We must believe in the Principle of Hope. A Marxist does not have the right to be a pessimist
– Ernst Bloch
Across the globe, democratic institutions such as the independent media, schools, the legal system, certain financial institutions, and higher education are under siege. The promise, if not ideals, of democracy are receding as the barbarians who breathe new life into a fascist past are once again on the move subverting language, values, courage, vision and a critical consciousness. Education has increasingly become a tool of domination as right wing pedagogical apparatuses controlled by the entrepreneurs of hate attack workers, the poor, people of color, refugees, immigrants from the south and others considered disposable. In the midst of an era when an older social order is crumbling and a new one is struggling to define itself, there emerges a time of confusion, danger, and moments of great restlessness. The present moment is once again at a historical juncture in which the structures of liberation and authoritarianism are vying for shaping a future that appears to be either an unthinkable nightmare or a realizable dream.
We have arrived at a moment in which two worlds are colliding and a history of the present is poised at a point when “possibilities are either realized or rejected but never disappear completely.” First, there are the harsh and crumbling worlds of neoliberal globalization and its mobilizing passions that fuel different strands of fascism across the globe, including the United States. Power is now enamored of amassing profits and capital and is increasingly addicted to a politics of white nationalism and racial cleansing. Second, there are growing counter movements, especially among young people, with their search for a new politics that can rethink, reclaim and reinvent a new understanding of democratic socialism, untainted by capitalism.  What is not in doubt is that something sinister and horrifying is happening to liberal democracies all over the globe. The global thrust towards democratization that emerged after World War II is giving way once again to authoritarian tyrannies. As alarming as the signs may be, the public cannot look away and allow the terrors of the unforeseen to be given free rein. For those who believe in democratic socialism we cannot allow the power of dreams and militant hopes to turn into ashes.
We now live in a world that resembles a dystopian novel. The COVID-19 crisis created a surrealist nightmare that floods our screens and media with images of fear. We can no longer shake hands, embrace our friends, use public transportation, sit in a coffee shop, or walk down the street without experiencing anxiety and fear. What must be acknowledged is that the pandemic is more than a medical concept. It also refers to ideological and political plagues that emerged as a result of the irresponsible response of the U.S. and other countries such as Brazil, the United Kingdom, and India to the Covid-19 crisis. Marked by inept leadership rooted in a distrust of science and reason and a blind allegiance to market forces, what emerged over time was unimaginable suffering, massive deaths, and a further legitimation of lies and right-wing violence. The horror of the pandemic often blinds us to the fact that anti-democratic economic and political forces that have prioritized profits over human needs have grinded away at the social order for the last forty years.
A form of predatory capitalism has waged war on the welfare state, public sphere and the common good since the 1970s. As a form of predatory capitalism, neoliberalism believes that the market should govern the economy and all aspects of society. It concentrates wealth in the hands of a financial elite and elevates untrammeled self-interest, self-help, deregulation, and privatization as the governing principles of society. Under neoliberalism, everything is for sale and the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism. At the same time, it ignores basic human needs such as healthcare, food, decent wages, and quality education. Neoliberalism views government as the enemy of the market, limits society to the realm of the family and individuals, embraces a fixed hedonism, and challenges the very idea of the public good.
We live in an age when economic activity is divorced from social costs, while policies that produce racial cleansing, militarism, and staggering inequality have become defining features of everyday life and established modes of governance. Clearly, there is a need to reclaim a notion of democratic socialism in which matters of justice, equity, and equality become the central features of a substantive democracy. The good news is that the demonstrations taking place both in the United States and across the globe suggest that the spirit of democratic socialism is in the air.
The pandemic revealed in all its ugliness, the death producing mechanisms of systemic inequality, deregulation, a culture of cruelty, and an increasingly dangerous assault on the environment. It has also made visible an anti-intellectual culture that derides any notion of critical education, that is an education that equips individuals to think critically, engage in thoughtful dialogue, appropriate the lessons of history, and learn how to govern rather than be governed. At the same time, the claims of neoliberal capitalism have been undermined as a result of the economic failures and medical horrors let loose by the pandemic. What was once unthinkable is now said in public by demonstrators across the globe such as those in the United States protesting police violence and the brutality of economic inequality. Young people are calling for a new narrative to repair the safety net, provide free healthcare, child care, elder care and free quality public schools for everyone. There are loud calls to address state violence, and the plagues of poverty, homelessness, and the pollution of the planet.
The pandemic is a crisis that cannot be allowed to turn into a catastrophe in which all hope is lost. While this pandemic threatens democracy’s ability to breathe, it offers the possibility to rethink politics and the habits of critical education, human agency, and elements of social responsibility crucial to any viable notion of what life would be like in a democratic socialist society.
Put differently, amid the corpses produced by neoliberal capitalism and COVID-19, there are flashes of hope, a chance to move beyond contemporary resurgences of authoritarianism. Paulo Freire understood that such a politics is rooted in a pedagogy of hope, one that integrated a critical reading of the world with an attempt to put into practice modes of struggle based on the principles of social and economic equality and human freedom.
It is hard to imagine a more urgent moment for taking seriously Freire’s ongoing attempts to make education central to politics. At stake for Freire was the notion that education was a social concept, one rooted the goal of emancipation for all people. Moreover, this is an education that encourages human agency, one that is not content to enable people to only be critical thinkers, but also engaged individuals and social agents. This is a pedagogy that calls us beyond ourselves, and engages the ethical imperative to care for others, dismantle structures of domination, and to become subjects rather than objects of history, politics, and power. If we are going to develop a politics capable of awakening our critical, imaginative, and historical sensibilities, it is crucial for educators and others to remember Freire’s ongoing project of literacy.
This was a political project in which civic literacy infused with a language of critique and possibility addressed the notion that there is no democracy without knowledgeable and civically literate citizens. Such a language is necessary to enable the conditions to forge a collective international resistance among educators, youth, artists, and other cultural workers in defense of public goods. Such a movement is important to resist and overcome the tyrannical fascist nightmares that have descended upon the United States, Brazil and a number of other countries plagued by the rise of right-wing populist movements and neo-Nazi parties. In an age of social isolation, information overflow, a culture of immediacy, consumer glut, and spectacularized violence, it is all the more crucial to take seriously the notion that a democracy cannot exist or be defended without civically literate and critically engaged citizens.
Education both in its symbolic and institutional forms has a central role to play in fighting the resurgence of fascist cultures, mythic historical narratives, and the emerging ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism. Moreover, as fascists across the globe are disseminating toxic racist and ultra-nationalist images of the past, it is essential to reclaim education as a form of historical consciousness and moral witnessing. This is especially true at a time when historical and social amnesia have become a national pastime, particularly in the United States, matched only by the masculinization of the public sphere and the increasing normalization of a fascist politics that thrives on ignorance, fear, the suppression of dissent, and hate. Education as a form of cultural work extends far beyond the classroom and its pedagogical influence, though often imperceptible, is crucial to challenging and resisting the rise of fascist pedagogical formations and their rehabilitation of fascist principles and ideas.
The pedagogical lesson here is that fascism begins with hateful words, the demonization of others considered disposable, and moves to an attack on ideas, the burning of books, the disappearance of intellectuals, and the emergence of the carceral state and the horrors of detention jails and camps. As a form of cultural politics, critical pedagogy provides the promise of a protected space within which to think against the grain of received opinion, a space to question and challenge, to imagine the world from different standpoints and perspectives, to reflect upon ourselves in relation to others and, in so doing to understand what it means to “assume a sense of political and social responsibility.”
Cultural politics in the last twenty years has turned toxic as ruling elites increasingly gain control of commanding cultural apparatuses turning them into pedagogical disimagination machines that serve the forces of ethical tranquilization by producing and legitimating endless degrading and humiliating images of the poor, immigrants, Muslims, and others considered excess, or wasted lives doomed to terminal exclusion. The capitalist dream machine is back with huge profits for the ultra-rich, hedge fund managers, and major players in the financial service industries. In these new landscapes of wealth, fraud, and social atomization, a savage and fanatical capitalism promotes a winner-take-all ethos, normalizes massive inequalities in wealth and power, and aggressively undermines the welfare state while pushing millions into hardship and misery. The geographies of moral and political decadence have become the organizing standard of the dream worlds of consumption, privatization, surveillance, and deregulation. Within this increasingly fascist landscape, public spheres are replaced by zones of social abandonment and thrive on the energies of the walking dead and avatars of cruelty and misery.
Education within the last three decades has diminished rapidly in its capacities to educate young people and others to be reflective, critical, and socially engaged agents. Under neoliberal regimes, the utopian possibilities formerly associated with public and higher education as a public good capable of promoting social equality and supporting democracy have become too dangerous for the apostles of authoritarianism. Increasingly public schools are subject to the toxic forces of privatization and mindless standardized curricula while teachers are deskilled and subject to intolerable labor conditions. Higher education now mimics a business culture run by a managerial army of bureaucrats, enamoured of market values, who resemble the high priests of a deadening instrumental rationality. The commanding visions of democracy are in exile at all levels of education.
Critical thought and the imaginings of a better world present a direct threat to neoliberal rationality in which the future must always replicate the present in an endless circle in which capital and the identities that it legitimates merge with each other into what might be called a dead zone of the imagination and pedagogies of repression. This dystopian impulse thrives on producing myriad forms of inequality and violence—encompassing both the symbolic and the structural—as part of a broader attempt to define education in purely instrumental, privatized, and anti-intellectual terms. What is clear is that neoliberal modes of education attempt to mold students in the market driven mantras of self-interest, harsh competition, unchecked individualism, and the ethos of consumerism. Young people are now told to invest in their careers, pack their resumes, and achieve success at any cost. It is precisely this replacement of educated hope with an aggressive dystopian neoliberal project and cultural politics that now characterizes the current assault on public and higher education in various parts of the globe. Under neoliberalism, the mantra of privatization, deregulation, and the destruction of the public good is matched by a toxic merging of inequality, greed, and the nativist language of borders, walls, and camps.
It is crucial for educators to remember that language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence, and intimidation, it is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage, resistance, and engaged and informed agency. We live at a time when the language of democracy has been pillaged, stripped of its promises and hopes. For instance, under Trump and other authoritarians such as Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the degradation of language reinforces Umberto Eco’s remark that education is an organizing principle feature of fascism. According to Eco, one of the central features of what he called “Ur-Fascism” was its undermining of civic literacy through Fascist schoolbooks [that] made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
If fascism is to be defeated, there is a need to make education an organizing principle of politics and, in part, this can be done with a language that exposes and unravels falsehoods, systems of oppression, and corrupt relations of power while making clear that an alternative future is possible. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that language is crucial in highlighting the often hidden “crystalized elements” that make fascism likely. Language is a powerful tool in the search for truth and the condemnation of falsehoods and injustices. Moreover, it is through language that the history of fascism can be remembered and the lessons of the conditions that created the plague of genocide can provide the recognition that fascism does not reside solely in the past and that its traces are always dormant, even in the strongest democracies. Paul Gilroy argues correctly that it is crucial in the current historical moment to re-engage with fascism in order to address how it has crystalized in different forms and in doing so ‘work toward redeeming the term from its trivialization and restoring it to a proper place in discussions of the moral and political limits of what is acceptable.”
Gilroy provides one more reason for educators to make the political more pedagogical and the pedagogical more political. The latter is crucial in order to recognize, as Freire reminds us, that pedagogy is always a struggle over agency, identities, desires, and values while also acknowledging that it has a crucial role to play in addressing important social issues and in defending public and higher education as democratic public spheres. Making the political pedagogical in this instance suggests producing modes of knowledge and social practices that not only affirm oppositional cultural work and pedagogical practices but also offer opportunities to mobilize instances of collective outrage coupled with direct mass action, against a ruthless casino capitalism and an emerging fascist politics. Such mobilization must oppose the glaring material inequities and the growing cynical belief that democracy and capitalism are synonymous. At the very least, critical pedagogy proposes that education is a form of political intervention in the world and that it is capable of creating the possibilities for individual and social transformation.
Ignorance now rules America. Not the simple, if somewhat innocent ignorance that comes from an absence of knowledge, but a malicious ignorance forged in the arrogance of refusing to think hard about an issue, to engage language in the pursuit of justice. . James Baldwin was certainly right in issuing the stern warning in No Name in the Street that “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Thinking is now viewed as an act of stupidity, and thoughtlessness is considered a virtue. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture, as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. As is well known, President Trump’s ignorance is on display daily. Not only is he a serial liar but his ignorance also serves as a tool of power to prevent power from being held accountable. In addition, ignorance is the enemy of critical thinking, engaged intellectuals, and emancipatory forms of education. Ignorance is not innocent, especially when it proclaims the space of commonsense and labels thinking dangerous while exhibiting a disdain for truth, scientific evidence, and rational judgments. However, there is more at stake here than the production of a toxic form of illiteracy celebrated as commonsense, the normalization of fake news, and the shrinking of political horizons. There is also the closing of the horizons of the political coupled with explicit expressions of cruelty and a “widely sanctioned ruthlessness.”
The very conditions that enable people to make informed decisions are under siege as schools are defunded, media becomes more corporatized, oppositional journalists are killed, and reality TV becomes the model for mass entertainment. We now live in a new age of cruelty in which we are told that the central mark of our agency is to be at war with others, unleash our most ruthless and competitive side, and learn how to survive in what Naomi Klein calls the “cut-throat jungle of late capitalism.”
Under such circumstances, there is a full-scale attack on thoughtful reasoning, empathy, collective resistance, and the compassionate imagination. In some ways, the dictatorship of ignorance resembles what the writer John Berger calls “ethicide”: and Joshua Sperling defines as “The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.” Words such as love, trust, freedom, responsibility, and choice have been deformed by a market logic that narrows their meaning to either a relationship to a commodity or a reductive notion of self-interest. Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence. And so it goes. The new form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas, or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.
Given the current crisis of politics, agency, history, and memory educators need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control. If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional sphere of politics from the now transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. Resistance does not begin with reforming capitalism but abolishing it. In this instance, critical pedagogy becomes a political and moral practice in the fight to revive civic literacy, civic culture, and a notion of shared citizenship. Politics loses its emancipatory possibilities if it cannot provide the educational conditions for enabling students and others to think against the grain and where students realize themselves as informed, critical, and engaged citizens. There is no radical politics without a pedagogy capable of awakening consciousness, challenging common sense, and creating modes of analysis in which people discover a moment of recognition that enables them to rethink the conditions that shape their lives. This is the moment of hope in which as Ruth Levitas points out the sense of “something missing can be read in every trace of how it might be otherwise, how the ever-present sense of lack might be [tempered].”
As a rule, educators should do more than create the conditions for critical thinking and nourishing a sense of hope for their students. They also need to responsibly assume the role of civic educators within broader social contexts and be willing to share their ideas with other educators and the wider public by making use of new media technologies. Communicating to a variety of public audiences suggests using opportunities for writing, public talks, and media interviews offered by the radio, Internet, alternative magazines, and teaching young people and adults in alternative schools to name only a few. Capitalizing on their role as public intellectuals, faculty can speak to more general audiences in a language that is clear, accessible, and rigorous. More importantly, as teachers organize to assert both the importance of their role as citizen-educators and that of education in a democracy, they can forge new alliances and connections to develop social movements that include and expand beyond working with unions.
Education operates as a crucial site of power in the modern world. If teachers are truly concerned about safeguarding education, they will have to take seriously how pedagogy functions on local and global levels. Critical pedagogy has an important role to play in both understanding and challenging how power, knowledge, and values are deployed, affirmed, and resisted within and outside of traditional discourses and cultural spheres. In a local context, critical pedagogy becomes an important theoretical tool for understanding the institutional conditions that place constraints on the production of knowledge, learning, academic labor, social relations, and democracy itself. Critical pedagogy also provides a discourse for engaging and challenging the construction of social hierarchies, identities, and ideologies as they traverse local and national borders. In addition, pedagogy as a form of production and critique offers a discourse of possibility—a way of providing students with the opportunity to link understanding to commitment, and social transformation to seeking the greatest possible justice.
This suggests that one of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers, and other cultural workers is the task of developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect a critical reading of both the word and the world in ways that enhance the creative capacities of young people and provide the conditions for them to become critical agents. In taking up this project, educators and others should attempt to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to acquire the knowledge, values, and civic courage that enables them to struggle in order to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. Hope in this instance is educational, removed from the fantasy of an idealism that is unaware of the constraints facing the struggle for a radical democratic society. Educated hope is not a call to overlook the difficult conditions that shape both schools and the larger social order nor is it a blueprint removed from specific contexts and struggles. On the contrary, it is the precondition for imagining a future that does not replicate the nightmares of the present, for not making the present the future.
Educated hope provides the basis for dignifying the labor of teachers; it offers up critical knowledge linked to democratic social change, affirms shared responsibilities, and encourages teachers and students to recognize ambivalence and uncertainty as fundamental dimensions of learning. Such hope offers the possibility of thinking beyond the given. As difficult as this task may seem to educators, if not to a larger public, it is a struggle worth waging.
In an age of predatory capitalism and an emerging fascist politics, educators, students, and other concerned citizens face the challenge of providing a language that embraces a militant utopianism while constantly being attentive to those forces that seek to turn such hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss those who dare to look beyond the horizon of the given. Fascism breeds cynicism and is the enemy of a militant and social hope. Hope must be tempered by the complex reality of the times and viewed as a project and condition for providing a sense of collective agency, opposition, political imagination, and engaged participation. Without hope, even in the most dire times, there is no possibility for resistance, dissent, and struggle. Agency is the condition of struggle, and hope is the condition of agency. Hope expands the space of the possible and becomes a way of recognizing and naming the incomplete nature of the present.
Hope is the affective and intellectual precondition for individual and social struggle. Hope, not despair, is the precondition that encourages critique on the part of intellectuals in and outside of the academy who use the resources of theory to address pressing social problems. Hope is also at the root of the civic courage that translates critique into political practice. Hope as the desire for a future that offers more than the present becomes most acute when one’s life can no longer be taken for granted. Only by holding on to both critique and hope in such contexts will resistance make concrete the possibility for transforming politics into an ethical space and a public act. Building a better future than the one we now expect to unfold will require nothing less than confronting the flow of everyday experience and the weight of social suffering with the force of individual and collective resistance and the unending project of democratic social transformation. At the same time, in order for resistance to take on the challenges posed by the rise of a fascist politics, it will have to develop an awakening of desire. This form of educated desire is rooted in the dream of a collective consciousness and imagination fueled by the struggle for new forms of community that affirm the value of the social, economic equality, the social contract, and democratic values and social relations.
The current fight against a nascent fascism across the globe is not only a struggle over economic structures or the commanding heights of corporate power. It is also a struggle over visions, ideas, consciousness, and the power to shift the culture itself. It is also as Arendt points out a struggle against “a widespread fear of judging.” Without the ability to judge, it becomes impossible to recover words that have meaning, imagine a future that does not mimic the dark times in which we live, and create a language that changes how we think about ourselves and our relationship to others. Any struggle for a radical democratic socialist order will not take place if “the lessons from our dark past [cannot] be learned and transformed into constructive resolutions” and solutions for struggling for and creating a post-capitalist society.
In the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens and no justice without a language critical of injustice. Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as public and higher education in which civic values, public scholarship, and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity, and civic courage. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting pedagogy to the practice of freedom, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. Neoliberal capitalism strips hope of its utopian possibilities and thrives on the notion that we live in an era of foreclosed hope, and that any attempt to think otherwise will result in a nightmare. Yet, the fact remains that without hope there is no agency and without collective agents, there is no hope of resistance. In the age of nascent fascism, it is not enough to connect education with the defense of reason, informed judgment, and critical agency; it must also be aligned with the power and potential of collective resistance. We live in dangerous times. Consequently, there is an urgent need for more individuals, institutions and social movements to come together in the belief that the current regimes of tyranny can be resisted, that alternative futures are possible and that acting on these beliefs through collective resistance will make radical change happen.
1. Peter Thompson, “The Frankfurt School, Part 5: Walter Benjamin, Fascism and the Future,” The Guardian (April 21, 2013).
2. See, especially, Stuart Hall, Chapter 1: “The Neoliberal Revolution,” The Neoliberal Crisis, ed. Edited by Jonathan Rutherford and Sally Davison, [London: Lawrence Wishart 2012]. David Harvey: A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005);Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, (Princeton University Press, 2008). Wendy Brown, “Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, (New York: Zone Books, 2015). Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality (St. Martin’s Press, 2017); George Monbiot, Out of the Wreckage (Verso Press, 2017); Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights 2018).
3. Charles Derber, Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times (New York: Routledge, 2017). Heinrich Geiselberger, ed. The Great Regression (London: Polity, 2017). ↑
4. See, for example, Jane Mayer, “The Making of the Fox News White House,” The New Yorker (March 4, 2019).
7. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt Trade Publishers, New Edition, 2001). ↑
8. Paul Gilroy, “Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line“, Chapter 4 -‘Hitler in Khakis: Icons, Propaganda, and Aesthetic Politics,’ (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 144-145, 146 ↑
9. Pankaj Mishra, “A Gandhian Stand Against the Culture of Cruelty,” The New York Review of Books, [May 22, 2018].
11. Ruth Levitas, “Introduction: The Elusive Idea of Utopia,” History of the Human Sciences 16:1 (2003), p.4. ↑
13. Nicola Bertoldi, “Are we living through a new ‘Weimar era’?: Constructive resolutions for our future,” OpenDemocracy (January 3, 2018).
14. Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of the Unforeseen (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Review of Books, 2019). ↑