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Neoliberal Violence in the Age of Orwellian Nightmares

The Struggle Against Dystopia

by Henry A. Giroux

(Part IΙI)

Democracy is not compatible with capitalism but is congruent with a version of democratic socialism in which the wealth, resources, and benefits of a social order are shared in an equitable and just manner. Democracy as a promise means that society can never be just enough and that the self-reflection and struggles that enable all members of the community to participate in the decisions and institutions that shape their lives must be continually debated, safeguarded, and preserved at all costs. The rebuilding of a radical democracy must be accompanied with placing a high priority on renewing the social contract, embracing the demands of the commons, encouraging social investments, and the regeneration of the social contract. These are only a few of the issues that should be a central goal for the development of a broad-based radical social movement. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting that developing a new understanding of politics as a call to reclaim a radical democracy be understood as simply a pragmatic adjustment of the institutions of liberal democracy or a return to the social democracy of the New Deal and Great Society.

On the contrary, any rethinking of the political can only be comprehended as part of a radical break from liberalism and formalistic politics if there is to be any move towards a genuine democracy in which matters of equality, power, and justice are central to what can be called a radical democratic politics. Such a task necessitates a politics and pedagogy that not only expands critical awareness and promotes critical modes of inquiry but also sustains public spheres, builds new modes of solidarity and connections and promotes strategies and organizations that create not simply ruptures such as massive demonstrations but real changes that are systemic and long standing. If such a politics is to make any difference, it must be worldly; that is, it must incorporate a critical public pedagogy and an understanding of cultural politics that not only contemplates social problems but also addresses the conditions for new forms of democratic political exchange and enables new forms of agency, power, and collective struggle. The collapse of the United States into neoliberal authoritarianism signals not simply a crisis of politics and democracy, but a crisis of ideas, values, and agency itself. Hence, calling for a revival of the educative nature of politics and the radical imagination is more than a simply call to find ways to change consciousness; it is first and foremost an attempt to understand that education is at the center of a struggle over what kinds of agency will be created in the interest of legitimating the present and producing a particular kind of future. This is an imminently educative, moral, and political task and it is only through such recognition that initial steps can be taken to challenge the powerful ideological and affective spaces through which neoliberalism produces the desires, identities, and values that bind people to its forms of predatory governance.

The moral, political, and economic violence of neoliberalism must be made visible, its institutional structures dismantled, and the elite interests it serves exposed. The fog of historical, social and political amnesia must be eliminated through the development of educational programs, pedagogical practices, ideological interventions, and public narratives that provide the critical and analytical tools to enable the public to analyze both underlying ideologies and institutions of neoliberal capitalism as well as the intellectual and economic resources needed to provide meaningful alternatives to the corporate authoritarianism that passes itself off as an updated mode of democracy. What is important here is that the struggle against neoliberalism focus on those forms of domination that pose a threat to those public spheres essential to developing the critical formative cultures that nourish modes of thinking, analysis, and social formations necessary for a radical democracy.

In addition, the left has to do more than chart out the mechanisms through which neoliberal authoritarianism sustains itself. And for too many on the left this means simply understanding the economic forces that drive neoliberal global capitalism. While this structural logic is important, it does not go far enough. As Stuart Hall has insisted “There’s no politics without identification. People have to invest something of themselves, something that they recognize is meaningful to them, or speaks to their condition and without that moment of recognition” any effort to change the way people inhabit social relations of domination will fail. Pierre Bourdieu takes this logic further in arguing that left has often failed to recognize “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.” He insists, rightly, that it is crucial for the left and other progressives to recognize that intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for challenging this form of domination by developing tactics “that lie on the side of the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle.”

If neoliberal authoritarianism is to be challenged and overcome, it is crucial that intellectuals, unions, workers, young people, and various social movements unite to reclaim democracy as a central element in fashioning a radical imagination that foregrounds the necessity for drastically altering the material and symbolic forces that hide behind a counterfeit claim to participatory democracy. This means imagining a radical democracy that can provide a living wage, decent health care, public works, and massive investments in education, child care, housing for the poor, along with a range of other crucial social provisions that can make a difference between living and dying for those who have been cast into the ranks of the disposable.

There are new signs indicating that the search for a new understanding of politics and the refashioning of a radical imagination are emerging, especially in Greece, Germany, Spain, and Denmark, where expressions of new political formations can be found in political groups such as Podemos, Die Linke, Syriza, and the Red-Green Alliance. While these political formations have differences, what they share is a rejection of stale reformism that has marked liberal politics for the last 40 years. These new political formations are offering alternatives to a new kind of social order in which capitalism does not equal democracy. But more importantly, they are not tied merely to unions and older political factions and are uniting with social movements under a broad and comprehensive vision of politics and change that goes beyond identity politics and organizes for the long haul. Moreover, as Juan Pablo Ferrero points out, these parties not only take seriously the need for economic change but also the need for new cultural formations and modes of change. The struggle against neoliberal common sense is as important as the struggle against those institutions and material modes of capital that are the foundation of traditional politics of resistance. Language, communication, and pedagogy are crucial to these movements as part of their attempt to construct a new kind of informed and critical political agent, one freed from the orbits of neoliberal privatization and the all-embracing reach of a commodified and militarized society.

What Podemos, Syriza, and other new political movements on the left make clear is that the fight against neoliberalism and the related anti-democratic tendencies that inform it must not settle for simply reforming the existing parameters of the social order. Neoliberalism has created an economic, cultural, and social system and social order that is not only as broken as it is dangerous, but also pathological in the violence and misery it produces. Any viable struggle must acknowledge that if the current modes of domination are to change, a newly developed emphasis must be placed on creating the formative culture that inspires and energizes young people, educators, artists, and others to organize and struggle for the promise of a substantive democracy.

At the same time, particular injustices must be understood through the specificity of the conditions in which they develop and take hold and also in relation to the whole of the social order. This means developing modes of analyses capable of connecting isolated and individualized issues to more generalized notions of freedom, and developing theoretical frameworks in which it becomes possible to translate private troubles into broader more systemic conditions. At the very least, a new political imaginary suggests developing modes of analyses that connects the dots. This is a particularly important goal given that the fragmentation of the left has been partly responsible for its inability to develop a wide political and ideological umbrella to address a range of problems extending from extreme poverty, the assault on the environment, the emergence of the permanent warfare state, the abolition of voting rights, the assault on public servants, women’s rights, and social provisions, and a range of other issues that erode the possibilities for a radical democracy. Neoliberalism stands for the death of democracy and the commodification and repression of any movement that is going to successfully challenge it.

One of the most serious challenges facing progressives is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility. This means insisting that democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as higher education in which civic values, public scholarship, and social engagement allow for a more imaginative grasp of a future that takes seriously the demands of justice, equity, and civic courage. Such a challenge demands not only confronting symptoms as a way of decreasing the misery and human suffering that people experience on a daily basis, but most importantly addressing the root causes that produce the despotism and culture of cruelty that marks the current period. The time has come to develop a political language in which civic values, social responsibility, and the institutions that support them become central to invigorating and fortifying a new era of civic imagination, and a renewed sense of social agency. A revitalized politics for imagining a radical democracy must promote an impassioned international social movement with a vision, organization, and set of strategies to challenge the neoliberal nightmare engulfing the planet. The dystopian worlds of Orwell and Huxley are sutured in fear, atomization, and a paralyzing anxiety. Unfortunately, these dystopian visions are no longer works of fiction. The task ahead is to relegate them to the realm of dystopian fiction so they can remind us that a radical democracy is not simply a political project, but a way of life that has to be struggled over endlessly.


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The Left, was not able to find the suitable material inside the ongoing apolitical generations. A material, with which could rebuild and create a totally autonomous political language. A language, totally independent from capitalistic terms.

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