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With the upcoming elections taking place in Canada, there are a number of questions that need to be raised about the role of young people in politics. Such questions might focus on the role young people might play in imagining a social order in which the ultimate measure of a society is to be found in the embrace of democratic institutions, values, and social relations rather than in the dynamics of a market-driven society that spends millions on useless wars, generates massive inequalities in wealth and income, and wages what amounts to a war on nature. While Canadian politicians exchange clichés and lite barbs with each other, little is said about the state of young people or what it might mean to furnish the economic and educational conditions necessary for future generations to have decent health care, affordable and quality education, and a vision of the common good, one that imagines an enlarged and deepened democracy. The upcoming Canadian election should make clear as French cultural critic Theirry Pech points out that a democracy that “lives and breathes in the intervals between votes,” represents a society in the making, one that should be guided by a quest for equality, justice, and freedom not just for some but for everyone, especially disadvantaged youth. The importance of such issues becomes clearer in looking at the state of politics and young people in both Canada and the United States.
In a social order dominated by the relentless privatizing and commodification of everyday life and the elimination of critical public spheres where critical thought, dialogue, and exchange take place, young people find themselves in a society in which the formative cultures necessary for a democracy to exist are increasingly disappearing, reduced to spectacles of consumerism made palatable through a daily diet of game shows, reality TV, and celebrity culture. What is particularly troubling in both Canadian and American society is the absence of vital formative culture necessary to construct questioning persons who are capable of seeing through the consumer come-ons and the increasingly militarization of both societies, who can dissent and act collectively in an increasingly imperiled democracy. This is especially true as the purpose and meaning of higher education is reduced to simply an adjunct of corporate power, stripped of its value as a site for critical thought and a crucial repository of the public good and increasingly further reduced to an outpost of military spending, research, and a new training ground for personnel eager to become part of the national security state.
Instead of public spheres that promote dialogue, debate, and arguments with supporting evidence, both societies offer young people a culture of illiteracy and theater of cruelty through entertainment spheres that infantilize almost everything. They are also immersed in a corporate managed screen culture saturated in the spectacle of violence that thrives on militarized modes of masculinity further contributing to the utter disregard for reason, truth, equality, justice, freedom, and social responsibility. The delete button and quest for credentials has replaced the modes critical knowledge and education needed for civic courage, social responsibility, long-term commitments, and the search for the good life and a democratic society. Attachments are short-lived, and the pleasure of instant gratification cancels out the coupling of freedom, reason, and responsibility. As a long-term social investment, young people are now viewed as a liability, if not a pathology. No longer a symbol of hope and the future, young people in both countries are viewed increasingly as a drain on the economy, and if they do not assume the role of functioning consumers, they are considered disposable.
Within the last thirty years, the United States and Canada, have been transformed into societies that are more about forgetting than learning, more about consuming than producing, more about asserting private interests than democratic rights. In societies obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, American and Canadian 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. Education is now largely about training and the obligations of citizenship have been replaced with the demands of consumerism. Under such circumstances, 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, 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 new about this generation of young people is that they have experienced first-hand the relentless spread of a market-driven educational cultural apparatus that celebrates an unbridled individualism and a near pathological disdain for community, public values, and the public good. Young people in both countries 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 the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls “a weakening of democratic pressures, a growing inability to act politically, [and] a massive exit from politics and from responsible citizenship.” If American and Canadian students are not protesting in large numbers the ongoing intense attack on higher education and the rise of the warfare state, it may be because they have been born into a society that is tantamount to what Alex Honneth describes as “an abyss of failed sociality.”
Of course, there are students in both countries who are involved in protesting the great injustices they see around them, including the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya along with the corruption of American and Canadian politics by casino capitalism, a permanent war economy, and the growing disinvestment in public and higher education. But they are indeed a minority, and not because they are part of what is often called a “failed generation.” On the contrary, the failure lies elsewhere and points to the psychological and social consequences of growing up under societies that go to great lengths to privatize hope, derail public values, and undercut political commitments. What is clear as a result of this “failed sociality” is that if democracy is going to deliver on its promises not only do young people need to have a passion for public values, social responsibility, and participation in society, but they also need access to those public spaces that guarantee the rights of free speech, dissent, a quality education, and critical dialogue.
At the heart of such public spaces is a formative culture that creates citizens who are critical thinkers capable of reinvigorating and revitalizing the idea of democracy as a social movement. Young people need to be educated both as a condition of autonomy and for the sustainability of democratization as an ongoing movement. Not only does a substantive democracy demand citizens capable of self- and social criticism, but it also requires a critical formative culture in which people are provided with the knowledge and skills to be able to participate in such a society.
Rejecting the terrors of the present and the modernist dreams of progress at any cost, young people protesting in Paris, Athens, and other countries 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. In doing so, they are pointing to a world order in which the future will certainly not mimic the present. What might be characterized by some commentators as an outburst of youthful utopianism reminiscent of the 1960s may in fact be the outcome of a pressing and very immediate reality. Youth culture has proven to be global in its use of new media, music, and fashion, and increasingly in terms of its collective anger against deep-seated injustice and its willingness to struggle against such forces. It is only a matter of time before American and Canadian youth recognize that they, too, are more than consumers; that market-driven society is not synonymous with democracy; that private rights are not more important than the social good; and that society’s view of them as pathological and disposable, demands a call for massive resistance in the streets, schools, and every other public space in which justice and democracy matter.
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 if it is to become more than a slogan, young people in the United States must join their counterparts across the globe in struggling to continue to build the formative cultures, critical public spheres, social movements, and democratic institutions necessary to make that struggle possible. Thus, the most important question to be raised about American and Canadian students is not why they do not engage in massive protests, but when will they begin to look beyond the norms, vocabularies, and rewards of a market-driven society they have inherited? When will they begin to learn from their youthful counterparts protesting all over the globe that the first step in building a democratic society is to imagine a future different than the one that now stunts their dreams as much as their social reality? Only then can they be successful in furthering the hard and crucial task of struggling collectively to make a future based on the promise of democratic freedom happen.
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.