Editor’s note: this article is reprinted from Salon.com by permission of the author.
The ghosts of a fascist past are with us once again, resurrecting the discourses of hatred, exclusion and ultra-nationalism in countries such as the United States, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, Turkey and the Philippines. In addition, right-wing extremist parties are on the move politically in Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The designers of a new breed of fascism increasingly dominate major political formations and other commanding political and economic institutions across the globe. They have infused a fascist ideology with new energy through a right-wing populism that constructs the nation through a series of racist and nativist exclusions, all the while feeding off the chaos produced by neoliberalism.
Their nightmarish reign of misery, violence and disposability is legitimated, in part, in their control of a diverse number of cultural apparatuses that produce a vast machinery of manufactured consent. This reactionary educational formation includes the mainstream broadcast media, digital platforms, the Internet and print culture, all of which participate in an ongoing spectacle of violence, the aestheticization of politics, the legitimation of opinions over facts, and an embrace of a culture of ignorance. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of neoliberal ideology, literacy is now regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data, and science is confused with pseudo-science. Chris Hedges is right to argue that both the rule of law and the institutions that make democracy possible are being undermined. He is worth quoting at length:
The mechanisms that once made democracy possible have withered and died. We no longer have elections free of corporate control; real legislative debate; an independent press rooted in verifiable fact that lifts up the voices and concerns of the citizens rather than peddling conspiracy theories such as “Russiagate” or cheerleading for disastrous military interventions and occupations; academic institutions that vigorously examine and critique the nature of power; or diplomacy, negotiation, détente and compromise. Puffed up by self-importance, intoxicated by the ability to wield police and military power, despots and their grotesque courtiers are freed with the collapse of the rule of law to carry out endless vendettas against enemies real and imagined until their own paranoia and fear define the lives of those they subjugate. This is where we have come, not because of Trump, who is the grotesque product of our failed democracy, but because the institutions that were designed to prevent tyranny no longer function.
Ignorance has lost its innocence and is no longer synonymous with the absence of knowledge. It has become malicious in its refusal to know, to disdain criticism, and render invisible important social issues that lie on the side of social and economic justice. James Baldwin was certainly right in issuing the stern warning in “No Name in the Street” that “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
As is well known, President Trump’s ignorance lights up the Twitter landscape almost every day. He denies climate change along with the dangers that it poses to humanity, shuts down the government because he cannot get the funds for his wall — a grotesque symbol of nativism — and heaps disdain on the heads of his intelligence agencies because they provide proof of the lies and misinformation that shapes his love affair with tyrants. This kind of power-drunk ignorance is comparable to a bomb with a fuse that is about to explode in a crowded shopping center. Ignorance now fuses with a reckless use of state power that holds both human life and the planet hostage. Under such circumstances, thinking becomes dangerous and becomes the object of organized disgust for any vestige of the truth.
However, there is more at stake here than the production of a toxic form of illiteracy and the shrinking of political horizons. What we are witnessing is a closing of the political coupled with explicit expressions of cruelty and “widely sanctioned ruthlessness.” Moreover, the very conditions that enable people to make informed decisions are under siege as schools are defunded, media becomes more corporatized, oppositional journalists are killed, and reality TV becomes the model for mass entertainment.
Power feeds off corruption in the United States and dictators who crush dissent are invited to the White House and praised by President Trump. Under such circumstances, there is a full-scale attack on thoughtful reasoning, empathy, collective resistance and the compassionate imagination. In some ways, the dictatorship of ignorance resembles what the writer John Berger calls “ethicide” and Joshua Sperling defines as “The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.”
After decades of the neoliberal nightmare both in the United States and abroad, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s. The ruling elite and managers of extreme capitalism have used the crises of economic inequality and immigration and what Paul Gilroy has called its “manifestly brutal and exploitative arrangements” to sow social divisions and resurrect the discourse of racial cleansing and white supremacy. In doing so, they have tapped into the growing collective suffering and anxieties of millions in order to redirect their anger and despair through a culture of fear and discourse of dehumanization; they have also turned critical ideas to ashes by disseminating a toxic mix of racialized categories, ignorance and a militarized spirit of white nationalism.
In this instance, neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible project and movement that connects the exploitative values and cruel austerity policies of “casino capitalism” with fascist ideals. These ideals include the veneration of war, anti-intellectualism, dehumanization, a populist celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity, the suppression of freedom and dissent, a culture of lies, a politics of hierarchy, the spectacularization of emotion over reason, the weaponization of language, a discourse of decline, and state violence in heterogeneous forms. Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and the conditions that produce its central assumptions are with us once again, ushering in a period of modern barbarity that appears to be reaching towards homicidal extremes, especially in the United States.
The deep grammar of violence now shapes all aspects of cultural production and becomes visceral in its ongoing generation of domestic terrorism, mass shootings, the mass incarceration of people of color and the war on undocumented immigrants. Not only has it become more gratuitous, random and in some cases trivialized through the monotony of repetition, it has also become the official doctrine of the Trump administration in shaping its domestic and security policies. Trump’s violence has become both promiscuous in its reach and emboldening in its nod to right-wing extremist groups. The mix of white nationalism and expansion of policies that benefit the rich, big corporations and the financial elite are increasingly legitimated and normalized in a new political formation that I have termed neoliberal fascism.
The urgency of addressing the rise of fascism both in the United States and abroad might begin with the regime of untruth and manufactured illiteracy that allows and normalizes the catastrophic conditions that make neoliberal fascism a potent source of identity, fantasy and pleasure. One place to start would be a critical analysis of the Trump administration’s efforts to abandon and discredit traditional sources of evidence, facts and analysis in its attempt to normalize fake news, a culture of lying and the world of alternative facts.
At issue here is making visible a radical new relationship between the public and truth and the ensuing demise of civic culture and the public institutions that make it possible. As the public’s grip on civic literacy weakens, language is emptied of any substantive meaning and the shared standards necessary for developing informed judgments and sustained convictions are undermined. At the same time, those institutions dedicated to producing critical knowledge and informed citizens are under attack and are slowing disappearing. In a world where nothing is true, all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. One consequence is that everything begins to look like a lie.
As the historian Timothy Snyder points out, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” More startling is the assumption that what matters in an age of deep divisions, exploitation and precarity is not whether something is true or false but the promise of a consistent narrative which calls upon people to commit to a newfound sense of unity while willing to “abolish their capacity for distinguishing between the truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction.” Of course, there is more at stake here than the creation and normalization of a culture of lying and what Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and others identified as the theatricalization and aestheticization of politics. There is also the threat to democracy itself.
The entrepreneurs of hate are no longer confined to the dustbin of history, particularly the proto-fascist era of 1930s and 1940s. They are with us once again, producing dystopian fantasies out of the decaying communities produced by 40 years of a savage capitalism. White male rage has emerged out of the destruction of social bonds and the gutting of the welfare state and intensified with the neoliberal unleashing of destructive energies of “deracination, displacement, and disintegration.” Angry white male loners looking for a cause, a place to put their agency into play, are fodder for cult leaders. They have found one in Trump, for whom the relationship between the language of fascism and its toxic worldview of “blood and soil” and the “fear of inferior blood” has moved to the center of power in the United States.
Thinking is now viewed as an act of stupidity, and ignorance a virtue. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture, as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and most of the Republican Party in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughingstock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public is addicted to extreme violence and shock, which allow them to drown in overstimulation and live in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images.
News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Language operates in the service of violence, entertainment thrives on the spectacle of violence, and state violence has become normalized and shapes domestic and foreign policies. Violence on the southern border, along with violence waged against black and brown people by a militarized police force, is legitimated daily in the violence that shapes popular culture, whether in video games or in the extreme violence of Hollywood films such as the “John Wick” series. Unsurprisingly, education in the larger culture has become a disimagination machine, a tool for legitimating ignorance that now plays a central role in the formation of an authoritarian politics that has gutted the ideologies, policies and institutions that are crucial to a substantive and thriving democracy.
I am not talking about the kind of anti-intellectualism that has a long history in the United States. I am pointing to a more lethal form of ignorance fueled by a manufactured type of illiteracy that is often ignored. What I am referring to is a mode of illiteracy that is both a scourge and a political tool power designed primarily to make war on language, meaning, thinking, and the capacity for critical thought. Chris Hedges is right to state that “the emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idiom of mass culture.” Words such as love, trust, freedom, responsibility and choice have been deformed by a market logic that narrows their meaning to either a relationship to a commodity or a reductive notion of self-interest.
Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence. And so it goes. The new form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.
The writer and social critic Gore Vidal once called America the United States of Amnesia. The title should be extended to the United States of Amnesia and Willful Illiteracy. Illiteracy no longer simply marks populations immersed in poverty with little access to quality education; nor does it only suggest the lack of proficient skills enabling people to read and write with a degree of understanding and fluency. More profoundly, illiteracy is about what it means not to be able to act from a position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment and critical agency.
In this instance, manufactured illiteracy has become a form of political repression that discourages a culture of questioning, renders agency inoperable as an act of intervention, and restages power as a mode of domination. Illiteracy serves to depoliticize people because it reproduces conditions that make it difficult for individuals to develop informed judgments, analyze complex relationships and draw upon a range of sources to understand how power works and how they might be able to shape the forces that bear down on their lives.
Think about the defunding of public education or the assault on truth and civic literacy by the Trump administration in the U.S. and the Jair Bolsonaro administration in Brazil. Illiteracy provides the foundation for being governed, not how to govern. It is precisely this mode of illiteracy that now constitutes the modus operandi of a society that both privatizes and kills the imagination by poisoning it with falsehoods, consumer fantasies, data loops, propaganda machines and the need for instant gratification. This mode of manufactured illiteracy and education has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship.
It is important to recognize that the rise of this new mode of illiteracy is not simply about the failure of public and higher education to create critical and active citizens; it is about a society that eliminates those public spheres that make thinking possible while imposing a culture of fear in which there is the looming threat that anyone who holds power accountable will be punished. Literacy is dangerous to tyrants because they recognize that it is not only about learning critical competencies and an essential step towards agency, it is also the precondition for intervening in the world by being able to critique common-sense assumptions that legitimate apparatuses of persuasion and power. In the absence of a culture of literacy, the preconditions disappear for confronting not only the crisis of memory, ethics and agency but also the crisis of democracy itself.
At a time of growing fascist movements across the globe, power, culture, politics, finance and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world.
As cultural apparatuses are concentrated in the hands of the ultra-rich and major tech companies, the educative force of culture has taken on a powerful anti-democratic turn. This can be seen in the rise of new digitally driven systems of production and consumption that produce, shape and sustain ideas, desires and social relations that contribute to the disintegration of democratic social bonds and promote a form of social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibility and compassion for others. Think of the power of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as an anti-democratic disimagination machine, especially in its ability to influence the Trump presidency.
The era of post-truth is in reality a period of crisis which, as Antonio Gramsci observed, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and that] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Those morbid symptoms are evident in Trump’s mainstreaming of a fascist politics in which there is an attempt to normalize the language of racial purification, the politics of disposability and social sorting while exaggerating a culture of fear and a militarism reminiscent of past and current dictatorships.
I want to argue that any viable attempt at developing a radical politics must begin to address the role of education and civic literacy and what I have termed public pedagogy, or more precisely the educational force of the wider culture, as central not only to politics but also to the creation of subjects capable of becoming individual and social agents willing to struggle against injustices and fight to reclaim and develop those institutions crucial to the functioning and promises of a substantive democracy. One place to begin to think through such a project is by addressing the meaning and role of pedagogy as part of the broader struggle for economic justice and practice of freedom.
The reach of pedagogy extends from schools to diverse cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media, the expanding digital screen culture, and alternative old and new media outlets. Accordingly, pedagogy is at the heart of any understanding of politics and the ideological scaffolding of those framing mechanisms that mediate our everyday lives. Across the globe, the forces of free-market fundamentalism are using media establishments and public and higher education to reproduce the corporate-driven culture of neoliberalism. In addition, they are waging an assault on the historically guaranteed social provisions and civil rights provided by the welfare state, public schools, unions, feminist organizations and social services, among others, all the while undercutting public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.
As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish — from public schools and alternative media to health care centers — there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values and the common good. This grim reality has been called by Alex Honneth a “failed sociality” — a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will and open democracy. It is also part of a politics that strips the social of any democratic ideals and undermines any understanding of education as a public good and pedagogy as an empowering practice.
One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students, progressives and other cultural workers is the need to address the role they might play in educating students to be critically engaged agents, attentive to addressing important social issues and alert to the responsibility of deepening and expanding the meaning and practices of a vibrant democracy. At the heart of such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish not simply in a democracy but at a historical moment when society is about to slip into the dark night of authoritarianism.
What work do educators have to do to create the economic, political and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable?
Part 2: Education is one of the few possible cures for “neoliberal fascism”
What role might education and critical pedagogy have in a society in which the social has been individualized, emotional life collapses into the therapeutic, and education is reduced to either a private affair or a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation in which everything is reduced to a desired outcome? What role can education play to challenge the deadly neoliberal claim that all problems are individual, regardless of whether the roots of such problems lie in larger systemic forces? In a culture drowning in a new love affair with instrumental rationality, it is not surprising that values that are not measurable — compassion, trust, solidarity, care for the other and a passion for justice — wither.
Given the crisis of education, agency and memory that haunts the current historical conjuncture, the left and other progressives need a new vocabulary for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which there is an unprecedented convergence of resources — financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military and technological — increasingly used to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control and domination. Such a language needs to be political without being dogmatic and needs to recognize that pedagogy is always political because it is connected to the acquisition of agency. In this instance, making the pedagogical more political means being vigilant about what Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham describe as “that very moment in which identities are being produced and groups are being constituted, and [knowledge and values] are being created.”
At the same time, it means educators and other cultural workers need to be attentive to those practice in which critical modes of agency and particular identities are being denied. It also means developing a comprehensive understanding of politics, one that should begin with the call to reroute single-issue politics into a mass social movement under the banner of a defense of the public good, the commons and a global democracy. In addition, how can educational and pedagogical practices be connected to the resurrection of historical memory, new modes of solidarity, a resurgence of the radical imagination and broad-based struggles for democratic socialist society? How can education be enlisted to fight what the cultural theorist Mark Fisher once called neoliberalism’s most brutal weapon: “the slow cancellation of the future?”
In part, this suggests developing pedagogical practices that not only inspire and energize people but also are also capable of challenging the growing number of anti-democratic practices and policies under the global tyranny of casino capitalism. Such a vision suggests resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, and which elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals. Under such circumstances, education becomes more than an obsession with accountability schemes, an audit culture, market values, and an unreflective immersion in the crude empiricism of a data-obsessed, market-driven society. In addition, it rejects the notion that all levels of schooling can be reduced to sites for training students for the workforce and that the culture of public and higher education is synonymous with the culture of business.
At issue here is the need for educators, young people and others to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures and social formations necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations and politics. Embracing the dictates of making education meaningful in order to make it critical and transformative, however, also means recognizing that cultural apparatuses such as mainstream media and digital platforms are teaching machines, not simply sources of information and entertainment. Such sites should be spheres of struggle removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as propaganda and disimagination machines.
Central to any viable notion of what makes pedagogy critical is, in part, the recognition that it is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations because it narrates particular versions and visions of civic life, community, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others and our physical and social environment. More than a teaching method, pedagogy is a moral and political practice actively involved not only in the production of knowledge, skills and values but also in the construction of identities, modes of identification and forms of individual and social agency. It is in this respect that any discussion of pedagogy must be attentive to how pedagogical practices work in a variety of sites to produce particular ways in which identity, place, worth and, above all, values are organized and contribute to producing a formative culture capable of sustaining a vibrant democracy.
In this instance, pedagogy as the practice of freedom emphasizes critical reflection, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and difficult knowledge, and extending democratic rights and identities by using the resources of history and theory. Unfortunately, among many educators, progressives and social theorists, there is a widespread refusal to recognize that this form of education not only takes place in schools, but is also part of the educative nature of the culture. At the core of analyzing and engaging culture as a pedagogical practice are fundamental questions about how culture functions as a pedagogical machine, what it means to engage common sense as a way to shape and influence popular opinion, and how diverse educational practices in multiple sites can be used to challenge the vocabularies, practices and values of the oppressive forces at work under neoliberal regimes of power.
There is an urgent political need for a public to understand what it means for an authoritarian society to both weaponize and trivialize the discourse, vocabularies, images and aural means of communication in a society. How is language used to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of craven self-interest, legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity, portray essential public services as reinforcing and weakening any viable sense of individual responsibility, and, among other instances, using the language of war and militarization to describe a vast array of problems that nations face. In an age that echoes the nightmares of a fascist past, war has become an addiction, the war on terror a Pavlovian stimulant for control, and shared fears one of the few discourses available for defining any vestige of solidarity.
Such falsehoods are now part of the reigning neoliberal ideology, proving once again that pedagogy is central to politics itself because it is about changing the way people see things, recognizing that politics is educative and that domination resides not simply in repressive economic structures but also in the realm of ideas, beliefs and modes of persuasion. Just as I would argue that pedagogy has to be able to speak to people in a way that is meaningful, offering them an opportunity to see a relationship between knowledge and their everyday lives, I think it is fair to argue that there is no politics without a pedagogy of identification; that is, people have to invest something of themselves in how they are addressed or recognize that any mode of education, argument, idea or pedagogy has to speak to their condition and provide a moment of recognition.
Lacking this understanding, pedagogy all too easily becomes a form of symbolic and intellectual violence, one that assaults rather than educates. Another example of such violence can be seen in the form of high-stakes testing and empirically driven teaching that dominate public schooling in the United States, which amount to pedagogies of repression and serve primarily to numb the mind and produce what might be called dead zones of the imagination. These are pedagogies that are largely serve to discipline and have little regard for contexts, history, making knowledge meaningful, or expanding what it means for students to be critically engaged agents. Of course, the ongoing corporatization and militarization of all levels of education are driven by an audit culture and modes of assessment that treat knowledge as a commodity, students as customers, and teachers and faculty as Walmart workers, and that impose brutalizing structures of governance on education, especially higher education. Under such circumstances, pedagogy becomes a tool of control, enforces powerlessness, and is used to strip teachers of their autonomy and students of their capacity to think critically.
Public and higher education represent two of the most important sites over which the battle for democracy is being waged. These are the sites where the promise of a better future emerges from those visions and pedagogical practices that combine hope, agency, politics and moral responsibility as part of a broader emancipatory discourse. Teachers and academics have a distinct and unique obligation, if not a political and ethical responsibility, to make learning relevant to the imperatives of a discipline, scholarly method or research specialization.
More importantly, they can further the knowledge, passion, values and social relations in the service of forms of agency that are crucial to addressing important social issues in which education plays an important civic, critical and ethical role. That is, they can become relevant as citizen educators. In fact, public school teachers across the United States have come to recognize that they have been written out of the script of democracy. They and have waged a series of strikes that speak to a resurgent mass resistance against the attacks that have been waged and continue to be waged by the financial elite, neoliberal politicians and religious fundamentalists.
The attacks on public higher education have also been precipitous, encompassing both drastic cuts in funding and a full-fledged assault on the power of faculty and tenure itself. Faculty face special challenges if they attempt to function as public intellectuals, especially at a time when the neoliberal university is making them disposable by systematically eliminating full-time, tenure-track jobs. In the current historical moment, 75 percent of all faculty in higher education are employed as contingent labor and lack adequate wages, support services and time to do their research. They often live in fear of taking on critical issues while enduring the existential burden of shame, surrender and despair. Herb Childress is right to argue that such academics have become another category in the neoliberal embrace of disposability and have become refugees in a country that both fears and disrespects them.
The fundamental challenge facing educators within the current age of neoliberalism, militarism and religious fundamentalism is to provide the conditions for students to address how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency. This suggests providing students with the knowledge, skills, ideas, values and authority necessary for them to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and to fight deeply rooted injustices in a society and world founded on systemic economic, racial and gendered inequalities. As Hannah Arendt argued in “The Crisis of Education,” the centrality of education to politics is also manifest in the responsibility for the world that cultural workers have to assume when they engage in pedagogical practices that lie on the side of belief and persuasion, especially when they challenge forms of domination.
At the same time, any critical comprehension of those wider forces that shape public and higher education must also be supplemented by an attentiveness to the historical and conditional nature of pedagogy itself. This suggests that pedagogy can never be treated as a fixed set of principles and practices that can be applied indiscriminately across a variety of pedagogical sites. Pedagogy is not some recipe or methodological fix that can be imposed on all classrooms. On the contrary, it must always be contextually defined, allowing it to respond specifically to the conditions, formations and problems that arise in various sites in which education takes place. Such a project suggests recasting pedagogy as a practice that is indeterminate, open to constant revision, and constantly in dialogue with its own assumptions.
The notion of a neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. Education and pedagogy do not exist outside of relations of power, values and politics. Ethics on the pedagogical front demands an openness to the other, a willingness to engage a “politics of possibility” through a continual critical engagement with texts, images, events and other registers of meaning as they are transformed into pedagogical practices both within and outside the classroom. Pedagogy is never innocent and if it is to be understood and problematized as a form of academic labor, cultural workers have the opportunity not only to critically question and register their own subjective involvement in how and what they teach in and out of schools, but also to resist all calls to depoliticize pedagogy through appeals to either scientific objectivity or ideological dogmatism. This suggests the need for educators to rethink the cultural and ideological baggage they bring to each educational encounter; it also highlights the necessity of making educators ethically and politically accountable and self-reflective for the stories they produce, the claims they make upon public memory, and the images of the future they deem legitimate. Understood as a form of militant hope, pedagogy in this sense is not an antidote to politics, a nostalgic yearning for a better time, or for some “inconceivably alternative future.” Instead, in Terry Eagleton’s words, it is an “attempt to find a bridge between the present and future in those forces within the present which are potentially able to transform it.”
Militant hope is not a form of radical or fanciful optimism, which ignores the world as it is and the obstacles that have to be faced in the pursuit of economic and social justice. On the contrary, militant hope begins with “coming face-to-face with the world as it is rather than as we might want it to be” as part of an effort to rethink a future that does not imitate the present. Militant hope rejects the authoritarian politics of the current moment with its discourses of hate, its logic of disposability, and its attack on dissent and democracy. At the same time, it also resists the moderation and incrementalism at the heart of a liberalism which is wedded to the financial elite and helped create the massive inequality, deindustrialized cities, depressed working class, and landscapes of abandonment and degradation that fueled the rise of right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism.
At this point in the 21st century, the notion of the social and the public are not being erased as much as they are being reconstructed under circumstances in which public forums for serious debate, including public education, are being eroded. Reduced either to a crude instrumentalism or business culture, or defined as a purely private right rather than a public good, our major educational apparatuses are being removed from the discourse of democracy and civic culture. Under the influence of powerful financial interests and ideological fundamentalists, we have witnessed the takeover of public and increasingly higher education as well as diverse media sites by a corporate logic that both numbs the mind and the soul, emphasizing repressive ideologies that promote winning at all costs, learning how not to question authority, and undermining the hard work of learning how to be thoughtful, critical and attentive to the power relations that shape everyday life and the larger world.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has become the model for this type of repression, and has been praised by Donald Trump. As learning is privatized, depoliticized, and reduced to teaching students how to be good consumers, any viable notions of society, public values, citizenship and democracy wither and die. Under the reign of neoliberalism with its antithesis for community, embrace of deregulation, privatization and consumerism, individuals can only find sanctuary in the feudal orbits of self-interest, a selfie culture, and individualistic rather than social goals.
As a central element of a broad-based cultural politics, critical pedagogy, in its various forms, when linked to the ongoing project of democratization, can provide opportunities for educators and other cultural workers to redefine and transform the connections among language, desire, meaning, everyday life and material relations of power as part of a broader social movement to reclaim the promise and possibilities of democracy. Critical pedagogy is dangerous to many people and others because it provides the conditions for students and the wider public to exercise their intellectual capacities, embrace the ethical imagination, hold power accountable and embrace a sense of social responsibility.
The paramount role of violence in many countries today raises questions about the role of education, teachers and students in a time of tyranny. How might we imagine education as central to politics whose task is, in part, to create a new language for students, one that is crucial to reviving a radical imagination, a notion of social hope, and the courage to collective struggle? How might higher education and other cultural institutions address the deep, unchecked nihilism and despair of the current moment? How might higher education be persuaded not to abandon democracy, and take seriously the need to create informed citizens capable of fighting what Walter Benjamin once called the “illumination” of fascism and its swindle of fulfillment? As Christopher Newfield argues, “democracy needs a public” and public and higher education have a crucial role to play in this regard as democratic public goods rather than defining themselves through market-driven values and modes of accountability defined by the financial elite.
One of the most serious challenges facing teachers, artists, journalists, writers and other cultural workers is the task of developing a discourse of both critique and possibility. This means developing discourses and pedagogical practices that connect reading the word with reading the world, and doing so in ways that enhance the capacities of young people as critical agents and engaged citizens. In taking up this project, educators and others should attempt to create the conditions that give students the opportunity to become critical and engaged citizens who have the knowledge and courage to struggle in order to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. Nevertheless, raising consciousness is not enough. Students need to be inspired and energized to address important social issues, learning to narrate their private troubles as public issues, and to engage in forms of resistance that are both local and collective, while connecting such struggles to more global issues.
Democracy begins to fail and political life becomes impoverished in the absence of those vital public spheres such as public and 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. Democracy should be a way of thinking about education, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of social responsibility and the public good. The question regarding what role education should play in democracy becomes all the more urgent at a time when the dark forces of authoritarianism are on the march in the United States and a range of other countries. As public values, trust, solidarities and modes of education are under siege, the discourses of hate, racism, rabid self-interest and greed are gaining traction. Under such circumstances, civic illiteracy substitutes opinions for informed arguments; it works to erase collective memory, and becomes complicit with the militarization of individual lives, public spaces and society itself.
I want to return to the Trump administration because it is in the forefront of obstructing reason, producing endless lies and constructing a vast ecosphere of illiteracy and ignorance. Trump represents a distinctive and dangerous form of American-bred authoritarianism, but at the same time he is the outcome of a past that needs to be remembered, analyzed and engaged for the lessons it can teach us about the present. Not only has Trump “normalized the unspeakable” and in some cases the unthinkable, he has also forced us to ask questions we have never asked before about capitalism, power, politics and, yes, courage itself. In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, citizenship and justice that has real substance.
One challenge is to confront the horrors of capitalism and its transformation into a form of fascism under Trump. There will be no real movement for change without, as David Harvey has pointed out, “a strong anti-capitalist movement.” In addition, no movement will succeed without addressing the need for a revolution in consciousness and values, one that makes education central to politics. As Fred Jameson has suggested, such a revolution cannot take place by limiting our choices to a fixation on the “impossible present.” Nor can it take place by limiting ourselves to a language of critique and a narrow focus on isolated issues.
What is needed is also a language of militant possibility and a comprehensive politics that draws from history and rethinks the meaning of politics, embracing what Gregory Leffel calls a language of “imagined futures.” Ideally, such a language “can [help] snap us out of present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there and inspire heroic commitment.” Another challenge faced by such a language is the need to create political formations capable of understanding neoliberal fascism as a totality, a single integrated system whose shared roots extend from class and racial injustices under financial capitalism to ecological problems and the increasing expansion of the carceral state and the military-industrial-academic complex. Nancy Fraser is right to argue that we need a subjective response capable of connecting diverse racial, social and economic crises and in doing so addressing the objective structural forces that underpin them. William Faulkner once remarked that we live with the ghosts of the past, or to be more precise: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Donald Trump stands as proof that we are once again living with the ghosts of a dark past. The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice and collective action in the fight for a democratically socialist society.
We live in dangerous times and there is an urgent need for more individuals, institutions and social movements to come together in the belief that the current regimes of tyranny can be resisted, that alternative futures are possible and that acting on these beliefs through collective resistance will make radical change happen. At issue here is the need to create the subjective conditions and political analyses necessary to construct new international alliances and integrated mass movements capable of confronting the powerful financial interests destroying the planet while also challenging the rise of right-wing populism with its ongoing death-drive. The inimitable James Baldwin speaks to the necessity for dramatic action which both burdens hope and inspires it. In “The Fire Next Time,” he writes: “The impossible is the least that one can demand. … Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them. … [T]he moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is one of the tasks of educators, among others, to keep the fires burning and to make sure the lights burn with a feverish intensity.