Henry Giroux on the Rise of Neoliberalism
By Michael Nevradakis, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
Michael Nevradakis for Dialogos: Let’s begin with a discussion about some topics you’ve spoken and written extensively about … neoliberalism and what you have described as “casino capitalism.” How have these ideas taken hold politically and intellectually across the world in recent years?
Henry Giroux: I think since the 1970s it’s been the predominant ideology, certainly in Western Europe and North America. As is well known, it raised havoc in Latin America, especially in Argentina and Chile and other states. It first gained momentum in Chile as a result of the Chicago Boys. Milton Friedman and that group went down there and basically used the Pinochet regime as a type of petri dish to produce a whole series of policies. But I think if we look at this very specifically, we’re talking about a lot of things.
We’re talking about an ideology marked by the selling off of public goods to private interests; the attack on social provisions; the rise of the corporate state organized around privatization, free trade, and deregulation; the celebration of self interests over social needs; the celebration of profit-making as the essence of democracy coupled with the utterly reductionist notion that consumption is the only applicable form of citizenship. But even more than that, it upholds the notion that the market serves as a model for structuring all social relations: not just the economy, but the governing of all of social life.
“This is a particular political and economic and social project that not only consolidates class power in the hands of the one percent, but operates off the assumption that economics can divorce itself from social costs, that it doesn’t have to deal with matters of ethical and social responsibility.”
I think that as a mode of governance, it is really quite dreadful because it tends to produce identities, subjects and ways of life driven by a kind of “survival of the fittest” ethic, grounded in the notion of the free, possessive individual and committed to the right of individual and ruling groups to accrue wealth removed from matters of ethics and social cost.
That’s a key issue. I mean, this is a particular political and economic and social project that not only consolidates class power in the hands of the one percent, but operates off the assumption that economics can divorce itself from social costs, that it doesn’t have to deal with matters of ethical and social responsibility, that these things get in the way. And I think the consequences of these policies across the globe have caused massive suffering, misery, and the spread of a massive inequalities in wealth, power, and income. Moreover, increasingly, we are witnessing a number of people who are committing suicide because they have lost their pensions, jobs and dignity. We see the attack on the welfare state; we see the privatization of public services, the dismantling of the connection between private issues and public problems, the selling off of state functions, deregulations, an unchecked emphasis on self-interest, the refusal to tax the rich, and really the redistribution of wealth from the middle and working classes to the ruling class, the elite class, what the Occupy movement called the one percent. It really has created a very bleak emotional and economic landscape for the 99 percent of the population throughout the world.
And having mentioned this impact on the social state and the 99%, would you go as far as to say that these ideologies have been the direct cause of the economic crisis the world is presently experiencing?
Oh, absolutely. I think when you look at the crisis in 2007, what are you looking at? You’re looking at the merging of unchecked financial power and a pathological notion of greed that implemented banking policies and deregulated the financial world and allowed the financial elite, the one percent, to pursue a series of policies, particularly the selling of junk bonds and the illegality of what we call subprime mortgages to people who couldn’t pay for them. This created a bubble and it exploded. This is directly related to the assumption that the market should drive all aspects of political, economic, and social life and that the ruling elite can exercise their ruthless power and financial tools in ways that defy accountability. And what we saw is that it failed, and it not only failed, but it caused an enormous amount of cruelty and hardship across the world. More importantly, it emerged from the crisis not only entirely unapologetic about what it did, but reinvented itself, particularly in the United States under the Rubin boys along with Larry Summers and others, by attempting to prevent any policies from being implemented that would have overturned this massively failed policy of deregulation.
It gets worse. In the aftermath of this sordid crisis produced by the banks and financial elite, we have also learned that the feudal politics of the rich was legitimated by the false notion that they were too big to fail, an irrational conceit that gave way to the notion that they were too big to jail, which is a more realistic measure of the criminogenic/zombie culture that nourishes casino capitalism.
Henry, to build on your last point, how has this growth in neoliberal thought and doctrine contributed, in your view, to a democratic deficit nowadays in Europe and the United States?
Democracy has really become two things for a whole range of anti-democratic politicians, anti-intellectuals, and the people who support these policies. Democracy basically is a word they use, but they empty it, and invert its meaning to justify the most anti-democratic practices and policies, meaning that it’s a term that has nothing to do with questions of justice, nothing to do with questions of rights, nothing to do with questions of legality. As a matter of fact, it becomes a term of deception and diversion – a kind of counterfeit term that’s used to justify a whole range of policies that actually are anti-democratic. It’s oxymoronic. The other side of this is that the financial elite and oligarchs despise democracy since they know that neoliberalism is the antithesis of real democracy because it feeds on inequality; it feeds on privilege, it feeds on massive divisiveness, and it revels in producing a theater of cruelty. All you have to do is look at the way it enshrines a kind of rabid individualism. It believes that privatization is the essence of all relationships. It works very hard to eliminate any investment in public values, in public trust. It believes that democracy is something that doesn’t work, and we hear and see this increasingly from the bankers, anti-public intellectuals and other cheerleaders for neoliberal policies.
“Neoliberalism is the antithesis of real democracy because it feeds on inequality; it feeds on privilege, it feeds on massive divisiveness, and it feeds on a theater of cruelty.”
What shocks me about neoliberalism in all of its forms is how utterly unapologetic it is about the misery it produces. And it’s unapologetic not just in that it says “we don’t care,” because we have a punishing state that will actually take care of young black kids and dissenting college students and dissenting professors who basically don’t believe in this stuff. It also blames the very victims that suffer under these policies.
The vocabulary of neoliberalism posits a false notion of freedom, which it wraps in the mantle of individualism and choice, and in doing so reduces all problems to private issues, suggesting that whatever problems bear down on people, the only way to understand them is through the restrictive lens of individual responsibility, character and self-resilience. In this instance, the discourse of character and personal responsibility becomes a smoke screen to prevent people from connecting private troubles with larger social and systemic considerations.
“What shocks me about neoliberalism in all of its forms is how utterly unapologetic it is about the misery it produces.”
This tactic is really pathological and points to an utter disdain for communal relationships, an utter disdain for unions, for public servants and the common good. In this instance, neoliberalism views anything to do with supporting the public good as something to be attacked, whether we are talking about public transit or public schools, because these things, in their eyes, should be privatized. The only value public goods may have are as assets from which people can make money by selling them to private interests. They’re not seen as institutions that somehow contribute to a formative culture that’s essential for any viable democracy.
And having mentioned public education just now, a big issue in Greece, as well as in many other countries today, is the increasing privatization of education, and certainly this is something that has been promoted heavily during the crisis in many of these countries. How have neoliberalism and casino capitalism impacted the quality of education and also access to education?
That’s a terrific question. Regarding the quality, it’s dumbed-down education to the point where it literally behaves in a way that’s hard to fathom or understand. Education has become a site of policies that devalue learning, collapse education into training, or they are viewed as potential sites for neoliberal modes of governance and in some cases to be privatized. The radical and critical imagination is under assault in most neoliberal societies because it poses a threat as does the idea that the mission of education should have something to do with creating critically thoughtful, engaged young people who have a sense of their own agency and integrity and possibility to really believe they can make a difference in the world. Neoliberals believe that the curriculum should be organized around testing, creating passive students, and enforcing a pedagogy of repression. Most importantly, the attack on communal relationships is also an attack on democratic values and the public spaces that nourish them. These spaces are dangerous because they harbor the possibility of speaking the unspeakable, uttering critical thoughts, producing dissent, and creating critically engaged citizens.
“What is at stake here is the notion that thinking is dangerous.”
What is at stake here is the notion that thinking is dangerous. It’s a policy that suggests that education is not about creating critically informed young people. It’s really about training for the workplace. It tends to promote a kind of political and ideological conformity; it’s a depoliticizing process – and it’s also oppressive, because it removes from education any sense of vision that suggests that education is really about constructing a future that doesn’t repeat the worst dimensions of the present, that can see beyond the horizons of the alleged practical and possible. I think in that sense, this emphasis on rote memorization, this emphasis on testing, this emphasis on discipline…many of these schools are being turned into military academies, many high schools, particularly in Chicago.
I think that what neoliberal reforms do is ignore all those basic problems that matter through which schools have to be understood in order to be reformed in the interest of creating critically engaged citizens. This suggests that any attempt at reforming schools has to be connected to the wider struggles over racism, inequality, poverty, militarization and the rise of the punishing state. Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. Kids can’t learn if they find themselves in schools where there are no resources. Kids can’t learn in classes that have 40 students in them. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure this out. And I think that what you really need to figure out is that the right-wing knows this. This is not just a kind of willful ignorance. Schools are not being defunded because the state and federal governments don’t have the money. They are being defunded because the right-wing wants them to fail. The funds are available, but they are being redirected into the military-industrial complex, into policies that lower taxes for the rich, and into the exorbitant salaries of the financial elite. This is a very systemic policy to make sure that if education is going to matter, it’s going to matter for the elite. It’s not going to matter for everybody else, in the sense of offering the best possible resources and capabilities that it can offer.
So would you go as far as saying that education, and particularly higher education today, actually reinforce neoliberal doctrine inside the classroom?
I don’t think there’s any question about this. You can pick up the paper every day and read the idiocy that comes out of the mouths of these administrators, whether you’re talking about Texas or Arizona or Florida. The university is being corporatized in a way that we’ve never seen before. And we know what that means; we know what the conditions are that are producing this. What is particularly disturbing is how alleged reforms such as the Common Core standards, which decontextualize teaching and learning by claiming that the larger conditions that place all kinds of constraints on pubic schools, teaching, and how students learn do not matter. This is a very privatizing and commerce driven form of education that depoliticizes as it decontextualizes the most important aspects of schooling and pedagogy. How can we talk about learning without talking about the machinery of inequality that drives how schools are financed, the right-wing policies that are implementing the fundamentalist modes of learning such as creationism, or the deskilling of teachers by suggesting that their only role is to teach to the test? This is truly a pedagogy of repression and ironically is being championed not just conservatives, the billionaires club, but also some progressives.
At one level you have right-wing governors who view themselves as the servants of corporate rich, and are all too willing to view all social relations in strictly commercial terms. This dastardly political world view is reinforced by democrats who should be viewed not simply as another branch of the business party, but as members of the deceitful club, which might be called “Republicans lite.” What both parties share is a love affair with a capitalist society structured in massive inequalities in wealth and power, a strong believe in military expansion abroad, the intensification of militarization at home, and the ruthless ongoing shift in power from the working and middle classes to the 1 percent. We see glimpses of their shared ideology in their mutual embrace of military hardware such as the F-35 strike fighter jet, which will not fly in the rain, and costs about $200 million apiece. Politicians today are mostly groupies of the rich and powerful who are all too willing to dish out billions for the warfare state but very little to provide every young person in the United States with a quality education and decent way of life. As Imara Jones has pointed out, the $4.4 trillion already spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could finance a free college education for every person in America for the next ten years.
“It’s not that we don’t have the money for education, it’s how we appropriate those funds.”
I mean, the military budget is bloated; it’s the largest in the world; you can combine the next 15 military budgets: they don’t add up to the cost of America’s military budget. So you have this misappropriation of money. It’s not that we don’t have the money for education, it’s how we appropriate those funds. We don’t appropriate them in the interest of young people. We don’t appropriate them in the interest of education. We don’t use our wealth to create a single-payer health system, or provide food for the needy. And so, as education is being defunded, what happens is that you have these business models now being incorporated at the university which calls, for instance, administrators “CEOs.” And by the way, as you know, they’re the largest-rising group in education in the United States. Administrators now outnumber faculty, and they’re draining huge amounts of resources away from students.
Secondly, of course, faculty have lost power. Thirdly, they’re abolishing unions, dissent is being cracked down on in ways that are abominable and reminders of the McCarthy period. You have faculty who basically are being defined by the degree to which they can write grants. Subjects that don’t lend themselves immediately to training are going to cost more for students in states like Texas. Texas went so far as to claim that it would lower tuition for those faculties and courses that lent themselves directly to business interests. Can you imagine? While raising the tuition for courses in the humanities and the liberal arts which these right-wing governors claim contribute nothing to the economy. And of course students, on the other hand, are now seen as consumers or restless children who need to be entertained. They’re not seen as important investments in the future, and particularly for a democratic future. They’re just seen as slots, and that’s why there’s a big push in the universities for foreign students, because they’re a cash cow. I think the university is in crisis, and it’s in a terrible crisis over what’s going on in terms of its inability to really take advantage of a mission that in the ’50s and ’60s, for all of its contradictions and all of its problems, at least had a sense that college was more than simply a job training opportunity or that the university was more than an adjunct of the military-industrial complex.
Henry, building on what you said about the university being in crisis, how has this shift that has taken place impacted education specifically in the liberal arts and the humanities, and how has it impacted the job market for academics? There are many in Greece, for instance, who view an academic career overseas as a “way out” of the crisis in their country.
I think two things have happened. I think that the liberal arts and the humanities are being defined as useless. They don’t correlate well with the notion of the university as a factory. They don’t correlate well with the university as a place that really is less interested in teaching kids how to think critically than it is about teaching them how to be semi-skilled workers. And it doesn’t work well with the governing structure in the university that, in some fundamental ways, says “hey look, power is basically in the hands of CEOs; it’s a business culture; we’ll tell you what to do.”
“The liberal arts and the humanities … don’t correlate well with the notion of the university as a factory.”
While it is true that democratic visions and matters of critique and engaged analysis are not simply invested in humanities and the liberal arts, what is true is that the liberal arts and the humanities have a long history of supporting those ideals. Those ideals are not prized or in favor at this moment in higher education, except for the elite schools. Politicians from Arnie Duncan, the Secretary of Education, to a number of state politicians, education officials, and popular pundits scorn these ideals because they get in the way; they create problems for administrators who don’t want critical faculty, who don’t want students learning how to think, who want to build on the educational struggles that went on in the 1960s. Not only did you have students demanding all kinds of things, from more inclusive courses, eliminating racism, making schools more democratic, but they opened up schools – and this relates to your second question – these student struggles opened up schools in ways that allowed for the education of a variety of subordinate groups who were excluded from education – those others from the working class, low and middle income students, immigrants, poor minorities, and so it goes. See for instance, the brilliant work by Chris Newfield on this issue. This utterly petrified the right. The fact that blacks, minorities of race and color, and immigrants could become educated was a terrifying assumption for many right-wingers, to say the least.
“You opened up schools in ways that allowed for the education of a variety of subordinate groups who were excluded from education – those others from the working class, low and middle income students, immigrants, poor minorities, and so it goes…. This utterly petrified the right.”
I think what we see now, and you have to connect the dots here…remember, you have a Republican Party in the United States that is doing everything it can to violate the Voting Rights Act. It’s trying to limit, as much as possible, the ability of Black people to vote. Think about how that correlates so easily with making sure that tuitions are sky high in the schools, a policy that enables the evisceration from higher education of working-class people, poor minorities, people who are considered disposable, people who basically would never be able to afford college, unless they had adequate funds, adequate grants, adequate scholarships.
This is really not just about a predatory economic system trying to redistribute wealth from students to administrators to the military-industrial complex or the financial elite. It’s also basically about a systemic policy of exclusion. So yes, I think there are questions of opportunity – as tuitions get raised to unbelievable heights, you have endless range of students who can’t get in because the tuition is too high, or you have students who will be saddled with debt for the rest of their lives in a way so that they would never even imagine going into public service, because it doesn’t provide the salaries that the private market does. I think when you begin to put these dots together, you begin to see how crucial education is to the neoliberal project.
People in Greece oftentimes have this perception that the international media operates on a very objective and credible basis…how do you see the media’s role, however, in reinforcing this system of neoliberalism and casino capitalism?
I think it’s silly, it borders on being silly if not utterly naive to assume that the media is somehow removed from questions of power. In the United States, the statistics are very clear. You have six major companies that control the media. The media is in the hands of corporate power. Whether we’re talking about Fox News or any of these other right-wing groups, the Murdochs that control the media…where do you see left-wing analysis included in the mainsream media? Almost never. But if you look at the new media, if you look at alternative media, like the radio station I’m on right now, there are new spaces that are opening up and that’s very encouraging, because it speaks to and encourages further cracks in the system that both limit the ability of the system, in light of these new technologies, to be able to wage the type of control that they have in the past, but also provide a space for more critical voices.
So in spite of that concentrated economic power in the media, which is far from objective and unbiased – the mainstream media for the most part is entirely tuned into reproducing a society that upholds massive class inequities, racist policies, an attack on women’s reproductive rights, and holds hostage the future of young people at any cost, and whether that means further policies designed to destroy both a free press and country like Greece, or Spain, or Portugal, or Chile, or Argentina, they have no trouble with that; they don’t think twice about it. These people are basically ideological lackeys. They’re in the service of the financial elite, and that’s what they do, they do their job. But to claim that they’re objective, that makes no sense to me.
From a political point of view, we’ve seen a rising tide of authoritarianism and official far-right parties making electoral gains in recent years in numerous countries On the other hand, we’ve perhaps seen a failure of the left to respond to this new political climate. How would you characterize the response of the global left to this trend that we have been discussing?
I think there are three things missing from the left that need to be addressed. I think we need to be careful in assuming that the left has failed, as much as the left is learning as quickly as it possibly can about what it needs to do in light of policies that it’s used in the past that don’t basically work anymore, particularly when it comes to developing policies in a world in which power has become globalized. And I think the three things are this: first, I believe that the left has to become an international left. Power is now separated from politics, meaning that power is global and politics is local, so that local politics really has very little power; states really have very little power over corporate sovereignty anymore. They can’t control it; it has an allegiance to no one; it floats above national boundaries. So we have to begin to think about ways to create movements, laws, policies that actually deal with this kind of global network of power. That’s the first thing.
“States really have very little power over corporate sovereignty anymore. They can’t control it; it has an allegiance to no one; it floats above national boundaries.”
Secondly, I think the left has to take the question of education seriously. Education is not marginal to politics; it’s central to politics! If we can’t create the formative culture globally that allows people to understand that their interests are being trampled on, that they live in a political system that has been constructed by human beings and can be overturned by human beings, but also, a political, economic, and social system that has nothing to do with their needs, that basically exploits their needs, then people will not be moved to think critically and act collectively.
Thirdly, it seems to me that the left has got to get beyond demonstrations. I mean, it’s got to come up with an international vision of what it wants to do, one that is flexible, so that it can work in associations with a variety of groups. For this to happen, it needs a comprehensive vision that brings various groups together so that it can develop an organization that basically is going to have some clout, and in some cases that means it can be involved in local elections, and in some cases it can develop third parties, and in some cases it can work with NGOs. But it’s got to take the question of power seriously. Power is not just a one-shot deal. It doesn’t mean you demonstrate in the street with 200,000 people and then you walk away. It’s got to become more systemic. We need more than what my friend Stanley Aronowitz calls “signpost politics,” the politics of banners. Mass demonstrations for climate change, for instance, are encouraging because the draw attention to a crucial threat to the planet and that’s a pedagogical moment, but we have to go far beyond that. We need to create ideologically, politically, educationally, international organizations that can begin to bring their weight to bear on this global politics that now controls basically state politics and nations all across the world. This means moving from education to confrontation; it means moving from critique to action; it means moving from recognizing a crisis to the practice of freedom, one driven by sustainable organizations, self-sustaining resources, and the collective will to act.
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