Gangster Capitalism and the Politics of Fascist Education

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Capitalism has always been constructed on the basis of organized violence. Wedded to a political and economic system that consolidates power in the hands of a financial, cultural social elite, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy and consuming as the only obligation of citizenship. Matters of ethics, social responsibility, the welfare state, and the social contract are viewed as enemies of the market, thus legitimating the subordination of human needs to a relentless drive for accumulating profits at the expense of vital social needs and the larger public.[1] Driven by a ruthless emphasis on privatization, deregulation, commodification, a sclerotic individualism and ruthless model of competition—neoliberal capitalism has morphed into a machinery of death—an unabashed form of gangster capitalism.

No longer able to live up to its promises of equality, improved social conditions, and rising social mobility, it now suffers from a legitimation crisis. No longer able to defend an agenda that has produced staggering levels of inequality, decimated labour rights, provided massive tax breaks to the financial elite, bailouts to big capital, and waged an incessant war on the welfare state, neoliberalism needed a new ideology to sustain itself politically.[2]

As Prabhat Patnaik, observes, the most radical fix to the potential collapse of neoliberalism “came in the form of neofascism.”[3] Neoliberalism’s failure has resulted in its aligning itself with appeals to overt racism, white supremacy, white Christian nationalism, a politics of disposability, and a hatred of those deemed other. As an unapologetic form of gangster capitalism, violence is wielded as an honourable political discourse and education as a cultural politics has become both divisive and injurious. The flattening of culture, elevated to new extremes through the social media and the normalization of manufactured ignorance, has become a major educational weapon in the annihilation of the civic imagination, politics, and any sense of shared citizenship.

The American public lives in an age of fragmentation, psychic numbing, declining critical functions, and the loss of historical memory, all of which allow for the domestication of the unimaginable. Gangster capitalism thrives on the silence of the oppressed and the complicity of those seduced by its power. It is a politics of subjugation and denial, relentlessly aiming for a public that internalizes its own oppression as second nature. As an educational project, it trades in moral blindness, historical amnesia, and racial and class hatred. It boldly embraces white Christian nationalism, violence as a crucial element of politics, and uses state power to crush dissent and all forms of critical education, especially those pedagogical practices related to sexual orientation, critical race theory, and a critical rendering of history.

Under such circumstances, the ghosts of fascism are once again on the march. Market mentalities, a politics of racial cleansing, and a politics of social and historical amnesia increasingly tighten their grip on all aspects of society. One consequence is that democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing, along with educated citizens, without which the fate of democracy is doomed.

Against a fascism that draws much of its energy from a dark and horrific past, there is a need for progressives, workers, educators, and others to reclaim and advance the imperatives of a socialist democracy defined by visions, ideals, institutions, social relations, and pedagogies of resistance. Fundamental to such a call is the formation of a cultural politics that enables the public to imagine a life beyond a capitalist society in which racial-class-and-gender-based violence produces endless assaults on the public and civic imagination, mediated through the elevation of war, militarization, violent masculinity, misogyny, and the politics of disposability to the highest levels of power. Gangster capitalism is a death-driven machinery that infantilizes, exploits, and devalues human life and the planet itself.

We live in a historical moment in which education has taken on a new role in the age of upgraded fascism. Cultural institutions rather than overt forces of repression have become integral to a politics of repression and domination. This is a politics that, paraphrasing Primo Levi, reduces social habits to silence and attempts to make a corpse out of everyone who does not accept the GOP’s upgraded version of fascist politics.[4] A colonizing culture of education, with its wide array of indoctrination practices, has become the principle instrument used by the right to create a culture of misinformation, implement and expand a politics of social abandonment, and align power and consciousness with the forces of fascism.[5] According to historians for peace and democracy, right-wing culture wars are a dangerous assault on academic freedom and democracy. They write:

The multifaceted culture wars against education constitute attacks how history and social studies are taught and written. They are attempts to severely restrict or eliminate teaching about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and LGBTQ issues. They are an assault on academic freedom in higher education and on professional autonomy and responsibility in K-12 schools. They reveal political efforts to undermine public education in the United States on all levels.[6]

In addition, the current authoritarian force of irrationalism reverses the enlightenment tendency to view citizenship as a universal right. Instead, as G. M. Tamas argues one of fascism’s main characteristics is its hostility to universal citizenship, derided for its appeal to equality and human dignity.[7] In this new historical moment, the relationship between cultural institutions, power and everyday life increasingly use education to destroy the public imagination and dismantle an array of educational institutions fundamental to democracy itself.

Given the multiple crises that haunt the current historical conjuncture, educators need a new language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which there is an unprecedented convergence of resources–financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military, and technological–that are increasingly used to concentrate powerful and diverse forms of control and domination. Such a language needs to be political without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the struggle over agency. In this instance, making the pedagogical more political means being vigilant about those very “moments in which identities are being produced and groups are being constituted, or objects are being created.”[8]

Any viable pedagogy of resistance needs to create the educational and pedagogical visions and tools to produce a radical shift in consciousness among the public; it must be capable of recognizing both the scorched earth policies of neoliberalism 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. Otherwise, there will be no shift in the far-right’s use of violence, its language of dehumanization, and its use of the state as an agent of force, indoctrination, and conquest. Under gangster capitalism, convenient fictions keep existing pillars of inequality in place, confirming its strangulation of democracy and its normalization of a vanishing future.

Education has become dangerous in the age of gangster capitalism. Not only because it is a public good, but also because it is subject to the question of what education should accomplish in a democracy? What is dreaded by GOP authoritarians is the question regarding what work do educators have to do to create the economic, political, and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing citizens necessary for the existence of a robust socialist democracy. Put differently, the danger of a liberating education lies in addressing a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people to challenge authority, resist the notion that education and training are the same thing, while redefining public and higher education as democratic public spheres rather than as sites of white Christian, white supremacy ideology.

What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social has been individualized, emotional life collapses into the therapeutic, and education is relegated to either a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation or sites of state indoctrination? It is crucial for educators and progressives to remember that “education has always been foundational to politics, but it is rarely understood as a site of struggle over how identities are shaped, values are legitimated, and the future defined.”[9]

Education in the broadest sense takes place not only in schools, but permeates a range of corporate-controlled apparatuses that extend from the digital airways to print culture. Under the GOP reign of terror, these apparatuses have become updated sites of apartheid pedagogy. As I have noted elsewhere, “what is different about education today is not only the variety of spaces in which it takes place, but also the degree to which it has become an element of organized irresponsibility and a prop for white supremacy, the crushing of dissent, and a corrupt cultural and political order.” [10] This is clear in the policies of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and others whose attack on public and higher education sanctions civic illiteracy, codifies whiteness a tool of domination, and censors the past in order to abolish the future. 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.

At work in this mode of fascist education are pedagogies of repression that assault rather than educate. Such pedagogies often employ modes of instruction that are not only wedded to white supremacist and exclusionary practices, but are also punitive and mean-spirited and are largely driven by regimes of memorization and conformity. Pedagogies of repression are largely disciplinary and have little regard for analysing contexts, history, making knowledge meaningful, or expanding upon what it means for students to be critically engaged agents.

Culture as an educational force has been poisoned and plays a key role in normalizing fascist politics in America and around the globe. Mass media has turned into a flame thrower of hate and bigotry, stylized as spectacle. Alienating misery, social atomization, the death of the social contract, the militarization of public space, concentrations of wealth and power in the hands of the financial and ruling elite, all fuel a fascist politics. The signs of fascism no longer hide in the shadows. This is especially clear as modern-day fascist politics draws much of its energy from a culture of fear, resentment, bigotry, political fundamentalism, and a state of mind in which the distinction between truth and falsehoods collapses into alternative realities.

In the age of a resurgent fascism, it would be wise for educators and others to be reminded of the importance of critical education, historical memory, civic literacy, and collective resistance as a counterweight to the current language of nativism, ultra-nationalism, bigotry, and violence. There is an urgent need on the part of educators and other cultural workers to resist the erasure of history and the attack on education by the far-right in several states. This is particularly important at a time when America moves closer to a looming fascist abyss as 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 vanish.

At the current moment, education is increasingly defined as an animating space of repression, violence and weaponized as a tool of censorship, state indoctrination, and terminal exclusion. The examples have become too numerous to address. A short list would raise questions about how to explain a Florida school district banning a graphic novel version of Anne Frank’s Dairy, the firing of a Florida principal for showing her class an image of Michelangelo’s ‘David,’ and the publishing of a textbook that removed any hint of racism from Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. It gets worse and appears to be updated with each passing day. For instance, Governor Ron DeSantis in his run for the presidency wants to model the US after Florida, what author David Pepper labels as a laboratory of autocracy.[11]

DeSantis has signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, waged a war against transgender youth, roles back policies designed to ameliorate global warming, and claims that as president he would make the Justice Department and FBI an instrument of presidential control. This is a particularly revealing and frightening notion given that his goal rests on revising the constitution, destroying democracy and crushing all institutions and individuals who dare to hold power accountable. The latter is clear in his ongoing feud with Disney, his disparaging comments regarding medical experts who oppose his anti-vax, anti-science stance, his removal of elected officials who disagree with him, and his war against teachers, librarians, and school board members who reject his attack on public and higher education. There is a decidedly anti-communist tone in the discourse of MAGA politicians that echoes the notion that all members of the opposition are enemies of the state and should be destroyed, a notion never far removed from the threat of state violence with deep roots in a violent racist past.

DeSantis’s embrace of an older anti-communist rhetoric was revealed in an interview on Fox News in which the Florida governor stated that if elected president “I will be able to destroy leftism in this country and leave woke ideology in the dustbin of history.”[12] Destroying leftism is code for his attack on critical education, his embrace of censorship, and for legitimating what Margaret Sullivan calls his “tireless campaign against supposed wokeness (read: egalitarian portrayals or treatment of Black, gay, and transgender people).”[13] Disparaging alleged enemies with cold war McCarthyism rhetoric provides DeSantis, Trump, and other fascist politicians a legitimating cover to embrace white supremacy in terms that James Baldwin labelled in No Name in the Street “as a masturbatory delusion,” one that willingly turns the promise of democracy into the nightmare of an impending fascism. The editors of the prestigious journal Scientific Americanprovide an illuminating commentary on the far-right politics that DeSantis is promoting, along with a number of other MAGA politicians. They write:

What Ron DeSantis has done in Florida mirrors efforts in other states, including Texas. He is among a new class of conservative lawmakers who speak of freedom while restricting freedom…. [He is] running for president of the United States on a record of anti-diversity, pro-censorship, white nationalist measures. He has targeted education, LGBTQ rights and access to health care, and should he prevail, his anti- science candidacy stands to harm millions of Americans. DeSantis has banned books in school libraries, restricted teachers’ classroom discussions about diversity, prohibited high school classes that focus on Black history and people, politicized college curricula, limited spending on diversity programs, ignored greenhouse gas reduction in climate change policy, diminished reproductive rights and outlawed transgender health care.[14]

At the heart of MAGA politics is not only a fear of individuals that embrace the ideals of democracy, but also those institutions, especially schools and other cultural apparatuses, where people can be made into informed and critically citizens.[15] The current age of barbarism and the crushing of dissent points to the need to emphasize how the cultural realm and pedagogies of closure operate as educational and political forces in the service of fascist politics. Under such circumstances, educators and others must question not only what individuals learn in society, but what they must 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 fundamental condition of public life, and reject indoctrination in favour of the search for justice within educational spaces and institutions that function as democratic public spheres.

An education for empowerment that embraces itself as the practice of freedom should provide a classroom environment that is intellectually rigorous, imaginative, and allows students to give voice to their experiences, aspirations, and dreams. It should be a protective space in which students should be able to speak, write, and act from a position of agency and informed judgment. It should be a place where education does the bridging work of connecting schools to the wider society, connect the self to others, and address important social and political issues. A pedagogy for the practice of freedom is rooted in a broader project of a resurgent and insurrectional democracy– one that relentlessly questions the kinds of labour practices, and forms of production that are enacted in public and higher education. While such a pedagogy does not offer guarantees, it does recognize that its own position is grounded in particular modes of authority, values, and ethical principles that must be constantly debated for the ways in which they both open up and close down democratic relations, values, and identities.

A critical pedagogy that functions as a practice freedom should provide the conditions for students to learn how to make connections with an increased sense of social responsibility coupled with a sense of truth. At the heart of such an education, one that is so dangerous to the far-right, is the fundamental question of what role education has to play in a democracy. At issue here is what role education should play as a crucial institution that acknowledges the importance of providing the conditions for shaping critical consciousness and informed citizens. That is, recognizing that matters of agency and the subject are the grounds of politics, and that education is at the heart of critical literacy, learning, and the essence of civic education—a danger, indeed, to the far-right.

It is worth repeating that as a practice of freedom, education rejects the right-wing claim that education is about self-interest, training, teaching for the test, memorization, and naked forms of indoctrination and repression. As an empowering practice, it is about teaching students to embrace the common good and making young people into citizens willing to struggle over and for a democratic society—as well as against fascism itself. Education should educate young people to say no, imagine what it means to live in a better world, address systemic violence, develop a historical consciousness, and imagine a different and more equitable future. [16]

What becomes clear under the current regime of gangster capitalism is that its embrace of fascist politics functions so as to cancel out the teaching of democratic values, impulses, and practices of a civil society by either devaluing or absorbing them within the logic of the market and a curriculum rooted in censorship, book banning, and attacks on Black, Brown, and trans students. In the face of this threat, educators need a critical language to address these fascistic challenges to public and higher education. But they also need to join with other groups outside of the spheres of public and higher education in order to create broad national and international social movements that share a willingness to defend education as a civic value and public good and to engage in a broader struggle to deepen the imperatives of a socialist democracy to come.

The poisonous culture of fascism has become a model embraced by MAGA politicians and it does so in the name of American patriotism. This is more than a cause for alarm, it is a moment in which democracy, in its most fragile state, may be eliminated. Democracy has turned dark and speaks to a moment when educators must address what an anti-fascist education might look like, what it means to join with other groups to build a multi-cultural working-class movement, and how to connect elements of critique and hope with a vision in which a socialist democracy becomes not only plausible but necessary. My friend, the late Howard Zinn got it right in his insistence that hope is the willingness “to hold out, even in times of pessimism, the possibility of surprise.”[17]

This text draws upon a speech I gave at the 2023 American Educational Research Association in Chicago, Illinois


[1] Most clearly stated by one of the apostles of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman. See: The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” The New York Times Magazine, [September 13, 1970]. Online:

[2] Prabhat Patnaik, “Why Neoliberalism Needs Neofascists,” Boston Review, [July 13, 2021]. Online:

[3] Pankaj Mishra, “The New World Disorder: The western model is broken,” The Guardian (October 14, 2014).

[4] Alan Singer, “The Culture Wars Against History and Education,” Daily Kos (May 22, 2023), Online:

[5] There are too many references to mention here, but important sources would include Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2020), Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present (WW Norton, 2021); Henry A. Giroux and Anthony DiMaggio, Fascism on Trial: Education and the Possibility of Democracy (London: Bloomsbury, in press).

[6] Ibid. Alan Singer, “The Culture Wars Against History and Education,” Daily Kos.

[7] G. M. Tamás, “On Post-Fascism.” Boston Review [June 1, 2000]. Online:

[8] Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham, “Staging the Politics of Difference: Homi Bhabha’s Critical Literacy,” Journal of Advanced Composition (1999), pp. 3-35.

[9] Henry A. Giroux, “Fascist Politics in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism: Confronting the Domestication of the Unimaginable,” Counterpunch (April 11, 2023). Online:

[10] Ibid., Henry A. Giroux, “Fascist Politics in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism: Confronting the Domestication of the Unimaginable.”

[11] Cited in Will Bunch, “Real DeSantis launch glitch was its fascism | Will Bunch Newsletter,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (May 30, 2023). Online:

[12] Martin Pengelly, “Ron DeSantis says he will ‘destroy leftism’ in US if elected president,” The Guardian (May 30, 2023). Online:

[13] Margaret Sullivan, “Now’s the time to think about just how bad a DeSantis presidency would be,” The Guardian (May 25, 2023). Online:

[14] The Editors, “Ron DeSantis’s Anti science Agenda Is Dangerous.” Scientific American [May 25, 2023]. Online:

[15] Moira Donegan, “Schools and universities are ground zero for America’s culture war.” The Guardian [February 5, 2023]. Online:

[16] Angela Y. Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of a Movement, (Haymarket Books, 2016: Chicago, IL), p. 88

[17] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition, 2003), p. 634.

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.