America’s slide into a fascist politics demands a revitalized understanding of the historical moment in which we find ourselves, along with a systemic critical analysis of the new political formations that mark this period. Part of this challenge is to create a new language and mass social movement to address and construct empowering terrains of education, politics, justice, culture, and power that challenge existing systems of white supremacy, white nationalism, manufactured ignorance, and economic oppression.
This is especially important as those marginalized by class, race, ethnicity, and religion become increasingly aware of how much in this new era of fascist politics they have lost control over the economic, political, pedagogical, and social conditions that bear down on their lives. Visions have become dystopian, devolving into a sense of being left out, abandoned, and subject to increasing systems of terror and violence. These issues can no longer be viewed as individual or isolated problems. They need to be addressed as manifestations of a broader failure of politics, if not the public imagination. Moreover, what is needed is not a series of stopgap reforms limited to particular institutions or groups but a radical restructuring of the entirety of U.S. society as a start toward more global acts of resistance.
The call for a socialist democracy demands the creation of visions, ideals, institutions, social relations, and pedagogies of resistance that enable the public to imagine a life beyond a social order in which racial-class-and-gender-based violence produce endless assaults on the social contract, welfare state, immigrants, women, Black and brown people, the environment, and democracy itself. Such a challenge must address an assault by the savagery of neoliberal capitalism on the public and civic imagination, mediated through the elevation of war, militarization, violent masculinity, and the politics of disposability to the highest levels of power. Neoliberal capitalism is a death-driven machinery that infantilizes, exploits, and devalues human life and the planet itself.
Understood properly, neoliberal capitalism is a form of necropolitics, or more specifically, a type of gangster capitalism that is utterly criminogenic. Gangster capitalism thrives on the silence of the oppressed and the complicity of those seduced by its power. As an educational project, it trades in civic illiteracy, historical amnesia, and depoliticization. One consequence is that as market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing, along with the educated citizens without which there is no democracy.
Any viable pedagogy of resistance needs to create the educational and pedagogical visions and tools to produce a radical shift in consciousness, capable of both recognizing the scorched earth policies of gangster capitalism and the twisted fascist ideologies that support it. This shift in consciousness cannot occur without pedagogical interventions that speak to people in ways in which they can recognize themselves, identify with the issues being addressed, and place the privatization of their troubles in a broader systemic context.
We live at a time in which a scourge of fascism emerges from both the political arena and the powerful right-wing media, such as Fox News. Fascist politics thrives on disimagination machines that normalize relations of power, infantilize individuals, and reproduce oppressive ideologies masking as commonsense. As C. Wright Mills has made clear, in an age when the social disappears and everything is privatized and commodified, it is difficult for individuals to translate private into public issues and see themselves as part of a larger collective capable of mutual support. The erosion of public discourse and the onslaught of a culture of manufactured ignorance ‘allows the intrusion of criminality into politics.’ As theorists as diverse as John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and Maxine Greene have observed, democracy cannot exist without an educated citizenry. Wendy Brown states rightly that democracy ‘may not demand universal political participation, but it cannot survive the people’s wholesale ignorance of the forces shaping their lives and limning their future’.
Education has always been the substance of politics, but it is rarely understood as a site of struggle over agency, identities, values, and the future itself. Unlike schooling, education permeates a range of corporate-controlled apparatuses that extend from the digital airways to print culture. These have become under the GOP reign of terror updated sites of apartheid pedagogy. What is different about education today is not only the variety of sites in which it takes place, but also the degree to which it has become an element of organized irresponsibility and a prop of white supremacy and gangster capitalism. This is clear in the policies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others whose attack on public and higher education aims at producing modes of civic illiteracy, modeled on a flight from critical thinking, self-reflection, and meaningful forms of solidarity. This is a fascist model of education in which book burning, censorship, and the racial cleansing of history merge with an attempt to turn public and higher education into right-wing, white supremacist indoctrination centers operating under the power of state control.
White supremacists models of education now function as part of the neoliberal machinery of depoliticization that represents an attack on the power of the civic imagination, political will, and a substantive democracy. It is also functioning as a politics that undermines any understanding of education as a public good and pedagogy as an empowering practice that gets people to think critically about their own sense of agency in relation to knowledge and their ability to engage in critical and collective struggle. As America moves closer to a fascist abyss, thinking becomes dangerous, language is emptied out of any substance, politics is driven by the financial elite, and institutions that serve the public good begin to disappear.
Under the current regime of fascist politics, education is increasingly defined as an animating principle of violence, revenge, resentment, and victimhood as a privileged form of identity. Right-wingers such as DeSantis are weaponizing education by calling for the firing of faculty who simply refer to critical race theory, critically engage African American history, teach gender studies and issues regarding sexual orientation in their classes. The fascist wing of the GOP wants to monitor the views of teachers, reproduce pedagogies of repression, eliminate tenure, and use the state to dictate the purpose of higher education. In this scenario, we are reminded of James Baldwin’s claim in No Name in the Street that when ignorance merged with power, “education is a synonym for indoctrination, if you are white, and subjugation, if you are black.”
The current age of barbarism points to the need to emphasize how the cultural realm and pedagogies of closure operate as an educational and political force in the service of fascist politics. Under such circumstances, questions must be raised by the public about not only what individuals learn in a given society but what they have to unlearn, and what institutions provide the conditions for them to do so. Against apartheid pedagogies of repression and conformity—rooted in censorship, racism, and the killing of the imagination—there is the need for critical pedagogical practices that value a culture of questioning, view critical agency as a condition of public life, and reject indoctrination in favor of the search for justice within a democratic, global public sphere.
A critical pedagogy rejects the dystopian, anti-intellectual, and racist vision at work under Trumpism and its underlying nativist pathologies, a thrill for authoritarian violence, and its grotesque contempt for democracy. Against gangster capitalism and the Trumpian worldview, there is the need for educators and other cultural workers to provide a language of both criticism and possibility as a condition for rethinking the possibilities of the future and the promise of global democracy itself. Critical educators must struggle against the concentration of power in the hands of the few who now use the instruments of cultural politics to function as oppressive ideological and pedagogical tools.
At a time when learning is tied to a pedagogy of repression and citizenship becomes synonymous with white Christian nationalism, it is crucial for individuals to become critical and autonomous citizens capable of interrogating the lies and falsehoods spread by politicians, right-wing pundits, anti-public intellectuals, and the social media while being able to struggle for a more democratic and just future. But there is more at work here than learning how to be self-reflective; there is also learning how to turn memory and critique into a form of collective resistance.
Learning from history is crucial in order to fight the ghosts of the past as they emerge in new forms. Any viable form of resistance needs to expand the public’s understanding of the power of historical consciousness, moral witnessing, and the power of a social contract in which political and personal rights are joined with economic rights. A massive pedagogical campaign is also needed to deconstruct the regressive notions of freedom and self-interest at the heart of neoliberal ideology. At the same time, the poisonous refuge of racism and economic inequality has to be confronted in multipole sites as a deeply interwoven political and educational struggle.
At issue here is the urgent need to acknowledge and think through the connections among politics and education, on the one hand, and power and agency on the other. Essential to such a task is developing the intellectual and ethical capacities to address the question of what modes of address, interventions and institutions are necessary to get people to think, debate, and share power while being able to conceive of a future free of injustice. Key to such a challenge is the need to produce an inspiring and visionary public imagination that enables people to define themselves beyond the regressive neoliberal notions of raw self-interest, regressive notions of individualism, and commodified conceptions of personal happiness. This suggests reclaiming a democratic notion of the social by analyzing and legitimating the political, social, and economic connections and supports that provide the conditions for enacting a sense of meaningful solidarity, community, dignity, and justice.
If the civic fabric and the democratic political culture that sustains democracy are to survive, education, once again, must be linked to matters of social justice, equity, human rights, history, and the public good. Education is not just a struggle over knowledge, but also a struggle about how education is related to the power of self-definition and the acquisition of individual and social forms of agency. More specifically, education is a moral and political practice, not merely an instrumentalized practice for the production of prespecified skills. The task of education is to encourage human agency, refresh the idea of justice in individuals, and recognize that the world might be different from how it is portrayed within established relations of power.
Matters of education are crucial to developing a democratic socialist vision that examines not only how neoliberal capitalism robs us of any viable sense of agency, but also what it means to think critically, exercise civic courage, and define our lives outside of the pernicious parameters imposed by the veneration of greed, profits, competition, and capitalist exchange values. Education is a place where individuals should be able to imagine themselves as critical and politically engaged agents. In a time of oppression, education becomes fundamental to politics. Educators, public intellectuals, artists, and other cultural workers need to make education essential to social change and, in doing so, reclaim the role that education has historically played in developing political literacies and civic capacities, both of which are essential prerequisites for democracy.
Education as empowerment must be able to take on the task of shifting consciousness in order to enable individuals to narrate themselves, prevent their own erasure, address the economic, social, and political conditions that shape their lives, and learn that culture is an instrument of power. For this to happen, people have to recognize something of themselves and their condition in the modes of education in which they are addressed. This is both a matter of awakening a sense of identification and a moment of recognition. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy has to be on the side of understanding, clarity, persuasion, and belief. Education, in this instance, is a defining political fact of life because it is crucial to the struggle over critical agency, informed citizenship, and a collective sense of resistance and struggle. As a political project, it must press the claims for economic and social justice and strengthen the call for civic literacy and positive collective action.
In the face of the current fascist threat, progressives need to recover and reframe the discourse and purpose of education as an empowering political project. Malcolm X was right when he said, ‘Education is a passport to the future.’ He built upon this insight when he wrote ‘Power in defense of freedom is greater than power on behalf of tyranny and oppression, because power, real power, comes from our conviction which produces action, uncompromising action.’ The language of critique, compassion, and hope must be collective, embracing our connections as human beings, and respecting our deeply interrelated relationship to the planet.
A democratic socialist politics and movement need a language of connections. Any affirmation of the social must ensure that public services and social provisions bind us together in our humanity as human beings. Capitalism has proven that it cannot respond to either society’s most basic needs or address its most serious social problems. The pandemic has exposed neoliberal capitalism’s criminality, cruelty, and inhumanity and its alignment with an emerging fascist politics. There is a need both to reclaim the histories of insubordination and resistance and to update and enact them accordingly in the current historical moment. It has become clear in the age of the plagues and monsters that any successful movement for resistance must be not only for democracy and anti-capitalist; rather, it must also be anti-fascist. We owe such a challenge to ourselves, to future generations, and to the promise of a global socialist democracy waiting to be blossom.
This first appeared on the LA Progressive.