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Reclaiming the Radical Imagination

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Posted on Jan 13, 2014
sydney g (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 4)

Increasingly students are exposed to a low-intensity war in which they are held hostage to disciplinary measures in which they are subject to police violence and corporate and government modes of surveillance. Such practices are designed to punish them whenever they exercise the right of protesting peacefully against a range of policies that are depriving them of a decent education and turning higher education into an adjunct of the military-industrial-surveillance complex. A more subtle form of pedagogical repression burdens them with a lifetime of debt and does everything possible to depoliticize them and remove them from being able to imagine a more just and different society.  Debt bondage is the ultimate disciplinary technique of casino capitalism to rob students of the time to think, dissuade them from entering public service, and reinforce the debased assumption that they should simply be efficient cogs serving a consumer economy and a punishing society. The ongoing attack on civic values, critical education and the social state has taken on the status of a low-intensity war that began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, though its emergent tendencies are deeply rooted in the American past.

Reagan’s infamous claim in his first inaugural address that, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” represented not just a celebration of greed, but also an attack on public values and social rights as well as a full-fledged attempt to undermine all of those social relations, spaces and spheres organized to define the public good outside of the primacy of privatization and commodification. He was joined at the hip with Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of England, another apostle of neoliberalism who argued further that there was no such thing as society only individuals and families. These ideological shots were heard around the world and provided the foundation for a punishing and politically reactionary formative culture that waged a full-fledged assault on not only public goods, non-commodified public spaces and dissent itself, but the very idea of the radical imagination, a democratic citizenry, and the power of critical and civic literacy. Over the last 40 years, the assault on all forms of social protections and rights has further intensified with the unchecked reign of neoliberal policies that has been supported in the ensuing years by all American presidents since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, including Barack Obama.

The basic elements of casino capitalism and its death wish for democracy are now well known: Society is a fiction; sovereignty is market-driven; deregulation, privatization, and commodification are legitimate elements of the corporate state; government is the problem; higher education should model itself after the culture of business; market ideology is the template for governing all of social life, exchange values are the only values that matter, and the yardstick of profit is the only viable measure of the good life and advanced society.

As Noam Chomsky has insisted, civic engagement, public spheres that celebrate the common good and the notion of public values are viewed by politicians and the public alike as either a hindrance to the goals of a market-driven society or a drain on society to be treated as a sign of weakness. Ethical considerations and social responsibility are now devalued, if not disdained, in a society wedded to short-term investments, easy profits and a mode of economics in which social costs are increasingly borne by the poor, while financial and political benefits are reaped by the rich. Unrestrained self-interest and ruthless modes of competition now replace politics, or at least they become the foundation for trivializing politics as complex issues are reduced to friend/enemy, winner/loser dichotomies. The crass social Darwinism played out on reality TV now finds its counterpart in the politics of both the Democratic and the Republican parties and spreads its poisonous influence in the media and popular culture through an ongoing celebration of hyper-masculinity, unbridled individualism, rampant consumerism and spectacles of violence. Chomsky is right in insisting that humans are social beings dependent not only on each other but also on the cultural values, institutions, policies, modes of governance and social arrangements that embrace the common good and enable each of us to fulfill our capacities as autonomous citizens capable of exercising the social, personal and political rights necessary for us to learn how to govern rather than simply be governed. Under casino capitalism, the opposite is true. Modes of solidarity, public values, obligations to the other and compassion for those in need are now viewed as a pathology and have given way to machineries of death imbued with a new visibility of savagery, cruelty and indifference to the suffering of others.

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As Tony Judt has observed, the “thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum” by casino capitalism’s takeover of the rhetorical culture and of vital functions of politics. Democratic values, social relations, and public spheres are no longer a symbol of hope and the future. Rather, they are now viewed as a drain on the economy, if not an outright threat to neoliberal policies. Increasingly, such values are treated with contempt or understood as dispensable, along with the individuals and groups they benefit. In a society obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, politics loses its democratic character, becoming not just dystopian and dysfunctional but also deeply authoritarian. In my view, the American public is no longer offered the guidance, opportunities and modes of civic education that cultivate their capacity for critical thinking and engaged citizenship. As public values are written out of the vocabulary circulating within important pedagogical spheres such as public and higher education, for example, a mode of civic illiteracy and moral irresponsibility emerges in which it becomes difficult for young people and the broader American public to translate private troubles into public concerns.


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