The state of uncertainty…is a joint product of ignorance and impotence—the two dragons which the Enlightenment heirs of St. George promised , resolved and tried hard to kill, or at least to chase away from the world of human beings and bar their return. ‘Ignorance’ in this case means disconnection between what we expect, hope and desire to happen, and what actually happens. ‘Impotence’ means the disconnection between wheat we are able to accomplish, and what we should or would wish to achieve.
— Zygmunt Bauman
Public spheres that once offered at least the glimmer of progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, non-commodified values, and critical exchange have been increasingly commercialized—or replaced by private spaces and corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to expanding profit margins. For example, higher education is increasingly defined as another core element of corporate power and culture. Public spaces such as libraries are detached from the language of public discourse and viewed increasingly as a waste of taxpayers’ money. The dominant media is simply an adjunct of corporate advertising and ideology while also trading in the idiocy of celebrity culture. No longer vibrant political spheres and ethical sites, public spaces are reduced to dead spaces in which it becomes almost impossible to construct those modes of knowledge, communication, agency, and meaningful interventions necessary for an aspiring democracy. Ignorance is now the political and cultural currency of choice and provides the foundation for an ongoing neoliberal attack on the social state, workers, and unions, matched by a full-fledged assault on higher education. Such attacks are not happening just in the United States but in many other parts of the globe where neoliberalism is waging a savage battle to eliminate all of those public spheres that might offer a glimmer of critical thought and any viable form of opposition to market-driven policies, institutions, ideology, and values. What is particularly dangerous is that public and higher education are being targeted by conservative politicians and governments because they embody, at least ideally, a sphere in which students learn that democracy, entails ruptures, relentless critique, and dialogue about official power, its institutions, and its never-ending attempts to silent dissent. One part of this script is all too familiar. In the United States, universities and businesses are forming stronger ties; the humanities are being underfunded, student tuition is rising at astronomical rates; knowledge is being commodified; and research is valued through the lens of an audit culture. The university has increasingly been stripped of its function as a place to teach students how to think, ask questions, hold power accountable, and produce critically engaged students. Delivering improved employability has reshaped the connection between knowledge and power, while rendering faculty and students as professional entrepreneurs and budding customers.
But there is more. The notion of the university as a center of critique and a vital democratic public sphere that cultivates the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for the production of a democratic polity is giving way to a view of the university as a marketing machine essential to the production of neoliberal subjects. This is completely at odd with the notion that higher education, in particular, is wedded to the presupposition that literacy in its various economic, political, cultural and social forms is essential to the development of a formative culture that provides the foundation for producing critically engaged and informed citizens. Clearly, any institution that makes a claim to literacy, critical dialogue, informed debate, and reason is now a threat to a political culture in which ignorance; stupidity, lies, misinformation, and appeals to the common sense have become the only currency of exchange. And this seems to apply as well to the dominant media. How else to explain the widespread public support for politicians such as Herman Cain, who is as much of a buffoon as he is an exemplary symbol of illiteracy and ignorance in the service of celebrity status. If fact, one can argue reasonably that the entire slate of presidential Republicans extending from Rick Santorum to Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann embody not simply a rejection of science, evidence, informed argument, and other elements associated with the Enlightenment, but a deep seated disdain and hatred for any vestige of a critical mind. Ignorance now replaces knowledge and impotence with power. Almost every position they take harks back to a pre-Enlightenment period when faith and cruelty ruled the day and ignorance became the modus operandi for legitimating political and ethical impotence. Under such circumstance, it is not surprising that higher education, or for that matter any other critical public sphere in the United, occupies a high profile target for dismantlement and reform by right-wing Republicans and other extremists. While there is ample commentary on the dumbing down of the culture as a result of the corporate control of the dominant media, what is often missed in this argument is how education has come under a similar attack and not simply because there is an attempt to privatize or commercialize such institutions.
Under casino capitalism, higher education matters only to the extent that it promotes national prosperity and drives economic growth, innovation, and transformation. But there is more at stake here in turning the university into an adjunct of the corporation, there is also an attempt to remove it as one of the few remaining institutions left in which dissent, critical dialogue, and social problems can be critically engaged. There is a sustained attempt on the part of the corporate elite, right wing fundamentalists, and others to disconnect the university from its role as a democratic public sphere capable of producing a critical formative culture and set of institutions in which complicated ideas can be engaged, authority challenged, power held accountable, and public intellectuals produced. Young people in the United States now recognize that the university has become part of ponzi scheme designed to place on students an unconscionable amount of debt while subjecting them under the power of commanding financial institutions for years after they graduate. Under this economic model of subservience, there is no future for young people, there is no time to talk about advancing social justice, addressing social problems, promoting critical thinking, cultivating social responsibility, or engaging non-commodified values that might challenge the neoliberal world view.
One of the most exemplary examples of how the university as a place to think is being dismantled can be seen in the ongoing casualization of academic labor. As universities adopt models of corporate governance, they are aggressively eliminating tenure positions, increasing part-time and full-time positions without the guarantee of tenure, and attacking faculty unions. In a number of states such as Ohio and Utah, legislatures have passed bills outlawing tenure, while in Wisconsin the governor has abrogated the bargaining rights of state university faculty. At a time when higher education is becoming increasingly vocationalized, the ranks of tenure-track faculty are being drastically depleted in the United States, furthering the loss of faculty as stakeholders. Currently, only 27 percent of faculty is either on a tenure track or in a full-time tenure position. As faculty are demoted to contingency forms of labor, they lose their power to influence the conditions of their work; they see their work load increase; they are paid poorly, deprived of office space and supplies, and refused travel money; and, most significantly, they are subject to policies that allow them to be fired at will. The latter is particularly egregious because, when coupled with an ongoing series of attacks by right-wing ideologues against left-oriented and progressive academics, many non-tenured faculty begin to censor themselves in their classes.
Fighting not merely for a space to survive, but also for a society in which matters of justice, dignity, and freedom are objects of collective struggle, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have created a new stage on which young people once again are defining what John Pilger calls the “theater of the possible.” Signaling a generational and political crisis that is global in scope, young people have sent a message to the world that they refuse to live any longer under repressive authoritarian regimes sustained by morally bankrupt market-driven policies and repressive governments. The Occupy Wall Street protesters are protesting the attack on the social state, the savagery of neoliberal policies, and the devaluation of higher education as a public good. In doing so, they have defied a social order in which they could not work at a decent job, have access to a quality education, or support a family—a social order that offered them a meager life stripped of self-determination and dignity. The draconian policies responsible for such conditions are designed to shift the burden and responsibility of the recession from the rich to the most vulnerable elements of society such as the elderly, workers, lower-income people, and students. In the United States young people are now not simply protesting tuition increases, the defunding of academia, and the enormous debt many of them are laboring under, they are also situating such concerns within a broader attack on the fundamental institutions and ideology of casino capitalism in its particularly virulent neoliberal form. The Occupy Wall Street movement is now at the forefront of moving away from focusing on isolated issues in an attempt to develop a broader critique as the basis for an energized social movement that is less interested in liberal reforms than in a wholesale restructuring of American society under more radical and democratic values, social relations, and institutions of power.
Within the last thirty years, the United States under the reign of market fundamentalism has been transformed into a society that is more about forgetting than learning, more about consuming than producing, more about asserting private interests than democratic rights. In a society obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, American youth are not encouraged to participate in politics. Nor are they offered the help, guidance, and modes of education that cultivate the capacities for critical thinking and engaged citizenship. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, in a consumerist society, “the tyranny of the moment makes it difficult to live in the present, never mind understand society within a range of larger totalities.” Under such circumstances, according to Theodor Adorno, thinking loses its ability to point beyond itself and is reduced to mimicking existing certainties and modes of common sense. Thought cannot sustain itself and becomes short-lived, fickle, and ephemeral. If young people do not display a strong commitment to democratic politics and collective struggle, then, it is because they have lived through thirty years of what I have elsewhere called “a debilitating and humiliating disinvestment in their future,” especially if they are marginalized by class, ethnicity, and race.
What is different about this generation of young people from past generations is that today’s youth have been immersed since birth in a relentless, spreading neoliberal pedagogical apparatus with its celebration of an unbridled individualism and its near pathological disdain for community, public values, and the public good. They have been inundated by a market-driven value system that encourages a culture of competitiveness and produces a theater of cruelty that has resulted in what Bauman calls “a weakening of democratic pressures, a growing inability to act politically, [and] a massive exit from politics and from responsible citizenship.” And, yet, they refuse to allow this deadening apparatus of force, manufactured ignorance, and ideological domination to shape their lives. Reclaiming both the possibilities inherent in the political use of new digital technologies and the social media, American students are now protesting in large numbers the ongoing intense attack on higher education and the welfare state, refusing a social order shaped by what Alex Honneth describes as “an abyss of failed sociality” one in which “the perceived suffering [of youth] has still not found resonance in the public space of articulation.”
Young people, students, and other members of the 99 percent are no longer simply enduring the great injustices they see around them, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the corruption of American politics by casino capitalism, a permanent war economy, and the growing disinvestment in public and higher education, they are now building new public spaces, confronting a brutalizing police apparatus with their bodies, and refusing to put up with the right wing notion that they are part of what is often called a “failed generation.” On the contrary, young people, especially, have flipped the script and are making clear that the failures of casino capitalism lies elsewhere and point to the psychological and social consequences of growing up under a neoliberal regime that goes to great lengths to enshrine ignorance, privatize hope, derail public values, and undercut economic inequality and its attendant social injustices. What the Occupy Wall Street protesters like their counterparts in London, Athens, Cairo and elsewhere have made clear is that casino capitalism is the site of not only political corruption and economic fraud, but also reproduces a “failed sociality” that hijacks any semblance of critical thinking and agency along with any viable attempt of democracy to deliver on its promises.
In the face of a politically organized ignorance on the part of right-wing anti-public intellectuals, think tanks, media organizations, and politicians, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have refused to provide recipes and blueprints about a longed for utopian future. Instead, they have resurrected the most profound elements of a radical politics, one which recognizes critical education, dialogue, and new modes of solidarity and communication serve as a condition for their own autonomy and for the sustainability of democratization as an ongoing social movement. What terrifies the corporate rich, bankers, media pundits, and other bloviators about this movement is not that it has captured the attention of the broader public but that it constantly hammers home the message that a substantive democracy requires citizens capable of self-reflection and social criticism, and that such citizens through their collective struggles are the product of critical formative culture in which people are provided with the knowledge and skills to participate effectively in developing a radically democratic society. What is truly remarkable about this movement is its emphasis on connecting learning to social change and its willingness to do so through new and collective modes of education. What is so encouraging in this movement is that it views its very existence and collective identity as part of a larger struggle for the economic, political, and social conditions that give meaning and substance to what it means to make democracy possible. The expectations that frame market-driven societies are losing their grip on young people and others, who can no longer be completely seduced or controlled by the tawdry promises and failed returns of corporate dominated and authoritarian regimes. The Occupy Wall Street protest movements tell us 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 manufactured consent, threats, coercion, and state violence. Rejecting the terrors of the present along with 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. 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 what is different this time is that it appears to be more than a slogan, it now echoes throughout the United States as both a discourse of critique and as part of a vocabulary of possibility and long-term collective struggle. The current right-wing politics of illiteracy, exploitation, and cruelty can no longer hide in the cave of ignorance, legitimated by their shameful accomplices in the dominant media. The lights have come on all over the United States and young people, workers, and other progressives are on the move. Thinking is no longer seen as an act of stupidity, acting collectively is no longer viewed as unimaginable, and young people are no longer willing to be viewed as disposable.
Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (2007) and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed” (2008). His latest book, Twilight of the Social: Resurgent Publics in the Age of Disposability,” will be published by Paradigm Publishers in 2011.
Exclusively in the new print issue of CounterPunch
One of the Greatest Descriptions of Farm Work Ever Written— Don’t miss Frank Bardacke’s marvelous account from the California fields. ALSO Linn Washington Jr. on the “Black Backlash Against Obama.”