by Angelo J. Letizia
What is history? History is only learned at the end, it is an artificial, man-made construct. It also may be our best hope, our salvation from barbarism. History does not descend from heaven, nor are we duped cogs in some grand scheme outside our consciousness. History is simply a story told by human beings about their origins. It is a record of what we as a species-turned-civilization have learned. History is a story told at the end, but in order for there to be a beginning, there must be education. History did not begin until we could learn. Many scoff at the idea of teleological history. Christians, Hegel and Fukuyama all tried to a divine a history. Others have argued that historicism is a western invention. Yet, I am not concerned with a single history, or a single interpretation of it, rather I am concerned with the notion of history itself. Perhaps I am nothing more than a Hegelian in disguise but I believe there is a pattern and meaning to history, but this meaning was not preordained from the start. It emerged with us.
Some, like American thinkers Francis Fukuyama hailed this as the end of history. At the conclusion of the Cold War, he argued that we were the last men and we had arrived at the end point of man’s ideological development. This end point was liberal capitalism. Any problems, (such as terrorism) were simply more primitive peoples trying to turn the tide against the movement of history. He believed overall that this system was the best for mankind; it could not be improved upon. But we now have the gift of hindsight, of history. The year 1991 proved not to be the end of history. It only inaugurated a decade of rampant and unchecked capitalism, and exacerbated global income disparity. Zizek argued that this capitalist induced mania was shocked out of its complacent state in 2001 with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Zizek argued this was the first death of global capitalism (Zizek, 2009). For the next seven years, the global capitalist system, instead of examining itself and its effects on the world (especially the third world), led a war against terror to prop itself up (Zizek, 2009).
This war sought to galvanize global capitalism by creating a free market paradise out of Iraq and the rest of the third world, by “shocking” the rest of the world into globalization (Klein, 2007; Zizek, 2009). After the collapse of the global market in 2008, Zizek argued that global capitalism died a second death (Zizek, 2009). But this death was not tragic, it was comic. Zizek, like Marx before him, argued that things have to die a second time so we can see their ridiculousness and be ready to part with them (Zizek, 2009). So where are we now? Have we the courage to part with globalization and neoliberalism? Perhaps it cannot simply die, perhaps it must be killed. Perhaps 9/11 and the 2008 crash were not capitalism’s death, but spasms showing the world that it is ready to die, if we have the courage to kill it. Until that time however, until we are ready to kill it, it repairs its damage and strengthens itself. We must be taught that global capitalism can die and that we must kill it by dialectically surpassing it. This must become the next phase of the history we create.
There is no immutable dialectic. There are no pre-ordained patterns set for us to follow, no Christian God-shepherds leading the way. If there is some purpose or meaning to history, it has only been created through education. Since prehistoric times our ability to educate each other has set Homo sapiens apart from the other animals. It is our ability to think and create languages, political structures, our ability to love and cooperate and most importantly the ability to transmit our ideas to others of our kind so they can be preserved. Teaching in its barest sense is survival of the human race. This is the essence of any question regarding a meaning in history. This type of education, this radical humanist education however, is anathema to global capitalism and the powers that be must brutally stamp it out. It is radical humanistic education that has the power to kill global capitalism. This type of education must be pursued.
The radical humanist Ivan Illych made a crucial distinction between schooling and education. Schooling is the actual act of attending school, educational policy, the curriculum etc. Education on the other hand, is the radical awakening of the human spirit (Illych, 1971). Illych argued that in contemporary society, these functions have been separated. Schooling has become devoid of any transformative potentials, rather it was simply the arm of the capitalist order which rewarded the already well-off. This was true all over the world (Illych, 1971). So humanism and this radical education must be neutralized, it must be frozen by the powers that be. One effective method of neutralization has been the spectacle.
In the age of the spectacle, all has been subsumed under the auspices of capital (Debord, 2011). Capital has taken on a life of its own, it is something above us. We are alienated from capital even though we have created it (Debord, 2011). Debord called capital in this form “the spectacle.” It is the monstrous behemoth of our daily lives which controls all. Baudrillard argued that the signs of the spectacle no longer correspond to any meaningful referents. He cited the advertising industry, government propaganda, the media, and the entertainment industry as examples of these signs. These signs, or simulacra as Baudrillad has termed them, take on a life of their own; they endlessly circulate (Baudrillard, 1994). Baudrillard maintained that all evolution and dialectical progression of history was now over because all was simulacra.
Since nothing can be represented accurately, no true historical motion is possible (Baudrillard, 1994). Within the spectacle, all signs are interchangeable; ugly is beautiful, left is right, communism is capitalism. There are no longer any true referents to guide the way. All information is afloat, not grounded to any referents or stable foundation. There is no directionality because “progress” is simply another simulacrum which has been co-opted by the spectacle. This is painfully obvious in our daily lives. The American Democratic Party, the party of supposedly progressives is complicit in the reign of neoliberalism and war mongering. “Communist” China is the lynchpin of the global capitalist system. Muammar Gaddafi, the onetime pan-Arab socialist, in time became one of neoliberalism’s dedicated advocates. Billionaires get tax breaks while public schools lay off teachers. “Socialism” is only accepted when huge bank bailouts are given to Wall Street. We are told to tighten our belts and do with less while corporate executives are raking in record bonuses. Some three billion people on this planet are poor, hungry and struggling to get by on meager wages while we as a society have the collective capability to feed, clothe and shelter everyone in the world. There are one-hundred million people in America that live in poverty or near poverty.
The development of cosmetics is pursued over cures at many universities. When cures are produced they are prohibitively expensive and reserved for the super-rich, despite the fact that much of the research that led to their discovery were funded by public tax dollars. Bill Gates, a ruthless businessman who stepped on others to create his empire is hailed as a philanthropist (of course this is advocacy philanthropy, dedicated to pursing neoliberal causes in education) and Mark Zuckerburg, another unscrupulous entrepreneur is declared man of the year. Illiterate sports stars and morally suspect celebrities are cast as the role models for American youth while their teachers are labeled as communist thugs. Soldiers who are pawns in imperialist wars are praised as heroes and college professors who have dedicated their life to teaching and research are branded as liberal, hippie communist subverters. The list unfortunately goes on.
Education is frozen along with history. The only voices neglected in educational policymaking are the voices of educators. The main institutions of the global market are multinational corporations such as Exxon-Mobil and General Electric to name a few, as well as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. The IMF, WB and WTO, along with massive backing from multinational corporations, have all helped to restructure education around the world, in both developing and developed countries toward a market driven entity. In line with (and usually backed financially by) the institutions of the global market; policymakers in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa demand that students be able to compete in the global market. Education had been made impotent, useless and complicit. In addition, the IMF and the WB, as part of their assistance packages to developing nations, require these developing nations to completely restructure, in some cases wholly dismantle, their public education systems in favor of privatization and an education that promotes the priorities of the global market (Peet, 2009). While all policymakers sing the praises of the global market, they do not tell us that the global market is fundamentally un-democratic. It is staffed not by public servants but businessmen animated solely by the profit motive (Giroux, 2011). The voices of teachers and others concerned with enacting a truly beneficial education are silenced and branded as radicals. Education in the United States and the world over is reflection of the nonsensical system of neoliberalism and the global market itself.
In our frozen state of history, education has become a simulacrum, a referent-less sign. Students are forced to take a mountain of standardized tests despite the fact that the tests signify nothing. They do not represent learned material or acquisition of skills (Leistyna, 2007). And still, republicans and democrats alike urge accountability based solely on these test scores. Schools are punished based on these test scores. Privatization is hailed as the cure all for the woes of the public education system (McLaren, 2007). The public ethos and the system of public education itself is branded as socialist, backwards, inefficient and corrupt. It is dismantled and replaced with private schools, virtual for-profit schools and religious schools. All the while test companies such as Pearson rake in billions of dollars to produce tests that are not even scientifically valid.
Higher education is no better. Not too long ago, higher education had the power to promote beneficial social change (Newfield, 2008). The 1960s and 1970s saw students and professors challenge a racist, sexist and authoritarian America. But now higher education is largely impotent as well. State funding of higher education has been reduced drastically over the last thirty years. This is more than a budget issue however. Education represents a social contract with society (Lewis & Hearn, 2003). Society pledges tax dollars to educational institutions and in return educational institutions deliver more enlightened students who contribute to the political, cultural and economic vitality of society (Lewis & Hearn, 2003). Yet now the social contract has been restructured. A higher education is now seen as a product. As such it is only available to those who can afford it (Rhoads & Torres, 2006; Slaughter & Rhoades, 2004). Higher education is supposed to drive the global economy and produce knowledgeable workers. In addition, many policymakers try to actively discourage the transformative and revolutionary tendencies of Higher education because it can lead to social unrest, challenge Christianity and American foreign and domestic policy (Stanley, 2007). As a result, education or more accurately schooling has been made impotent to face neoliberalism.
This stultifying of education is one of the main and most under examined factors in the freezing of history. How can any movement be possible in this morass? Nothing makes sense. The young, the students have to be the drivers of history, but without a truly transformative curriculum, without anything to really challenge them, students have become alienated (Janesick, 2007). Students are apathetic. They escape into worlds of drugs and sex and video games (Giroux, 2011). Some fall back into dogmatic and intolerant religion or culture. They have become fodder for the advertising industry and rampant consumerism (Giroux, 2011). I have also seen this first hand as a high school teacher and adjunct professor. Students are not engaged. They fiddle with their phones endlessly, play meaningless videogames, and obsess over shoes and cars. This is anecdotal of course, but the literature supports this as well (Giroux, 2011; Hill, 2012; Janesick, 2007; Leistyna, 2007). History is frozen because its participants can no longer think; their mental capabilities are in the process of being stunted by meaningless tests and workforce training. As Leistyna puts it, this alienation spans from suburban meaninglessness to inner city gang warfare. Students navigate this frozen wasteland the best they can and the only way they have been taught; by consuming its products. Consumption is the new morality in this frozen wasteland. We are what we consume, and what we consume is meaningless.
Education is the driver of history but education has stagnated. History has stagnated. And we exist in this stagnation, in this state of suspended animation. Capitalism and neoliberalism cannot afford history to progress because history and its thinkers, its students and activists will expose it for the sham it is, so it occupies them with consumer goods and false-prophet role models. Thus the advocates of neoliberalism must actively keep history from progressing. Marx saw it as inevitable that capitalism would eventually implode and destroy itself. This has not come to be, although we have come close. Unfortunately, capitalism is resilient. It has not imploded but hobbled along. It has galvanized itself with government policies (despite its abhorrence of government intervention). It has morphed into fascism, state capitalism (see the Soviet Union under Stalin), authoritarianism; it has come out of recessions and depressions (Wolff, 2012).
Its resiliency and success, and its victory over the “communist” Soviet Union in 1991 led Fukuyama to declare that we have reached the end of history (Fukuyama, 1992). And the last twenty years we have lived the supposed end of history, this free market paradise. As I taught this doctrine in my tenth grade World History (something assuredly not on the end of the year standardized test) a student immediately raised her hand. She asked: “Wait, this guy [Fukuyama] said that democratic capitalism is the best man can do for himself?” I responded, “Yes, that is pretty much the gist of his argument. That is what he meant by the end of history.” She scrunched her face and rolled her eyes — “But this world sucks! The rich nations take everything from the poor nations; so many people are suffering in this world. It sucks!” Many in the class agreed and no one argued otherwise. A fifteen year old girl can see through the sham that is the so called endpoint of man’s ideological development (Fukuyama, 1992). There may be hope yet. Roos argued that 2011 may have marked the end of the end of history. The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street protests and a host of other activist movements may be a sign that people are beginning to realize this is not the end of history, that there is a better world than capitalism (Roos, 2011). I would add that perhaps history and people are finally starting to thaw. History is not over, it has been frozen. A true education, and not mere schooling, can further this thaw. Capitalism is so resilient not because it is inevitable but because we allow it to be so. Populist rage can only take us so far however. We cannot simply rage against the powers-that-be and persecute the rich or worse yet sink into counterproductive xenophobia. Rather, a true and radical education must sustain the struggle and revitalize mankind’s movement which has been arrested by global capitalism. Education must once again begin to drive history and make it meaningful. If education does not take up this task, it will be complicit in the freezing of history and the emergence of a new global totalitarianism.
The reign of global capitalism does not have a date set in stone. The year 1880 may be an effective, if not arbitrary date. By 1880, industrialism was in full swing in most of Western Europe and the United States (Hobsbawm, 1975). Japan had begun to modernize as well. The 1880s saw the plundering of Africa and Asia by imperialist nations; imperialism was nothing more than the global extension of Western industrialization. Since the 1880s (and probably much earlier), it could be said with some conviction that capitalism had gone global and was the all pervasive force for almost all the world’s inhabitants. The totalitarianism of capital and imperialism has ruled over the globe in various forms for the last 130 years with Social Darwinism as its guiding light. Death, starvation, homelessness, unemployment, illiteracy, preventable diseases are the lot of untold billions. Other psychological conditions affect even more billions such as feelings of depression, alienation and emptiness (Giroux, 2011; Hill, 2012). This is the lot of a sizeable portion of the globe in our frozen moment.
History has led to a globalized and interdependent world — and now is frozen in it. Many have argued that our time period is revolutionary, and they are right (Hill, 2012; Giroux, 2011). Global capital predominates. But, this frozen passage of history has given way to something truly frightening. A global totalitarianism has emerged. Monsanto, General Electric, Pearson, Goldman-Sachs and Exxon-Mobil are a few of the totalitarian giants that control our daily life. Many conservatives are afraid of big government (and rightly so), yet many do not recognize the threat of an even bigger non-governmental menace. These corporations have become ubiquitous and penetrate our daily existence to its core. What we nourish our bodies with, what we fuel our cars and homes with, what controls the economy, how our children are taught and assessed all emanate from the entities above and many others. Multi-national corporations in conjunction with organizations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization influence and dictate global economic policy. In the most literal sense, the global market is anti-democratic. The executives of all the above entities are not elected which means they are not held accountable to the people of a region or the world itself. They are only accountable to their shareholders, lobbyists and cronies while leaving a good portion of the world’s population in misery (Giroux, 2011; Hill, 2012; Peet, 2009).
But the new totalitarianism goes deeper into the human psyche. Rather this new totalitarianism is of a much different, and arguably, more invasive sort. This is a totalitarianism of the mind, heart and soul. In conjunction with the more overt methods of force and forcible influence, global totalitarianism employs more subtle, and perhaps more effective, means of persuasion and indoctrination. It is largely a terror of the mind delivered through subliminal methods; advertising and the for-profit news media, standardized education, a smear campaign of all public institutions, as well as the entertainment industry. These entities spew their noxious material all within the backdrop of the all powerful multi-national corporations.
Totalitarianism is not the simple brainwashing of a populace, neither is it simple trickery and exploitation. Rather, as Arendt argued, the masses have almost full knowledge of the situation and willingly follow totalitarian leaders (Arendt, 1968). The masses are complicit. What would induce a population to follow a Hitler or a Stalin? The emergence of an atomized and structure-less mass of individuals, with no common bond or concerns, usually give rise to totalitarianism (Arendt, 1968; Fromm, 1959). The advance of capitalism has eviscerated the traditional organizations of solidarity and turned them into hollow shells. Political parties, labor unions, and even religious institutions to name a few no longer have the power to bind people. Over the last 50 years, this trend has been evident in America, as well as all over the world (Putnam, 2000). We, as a society, as humankind, are drifting further away from each other; we turn away from our communal obligation and increasingly look to ourselves (Giroux, 2011). This rampant and pathological individualism is a dangerous phenomenon. Arendt describes this movement as a transition from classes to masses (Arendt, 1968).
Classes were bound together by common interests, but a mass is a structure-less entity composed of atomized individuals. They are usually apathetic and cynical (and for good reason). They realize their political systems, all the things they believed in, do not work. In the absence of true solidarity and togetherness, lonely individuals flock toward something stable (Arendt, 1968; Fromm, 1969). A totalitarian movement can provide this stability, which atomized and detached individuals all too willingly follow. Traditional totalitarianism is built around a center, a party movement such as the racial purity of the Nazis or the economic determinism of the Bolsheviks. This is what provides the much needed stability or sense of attachment. Fromm argued that modern man had to escape from his freedom, and he ran into the open arms of Hitler (Fromm, 1969). Arendt argued that social isolation and private, personal loneliness were the bedrocks of totalitarianism (Arendt, 1968). And at the center of this movement is a cult of personality such as Hitler or Stalin (Arendt, 1968).
In the new totalitarianism, however, there is no Stalin or Hitler. Rather, the cult of personality is you, the individual. A global mass of people who are detached from any meaningful communal bonds of solidarity because all they know is now spectacle, all they know is now for sale and frozen and contradictory and they seek some sort of meaning and stability in this void. You become the center of the universe, you are told to consume until your heart’s content. Forget the suffering of the world, forget civic duties; pleasure yourself, have sex with whoever you want (and buy condoms and perfume while you do it), do what makes you feel good, buy what makes you feel important. Consumption is equated with morality and virtue (Giroux, 2011; Hill, 2012). If someone does not have what you have it is their fault. The almost 3 billion people who live in poverty on this planet, the 100 million in America alone have no one to blame for their misery but themselves. If they do not want to consume they are pariahs. Even supposedly devout Christians shun the teachings of Jesus who argued against materialism and consumerism in its ancient form. All justice is individual, there is no such thing as a society anymore (Giroux, 2011).
Consumerism is the new creed the world over, it sustains life in the frozen void of history. The spectacle controls all. And consumerism, the new (and really only) stable force is promoted through a variety of networks, propaganda now takes many forms. There is no centralized entity directing the flow of information. Rather multiple entities such as multi-national corporations, governments (and sometimes militaries), international organizations such as the IMF, World Bank and NATO, and think tanks such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), the Heritage and Cato Institute all push their agendas which elide what is of genuine value. Educational curriculums, military operations, advertising, media coverage, health services, entertainment all become vehicles to indoctrinate the world’s population to consumerism. The middle classes, the lower classes, the working classes and the poor the world over are indoctrinated and made to understand that consumerism is the only way. Arendt argued that all members under the boot of totalitarianism act and react according to the rules of the fictitious world totalitarianism has created. Totalitarianism destroys alternatives, its aims are not up for debate, they cannot be argued against. Rather, the objects of totalitarianism destroy any dissent (Arendt, 1968). In this light, Margret Thatcher’s statement regarding alternatives to capitalism; “There are no alternatives” becomes foreboding. Capitalism is the way, consumerism is how you become whole and submit to the new world order. All people must act according to the rules of capitalism (Arendt, 1968). The dictates of neoliberalism become higher law than any nation state. This is the end of history. Capitalism is salvation.
This new totalitarianism is a totalitarianism of the mind, heart and soul. It is not just enforced with bullets and policies (which of course it is), but just as importantly with psychology. Foucault wrote modern government’s found it easier, more effective and less expensive to control the soul then the body (Foucault, 1977). He showed that governments and ruling entities use information and knowledge as tools of mental domination. Once a person internalizes their own domination, outside coercion is usually not needed (Foucault, 1977). Once a person internalizes the knowledge that dominates them, and once that person believes in these types of knowledge, they unconsciously become their own oppressor. Global totalitarianism and its institutions only value information and knowledge which contribute to the global market, to capital. As such, the middle classes, the lower classes, the working classes and the poor, the world over, internalize consumerism. They have become psychologically reconfigured (Arendt, 1968). They believe the only way to be happy, the only sort of stability lies in the consumption of goods. Children with Nike and American Eagle shirts, adults with timeshares, gaudy new cars and iPods, people who vote for American Idol and not in their local elections, all have internalized their own spiritual oppression. More than this, they become more effective than any police force in maintaining it. They remain frozen in history by a self-inflicted capitalist imperialism, unable to advance or progress.
The thaw: Jump-starting history
Nietzsche argued that the existence of mankind was the result of some cosmic accident. Yet, he did not despair. Most people live and die meaninglessly. Yet some became what he called ubermensch or overmen. These were individuals who affirmed their lives in spite of its meaninglessness. They treated their life like a work of art and created new horizons and meanings (Nietzsche, 2009). We must heed Nietzsche’s call. Our life must be a work of art, and a truly radical education must be our tool of choice. The various histories of mankind, its many cultures and civilizations, its races, works of art and even its conflicts are nothing but the story of mankind’s perpetual fight against nihilism, meaninglessness and its accidental origins. Our histories are nothing but the record of our attempt to progress (willingly or unwillingly). Right now this ability for us to progress however has been abruptly stopped in a comfortable web of capitalism and consumerism enforced by a new psychological totalitarianism. Rampant consumerism, in its barest sense, is nihilism. And we are the prison wardens, we police ourselves and lock ourselves into this frozen hell. We must begin the movement of history once again; we must breathe life into our frozen future.
The role of education is ambiguous. It can be an institution of radical social change, or it can be a bulwark of the status quo (Illych, 1971; Kincheloe, 2007). Of course, Marx did not believe that education had any power to change society. He argued that it was simply part of the superstructure and therefore determined by the economic configurations of society. Marx believed that education would only be liberating after the transition to communism was made. Thus, any attempt to use education as a liberating force was futile. Marx’s economic determinism however turned man into a cog unable to truly control his destiny. It was also upended by the events of the twentieth century. Mankind is not simply an economic automaton, man is a living, breathing feeling being, and who is controlled as much as by the economy as by politics, culture and his psychology (Kincheloe, 2007). Kincheloe made this point as he sketched the new parameters for critical pedagogy in the twenty-first century. He argued that while critical pedagogy recognizes economics as an important facet in determining humankind’s actions, it is only one facet among a multitude of factors (Kincheloe, 2007). In regards to education, I would add that institutions of education worldwide (or more accurately, schooling in Illych’s terms) have largely become a reified part of the superstructure. They are now coerced by neoliberalism and are frozen along with history — because we have been overpowered and allowed this to happen. This however does not mean they should be given up on. Rather, I see education, even in its reified form, as a vehicle to work against the superstructure and the economic determinants it abides by. The best path of reclamation may be imagination.
We must be able to imagine a better world, a world without capitalism, a world where money is not the main medium of exchange (Wiener, 2007). Wiener argues that we must imbue our students with imagination, but not some radical imagination lost in fantasy, rather an imagination grounded in historical and social relevance (Wiener, 2007). One area where this may prove useful is in actually disciplining capitalism and consumption. Education can be used to guide progress. For instance, we as a society have the means to feed every person on the planet, provide adequate healthcare, and provide shelter and a decent wage. Teachers must not only ask their students why these things are not being pursued, but get their students to ask the question as well.
Complicit policymakers fawn over standardized tests and punish teachers. At the same time, half the world goes hungry and the other half is spiritually empty. These same policymakers also wage immoral wars and cause this misery at home and aboard. There are literally thousands of brands and models of refrigerators, lawnmowers and recreational boats but children in the South Bronx and Africa go to bed hungry. The point is that students need to question these things. One method which can help students imagine a better world is an introduction to social planning. Students can learn how to limit needless and frivolous consumption by using critical pedagogy to understand what society needs and what it doesn’t. Obviously social planning has its drawbacks (see Stalinism), but a supposedly efficient global market that is abundant in providing refrigerators but not efficient in providing enough food to put in them is not efficient. We can teach our students to plan for society. And social planning cannot be separated from ethics. Another issue that students can use to imagine a better world involves alternative currencies. A local currency based on contribution to community is being employed in Ithaca New York as well as other small communities across the US.
This is only a beginning. Other ways must be constantly invented by teachers in order for us to envision a better world. Our children must be taught to dream of utopia and then given the tools to build it. This is how history can be thawed and jumpstarted. This is how we as a society can save ourselves from totalitarianism, by creating history once again.
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[Thank you again Angelo for this contribution]
The writer is a doctoral student in higher education.
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