by Henry A. Giroux
Within the last few months, we have seen an outpouring of student protests from all over the globe demonstrating an unrelenting fidelity to justice and to future generations. Young people have been protesting in the streets in London, mobilizing against a society in which social services, jobs, and hopes for the future are disappearing. At the same time, young people in the United States and in many Western countries are marching against cuts to student funding and fee increases,” while further demanding a radical economic, social, and political restructuring of the globe. Students in France, Spain, and Greece are demonstrating with their bodies against harsh austerity measures while young people in Syria are being tortured, murdered, and brutalized for protesting against the Assad regime. Counter-public spheres and modes of resistance that we once did not think young people could mount have erupted in a rush of emotional and political expressions and scattered demonstrations. Mass demonstrations have been organized through the emergent screen cultures and use of the new media by a generation well versed in new technologically assisted forms of social networking and political exchange. Democracy, hated by the right and dismissed by many leftists as a liberal deception, is no longer dismissed as a relic of the past. The promise of a real democracy is being reinvented and defended by youth all over the globe as a kind of shared existence and new mode of solidarity that makes the political possible. At the same time, young people are making clear that any society that makes a claim to democracy cannot abandon its youth.
In many countries, young people have used the new media to mobilize mass demonstrations, pitting their bodies against the police, army, hired thugs, and other repressive forces. But they have also used the Internet and various social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to reach across national boundaries. In doing so, they have shared experiences, gathered information, circulated strategies for dealing with the police, and developed non-violent modes of protest. For example, young leaders in Egypt exchanged information “with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, and Morocco and Iran.”
Signaling a generational crisis that is global in scope, young people have sent a message to the world that they refuse to live any longer under repressive political regimes sustained by a morally bankrupt neoliberal world. Throughout Europe, youth exercised their sense of collective agency by calling for a revision of how democracy both listens to and treats them. In doing so, these uprisings signal a new stage in which young people once again are defining what John Pilger calls the “theater of the possible.” The shimmering fantasy, if not illusion and banalization, of hope has given way to a politics of collective action and massive resistance. From Tunis to Paris, a politics emerged that revealed a longing for the not-yet-and-still-possible.
Out of place and subject to a grating diversity of realities that reveal massive unemployment, underpaid temporary work, skyrocketing tuition, escalating rent, rising food costs, deepening poverty, and the indignity of having to live with their parents, youth no longer symbolize one of the most crucial investments enabling a society to build on its dreams. Under the global reach of neoliberalism with its “political economy of mass dispossession and predatory practices,” young people are now viewed as trouble, a drain on resources, and relegated to either the infantilizing world of consumerism or to various punishing sites of disposability, such as the schools modeled as prisons, or even worse, the criminal justice system. Placed at the limits of the social, youth have become as Jean and John Comaroff point out “the creatures of our nightmares, of our social impossibilities and our existential angst.” Moreover, any expression of dissent invites state sanctioned rage, violence, torture, and imprisonment. How else to explain in the face of the recent riots in London, young people were labeled in the popular press as “nihilistic and feral teenagers” while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, termed the uprisings the result of mindless violence. Rather than attempt to understand the youth uprisings in light of neoliberal disciplinary measures, the punishing policies of austerity, and the culture of cruelty unleashed by a ruthless form of economic Darwinism, they are simply dismissed as acts of criminality. Both banned and abandoned by society, too many young people around the globe are now refusing the new and more intense merger of the punishing state and the soulless practices of a society that measures all worth through the template of market driven values.
What is new in these youth revolts that are rewriting the politics of the Middle East and Western Europe is a refusal on the part of young people to be written out of the future. They are measuring the present and future not through the banal metaphysics of profit margins but in terms of practices that produce new subjectivities, address massive inequalities in power and wealth, and refuse to separate social costs from the practices of power. The violence of the neoliberal state and its democratic and authoritarian articulations reveals a politics in which young people are labeled as an apathetic generation comfortable with living in a “state of stupor, in a moral coma” in order to justify denying their basic needs and forcing them to bear the brunt of a growing culture of cruelty. Under these circumstances, there has been a concerted effort on the part of authoritarian and corporate states to destroy all those democratic public spheres that enable new models of association. If young people are granted the time, resources, and support to reclaim a future that does not imitate the present, these modes of sociality will have a better chance at creating the conditions for a future that makes good on the ideals and promises of democratization. What is remarkable about the mass revolts in Europe and the Middle East today is that young people have taken the lead in rejecting a future which for the last thirty years or more has been shamelessly mortgaged by both Western countries embracing a form of zombie politics and economic Darwinism, and authoritarian societies in the Middle East that exhibit a deep hatred for democracy.
Most importantly, this new generation of young people is able not only to think in terms that relate isolated problems to larger public considerations, but also to recognize the importance of a civic society that provides the formative culture necessary for self-governing democratic societies. Hence, the emphasis on the new media, social networks, and the Internet is not merely about dodging the repression of dissent. It is more importantly about creating new democratic public spheres where the values, ideas, dialogue, knowledge, and social relations necessary for a democracy can take root, if not flourish. It is about creating counter-public spheres that “assert the public character of spaces, relations, and institutions regarded as private” or currently limited to members of the ruling classes and authoritarian elites. This is a generation that is fighting back and, in doing so, inventing new pedagogical tools to expose the official scripts of power while at the same time constructing new modes of association and struggle based on democratic ideals and values.
What is promising about these student protests is that, while they may have begun in relation to specific issues such as rising tuition costs or mass unemployment, they have both gained momentum and successfully mobilized other constituencies such as labor by connecting single issues to a wider set of economic, social, and political conditions. In doing so, these new social movements have called the larger neoliberal Zeitgeist into question. Specific issues have given rise to broader considerations. As a result, the totality of neoliberal and totalitarian societies have begun to fragment and weaken, offering a space for a broad alliance of individuals and groups who are seeking not only political reform but also meaningful and pervasive ideological and structural changes. While the new media opens up new modes of communication, social relations, and access to information, it has no inherent politics and guarantees nothing. Its value is not merely a technological issue, but has to be understood within a broader set of political questions and values. How is the media being used? What political projects are driving it? How is it being appropriated by consumer and celebrity culture? How can it be used as a tool of resistance and collective mobilization? Students in London recently used the new media to loot stores and flash mobs are being organized through the new media in Philadelphia, Chicago, and other U.S. cities to trash stores and brutalize innocent bystanders. The new media when it mimics the values of neoliberalism tends to undermine intimacy, long standing modes of solidarity, viable communities, invested commitments, and long term relations. The delete button now erases everything from being honest to developing long term friendships and commitments. The new media becomes politically crucial when there is a democratic political culture to provide it with the values, ideology, and strategies for it to embrace radical and emancipatory visions.
What we see in the youth movement now enveloping the globe is a refusal to live any longer in those reactionary formative cultures that erase any vestige of public accountability along with the language of self-reflection and any form of productive discourse about the common good, public welfare, and the conditions that make all life worth living. Market-driven culture rejects the assumption that freedom is a shared experience in which self-interest is subordinated to the affirmation of public values, the common good, and the notion of social responsibility implied in recognizing and transforming the conditions that make the lives of others precarious. Within authoritarian and market driven cultures, the new media can become a tool of resistance or a tool of commodification and domination. The outcome will be determined by the political projects at work in the people who use these technologies.
The Occupy Movements in the United States, in particular, have recognized that the rudiments of authoritarian politics are visible in the values, social practices, discourses, and policies that shape local politics, offering a symptomatic and troubling reading of those dark forces shaping the institutional structures and polices of the contemporary social order. What is often revealed in such politics is that the unrelenting desire to pursue the imperatives of justice–that should be fundamental to any viable democracy–has now given way in the United States to its opposite, the unrelenting development of injustice, evident in the growing “pursuit of material self-interest,” an uncritical admiration for consumerism, “unfettered markets, a disdain for the public sector,” and a persistent indifference to the rise of “broken highways, bankrupt cities, collapsing bridges, failed schools, the unemployed, the underpaid and the uninsured.” Business oriented pedagogies now merge with a politics of fear and revived and unapologetic racism in order to facilitate the rule of an uncivil society that trades in terror, exclusion, racial segregation, “ardent consumerism and Hobbesian anarchy.” What young people are now fighting in the United States is the rise of a right-wing political and economic class that wants to take the country back to the inequalities and social cruelties that marked Gilded Age of the late 19th century. This is a new kind of corporate authoritarianism, one that offers no apologies for its predatory wealth, modes of exploitation, and destructive power relations, particularly as those relations create a future in which young people are seen as excess, disposable, and a threat to the dominant social order.
One sign of hope is that many of the youth movements taking place around the globe make clear that the social visions embedded in casino capitalism and deeply authoritarian regimes have lost both their utopian thrust and their ability to persuade and intimidate through threats, coercion, and state violence. Rejecting the terrors of the present and the modernist dreams of progress at any cost, young people have become, at least for the moment, harbingers of democracy fashioned through the desires, dreams, and hopes of a world based on the principles of equality, justice, and freedom. In doing so, they are pointing to a world order in which the future will certainly not mimic the present. What might be characterized by some commentators as an outburst of youthful utopianism reminiscent of the 1960s may in fact be the outcome of “the most concrete and pressing reality.” Youth culture has proven to be global in its use of new media, music, and fashion, and increasingly in terms of its collective anger against deep-seated injustice and its willingness to struggle against such forces. It is only a matter of time before many youth still colonized by the lure of commodification recognize that they are more than consumers; market-driven society is not synonymous with democracy; private rights are not more important than the social good; and society’s view of them as pathological and disposable demands a call for massive resistance in the streets, schools, and every other public space in which justice and democracy matter.
One of the most famous slogans of May 1968 was “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” The spirit of that slogan is alive once again. But if it is to become more than a slogan, young people across the globe must struggle even more resiliently to continue to build the formative cultures, critical public spheres, social movements, and democratic institutions necessary to make that recognition and struggle possible. Where the liberatory possibilities of the next generation of media technologies become significant is in the efforts of individuals, groups, and institutions to deploy the pedagogical potential of the new media in constructing new knowledge, including new voices in the conversation, forging alliances across national boundaries, and protecting those public spheres where the formative culture necessary for creating educated and informed citizens can develop and flourish. The production of such knowledge, alliances, and voices must be connected to the urgent call to revitalize the language of civic education and social responsibility as part of a broader discourse of political agency, civic literacy, and critical citizenship in a globalized world. Reclaiming the connection between the political and the ethical imagination as a pedagogical act may be one of the most crucial challenges in the twenty-first century facing those who believe the new media offers the prospect of a new and powerful global public sphere for promoting justice, public values, and the promise of democracy. Equally important is the hope that as new social relations emerge and a new language for politics is being fashioned, such a politics will not only address the demands of a democracy to come but also fashion those formative cultures and social movements that will make the promise of such a democracy possible.
1. Elias Holtz, “The Global Student Revolt: Youth Protests Demand Education for All, Not Just for the Rich,” Socialism.com (February 2011). www.socialism.com/drupal-6.8/?q=node/1568
2. Pacale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, “Translator’s Note,” in Jean-Luc Nancy, The Truth of Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), p.xi.
3. Angela Davis, “The 99%: a community of resistance,” The Guardian, (November 15, 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/15/99-percent-community-resistance
4. For one of the intellectual resources used by youth leaders to develop non-violent modes of protest, see Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institute, 2010). http://www.aeinstein.org/organizations/org/FDTD.pdf
5. See, for instance, David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger, “Dual Uprisings Show Potent New Threats to Arab States,” New York Times (February 13, 2011), p. A1.
6. John Pilger, “The Revolt in Egypt Is Coming Home,” Johnpilger.com (February 9, 2011). http://johnpilger.com/articles/the-egyptian-revolt-is-coming-home
7. David Harvey, “Feral capitalism Hits the Streets,”CounterPunch (August 12-14, 2011). http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/08/12/feral-capitalism-hits-the-streets/
8. John and Jean Comaroff, “Reflections on Youth, from the Past to the Postcolony,” in Melissa S. Fisher and Greg Downey, eds., Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 268.
9. Leo Lowenthal, “Atomization of Man,” False Prophets: Studies in Authoritarianism (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987), p. 182.
10. I take this issue up in Henry A. Giroux, “The Crisis of Public Values in the Age of the New Media,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 28: 1 (2011), pp. 8–29.
11. Jacques Rancière, “Democracy, Republic Representation,” Constellations 13:3 (2006), p. 300.
12. Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land, (New York, N.Y.: The Penguin Press, 2010), pp. 2, 12.
13. Jean and John Comaroff, “Criminal Obsessions After Foucault: Postcoloniality, Policing, and the Metaphysic of Disorder,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Summer 2004), p. 84.
14. Robert Reich, “The Rebirth of Social Darwinism,” Robert Reich’s Blog, (Nov. 30, 2011) http://robertreich.org/post/13567144944
15. Cited in Brault and Naas, “Translators Note,” p. xii.
[Thank you Henry for this prompt contribution]
The writer holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. His most recent books include: Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, On Critical Pedagogy and Twilight of the Social. His website is at www.henryagiroux.com
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