Hard Lessons

In spite of the almost unprecedented financial and credit crises gripping the United States, the legacy of jaded excess lives on as both a haunting memory and an ideological register that continues to shape contemporary politics.  After all, it was only a few years ago when it was widely recognized, if not celebrated, that the New Gilded Age and its updated “‘dreamworlds’ of consumption, property, and power” had returned to the United States with a vengeance.1  The exorbitantly rich along with their conservative ideologues publicly invoked and lionized that bygone  period in nineteenth-century American history when corporations ruled political, economic, and social life and an allegedly heroic entrepreneurial spirit brought great wealth and prosperity to the rest of the country.  Even with the economic blowout and its now visible register of corruption and greed on the part of Wall Street bankers and traders, the dominant press cannot relinquish its love affair with the super-rich, regardless of how greedy they appear. How else to explain stories about how the rich are going through hard times as exemplified in their either moving out of their high-priced mansions into more modest million-dollar condos or being forced to give up riding in limos for more discreet modes of transportation?  In some cases, these high-flying entrepreneurs of the now devalued Gilded Age are celebrated because of their unmitigated belief in the gospel of wealth and their sheer courage to spend in tough times. Or, as the New York Times puts it, “When the times get tough, the smart spend money.”2 And while tent cities are emerging all over the country, the ultra-rich provide a lesson in what it means to be “smart,” capitalizing on their spending habits by buying $14-million condos in New York City, dishing out $3000 at the Goldbar Lounge for a bottle of Louis XIII Cognac, or paying $656,000 for a Rolls Royce Phantom convertible.3  What these stories often forget to mention is  the legacy of corporate swindling, corruption, and financial adventurism that was responsible for bankrupting the country.

There is more at work in these examples of Gilded Age excess than a predatory narcissism, a zany hubris, and a neofeudal world view in which self-interest and the laws of the market are seen as the only true measure of politics. There is also an attack on the idea of the social contract—the state’s provision of minimum guarantees of security—and the very notion of democratic politics.  Moreover, in this free-wheeling, deregulated market society, the citizen is reduced to a consumer or if labeled as a flawed consumer rendered as excess, redundant, and disposable.  Rampant greed, market deregulation, and cut-throat individual competition, lauded in this world of free-market fundamentalism, have produced over the last thirty years an unparalleled degree of social inequality in the United States along with massive dislocations in the basic foundations of society. Clearly, any understanding of the present financial crisis and its disastrous effects has to include a consideration of free-market fundamentalism or neoliberalism and the ideologies, cultural formations, and modes of political irresponsibility that produced it.  Discussions about the economic meltdown are largely focused on economics or as Paul Krugman puts it “the market mystique–the magic of the financial marketplace and [the fraudulent and corrupt] wizards who perform that magic.”4  Almost nothing is said about the public values, ideologies, modes of rationality, and commonsense assumptions that produce both neoliberal beliefs and the subjects who unquestionably accept such views.  Characteristic of  many current critiques of the financial crisis is a disconnect between analyses of the destruction produced by the economic meltdown and a silence regarding the market-driven values underlying its sordid vision of the world.  Neoliberalism has not only altered economic agendas throughout the world but has also transformed politics, restructured social relations, and produced an array of reality narratives and disciplinary measures that normalize its perverted view of citizenship, the state, and the supremacy of market relations. Clearly, the crisis of free-market fundamentalism and the economic Darwinism that functions as its counterpart are as much educational issues as they are economic and political problems.

The varied populations suffering and made increasingly disposable under neoliberalism can attribute their oppression to a reactionary politics in which the categories of “citizen” and “democratic representation,” once integral to national politics, are no longer recognized. In the past, people who were marginalized by class and race could at least expect a modicum of support from the social state, either through an array of limited social provisions or from employers who recognized that they still had some value as part of a reserve army of unemployed labor. This is no longer true.  Under the ruthless dynamics of free-market fundamentalism, there has been a shift away from the goals of living a life of dignity and working for economic independence to the much more deadly task of struggling to stay alive—or keeping one step away from becoming part of the growing army of humans considered utterly disposable and redundant.

Disposable populations have historically been relegated to the frontier zones of society, as part of an ongoing effort to hide them from public view. Until recently, such populations were warehoused in schools that resemble boot camps,5

dispersed to dank and dangerous workplaces far from the enclaves of the tourist industries, incarcerated in prisons that privilege punishment over rehabilitation, and consigned to the status of the permanently unemployed.  But such populations now seem to be an everyday part of the American landscape, glaringly visible in the burgeoning tent cities, revealed as the dominant media report wrenching stories about families being evicted from their homes, and evident in cars and RVs that now line up in parking areas and serve as many people’s only shelter. Rendered redundant as a result of the collapse of the welfare state, a pervasive racism, a growing disparity in income and wealth, and a set of take-no-prisoners market principles, an increasing number of individuals and groups are suffering from what Orlando Patterson in his discussion of slavery called “social death.” The young, working poor, unemployed, disabled, and homeless increasingly share a common fate as more and more people become victims of the socially strangulating culture of hyper-individualism, self-interest, corporate corruption, and a viral consumerism that now governs the political sphere as well as the realm of everyday life in accordance with the organizing principles of free-market fundamentalism.6

Under neoliberalism, social problems such as poverty become utterly privatized and removed from public discourse. Principles of communal responsibility are derided in favor of narrowly defined individual satisfactions, largely measured through the acquisition and disposability of consumer goods. In this highly privatized universe, visions of the good society are cast aside, replaced by “the perpetual search for bargains”7 and maximum consumer satisfaction.  The consequences involve not only the undoing of social bonds and the dismissal of shared responsibilities but also the endless reproduction of the much-narrowed registers of character and individual self-reliance as substitutes for any rigorous analyses of the politics, ideologies, and mechanisms of power at work in the construction of socially created problems. All problems are now laid on the doorstep of the individual, regardless of how unlikely they might been involved in creating them. This makes it more socially acceptable to blame the poor, homeless, uninsured, jobless, and other disadvantaged individuals and groups for their problems, while reinforcing the merging of the market state with the punishing state.  This is the central discourse of Fox News, which apparently believes that the mortgage crisis was due to grasping home buyers and not the unabashed greedy of the deregulated banking and mortgage industries.

What is often ignored by studies conducted on the rise of neoliberalism in the United States is that it is not only a system of economic power relations but also an educational project, intent on producing new forms of subjectivity and on sanctioning particular modes of conduct.8  We get a sense of what kind of conduct is promoted by neoliberalism from an insight provided by the British media theorist Nick Couldry, who insists that “every system of cruelty requires its own theater,” one that draws upon the rituals of everyday life in order to legitimate its norms, values, institutions, and social practices.9  Neoliberalism represents one such system of cruelty that is reproduced daily through a regime of common sense and that now serves as a powerful pedagogical force, shaping our lives, memories, and daily experiences while attempting to erase everything critical and emancipatory about history, justice, solidarity, freedom, and the meaning of democracy. Undoubtedly, neoliberal norms, practices, and social relations are being called into question to a degree unwitnessed since the 1930s. Yet despite the devastating impact of a financial meltdown, neoliberalism’s potent market-driven ideology is far from bankrupt and is still a powerful cultural and educational force to be reckoned with—how else could one explain the lack of critical discourse about the expanding number of mainstream public institutions that legitimate and normalize the values underpinning free-market fundamentalism?

Under the George W. Bush administration, democracy was viewed with contempt; young people were not considered worthy investments; and the rich were given $2-trillion in tax breaks.  For many young people and adults today, the private sphere has become the only space in which to imagine any sense of hope, pleasure, or possibility. Culture as an activity in which young people actually produce the conditions of their own agency through dialogue, community participation, public stories, and political struggle is being eroded. In its place, we are increasingly surrounded by a “climate of cultural and linguistic privatization” in which the only obligation of citizenship is to consume and shop.  While an unfolding economic crisis should discredit the language of the free market, there is nothing yet to substitute in its place. It is imperative that we develop a new language, especially for young people, one that recognizes how individual problems are related to social concerns. Living in a real democracy means finding collective ways of dealing with the most pressing problems facing future generations, including ecological destruction, poverty, economic inequality, racism, and the necessity for a vibrant social state.  We need to reclaim the meaning of democracy and give it some substance by recognizing, as Bill Moyers points out, that democracy is not just about the freedom to shop, formal elections, or the two-party system: it is about discovering “the means of dignifying people so they become fully free to claim their moral and political agency.”10  The problems currently faced by the United States are not merely economic, but also political and educational, and demand solutions that can address the combination of forces that have produced a rampant culture of neoliberalism to the detriment of democratic public life.

In order to strengthen the public sphere, we must use its most widespread institutions, undo their degeneration into means of commodification and control, and reclaim them as democratic spaces. Schools, colleges and universities come to mind—because of both their contradictions and their democratic potential, their reality and their promise, though of course they are not the only sites of potential resistance.  This democratic transformation must involve more than a simple appeal to thoughtfulness, critique, and dialogue; it must assert what kind of education matters to a democracy and restate a commitment to public and higher education in terms of its value for political culture and democratic public life.  One of the most important challenges facing education in the Obama era is the reintroduction of educational policies, values, and social practices that help produce civic identifications and commitments, teach young people how to participate in and shape public life and exercise critical judgment, and provide the pedagogical conditions that enable them to exercise civic courage. The Obama administration to date has been of little help here and largely supports a notion of education that is tied to a business culture, one that validates charter schools, high-stakes testing, students defined less as citizens than as potential workers, and profit incentives to reward student achievement—a model of education not unlike what the Bush administration supported. The shortcomings of Obama’s philosophy of education and its uncritical acceptance of neoliberal values, especially in light of his vociferous indignation over Wall Street corruption and bonuses, are difficult to understand. Nowhere is the disconnect between Obama’s call for change and his love of markets more pronounced than in his educational policies.11

If we are to move beyond the limited strategy and language of bailouts—a code word for helping the wealthy and asking the poor to make more sacrifices—the larger public dialogue needs to focus on how we view, represent, and treat young people and others marginalized by class, race, disability, and age. It needs to be about how to imagine and struggle for a democratic future. The potential for a better future further increases when critical education and democratically inspired modes of literacy become central to any viable notion of politics. Education in this instance becomes both an ethical and a political referent: it furnishes an opportunity for adults to provide the conditions for themselves and young people to become critically engaged social agents who value democratic values over market values and who take seriously the notion that when human beings recognize the causes of their suffering they are in a better position to bring the misery caused by market fundamentalism and other anti-democratic tendencies to a halt.  Similarly, it points to a future in which a critical education, in part, creates the conditions for each generation of youth to struggle anew to sustain the promise of a democracy that must be continuously expanded into a world of new possibilities and opportunities for keeping justice and real hope alive.  This may sound a bit utopian given the political and economic crisis we are facing in both the United States and Canada, but we have few choices if we are going to fight for a future that does a great deal more than endlessly repeat the present. I think it is all the more crucial to take seriously Hannah Arendt’s admonition that living in dark times requires believing that history never reaches an endpoint and the space of the possible is always larger than the one on display.

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. Mike Davis and Daniel Bertrand Monk, “Introduction,” Evil Paradises (New York: The New Press, 2007), p. ix.

2. Christine Haughney and Eric Konigsberg, “Despite Tough Times, Ultrarich Keep Spending,” New York Times (April 14, 2008), p. A1.

3. Ibid.

4.  Paul Krugman,  “The Market Mystique,” New York Times  (March 27, 2009), p. A27.

5. Kenneth Saltman and David Gabard, eds., Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools (New York: Routledge, 2003).

6. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).

7.   Zygmunt Bauman, “Happiness in a Society of Individuals,” Soundings (Winter 2008), p. 21.

8. Thomas Lemke, “Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique,” Rethinking Marxism 14:3 (Fall 2002), pp. 49–64.

9. Nick Couldry, “Reality TV, or the Secret Theater of Neoliberalism,” Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 30:1 (January–March 2008), p. 1.

10. Bill Moyers, “A Time for Anger, A Call to Action,” Common Dreams (February 7, 2007). Online at: http://www.commondreams.org/views07/0322-24.htm.

1111.  I take this issue up in great detail in HENRY A. GIROUX, “Obama’s Dilemma; Postpartisan Politics and the Crisis of American Education,” Harvard Educational Review (July 2009, in press)


Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018), On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (Bloomsbury), and Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (Bloomsbury 2021). His website is www. henryagiroux.com.