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Henry A. Giroux: The Age of Neoliberal Terrorism

Posted on Dec 2, 2012
Mickey van der Stap (CC BY 2.0)

The sign reads: “Grownups are obsolete.”

By Angelo Letizia, Figure/Ground Communication

(Page 2)

In 2009, Francis Fukuyama wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post entitled “What are your arguments for or against tenure track?” In it, Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country, making younger untenured professors fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline. In a short, Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually. Since then, there has been a considerable amount of debate about this sensitive issue, both inside and outside the university. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

This is a classic conservative position that views tenure as a threat to ideological orthodoxy. It undermines the safeguards to academic freedom, and refuses to create spaces for critical pedagogy and other modes of critical education.  While the tenure system is not perfect, it is essential to protect dissident faculty from being fired as well as necessary in order to enable teachers to take risks, address crucial social issues, and create for students a culture of questioning. The attack on tenure has to be understood as part of a broader attack on all critical public spheres, public intellectuals, and the very conditions that make criticism, thoughtful dialogue, and informed judgment possible for students.

Your works speak about an attack on public institutions. Could you elaborate on what you mean by this attack? Why are public institutions being attacked?

Public institutions are being attacked because they are public, offer spaces for producing critical thought, emphasize human needs over economic needs, and because they are one of the few vital institutions left that can function as democratic public spheres.

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You have described the phenomena of neo-liberalism as a “terror.” Could you briefly explain what neo-liberalism is and why you called it a terror?

Neoliberalism is a philosophy which construes profit making as the essence of democracy and consuming as the only operable form of citizenship. It also provides a rationale for a handful of private interests to control as much as possible of social, economic, and political life in order to maximize their personal profit. Neoliberalism is marked by a shift from the manufacturing to the service sector, the rise of temporary and part-time work, growth of the financial sphere and speculative activity, the spread of mass consumerism, the commodification of practically everything.

Neoliberalism combines free market ideology with the privatization of public wealth, the elimination of the social state and social protections, and the deregulation of economic activity. Core narratives of neoliberalism are: privatization, deregulation, commodification, and the selling off of state functions.  Neoliberalism advocates lifting the government oversight of free enterprise/trade thereby not providing checks and balances to prevent or mitigate social damage that might occur as a result of the policy of “no governmental interference”; eliminating public funding of social services; deregulating governmental involvement in anything that could cut into the profits of private enterprise; privatizing such enterprises as schools, hospitals, community-based organizations, and other entities traditionally held in the public trust; and eradicating the concept of “the public good” or “community” in favor of “individual responsibility.”

It is a form of terrorism because it abstracts economics from ethics and social costs, makes a mockery of democracy, works to dismantle the welfare state, thrives on militarization, undermines any public sphere not governed by market values, and transforms people into commodities. Neoliberalism’s rigid emphasis on unfettered individualism, competitiveness and flexibility displaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the welfare of others. In doing so, it dissolves crucial social bonds and undermines the profound nature of social responsibility and its ensuing concern for others.  In removing individuals from broader social obligations, it not only tears up social solidarities, it also promotes a kind of individualism that is almost pathological in its disdain for public goods, community, social provisions, and public values.  Given its tendency to instrumentalize knowledge, it exhibits mistrust for thoughtfulness, complexity, and critical dialogue and in doing so contributes to a culture of stupidity and cruelty in which the dominant ethic is organized around the discourse of war and a survival of the fittest mentality. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of democracy.

Do you believe that neo-liberalism is compatible with some of the more traditional civic and social ethos expounded by more traditional liberal advocates of higher education? If so how, if not, why not?

No, neoliberalism represents a break with older forms of liberalism because it completely abrogates the social contract and leaves no room for meaningful social relationships. Its project has nothing to do with education and everything to do with training.

You have described some strategies to resist neo-liberalism. Your main strategies include new more radical types of pedagogy. Could you explain some of your methods?

My strategies are organized around the need to make pedagogy central to politics itself and to help create the conditions necessary for the development of a formative culture that provides the foundation for developing critical citizens and a meaningful and substantive democracy.

What research projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on the emergence of vast and expansive forms of disposability in neoliberal societies.

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