Oldspeak:“As the language of privatization, deregulation and commodification replaces the discourse of the public good, all things public, including public schools, libraries and public services, are viewed either as a drain on the market or as a pathology. At the same time, inequality in wealth and income expands and spreads like a toxin through everyday life, poisoning democracy and relegating more and more individuals to a growing army of disposable human waste.”
From Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:
We live at a time that might be appropriately called the age of the disappearing intellectual, a disappearance that marks with disgrace a particularly dangerous period in American history. While there are plenty of talking heads spewing lies, insults and nonsense in the various media, it would be wrong to suggest that these right-wing populist are intellectuals. They are neither knowledgeable nor self-reflective, but largely ideological hacks catering to the worst impulses in American society. Some obvious examples would include John Stossel calling for the repeal of that “section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that bans discrimination in public places.”And, of course, there are the more famous corporate-owned talking heads such as Glenn Beck, Charles Krauthammer, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, all of whom trade in reactionary world views, ignorance, ideological travesties and outlandish misrepresentations – all the while wrapping themselves in the populist creed of speaking for everyday Americans.
In a media scape and public sphere that view criticism, dialog and thoughtfulness as a liability, such anti-intellectuals abound, providing commentaries that are nativist, racist, reactionary and morally repugnant. But the premium put on ignorance and the disdain for critical intellectuals is not monopolized by the dominant media, it appears to have become one of the few criteria left for largely wealthy individuals to qualify for public office. One typical example is Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who throws out inanities such as labeling the Obama administration a “gangster government.” Bachmann refuses to take critical questions from the press because she claims that they unfairly focus on her language. She has a point. After all, it might be difficult to support statements such as the claim that “the US government used the census information to round up the Japanese [Americans] and put them in concentration camps.” Another typical example can be found in Congressman Joe Barton’s apology to BP for having to pay for damages to the government stemming from its disastrous oil spill.
This “upscaling of ignorance” gets worse. Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post about Sen. Michael Bennett, was shocked to discover that he was actually well-educated and smart but had to hide his qualifications in his primary campaign so as to not undermine his chance of being re-elected. Cohen concludes that in politics, “We have come to value ignorance.” He further argues that the notion that a politician should actually know something about domestic and foreign affairs is now considered a liability. He writes:
[W]e now have politicians who lack a child’s knowledge of government. In Nevada, Sharron Angle has won the GOP Senate nomination espousing phasing out Social Security and repealing the income tax as well as abolishing that durable conservative target, the Education Department. Similarly, in Connecticut, Linda McMahon, a former pro wrestling tycoon, is running commercials so adamantly anti-Washington you would think she’s an anarchist. In Arizona Andy Goss, a Republican congressional candidate, suggests requiring all members of Congress to live in a barracks. This might be tough on wives, children and the odd cocker spaniel, but what the hell. Nowadays, all ideas are equal.
The embrace of a type of rabid individualism, anti-intellectualism and political illiteracy is also at work in the Tea Party movement. As social protections disappear, jobs are lost, uncertainty grows and insecurity prevails, Tea Party members express anger over a weakened social state that represents one of the few institutions capable of providing the capital, policies and safety nets necessary to protect those who have been shaken by the economic recession. And, yet, in light of what Bob Herbert calls “the most painful evidence imaginable of the failure of laissez-faire economics and the destructive force of the alliance of big business and government against the interests of ordinary Americans,” the Tea Party movement wants to abolish government and expand even more the deregulated capitalism that has unsettled the lives of so many of its members. Ignorance prevails around both the movement’s policy recommendations and its often racist protest against “the election of a “foreign born’ – African-American to the presidency.” As J. M. Bernstein pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece:
When it comes to the Tea Party’s concrete policy proposals, things get fuzzier and more contradictory: keep the government out of health care, but leave Medicare alone; balance the budget, but don’t raise taxes; let individuals take care of themselves, but leave Social Security alone; and, of course, the paradoxical demand not to support Wall Street, to let the hard-working producers of wealth get on with it without regulation and government stimulus, but also to make sure the banks can lend to small businesses and responsible homeowners in a stable but growing economy.
As the belief in the libertarian agent, free of all dependencies and social responsibilities blows up in the face of the current economic meltdown, anger replaces critique and ignorance informs politics. Bernstein thinks that members of the Tea Party are angry because they have been jolted into recognizing how fragile their so-called individual freedom actually is and that it is the government that is somehow responsible for making them feel so vulnerable. Maybe so, but there is also something else at work here, less metaphysical and more pedagogical – a kind of intellectual vacuum produced at different levels of American society that cultivates ignorance, limits choices, legitimizes political illiteracy and promotes violence.
Another version of anti-intellectualism prevails in universities where students are urged by some conservative groups to spy on their professors to make sure they do not say anything that might actually get students to think critically about their beliefs. At the same time, faculty are being relegated to nontenured positions and because of the lack of tenure, which offers some guarantees, are afraid to say controversial things inside and outside the classroom for fear of being fired. Moreover, as the university becomes more corporatized, intellectual and critical thought is transformed into a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. I am not suggesting that so called professed intellectuals are not influencing policy, appearing in the media or teaching in the universities, but that these are not critical intellectuals. On the contrary, they are accommodating ideologues, content to bask in the politics of conformity and the rewards of official power. Underlying this drift toward the disappearing critical intellectual and the erasure of substantive critique is a regime of economic Darwinism in which a culture of ignorance serves to both depoliticize the larger public while simultaneously producing individual and collective subjects necessary and willing to participate in their own oppression. The cheerful robot is not simply an opprobrium for ignorance, it is a metaphor for the systemic construction in American society of a new mode of depoliticized and thoughtless form of agency.
With the advent of neoliberalism, or what some call free-market fundamentalism, we have witnessed the production and widespread adoption throughout society of what I want to call the politics of economic Darwinism. As a theater of cruelty and a mode of public pedagogy, economic Darwinism undermines all forms of solidarity while simultaneously promoting the logic of unrestricted individual responsibility. But there is more at stake here than an unchecked ideology of privatization. For example, as the welfare state is dismantled, it is being replaced by the harsh realities of the punishing state as social problems are increasingly criminalized and social protections are either eliminated or fatally weakened. The harsh values of this new social order can be seen in the increasing incarceration of young people, the modeling of public schools after prisons and state policies that bail out investment bankers, but leave the middle and working classes in a state of poverty, despair and insecurity. But it can also be seen in the practice of socialism for the rich. This is a practice in which government supports for the poor, unemployed, sick and elderly are derided because they either contribute to an increase in the growing deficit or they undermine the market-driven notion of individual responsibility. And yet, the same critics defend, without irony, government support for the rich, the bankers, the permanent war economy, or any number of subsidies for corporations as essential to the life of the nation, which is simply an argument that benefits the rich and powerful and legitimates the deregulated wild west of casino capitalism.
Of course, this form of economic Darwinism is not enforced simply through the use of the police and other repressive apparatuses; it is endlessly reproduced through the cultural apparatuses of the new and old media, public and higher education, as well as through the thousands of messages and narratives we are exposed to daily in multiple commercial spheres. In this discourse, the economic order is either sanctioned by God or exists simply as an extension of nature. In other words, the tyranny and suffering that is produced through the neoliberal theater of cruelty is unquestionable, as unmovable as an urban skyscraper. Long-term investments are now replaced by short-term gains and profits, while compassion is viewed as a weakness and democratic public values are scorned because they subordinate market considerations to the common good. Morality in this instance becomes painless, stripped of any obligations to the other. As the language of privatization, deregulation and commodification replaces the discourse of the public good, all things public, including public schools, libraries and public services, are viewed either as a drain on the market or as a pathology. At the same time, inequality in wealth and income expands and spreads like a toxin through everyday life, poisoning democracy and relegating more and more individuals to a growing army of disposable human waste.
The giant oil spill in the Gulf is rarely viewed as part of a much broader systemic crisis of democracy. Instead, it is treated as an unfortunate disaster caused by corporate greed or negligence. Celebrity culture puts much of the population in a moral coma and perpetual state of ignorance. Coupled with a pedagogy of economic Darwinism that is spewed out daily in the mainstream media, large segments of the population are prevented from connecting the dots between their own personal troubles and larger social problems. In this case, the larger structural elements of a corrupt economic system disappear, while the suffering and hardship continues and the bankers and other members of the financial criminal class run to the banks to deposit their obscene bonuses.
Under such circumstances, to paraphrase C. W. Mills, we are seeing the breakdown of democracy, the disappearance of critical thought and “the collapse of those public spheres which offer a sense of critical agency and social imagination.” Since the 1970s, we have witnessed the forces of market fundamentalism strip education of its public values, critical content and civic responsibilities as part of its broader goal of creating new subjects wedded to the logic of privatization, efficiency, flexibility, consumerism and the destruction of the social state. Tied largely to instrumental purposes and measurable paradigms, many institutions of higher education are now committed almost exclusively to economic growth, instrumental rationality and preparing students for the workforce.
The question of what kind of education is needed for students to be informed and active citizens is rarely asked. Hence, it not surprising, for example, to read that “Thomas College, a liberal arts college in Maine, advertises itself as Home of the Guaranteed Job!” Faculty within this discourse are defined largely as a subaltern class of low-skilled entrepreneurs, removed from the powers of governance and subordinated to the policies, values and practices within a market model of the university. Within both higher education and the educational force of the broader cultural apparatus – with its networks of knowledge production in the old and new media – we are witnessing the emergence and dominance of a form of a powerful and ruthless, if not destructive, market-driven notion of governance, teaching, learning, freedom, agency and responsibility. Such modes of education do not foster a sense of organized responsibility central to a democracy. Instead, they foster what might be called a sense of organized irresponsibility – a practice that underlies the economic Darwinism, public pedagogy and corruption at the heart of both the current recession and American politics.
The anti-democratic values that drive free-market fundamentalism are embodied in policies now attempting to shape diverse levels of higher education all over the globe. The script has now become overly familiar and more and more taken for granted, especially in the United States and increasingly in Canada. Shaping the neoliberal framing of public and higher education is a corporate-based ideology that embraces standardizing the curriculum, supporting top-down management, implementing more courses that promote business values and reducing all levels of education to job training sites. For example, one university is offering a master’s degree to students who commit to starting a high-tech company while another allows career officers to teach capstone research seminars in the humanities. In one of these classes, the students were asked to “develop a 30-second commercial on their ‘personal brand.'”
The demise of democracy is now matched by the disappearance of vital public spheres and the exhaustion of intellectuals. Instead of critical and public intellectuals, faculty are increasingly defined less as intellectuals than as technicians, specialist and grant writers. Nor is there any attempt to legitimate higher education as a fundamental sphere for creating the agents necessary for an aspiring democracy. In fact, the commitment to democracy is beleaguered, viewed less as a crucial educational investment than as a distraction that gets in the way of connecting knowledge and pedagogy to the production of material and human capital. In short, higher education is now being retooled as part of a larger political project to bring it in tune with the authority and values fostering the advance of neoliberalism. I think David Harvey is right in insisting, “the academy is being subjected to neoliberal disciplinary apparatuses of various kinds [while] also becoming a place where neoliberal ideas are being spread.”
As a core political and civic institution, higher education rarely appears committed to addressing important social problems. Instead, many have become unapologetic accomplices to corporate values and power and, in doing so, increasingly make social problems either irrelevant or invisible. Steeped in the same market driven values that produced the 2008 global economic recession along with a vast amount of hardships and human suffering in many countries around the globe, higher education mimics the inequalities and hierarchies of power that inform the failed financial behemoths – banks and investment companies in particular – that have become public symbols of greed and corruption. Not only does neoliberalism undermine civic education and public values, confuse education with training, but it also treats knowledge as a product, promoting a neoliberal logic that views schools as malls, students as consumers and faculty as entrepreneurs. Just as democracy appears to be fading in the United States so is the legacy of higher education’s faith in and commitment to democracy. As the humanities and liberal arts are downsized, privatized and commodified, higher education finds itself caught in the paradox of claiming to invest in the future of young people while offering them few intellectual, civic and moral supports.
Higher education has a responsibility not only to search for the truth regardless of where it may lead, but also to educate students to make authority and power politically and morally accountable. Though questions regarding whether the university should serve strictly public rather than private interests no longer carry the weight of forceful criticism they did in the past, such questions are still crucial in addressing the purpose 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.
What needs to be understood is that higher education may be one of the few institutions we have left in the United States where knowledge, values and learning offer a glimpse of the promise of education for nurturing public values, critical hope and a sense of civic responsibility. It may be the case that everyday life is increasingly organized around market principles; but confusing a market-determined society with democracy hollows out the legacy of higher education, whose deepest roots are moral, not commercial. This is a particularly important insight in a society where the free circulation of ideas are not only being replaced by ideas managed by the dominant media, but where critical ideas are increasingly viewed or dismissed as banal, if not reactionary.
But there is more at stake than simply the death of critical thought, there is also the powerful influence of celebrity culture and the commodification of culture, both of which now create a powerful form of mass illiteracy that increasingly dominates all aspects of the wider cultural educational apparatus. But mass illiteracy does more than undermine critical thought and depoliticize the public; it also becomes complicit with the suppression of dissent. Intellectuals who engage in dissent or a culture of questioning are often dismissed as either irrelevant, extremist, or un-American.
Anti-public intellectuals now dominate the larger cultural landscape, funded largely by right-wing institutes, eager to legitimate the worst forms of oppression as they nod, smile, speak in sound bites and willingly display their brand of moral cowardice. At the same time, there are too few critical academics willing to defend higher education for its role in providing a supportive and sustainable culture in which a vibrant critical democracy can flourish.
As potential democratic public spheres, institutions of higher education are especially important at a time when any space that produces “critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question” is under siege by powerful economic, military, and political interests. The increasing disappearance of any viable public sphere coupled with the reduction of the university to an outpost of business culture represents a serious political and pedagogical concern that should not be lost on either academics or those concerned about the purpose and meaning of higher education, if not the fate of democracy itself.
Democracy places civic demands upon its citizens and such demands point to the necessity of an education that is broad-based, critical and supportive of meaningful civic values, participation in self-governance and democratic leadership. Only through such a formative and critical educational culture can students learn how to become individual and social agents, rather than merely disengaged spectators, able both to think otherwise and to act upon civic commitments that “necessitate a reordering of basic power arrangements” fundamental to promoting the common good and producing a meaningful democracy. The current neoliberal regime that is wreaking havoc on the planet and the lives of millions cannot be addressed by future generations unless they have the capacities, knowledge, skills and motivation to think critically and act courageously. This means giving them the knowledge and skills to make power visible and politics an important sphere of individual and collective struggle.
One measure of the degree to which higher education has lost its moral compass can be viewed in the ways in which it disavows any relationship between equity and excellence, eschews the discourse of democracy and reduces its commitment to learning to the stripped down goals of either preparing students for the workforce or teaching them the virtues of measurable utility. While such objectives are not without merit, they have little to say about the role that higher education might play in influencing the fate of future citizens and the state of democracy itself, nor do they say much about what it means for faculty to be more than technicians or hermetic scholars.
In addition to promoting measurable skills and educating students to be competitive in the marketplace, academics are also required to speak a kind of truth, but as Stuart Hall points out, “maybe not truth with a capital T, but … some kind of truth, the best truth they know or can discover [and] to speak that truth to power.”Implicit in Hall’s statement is an awareness that to speak truth to power is not a temporary and unfortunate lapse into politics on the part of academics: it is central to opposing all those modes of ignorance, whether they are market-based or rooted in other fundamentalist ideologies, that make judgments difficult and democracy dysfunctional.
In my view, academics have not only a moral and pedagogical responsibility to unsettle and oppose all orthodoxies, to make problematic the commonsense assumptions that often shape students’ lives and their understanding of the world, but also to energize them to come to terms with their own power as individual and social agents. Higher education, in this instance, as Pierre Bourdieu, Paulo Freire, Stanley Aronowitz, and other intellectuals have reminded us, cannot be removed from the hard realities of those political, economic and social forces that both support it and consistently, though in diverse ways, attempt to shape its sense of mission and purpose. Politics is not alien to higher education, but central to comprehending the institutional, economic, ideological and social forces that give it meaning and direction. Politics also references the outgrowth of historical conflicts that mark higher education as an important site of struggle. Rather than the scourge of either education or academic research, politics is a primary register of their complex relation to matters of power, ideology, freedom, justice and democracy.
Talking heads who proclaim that politics have no place in the classroom can as Jacques Ranciere points out “look forward to the time when politics will be over and they can at last get on with political business undisturbed,” especially as it pertains to the political landscape of the university. In this discourse, education as a fundamental basis for engaged citizenship, like politics itself, becomes a temporary irritant to be quickly removed from the hallowed halls of academia. In this stillborn conception of academic labor, faculty and students are scrubbed clean of any illusions about connecting what they learn to a world “strewn with ruin, waste and human suffering.”
As considerations of power, politics, critique and social responsibility are removed from the university, balanced judgment becomes code, as the famous sociologist C. Wright. Mills points out, for “surface views which rest upon the homogeneous absence of imagination and the passive avoidance of reflection. A … vague point of equilibrium between platitudes.” Under such circumstances, the university and the intellectuals that inhabit it disassociate higher education from larger public issues, remove themselves from the task of translating private troubles into social problems and undermine the production of those public values that nourish a democracy. Needless to say, pedagogy is always political by virtue of the ways in which power is used to shape various elements of classroom identities, desires, values and social relations, but that is different from being an act of indoctrination. Writing about the role of the social sciences, Mills had a lot to say about public intellectuals in the academy and, in fact, directly addressed the argument that such intellectuals had no right to try to save the world. He writes:
I do not believe that social science will ‘save the world’ although I see nothing at all wrong with ‘trying to save the -world’ – a phrase which I take here to mean the avoidance of war and the re-arrangement of human affairs in accordance with the ideals of human freedom and reason. Such knowledge as I have leads me to embrace rather pessimistic estimates of the chances. But even if that is where we now stand, still we must ask: if there are any ways out of the crises of our period by means of intellect, is it not up to the social scientist to state them? … It is on the level of human awareness that virtually all solutions to the great problems must now lie.
A large number of faculty exist in specialized academic bubbles cut off from both the larger public and the important issues that impact society. While extending the boundaries of specialized scholarship is important, it is no excuse for faculty to become complicit in the transformation of the university into an adjunct of corporate and military power. Too many academics have become incapable of defending higher education as a vital public sphere and unwilling to challenge those spheres of induced mass cultural illiteracy and firewalls of jargon that doom critically engaged thought, complex ideas and serious writing for the public to extinction. Without their intervention as engaged intellectuals, the university defaults on its role as a democratic public sphere capable of educating an informed public, a culture of questioning and the development of a critical formative culture connected to the need, as Cornelius Castoriadis puts it, “to create citizens who are critical thinkers capable of putting existing institutions into question so that democracy again becomes society’s movement.”
For education to be civic, critical and democratic rather than privatized, militarized and commodified, educators must take seriously John Dewey’s notion that democracy is a “way of life” that must be constantly nurtured and defended. Democracy is not a marketable commodity and neither are the political, economic and social conditions that make it possible. If academics believe that the university is a space for and about democracy, they need to profess more, not less, about eliminating inequality in the university, supporting academic freedom, preventing the exploitation of faculty, supporting shared modes of governance, rejecting modes of research that devalue the public good and refuse to treat students as merely consumers. Academics have a distinct and unique obligation, if not political and ethical responsibility, to make learning relevant to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method, or research specialization. But more importantly, academics as engaged scholars can further the activation of knowledge, passion, values and hope in the service of forms of agency that are crucial to sustaining a democracy in which higher education plays an important civic, critical and pedagogical role. If democracy is a way of life that demands a formative culture, educators can play a pivotal role in creating forms of pedagogy and research that enable young people to think critically, exercise judgment, engage in spirited debate and create those public spaces that constitute “the very essence of political life.”
Economic Darwinism shapes more than economies; it also produces ideas, values, power, morality and regimes of truth. Most importantly, regardless of its arrogance, it has to legitimate its power and theater of cruelty. Challenging its modes of legitimation and misrepresentations at the point of production is precisely an important task and mode of politics that should be addressed by critical intellectuals. Central ideological issues pushed by the advocates of neoliberalism extending from the myth of free markets, free trade, the limitless power of individual responsibility, the evils of the welfare state, the necessity of low taxes, the economic benefits of a permanent war economy, deregulation, privatization and commodification, along with the danger of giving the government any sense of public responsibility should be challenged head on in numerous venues by critical intellectuals.
As David Harvey points out, academics have a “crucial role to play in trying to resist the neoliberalization of the academy, which is largely about organizing within the academy … creating spaces within the academy, where things could be said, written, discussed and ideas promulgated. Right now those spaces are more under threat then they have been in many years.” All the more reason for academics to view the academy as a viable sphere worth struggling over. Intellectuals outside of the academy can also work to use their specific skills at various points of production to raise consciousness and the level of intellectual discourse in the spirit of creating agents capable of challenging and seeing beyond the existing neoliberal mode of economic Darwinism. Such actions not only help intellectuals to engage in self-critical reflection, play a viable role in creating the conditions for emergent critical public spheres, but they also contribute to a formative culture of change that enables the development of a broad anti-capitalist movement.
What Harvey is rightfully suggesting is that academics can do more than “teach the conflicts” and provide the conditions that enable young people to speak truth to power. They can also organize within the academy to prevent the ongoing militarization and neoliberalization of higher education. They can work together with staff, students, part-time faculty, and other interested parties to form unions, embrace a notion of democratic governance and help to position the university as public sphere that can become a vital resource in which people can think, engage in critical dialog, organize and connect to a broader public and movements eager for economic and social transformation. Academics can work to develop diverse intellectual institutes, sites and organizations both within and outside of North America to contest the right-wing media machine and its army of anti-public intellectuals. Intellectuals trade in ideas, help to raise consciousness and are crucial to offering new coordinates for how to think about freedom, justice, equality, sustainability and the elimination of human suffering.
Jacques Ranciere is informative here in his call for intellectuals to engage in a form of dissensus, which he defines as an attempt to modify the coordinates of the visible and ways of perceiving experience. Dissensus is an attempt “to loosen the bonds that enclose spectacles within a form of visibility…. within the machine that makes the “state of things” seem evident, unquestionable.”Ideas matter not only because they can promote self-reflection, but because they can reconstitute our sense of agency, imagination, hope and possibility. And it is precisely in their ability to extend the reach and understanding of how ideas, power and politics work not simply in the interest of domination, but also critical hope and collective struggle that the importance of ideas and the role of intellectuals matter in such dark times.
As the commercial machinery and repressive apparatuses run by the neoliberal and right-wing zombies undermine public space and condemn more and more people to the status of disposable populations, it is all the more crucial that academics, artists, and other intellectuals mobilize their resources in order to fight the loss of vision and the exhaustion of politics that has paralyzed American society for decades. As stated in the manifesto from “Left Turn,” the key here is to “link struggles that have for decades been seen as discrete, with a broad anti-capitalist project whose objective is the radical transformation of economic, political, personal and social relations.”
It is precisely over the creation of alternative democratic public spheres that such a struggle against neoliberal, economic Darwinism can and should be waged by academics, intellectuals, artists, and other cultural workers. Higher education, labor unions, the alternative media and progressive social movements offer important sites for academics and other intellectuals to form alliances, reach out to a broader public and align with larger social movements. Critical intellectuals must do whatever they can to nurture formative critical cultures and social movements that can dream beyond the “mad-agency that is power in a new form, death-in-life.” At the same time, they must challenge all aspects of the neoliberal disciplinary apparatus – from its institutions of power to its pedagogical modes of rationality – in order to make its politics, pedagogy and hidden registers of power visible. Only then will the struggle for the renewal of peace and justice become possible.