Searching for Radical Democracy in the Ruins of Capitalism
The future demands a new political consciousness. We can’t just wait for neoliberal economics to tear apart society and then build from scratch. In this interview, Giroux both condemns the scourge of neoliberalism and its poisonous cynicism and attack on the critical imagination and argues for a radical democracy that has to be truly participatory and willing to give power to all people so that they can intervene in and shape values, policies, the practices that shape their lives. For Giroux, resistance is impossible without education and a critical formative culture that addresses both the creation of new historical and political agents as well as the possibility of a new society. He also argues that resistance if it’s to be successful, it needs to go beyond the fragmentation, sectarianism, and political purity that has plagued the left. In pointing to a politics of hope, he argues that now is the time to develop systemic reforms, develop alternative public spheres, and a social movement that embraces a comprehensive view of politics and change. Cultural critic Henry Giroux published his thoughts in the Truthout analysis article Authoritarianism, Class Warfare and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies. Author and cultural critic Henry Giroux holds the Global Television Network Chair in English and Cultural Studies.
Chuck Mertz: Neoliberalism has made you a disposable human being. Here to tell you how: Henry Giroux, who posted his article Authoritarianism, Class Warfare, and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies at Truthout.org this week.
Good morning, Henry.
Henry Giroux: Hi, how are you? It’s always a pleasure to be on your show.
CM: Always great to have you on.
While we were gone for the holidays, anti-austerity protests erupted in Ukraine. Several thousand rallied against austerity in front of the parliament in Kiev on December 23rd, while inside, politicians were debating slashing the state budget, cutting social and economic spending.
Your article, again, is headlined Authoritarianism, Class Warfare, and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies. But is neoliberalism under attack? Is austerity under attack? These protests haven’t stopped the tide of neoliberalism so far—is it even vulnerable to protest?
HG: Yeah, I think it is. And it’s under protest because people are beginning to realize that these austerity policies are really market-driven policies designed to punish the poor, the working classes, and the middle classes by simply distributing wealth upwards.
I mean, the people who got us into these crises—whether we’re talking about the bankers or the hedge fund managers, or we’re talking about the IMF—it’s become pretty clear that the price to be paid for their illegal financial shenanigans, the burden is being placed on working class people, on the poor, on the elderly, on young people. It’s become clear that these policies aren’t just interested in “solving” an economic crisis, these are policies designed to enrich corporations and bankers and the rich at the expense of everybody else.
And they produce, as a result of that, enormous amounts of misery and poverty, to the point where two things are happening. One, you have a political-financial class that doesn’t care about whether people are suffering. They float above politics. They have power and they don’t care. They’ll do anything to simply increase their wealth.
A recent Oxfam report claimed that the 80 wealthiest people own as much wealth as half the population in the world. Can you imagine? So at one level, the contradictions have become exacerbated because there’s no sense of political compassion or compromise. That discourse is dead.
The other side of this is that people simply can’t live anymore. They’re not simply trying to get by, they’re trying to stay alive. Whether it’s in Greece or Spain or Portugal or in the Ukraine, we really have—for the first time—a mass movement emerging all over the world that is united against the massive inequality in wealth and power and the destruction it’s promoting.
This has the ability to create an international protest movement. I think in the future we’re going to see that, more and more.
CM: I know that this is anecdotal, but I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a professor in the business school of a major university, who runs a hedge fund, who flips foreclosed homes—very much a capitalist, very much an entrepreneur. But then Occupy Wall Street hit. And because he’s an academic, he read and read about it. And he went from being unapologetically supportive of capitalism to saying, “Look, I’m a hedge fund manager—I know Wall Street is a racket.” He’s lost faith in Wall Street and lost faith in the market.
It often seems to me that neoliberalism is “too big to fail.” Is failing the people who are profiting from it today the only way for neoliberalism to fail?
HG: It’s going to fail by being replaced. The system is entirely broken. Whenever you have a system that equates a market economy with a market society and claims that capitalism is democracy, you’ve not only got a massive lie being imposed on the people, but you’ve got the foundation for a form of authoritarianism and a much more intensive form of class warfare.
The difference between neoliberalism and fascism or Nazism or other forms of totalitarianism is that it takes questions of ideology seriously. It takes the educational sphere seriously, and it tells people there’s no alternative; that market freedom is really freedom in general; that a rabid kind of individualism is all that matters; that as Ayn Rand used to say, “self interest is the ultimate virtue”—and people believe this stuff. Because they have no other discourse.
This is where the Left has failed. The Left doesn’t realize that unless you create a formative culture and a critical consciousness capable of changing the way people think about the common sense assumptions that drive their lives, then you’ve got an ideological foundation for totalitarianism that not only destroys the capacity to think critically, it destroys the capacity to have convictions at all.
CM: You know, among the disabled population, they often refer to disability payments as “hush money.” It’s the money that you get from the government so you don’t complain about the other problems that you have. How much does the social safety net actually undermine our ability or our motivation to overthrow neoliberalism?
HG: I don’t think it undermines it at all. What it does is provide a glimmer of hope for what a democratic socialist society might look like. It makes the claim that without social provisions, without a welfare state, without a social contract, society can’t survive. We need a foundation for people—economically, politically, and socially—where what the Right considers “entitlements” are really rights.
They’re rights that should be endemic to any democracy. The right to a free quality education, from elementary school right through higher education. The right to have a decent social wage. The right to a decent job. Political rights; the right to vote. These are all parts of the social contract, from the New Deal onwards, that never went far enough.
And by the way, whether we’re talking about the New Deal or the Great Society: they didn’t come about because they wanted to buy people off with “hush money.” They were the outcomes of struggles. They were the outcomes, in the 1930s, of a viable socialist-communist movement. They were the outcomes of a viable workers’ movement. FDR didn’t give in because he wanted to shut people up, he gave in because he was under pressure. He had no choice.
In the 1960s, of course, we had an antiwar movement that was enormously powerful, and a civil rights movement that was even more powerful, and pushed politics in a way that it wouldn’t ordinarily go. We don’t have those movements today.
Where neoliberalism thrives is in having done something that we haven’t seen before. There is a merging of culture, politics, and power under neoliberalism that’s unprecedented. They control the cultural apparatuses. And what I mean by “cultural apparatuses” is all those institutions that are about the production of knowledge, values, dispositions, and subjectivities. They control them.
Fortunately, we have an alternative media sphere—from Truthout to Truthdig! to your radio station to a whole range of others—that is now blossoming all over the world and making a difference. We have to capitalize on that educational political moment.
So neoliberalism is vulnerable. When it comes to talking about social provisions, the only argument they have is the argument of barbarians: that social provisions make people dependent, and dependency is an evil, and people have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps. And that is such bullshit that it boggles my mind.
CM: You were talking about control of the message. One of the ways that we see this control of the message is that the word neoliberalism is almost a profanity. You do not hear it anywhere, for instance, on CBS, ABC, NBC Evening News—
HG: Absolutely, there’s no question about that. The Left in general has underestimated the power of those apparatuses to determine the choices that people make about the forces that bear down on their lives. We see that come into play—by revealing the media’s egregious assumptions—in the coverage of Ferguson, or of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Torture Report.
When the dominant media invites the torturers on their programs to defend the nature of torture and then label that as “just another position,” these media apparatuses have really sunken into hell. They’ve become something really vile and despicable.
And yet they do it with a smile. Brian Williams smiles as he talks about that “alternative position” to climate change. That isn’t an alternative position, that’s ignorance. The alternative position to whether torture is acceptable—that’s not an alternative position, that’s barbarism. The question here is not whether torture is acceptable or whether it works. It should be simply seen as a war crime. There’s no other position on torture.
And around Ferguson, we see the same sort of thing: people being interviewed who are saying things like “black culture is a culture of criminality.” We have in this country something remarkable. We have the local version of the Soviets’ Pravda. It trades in ignorance and lies and opinions, and makes the claim that they are “truth,” and it does so with people who are stupid, who don’t know anything, and are basically entertainers. It merges a fundamentalist ideology with celebrity culture.
This is a moment in our history—that we can thank neoliberalism for—that has really destroyed what Hannah Arendt called “the virtue of thoughtfulness.”
CM: So if the dominant media refuse to use the word neoliberalism—can we challenge neoliberalism if it isn’t discussed within the dominant media?
HG: Oh, absolutely. It’s being discussed everywhere else. All over Latin America it’s being discussed. It’s being discussed in Argentina, it’s being discussed in Chile, it’s being discussed in France. SYRIZA may win the election in Greece, a leftist party. Podemos in Spain. And it’s discussed in the United States. Richard Wolff, Stanley Aronowitz, Noam Chomsky, all kinds of people discuss it. The only people who don’t discuss it are the mainstream media. It’s difficult, it seems to me, to pick up anything in the alternative media that doesn’t discuss neoliberalism.
We need to make clear that the economic crisis has to be matched by a crisis of ideas. That’s the problem, right? The economic crisis is not matched by a crisis of ideas. That’s where the war is going to be fought.
And look, we have young people in this country who are thirty years old living with their parents. We have young people in this country who don’t have jobs, who graduate from college and are fed the lie of meritocracy. “You get a degree, you get a job.” That’s not happening. We have young people who have become the Zero Generation: zero hope, zero employment, zero possibilities. Do we really believe that this young generation is going to stand by and not take note of an economic system that—however it calls itself—has completely betrayed them?
I don’t believe that. Certainly there are no guarantees politically, but I think that’s where the struggle begins: on radio stations like this, in the alternative media. We have a responsibility to make power in its most oppressive forms—and in all of its forms—visible. That’s the key.
CM: There are many people—in the dominant media culture and the alternative media culture—who believe Occupy was a failure because it never gave a list of demands, and it refused to have a hierarchical leadership. When it comes to confronting neoliberalism and austerity policies, when it comes to policies that shift wealth ever-increasingly up to the top one percent, in your view how successful or how much of a failure was Occupy?
HG: I think we tend to be too hard on Occupy. Occupy did something fabulous. What Occupy made clear was that there is an inequality at the heart of American democracy that undermines it, if not ruins it. That served a purpose. It suggested that we need a new language and we need a new way of understanding exactly how politics leaves people out, particularly young people.
Where I think it didn’t put enough emphasis was in building long-term organizations, long-term strategies, and putting an emphasis on a political party that in fact could have mobilized and brought together a lot of other groups. There’s a model for this, and it’s not Occupy. The model is SYRIZA in Greece. The model is in Podemos in Spain. These alternative parties are getting together and saying, “Hey, look, you can’t fight power simply with decentralized organizations.”
Simply because I’m arguing for long-term strategies and organizations doesn’t mean they have to be utterly hierarchical. It doesn’t mean that they can’t exercise authority in ways that are as democratic as possible in order to serve people’s needs. But I’m not too crazy about “leaderless revolutions.” I don’t even know what that means. Considering the power that we face, which is astronomical—not only in the United States, but globally—believe me, we really need to think very carefully about organizations that are capable of seizing power.
CM: But politicians don’t exactly have great success when they suggest solutions to neoliberalism that appear to be pro-tax or anti-free-trade. Can we end neoliberalism as long as those who oppose it cannot figure out a way to do so without raising taxes or “reigning in” free trade?
HG: Absolutely. This is a really false argument. The issue is not about raising taxes. The issue is, how do we allocate the wealth that we have? We spend trillions of dollars on a military industrial complex. The United States accounts for 38% of all the military armaments produced in the world. 38%. This is a huge amount of money. People want and need services. They want roads, they want healthcare.
Let me give you an insane example. The United States produces a plane called the F-35 stealth fighter that costs $400 million apiece. Over the course of ten years, they’re investing something like one trillion dollars in this piece of junk. It doesn’t fly in the rain. And now they’re suggesting that it can’t be armed with specific kinds of weapons, because of bad software, for the next ten years. Think about it. A trillion dollars. It would cost $65 billion to educate every kid in the United States for free. That’s not about taxes. That’s about the allocation of wealth. That’s a different issue, and that’s where we should go.
So the issue should not be, we’re going to tax you more to give you the services you want. The issue is, this is the wealthiest country in the world, and we’re going to use that wealth to service human needs and not to service a military industrial corporate surveillance state. That’s a different argument.
CM: You write that “both neoliberal-driven governments and authoritarian societies share one important factor: they care more about consolidating power in the hands of the political, corporate and financial elite than they do about investing in the future of young people and expanding the benefits of the social contract and common good.”
Do you believe this is a conspiracy and that the world’s elites are getting together to create neoliberalism? Or is it something worse?
HG: It’s about money. It’s about power. I don’t care how you label it. If you want to call it a conspiracy, that’s fine…as long as you mean by that: they share a certain allegiance to promoting wealth upward. They share a certain allegiance to reproducing their own ideology. They share an allegiance to greed. They share an allegiance to a culture of cruelty and deprivation.
They don’t care about young people. Young people, under the social contract, suggest a long term investment. What we have today is a government that believes that young people—since they are a long term investment—are a liability. This is system that only believes in short-term investments.
And by the way, let’s make something clear for our listeners about the word ‘government.’ We’re not talking about the political state of the 1930s. We’re talking about a government that has been taken over by corporations. That’s a different kind of government.
You don’t have any vestige of democracy in this country. A report recently came out of Princeton University claiming that, of all the policies that have been made in the last thirty years, 95% of them were in the interest of the rich and had nothing to do with what people wanted—basic services, roads, all of that. They called it an oligarchy.
CM: If neoliberalism doesn’t invest in the future, that would suggest that it is unsustainable. Can’t we just wait it out, and wait for it to fail?
HG: No, you can’t wait it out, because the class war will become more consolidated; the punishing state will increase. They’ll increasingly solve problems by putting more people in jail and by criminalizing all kinds of behaviors and by appealing to racist attitudes about immigrants, blacks, minorities. They’ll just intensify class warfare, that’s all. It’ll get to the point where the true nature of the authoritarian state will be obvious.
And remember, there have been countries where people have willingly succumbed to this sort of thing. There are no political guarantees here. I mean, your argument is suggestive of an old leftist argument that once contradictions become bad enough, people will act accordingly. I think that’s nonsense. I think that contradictions, unless they’re understood, unless they’re analyzed, unless they’re thoughtfully probed, unless people have a sense of what those contradictions mean—there’s just as much of a chance that they’ll move into embracing fascism as there is that they’ll move into a more radical conception of democracy itself.
CM: We had Alissa Quart on our show in early November to discuss her book Republic of Outsiders: the Power of Amateurs, Dreamers and Rebels. In that conversation, I was struck by the idea that this neoliberal system is pushing many out of the economy who then innovate a way to operate outside of it. Do you believe that neoliberalism might evict so many, abandon so many, dispose of so many of us, that there is space to create an alternative? Or is neoliberalism so powerful that it even undermines those alternatives?
HG: Neoliberalism eats its own children. Disposability is central to how neoliberalism functions. I would not like to romanticize that, though, by suggesting that it creates dreamers. I would like to suggest that the radical imagination is so powerful, when employed collectively, that people will attempt to find solutions in ways that challenge the very conditions that made them disposable. That’s where this sort of thing becomes interesting.
We need to be careful about the dreaming quality here. I’ll give you one example of what I mean. The war being waged against the radical imagination, particularly around young people, is just startling. Young people are laboring under a burden of debt that so ties them to a survivalist mode of existence that it’s impossible for them to dream anymore.
Trying to recognize what the forces are that actually squelch the imagination is a lot more interesting to me than people who go and “find themselves” because they’re no longer on the grid.
CM: I’ve got one last question for you, and it’s the Question from Hell: the question we might hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate the response. You write, “as Pierre Bourdieu once argued, the time is ripe for the collective production of realist utopias, and with that time comes the need to act with passion, courage, and conviction.”
Now, I do have a level of pessimism—not cynicism, but pessimism—and that pessimism may undermine my hope for the future. But I know allowing myself to think pessimistically, to undermine hope, only empowers those people and policies you want to change. So does my reporting each week on all the hell that is this planet of ours—does that empower the elite by consistently giving people reasons to think far more pessimistically about this world than they might otherwise?
Does informing the public about the world’s problems further exacerbate those problems?
HG: That’s nonsense. Informing people about the world’s problems opens up the possibility to address them and change them. Anything else is simply willful ignorance. I mean, what the hell should we do? Sit around blowing up balloons? Watching Disney-sponsored movies? I don’t think so.
The pessimism of the intellect is the starting point for struggle. It’s not the end point, it’s the starting point. You have to make something critical to make it meaningful, to make it transformative.
CM: Wow, may I applaud? Thank you very much, Henry. It is always fantastic to have you on the show. Happy 2015.
HG: Bye, bye. Nice to hear your voice.