Friday, April 24, 2015

The Struggle Ahead for a Decent Future for our Youth

It's sometimes hard to read a Henry Giroux essay without coming away feeling like you've been dragged into a dark alley and bludgeoned.  In his latest essay, this American intellectual explores what we've allowed ourselves to become, how we've been complicit in our own orchestrated economic, social and political degradation.  Brace yourself.

"The danger is that a global, universally interrelated civilization may produce barbarians from its own midst by forcing millions of people into conditions which, despite all appearances, are the conditions of savages."

- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Following Hannah Arendt, a dark cloud of political and ethical ignorance has descended on the United States. Thoughtlessness has become something that now occupies a privileged, if not celebrated, place in the political landscape and the mainstream cultural apparatuses. A new kind of infantilism now shapes daily life as adults gleefully take on the role of unthinking children and children are taught to be adults, stripped of their innocence and subject to a range of disciplinary pressures designed to cripple their ability to be imaginative.
Under such circumstances, agency devolves into a kind of anti-intellectual cretinism evident in the babble of banality produced by Fox News, celebrity culture, schools modeled after prisons and politicians who support creationism, argue against climate change and denounce almost any form of reason. The citizen now becomes a consumer; the politician, a slave to corporate money and power; and the burgeoning army of anti-public intellectuals in the mainstream media present themselves as unapologetic enemies of anything that suggests compassion, a respect for the commons and democracy itself.

Education is no longer a public good but a private right, just as critical thinking is no longer a fundamental necessity for creating an engaged and socially responsible citizenship. Neoliberalism's disdain for the social is no longer a quote made famous by Margaret Thatcher. The public sphere is now replaced by private interests, and unbridled individualism rails against any viable notion of solidarity that might inform the vibrancy of struggle, change, and an expansion of an enlightened and democratic body politic.

...Under market fundamentalism, there is a separation of market values, behavior and practices from ethical considerations and social costs giving rise to a growing theater of cruelty and abuse throughout North America. Public spheres that once encouraged progressive ideas, enlightened social policies, democratic values, critical dialogue and exchange have been increasingly commercialized. Or, they have been replaced by corporate settings whose ultimate fidelity is to increasing profit margins and producing a vast commercial and celebrity culture "that tends to function so as to erase everything that matters." Since the 1980s, the scale of human suffering, immiseration and hardship has intensified, accompanied by a theater of cruelty in which violence, especially the daily spectacle of Black men being brutalized or killed by the police, feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The tentacles of barbarism appear to be reaching into every aspect of daily life. Domestic terrorism has come home and it increasingly targets the young.

Given these conditions, an overwhelming catalogue of evidence has come into view that indicates that nation-states organized by neoliberal priorities have implicitly declared war on their children, offering a disturbing index of societies in the midst of a deep moral and political catastrophe. Too many young people today live in an era of foreclosed hope, an era in which it is difficult either to imagine a life beyond the dictates of a market-driven society or to transcend the fear that any attempt to do so can only result in a more dreadful nightmare.

Youth today are not only plagued by the fragility and uncertainty of the present; they are "the first post war generation facing the prospect of downward mobility [in which the] plight of the outcast stretches to embrace a generation as a whole." It is little wonder that "these youngsters are called Generation Zero: A generation with Zero opportunities, Zero future" and Zero expectations. Or to use Guy Standing's term, "the precariat," which he defines as "a growing proportion of our total society" forced to "accept a life of unstable labour and unstable living."

...The war on youth emerged when the social contract, however compromised and feeble, came crashing to the ground around the time Margaret Thatcher "married" Ronald Reagan. Both were hard-line advocates of a market fundamentalism, and announced respectively that there was no such thing as society and that government was the problem, not the solution to citizens' woes. Within a short time, democracy and the political process were hijacked by corporations and the call for austerity policies became cheap copy for weakening the welfare state, public values and public goods. The results of this emerging neoliberal regime included a widening gap between the rich and the poor, a growing culture of cruelty and the dismantling of social provisions. One result has been that the promise of youth has given way to an age of market-induced angst, and a view of many young people as a threat to short-term investments, privatization, untrammeled self-interest and quick profits.

Under such circumstances, all bets are off regarding the future of democracy. Besides a growing inability to translate private troubles into social issues, what is also being lost in the current historical conjuncture is the very idea of the public good, the notion of connecting learning to social change and developing modes of civic courage infused by the principles of social justice. Under the regime of a ruthless economic Darwinism, we are witnessing the crumbling of social bonds and the triumph of individual desires over social rights, nowhere more exemplified than in the gated communities, gated intellectuals and gated values that have become symptomatic of a society that has lost all claims to democracy or for that matter any modestly progressive vision for the future.

Giroux continues with a discourse on the "soft" and "hard" war being waged by neoliberals on North American youth.

In Canada, one child in six lives in poverty, but for Aboriginal and immigrant children that figure rises to 25 percent or more, respectively. By all accounts, the rate of incarceration for Aboriginal youth - already eight times higher than for non-Aboriginal youth - will continue to skyrocket as a result of the Harper government's so-called Safe Streets and Community Act, which emulates the failed policies of the US system by, among other things, strengthening requirements to detain and sentence more youth to custody in juvenile detention centers. Surely one conclusion that can be drawn from the inquest into the tragic suicide of 19-year-old Ashley Smith, who spent five years of her life in and out of detention facilities, is that incarceration for young people can be equivalent to a death sentence.

...Politics and power are now on the side of lawlessness as is obvious in the state's endless violations of civil liberties, freedom of speech and most constitutional rights, mostly done in the name of national security. Lawlessness now wraps itself in government dictates. In Canada, it is evident in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's support for Bill C-51, an anti-terrorist bill that further limits civil rights through a pedagogy of fear and racist demonization. It is also apparent in the United Sates in such policies as the Patriot Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, the Military Commissions Act and a host of other legal illegalities. These would include the right of the president "to order the assassination of any citizen whom he considers allied with terrorists."

...Current protests among young people in the United States, Canada and elsewhere in the world make clear that demonstrations are not - indeed, cannot be - only a short-term project for reform. Young people need to enlist all generations to develop a truly global political movement that is accompanied by the reclaiming of public spaces, the progressive use of digital technologies, the development of new public spheres, the production of new modes of education and the safeguarding of places where democratic expression, new civic values, democratic public spheres, new modes of identification and collective hope can be nurtured and developed. A formative culture must be put in place pedagogically and institutionally in a variety of spheres extending from churches and public and higher education to all those cultural apparatuses engaged in the production of collective knowledge, desire, identities and democratic values.

The struggles here are myriad and urgent and point to the call for a living wage, food security, accessible education, jobs programs (especially for the young), the democratization of power, economic equality and a massive shift in funds away from the machinery of war and big banks. Any collective struggle that matters has to embrace education as the center of politics and the source of an embryonic vision of the good life outside of the imperatives of unfettered "free-market" capitalism. In addition, too many progressives and people on the left are stuck in the discourse of foreclosure and cynicism and need to develop what Stuart Hall calls a "sense of politics being educative, of politics changing the way people see things."

...The issue of who gets to define the future, share in the nation's wealth, shape the parameters of the social state, steward and protect the globe's resources and create a formative culture for producing engaged and socially responsible citizens is no longer a rhetorical issue. This challenge offers up new categories for defining how matters of representation, education, economic justice and politics are to be defined and fought over. This is a difficult task, but what we are seeing in cities such as Chicago, Athens, Quebec, Paris, Madrid and other sites of massive inequality throughout the world is the beginning of a long struggle for the institutions, values and infrastructures that make communities the center of a robust, radical democracy. I realize this sounds a bit utopian, but we have few choices if we are going to struggle for a future that does a great deal more than endlessly repeat the present. We may live in dark times, but as Slavoj Žižek rightly insists, "The only realist option is to do what appears impossible within this system. This is how the impossible becomes possible."


Lorne said...

The enormity of the problems Giroux refers to, as well as his suggested solutions, Mound, seem overwhelming. Let me briefly address just one part of his remedial plan, the need to educate people:

"A formative culture must be put in place pedagogically and institutionally in a variety of spheres extending from churches and public and higher education..."

Unfortunately, those institutions have become very conservative for the most part, more interested in promoting the status quo than in inspiring genuine change. Public education at both the elementary and high school level must adhere to curricula established by the government, and while, for example in Ontario changes have been made addressing social issues like bullying and updating sex education, I doubt there is anything that would suggest broader and more fundamental structural changes or enhancements of democracy.

As well, I really wonder sometimes whether even with the knowledge, people en masse really have the motivation to change. For example, after reading the article you linked to yesterday in The New Republic on the drought in Texas, the obdurate refusal of many of those interviewed to acknowledge climate change even as they live through the fourth year of the drought was very disheartening. And i had to wonder, even if the general public was aware that greenhouse gas emissions from the cattle industry are greater than what is produced by all of the cars on the road, would they be willing to give up their steak to help save our world?

My answer is not a positive one.

The Mound of Sound said...

How did we become so fearful, so gutless, Lorne? Who blinded us to the fundamental value of everything we've allowed to be taken from us over the past 40-years?

There were always Harpers lurking in the wings, Limbaughs and Levants aplenty. Yet somehow we stopped pushing them back allowing them to be empowered and harnessed to the neoliberal cause.

Maybe timing played a role. It seems grimly coincidental that their ascendancy happened as our parents' generation's influenced waned. People who had weathered the Depression and survived the war, knew what they had and built the post-war middle class out of the debris of their sacrifice.

I have thought that I would not object, might even support, a youth revolt so that their generation could fight for the very things you and I, our generation, was handed on a platter.

We inherited, not just from our parents' estates but from the society they constructed for us, a great prosperity and ease and yet, just as we didn't struggle, sacrifice and fight for it, so we held it too cheaply to defend for our own children and grandchildren.

There's an inescapable stench to what we've done.

the salamander said...

.. outstanding, timely & brave post.. truly challenging & informing. It reminds how Canada & Canadians, with trust in Parliament, government.. and politics on autopilot

.. let Harper drift into power.. 1st as a minority but suddenly as a majority with pondscum like Anders Toews Calandra Poilievre et al.. gleefully supported by dim Base, the Nigels and A Hamilton's.. and embraced and nurtured by Big Energy.. eyeing the potential to further pillage Environment via First Nations Treaty demolition.

Thank you mr Flanagan.. mr Boessenkool mr Levant mr Ray Novak, ms Jenni Byrne, et al for your scabrous disservice to Canada.. duly noted.. and dear Laureen your loyalty is astoundingly misplaced, your friends, far from being Canadians are instead groping and grooming political animals.. selling out.. for what? China? Israel? Votes?

The stench of our privileged carpetbagger PM, he of the secretive, furtive style, is becoming impossible to miss. The Family Secrets MP from Calgary.. the nerd clerk from Leaside, Toronto can no longer keep his stories straight or be bothered trying. His lamprey enablers now do whatever they're told.. all beneath contempt, they are just fine with threatening Canada and Canadians for their bizarre greed, evangel fables or shallow values

Unknown said...

"How did we become so fearful, so gutless"? That really is the question Mound. How did we ever let scum like Harper become our PM. Then as PM, how did we let him implement policies, that privatize our social programs? We literally stand by and watch him dismantle our democracy. This mediocre, talentless, blowhard along with his pathetic, obedient, sleazy puppets, posing as our government, we have allowed to claim as much power over us as they want. Gutless? You bet. We are not just talking about losing our democracy, what were really talking about is losing our Freedom.Our generation also fought for some hard won battles, like battles against racism, war, battles for the rights of gays and lesbians also the rights of minorities, including multiculturalism. There was a move more so in 80"s where University students were focused more on studying the physical sciences, particularly engineering and computer sciences. That is where the money was. There is nothing wrong with a student wanting to make good money when they graduate, but this was done at the sacrifice of also knowing about the humanities like philosophy, Political Science, History, psychology and sociology. The humanities teach you to question the prevalent ideas of the time, to question the society you live in and what kind of political system you need to create and sustain a democracy.The Humanities teaches you to fundamentally question the social order.What happens when we stop asking questions about rights and freedoms,about justice and fairness? We live in this incredibly advanced technological society,bereft of having a culture where social ideas are discussed seriously. What happens when we no longer value philosophical or political knowledge? When fundamental religious beliefs replace reason? When anti-intellectualism reign? We create a cultural wasteland and a vacuum ready and waiting for a Harper to fill.Why is it that Harper would never have succeeded politically in the 60s, 70s or 80s. We need to ask what has changed.

Lulymay said...

Lorne, Mound, Salamander & Pamela:
You all make such valid points so where to begin without writing a full out stage play?

It seems as though we no longer have a sense of balance in just about everything. Education in the humanities all of a sudden became a "degree in basketweaving" by those who looked down their noses at anyone who wanted to discuss where we as a society were heading. Alas, scientists also became the 'enemy' because of their trust in testing, proving, and advocating for a safer environment that would ensure our species might survive. Apparently, from what I have seen, if it isn't written in whatever version of the bible is currently in favour, all offending education must be discounted. I have also observed that when my father's family emigrated from Ireland in 1927, they certainly did not have any politicians courting them for votes, whereas today, that is the very essence of politicans who invest all their energies in blocks of immigrants who will support them by promising benefits the rest of us could only dream of.

Anyong said...

You can add to that list the Retired in this country as well. Except of course, a few well heeled retired persons.