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Hope in the Age of Looming Authoritarianism

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Posted on Dec 5, 2013

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

The project of asking questions that make power accountable, of reclaiming politics from exile, must strike a careful balance between leaving itself forever open to future questions and acting decisively to change the lived experience of ever-expanding ranks of dispossessed and disposable peoples. Reclaiming politics requires a form of educated hope that accentuates how politics is played out on the terrain of imagination and desire as well as in material relations of power and concrete social formations. Freedom and justice, in this instance, have to be mediated through the connection between civic education and political agency, which presupposes that the goal of educated hope is not to liberate the individual from the social - a central tenet of neoliberalism - but to take seriously the notion that the individual can only be liberated through the social. 

Hope as a subversive, defiant practice should provide a link, however transient, provisional and contextual, between vision and critique, on the one hand, and engagement and transformation on the other. But for such a notion of hope to be consequential, it has to be grounded in a vision and educational project that has some hold on the present. In opposition to an age of profound pessimism, hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it mobilizes visions, agents, organizations and strategies while reclaiming an ethic of compassion, justice and collective struggle for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the ongoing struggle for a global democracy. The greatest threat to social justice and democracy is the disappearance not only of critical discourses that allow us to think outside of and against the demands of official power but also those spaces where politics can even occur, where people can learn and assert a sense of critical agency, embrace the civic obligation to care for the other and refuse to take “shelter where responsibility for one’s actions need not be taken by the actors.” If neoliberalism displaces any obligation to the future in favor of short-term financial gains, one goal of organized democratic resistance is to connect writing, pedagogy and politics to the obligations everyone has to a democratic politics and future that can renew the principles of social justice and collective responsibility. This is not a short-term endeavor but a long term investment that demands more than demonstrations. It demands a vision, participatory politics, organizational structures and strategies that move between the local and the global. 

An inclusive democratic politics must be responsive to the varied needs of the citizens who comprise it. To facilitate critical thought and nurture the flexibility, it requires public intellectuals and other socially responsible activists to offer better questions, work with social movements and help enact policies that serve democratic interests. This suggests creating public spheres and formative cultures that enable conversations in which acts of critical recovery unleash possibilities that have been repressed by official history or caught in the trap of existing social realities. In an age when the dominant tendency among academics is to follow power and fashion, there is a need for intellectuals, educators, artists and others to exhibit a strong sense of political conviction and an admirable civic courage in their willingness to speak against the status quo, take risks and struggle to give history back to those who are increasingly removed from the political sphere.

There is more at stake here than saying no, making power visible and recognizing that our individual and collective experiences are not dictated by fate. There is also the challenge of confronting the actual with the possible, of pulling hope down to earth, of making sure that the possibilities we engage with address real problems and concrete expressions of domination and power. In addition, there is the need to translate our theoretical concerns into public action, lift up the level of discourse to connect our civic institutions and public spheres to the dynamics of everyday life and give worldly expression to critical work and necessary social change. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for recognizing ourselves as bearers of rights and responsibilities - the precondition of our being human - who can assume the task of governance instead of simply being governed. We lack the basis for raising questions about the goals and aims of our society and what we want our society as a whole to accomplish, especially in the context of the challenge of creating a global democracy. In short, we lack what makes a democratic politics viable.


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One task that can be used to reclaim the political and the spirit of civic courage is to recognize and critically interrogate how the radical imagination, especially among young people is being suppressed. The structural forces include subjecting students to a form of debt-servitude that crushes their sense of agency and ties them to long reach of the banks and financial services. Many students also have little time to think, write, dissent and organize collectively because they are now a disposable population who are either unemployed or working long hours in menial and soul-draining jobs. Those who are in school are being educated under disciplinary controls and pedagogies of repression that kill the creative spirit and offer young people a future of dead-end work and political conformity. Young people also are growing up at a time when every institution they inhabit has become an inspection and surveillance regime intent on watching them, treating them like criminals and subjecting them to a culture of fear.

Conformity and political dysfunction is also the outgrowth of a market-driven world view in which everything is individualized and privatized, cleansed of any sense of either ethical responsibility or an analytic framework that understands the power of systemic oppression. Right-wing ideology, which reinforces either a dead-end consumerism as a way of life or a religious fundamentalism that robs young people of any sense of agency, further erodes the production of those modes of identity, values and ideals necessary to be a critical and engaged citizen. The structures and ideologies of these anti-democratic forces are part of the new neoliberal machinery of social and civil death that have become powerful forces for depoliticizing both the young and old. The structures, ideologies, power relations and cultural apparatuses that commodify, punish and remove young people from the discourse of democracy must be interrogated, challenged and transformed. For example, public schools must be reclaimed as democratic public spheres dedicated to the practice of freedom. Schools need to be defended as a public good, not a private right or limited entitlement for the rich. Not only must they be redefined through democratic forms of participation, access and self-management, they must also be financed equitably and dedicated to educating all young people as compassionate, critical, thoughtful and knowledgeable citizens. Moreover, after 40 years of being deskilled and positioned as mind-numbing technicians, public-school teachers need to regain control of their classrooms, to be allowed autonomy over the conditions of their labor and to be given the opportunity to shape their classrooms and participate in school governance. In addition, students need to be exposed not only to the archives of different cultures, intellectual traditions and disciplines, they also need to be encouraged to think for themselves, to be provided with the capacities to be self-educated and to learn to connect what they know to what it means to learn how to govern rather than be governed.

In addition, young and older people need jobs. This suggests not simply a jobs program but a refiguring of political and economic power in which wealth, resources and income would be distributed fairly and resources invested in those institutions that make up the commons, public life, and are essential to any democracy. Public schools, independent media, health care, the social wage are just a few of the fundamental issues that need to be addressed as part of a robust and collective struggle for an insurrectional democracy. There is as urgent need for left and progressive groups to challenge the structures and ideological dominance of mainstream cultural apparatuses whose emphasis on market values, identities and social relations are politically irresponsible and ethically dangerous. There is also an imperative need for alternative public spheres in which non-commodified values, identities, subjectivities and values are nurtured in the name of a new understanding of what justice, freedom and democracy mean as they inform each other as part of the social good.

For the last 33 years Americans have been told that the only thing they have in common are the very values, practices and relations that separate them and make it difficult for people to comprehend what a real democracy might look like. Unchecked individualism, privatization, gated communities, commodification, unbridled worship of the profit motive, deregulation, policies that benefit the rich and powerful, and a survival of the fittest ethic have become gospel in a society marked by massive inequalities in wealth, income and power. Shared obligations and claims have been relegated to the private realm, handed over to for-profit-delivery services agencies or charities. Access to quality health care, wages, jobs, education and basic services are now a function of privilege and wealth. Democracy has been subverted by a ruthless, updated form of class warfare in which the social contract has been destroyed and wealth and force have triumphed over justice and compassion. Americans are in the midst of a democratic deficit and a surplus of authoritarian and anti-democratic practices. This is not to suggest that democracy is dead in the United States as much as to indicate the need for its ideals to be reclaimed and struggled over by opening up a new conversation about politics, justice, long-term organization strategies and the meaning of democracy in the age of casino capitalism.

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