Henry A. Giroux on How Destroying Public Space Means Destroying Dissent

Neoliberal Fascism and the Twilight of the Social

Donald Trump’s increasingly dangerous, incendiary attacks on the media, his willingness to separate children from their parents at the southern border, his efforts to strip citizenship from naturalized citizens and deport US citizens on the groundless claim that they have fraudulent birth certificates, and his relentless attempts to pressure Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others to obstruct the rule of law all amount to a lawless grab for power that is pushing the US further into the abyss of fascism.

The terrors of 20th century fascism have risen once again in the United States but less as a warning about repeating past mistakes than as a measure of the degree to which the lessons of history become irrelevant. Politics now moves between what philosopher Susan Sontag once labeled as “unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The “unremitting banality” is evident in Trump’s daily barrage of reckless tweets in which language becomes a weapon to vilify, humiliate and demonize government officials, journalists and critical media outlets. An evil banality is also present in his branding of undocumented immigrants as “murderers and thieves,” “rapists” and criminals who want to “infest our country.”

There is more at work here than the use of coarse language or an unprecedented display of incivility by a sitting president; there is also a flirtation with violence, the rhetoric of white supremacy, and the language of expulsion and elimination. Trump’s embrace of unthinkable terror takes on an even more onerous tone as the language of dehumanization and cruelty materializes into policies that work to expel people from any sense of community, if not humanity itself.

Such policies are evident in Trump’s systemic “zero tolerance” policy, now rescinded, that forcibly separated migrant children from their parents and incarcerated them in prison-like cages where many of them were physically and sexually abused. These attacks have not been limited to children. Aida Chavez reports in The Intercept that both physical and sexual assaults on immigrants in detention centers have become commonplace and are documented in a number of reliable sources. For instance, The Intercept has obtained public records that reveal that more than 1,000 complaints have been made about sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities. The systemic nature and scope of violence and sexual abuse also extends to the reign of terror inflicted on immigrants at the hands of Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents. The Office of the Inspector General has received over 33,000 horrifying complaints by immigrants made against ICE, revealing the underpinnings and wanton lawlessness of a fascist police state. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has called ICE a “deportation force” and along with a number of prominent politicians, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, has argued that it should be abolished. Cynthia Nixon, the progressive actor who has entered the gubernatorial race in New York, has called ICE “a terrorist organization” and has insisted on its abolition.

Trump’s penchant for cruelty is also on full display in his removal of temporary protected status for hundreds of thousands of refugees from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti as well as his rescinding of protections “for 800,000 young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers.” It gets worse: the Trump administration has advocated depriving undocumented immigrants with due process and threatened to deport them immediately when they cross the border “without a trial or an appearance before a judge.”

The degree and transparency of Trump’s racism are even more well-defined in his plan to punish legal immigrants for accepting public benefits to which they are entitled, such as food stamps and public housing. Moreover, his rule would authorize federal officials to revoke legal resident status from immigrants who accept such assistance. The guiding force behind this anti-immigrant movement in the Trump administration is hard-liner and white supremacist sympathizer, Stephen Miller, who takes delight in proposing legislation that makes “it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens or get green cards if they have ever used a range of popular public welfare programs, including Obamacare.”

Legislation that denies immigrants citizenship because they receive public assistance reveals a level of state violence, if not a form of domestic terrorism, that increasingly characterizes the onslaught of Trump’s policies. More recently, he has suggested the death penalty for drug dealers, a plan that takes its cues from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, which has resulted in deaths of over 20,000 alleged drug users and dealers since 2016, many of whom live in poor communities.

Meanwhile, as part of his broader attack on human life and the conditions that make it possible, Trump has rolled back many of the Obama-era polices designed to curb climate change; he has reversed environmental protections, such as the banning of pesticides in wildlife refuges, and he has dismantled federal rules regulating American coal plants, which are “designed to curtail coal emissions of carbon dioxide and methane that contribute to climate change.”

In a case that highlights Trump’s war on youth and his ongoing attempts to destroy the social bonds that sustain a democracy, the United States government attempted to scrap a research-based United Nations-World Health Organization resolution that encouraged breast-feeding. Supporting the interests of infant formula manufacturers, American officials first sought to use language that would water down the resolution. When that failed, they threatened smaller countries such as Ecuador that supported it. Patti Rundall, a policy director supporting the resolution, observed that the actions by the Trump administration were “tantamount to blackmail.” Rundall’s criticism becomes even more alarming given a 2016 study in The Lancet that documented how “universal breast-feeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk.”

Slow Violence, Fast Violence

Trump’s discourse and policies represent a profound attack on the collective values crucial to a democracy and present a constant assault not just on economic and political institutions but also on the formative culture, public foundations and educational apparatuses necessary to nurture critically active and engaged citizens. Trump’s assault on social obligations, social responsibility, and the social fabric is a fundamental element of his espousal of neoliberal fascism. This new political arrangement operates in its most lethal form as a form of “slow violence,” which in Princeton University scholar Rob Nixon’s terms is a “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”

“Slow violence” destroys the formative cultures that make human suffering visible, covers over authoritarian impulses behind the calls for national greatness, and exposes the danger of surrendering freedom for security. At the core of this violence, which has intensified under neoliberal fascism, is an attack on those social forces that defend the welfare state and engage in an ongoing struggle to make concrete the possibilities of democratic socialism. Under neoliberal fascism, chauvinism and militarism work hand in hand with a hardening of the culture, the unleashing of the forces of brutal self-interest, and a growing illiteracy that undermines both public values and a collective struggle against what sociologist C. Wright Mills once called “a politics of organized irresponsibility.” “Slow violence” is difficult to gauge because it is often concealed beneath policies that promote what can be called fast violence.

Fast violence comes with an immediate body blow, exhibits the spectacularized drama of Trump’s imperious and insulting tweets, and produces high-profile assaults on democratic institutions, such as the courts, media and rule of law. Such violence embraces the theatrical, feeds off the spectacle and aims at high shock value. One recent exampleof the fast violence of cultural politics was the almost unthinkable announcement by the Trump administration that Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, was planning — at a time when underprivileged schools lack the most basic resources and support services — to use federal funds, designed to benefit programs aimed at underserved students, to train and arm teachers, in spite of an established federal policy that prohibits using such funds to arm educators.

Of course, this hidden agenda legitimated in this proposed policy is that schools attended largely by poor students are sites defined in the image of war, should be modeled after prisons, and necessitate being governed through zero-tolerance policies that often feed the school-to-prison pipeline. The endpoint of such policies moves between pushing poor Black and Brown youth into the criminal justice system and either abolishing these public institutions or turning them into cash cows by privatizing them. The larger goal is to destroy education as a democratic public sphere whose mission is to create an educated citizenry necessary for the workings of a vibrant democracy. The state-sponsored violence at work here imperils the rule of law and works to unravel the alleged democratic institutions, such as the courts and media that some believe provide an impregnable firewall against Trump’s authoritarianism. Taken together “slow” and fast violence under the Trump regime share a cultural politics that erodes memory, substitutes emotion for reason, embraces anti-intellectualism, increases the harshness of rugged individualism and thrives in the glow of what economist Paul Krugman terms a “white nationalism run wild.”

State violence has become the organizing principle shaping all aspects of American society. At the heart of such violence is a full-fledged attack on notions of the social and public space that makes critical thought, dialogue, and the individual and collective pursuit of the common good possible. Under such circumstances, pressing social problems are removed from the inventory of public concerns and ethical considerations. The end point is the replacement of the welfare state and social investments with the punishing state and what Jonathan Simon has called “governing through crime.” This is all too evident in the Trump administration’s mode of governance founded on a harsh, racially charged regime of law and order that is as repressive as it is corrupt. Locked into an “abyss of failed sociality,” the American public finds it increasingly difficult to challenge the assumption that markets and the rule of the strong man are all that is needed to solve all individual and social problems. When public values are invoked, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, they appear less for their recognizability and relevance for the present than a symbol for what has been irrevocably lost.

Public values and the public good have been reduced to nostalgic reminders of another era — associated, for example, with the New Deal or the Great Society — in which the social contract was seen as crucial to meeting the needs of postwar Americans and fundamental to a substantive democratic order. Rather than viewed as a legacy that needs to be reclaimed, reimagined and renewed, visions of the public good are consigned to the distant past, a passing curiosity like a museum piece perhaps worth viewing, but not worth struggling to revive as either an ideal or a reality. What is “new” about the long decline of public values in US society is not that they are again under attack but that they have become weakened to the point of no longer provoking a massive oppositional social movement in the face of more daring and destructive attacks by the Trump administration. When such values are attacked, the targets are groups who for decades have been largely immune to such attacks because they embody the most cherished ideals associated with democratic public service — immigrants, public school teachers, public servants, poor youth of color and labor unions. This suggests that the precondition for any viable sense of individual and collective resistance must reclaim the social as part of a democratic imaginary that makes education and learning not only central to social change, but also to the struggle to democratize the very character of American politics, institutional power and public discourse.

Neoliberalism’s Attack on Social Bonds

In the aftermath of the horrors of WWII, critical theorist Theodor Adorno remarked that while it becomes difficult to live in the shadow of a history in which there seemed to be no end to terror, it is impossible to evade the past because it “lingers on” after both its own alleged death and because a “willingness to commit the unspeakable survives in people as well as in the conditions that enclose them.” Adorno, in this case, was referring to the survival of fascist elements within democracies consoled by the false belief that history could not repeat itself. With the rise of “illiberal democracy,” and a resurgent embrace of an unapologetic authoritarian across the globe, it is clear that not only has the struggle over democratic laws, rules and rights become more urgent than ever, but the formative culture that creates the social fabric and critical agents, habits and dispositions necessary to sustain and strengthen such a democracy is in peril. The crisis of democracy has taken a lethal turn in the United States.

Over the last 40 years, neoliberalism has produced the more extreme elements of casino capitalism, emphasizing austerity policies designed to accumulate wealth and profits for the financial and corporate elite regardless of social costs and the enormous price paid in human suffering and misery. At the same time, neoliberalism has unleashed and legitimized the mobilizing paroxysms of neo-fascist discourse. Neoliberalism merges a cruel form of contemporary capitalism with elements of white supremacy, ultra-nationalism and elimination policies that echo the horrors of a fascist past. Neoliberalism’s attack on social justice and the common good, coupled with its production of economic conditions that trample on human needs and produce massive inequality in wealth and power, mobilizes the violent energies of a right-wing populism and white supremacist anxieties “about loss of status and social dominance.”

In the neoliberal narrative, people are reduced to merchandise and expected to imitate rather than challenge corporate values. In this view, culture becomes a pedagogical weapon whose aim is to convince people that imagining an alternative future is impossible. In this fascist version of the script, people are largely considered either extensions of capital or disposable, and ultimately subject to racial cleansing, terminal exclusion or worse. Within this convergence of neoliberal rationality and alarming echoes of a fascist history, Trump has emboldened the discourse of borders, walls, racial purging and militarism along with nonstop attacks on people of color, workers, immigrants, women, LBGTQ people, environmentalists and more.

As Trump’s war against democracy intensifies, the speed and onslaught of policies that carry the ghosts of a monstrous past become more difficult to grasp given the endless shocks to the body politic and a plethora of spectacularized earthquakes that follow each succeeding blow to the values, social relations and institutions that make a democracy possible. While the horrors of a fascist past are easy to recall, it is much more difficult at the current moment to learn from history how to resist a culture tied to extreme forms of nationalism, white supremacy, systemic racism, militarism, police violence, the politics of disposability and an expanding culture of cruelty. Equally difficult is understanding how the mechanisms of neoliberal fascism work to undermine modes of social solidarity, the social contract, social obligations and social relations, while sustaining in the public mind “conditions that are hostile to any kind of democratic liberties.”

How does a culture whose mission is to keep democracy alive give way to political, economic and pedagogical arrangements that normalize a hatred of democracy? What role does neoliberal culture play as an educational force to construct policies that undermine human rights and pose a threat to the dignity of politics? How does neoliberalism use corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses to destroy the communal cohesion necessary to nurture support for the common good, public goods and a compassion for others? How do the ideological workstations of neoliberal fascism work to configure all of social life in economic terms? How does neoliberalism’s regressive embrace of individual responsibility work to reduce all social problems to personal failings and in doing so, empty politics of any substance while undermining a grammar of ethics and the moral bearings needed to distinguish good from evil?

These questions point to the terror of the unforeseen that is at the heart of neoliberal formation which has emerged under the Trump administration as a new and frightening political development. As the political sphere is corrupted by ever-greater concentrations of wealth and power, the institutions, cultures, values and ethical principles that make a democracy possible begin to disappear. Political theorist Wendy Brown is insightful on the breakdown of democracy in the troubled present and points to forces that threaten democracy from within by hollowing out its most crucial public institutions. She writes:

Neoliberalism generates a condition of politics absent democratic institutions that would support a democratic public and all that such a public represents at its best: informed passion, respectful deliberation, and aspirational sovereignty, sharp containment of powers that would overrule or undermine it…. Democracy in an era of enormously complex global constellations and powers requires a people who are educated, thoughtful, and democratic in sensibility. This means a people modestly knowing about these constellations and powers; a people with capacities of discernment and judgment in relation to what it reads, watches, or hears about a range of developments in its world; and a people oriented toward common concerns and governing itself.

Neoliberal ideology and its attack on social bonds, critical thinking and democratic values has a long legacy and has accelerated in intensity since the late 1970s. Education in the wider culture is dominated by corporate interests and has become a weapon and disimagination machine. As a form of pedagogical oppression, neoliberalism instrumentalizes learning, reduces education to training, and produces subjects defined by the social relations and values of the market place. Substituting market values for democratic values, it has economized and commercialized all social relations and subordinated human needs to the imperatives of profit making. In an age when self-interest and unchecked individualism are heralded as the essence of agency; democratic relations and ideals, if not human nature, have become difficult to both imagine and recognize. As the longings for wealth, status and power were elevated to the status of national ideals, the mood in America turned dark in a climate marked by despair, a culture of fear aimed at scapegoated populations, skyrocketing inequalities in wealth and power, and a vision that morphed into cynicism, anger and resentment. The American dream gave way to a cruel illusion as the hopes of social mobility, a better future and economic prosperity for all disappeared in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008.

As social bonds deteriorate under obscene notions of privatization, business deregulations and an expansion of the precariat, there is a growing moral panic engineered by white nationalists and those who substitute traditional forms of economic nationalism for what might be called cultural sovereignty. In this instance, community is now defined through a “mix of neoliberalism, cultural chauvin­ism, anti-immigrant anger and majoritarian rage as the major model” of governance. An attack on cultural differences has become the driving force of a toxic form of neoliberal fascism that mixes the cruelty of a market-driven system with an embrace of racial purity and social cleansing.

This demagogic pursuit of power driven by a hatred of democracy is reinforced by defunding public goods, tax policies that produce massive inequalities, the expansion of military power, voter suppression polices and the destruction between the balance of freedom and security, and also through a neoliberal formative culture that has redefined the very nature of subjectivity, desire and agency in reductive market terms. This becomes evident in the educational force of a neoliberal culture that defines the citizen as the consumer of commodities, uses economic calculations to measure the worth of the good life, rewards entrepreneurship as the driving force of human agency, and reduces politics to the empty spectacle of voting in election cycles. Under neoliberal fascism, we are citizens with alleged individual and political rights, but without economic and social rights.

As neoliberalism is normalized, self-secure in its proclaimed motto and self-fulfilling prophecy that there is no alternative, it becomes difficult to imagine a society, social relations and a self that is not defined through the rationality, logic and values of the market. In this conception, capitalism and the market are synonymous, and human beings can only be conceived as human capital. Rather than be called to think critically, share power, exercise one’s imagination and hold power accountable, human beings are reduced to pawns to be manipulated by financial markets. Literary critic and political analyst Anis Shivani rightly observes that neoliberalism argues that everything is to be imagined and constructed through the lens of the market and the wishes of the financial elite. He writes:

One way to sum up neoliberalism is to say that everything—everything—is to be made over in the image of the market, including the state, civil society, and of course human beings. Democracy becomes reinterpreted as the market, and politics succumbs to neoliberal economic theory, so we are speaking of the end of democratic politics as we have known it for two and a half centuries. As the market becomes an abstraction, so does democracy, but the real playing field is somewhere else, in the realm of actual economic exchange—which is not, however, the market. We may say that all exchange takes place on the neoliberal surface.

Cynicism now replaces hope as matters of responsibility are reduced exclusively to matters of individual choice, if not character, nurtured by regressive notions of self-enrichment while any notion of the social, dependency or care for the other is viewed as both a weakness and object of contempt. A mix of social amnesia, punitive justice and a theater of cruelty now drive policy decisions increasingly accepted by segments of the public that either refuse or are incapable of connecting private troubles and worries with broader systemic forces. According to late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, what is broken under such circumstancesis

the link between public agenda and private worries, the very hub of the democratic process … with each of the two spheres rotating by now in mutually isolated spaces, set in motion by mutually unconnected and un-communicating (though certainly not independent!) factors and mechanisms. To put it simply, it is a situation in which people who have been hit don’t know what has hit them – and have little chance of ever finding out.

Under neoliberal fascism, the plague of privatization weakens democratic culture and promotes a flight from any sense of political and social responsibility. As the high priest of a neoliberalism on steroids, Trump embodies the ideology of self-interest and supports corporate interests, for whom the public good is viewed as a site to be colonized and democracy as the enemy of private interests and market liberties.

Neoliberalism Fuels the Trump Administration’s Neo-Fascist Agenda

Policies conducive to the most extreme elements of casino capitalism have become the testing ground for seeing how far, for instance, the Trump administration can advance its neo-fascist agenda. Solutions that echo the extreme cruelty of a sordid past have pushed the United States closer to a full-fledged American fascism that makes clear its hatred of immigrants, the poor, Black people, Indigenous people, Muslims and others who do not fit into the racist logic at work in Trump’s call for “America First.”

Yet, there is more at work here than the proliferation of neoliberal policies that breathe new life into white supremacist ideologies, privatize public goods, limit the power of unions, deregulate the public sphere and hollow out the state by shifting massive amounts of capital through regressive tax policies to big corporations and the ultra-rich.

Under neoliberalism, politics is tied to the discourse of exclusion and powerlessness and is viewed along with democracy as the enemy of a market that views itself above the influence of the rule of law, accountability, ethics, governance and the common good. As legal scholar Eva Nanopoulos observes, in the current historical moment, the specific forms of contemporary fascism have to be understood “in the wider context of their relationship to neoliberalism and the neoliberal crisis.” What is especially important to grasp is how neoliberalism has reconfigured the state to maximize the disintegration of democratic social bonds and obligations, especially through neoliberal policies that test how far a demagogic administration can push a public into accepting practices that are as cruel as they are unimaginable. This logic is now being carried to extremes under Trump as he is constantly redrawing the lines of what is possible in violating human rights and promoting an ever-widening labyrinth of cruelty, destruction and disposability.

Some of the most distinctive features of neoliberal fascism include the disintegration of the social, the collapse of a culture of compassion and the dissolution of public spheres that make democracy possible. Individual existence is now defined through the circulation of commodities and the elevation of self-interest to a national ideal amounts to what Marx once called “the icy water of egotistical calculation.” One consequence is the expansion of an ongoing plague of social atomization, alienation, existential despair and a collective sense of powerlessness. Evidence for the latter can be found in the ongoing opioid crisis, which killed 42,000 people in 2016, the increasing mortality rate for uneducated white men, the growing lack of confidence in American institutions, the desperation experienced by families living on the brink of poverty trying to make ends meet each month, and the heartbreak and despair among the 6.5 million children and their families living in extreme poverty. In addition, the mutually informing forces of despair and powerlessness produce the conditions for the growth of right-wing populism, racism, ultra-nationalism, militarism and fascism.

As the reach of neoliberal ideology spreads throughout society, it works to trivialize democratic values and public concerns, enshrines a militant individualism, celebrates an all-embracing quest for profits, and promotes a form of Social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibilities or compassion for others. This punishing script constitutes an often unrecognized form of state-sanctioned terrorism that numbs many people just as it wipes out the creative faculties of imagination, memory and critical thought. Under a regime of privatized utopias, hyper-individualism, and ego-centered values, human beings slip into a kind of ethical somnolence, indifferent to the plight and suffering of others. Neoliberalism produces a unique form of modern terrorism. The late Frankfurt School theorist Leo Löwenthal refers to it as a form of mass repression and self-preserving numbness that he argues amounts “to the atomization of the individual.” He writes:

The individual under terrorist conditions is never alone and always alone. He becomes numb and rigid not only in relation to his neighbor but also in relation to himself; fear robs him of the power of spontaneous emotional or mental reaction. Thinking becomes a stupid crime; it endangers his life. The inevitable consequence is that stupidity spreads as a contagious disease among the terrorized population. Human beings live in a state of stupor, in a moral coma.

Implicit in Lowenthal’s commentary is the assumption that as democracy becomes a fiction, the moral mechanisms of language and meaning are undermined. In addition, a culture of atomization, precarity, intolerance and brutishness reinforces an ethos of cruel indifference promoted through a relentless barrage of ruthless policies that test how far the most extreme elements in the convergence of neoliberalism and fascism can be promoted by the Trump administration without arousing mass outrage and resistance.

As I mentioned earlier, the disintegration of social bonds, social ties and emancipatory modes of solidarity and collective struggle are intensified through an endless series of political and ethical shocks produced by the Trump administration. Such shocks are designed to weaken the ability of citizens to resist the ongoing barrage of attacks on the moral indexes and democratic values central to a democracy. They are also designed to normalize neoliberal fascist terrorist tactics, dispelling the notion that such practices are ephemeral to the 20th century.

In its willingness to demonstrate such terror, the state mobilizes fear and unchecked displays of power in order to convince people that the president is above the law and that the only viable response to his increasingly cruel policies is individual and collective resignation. This is an exercise of power without a conscience — a form of violence that revels in the passivity, if not moral infantilism, it wishes to produce in its citizens. Echoes of this view were obvious in Trump’s comment, later claimed to be a joke, that he wants “[his] people” to listen to him the way North Koreans listen to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. As the president stated on the Fox News Channel program “Fox & Friends,” “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” Trump’s war against the social and ethical imagination is part of a larger politics designed to destroy those social ties and public spheres that would encourage a sense of responsibility and compassion toward others, especially those considered the most vulnerable. This is a form of terrorism that celebrates self-interest, bare survival, and a regression to a kind of Social Darwinism and political infantilism. Theorist Leo Löwenthal gets it right in his comment that this form of terrorism is equivalent to a form of self-annihilation. He writes:

Terrorism wipes out the causal relation between social conduct and survival, and confronts the individual with the naked force of nature—that is, of denatured nature—in the form of the all-powerful terrorist machine. What the terror aims to bring about, and enforces through its tortures, is that people shall come to act in harmony with the law of terror, namely, that their whole calculation shall have but one aim: self-perpetuation. The more people become ruthless seekers after their own survival, the more they become psychological pawns and puppets of a system that knows no other purpose than to keep itself in power.

Surely, this is obvious today as all vestiges of social camaraderie give way to hyper-modes of masculinity and a disdain for those considered weak, dependent, alien or economically unproductive.

Central to developing any viable notion of the social is a rethinking of the critical institutions and shared spaces in which matters of morality, justice and equality become central to a new understanding of politics. There is a need to re-imagine where public spaces, connections and public commitments lie beyond the domain of the private and how they can be constructed as part of a broader effort to create engaged and critical citizens willing to fight for an emergent democratic politics. At stake here is a renewed understanding of education as the crucial site in which the intertwined dynamics of individual agency and democratic politics merge. Politics in this sense is connected to a discourse of critique and possibility in which a plurality of memories, narratives and identities come together in defense of a common good and a comprehensive politics that brings together personal and public meanings, discourses and connections.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s fear about the extinguishing of the public realm, along with pragmatist John Dewey’s apprehension about the loss of a public sphere where visions, power, politics and the ethical imagination can be brought to life, are no longer simply an abstract concern. Such trepidations have become a reality in the age of Trump. Amid the current attack on the foundations of social solidarity and the bonds of social obligation, public values are running the risk of becoming irrelevant. In a society in which it has become commonplace to believe that one has no responsibility for anyone other than oneself, the social is downsized to accommodate a culture of hate, bigotry and cruelty.

Keeping the Struggle for a Radical Democracy Alive

 

There will be no democracy without a formative culture to construct the questioning agents capable of dissent and collective action. Nor will the struggle for a radical democracy get far without a vision that can replace representative politics with a politics and mode of governing based on a participatory politics. Wendy Brown touches on some of the elements of a visionary politics in which power and governance are shared collectively. She writes:

… a left vision of justice would focus on practices and institutions of popular power; a modestly egalitarian distribution of wealth and access to institutions; an incessant reckoning with all forms of power — social, economic, political, and even psychic; a long view of the fragility and finitude of nonhuman nature; and the importance of both meaningful activity and hospitable dwellings to human flourishing…. The drive to promulgate such a counter rationality – a different figuration of human beings, citizenship, economic life, and the political – is critical both to the long labor of fashioning a more just future and to the immediate task of challenging the deadly policies of the imperial American state.

The great philosopher of democracy, Cornelius Castoriadis, adds to this perspective the idea that for democracy to work people have to have a passion for public values and social participation alongside the ability to access public spaces that guarantee the rights of free speech, dissent and critical dialogue. Castoriadis recognized that at the heart of such public spaces is a formative culture that creates citizens who are critical thinkers capable of “putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes [possible] in the full sense of the term.” For Castoriadis, people should not be merely given the right to participate in society; they also should be educated in order to participate in it in a meaningful and consequential manner. According to Castoriadis, the protective space of the social becomes crucial when it functions as an educational space whose aim is to create critical agents who can use their knowledge and skills in order to participate in a wider struggle for justice and freedom. At the center of Castoriadis’s defense of education is a defense of the public realm where, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt, freedom can “find the worldly space to make an appearance.” According to Castoriadis, education was not only an essential dimension of justice and politics, but also democracy itself.

One precondition for bringing Trump’s neoliberal fascism to a halt is the recognition that democracy cannot exist without informed citizens who have a passion for public affairs, and who believe that critical consciousness is one precondition through which politics must pass in order to render individuals fit for the kind of collective struggles that offer the possibility for change. It is difficult to talk about producing the social bonds necessary in any democracy without viewing civic education, literacy and learning as acts of resistance. Education has to become central to politics in which new narratives can be developed that refuse to equate capitalism with democracy, hope with the fear of losing and surviving, and the separation of political equality from economic equality.

In doing so, education has to be turned into an “instrument of political power,” a way of reading against the conditions that produced a fascist past and are with us once again. In the current historical moment, a society of gated communities, walls and prisons has torn asunder any sense of shared community, making it more and more difficult to imagine a sense of collective identity rooted in compassion, empathy, justice and shared obligations to each other. Against this tattering of public space, it is crucial to cultivate a lofty vision that refuses to give up on the radical imagination and the willingness to fight for a world in which an emancipatory kind of struggle and politics is possible.

Such a politics must do more than exhibit outrage toward the regime of neoliberal fascism emerging in the United States and across the globe as a model for the future. It must also take seriously the notion that there is no democracy without a critical formative culture that can enable the critical power and modes of collective support necessary to sustain it. That is, it must develop a relationship between civic education and political agency, one in which the liberating capacities of language and politics are inextricably linked to the civic beliefs, public spaces and values that mark a democratic embrace of the social. This is especially urgent at a time when civic culture is being eradicated and commanding visions of an alternative future are disappearing. Politics must once again become educative and education must become central to politics.

As a vehicle for social change, education registers the political, economic and cultural elements that can be used to reclaim a critical and democratic notion of community and the social relations and values that make such communities possible. The challenge to create a new and revitalized language of politics, the social and the common good can move from the abstract to the practical through the power of a mass social movement that recognizes the tactical importance of what Pierre Bourdieu describes in Acts of Resistance as “the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle” and resistance.

I am not suggesting that education or public pedagogy in the broadest sense is going to offer political guarantees in creating individuals and movements who can fight against the current attacks on democracy, but there will be no resistance without making education central to any political struggle. In his essay “On Politics” in The Sociological Imagination, the late sociologist C. Wright Mills captures the spirit of this sentiment in his comment on the value of the social sciences:

I do not believe that social science will ‘save the world’ although I see nothing at all wrong with ‘trying to save the world’ — a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the re-arrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. Such knowledge as I have leads me to embrace rather pessimistic estimates of the chances. But even if that is where we now stand, still we must ask: if there are any ways out of the crises of our period by means of intellect, is it not up to the social scientist to state them?… It is on the level of human awareness that virtually all solutions to the great problems must now lie.

If progressives are going to redeem a democratic notion of the social, we need to build on activism that rethinks what it means to take on the challenge of changing how people relate to others and to the conditions that bear down on their lives. Such efforts speak to a notion of educational hope and the possibilities for nurturing modes of civic literacy and critical modes of learning and agency. It also points, as the late historian Tony Judt observed, to the need to forge a “language of justice and popular rights [and] a new rhetoric of public action.” Revitalizing a progressive agenda can be addressed as part of a broader social movement capable of re-imagining a radical democracy in which public values matter, the ethical imagination flourishes, and justice is viewed as an ongoing struggle. In a time of dystopian nightmares, an alternative future is only possible if we can imagine the unimaginable and think otherwise in order to act otherwise. This is no longer an abstract hope but a radical necessity.

 

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