Educating Obama


Barack Obama takes office at a time of great uncertainty, a time when the conventional wisdom and old assumptions of free market fundamentalism are thoroughly discredited.  At the same time, a new hope is taking shape, fueled by the need to reaffirm the democratic legacy of social, political, and personal rights through a reaffirmation of the discourse of governance and responsible politics and its connection to the language of democracy and the imperatives of the public good.  And yet the optimism that accompanied Barack Obama’s election is gradually giving way among many progressives to either a deep sense of despair in light of  his increasing political shift to the center or a doom-and-gloom cynicism in the face of economic crisis.1

The financial crisis increasingly appears overwhelming and impossible to contain, given how deeply embedded it is in the underlying political and economic power structures that emerged in the conservative counter-revolution that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Moreover, Obama’s reforms, particularly his economic and education policies, offer no alternative vision about how to change the underlying values and institutions that shape these important sectors of society. Hence, the financial bailout is led by many people who produced it and the reforms for education largely echo the same old corporate endorsement of vouchers, privatization, pay for performance, high-stakes testing, union busting, and the deployment of military schools for poor white kids and youth of color.2

What is even more disturbing is that the sustained neoliberal attack on the social state and its disinvestment in those political, social, and economic spheres vital to the development of healthy and critically informed citizenry have worked quite successfully in tandem with a new and vicious rationality—produced in countless sites, such as the media and higher education—that constructs adults and young people according to the dictates, values, and needs of a market fundamentalism.  All aspects of life are now measured according to the calculations of a philosophy that construes profit making as the essence of democracy and consuming as the only operable form of citizenship.4

Government in this case operates not only within the parameters of a corporate state  but also within the principles of a ruthless market, whose spectacle of cruelty can no longer hide behind its appeal to self-interest, freedom, and least of all democracy.  But simply criticizing the market, the privatization of public goods, the politics of deregulation,  and the commercialization of everyday life, while helpful, is not enough.  Stirring denunciations of what a neoliberal society does to public institutions, identities, and social relations do not go far enough. What is equally necessary is developing a language that moves beyond both the politics of Obama’s so-called “post-partisan” notion of hope and a growing cynicism that registers not merely the depth of the current economic and political crisis but also the defeatist assumption that power operates exclusively in the service of domination, tyranny, and violence.

Jacques Rancière rightly criticizes this cynical stance with his insistence that “The critique of the market today has become a morose reassessment that, contrary to its stated aims, serves to forestall the emancipation of minds and practices. And it ends up sounding not dissimilar to reactionary discourse. These critics of the market call for subversion only to declare it impossible and to abandon all hope for emancipation.”5 Rancière cannot imagine a mode of criticism or a politics that shuts down resistance, play, and hope—nor should we as teachers, parents, and young people.

At stake here is the need for a new politics of resistance and hope, one that mounts a collective challenge to a ruthless market fundamentalism that for the last thirty years has spearheaded the accumulation of capital and wealth at all costs, the commodification of young people, and the usurpation of democratic modes of sovereignty.  At the center of this struggle is a market sovereignty that has not only replaced the state as the principal regulatory force in developing economies of inequality and power but has also gained legitimacy and strength through  modes of education, persuasion, and consent that rely on the force of new media technologies, corporate values, commodified social relations, and a calculating rationality, all of which have to be challenged and transformed.  Any politics capable of disabling the sovereignty of the market must clarify in political and pedagogical terms a vision, project, discourse, and set of strategic practices necessary to confront a neoliberal order that views democracy as the enemy and flawed consumers as expendable.

Free-market fundamentalism, or neoliberalism as it is called in some quarters,  has played a major role in creating not only massive human suffering, a financial Katrina, and millions of displaced lives but also a weakened social state and a failing democracy made all the more ominous by the dumbing down of public discourse and the emptying out of critical public spheres. Democracy is about neither the sovereignty of the market nor a form of state governance based largely on fear, manipulation, and deceit.  Any attempt at challenging neoliberal sovereignty and the national (in)security state must recognize the need for a politics in which matters of education, power, and governance are mutually determined. Such a challenge, in part, rests on a politics that takes seriously the need to understand not only how the institutions of economic Darwinism emerged and recently came unglued but also how and why modes of governing that embody the grand ideologies of a deflated Gilded Age appealed to so many Americans.  Frank Rich is right in alerting us to the importance of analyzing how a bankrupt neoliberalism has given us a “debt-ridden national binge of greed and irresponsibility [partly through] mass forms of conspicuous consumption and entertainment.”6

Implicit in Rich’s argument is the need to rethink the discourse of crisis, complicating its underlying causes by raising questions about the role of media and other educational institutions in celebrating and legitimating the pernicious and corrupting values of a rabid market-driven society eager and determined to high-jack social responsibility, non-commodified public spheres, and meaningful citizenship, while treating with scorn any discourse of compassion, mutual worth, and ethical responsibility.  Clearly, one challenge the current crisis offers anyone concerned about the fate of democracy is the need for a thorough understanding of how this legacy of market-driven fundamentalism can be comprehended in terms of its power in shaping subjects, citizens, institutions, culture, values, and particular kinds of actions.

For instance, how is it that the same old values and market-driven fundamentalism used to support taxes for the rich, eliminate the social state, and discredit any commitment to the public good are being mobilized once again by Republicans to thwart Obama’s stimulus package without provoking a massive public outcry among either the mainstream media, academics, or the general public?  Or, even worse, where is the moral outrage among so many Americans who are suffering from the consequences of a thirty-year rule of neoliberal policies aimed at waging a war on the welfare state, science, dissent, the environment, workers, young people, and all aspects of the public good?

Democratic politics and the struggles informed by such a politics cannot come about without putting into place these spaces, spheres, and modes of education that enable people to realize that in a real democracy power has to be responsive to the needs, hopes, and desires of its citizens and other inhabitants around the globe.

Democracy is not simply about people wanting to improve their lives; it is more importantly about their willingness to struggle to protect their right to self-determination and self-government in the interest of the common good.  Under the reign of free market fundamentalism, market relations both expanded their control over public space and increasingly defined people as either consuming subjects or commodities, effectively limiting their opportunity to learn how to develop their full range of intellectual and emotional capacities to be critical citizens.  Sheldon Wolin has rightly argued that if “democracy is about participating in self-government, its first requirement is a supportive culture of complex beliefs, values, and practices to nurture equality, cooperation, and freedom.”7

The militarized corporate state and the sovereign market reduce the materiality of democracy to either an overcrowded prison or a shopping mall, both of which are more fitting for a society vulnerable to the winds of totalitarianism. The fundamental institutional and educational conditions that connect social, political, and personal rights to a viable notion of agency have been under attack for the last thirty years and now face a moment of crisis as severe as the current economic crisis.

As education turns to training in the public schools and higher education willingly models itself as a business venture or welcome recipient of Pentagon largesse, corporate culture reigns unchallenged as the most powerful pedagogical force in the country, while “democracy becomes dangerously empty.”8 Unfortunately, Obama seems less than inspiring when it comes to mobilizing a new politics that makes public and higher education central to the struggle for democracy (see Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education). A visionary politics needs to be willing to enlist and actively mobilize artists, intellectuals, academics, parents, young people, workers, and others in the struggle for a public able and willing to confront through multiple levels of resistance the institutions, policies, and values of an ever expanding military-industrial and academic complex. Obama’s call to put money into rebuilding the infrastructures of schools is to be applauded, but it is largely cancelled out by his adherence to an educational policy that views schools less as an investment than as extension of the market, to be largely driven by the corporate values and accountability schemes that the Bush administration supported.   Obama’s educational policies need to be pushed in a very different direction, one that is able to recognize the value of critical education for reasons Zygmunt Bauman illuminates with razor-like precision:

Adverse odds may be overwhelming, and yet democratic (or, as Cornelius Castoriadis would say, an autonomous) society knows of no substitute for education and self-education as a means to influence the turn of events that can be squared with its own nature, while that nature cannot be preserved for long without ‘critical pedagogy’—education sharpening its critical edge, ‘making society feel guilty’ and ‘stirring things up’ through stirring human consciences. The fates of freedom, of democracy that makes it possible while being made possible by it, and of education that breeds dissatisfaction with the level of both freedom and democracy achieved thus far, are inextricably connected and not to be detached from one another. One may view that intimate connection as another specimen of a vicious circle—but it is within that circle that human hopes and the chances of humanity are inscribed, and can be nowhere else.9

Making education central to any viable notion of politics as well as making the political more pedagogical suggests that intellectuals, artists, community workers, parents, and others need to connect with diverse groups of people in those public and virtual sites and spheres that enable not only new modes of dialogue to take place but also work to move beyond such exchanges to the much more difficult task of building organized and sustainable social movements. While it is true that anyone who takes politics seriously needs to take into consideration the profound transformations that have taken place in the public sphere, especially those enabled by new technologies, and how such changes can be used to develop new modes of public pedagogy in which young people are provided with the skills, knowledge, interests, and desire to govern themselves, it is simply wrong to suggest that real change only happens online.10

Building a more just, ecologically sustainable, and democratic future, or as Jacques Derrida puts it, the promise of “a democracy to come,”11 demands a politics in which the new technologies are important but only insofar as they are used in the context of bringing people together, reclaiming those public spheres where people can meet, talk, and plan collective actions. We must learn to resist all technologies that reinforce the sense of excessive individualism and privatization at the heart of the neoliberal world view. We need more than bailouts; we need a politics that reinvents the concept of the social while providing a language of critique and hope forged not in isolation but in collective struggle that takes social responsibility, commitment, and justice seriously.

We live at a time when social bonds are crumbling and institutions that provide collective help are disappearing.  Reclaiming these social bonds and the protections of the social state, in part, means developing a new mode of politics and education in which a critically educated public is as central to this struggle as the future of the democratic society it once symbolized. At the heart of this struggle for both young people and adults is the pressing problem of organizing and energizing a vibrant cultural politics to counter the conditions of political apathy, distrust, and social disengagement so pervasive under the politics of neoliberalism. For this we need a new vocabulary that, in part, demands taking back formal education and diverse modes of public pedagogy for democratic purposes while also refashioning social movements and modes of collective resistance that are democratic in nature and global in reach.

Culture in this instance is not merely a resource but an instrument of political power. What must be emphasized in this vision of a democracy to come is that there is no room for a politics animated by a rationality that is about maximizing profit and constructing a society free from the burden of mutual responsibility—that is, a society whose essence is captured in the faces of children facing the terror of a future with little hope of survival.   Economic crises do more than throw people out of jobs; they also open up an opportunity for social movements and political demands that serve to educate those in power and push them in a very different direction. This is a moment in which education becomes the foundation not simply for collective change but also for a rewriting of the social contract, an expansion of the meaning of social responsibility, and a renewed struggle to take democracy back from the dark times that have inched us so close to an unimaginable authoritarianism.

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 newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.


1. See, for example, Chris Hedges, “It’s Not Going to Be OK”,  TruthDig.com, (February 2, 2009). online at: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/02/02-0


2. I take up this issue in greater detail in HENRY A. GIROUX and Susan Searls Giroux, “Beyond Bailouts: On the Politics of Education After Neoliberalism.” Truthout (December 31, 2008). Online: www.truthout.org/123108 and in HENRY A. GIROUX and Ken Saltman, “Obama’s Betrayal of Education,” Truthout (December 17, 2008). Online: http://www.truthout.org/121708R.

4. See HENRY A. GIROUX, Against the Terror of Neoliberalism (Denver: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

5.  Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, “Art of the Possible: An Interview with Jacques Rancière,” Artforum (March 2007), p. 264.

6. Frank Rich, “No Time for Poetry,” New York Times (January 25, 2009), p. WK10.

7. Sheldon Wolin, Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 260–261.

8. Wolin, Democracy, Inc., p. 261.

9. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Life (London: Polity Press, 2005), p. 14.

10. Sally Kohn, “Real Change Happens Off-Line,” Christian Science Monitor (June 30, 2008). Online: www.csmonitor.com/2008/0630/p09s01-coop.html.

11. Jacques Derrida, “Intellectual Courage: An Interview,” trans. Peter Krapp, Culture Machine Vol. 2 (2000), p. 9.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

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