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The Occupy Movement and the Politics of Educated Hope
Posted on May 22, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
It is an old game reinforced by an authoritarian politics that is unapologetic about its abuses and ongoing production of violence and human misery. It is a politics that owes more to the older fascist regimes of Germany, Italy and Chile than to any notion of democracy. And it is precisely in the reclaiming of politics, one that challenges the current structures of power and ideology, that the Occupy movement offers its greatest promise. What is particularly important in this movement is the growing recognition that moral condemnations of greed, corruption, consumerism and injustice provide only “the minimal positive program for socio-political change,” which further demands addressing the more crucial need for systemic transformations in American society.(18)
We live at a time when the crisis of politics is inextricably connected to the crisis of education and agency. Any viable politics or political culture can only emerge in a determined effort to provide the economic conditions, public spaces, pedagogical practices and social relations in which individuals have the time, motivation and knowledge to engage in acts of translation that reject the privatization of the public sphere, the lure of ethno-racial or religious purity, the emptying of democratic traditions, the crumbling of the language of commonality and the decoupling of critical education from the unfinished demands of a global democracy. As the Occupy movement increasingly addresses what it means politically and pedagogically to confront the impoverishment of public discourse, the collapse of democratic values, the erosion of its public spheres and the corporate colonizing of the American society, it puts in place a language for developing public spheres where critical thought, dialogue, exchange and collective action can take place. At work here is the attempt to develop a new political language for rescuing modes of critical agency and social grievances that have been abandoned or orphaned to the dictates of global neoliberalism, a punishing state and a systemic militarization of public life. Against such hard times for the promise of democracy, the Occupy movement offers an incisive language of analysis and hope, a renewed sense of political commitment, different democratic visions and a politics of possibility.
Political exhaustion and impoverished intellectual visions are fed by the widely popular assumption that there are no alternatives to the present state of affairs. Within the increasing corporatization of everyday life, market value replaces social values and people with the education and means appear more and more willing to retreat into the safe, privatized enclaves of family, religion and consumption. In this case, hope is privatized and foreclosed, just as the conditions disappear in which certain kinds of democratic politics are possible. Those without the luxury of combining individual, political and social rights that make choice meaningful pay a terrible price in the form of material suffering and the emotional hardship and political disempowerment that are its constant companions. Even those who live in the relative comfort of the middle classes must struggle with a poverty of time in an era in which the majority must work more than they ever have to make ends meet.
Mainstream theorists, intellectuals and talk-show pundits revere the thought that politics as a site of contestation, critical exchange and engagement is in a state of terminal arrest or has simply come to an end. The only politics that matters for this diverse group of extremists is a politics that benefits corporations, the rich and the servants of finance capital. However, the Occupy movement argues in diverse and often complex ways that too little attention is paid to what it means to think through the realm of the political, particularly how the struggle over radical democracy is inextricably linked to creating and sustaining public spheres where individuals can be engaged as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities and knowledge they need not only as autonomous political agents, but also to believe that such struggles are worth taking up. The growing cynicism in American society may say less about the reputed apathy of the populace than about the bankruptcy of the old political languages and the need for a new language and vision for clarifying intellectual, ethical, economic and political projects, especially as they work to reframe questions of agency, ethics and meaning for a substantive democracy.
For the Occupy movement, there is a pressing need to get beyond the discourse of negation in order to imagine another world, a future that does not simply reproduce the present. Hope, in this instance, is the precondition for individual and social struggle, involving the ongoing practice of critical education in a wide variety of sites and the renewal of civic courage among citizens, residents, and others who wish to address pressing social problems.(19) Hope says “no” to the totalizing discourse of the neoliberal present; it contains an activating presence that opens current political structures to critical scrutiny, affirms dissent and pluralizes the possibilities of different futures. In this sense, hope is a subversive force.
In opposition to those who seek to turn hope into a new slogan or to punish and dismiss efforts to look beyond the horizon of the given, the promise of the Occupy movement lies in its ability to develop the spaces and places for a democratic formative culture, language of collective struggle, one that embodies and becomes both a project and a pedagogical condition for providing a sense of opposition and engaged struggle. As a project, Andrew Benjamin insists, hope must be viewed as “a structural condition of the present rather than as the promise of a future, the continual promise of a future that will always have to have been better.”(20) At the same time, as Alain Touraine points out, “Opposition to domination is not enough to create a movement; a movement must put forward demands in the name of a positive attribute.”(21) Clearly, hope in this instance is not an individual proclivity or a simple act of outrage, but rather a crucial part of a broader politics that acknowledges those social, economic, spiritual and cultural conditions in the present that make certain kinds of agency and democratic politics possible.
Hence, hope is more than a politics—it is also a pedagogical and performative practice that provides the foundation for enabling human beings to learn about their potential as moral and civic agents. Hope is the outcome of those pedagogical practices and struggles that tap into memory and lived experiences, while at the same time linking individual responsibility with a progressive sense of social change. As a form of utopian longing, educated hope opens up horizons of comparison by evoking not just different histories, but also different futures; at the same time, it substantiates the importance of ambivalence while problematizing certainty. In the words of Paul Ricoeur, it serves as “a major resource as the weapon against closure.”(22) Critical hope is a subversive force when it pluralizes politics by opening up a space for dissent, making authority accountable and becoming an activating presence in promoting social transformation.
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