The end of American Democracy?

by Henry A. Giroux

“For we already know that a worthwhile society will not be less but more free than our own. More instruction, more — and more precise — information, more concrete criticism, publicity given to the actual functioning of society and politics, all problems put in the most offensive terms — as offensive as suffering and as all true reasoning — here are the preliminary conditions for ‘transparent’ social relations.” — Merleau Ponty

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” — James Baldwin

Four decades of neoliberal policies have given way to an economic Darwinism that promotes a politics of cruelty. And its much vaunted ideology is taking over the United States.[1] As a theater of cruelty and mode of public pedagogy, economic Darwinism undermines all forms of solidarity capable of challenging market-driven values and social relations.  At the same time, economic Darwinism promotes the virtues of an unbridled individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for community, social responsibility, public values, and the public good. As the welfare state is dismantled and spending is cut to the point where government becomes unrecognizable — except to promote policies that benefit the rich, corporations, and the defense industry — the already weakened federal and state governments are increasingly replaced by the harsh realities of the punishing state and what João Biehl has called proliferating “zones of social abandonment” and “terminal exclusion.”[2]

One consequence is that social problems are increasingly criminalized, while social protections are either eliminated or fatally weakened. Another result of this crushing form of economic Darwinism is that it thrives on a kind of social amnesia that erases critical thought, historical analyses, and any understanding of broader systemic relations.  In this instance, it does the opposite of critical memory work by eliminating those public spheres where people learn to translate private troubles into public issues. That is, it breaks “the link between public agendas and private worries, the very hub of the democratic process.”[3] Once set in motion, economic Darwinism unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws and political considerations collapse into the injurious and self-indicting discourse of character. As George Lakoff and Glenn Smith argue, the anti-public philosophy of economic Darwinism makes a parody of democracy by defining freedom as “the liberty to seek one’s own interests and well-being, without being responsible for the interests or well-being of anyone else. It’s a morality of personal, but not social, responsibility. The only freedom you should have is what you can provide for yourself, not what the Public provides for you to start out.”[4]  Put simply, we alone become responsible for the problems we confront when we can no longer conceive how larger forces control or constrain our choices and the lives we are destined to lead.

Yet, the harsh values and practices of this new social order are visible — in the increasing incarceration of young people, the modeling of public schools after prisons, state violence waged against peaceful student protesters, and state policies that bail out investment bankers but leave the middle and working classes in a state of poverty, despair, and insecurity.  Such values are also evident in the GOP Social-Darwinist budget plan that rewards the rich and cuts aid for those who need it the most. For instance, the Romney/Ryan budget plan “proposes to cut the taxes of households earning over $1 million by an average of $295,874 a year,”[5] but at a cruel cost to those most disadvantaged populations who rely on social programs.  In order to pay for tax reductions that benefit the rich, the Romney/Ryan budget would cut funds for food stamps, Pell grants, health care benefits, unemployment insurance, veterans’ benefits, and other crucial social programs.[6] As Paul Krugman has argued, the Ryan budget “isn’t just looking for ways to save money [its] also trying to make life harder for the poor — for their own good. In March, explaining his cuts in aid for the unfortunate, [Ryan] declared, ‘We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.’”[7]  Krugman rightly replies, “I doubt that Americans forced to rely on unemployment benefits and food stamps in a depressed economy feel that they’re living in a comfortable hammock.”[8] As an extremist version of neoliberalism, Ryanomics is especially vicious towards American children, 16.1 million of whom currently live in poverty. Marian Wright Edelman captures the harshness and savagery of the Ryan budget passed in the House of Representatives. She writes:

Ryanomics is an all out assault on our poorest children while asking not a dime of sacrifice from the richest 2 percent of Americans or from wealthy corporations. Ryanomics slashes hundreds of billions of dollars from child and family nutrition, health, child care, education, and child protection services, in order to extend and add to the massive Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires at a taxpayer cost of $5 trillion over 10 years. On top of making the Bush tax cuts permanent, the top income bracket would get an additional 10 percent tax cut. Millionaires and billionaires would on average keep at least an additional quarter of a million dollars each year and possibly as much as $400,000 a year according to the Citizens for Tax Justice.[9]

Under the euphemism of a politics of austerity, we are witnessing not only widespread cuts in vital infrastructures, education, and social protections, but also the emergence of policies produced in the spirit of revenge aimed at the poor, the elderly, and others marginalized by race and class.  As Robert Reich, Charles Ferguson, and a host of recent commentators have pointed out, this extreme concentration of power in every commanding institution of society promotes predatory practices and rewards sociopathic behavior. Such a system creates an authoritarian class of corporate and hedge-fund swindlers that reaps its own profits by

placing big bets with other people’s money. The winners in this system are top Wall Street executives and traders, private-equity managers and hedge-fund moguls, and the losers are most of the rest of us. The system is largely responsible for the greatest concentration of the nation’s income and wealth at the very top since the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century, with the richest 400 Americans owning as much as the bottom 150 million put together. And these multimillionaires and billionaires are now actively buying the 2012 election — and with it, American democracy.[10]

Unfortunately, the American public has remained largely silent, if not also complicitous with the rise of a neoliberal version of authoritarianism.  While young people have started to challenge this politics and machinery of corruption, war, violence, and death, they represent a small and marginalized part of the movement that will be necessary to initiate massive collective resistance to the aggressive violence being waged against all those public spheres that further the promise of democracy in the United States.  The actions of student protesters and others have been crucial in drawing public attention to the constellation of forces that are pushing the United States into what Hannah Arendt called “dark times.” The questions now being asked must be seen as the first step towards exposing dire social and political costs of concentrating wealth, income, and power into the hands of the upper one percent.

Neoliberal Ideology and the Rhetoric of Freedom

In addition to amassing ever expanding amounts of material wealth, the rich now control the means of schooling and education in the United States. They have disinvested in critical education, while reproducing notions of common sense that incessantly replicate the basic values, ideas, and relations necessary to sustain the institutions of economic Darwinism.  Both parties support educational reforms that increase conceptual illiteracy. Critical learning is now reduced to mastering test-taking, memorizing facts, and learning how not to question knowledge and authority.  This type of rote pedagogy, as Zygmunt Bauman points out, is “the most effective prescription for grinding communication to a halt and for [robbing] it of the presumption and expectation of meaningfulness and sense.”[11]

This type of market-driven illiteracy has eviscerated the notion of freedom, turning it largely into the desire to consume and invest exclusively in relationships that serve only one’s individual interests. Citizens are treated by the political and economic elite as restless children and are “invited daily to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping.”[12]  Shallow consumerism coupled with an indifference to the needs and suffering of others has produced a politics of disengagement and a culture of moral irresponsibility. Language has been stripped of the terms, phrases, and ideas that embrace a concern for the other. With meaning utterly privatized, words are reduced to signifiers that mimic spectacles of violence, designed to provide entertainment rather than thoughtful analysis. Sentiments circulating in the dominant culture parade either idiocy or a survival-of-the-fittest ethic, while anti-public rhetoric strips society of the knowledge and values necessary for the development of a democratically engaged and socially responsible public.

In such circumstances, freedom has truly morphed into its opposite. Neoliberal ideology has construed as pathological any notion that in a healthy society people depend on each other in multiple, complex, direct and indirect ways. As Lewis Lapham points out, “Citizens are no longer held in thoughtful regard… just as thinking and acting are removed from acts of public conscience.”[13]  Economic Darwinism has produced a legitimating ideology in which the conditions for critical inquiry, moral responsibility, and social and economic justice disappear. The result is that neoliberal ideology increasingly resembles a call to war that turns the principles of democracy against democracy itself. Americans now live in an atomized and pulverized society, “spattered with the debris of broken interhuman bonds”[14] in which “democracy becomes a perishable commodity”[15] and all things public are viewed with disdain.  Increasingly, it appears the only bond holding American society together is a perverse collective death-drive.

Neoliberal Governance

At the level of governance, neoliberalism has turned politics into a tawdry form of money laundering in which the spaces and registers that circulate power are controlled by those who have amassed large amounts of capital. Elections, like mainstream politicians, are now bought and sold to the highest bidder. In the Senate and House of Representatives, 47 percent are millionaires and the “estimated median net worth of a current U.S. senator stood at an average of $2.56 million while the median net worth of members of Congress is $913,000.”[16]  Elected representatives no longer do the bidding of the people who elect them. Rather, they are now largely influenced by the demands of lobbyists who have enormous clout in promoting the interests of the elite, financial services, and mega corporations. Currently, there are over 14,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., which amounts to approximately 23 lobbyists for every member of Congress. Although the number of lobbyists has steadily increased by about 20 percent since 1998, the Center for Responsive Politics found that “total spending on lobbying the federal government has almost tripled since 1998, to $3.3 billion.”[17]

As Bill Moyers and Bernard Weisberger succinctly put it, “A radical minority of the superrich has gained ascendency over politics, buying the policies, laws, tax breaks, subsidies, and rules that consolidate a permanent state of vast inequality by which they can further help themselves to America’s wealth and resources.”[18]  Democratic governance has been replaced by the sovereignty of the market, paving the way for modes of governance intent on transforming democratic citizens into entrepreneurial agents. The language of the market and business culture have now almost entirely supplanted any celebration of the public good or the calls to enhance civil society characteristic of past generations.

Neoliberal governance has produced an economy and a political system almost entirely controlled by the rich and powerful — what a Citigroup report called a “Plutonomy,” an economy powered by the wealthy. [19] These plutocrats are what I have called the new zombies sucking the resources out of the planet and the rest of us in order to strengthen their grasp on political and economic power and fuel their exorbitant lifestyles. Policies are now enacted that provide massive tax cuts to the rich and generous subsidies to banks and corporations — alongside massive disinvestments in job creation programs, the building of critical infrastructures, and the development of crucial social programs, which range from health care to school meal programs for disadvantaged children.  In reality, the massive disinvestment in schools, social programs, and an aging infrastructure is not about a lack of money.

The real problem stems from government priorities that inform both how the money is collected and how it is spent.[20]  Over 60 percent of the federal budget goes to military spending, while only 6 percent is allocated towards education. The U.S. spends over $92 billion on corporate subsidies and only $59 billion on social welfare programs.[21] John Cavanagh has estimated that if there were a tiny tax imposed on Wall Street “stock and derivatives transactions,” the government could raise $150 billion annually.[22] In addition, if the tax code were adjusted in a fair manner to tax the wealthy, another $79 billion could be raised.  Finally, Cavanagh points out that $100 billion in tax income is lost annually through tax haven abuse; proper regulation would making it costly for corporations to declare “their profits in overseas tax havens like the Cayman Islands.”[23]

At the same time, the financialization of the economy and culture has resulted in the poisonous growth of monopoly power, predatory lending, abusive credit card practices, and misuses of CEO pay. The false but central neoliberal tenet that markets can solve all of society’s problems has no way of limiting the power of money and has given rise to “a politics in which policies that favor the rich … have allowed the financial sector to amass vast economic and political power.”[24] As Joseph Stiglitz points out, there is more at work in this form of governance than a pandering to the wealthy and powerful:  there is also the specter of an authoritarian society “where people live in gated communities,” large segments of the population are impoverished or locked up in prison, and Americans live in a state of constant fear as they face growing “economic insecurity, healthcare insecurity, [and] a sense of physical insecurity.”[25] In other words, the authoritarian nature of neoliberal political governance and economic power is also visible in the rise of a national security state in which civil liberties are being drastically abridged and violated.

As the war on terror becomes a normalized state of existence, the most basic rights available to American citizens are being shredded. The spirit of revenge, militarization, and fear now permeates the discourse of national security.  For instance, under Presidents Bush and Obama, the idea of habeas corpus with its guarantee that prisoners have minimal rights has given way to policies of indefinite detention, abductions, targeted assassinations, drone killings, and an expanding state surveillance apparatus. The Obama administration has designated 46 inmates for indefinite detention at Guantanamo because, according to the government, they can be neither tried nor safely released. Moreover, another “167 men now confined at Guantanamo…have been cleared for release yet remain at the facility.”[26]

With the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2012, the rule of legal illegalities has been extended to threaten the lives and rights of U. S. citizens. The law authorizes military detention of individuals who are suspected of belonging not only to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda but to “associated forces.” As Glenn Greenwald points out, this “grants the president the power to indefinitely detain in military custody not only accused terrorists, but also their supporters, all without charges or trial.”[27] The vagueness of the law allows the possibility of subjecting U.S. citizens who are considered in violation of the law to indefinite detention. Of course, that might include journalists, writers, intellectuals, and anyone else who might be accused because of their dealings with alleged terrorists. Fortunately, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest of New York agreed with Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky, and other writers who have challenged the legality of the law.  Judge Forrest recently acknowledged the unconstitutionality of the law and ruled in favor of a preliminary barring of the enforcement of the National Defense Authorization Act.[28]

The anti-democratic practices at work in the Obama administration also include the U.S. government’s use of state secrecy to provide a cover or prevent being embarrassed by practices that range from the illegal use of torture to the abduction of innocent foreign nationals.  Under the rubric of national security, a shadow state has emerged that eschews transparency and commits unlawful acts under the rubric of national security. Given the power of the government to engage in a range of illegalities and to make them disappear through an appeal to state secrecy, it should come as no surprise that warrantless wiretapping, justified in the name of national security, is on the rise at both the federal and state levels. For instance, the New York City Police Department “implemented surveillance programs that violate the civil liberties of that city’s Muslim-American citizens [by infiltrating] mosques and universities [and] collecting information on individuals suspected of no crimes.”[29] And the American public barely acknowledged this shocking abuse of power. Such anti-democratic policies and practices have become the new norm in American society and reveal a frightening and dangerous move towards a twenty-first century version of authoritarianism.

Neoliberalism as the New Lingua Franca of Cruelty

The harsh realities of a society defined by the imperatives of punishment, cruelty, militarism, secrecy, and exclusion can also be seen in the emergence of a growing rhetoric of insult, humiliation, and slander. Teachers are referred to as welfare queens by right-wing pundits; conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that Michael J. Fox was “faking” the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease when he appeared in a political ad for Democrat Clair McCaskill; and the public is routinely treated to racist comments, slurs, and insults about Barack Obama by a host of shock jocks, politicians, and even one federal judge.[30] Poverty is not only seen as a personal failing, it has become the object of abuse, fear, and loathing.  Poor people rather than poverty are now the problem, because the poor, as right-wing ideologues never fail to remind us, are lazy (and after all how could they be poor since they own TVs and cell phones).  Racism, cruelty, insults, and the discourse of humiliation are now packaged in a mindless rhetoric that is as unapologetic as it is ruthless — and has become the new lingua franca of public exchange.

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney echoed the harshness of the new lingua franca of cruelty when asked recently about the government’s responsibility to 50 million Americans who don’t have health insurance.  Incredibly, Romney said they already have access to health care because they can go to hospital emergency rooms. In response, a New York Times editorial pointed out that emergency room care “is the most expensive and least effective way of providing care” and such a remark “reeks of contempt for those left behind by the current insurance system, suggesting that they must suffer with illness until the point where they need an ambulance.”[31]  Indifferent to the health care needs of the poor and middle class, Romney also conveniently forgets that, as indicated in a Harvard University study, “more than 62% of all personal bankruptcies are caused by the cost of over-whelming medical expenses.”[32]  The new lingua franca of cruelty and its politics of disposability are on full display here. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, we live in a time when revenge has become the cure-all for most of our social and economic ills.

Neoliberalism and the Retreat from Ethical Considerations

Not only does neoliberal rationality believe in the ability of markets to solve all problems, it also removes economics and markets from ethical considerations. Economic growth, rather than social needs, drives politics. Long-term investments are replaced by short-term gains and profits, while compassion is viewed as a weakness and democratic public values are scorned because they subordinate market considerations to the common good.  As the language of privatization, deregulation, and commodification replaces the discourse of social responsibility, all things public — including public schools, libraries, transportation systems, crucial infrastructures, and public services — are viewed either as a drain on the market or as a pathology.[33] Greed is now championed because it allegedly drives innovation and creates jobs. Massive disparities in income and wealth are celebrated as a justification for embracing a survival-of-the-fittest ethic and paying homage to a ruthless mode of unbridled individualism.

Morality in this instance becomes empty, stripped of any obligations to the other. How else to explain Mitt Romney’s gaffe caught on video in which he derided “47 percent of the people [who] will vote for the president no matter what”?[34] There was more at work here than what some have called “the killing of the American dream” or simply a cynical political admission by Romney that some voting blocs do not matter.[35]  Romney’s comments about those 47 percent of adult Americans who don’t pay income taxes for one reason or another, whom he described as “people who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it,”[36] makes clear that a politics of disposability is central to the extreme right-wing philosophy of those who control the Congress and are vying for the presidency.  Paul Krugman is on target in arguing that in spite of massive suffering caused by the economic recession — a recession that produced “once-unthinkable levels of economic distress” — there is “growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care.”[37] Of course, Krugman is not suggesting that if the corporate and financial elite cared the predatory nature of capitalism would be transformed. Rather, he is suggesting that economic Darwinism leaves no room for compassion or ethical considerations, which makes it use of power much worse than more liberal models of a market-based society.

Politics of Disposability and the Breakdown of American Democracy

The not-so-hidden order of politics underlying the second Gilded Age and its heartless version of economic Darwinism is that some populations, primarily the elderly, young people, the unemployed, immigrants, and poor whites and minorities of color, now constitute a form of human waste or excess. The politics of disposability delineates these populations as unworthy of investment or of sharing in the rights, benefits, and protections of a substantive democracy.[38]  What is particularly disturbing is how little opposition there is among the American public to this view of particular social groups as disposable — this, perhaps more than anything else, signals the presence of a rising authoritarianism in the United States. Left unchecked, economic Darwinism will not only destroy the social fabric and undermine democracy; it will also ensure the marginalization and eventual elimination of those intellectuals willing to fight for public values, rights, spaces, and institutions not wedded to the logic of privatization, commodification, deregulation, militarization, hyper-masculinity, and a ruthless “competitive struggle in which only the fittest could survive.”[39] Clearly, this new politics of disposability and culture of cruelty will wreak destruction in ways not yet imaginable, despite the horrific outcomes of the economic and financial crisis brought on by economic Darwinism. All evidence suggests a new reality is unfolding, one that is characterized by a deeply rooted crisis of education, agency, and social responsibility.

Under such circumstances, to paraphrase C. Wright Mills, we are seeing the breakdown of democracy, the disappearance of critical intellectuals, and “the collapse of those public spheres which offer a sense of critical agency and social imagination.”[40]  Since the 1970s, we have witnessed the forces of market fundamentalism attempt to strip education of its public values, critical content, and civic responsibilities as part of a broader goal to create new subjects wedded to the logic of privatization, efficiency, flexibility, consumerism, and the destruction of the social state.  Today, neoliberalism’s ascendency has made the educational force of culture toxic, while educational institutions — whether in public or higher education — have all but transformed from promoting the public good to affirming private interests.

Encountering an onslaught of neoliberal ideology from all sides, it becomes increasingly difficult for the larger public to hold on to ideas that affirm social justice, community, and those public values central to the cultural and political life of an aspiring democracy. Within both formal education and the educational force of the broader cultural apparatus — with its networks of knowledge production in the old and new media — we are witnessing the emergence and dominance of a powerful and ruthless market-driven notion of politics, governance, teaching, learning, freedom, agency, and responsibility. Such modes of education do not foster a sense of organized responsibility central to a healthy democracy. Instead, they foster what I have referred to in the past as a sense of organized irresponsibility — a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism, public pedagogy, and corruption at the heart of both the current recession and American politics.

Beyond Neoliberal Mis-education

The anti-democratic practices that drive free-market fundamentalism are increasingly evident in the neoliberal framing of public and higher education as a corporate-based sector that embraces commodifying the curriculum, supporting top-down management, implementing more courses that promote business values, and reducing all spheres of education to job training sites. As universities turn towards corporate management models, they increasingly use and exploit cheap faculty labor. In fact, many colleges and universities are drawing more and more upon adjunct and non-tenured faculty, many of whom occupy the status of indentured servants who are overworked, lack benefits, receive little or no support, and are paid salaries that qualify them for food stamps.[41] Students are buried under huge debts that are celebrated by the debt collection industry that is cashing in on their misfortune.  Jerry Aston, one member of the industry, wrote in a column after witnessing a protest rally by students criticizing their mounting debt that “I couldn’t believe the accumulated wealth they represent — for our industry.”[42]

There is more at work here than infusing market values into every aspect of higher education. There is also a full-fledged assault on the very notion of public goods, democratic public spheres, and the role of education in creating an informed citizenry. When Rick Santorum argued that intellectuals were not wanted in the Republican Party, he was mimicking what has become common sense in a society wedded to narrow instrumental values and various modes of fundamentalism.  Critical thinking and a literate public have become dangerous to those who want to celebrate orthodoxy over dialogue, emotion over reason, and ideological certainty over thoughtfulness.  Hannah Arendt’s warning that “it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think”[43] at the heart of authoritarian regimes is now embraced as a fundamental tenet of Republican Party politics.

In the United States, many of the problems in higher education can be linked to low funding, the domination of universities by market mechanisms, the rise of for-profit colleges, the intrusion of the national security state, and the lack of faculty self-governance, all of which not only contradicts the culture and democratic value of higher education but also makes a mockery of the very meaning and mission of the university.  Decreased financial support for higher education stands in sharp contrast to increased support for tax benefits for the rich, financial industries, and corporations.  Rather than strengthen civic imagination among students, public universities are wedded more and more to the logic of profitability, to producing students as useful machines, and to a form of education that promotes a “technically trained docility.”[44]

Universities and colleges have been largely abandoned as democratic public spheres dedicated to providing a public service, expanding upon humankind’s great intellectual and cultural achievements, and educating future generations to be able to confront the challenges of a global democracy.  As a core political and civic institution, higher education rarely appears any longer to be committed to addressing important social problems. Instead, many universities and colleges have become unapologetic accomplices to corporate values and power, and in doing so increasingly make social problems either irrelevant or invisible.  Just as democracy appears to be fading in the United States, so is the legacy of higher education’s faith in and commitment to democracy.

Unfortunately, one measure of this disinvestment in higher education as a public good can be seen in the fact that many states such as California are spending more on prisons than on higher education.[45]  Educating low income and poor minorities to be engaged citizens has been undermined by an unholy alliance of law-and-order conservatives, private prison corporations, and prison guard unions along with the rise of the punishing state, all of whom have more of a vested interest in locking people up than educating them.  It is no coincidence that as the U.S. disinvests in the institutions fundamental to a democracy, it has invested heavily in those apparatuses that propel the rise of the prison-industrial complex and the punishing-surveillance state.  The social costs of prioritizing punishing over education is clear in one shocking statistic provided by a recent study that stated “by age 23, almost a third of Americans or 30.2 percent have been arrested for a crime…researchers say [this] is a measure of growing exposure to the criminal justice system in everyday life.”[46]

The assault on the university is symptomatic of the deep educational and political crisis facing the United States. It is but one lens through which to recognize that the future of democracy depends on achieving the educational and ethical standards of the society we inhabit.[47]  Political, moral, and social indifference is the result, in part, of a public that is increasingly constituted within an educational landscape that reduces thinking to a burden and celebrates civic illiteracy as foundational for negotiating a society in which moral disengagement and political corruption go hand in hand. [48]

This collapse on the part of the American public into a political and moral coma is induced, in part, by an ever expanding mass mediated celebrity culture that trades in hype and sensation.  It is also accentuated by a governmental apparatus that sanctions modes of training that undermine any viable notion of critical schooling and public pedagogy. While there is much being written about how unfair the left is to the Obama administration, what is often forgotten by these liberal critics is that Obama has virtually aligned himself with educational practices and policies that are as instrumentalist and anti-intellectual as they are politically reactionary and therein lies one viable reason for not supporting his candidacy.[49] What liberals refuse to entertain is that the left is correct in attacking Obama for his cowardly retreat from a number of progressive issues and his dastardly undermining of civil liberties. In fact, they do not go far enough in their criticisms. Often even progressives miss that Obama’s views on what type of formative educational culture is necessary to create critically engaged and socially responsible citizens is utterly reactionary and provides no space for the nurturance of a radically democratic imagination. Hence, while liberals point to some of Obama’s progressive policies — often in a new age discourse that betrays their own supine moralism — in making a case for his re-election, they fail to acknowledge that Obama’s educational policies do nothing to contest, and are aligned with, his weak-willed compromises and authoritarian policies. In other words, Obama’s educational commitments undermine the creation of a formative culture capable of questioning authoritarian ideas, modes of governance and reactionary policies.  The question is not whether it is slightly less repugnant than Romney. On the contrary, it is about how the left should engage politics in a more robust and democratic way by imagining what it would mean to work collectively and with “slow impatience” for a new political order outside of the current moderate and extreme right-wing politics and the debased, uncritical educational apparatus that supports it.

The Role of Critical Education

One way of challenging the new authoritarianism is to reclaim the relationship between critical education and social change. Education both in and out of schools is the bedrock for the formative culture necessary to create not only a literate public but also a public willing to fight for its capacity to hold power accountable and to participate in the decisions and institutions that shape its everyday existence. The question of what kind of subjects and modes of individual and social agency are necessary for a democracy to survive appears more crucial now than ever before, and this is a question that places matters of education, pedagogy, and culture at the center of any understanding of politics.  We live at a time when the American people appear to have no interest in democracy — beyond the four-year ritual performance of voting, and even this act fails to attract a robust majority of citizens. The term has been emptied of any viable meaning, hijacked by political scoundrels, corporate elites, and the advertising industry. The passion that democracy exhibits as an ongoing struggle for rights, justice, and a future of hope has been transmuted into a misplaced desire to shop, fulfill the pleasure quotient in spectacles of violence, and misappropriate the language of democracy to deploy it as a rationale for racist actions against immigrants, Muslims, and poor minorities of color and class.

Clearly, as the Occupy Movement and other youth movements around the world have demonstrated, the time has come not only to redefine the promise of democracy but also to challenge those who have poisoned its meaning.  We have already witnessed such a challenge by protest movements both at home and abroad in which the struggle over education has become one of the most powerful fulcrums for addressing the detrimental effects of neoliberalism. What these struggles, particularly by young people, have in common is the attempt to merge the powers of persuasion and critical, civic literacy with the power of social movements to activate and mobilize real change. They are recovering a notion of the social and reclaiming a kind of humanity that should inspire and inform our collective willingness to imagine what a real democracy might look like.  The political philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis, rightly argues that “people need to be educated for democracy by not only expanding the capacities that enable them to assume public responsibility but also through active participation in the very process of governing.”[50] The current attack on democracy is directly linked to a systemic destruction of all those public spheres that expand the power of the imagination, critical inquiry, thoughtful exchange, and the formative culture that makes critical education and an engaged citizenry dangerous to fundamentalists of all ideological stripes.

As the crucial lens through which to create the formative culture in which politics and power can be made visible and held accountable, pedagogy plays a central role. But as Archon Fung points out, criticism is not the only public responsibility of intellectuals, artists, journalists, educators, and others who engage in critical pedagogical practices. “Intellectuals can also join citizens — and sometimes governments — to construct a world that is more just and democratic. One such constructive role is aiding popular movements and organizations in their efforts to advance justice and democracy.”[51] In this instance, understanding must be linked to the practice of social responsibility and the willingness to fashion a politics that addresses real problems and enacts concrete solutions. As Heather Gautney points out,

we need to start thinking seriously about what kind of political system we really want. And we need to start pressing for things that our politicians did NOT discuss at the conventions. Real solutions — like universal education, debt forgiveness, wealth redistribution, and participatory political structures — that would empower us to decide together what’s best. Not who’s best.[52]

Critical thinking divorced from action is often as sterile as action divorced from critical theory. Given the urgency of the historical moment, we need a politics and a public pedagogy which make knowledge meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative. Or as Stuart Hall argues we need to produce modes of analyses and knowledge in which “people can invest something of themselves…something that they recognize is of them or speaks to their condition.”[53]

Let me conclude by quoting from James Baldwin, a courageous writer who refused to let the hope of democracy die in his lifetime and who offered that mix of politics, passion, and courage that deserves not just admiration but emulation. His sense of rage was grounded in a working-class sensibility, eloquence, and passion that illuminate a higher standard for what it means to be a public intellectual and an engaged intellectual.  His words capture something that is missing from the American cultural and political landscape, something affirmative that needs to be seized upon, rethought, and occupied — as part of both the fight against the new authoritarianism and its cynical, dangerous, and cruel practices, and the struggle to reclaim a notion of justice and mutuality that seems to be dying in all of us. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin writes:

One must say Yes to life, and embrace it wherever it is found — and it is found in terrible places… For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

End notes:

[1] Manfred B. Steger and Ravi K. Roy, Neoliberalism: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 2010). Juliet B. Schor, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (New York: Penguin Press, 2010); Henry A. Giroux, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008); David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford Press, 2005); John and Jean Comaroff, eds. Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001). On the moral limits and failings of neoliberalism, see Michael J. Sandel,  What Money Can’t Buy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012) and for positing a case for neoliberalism as a criminal enterprise, see Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Vintage, 2011); Charles Ferguson, Predator Nation (New York: Crown Business, 2012); Henry A. Giroux, Zombie Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

[2] João Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005). These zones are also brilliantly analyzed in Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (New York: Knopf, 2012).

[3] Zygmunt Bauman, “Does ‘Democracy’ Still Mean Anything? (And in Case It Does, What Is It?)” TruthOut (January 21, 2011). Online:

[4] George Lakoff and Glenn W. G Smith, “Romney, Ryan and the Devil’s Budget,” Reader Supported News, (August 22, 2012). Online:       

[5] Robert Reich, “Mitt Romney and the New Gilded Age” Reader Supported News (June 30, 2012). Online:

[6] David Theo Goldberg, “The Taxing Terms of the GOP Plan Invite Class Carnage,” (September 20, 2012). Online:

[7] Paul Krugman, “Galt, gold and God,” The New York Times, (August 23, 2012), p. A25.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Marian Wright Edelman, “Ryanomics Assault on Poor and Hungry Children,” Huffington Post (September 14, 2012). Online:

[10] Reich, “Mitt Romney and the New Gilded Age,”; Charles Ferguson, Predatory Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America (New York: Crown Business, 2012); Daisy Grewal, “How Wealth Reduces Compassion: As Riches Grow, Empathy for Others Seems to Decline,” Scientific American (April 10, 2012). Online:

[11] Bauman, “Does ‘Democracy’ Still Mean Anything?”

[12] Lewis H. Lapham, “Feast of Fools: How American Democracy Became the Property of a Commercial Oligarchy,” Truthout (September 20, 2012). Online:

[13] Ibid.

[14] Zygmunt Bauman, This is Not a Diary (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), p. 102.

[16] Eric Lichtblau, “Economic Downturn Took a Detour at Capitol Hill,” New York Times (December 26, 2011). Online:

[17] Peter Grier, “So Much Money, So Few Lobbyists in D.C.: How Does the Math Work?” DC Decoder (February 24, 2012). Online:

[18] Bill Moyers and Bernard Weisberger, “Money in Politics: Where is the Outrage?” Huffington Post (August 30, 2012). Online:

[19] It is difficult to access this study because Citigroup does its best to make it disappear from the Internet. See the discussion of it by Noam Chomsky in “Plutonomy and the Precariat: On the History of the U.S. Economy in Decline,” Truthdig (May 8, 2012). Online:

[20] Salvatore Babones, “To End the Jobs Recession, Invest an Extra $20 Billion in Public Education,” Truthout (August 21, 2012). Online:$20-billion-in-public-education

[21] John Atcheson, “The Real Welfare Problem: Government Giveaways to the Corporate 1%,” Common  Dreams (September 3, 2012). Online:

[22] John Cavanagh, “Seven Ways to End the Deficit (Without Throwing Grandma Under the Bus),” Yes! Magazine (September 7, 2012). Online:

[23] Ibid.

[24] Joseph Stiglitz, “Politics Is at the Root of the Problem,” European Magazine (April 23, 2012). Online:

[25] Lynn Parramore, “Exclusive Interview: Joseph Stiglitz Sees Terrifying Future for America If We Don’t Reverse Inequality,” AlterNet (June 24, 2012). Online:

[26] Editorial, “America’s Detainee Problem,” Los Angeles Times (September 23, 2012). Online:

[27] Glenn Greenwald, “Unlike Afghan Leaders, Obama Fights for Power of Indefinite Military Detention,” The Guardian (September 18, 2012). Online: See also, Glenn Greenwald, “Federal Court Enjoins NDAA,” Salon (May 16, 2012). Online: See also, Henry A. Giroux, Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (Boulder: Paradigm 2010).

[28] Charlie Savage, “Judge Rules against Law on Indefinite Detention,” New York Times (September 12, 2012). Online:

[29] Karen J. Greenberg, “Ever More and Ever Less,” TomDispatch (March 18, 2012). Online:

[30] Catherine Poe, “Federal Judge Emails Racist Joke about President Obama,” Washington Times (March 1, 2012). Online:

[31] Editorial, “Why Romney Is Slipping,” New York Times (September 25, 2012), p. A20.

[32] Brennan Keller, “Medical Expenses: Top Cause of Bankruptcy in the United States,” GiveForward (October 13, 2011). Online:

[33] George Lakoff and Glenn W. G Smith, “Romney, Ryan and the Devil’s Budget,” Berkeley Blog (August 23, 2012). Online:

[34] David Corn, “Secret Video: Romney Tells Millionaire Donors What He Really Thinks of Obama Voters,” Mother Jones (September 17, 2012). Online:

[35] Naomi Wolf, “How the Mitt Romney Video Killed the American Dream,” The Guardian (September 21, 2012). Online:

[37] Paul Krugman, “Defining Prosperity Down,” New York Times (August 1, 2010), p. A17.

[38] Zygmunt Bauman is the most important theorist writing about the politics of disposability.  Among his many books, see Wasted Lives (London: Polity Press, 2004).

[39] Robert Reich, “The Rebirth of Social Darwinism,” Robert Reich’s Blog (November 30, 2011). Online:

[40] C. Wright Mills, The Politics of Truth: Selected Writings of C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 200.

[41] Hart Research Associates, American Academics: Survey of Part Time and Adjunct Higher Education Faculty (Washington, D.C.: AFT, 2011). Online:, Maria Maisto, Esther Merves, and Gary  Rhoades, Who Is Professor “Staff” and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes? (Los Angeles: Center for the Future of Higher Education, 2012). Online:

[42] Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren, “A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College,” New York Times (May 12, 2012), p. A1.

[43] Cited in Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (London: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 7-8.

[44] Martha C. Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 142.

[45] Les Leopold, “Crazy Country: 6 Reasons America Spends More on Prisons Than On Higher Education,” Alternet (August 27, 2012). Online: On this issue, see also the classic work by Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Open Media, 2003); and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012).

[46] Erica Goode, “Many in U.S. Are Arrested by Age 23, Study Finds,” New York Times (December 19, 2011), p. A15.

[47] Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (London: Polity, 2001), p. 4.

[49] See, for instance, Rebecca Solnit, “Rain on Our Parade: A Letter to the Dismal Left,” (September 27, 2012). Online:,_we_could_be_heroes/ TomDispatch refers to this article as a call for hope over despair. It should be labeled as a call for accommodation over the need for a radical democratic politics. For an alternative to this politics of accommodation, see the work of Stanley Aronowitz, Chris Hedges, Henry Giroux, Noam Chomsky, and others.

[50] Cornelius Castoriadis, “Democracy as Procedure and Democracy as Regime,” Constellations 4:1 (1997), p. 5.

[51] Archon Fung, “The Constructive Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Boston Review (September 9, 2011). Online:

[52] Heather Gautney, “Why Do Political Elites All Hate Democracy?” LA Progressive (September 19, 2012). Online:

[53] Stuart Hall and Les Back, “In Conversation: At Home and Not at Home,” Cultural Studies Vol. 23, No. 4 (July 2009), p. 681.

Note: This piece was first published as “Why Don’t Americans Care About Democracy at Home?” at

[Thank you indeed  Henry for this timely piece]

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