May 19, 2013
The Occupy Movement and the Politics of Educated Hope
Posted on May 22, 2012
By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout
The current limits of the utopian imagination are related, in part, to the failure of many individuals and social groups to imagine what pedagogical conditions might be necessary to bring into being forms of political agency and social movements that expand the operations of individual rights, social provisions and democratic freedoms. At the same time, a politics and pedagogy of hope is neither a blueprint for the future nor a form of social engineering, but a belief, simply, that different futures are possible, which holds open matters of contingency, context and indeterminacy. It is only through critical forms of education that human beings can learn to “combine a gritty sense of limits [of the present] with a lofty vision of possibility.”(23) Hope poses the important challenge of how to reclaim social agency within a broader struggle to deepen the possibilities for social justice and global democracy. The Occupy movement recognizes that any viable notion of political and social agency is dependent upon a culture of questioning, whose purpose is to “keep the forever unexhausted and unfulfilled human potential open, fighting back all attempts to foreclose and pre-empt the further unravelling of human possibilities, prodding human society to go on questioning itself and preventing that questioning from ever stalling or being declared finished.”(24)
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.
Central to the Occupy movement is the premise that 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 pedagogical project that has some hold on the present. Hope becomes meaningful to the degree that it identifies agencies and processes, offers alternatives to an age of profound pessimism, reclaims an ethic of compassion and justice and struggles for those institutions in which equality, freedom and justice flourish as part of the on-going struggle for a global democracy. One of the great promises of the Occupy movement is its recognition that the greatest threat to social justice and democracy is not merely the existence of casino capitalism, but the disappearance of critical discourses that allow us to think outside of and against the demands of official power as well as the 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.”(25)
An inclusive democratic politics must be responsive to the varied needs of the citizens who comprise it. In order to facilitate critical thought and nurture the flexibility it requires, the Occupy movement protesters do not provide totalizing answers as much as they offer better questions. They open up 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, the protesters exhibit both 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. They also put their bodies on the line in the face of a society that is willing to unleash the police on its youthful protesters rather than invest in their future.
Such a challenge is essential to any emancipatory politics of hope and meaning. Without the ability to see how each of our lives is related to the greater good, we lack the basis for recognizing ourselves bearers of rights and responsibilities—the precondition of our being human—who can assume the task of governance rather than simply be 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. The alternative is a growing national security state and a species of authoritarianism that encourages profit-hungry monopolies; the ideology of faith-based certainty; the pursuit of ethno-racial purity; the militarization of everyday life; the destruction of civil liberties; the practice of torture; and the undermining of any vestige of critical education, responsible dissent, critical thought and collective struggles. The crises facing American society are much too urgent to give up on and necessitate a resurgence of critique and a discourse of hope premised on the feasibility of a more democratic and just future along with the social movements that will make it possible.
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