blame the poor, the homeless, the uninsured, the jobless, the disabled and other disadvantaged groups for their problems while reinforcing the merging of a monster society with a punishing state because, don’t fool yourself, we all know this. As the social state shrinks, the punishing state grows. They work together. It becomes impossible in my estimation to separate these two. As the state generates more problems by funneling wealth into the hands of fewer people, more devastation by separating economic issues from social costs, it relies on the punishing state.

On the Soft War

HG: The point that I want to make about the Soft War is this is an educational war. This is a form of public pedagogy on the side of authoritarianism. This is a form of pedagogy that is being waged by corporations because they know that they not only, in a sense, have to extract profits from people, groups and individuals but they also have to stifle the creative impulses of young people.

When I read about the Snowden incident, what caught my eye that was absolutely stunning was there was a general talking about Snowden, and his comment was that the problem with Snowden and his generation is not they they know these new technologies better than we do. The problem is they question authority. I guess the key here is what they get, and what we sometimes don’t get, is that the subjects that are going to get produced, the buyers that are going to be mobilized, the notions of agency that are going to be shaped are absolutely essential to neoliberal politics. They’re concerned about agents. They want agents who are basically going to do nothing more than mimic the logic of the market. That’s what they want. Shut up and buy. Sell and go shopping. We have a major tragedy, for instance, in the United States, and Bush lite says we can deal with this. Go shopping. . . . You can always measure a politician’s integrity. What they all say when they are really in trouble is “Go to Disney World.” The environment is being polluted, “Go to Disney World.” It has become like a mantra for a kind of stupidity which the market takes pride in.

On Aboriginal and Minority Youth Poverty and Incarceration

HG: In Canada, one child in six lives in poverty, but for aboriginal and immigrant children, the figures rise to 40 and 50 percent, respectively. How else do you respond to that, but that has to be one of the most shameful indexes to mark any society that gives lip service to what we call a democracy.

By all accounts, the rate of incarceration for aboriginal youth, already eight times higher than for non-aboriginal youth, will skyrocket as a result of the Harper government’s so-called “Safe Streets and Community Act,” which emulates the failed policies of the US system, among other things, strengthening requirements to detain and sentence more youth to custody and juvenile detention centers. Surely, one thing, the ongoing inquest into the tragic suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who spent 5 years of her life in and out of detention facilities, tells us that incarceration for young people can be equivalent to a death sentence.

On Reinventing the Meaning of Politics and What Needs to Be Done

HG: I think that one thing that neoliberalism has taught us is that it has a vocabulary, and an infrastructure, and a set of practices that not only do we need to challenge, but we need to reinvent in some very fundamental way the very meaning of politics itself. Something has happened in a neoliberal age. What has happened is that power and politics are now separated. Politics is local. Power is global. The ultrarich, the corporations, they have no allegiance to anyone. They float. But, the political structures that we often find ourselves working in are local and political. While that matters, that’s just the beginning. It seems to me that if we are going to make any dent whatsoever, a number of things have got to happen.

One, we have to form alliances with people, not simply on a national level but also on an international level. This war is global. It’s global. Until we can guild the global structures that challenge this type of savage cruelty, this type of criminalization, this destruction of all of the basic dignities that matter to allow us to participate in what might be called the promise of a democracy to come, it seems to me we are in big trouble.

Secondly, we need to understand that education is central to the very nature of politics. It seems to me that one of the things we have lost on the left, one of the things that the left, in all of its ideological permutations, seems to have forgotten is that nothing happens until you make something meaningful, in order to make it critical, in order to make it transformative. We have to begin to talk about the alternative public spheres and the formative cultures that are necessary to make that happen. To talk about building platforms immediately, to talk about putting agendas right there up front, to talk about vanguards – to me is a death wish. Until we can raise the consciousness of the people and make them realize that they have an investment in the very struggles that we believe in, we are lost. That is not simply a political project, it is an education project.

It also seems to me that one of the things we have dealt with for a long time – and I’m so proud to be able to be here today and to share in this document that the Ontario Common Front has put together, which I think is a fabulous document. I think to talk about long-term struggles and not immediate satisfaction . . . In my generation, forgive me for this, but we had a saying, “The long march through the institutions.” For me that means one thing, one foot in and one foot out, and never two feet in. I’m not going to give up the university to the right-wing, so I have one foot in. I’m not going to give up public schools to the right-wing fundamentalists, so I have one foot in. I’m not going to give up a health care system in which, unlike in the United States, every time I have a treatment for an autoimmune desease I have, which costs $5,000 – in the United States, I’d be bankrupt. I’m not going to let them take that away from you or for me because that is the basis for allowing us to be the kind of agents that we need to be. As soon as they make time a deprivation for us, rather than a luxury, we’re screwed.

So it seems to me that we need to fight for the formative cultures and the public spaces in which larger social movements can come together; where rather than deny our differences, we can understand their strengths and their limitations in terms of larger social issues that look at the totality of society, because I’m not just interested in getting rid of racism. I’m interested in getting rid of an authoritarian state as well.

I’m not interested in just getting rid of economic injustices. I’m also interested in creating the kind of life in which people have access to all the goods that they need so that their dignity is intact in ways that allow them to fulfill the promise of what it means to be alive and to live with dignity as truly an agent. I am also concerned as we all are, about not just an economic rationality that is destructive and cruel, but I am also concerned about a culture of cruelty in which all forms of social dependency are not just seen as something to be outlawed but are actually seen as a pathology.

We live at a time when – there is something about this system, unlike any other system that I have seen in my lifetime, which produces a culture that is so cruel, so pathological in its hatred of the other, so, how might you say it, antidemocratic in its disregard for social dependencies that it represents the worst form of authoritarianism. It’s authoritarianism with a smile. You know, a happy day. Enjoy yourself. Have a nice day, but you’re just going to do it alone. Until we can resurrect the sense of democratic community and responsibility, until we can talk about education being linked to social change, until we talk about education that, in a fundamental way, takes the dreams and the voices of young people seriously, provides the conditions for teachers and those in other cultural spheres – artists and intellectuals – be able to work with dignity, I think we’re in trouble.

Thank you.

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