Every person who works with young people should know that politics is more than the Democrats or who you are voting for in the next election. Much more. Dozens of people have spent hundreds of hours speaking and thousands of pages writing to explain how politics underscores everything that we–as individuals and as a society–do every moment of every day of our lives. This kind of politics helps us make up our minds about what clothes to wear to work; what job to work at; who we work for; and, most importantly to youth workers and educators, what work we actually do.
A new book illustrates how a hellacious political reality is actually altering the society we live in right now. In The Terror of Neoliberalism: Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy, scholar Henry Giroux outlines how neoliberalism – the belief that the private sector should be wholly responsible for the public good – is about more than money. Throughout this book, Giroux explains how neoliberalism is actually a set of values, ideologies, and practices that is actively recreating America today–for the worse. Of course, CNN, the presidential elections, and the never-ending war in Iraq have proven that the political and economic reality of democracy in the US has changed. But Giroux exposes a more terrifying plot.
Neoliberalism is changing the very meaning of democracy today. Where democracy once depended on people becoming socially and politically involved throughout their communities, today that is an option. The schools, youth programs, community centers, and agencies where many young people spend the majority of their days have lost their place at the table of democratic importance. Do you want to understand the onslaught of high-stakes testing in schools? The defunding of programs for children and youth? The ongoing newspaper stories about so-called youth apathy? The seeming disregard for children and youth that fills our communities today?
Giroux cites the resistance against neoliberalism in all of its forms around the world today. The work of The Freechild Project, the mass movement against globalization, and the struggle for social justice in education each epitomize the struggle; but individually none summarizes the whole effort. Giroux writes, “…[Activism is] not limited to identity politics focused on particularized rights and interests.” Instead, the interests of young people and their communities, as well as those of the anti-globalization movement and many others are put into the larger context of building democracy. As Giroux explains,
“Democracy in this view is not limited to the struggle over economic resources and power; indeed, it includes the creation of public [places] where individuals can be educated as political agents equipped with the skills, capacities, and knowledge they need…”
With that premise established early in the book, Giroux proceeds to dissect and examine the realities of neoliberalism. He details the ability of the government to extinguish the capacity of society to make significant change in society by examining the effects of September 11, 2001, and the militarization of America. Giroux also outlines how neoliberalism has created a “new racism,” evidenced by the corporate powers that control law enforcement, education systems, and increasingly, community governments.
However, with his emphasis of the effects of neoliberalism across the spectrum, Giroux pulls a coup by reintroducing his ongoing analysis of youth in the US today with a chapter entitled, “Class Casualties: Disappearing Youth in the Age of Market Fundamentalism. What the chapter essentially proposes is that children and youth are subject to the whims of society, despite (or because of) the reality that young people “embody the project dreams, desires, and commitment of a society’s obligations to the future.”
With this premise, Giroux sketches out how the American War Against Youth continues, as the programs and services which once benefited children and youth are slashed across the board, and as popular culture increasingly erases any optimistic expectations society may have of young people. Giroux explains,
“Rather than being cherished as a symbol of the future, youth are now seen as a threat to be feared and a problem to be contained… Youth are currently being framed as both a generation of suspects and a threat to public life.”
Giroux details how “the ongoing war against justice, freedom, citizenship, and democracy” is focused at young people today. He thoroughly explores how curfews, physical searches, profiling, and drug testing are heaved upon schools, youth programs, and communities as solutions to the “youth problem.” Poverty, childcare, healthcare, and education are all challenges that must be meant by an ever-growing private sector.
Meanwhile, the number of children and youth who struggle to survive in low-income communities and communities of color grows, while federal policies increasingly legitimize “tough love” policies for all of America’s youth. Giroux also examines how juvenile detention for youth and lock-up rooms for 8-year-olds typify the norm, not the exception. This is neoliberalism at work in the lives of young people today.
Neoliberalism is seeping “into every aspect of American life… It thrives on a culture of cynicism, insecurity, and despair.” But the solution is as complex as the problem. “Democracy is too weak,” Giroux quotes Benjamin Barber as saying. When culture combines with politics to become entertainment (Giroux says think of the California governor), and when corporate powers– instead of the democracy– control the media, we’ve got a serious problem. And it is not an issue of whether education (and youth programs, or community organizations) has “become contaminated with politics; it is more importantly about recognizing that education is already a space of politics, power, and authority.”
Giroux proposes that we, as young people, youth workers, and educators “appropriate, invent, direct, and control” the politics within our efforts. Whether you facilitate after school activities, work with youth-led community organizing programs, or teach in a middle school classroom, you have the opportunity– or more appropriately, the responsibility– to “work against a politics of certainty, a pedagogy of censorship, and an institutional formation that closes down rather than opens up democratic relations.”
The one of his most directive moments yet, Giroux implores educators to “teach students to be skilled citizens… learn how to use the Freedom of Information Act, know constitutional rights, build coalitions, write policy papers, learn the tools of democracy, analyze social problems, or learn how to make a difference in one’s life through individual and social engagements.”
In the final chapter of this book Giroux deeply explores the implications of the work of Edward Said, renowned a renowned theorist, activist, and author. Giroux explores the implications of Said’s work on neoliberalism, sighting his recognition that “the war on terror has become a rationale for a war on democracy… against any movement that fights for justice, liberty, and equality…” Giroux offers Said’s life and work as a “model and inspiration for what it means to take back politics, social agency, collective struggle, and the ability to define the future.” He repeats Said’s call for “academics, students, and other cultural workers” to activate, mobilize, organize, and agitate society by “educating the public to think and act as active citizens in an inclusive democracy.”
But the conclusion the book holds the gauntlet over our heads, collectively, as people who are committed to young people, social change, and justice. Giroux cites Said’s call for groups to “put aside their petty squabbling over identities and differences and to join together collectively… [as a] coalition against those forces of totalitarianism lite, without anyone much noticing, or for that matter complaining.” This call for awakeness resonates with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message in his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, where he wrote:
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”
In The Terror of Neoliberalism Henry Giroux reissues this call, reemphasizes Said’s mission, and issues a new demand for all of us to become active, engaged, and effective allies in our collective struggles against neoliberalism, and for democracy. It is up to you to hear this call.