Higher Education and the Promise of Insurgent Public MemoryAs difficult as it may seem to believe, John Dewey's insistence that "democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife" was once taken seriously by many academic leaders.
By Henry A. Giroux, TruthoutThis piece first appeared at Truthout.
“What happens to the memory of history when it ceases to be testimony?” – James Young
At a time when both political parties, anti-public intellectual pundits and mainstream news sources view the purpose of higher education almost exclusively as a workstation for training a global workforce, generating capital for the financial elite, and as a significant threat to the power of the military, corporate and ultra-rich, it becomes more difficult to reclaim a history in which the culture of business is not the culture of higher education. This is certainly not meant to suggest that higher education once existed in an ideal past in which it only functioned as a public good and provided a public service in the interest of developing a democratic polity.
Higher education has always been fraught with notable inequities and anti-democratic tendencies, but it also once functioned as a crucial reminder of both its own limitations and the potential role it might play in attacking social problems and deepening the promise of a democracy to come. As difficult as it may seem to believe, John Dewey’s insistence that “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation, and education is its midwife” was once taken seriously by many academic leaders. Today, it is fair to see that Dewey’s once vaunted claim has been willfully ignored, forgotten or made an object of scorn.
Throughout the 20th century, there have been flashpoints in which the struggle to shape the university in the interest of a more substantive democracy was highly visible. Those of us who lived through the 1960s remember a different image of the university. Rather than attempt to train MBAs, define education through the lens of mathematical utility, indoctrinate young people into the culture of capitalism, decimate the power of faculty and turn students into mindless consumers, the university presented itself as a site of struggle. That is, it served, in part, as a crucial public sphere that held power accountable, produced a vast array of critical intellectuals, joined hands with the antiwar and civil rights movements and robustly challenged what Mario Savio once called “the machine” – an operating structure infused by the rising strength of the financial elite that posed a threat to the principles of critique, dissent, critical exchange and a never-ending struggle for inclusivity. The once vibrant spirit of resistance that refused to turn the university over to corporate and military interests is captured in Savio’s moving and impassioned speech on December 2, 1964, on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley:
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.
The 1960s may have been the high point of that period in US education in which the merging of politics, justice, civil rights and the search for truth made clear what it meant to consider higher education as a democratic public sphere. Not everyone was pleased or supported this explosion of dissent, resistance to the Vietnam War and struggle to make campuses across the United States more inclusive and emancipatory. Conservatives were deeply disturbed by the campus revolts and viewed them as a threat to their dream worlds of privatization, deregulation, militarization, capital accumulation and commodification. What soon emerged was an intense struggle for the soul of higher education.
Read more articles by Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project.
For instance, the Powell Memo was released on August 23, 1971, and authored for the Chamber of Commerce by Lewis F. Powell Jr., who would later be appointed as a member of the US Supreme Court. Powell identified the US college campus “as the single most dynamic source” for producing and housing intellectuals “who are unsympathetic to the [free] enterprise system.” He recognized that one crucial strategy in changing the political composition of higher education was to convince university administrators and boards of trustees that the most fundamental problem facing universities was the lack of conservative educators, or what he labeled the “imbalance of many faculties.”
Conservatives have a long history of viewing higher education as a cradle of left-wing thought and radicalism.
The Powell Memo was designed to develop a broad-based strategy, not only to counter dissent but also to develop a material and ideological infrastructure with the capability to transform the US public consciousness through a conservative pedagogical commitment to reproduce the knowledge, values, ideology and social relations of the corporate state. Not only did the Powell Memo understand and take seriously the educative nature of politics, it also realized that if a crisis of economics was not matched by a crisis of ideas, it was easier to reproduce a society in which conformity could be bought off through the swindle of a neoliberal mantra that used the discourse of freedom, individuality, mobility and security to serve the interests of the rich and powerful. The Powell Memo was the most influential of one of a number of ideological interventions in the 1970s that developed political roadmaps to crush dissent, eliminate tenure and transform the university into an adjunct of free-market fundamentalism. But it certainly was not the first shot fired as part of a larger conservative struggle to shape US higher education.
Conservatives have a long history of viewing higher education as a cradle of left-wing thought and radicalism. As early as the 1920s, conservatives were waging an ideological war against liberal education and the intellectuals who viewed higher education as a site of critical dialogue and a public sphere engaged in both the pursuit of truth and in developing a space where students learned to read both the word and world critically. Conservatives were horrified by the growing popularity of critical views of education and modes of pedagogy that connected what students were taught to both their own development as critical agents and to the need to address important social problems. During the McCarthy era, criticism of the university and its dissenting intellectuals cast a dark cloud over the exercise of academic freedom, and many academics were either fired or harassed out of their jobs because of their political activities outside the classroom or their alleged communist fervor or left-wing affiliations.
In 1953, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) was founded by Frank Chodorov in order to assert right-wing influence and control over universities. ISI was but a precursor to the present era of politicized and paranoid academic assaults. In fact, William F. Buckley, who catapulted to fame among conservatives in the early 1950s with the publication of God and Man at Yale, in which he railed against secularism at Yale University and called for the firing of socialist professors, was named as the first president of ISI. The former president of ISI, T. Kenneth Cribb Jr., delivered the following speech to the Heritage Foundation in 1989, a speech that perfectly captures the elitist and ruling-class ideological spirit and project behind ISI’s view of higher education:
We must … provide resources and guidance to an elite which can take up anew the task of enculturation. Through its journals, lectures, seminars, books and fellowships, this is what ISI has done successfully for 36 years. The coming of age of such elites has provided the current leadership of the conservative revival. But we should add a major new component to our strategy: the conservative movement is now mature enough to sustain a counteroffensive on that last Leftist redoubt, the college campus…. We are now strong enough to establish a contemporary presence for conservatism on campus, and contest the Left on its own turf. We plan to do this greatly by expanding the ISI field effort, its network of campus-based programming.
ISI was an early effort on the part of conservatives to “‘take back’ the universities from scholars and academic programs regarded either as too hostile to free markets or too critical of the values and history of Western civilization.” As part of an effort to influence future generations to adopt a conservative ideology and leadership roles in “battling the radicals and PC types on campus,” the Institute was just one of many right-wing foundations and institutes to have emerged since the 1980s, in particular, to provide numerous scholarships, summer programs and fellowships.
In the 1980s, the idea of higher education becoming a space in which a new multiethnic middle-class generation of students might be educated was viewed as a dire threat to many conservatives. The most famous advocate of this position was Allan Bloom. He responded to this alleged threat with a discourse that was as hysterical as it was racist. In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom was quite clear in his claim that admitting people of color to Ivy League schools was an insult to white elites whom he considered the only constituents qualified to manage and lead US society. The hidden structure of politics was quite visible in Bloom’s work and revealed unapologetically his deeply held belief that the commanding institutions of the economy, culture and politics could only be led by mostly white, ruling-class males who were privileged and eager to do their best to maintain the class and racist structure that defined the United States at that particular historical moment. This was an era in which left academics and critical academic fields were under siege, particularly under the political and academic leadership of right-wing reactionaries such as Gov. Ronald Reagan, who began his career by attacking leftists such as Angela Davis at the University of California, Berkeley, and John Silber who as the president of Boston University prided himself on firing and denying tenure to numerous left educators, including myself.
Throwaway academics are the new invisible poor fighting for better wages, job security, benefits and full-time positions.
The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to the new McCarthyism of the post-9/11 era, which took a dangerous turn that far exceeded the attacks marked by the culture wars. In the aftermath of 9/11, the university was once again under attack by a number of right-wing organizations emboldened by a growing culture of fear and unflinching display of jingoistic patriotism. This was particularly exemplified by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which issued a report shortly after the attacks accusing an allegedly unpatriotic academy of being the “weak link in America’s response to the attack.” The legacy of a full-fledged new style McCarthyism was resuscitated as academics and others who looked critically at the imperialistic registers of US foreign policy were routinely dismissed from their jobs or made the object of public shaming. Some universities in Ohio, California and other states started requiring job applicants to sign statements confirming they did not belong to any terrorist groups. Academics who criticized the war in Iraq or questioned the Bush administration’s use of torture often found their names on blacklists posted on the internet by right-wing groups such as Campus Watch and Target of Opportunity.
The culture wars and the post-9/11 attacks on higher education under the reign of the new McCarthyism were followed by the hollowing out of the social state and the defunding of higher education. The more overt political attacks gave way to the economic wars waged against higher education, one current example being the attempt by billionaires such as the Koch brothers to turn higher education into nothing more than an ideological factory for neoliberal capitalism. In desperate need of money, more and more universities are selling off naming rights to their buildings, accepting gifts from hedge fund managers, and caving in to the demands of big donors to influence what is taught, what programs deserve to be sustained and what faculty should be rewarded. Moreover, as tuition skyrockets, poor people and people of color are being locked out of higher education so as to reinforce the two-tier system that Bloom and others once celebrated. At the same time as higher education is being defunded, corporatized and managed by an expanding class of administrators wedded to a neoliberal model of leadership, faculty has been downsized, creating an exploited and invisible class of underpaid, part-time workers.
Many faculty members are now consigned to the service of Walmart workers, stripped of full-time positions, relegated to the status of “stoop laborers,” lacking power, security and a living wage, and largely devoid of any hope for a full-time position in the academy in the near future. According to the American Association of University Professors, at the present moment more than 50 percent of faculty are adjuncts barely able to pay their rents, conduct research and exercise any influence over the increasing corporatization and militarization of higher education. Many part-time faculty members make less than $21,000 annually, and as Colman McCarthy points out “slog like migrant workers from campus to campus.” A record number of adjuncts are now on food stamps and receive some form of public assistance. Given how little they are paid this should not come as a surprise, though that does not make it any less shameful.
These throwaway academics are the new invisible poor fighting for better wages, job security, benefits and full-time positions. The status and exploitation of the labor of part-time workers is shameful and is indicative of the degree to which neoliberalism’s culture of cruelty, brutality and iniquitous power now shapes higher education. And while there are a number of serious movements among adjuncts and others to fight against this new form of exploited labor, it is fair to say that such resistance will face an uphill battle. The corporatized university will not only fight such efforts in the courts with their bands of lawyers and anti-union thugs; they will also use, as we have seen recently on a number of campuses, the police and other state repressive apparatuses to impose their will on dissenting students and faculty. But if this growing group of what Kate Jenkins calls the “hyper-educated poor” joins with other social movements fighting against militarization, and the war on public goods, public servants and workers, there is a chance for the emergence of a new political formation that may succeed in turning the momentum around in this ongoing battle over academic labor and the fate of higher education in the future.
Memory is no longer insurgent; that is, it has been erased as a critical educational and political optic for moral witnessing, testimony and civic courage.
While the post-9/11 attacks have taken an even more dangerous turn, higher education is still a site of intense struggle, but it is fair to say the right wing is winning. The success of the financial elite in waging this war can be measured not only by the rise in the stranglehold of neoliberal policies over higher education, the increasing corporatization of the university, the evisceration of full-time, tenured jobs for faculty, the dumbing down of the curriculum, the view of students as customers, and the growing influence of the military-industrial-academic complex in the service of the financial elite, but also in the erasing of public memory. Memory is no longer insurgent; that is, it has been erased as a critical educational and political optic for moral witnessing, testimony and civic courage. On the contrary, it is either being cleansed or erased by the new apologists for the status quo who urge people to love the United States, which means giving up any sense of counter memory, interrogation of dominant narratives or retrieval of lost histories of struggle.
The current call to cleanse history in the name of a false patriotism that celebrates a new illiteracy as a way of loving the United States is a discourse of anti-memory, a willful attempt at forgetting the past in the manufactured fog of historical amnesia. This is particularly true when it comes to erasing the work of a number of critical intellectuals who have written about higher education as the practice of freedom, including John Dewey, George S. Counts, W.E.B. Du Bois, the Social Reconstructionists, and others, all of whom viewed higher education as integral to the development of both engaged critical citizens and the university as a democratic public sphere.
Under the reign of neoliberalism, with few exceptions, higher education appears to be increasingly decoupling itself from its historical legacy as a crucial public sphere, responsible for both educating students for the workplace and providing them with the modes of critical discourse, interpretation, judgment, imagination, and experiences that deepen and expand democracy. As universities adopt the ideology of the transnational corporation and become subordinated to the needs of capital, the war industries and the Pentagon, they are less concerned about how they might educate students about the ideology and civic practices of democratic governance and the necessity of using knowledge to address the challenges of public life. Instead, as part of the post-9/11 military-industrial-academic complex, higher education increasingly conjoins military interests and market values, identities and social relations while the role of the university as a public good, a site of critical dialogue and a place that calls students to think, question, learn how to take risks, and act with compassion and conviction is dismissed as impractical or subversive.
The corporatization, militarization and dumbing down of rigorous scholarship, and the devaluing of the critical capacities of young people mark a sharp break from a once influential educational tradition in the United States.
The corporatization, militarization and dumbing down of rigorous scholarship, and the devaluing of the critical capacities of young people mark a sharp break from a once influential educational tradition in the United States, extending from Thomas Jefferson to John Dewey to Maxine Greene, who held that freedom flourishes in the worldly space of the public realm only through the work of educated, critical citizens. Within this democratic tradition, education was not confused with training; instead, its critical function was propelled by the need to provide students with the knowledge and skills that enable a “politically interested and mobilized citizenry, one that has certain solidarities, is capable of acting on its own behalf, and anticipates a future of ever greater social equality across lines of race, gender, and class.” Other prominent educators and theorists such as Hannah Arendt, James B. Conant and Cornelius Castoriadis have long believed and rightly argued that we should not allow education to be modeled after the business world. Dewey, in particular, warned about the growing influence of the “corporate mentality” and the threat that the business model posed to public spaces, higher education and democracy. He argued:
The business mind, having its own conversation and language, its own interests, its own intimate groupings in which men of this mind, in their collective capacity, determine the tone of society at large as well as the government of industrial society…. We now have, although without formal or legal status, a mental and moral corporateness for which history affords no parallel.
Dewey and the other public intellectuals mentioned above shared a common vision and project of rethinking what role education might play in providing students with the habits of mind and ways of acting that would enable them to “identify and probe the most serious threats and dangers that democracy faces in a global world dominated by instrumental and technological thinking.” Conant, a former president of Harvard University, argued that higher education should create a class of “American radicals,” who could fight for equality, favor public education, elevate human needs over property rights and challenge “groups which have attained too much power.” Conant’s views seem so radical today that it is hard to imagine him being hired as a university president at Harvard or any other institution of higher learning.
All of these intellectuals offered a notion of the university as a bastion of democratic learning and values that provide a crucial referent in exploring the more specific question regarding what form will be taken by the relationship between corporations and higher education in the 21st century. It now seems naive to assume that corporations, left to their own devices, would view higher education as more than merely a training center for future business employees, a franchise for generating profits or a space in which corporate culture and education merge in order to produce literate consumers.
The university in the United States has become a social institution that not only fails to address inequality in society, but also contributes to a growing division between social classes.
US higher education is increasingly more divided into those institutions educating the elite to rule the world in the 21st century and second-tier and third-tier institutions that largely train students for low-paid positions in the capitalist world economy. It is increasingly apparent that the university in the United States has become a social institution that not only fails to address inequality in society, but also contributes to a growing division between social classes. At the same time, it has become a class and racial sorting machine constructing impenetrable financial and policy boundaries that serve as workstations to produce updated forms of economic and racial Darwinism. Moreover, as tuition exceeds the budgets of most Americans, quality education at public and private universities becomes primarily a privilege reserved for the children of the rich and powerful. While researchers attempt to reform a “broken” federal student financial aid system, there is “growing evidence … that the United States is slipping (to 10th now among industrialized countries) in the proportion of young adults who attain some postsecondary education.”
Higher education has a responsibility not only to be available and accessible to all youth, but also to educate young people to make authority politically and morally accountable and to expand both academic freedom and the possibility and promise of the university as a bastion of democratic inquiry, values and politics, even as these are necessarily refashioned at the beginning of the new millennium. Questions regarding whether the university should serve public rather than private interests no longer carry the weight of forceful criticism as they did when raised by Thorstein Veblen, Robert Lynd and C. Wright Mills in the first part of the 20th century. Yet, such questions are still crucial in addressing the reality of higher education and what it might mean to imagine the university’s full participation in public life as the protector and promoter of democratic values among the next generation. This is especially true at a time when the meaning and purpose of higher education is under assault by a phalanx of right-wing forces attempting to slander, even vilify, liberal and left-oriented professors, cut already meager federal funding for higher education, and place control of what is taught and said in classrooms under legislative oversight.
While the US university faces a growing number of problems that range from the increasing loss of federal and state funding to the incursion of corporate power, a galloping commercialization and the growing influence of the national security state, it is also currently being targeted by conservative politicians that have hijacked political power and waged a focused campaign against the principles of academic freedom, sacrificing the quality of education made available to youth in the name of patriotic correctness and dismantling the university as a site of critical pedagogical practice, autonomous scholarship, independent thought and uncorrupted inquiry.
For instance, right-wing politicians, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, unapologetically denounce the university as a threat to the success of market forces and go out of their way to defund its operating budget. In this case, Walker recently announced that he was slashing $300 million from the Wisconsin public university system’s budget over a two-year period. At the same time, he announced that he is requesting $500 million to build a basketball arena. It gets worse. Walker’s disempowering view of higher education was made quite clear in his attempt to sneak into his new budget an attempt to rewrite the purpose and mission of the university system, one that clearly was aimed at sabotaging the university as a public good. As Mary Bottari and Jonas Persson point out:
Buried in his proposed budget bill – on page 546 out of a whopping 1839 – Walker scratched out “the search for truth” and took an ax to Wisconsin Idea, the guiding philosophy that the university is created to solve problems and improve people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the campus. Instead he wanted the university to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” For extra measure, he scratched out “the legislature finds it in the public interest” to provide a system of higher education; he instead made it a “constitutional obligation.”
Under the current regime of neoliberal savagery and its cruel austerity policies, Walker is not a political exception; he is the rule. The extremist wing of the Republican Party hates the notion that the university might function primarily to address important social issues in the name of the public good. Couple this particular fear and ideological fundamentalism with the rampant idiocy and anti-intellectualism that has become an organizing principle of the new extremists at all levels of government and it becomes clear that public and higher education are prime targets in the struggle to create a fundamentalist-driven culture that supports those identifications, desires and modes of agency receptive to the rise of an authoritarian society and police state in which criticism is viewed as a form of treason and even the mildest of liberal rhetoric is disparaged or dismissed out of hand.
For instance, in Oklahoma, the state’s politicians and lawmakers have introduced a bill that eliminates the teaching of Advanced Placement US history courses in the public high schools. The reason behind the bill defies logic and reflects the new stupidity and religious fundamentalism that are at the heart of the conservative assault against reason and critical thinking. According to Judd Legum, “Oklahoma Rep. Dan Fisher (R) has introduced ’emergency’ legislation ‘prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.’ Fisher is part of a group called the ‘Black Robe Regiment’ which argues that ‘the church and God himself has been under assault, marginalized, and diminished by the progressives and secularists.'” Ben Carson, a potential GOP presidential candidate and pediatric neurosurgeon, stated that the students who finished the course would be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”
The essence of the push back against the AP US history course was echoed by the Republican National Committee in a resolution claiming that it was too negative, and reflected “a radically revisionist view of US history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” What at first glance appears to be a case of egregious ignorance is in reality a religious fundamentalist attack on any viable notion of historical consciousness and public memory. These politicians are the ground troops for the new authoritarianism that rewards and revels in thoughtlessness and despises any criticism of US domestic and foreign policy. Truly, the brownshirts of our time, they are a new breed of ideological muggers whose minds are unburdened by a complicated thought, who choke on their own ignorance and sutured political certainties. They represent another one of the forces, in addition to the apostles of a savage neoliberalism and the hedge fund criminals, out to destroy public and higher education, in the United States, even in its weakest liberal version.
Higher education is not going to save the United States from becoming more authoritarian, but its destruction as a democratic public sphere is a crucial signpost as to how far we have tipped over into the nightmare of authoritarianism.
Another example of this type of fundamentalism, wrapped in the mantle of American exceptionalism, can be found in comments by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani criticizing President Obama’s loyalty to the United States. Giuliani claimed unapologetically at a fundraiser for rich donors supporting Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for the presidency that Obama did not love the United States, and oddly enough that he “doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up through love of his country.” For Giuliani and his ilk, patriotism is the engine of conformity and any attempt to offer up constructive criticism in which US policies are interrogated is disparaged as an act of negativism, at best, and at worse, positions one as treasonous or un-American.
This poisonous ideology has a long history in the United States and is gaining ground once again with the emergence of a creeping authoritarianism. Moreover, it is an ideology that promotes a deep-seated anti-intellectualism and a climate of fear that seeps into criticisms of higher education. Giuliani’s comments are not merely idiotic and stupid; they are infused with a racism and militant nationalism that resonates with the rise of totalitarian ideologies and regimes in the 1930s. Moreover, they are suggestive of the degree to which all vestiges of democracy, liberty, dissent and equality have become a liability in a society that is now ruled by the financial elite and ideological barbarians who support this shameful anti-democratic rhetoric and policies that reinforce it. This is the discourse of totalitarianism and its endpoint is a recapitulation of the worst horrors that history has produced.
Higher education is not going to save the United States from becoming more authoritarian, but its destruction as a democratic public sphere is a crucial signpost as to how far we have tipped over into the nightmare of authoritarianism. The shutting down of the higher education system as a democratic public sphere is not a definitive marker of defeat. On the contrary, it suggests the need for a new understanding of politics, one in which the university has a crucial role to play in the struggle to defend radical democracy as the new commons, and education as central to a politics that takes it seriously. The winds are changing and this struggle is coming once again into view. We see it in Europe with the rise of radical political parties in Spain and Greece that connect the struggle over economic power with the struggle to create new modes of agency, culture, education and ideology, all of which now infuse the linking of politics to larger social movements.
If education does not become the center of politics, democracy as an ideal and site of struggle will fail to inspire and energize a new generation of young people.
If education does not become the center of politics, democracy as an ideal and site of struggle will fail to inspire and energize a new generation of young people. In this struggle, there is a need to reclaim an insurgent public memory and the lost or suppressed narratives of older progressive battles in order to both learn from them and to build upon their insights. This is necessary in order for educators and others to rethink the meaning of politics, reclaim the radical imagination, launch a comprehensive education program that speaks to the concrete issues bearing down on peoples’ lives, and develop new political formations capable of merging the various struggles together under the wide banner of a post-capitalist democracy “that serves people over corporations.” As Tariq Ali has mentioned in a different context, the history of the struggles and suppression of the US working class, Communist Party and other progressive struggles has been erased: “This is a history that is not emphasized. This wretched neoliberalism has downgraded the teaching of history. It is the one subject they really hate.” If education does not become the center of politics, democracy as an ideal and site of struggle will fail to inspire and energize a new generation of young people. And a new wave of domestic terrorism will descend on the United States, already visible in the rise of the police and surveillance state. At stake here is the need to take seriously Pierre Bourdieu’s insistence that too many progressives have underestimated that “the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical, and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” It is well worth remembering that politics undermines its pedagogical functions and democratic goals when it underestimates “the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle” and fails to forge the “appropriate weapons to fight on this front.”
Such a failure generally produces not only the tactics of vanguardism, but also promotes strategies that underestimate the challenge of getting people to think differently and to invest something of themselves in an insurgent politics in which they can recognize their sense of agency and hope. Not only is there a need to challenge, disrupt and interrogate the market imaginaries, visions and vocabularies that undermine the great ideals that a range of social movements have fought for in the past, but also there is the need to combine the educative function of changing hearts and minds with sustained efforts to build robust, large-scale organizations and what Nancy Fraser calls “large-scale public powers.” The Occupy movement taught us that “emancipatory ideas not be confined to separate enclaved arenas where only those who already believe in them are exposed to arguments for them.” Occupy created a large umbrella under the call to eliminate inequality in a wide range of areas extending from the economic realm to a variety of spheres that included all manner of exclusions based on race, sexual orientation and the destruction of the environment. At the same time, Occupy failed to create a strong presence because it lacked the capacity for large-scale coordination and long-term organizations. That is, it failed to develop and sustain a public space in which a broad-based movement could be mobilized in the interest of creating sustainable counter publics. Tariq Ali captures this failure perfectly in his comment:
I was sympathetic to the Occupy movement, but not to the business of not having any demands…. They should have had a charter demanding a free health service, an end to the pharmaceuticals and insurance companies’ control of the health service, a free education at every level for all Americans. The notion, promoted by anarchists such as John Holloway, that you can change the world without taking power is useless. I have a lot of respect for the anarchists that mobilize and fight for immigrant rights. But I am critical of those who theorize a politics that is not political. You have to have a political program.
Surely, even a modest list of demands that would challenge market fundamentalism such as a call to break up big banks, a tax on trading, free education for all, free health care, reducing the military budget to create a jobs program, investing in crucial infrastructures, expanding public transportation, a high tax rate on big corporations and the salaries of the ultra-rich job destroyers such as the CEOs who run banks, hedge funds and other rogue financial institutions, would be a productive beginning to question and challenge the most basic assumptions of a normalized capitalism. The resistance to oppressive power structures demands a politics, public pedagogy and political formation that embraces struggle as part of developing a political program on a national and international scale that can inspire, energize and produce a collective show of sustained solidarity.
The current historical moment calls for a politics that is transnational in its scope, global in its sense of responsibility and capable of creating new democratic public spheres in which it becomes possible to show private troubles can be connected to larger social issues, and public connections and modes of solidarity can be sustained beyond the private sphere. Only then will the promise and possibility of creating a radical global commons in the service of a radical democracy come into view.
History is open, and the times are rife with unrest accompanied by new levels of state terrorism, all of which call for new ways to subvert the theater of cruelty and class consolidation that has the globe in the stranglehold of a death wish. Neoliberalism in its many punitive forms has exhausted its credibility and now threatens the entirety of human life and the planet itself. Hope is in the air but it won’t succeed in creating the promise of a new democratic future unless it first recognizes and grapples with the depth of the US nightmare. It is time for new visions, a new collective radical imagination, new tactics, new political formations and sustained, organized, international struggles. It is time to march into a future that will not mimic the dark authoritarianism haunting the present.Wait, before you go…
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